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Grandma calls her sex robot Sony. We tell her that’s just the company who makes it.
“Well,” she says, “he looks like a Sony. Doesn’t he?”
We tell her he doesn’t. We tell her ‘he’ looks like an automaton with silver skin and copper eyelashes, which is exactly what he is, one of many mass produced for the pleasure of the lonely. We point to the round brass orb at the fulcrum of his legs. Do you know, we ask Grandma, what happens when that opens? Do you know what’s inside?
“Of course,” Grandma says. “A smart dildo. So?”
So. So nothing. We just ask her not to name him Sony.
To which she replies, “Well, what else am I supposed to call him?”
We tell her she shouldn’t call him anything. We tell her it is unseemly, having it in her house. We point to the needlework on her walls, the antique picture frames on her shelves, the holographic displays of great and great-great-grandchildren. Then we point at the sex robot, naked save for the round brass orb, stunning sculpted muscles in plastic relief, modeled, in fact, after Michelangelo’s David, though individual models are, of course, customizable.
Grandma’s, for instance, had the chest widened. Grandma is a sucker for a big chest.
“All sorts of people have these things,” Grandma says. “Why shouldn’t I?”
We tell her, people have them, they just have the decency to hide them. Their sex robots are in their closets, the corners of their basements. Their sex robots are tucked under their beds—all sex robots, of course, fold into the fetal position for easy storage. We tell her, you can have it, just keep it out of sight.
“Well,” Grandma says, “I’m just honest, I guess.”
No, we say, you’re insane. It’s too much, we tell her, too much. The sex robot is always with her. When we come to visit, it opens the door. When we call, she tells the sex robot what we’re saying to her. At Christmas, when we gather at Grandma’s house, the sex robot is there. Grandma puts presents for it under the tree. She knits a stocking with its name and hangs it over the chimney. At Christmas dinner, it carves the turkey. It sits next to her; it spoons sweet potato casserole into her mouth. And when she is finished with her meal, it massages her calloused feet. We tell her to stop. We tell her there are children present. Not physically, maybe, but digitally, watching open-mouthed through their screens.
“If you want to take him,” Grandma says, “you can. Just be careful stepping over my dead body, I want to look good for my funeral.”
We give up. The sex robot stays with her for seven years. Then, one night, Grandma’s heart monitor fails. The sex robot alerts local paramedics. No one knew it had that feature. We didn’t know it could open the door for the EMTs, or call and alert us after. We didn’t know it could stay by the door, opening it for us when we returned to figure out what could be sold and what could be shared.
The sex robot continues as if Grandma is there. At night, it sleeps on the left side of her bed, until we have her bed removed; then it sleeps on the floor where the left side of the bed used to be. Early in the morning, it wakes and makes coffee, until the coffee machine is gone. It picks out a grapefruit from the refrigerator, until there is no more grapefruit, no more refrigerator. The worse is when it sits at the table, when it cuts the grapefruit into perfect wedges, when it raises them and places them gently where Grandma’s lips used to be. When the sex robot lets go of the grapefruit, it falls on the chair with a wet plop. Until there is no more chair.
None of us has the heart to shut it down. It is powered wirelessly; if we do nothing, it will go on endlessly. Yet day by day, as we remove every last trace of Grandma, the sex robot remains. Until at last, it is the only thing that remains. In an empty house, it continues its precise pantomime of their lives. We decide together enough is enough. We must shut it down. Tomorrow.
Except, when that tomorrow comes, the sex robot is not there. We look everywhere. We know they can fold themselves into more compact units. We told Grandma so many times. We look in every corner, every closet. We’re all worried, but we don’t admit it. We just keep looking.
Someone suggests looking for the sex robot at the mausoleum. We laugh. We make fun. It doesn’t sound sincere when we do. Really, we were all thinking it. We were all picturing the robot, leaving the house at night, walking the streets, guiding itself to Grandma’s remains. We picture it there, looking on the brass plaque hiding her ashes.
But none of us admits to this, and none of us go to check to see if we’re right. We’re too afraid we might be wrong. Instead we go home. We perform our accustomed routines. We eat, we bathe, we climb into our beds. And from our closets, our basements, from under our beds, our sex robots unfurl themselves and join us, programmed to hold us until we fall asleep.
William Hawkins is currently a student in the MFA Program in Fiction at UC Irvine. He lives in Los Angeles.
I was in high school in England when, in 1984, the IRA bombed Brighton’s Grand Hotel where Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party were meeting for their annual conference. I remember watching the BBC news with my dad. I was probably too young to recognize the audacity of the attack and, as the IRA was rarely out of the news back then for blowing up one thing or another, it was soon forgotten in the tumult of my adolescent life. Without much emotional skin in the game it was easy to move on.
Now, as an adult I can appreciate just what a daring and sinister attack it was. It is to British author Jonathan Lee’s credit that his absorbing novel, High Dive (Knopf), which is centered on the bombing, makes for such a compelling read. The book transcends 80s nostalgia, its Choose Life t-shirts and the potential for stock caricatures of Irish terrorists and British politicians. All sides of the equation are humanized, both the IRA assassin and the innocent, fictionalized staff members of the Grand.
At the novel’s center are two invented characters, the hotel’s deputy general manager, Philip “Moose” Finch, and his teenage daughter, Freya. Once a promising teenage high dive prospect and local sporting hero, Moose is now middle aged, out of shape and divorced. He hopes that the British PM’s visit to his hotel, which he helped arrange, will be a career boost. Freya, too is finding her way. Her mother has all but walked away from her, and is left disappointed by a vacuous romantic interest, Surfer John, who also works at the hotel.
Lee succeeds in capturing the end of season melancholia of a British seaside town and combines it with the downward trajectory of its inhabitants whose lives are about to change. Suffused in are the quirky eccentrics of parochial Britain. The love between an impressionable teenage daughter and the single father who raised her is the novel’s tragic but brilliant beating heart.
Jeff Vasishta: How much IRA and general research did you do into the bombing? Roy Walsh the real name of the bomber but the other name you use for him, Dan wasn’t. How hard was the process of splicing fact and fiction?
Jonathan Lee: I did lots of research, as you’d expect, but the facts of the bombing of the Grand Hotel run out fairly quickly. We know the date it happened, the fact the bomb exploded in room 629, the fact a man named Roy Walsh checked into the hotel and planted it there, the fact Margaret Thatcher was the target … Move beyond that and you quickly get into the realm of speculation. That’s the realm I most enjoy inhabiting as a fiction writer. I’ve never found much truth, much depth, in straight-faced facts. What I was interested in trying to do with this book was to re-inhabit a moment of history and make it human again. Rather than distorting real lives, I chose to perform that re-animation by inventing three characters and placing their stories within the framework of the central factual event: the bombing. So we have the stories of the assistant manager at the hotel, his daughter, and a second bomber — the sorts of stories history so rarely records.
The second bomber was particularly interesting to me — in court testimony, staff at the Grand Hotel recalled a second man being in room 629 on the day when the bomb was planted. He’s never been found. So, I found him— in my imagination, I mean. I began to imagine his story. What’s that Kinky Friedman line? “There’s a fine line between fiction and non-fiction, and I think I snorted it somewhere in 1979.” Well, I snorted it too, somewhere between draft four and draft twenty.
JV: I grew up in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk so I’m very familiar with eccentric characters like the Captain. Every British town has them. Was he real?
JL: Great Yarmouth, eh? I so miss the names we have for places back home. Percy Passage. Boggy Bottom. Bushygap. Shitlingthorpe. Thanks for mentioning The Captain. I think about him often; he’s very real to me. The other day I thought I saw him in the street. And you recognized him, by the sounds of it. So he must be real, right?
JV: You show great insight into Moose’s marriage and fatherhood. What was the inspiration for his character, and why high diving in particular? It’s not a sport which was especially popular in the UK in the 1970s.
JL: No, you’re right. I wanted to find a sort of fringe sport, a lost sport, in the same way I was reclaiming, in the book, these lost stories of everyday lives. Whenever I tried to picture Philip “Moose” Finch, my deputy general manager at the hotel, I had this image of a guy who kept falling into trapdoors in his own past—falling and falling, unable to live fully in the present. I sensed he was a former sportsman of some sort, but given the kind of guy he is, it had to be one of those sports where you could be the fifth or sixth best practitioner in the whole of the United Kingdom and you‘d still be an absolute nobody, as far as the public is concerned.
It’s always difficult to talk about what I seek to do in my writing, because so much of it is beyond the level of consciousness, as with almost all writers, and you start lying as soon as you open your mouth. But when I look at everything I’ve written in the last 10 years, it’s all been, to some extent, about trying to magnify mundanity in some way— about trying to capture the sadness and absurdity of everydayness, of lost moments, of half-heard conversations, of half-formed dreams or betrayals or miscommunications. I want to find the animating quality in small moments, and the fun thing about writing High Dive was doing that act of personal salvage within the wider context of public history — the politics of the day, this extraordinary assassination attempt, offered a framework. Anyway, once I put Moose on the diving board, he was animated. My friend Elliott Holt, a brilliant writer who was once a talented high diver too, encouraged me to keep going in my attempts to capture what it’s like to spend your days in mid-air. I think we all know the feeling, to some extent.
The other reason high diving felt like an appropriate sport to include in the book is that I imagined the whole novel as a kind of dive. It’s all about the build-up to the bombing. The novel begins with this initiation of a young Belfast guy into the Provisional IRA and then follows the fall-out through the years that follow. We, the readers, are going through somersaults and twists, moments of slowness and moments of quick rigidity, heading towards this point of inevitable impact — the explosion. That was the idea, anyway, to tell the story of the before. So many disaster narratives focus on the aftermath. I wanted to tell the story of what life was like before it was broken.
JL: The epigraph for High Dive comes from Czesław Miłosz. He once said that, “when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” Well, plenty of friendships get finished, too. At some point or other, every interesting corner of lived experience becomes material for a book, and you end up stealing your friend’s best in-the-pub stories. My friend Ed, years ago, told me a story about a friend of his. It was one of those friend of friend of friend stories that I love so much. This friend was dog-sitting for someone. The dog died on his watch, of natural causes; it was an old dog. But, shit, the dog was dead. What was he going to do? He needed to take the dead dog to a professional—a dog undertaker or vet or whatever. It couldn’t just lie there on the carpet for two days, could it? So he put it in a suitcase, took it on the London Underground, and the suitcase ended up being stolen. So, that went in the book: a dead dog in a suitcase being stolen, and the idea of a thief opening it and finding himself—not rewarded with designer clothes—but placed as the punch line of a shaggy dog story about a shaggy dog. Continue reading
Bryan Hurt on the Life of a Writer: Investment Banking, What Imaginary People Feel, and How Not to Teach Creative Writing
Bryan Hurt’s Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France was the winner of the 2015 Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and published last fall. If you’ve read any of the stories in The Kenyon Review, The American Reader, Guernica, Tin House, or the New England Review (to name a few places), then you know it. His voice and the stories themselves are equally fresh, strange, and imaginatively researched—Aimee Bender meets George Saunders on the pages of a National Geogrpahic magazine or World Book Encylopedia. Says TC Boyle of the collection: “Bryan Hurt’s stories are like no one else’s. They are by turns hilarious, whimsical, arresting and heartbreaking, but what makes them such a delight is the sly simplicity and off-handed charm of their telling.” And it’s true—the stories are charming. They are whip-smart and challenging, yet absolutely pleasureable and fun to read. Bryan thereby strikes a balance between writing innovative fiction and upholding a promise to entertain his readers that is worth celebrating or—if you haven’t read them—definitely worth checking out.
In one of my favorites, The Beast of Marriage, the wealthy but famously ugly 18th Century Thomas Day (who can’t dance) adopts two girls in the hopes of raising one of them to be his wife. In another, we meet Alan Bean, the actual fourth man to walk on the moon, thrust into a sad but beautiful world of under-appreciated artists. I’m lucky enough to know Bryan from graduate school at the University of Southern California, and recall a trip to the MOMA where we were encouraged to take a good look at Rauschenberg’s Monogram (Angora goat meets used tire, for the uninitiated). So many of Bryan’s stories remind me of what is so unusual, sponteaneous and oddly emotionally resonant about the unexpected juxtaposition, or marriage, of that goat and tire. Bryan is also the editor of the successful Watchlist, an anthology of stories on surveillance, to be re-released from Catapult Books this spring. To read some of Bryan’s newest fiction, and latest nonfiction and critcism, check out his website at www.bryanhurt.com.
Bryan took a little time out of his very busy writing, family-rearing and teaching schedule to tell us a little about the life of a short-story writer, what motivates and inspires him, and the source of some of these truly wonderful stories.
Bonnie Nadzam: Percival Everett, one of our teachers in Los Angeles, once told me it was the easiest thing in the world to tell a student they shouldn’t pursue writing as a career, and much harder to tell someone with the ability that they should brace themselves for the life of being an artist. Have you ever wanted to quit trying? Or hear from someone that you probably should? We have so many colleagues and friends with first-rate fiction struggling so hard to get their pages into book form, and even after publishing a first book, you face again the blank page. Is publication the reason to keep going, or would you have kept going without the official publishing industry acknowledgement that you are, as it were, “a writer”?
Bryan Hurt: I guess that’s one way that Percival and I are different—that and Percival is a confirmed genius and I, on my best days, struggle to tie my own shoelaces. I would never tell anyone not to pursue this (although I’d caution them against going into debt in order to pursue an advanced degree in writing). Making art is hard and being an artist is even harder. By my estimation there are about a million things in the world that will try to dissuade you from being a writer, not the least of which is the lack of material well-being and financial compensation. When someone asks me whether or not I think they should give it a shot, I always tell them to go for it. I don’t want to be one of those million things, and really there’s no way of telling who’s going to make it and who isn’t. I think talent plays some role in it, but only a very small one. Discipline matters an awful lot and so does luck and perseverance.
I count myself as very lucky. So far I’ve been able to meet my material needs met while also being a writer. Of course I worry that my fortune will change and I’ll have to figure something else out, although I have no idea what that would be because there’s not a lot else that I’m very good at. But I’ve never thought about quitting, at least not seriously. Some days I’ll struggle with the page or suffer a minor setback or some kind of rejection and wish that I could go back in time and become an investment banker. But that’s not realistic and I don’t think investment banking would make me any happier. I like writing and I like being read and I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to doing it. If nothing else I’m very stubborn.
BZ: You’re young enough to get an MBA or go to law school—but you won’t, right?
BH: That’s the same as the investment banker fantasy, and they’re all variations of “the grass is always greener.” My dad’s a lawyer and my wife is a very talented business person. I only have to watch what they do for about half-a-minute to realize that I don’t have the head or the heart or the stomach for it.
BZ: You spent some years writing “Everybody Wants to Be Ambassador to France,” and over these years, submitted it many places, to several contests. It finally wins the prestigious Starcherone Prize for Innovation Fiction, which comes with publication. But–after 15 years, the independent press for innovative fiction is closing its doors, struggling financially, and yours is its final title. How has this affected the experience of your first book publication?
BH: Publishing anything is really hard—a story, a poem, an essay, a book, it’s all hard—and so I think any time you’re lucky enough to do it it’s cause for some celebration. You’re right that I did send the book out a little before it was picked up by Starcherone, but each time it was rejected I was more relieved than disappointed. The book wasn’t ready and I knew it, but I was trying to fool myself otherwise. Luckily the editors weren’t fooled so easily. When I saw that Alissa Nutting was going to be the judge for the Starcherone Prize I sent the latest draft of the book and was cautiously optimistic. Alissa had rejected some of my earlier work when she was editor of the Fairy Tale Review, but she’d been really nice about it. Even after the book won the prize I did substantial edits. That’s the first thing I asked my editor at Starcherone when she called me about the prize. “I’m so embarrassed,” I said. “Can I change it?” I think that the published version of the book is almost 100% different.
It’s sad about Starcherone, and it was obviously something I knew about and that was hanging over the book the entire time it was in production. I wish that there had been more money for things like publicity and distribution, but I also know that Carra Stratton and Cheryl Quimba were working at and running the press as essentially volunteers and am grateful for their enormous efforts. I think that even without marketing or publicity the book has been getting some pretty good attention. My agent is looking for a new publisher to take over for a second printing, and I have every reason to be optimistic. I think what happened at Starcherone was an anomaly and doesn’t really signify any larger trends in the industry. As far as I can tell independent presses and short stories are thriving. I mean look at all of the really great independent presses: Catapult, OR Books, Graywolf, McSweeney’s, Coffee House, Melville House, Tin House (so many houses!), Two Dollar Radio. Adam Johnson recently won the National Book Award for his story collection; Phil Klay won last year. I think it’s a great time to working with independent presses and writing short stories.
BZ: It was not the first-book experience of multiple radio interviews, publisher-paid book tour, etc. Nevertheless, your book is getting great press. How did you do it?
BH: With a lot of help from my friends! Before the book came out I made a long list of names and emails. I called in favors, I asked for help. More often than not people were very generous. One of the authors who blurbed the book wrote an email along the lines of: “Phew! I really liked it!” This was particularly gratifying because I’m a big fan and so it was nice to know that there’s some kind of real and mutual admiration. But it was also good to hear because I want the book to be liked. I hope that it stimulates some kind of pleasure center. I think the people who’ve read it out in the wild are picking up on that and that’s one reason for the good reception. Recently, I was talking to a woman who read my story “Moonless” and she said, “It made me laugh!” Like this was some kind of surprise to her. I think it’s easy to forget that art runs the full spectrum. When we encounter “serious Literature” we tend to focus more on the tears than the laughter. But there’s room for both. They might even come from the same impulse.
BZ: The stories in this collection are beautifully written–fresh, engaging, surprising. They are–as its reviews and blurbs support–really good. I happen to know you write very slowly and deliberately–that just one of these terrific short stories, from start to finish, can take several months, or longer. How, given all the demands of our modern life and of raising a family, and the fairly insubstantial money and recognition most fictions readers get, have you come to the decision (no doubt repeatedly) to spend so much time and heartsblood writing stories? Why does it matter to you?
Reading a novel, I like to live cradled not in the hands of characters but lying full out in their skins and their skulls, becoming them—though not through stream of consciousness, which has always felt to me more like the meaningless flicker of dreams than any consciousness I’ve ever known—no, I like to live in the mind at its most refined, an emotion-scape crafted of precise language that follows the contours of a person’s inner and outer worlds with insight and honesty. This is where Christopher Bram takes me in his novel Gods & Monsters, into bodies and minds shaped by his brilliantly patterned lyricism, his deftly observed surroundings, into a world where self-pity is leavened by self-mockery and longing and love are cut with both cruelty and forgiveness.
It is 1957 and James Whale, the director of the Frankenstein movies, lives with Maria, his maid and only real friend. A gay man whose life has been conducted in a checkerboard of honesty, avoidance and outright lies, Whale is recuperating from a recent stroke that has brought on confusion and migraines. Vivified by everyday smells, long-buried memories of his first homosexual experience, fighting in Word War I, directing movies, and the disintegration of his relationship with his partner, David, kick off neural firestorms his damaged brain can’t repress. When a young, handsome gardener named Clay Boone begins working for Whale, he sees a chance to have a final bit of fun, then escape his last pointless, painful years: Whale will make a pass at Boone, provoking the simple, all-American man to beat him to death.
Bram had me by page 4, when Whale’s maid is consulting with his ex-partner David while he sits in the other room. “Whale cannot hear them but knows that he is the topic of conversation. He hates how illness has reduced him to a problem whispered about by others, a difficult child, an embarrassment.” These kinds of keen observations come one after the other. Later we get, “The capsules won’t take effect for several minutes, but to know that pain will pass makes pain bearable.” During a flashback of Whale at a movie premier, “[He] wears the droll half smile of a visiting foreign dignitary.” Of Clay Boone, Bram says, “[he] resists the impulse to stand at attention. He declares his independence by wiping his nose with the back of his hand.” Even on the third or fourth reading, these insights feel fresh and accurate, never contrived.
And yet, it’s not just one-off sentences that make the novel so beautiful and heartrending. Many authors are capable of this. What has always truly distinguished this book for me is Bram’s lyrical patterning.
Lyricism is a slippery concept. It brings to mind poetry and songs, but how does the term apply to prose? Emma Darwin furnishes a usefully broad yet specific definition on her blog The Itch of Writing: “[L]yrical writing wears its poetic techniques a little more on its sleeve than your prose does the rest of the time. That’s not just rhythm/sound/repetition/rhyme/pattern/echo, but also figurative language: metaphor, simile and images. And it’s not just about using the right metaphors to evoke ideas and sensations accurately, it might also be about using them as patterning, argument, idea.”
Bram does precisely this last, employing a pattern of metaphors that fuses opposites: the good and the bad, the future and the past, image and reality, beauty and ugliness, truth and lies, people and objects. The power of this fusion lies in its perfect reflection of the novel’s emotional arc, themes and characters. Whale is both a real person and a self-manufactured cutout who mistakes Boone for a kind of monster and tries to manipulate him, only to realize in the end that Boone is very human, and that using him as a means of suicide makes Whale himself the monster.
It begins with an image drawn from outside the book: Frankenstein’s monster, a creature defined by its opposites. He is simultaneously an object (a man-made thing) and a human (he experiences emotions like confusion, fear, and the need for love); simultaneously a victim (manipulated by Frankenstein and his cronies) and a perpetrator (a dangerous, amoral entity); simultaneously weak (he can be controlled by the superior machines and intelligence of the people around him) and strong (he is physically larger and more powerful than human beings).
Bram riffs on these opposites mainly through anthropomorphizing objects and animals while doing the inverse with the novel’s human beings: assigning them the qualities of animals or objects. The strategy begins immediately on page 2, where he describes Santa Monica Canyon, Whale’s neighborhood. “Seen from the air, both sides of the little valley are blue-eyed with swimming pools…[A] triangle of ocean tucked in the valley’s mouth loses its horizon and melts into white sky.”
Here landscape becomes face and ocean becomes tongue, suggesting Hollywood’s sensuality and beauty, its blue-eyed models and tongues making incursions into other faces, while at the same time figuratively laying the groundwork for what the reader will learn is part of Whale’s struggle: appearance vs. reality. To command respect in Hollywood, Whale has invented an upper class British past, projecting an image of himself as clever, educated, refined and confident while inside he worries that “his whole life is a poor cartoon, his love of beauty a clumsy aping of his betters.” Confused and fragmented after his stroke, Whale vacillates between embracing his false pretensions and giving reign to the truth. When he meets with a young man for an interview about his movies, he thinks, “This pretty story, made from the odds and ends of people he’s known and books he’s read, doesn’t feel as convincing as it once did. It hangs on him like a suit of clothes he’s too thin to wear anymore. The truth stands closer to him now, peering over his shoulder.” Through the metaphors Bram has a silent dialogue with readers, telling us that a lie is just a suit you can take off, but the truth is an actual person who can see you even when you don’t want to be seen.
When on p. 15 Whale approaches Boone in the yard for the first time he thinks, “What does he see? An old faggot, a withered fruit.” The play on the word “fruit” as a slur for a gay man is a bit tough and off-handed here, but becomes tender later, when Whale thinks of his plan to provoke Boone to kill him. “It had been beautiful in his imagination, beautiful and immediate, as simple as stepping into a lion’s cage. The beast would seize him in his claws and tear him apart with no more thought than a hungry boy ripping open an orange.” Here Boone=lion=boy and Whale, touchingly, becomes a sweet, humble orange. Elsewhere when Whale fantasizes Boone killing him he sees “….the enormous hands that would form fists like mallets. That blue tattoo like a price stamped on a melon.” Now Boone is the fruit, thicker-skinned and larger, but no less delicate and vulnerable inside than an orange. In this way Bram’s metaphors fuse Boone (young, poor, uneducated, and heterosexual) and Whale (elderly, well-off, educated and homosexual), making them one and the same in their humanity.
All of this metaphor builds the novel’s emotional complexity without letting it spin off into incomprehensible chaos because each comparison is apt in its narrow context. In addition, Bram remains close to the characters at every step, never allowing his own cleverness to hijack their perceptions. When Whale walks down to his art studio his first day home from the hospital he reflects that, “It feels good to find he has a body, something more corporeal than the achy joints and hospital gown floating behind him like a wedding train during his long weeks in hospital.” This is a comparison made by a man with Whale’s particular psyche: a gay man with an enormous yearning for dignity who nonetheless faces life with a lighthearted self-mockery that keeps the great pathos of his situation from sliding into self-pity. Bram also pulls off a kind of rhetorical magic here by exploiting the word “gown,” oddly applied to scanty patient garb and the finest of wedding attire.
Of his pain medications, Whale thinks, “[T]he barbiturate is already taking effect, breaking circuits, turning out lights.” Whale’s weakness and dizziness is evoked with “he slowly stands up into gravity, a heavy marionette,” and about his intrusive memories and stroke-damaged brain, Bram says Whale, “is like a city during a blackout, all manner of deformed, forgotten creatures coming out to wander his pitch-black streets.”
As Whale and Boone get to know one another, each sees the other with increasing sympathy yet resists the humanization. To Whale, Boone “smiled and looked as innocent as a box of cornflakes.” Boone thinks of Whale’s aggressive questioning about his experiences in Korea, “Like a dog marking out his territory, he pisses on everything, even Clay’s lie.” When he recognizes Whale’s frailty it is “his body folded like a bundle of sticks.” In Whale’s lovely home Boone feels “like a very large, dumb bull who’s blundered indoors.” A few pages later this zoomorphism is mirrored when Whale, lost in a memory of seeing a sheep blunder onto the battlefield during WWI, remembers, “Nobody dared go out and risk his life for a sheep…she remained out there, tiptoeing in hell like a four-footed ballerina.” Because of their proximity and the similarity of images (two farm animals) the similes interact with one another and the sympathy Whale feels for the sheep becomes sympathy for the bull-like Boone too.
Boone and Whale even begin to think about a person’s history the same way. When Boone notices the inconsistency in Whale’s life stories, he thinks, “Whale keeps becoming somebody new with each story…The man has more lives than a cat. Clay wishes he could pick and choose the lives he likes and throw away the rest.” This choosing and discarding is exactly what haunts Whale and by now we know it haunts Clay too. He allows people to assume, based on his tattoo “Death Before Dishonor,” that he is a Korean War veteran when in fact he was discharged shortly after enlisting due to a burst appendix.
Near the climax, when Whale is attempting to draw Boone in the nude, he observes that he can’t because “You are much too human.” This hurts Boone’s feelings. “What did you expect?” he asks. “Bronze?” implying that a statue with its fixed, perfect shape is superior to Boone, and to all living things. To dehumanize him, Whale retrieves an old gas mask and asks Boone to wear it. Though it seems “like handling a pair of handcuffs” he can’t help but put it on. Again, oppositions are fused: the fear of and desire for being restrained and dehumanized.
As the story nears its end, death imagery appears. When Whale wakes to find Boone wrapped in a sheet asleep in the living room chair “he sees the thing in the wing chair, something white, a corpse wrapped in a shroud” and thinks “But a nude American isn’t death, even with a gas mask.” Whale finally understands Boone is a person as much as himself, with as strong an inner life. The entire arc of the plot has led to this moment, but the intensity of the emotion we feel has been carefully built by the imagery. A catbird on page 2 “who has no song of its own but sings fragments and snatches of other songs” reappears on page 261 doing “a dazzling string of impersonations, ending in the sweet rendition of a nightingale.” We have been trained to equate the landscape and the animals with the people in this novel, which allows Bram once again to engage in a tacit dialogue with the reader, reminding us that, like the catbird, Whale had to live his life singing “a dazzling string of impersonations.”
In the end all opposites collide. “Everything is coming together. Past and present, life and death, all dissolve together in the solution of the pool.” The pool is a physical solution (water, chlorine) as well as a solution to Whale’s problem (how to die). Here again Bram exploits the duality and subtext of language. The reader understands: death sometimes is the only solution to life. Now the novel has come full circle. Whale’s early observation about Boone’s tattoo—“What a quaint, young sentiment. To think that death could be preferable to anything.”—is turned on its head and I find myself there, with Whale, toes on the rough edge of the pool, about to die, having lived a whole life in a few hundred pages.
Amy Gustine is the author of the story collection, You Should Pity Us Instead from Sarabande Books, available February 2016. Her fiction has received special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology and appeared in several publications, including The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, North American Review and Black Warrior Review. She lives in Ohio.
(Urgent to have a break between us. We’ll be right back after the break, as the movies during the dictatorship used to announce before kidnapping the steamy scenes that never came back. A long break and then we’ll see, I thought in the midst of uneasiness. A time without seeing each other and without talking on the phone so you can think. I was the one who decided on the break, wagering that the interruption would work like an evil love potion. That’s what I thought, but who knows what you were thinking when you unhappily accepted that pact of silence. We were thinking separately but simultaneously. We thought differently but at times the same. And your friends were also thinking for you. That it was necessary to resolve that long-distance mess, ethical dilemma, the emotional blackmail the blind woman was subjecting you to. They all said it their own way. Carmen correcting tests with one hand while with the other she stirred and tasted her ají de gallina, while her mouth complained about the villainous father of her son. Osvaldo planning a marriage celebration that we wouldn’t be attending. Gaetán training for his next ballet without concentrating on the steps but laughing, nervous, shouting in front of the mirror. Julián in his house smoked another cigarette slowly and gossiped through the keyboard with Carmen, who took a while to respond and copy Osvaldo, who would tell Gaetán, the groom. Laura answered her emails preparing her summer classes, exhausted or maybe bored. Mariana was putting on lipstick, attending to her eyelashes coiling like spiders, and smiled, then pursed her mouth, making faces at herself, evaluating the right face before the mirror, the correct way to think about this matter. Piously? Perfidiously? And she talked to the mirror about your bad luck. Of your bad eye. Of your becoming my seeing eye dog. That’s what they said to each other but most of all Arcadio, who dared to say it to you without making a scene in the cafe on the corner. No flailing or gesticulating, not even mussing his hair since he had just shaved it off; biting into a waffle cookie as thin as a host and dropping a pinch of sugar into his espresso and a drop of cream or maybe skim milk, pausing briefly, dazzled by the shine of his own skull. She, he said, with a calculated and dramatic pause, she isn’t your girlfriend, she’s blackmail. And he took another sip of his coffee with milk. Hearing that unhinged you, transformed you into another Ignacio, and that one’s eardrums pounded, his gums withdrew, his tongue dried out. He sat for a moment petrified with the cigarette hanging from his lips, attacked by a sudden pain in the pit of his stomach. That Ignacio paid his part of the bill and took off, livid but most of all dizzy, secreting acid, overcome with disgust. His brain recoiled like a live oyster drenched in lemon juice. But in his way, that pitiless way, that cold and offensive way, that son-of-a-bitch way of Arcadio’s, there was something of the truth in what he said, something that I had also seen in all my blindness. He’s right, I told you after hearing you kick the door and then hearing you unscrew the lid from the antacid tablets. He’s right, I repeated, consciously sowing resentment toward your people. They all think it but they don’t say it to you, or didn’t you notice the way they talk to you lately, or what they say to you when they call you, how I don’t exist in their conversations? And I went on struggling to separate my socks from the wool stockings designed to endure Chile’s raw winter. Arcadio hasn’t said anything you didn’t already know, I added then, to accompany your severe silence, without for an instant stopping my folding of long- and short-sleeved shirts and my jacket. All black, literally black but also black like the hate I professed for all of them, especially Arcadio. That friend of yours, I insisted in all frankness, feeling you were filling up with gasses, that you almost weren’t breathing, that Arcadio has hit the bull’s eye. And then, kicking my half-empty suitcase you said, violent, the bull’s eye, or that bastard’s mother’s ass, me cago en Dios.)
Time was speeding up. A shower. A brushing of teeth. A drying of the face. Full suitcases that exhale on closing. A Dominican taxi ordered by telephone and the subsequent arrival of the car that couldn’t have been yellow. The driver, who spoke a Carribbean Spanish, barely said a word to us, turned up the radio and muzzled us with a merengue that could have been bachata. My head had already set off on its own trip and only the shell of my body remained neglected in the backseat. We were starting to put mental miles and silence between us, although we were still tied with an invisible and elastic cord. I could barely make out that scene through the fog, but what I saw in that moment in horror, in terror, with true consternation, was that I was about to lose everything Ignacio gave me. I would no longer have his arms to guide me, his legs to direct me, his voice to warn me. I wouldn’t have his sight to make up for the absence of my own. I would be left even more blind. I realised I had been clinging to Ignacio like ivy, wrapping him up and entangling him in my tentacles, suctioning him like a leech stubbornly stuck on its victim. That imminent flight was like a knife slicing between us as the taxi approached the airport, and my adrenaline started to flow. The cut was happening, it was turning into a deep wound, and the taxi left us in the terminal and Ignacio paid and took charge of my suitcase. It was happening or it had happened, the laceration, in the security line as we moved forward in slow motion. Then, a fast forward. Ignacio took care of my passport check, he showed them my university student visa, the corresponding I-20, he asked them to give me an aisle seat, although in other times I would have chosen a window so I could watch the clouds during takeoff, and then he gave my luggage to the workers at the conveyor belt, took my hand and announced that the wheelchair had arrived. What wheelchair? I started to laugh, but, don’t laugh, Ignacio told me, I’m serious about the chair. A chair? Wheel-chair? Why did you ask for a chair? I have two legs! Ignacio put his arms around me while I fought him with flapping elbows, but he surrounded me energetically and soon he was a straightjacket, a jacket that smelled of ashtrays and old, acidic sweat, a jacket that in addition to squeezing me until I creaked, covered me in kisses, my temple, my nose, my ear; the straightjacket talked into my ear in a barely audible voice, and convinced me that it was better for an airport employee to take me through immigration and accompany me to the gate. That way I wouldn’t have to hold anyone’s hand. Wheelchair, I grumbled, swallowing saliva and brushing a lock of hair roughly away from my face. Lina, panted my straightjacket again, cutting off or squeezing my name, Lini, everything will be all right, I promise, don’t cry, por favor, that makes me feel like shit. In the blink of an eye you’ll have crossed the mountains and you’ll be in Chile, Ignacio went on, as if that were any consolation. I’ll be there in a few days, he finished, finally loosening his arms. And then I nodded and sat down and plugged some excessive sunglasses onto my face, and the chair started sliding backwards, and his voice gradually dissolved in the crowd while I finally sobbed freely.
Lina Meruane is one of the most prominent female voices in Chilean contemporary narrative. A novelist, essayist, and cultural journalist, she is the author of a host of short stories appeared in various anthologies and magazines in Spanish, English, German and French. She has also published a collection of short stories, Las Infantas (Chile 1998, Argentina 2010), as well as three novels, Póstuma (Chile 2000, Portugal 2001), Cercada (Chile 2000) and Fruta Podrida (Chile & México 2007). The latter won the Best Unpublished Novel Prize awarded by Chile´s National Council of the Culture and the Arts in 2006. She is the winner of the Anna Seghers Prize, awarded to her by the Akademie der Künste, in Berlin, Germany, 2011. Meruane received the prestigious Mexican Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize in 2012 with the publication of her most recent novel, Sangre en el ojo (Seeing Red). Meruane is a cultural journalist, columnist and stringer for written media, and currently serves as editor of Brutas Editoras, an independent publishing house located in New York City. Holder of a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature from New York University, Meruane currently teaches World and Latin American Literature and Creative Writing at NYU.
Megan McDowell is a literary translator of many modern and contemporary South American authors, including Alejandro Zambra, Arturo Fontaine, Carlos Busqued, Álvaro Bisama, and Juan Emar. Her translations have been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Words Without Borders, Mandorla, and Vice, among others. She lives in Santiago, Chile and New York.
Seeing Red is available from Deep Vellum February 23rd.
There are thick pieces of toast, but his mother is absent, even though she did place the plate in front of him and now leans against the counter watching him eat. In fact, she is waiting for him to ask for something: more butter, another flavor of jam, cinnamon, a different knife—one without these small flecks of orange corroding the teeth. She had not noticed these spots when she set the table, but she can see them clearly now, very clearly. Everything blurs but that burnt orange rust on ridged stainless steel.
He does not ask for another knife. He picks up the knife he has been given and slices through the butter, which is pale yellow and more liquid than solid, because the butter lives in a glass container on the kitchen counter, and the fall has been unseasonably warm, and the kitchen has many windows. The jam—strawberry, more solid than the butter—spreads easily across the toast, except for three thick lumps of strawberry, preserved almost in their entirety. These will not spread and when he looks at them on his toast, he imagines biting into them, something tough, then a soft bursting between his teeth, and he knows he wants to avoid this feeling. She watches the edge of the knife scrape these chunks of strawberry onto his plate, where they lay mushy, small chewed up tongues, seeds like engorged taste buds. Inside her, the nausea rises quickly; she feels bile, hot and abrading, burst into her throat. He sees her smile, but she is looking through him to a spot in the future when he has left for school and she can lie down again.
At school, he has started to fall asleep during story hour and, when his teacher, Mrs. Dorothy, lets him, he stays curled up on his mat through the art period that follows, not waking when the other children rise and put their mats away, line up by the door and stomp loudly down the bricked hallway. Mrs. Dorothy has begun to meet him at his bus, where she leads him to the school cafeteria and feeds him spoonfuls of peanut butter from an industrial-size tub, or cores an apple, placing slice after slice in his warm, pink hand. When the bell rings, she shuffles them both, late, to the classroom where the other children see him enter the room with his teacher. He feels special for the extra attention, but when he told his mother, she cried and went to take a bath and listen to music, loudly. When he went to find her, she was lying in cold water, and the music had stopped. Now, when she says Mrs. Dorothy’s name, she says it with an edge to it, like a knife, he thinks, slicing through the soft butter of Mrs. Dorothy’s flesh, which rolls at her stomach and plumps up at the top of her dress; he has put his head there and listened to her tell a story. He does not sit on his mother’s lap when she tells a story, but sometimes he lies under the covers with her while she reads to him from long, sad books about animals that never stay safe.
And so, for the past two weeks, she has gotten up with him in the morning, placed two pieces of toast in front of him, and watched him eat, ready always to hand him a different condiment or melt a piece of cheddar cheese on top, or to serve him a different breakfast altogether: shredded wheat with three spoonfuls of sugar, bacon heated in the microwave on a piece of paper towel, French toast—bread saturated in a bright eggy mixture, pliable and weak and threatening to fall apart as she transfers each piece to the stove. Granola, scrambled eggs, waffles, oatmeal, pancakes, eggs in the hole, donuts, sour white yogurt with pools of water on top, blueberry muffins, which seem to her bruised and rotting even when they are freshly baked. Anything, she would make him anything, to ensure he leaves her house full.
Eugenie Montague earned her MFA from UC Irvine. Her short fiction has been published by Fiction Southeast and NPR. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is working on her first novel.
How Do You Live In A World That’s Not The World You Thought It Was?: An Interview with Brian Evenson
Brian Evenson’s first book, Altmann’s Tongue, was unsettling enough to some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that its publication set into a motion a chain of reactions that led to Evenson’s departure from his professorship at Brigham Young University, and, eventually, from membership in the church altogether. (Readers interested in this part of Evenson’s career would do well to begin with “The Bad Mormon,” Ben Ehrenreich’s essay-review of Evenson’s novella Dark Property in the May 2003 issue of The Believer.)
In the years that have followed, Evenson has become a kind of elder statesman for innovative fiction. In addition to his dozen genre-defying novels and story collections, Evenson has dabbled in commercial fiction (writing series novels under the sort-of nom de plume B.K. Evenson), has published works of criticism on Robert Coover and the graphic novelist Chester Brown, and, in what amounts to a second career, has become a prominent translator of French language writers including Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, Manuela Draeger, and David B. This year he begins a new teaching position at CalArts in Valencia, California, after a long and influential stint at Brown University.
We corresponded for two weeks by email.
Kyle Minor: I thought the new book, A Collapse of Horses, was very interesting and challenging. I didn’t like all of the stories, although what I find with your work is that often liking the stories is beside the point, and sometimes the stories that I don’t like are later the stories that trouble me enough to cause me to return to them, which seems to me to be one way art might be measured and valued. What I did think about the book, and what I’ve thought about your work in general for all the years I’ve been reading it, is that it is singular. No one else could have written it and it doesn’t read like anyone else’s work, a distinction especially worth noting in a writer for whom play with the work of others often seems to be so foregrounded.
Brian Evenson: Most of the time when I’m putting together a collection, I think of it as a book more than a bunch of individual stories, and there’s a lot of work done putting stories in and taking them out again. What I’m hoping for in the end are stories that talk to one another, and stories that may take something you think you picked up in one story and rearrange it a bit, skew it. That’s all part of a general unsettling of the work as a whole, and if there are stories that trouble you, that makes me very happy. Usually, they trouble me too. As a reader I’ve always been fascinated by those stories that initially don’t seem to have much effect on me but which worm under my skin somehow and then stay there itching. They’re often not the stories that have the strongest initial impact. There are a couple of stories or pieces of novels that did that to me that I still find myself thinking about all the time, even decades later.
And it’s very kind of you to say the work is singular—I’m happy you think so. I guess it can be a good or bad thing for your fiction not to read like anybody else’s. When I was first publishing a fair slew of reviewers were pointing that out as a negative and saying how I had potential but how much better I’d be once the things that people now see as defining me had been beaten out of me. But at a certain point something clicked and suddenly people began to see those things as strengths. I’m glad they did, and hope it keeps up.
KM: In the acknowledgments that precede A Collapse of Horses, you make reference to sources that inform some of the stories. “Black Bark,” you say, wouldn’t have been possible without Laird Hunt’s Kind One. You quote from Jesse Ball’s “Pieter Emily” in “The Moans.” And you say that “The Window” came about “when Michael Stewart shared the particulars of an attempted break-in with me.”
This made me think about the implicit relationships between others of your stories and novels with other books, and also with events that are familiar from the public parts of your own life. Of course, this is a thing that writers often shy away from talking about, even though it’s unfailingly interesting to people who like to read books (and lives) against other books and other lives.
BE: I think there are a lot of connections there, especially with books because I feel that other books really nourish me, and I often find my way to ideas when I’m reading another writer and see ways that he could have taken the story or novel but didn’t. That ends up being very provocative, the moment of seeing where you might have written a story differently and then setting out to write a story that has elements of that. But yes, I feel like I’m often engaged in a conversation with other writers, responding to them, even offering things up that might be seen as critiquing their view of the nature of reality, humanity, etc. It’s of course not just books, either—something like “The Dust” can be read as responding to particular films, or stories like “Black Bark” are messing around with a kind of genre western story…
In terms of actual events or resonances with my own life, yes, those moments are there, but often in very strange ways. In “Windeye” there are a couple of moments that are taken directly from life, but they’re not the moments that you might expect, often small, insignificant things that still imbue the story with a kind of seriousness or power, as if making a kind of offering of a personal detail can energize the story in some way. Or maybe give me the feeling that I’m playing for keeps… It doesn’t matter if only I know that those details are there. In “Younger,” the house that’s depicted has the exact layout of a house I owned in Denver, and some of the things that the two girls do/play are things my sister and I used to do when we were young. Those details aren’t really necessary, but they make the story and characters feel embodied in a way that gives them a different sort of grounding—or convinces me as a writer they have a different sort of grounding in a way that translates into something more powerful for the reader.
KM: I’m interested in the long interplay you’ve enjoyed with genre, not just in the category sense (science fiction, horror, whatever people mean when they say “literary”), but also in the broader sense (intertextuality, different varieties of literary and intellectual discourse, play across traditions from different national literatures, etc.)
In A Collapse of Horses, I see tropes out of the Western (“Black Bark,” “A Collapse of Horses”), the clock suspense thriller (“A Report”), the Shirley Jackson (“The Punish”), the folk tale (“Three Indignities,” “Stump”), the Joyce Carol Oates gothic romance (“The Cult”), the urban legend (“Seaside Town”), the whodunit (“Dust”), the George Saunders (“BearHeart”), the captivity narrative (“Scour”), the procedural (“Click”), and, all the way through, horror-in-general. (Probably you will disagree with me about what genre play descriptor belongs with which story, but if so, it’s a response in keeping with the thing I’m wanting to ask you to talk about.)
BE: Yes, I’m interested in all those sorts of things, and I see them as all connected—for me thinking about genre in a categorical and broader sense very much go hand in hand. I also see genre in both senses as a tool rather than a restriction, something that can be used to create certain effects. And yes, I agree, that probably underlying all the stories in A Collapse of Horses (and to a greater or lesser degree most of my short and long fiction) is a collision between horror and the literary, which for whatever reason seems to me a really productive collision one that can be almost endlessly examined. It’s partly I guess because I love thinking about how possible or impossible it is to ever know anything for certain and because I’m very interested in those moments where reality seems to crumble and fall away. Horror’s exceptionally good at making us think in resonant ways about both those issues, and literature is too, in a very different way.
I like the list you give of tropes/connections to the stories, and it’s interesting for me to see what a particularly good reader and a writer I admire (i.e. you) is getting out of them. But yes, definitely our lists would be different in some of their particulars. “Seaside Town” for instance I see as being in a kind of “Strange Stories” vein, a pretty direct response to Robert Aickman, a wonderful and underrated writer. “Cult” is closely based on a story a friend of mine told me about his ex-girlfriend, though the particulars are a lot different, though it may be true that aspects of Oates wormed into it as I wrote it. “Dust” has ties to whodunits, but also to things like Outland and other murderous, claustrophobic SF. And there’s a whole bunch of creepy living doll stories that form a lineage for “Bearheart.” Some of those connections are probably very personal and things that most readers might not see. It’s really about curiosity for me, I think: an interest in what genres and modes can be made to do that they haven’t done already, and how they can be used to literary and original effect.
KM: So many times in your work, a limb or other body part is missing or goes missing or is excised. Often it seems that the reader is right away invited to begin reading the story in multiple ways, on the literal level, and at the level of metaphor, and in other ways the individual story invites the reader to read.
This is a thing that causes complaint in some readers—the use of a body trouble, a disability. as a metaphor. Other readers might say it’s hard to imagine the work of many writers working in suppressive contexts (censorious regimes, religious constraints, etc.) without these kinds of figurative tools. And, of course, they belong to an older, mythic tradition, which has deep roots in Western literature and Hebraic and post-Hebraic scriptures.
My own childhood background (the Southern Baptists, the educators out of the Bob Jones University tradition, the integration-opposed Christian private school movement of the 1970’s and 1980’s) is different from yours, which I hope I don’t reduce too much by invoking the word “Mormon.” But I wonder if it’s possible to observe your ongoing (obsessive, one might say) dialogue with this variety of the figurative without thinking about its relationship to your own people of origin.
BE: Yes, I think it comes out of that, and from the idea that you read the bible and the holy books simultaneously literally and figuratively. For Mormons that’s something that’s potentially done with every moment, every verse, so things simultaneously are what they are and are something else entirely. It goes even further: the idea that certain old testament prophet’s lives can be a “type and a shadow” of Christ’s life, so that not only can you read a text literally and figuratively, you can read a life as literal and figurative—and indeed many Mormons have a tendency to read their own lives in those terms. Add to that different levels of figuration and you end up with a religion that’s obsessed with interpretation. That’s led with me, I think, to an interest in the instability of interpretation, the way things can slide back and forth a little, the way that we move from the literal to the symbolic and back without noticing, all those sorts of things. It’s not exclusively Mormon, but there may be a kind of Mormon flavor to the way I do it.
KM: When you look back on your journey away from Mormonism, especially now that you have so much time and distance on the person you were when you were young and Mormon, how do you think about what that part of your life was, and what it meant for you then, and what it means for you, and for your work as a writer, now?
BE: It’s strange in that at this point it feels almost like the life of a different person. There have been a couple of seismic shifts over the course of my life and leaving Mormonism was probably the biggest, and the one it took the longest for me to have a clear separation from. I have two older daughters, one of which has stayed in Mormonism, and both my wife and I have parents still involved to a greater or lesser degree, so it’s something we come up against from time to time. When my eldest daughter got married, she was married in the Mormon temple, which meant I wasn’t allowed to attend the ceremony. That was an odd feeling, particularly considering how active and involved I’d been in Mormonism for so many years, and that I’d been inside the temple and participated in those ceremonies I was now barred from dozens if not hundreds of times—so many times that I almost had them memorized.
My connection to Mormonism goes back about six generations, so there’s a whole history there that can’t simply be shaken off, and much about that history, and about the way that I was raised, is still a huge part of who I am. I don’t feel hostile to Mormonism per se (though I’m pretty hostile to religious abuse and hypocrisy, and Mormonism has its share of both), but also don’t feel any temptation to return to it. Getting free of it was a long and arduous process, but now that I’m out I do feel exactly that: free. And I don’t expect I’ll ever have any interest in being a part of an organized religion ever again. I haven’t felt that yearning in the 13 or 14 years since I left Mormonism in any case.
KM: Are there other intellectual preoccupations taken up in your later life that have come to rival the things you experienced as a young Mormon in terms of intensity or formativeness? I guess what I want to know is: What is it like to age and grow into a person whose way of understanding yourself and the world is so radically different from the original baseline understanding of yourself and the world, and how much is the person you are now beholden to the person you were then? In what ways have you worked through these things, and in what ways do you continue to work through them? And do you think these processes are different in kind for a person who comes out of an early life immersed in a religious system than they are for a person who begins and ends in a more-or-less secular life of the imagination?
BE: I think that this may be one of the questions that my work tries to take up, but probably not in a way that’s detectible to anybody but me. I think I’m always asking: How do you live in a world that is not the world you thought it was? So much of my work ends up being connected to thinking through philosophical issues connected to the nature of reality and what we are capable of knowing, and I think that may well be a kind of way of saying “I grew up thinking I had answers, that a religion provided me with answers and a way of understanding the world, then increasingly became aware that those answers were consolations and fictions that allowed me to avoid taking a close and careful and perhaps dizzying look at what the world really was, if the world “really” could be said to be any one thing…”
KM: Here’s another preoccupation I notice in your work: The Double. So often, there are two men, and at first it is unclear to the reader which man is which. Sometimes it seems like in some way it might be unclear to at least one of the men. And then something changes. But always one of the men seems to be a kind of fulcrum the story pushes the other man against.
It’s interesting to me, because although literature is full of doubles (Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” Dostoevsky’s The Double, etc.), I think the more common use of two in contemporary literature is a structural use. The two-part set-up/payoff structure, as in those old New Yorker stories or in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” or the two-part juxtapositional structure, as in Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Those structural ideas seem distant kin to what you are doing, but they’re easier to parse. They direct the reader to one location where a singular lyrical stress falls, whereas your double narratives, even if they do converge or diverge someplace, seem often to produce a more dissipating or diffracting effect in the reader.
BE: Years ago I had a girlfriend who used to ask me why I liked doubles. No matter what I’d say or how long I’d talk, she didn’t seem to be satisfied. The thing that finally stopped her asking, probably because she didn’t know how to respond, was when I said “Because maybe there are two of them.”
I like all the writers you mention and their work, but the difference between what they’re doing and what I’m doing is that there’s no “maybe”. For them, there’s a two part structure but it’s clearly articulated. I think my interest in doubles comes more out of something like Beckett’s Molloy or Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” where there’s a kind of deliberate blurring taking place and a kind of proliferation. In Kafka’s story you do have that two part structure, but it’s a structure where something’s asserted and then negated, a world built up and then torn down—which is similar to what I do in a story like “Younger” (from Fugue State)—and it’s done in a way that makes it feel like the story is fighting against itself rather than presenting an elegantly hinged formulation. That story offers a proliferation of doubles on all levels (characters, events, structural, etc.), really a remarkable piece. In Molloy, you have a very clear division between two parts of the story but it becomes hard to know how to relate the two parts exactly—their remains a rift or a gap. I like the idea of having a story that is well-made and carefully considered (as both Kafka’s story and Beckett’s novel are) without it appearing so, and gravitate toward structures that welcome a kind of general unsettling of reality and of the reader rather than reaffirming something we know.
I like the Tobias Wolff story you mention, even like it very much, but I also feel like my feet are still on the ground at the end of the story, that there’s still ground for my feet to be on, that despite the difficult thing that happens in that story, and where it gets us, I’m still safe (even if Anders isn’t). But Wolff’s story “Hunters in the Snow” takes that ground away from me a little bit more, starts to get me a little bit off balance.
KM: When Coffee House Press sent me a review copy of A Collapse of Horses, they also sent me paperback reissues of three of your novels (Last Days, Father of Lies, The Open Curtain). I was delighted to see that when I put the four books together on the kitchen table, their covers added up to a single image, an illustration.
These kinds of publishing flourishes—re-issues, matched sets—don’t usually arrive at the beginning of a writer’s career. And they usually mean some things, such as: You’ve achieved a body of work that others deem to be lasting. You’ve achieved an audience interested in reading across the books. You’ve earned a place of pride with your publisher that brings the special extra effort and waves the big flag in celebration of it.
I remember, about ten years ago, visiting with a poet whose work had just been collected in a celebrated New and Selected edition. I meant to see him out of that kind of celebration, to congratulate him and say that it was right that the publishing house was validating the thing that had already happened in the imagination and interior life of his readers. But when I said so, he was despondent. He said that what it meant was that the life of artistic vitality was over, that he was being put out to pasture, that the volume in question would be, for his readers, the last word, the judgment rendered, on his body of work.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, he just kept writing poems, and publishing them, and because they were good, readers kept finding them and championing them, and he’s still at it to this day, working toward, I’d imagine, the inevitable depression he’ll feel at the publication of his New and Selected Part II, before he gets back again.
I suspect your emotional relationship to your work is more robust than that, but the circumstances of this round of publications must have given you some reason to think about what you’ve been doing with your work, and what it might be as a whole, and what you are pleased to have accomplished, and what disappoints you, and what you might hope to do in the years ahead, in light of what you’ve done already.
BE: The cover illustration is by my daughter Sarah Evenson. Initially, I think, Coffee House was talking with her about doing some sort of broadside or chapbook to go with the books and then suddenly she was designing the cover. I’m very happy with what she came up with, love the way the covers interlock.
I’ve been really happy for the three re-releases to have a new life. Father of Lies is appearing in paperback for the first time, which is great, and Last Days was originally published by a great genre press that was based in Portland, Underland Press, so it’s for it to have a new life and audience with Coffee House.
It was strange to go through the three rereleased books again, to think about them almost as if I hadn’t written them, to have forgotten certain details, to be a little surprised by them. And yes, it did allow for some reflection, and also was a kind of release. I think the thing it felt a little bit like was getting on top of something and being able to see an open vista, to feel once again that there were all sorts of possibilities. It’s been a little bit like removing a weight. Not that I’ll probably start writing stories with happy little elves in them, and there may not be differences that most readers will detect, but it still feels like a moment to gather my breath, consider, and then decide where I actually want to direct my axe.
Brian Evenson is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes and has been a finalist for the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the World Fantasy Award. He is also the winner of the International Horror Guild Award and the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel, and his work has been named in Time Out New York’s top books.
Kyle Minor is the author of Praying Drunk.
In the story, it’s simply “the dark gaunt house on Usher’s Island,” the site of “the Misses Morkan’s annual dance.” Here, on a cold night near the end of the 19th century when “the snow was general all over Ireland,” Gabriel Conroy—a husband, a son, a father, a teacher, and an occasional book critic with a fondness for European languages and fashions—looks up from the front hallway to see his wife Gretta lingering on the narrow staircase, listening to “a few chords struck on the piano” and a man’s voice singing, as a door to the past, which has never been securely closed at any moment in the story, is flung wide open.
James Joyce wrote “The Dead” while he and his family—his lover and future wife Nora Barnacle and their infant son Giorgio—were living in Trieste in 1907, and even the process of conceiving and composing the story was as much an act of memory as imagination. The year before, while living in Rome, Joyce had believed he was finished with Dubliners, a collection of stories written with what he called a “scrupulous meanness” that would portray Dublin as “the centre of paralysis” in a sclerotic and repressive country—a country he’d exiled himself from when he’d left for Europe in 1904 with hardly more than a few battered trunks and his pockets filled with borrowed money, accompanied scandalously by Nora. But in a letter to his brother Stanislaus on September 25, 1906, after the usual complaints about his poverty, Joyce acknowledged that the work he’d once called “a chapter of the moral history of my country” might, in fact, be incomplete. “Sometimes thinking of Ireland it seems to me that I have been unnecessarily harsh,” he wrote. “I have reproduced (in Dubliners at least) none of the attraction of the city for I have never felt at my ease in any city since I left it except in Paris. I have not reproduced its ingenuous insularity and its hospitality.”
And that was why, as he began to imagine “The Dead,” Joyce remembered the tall Georgian house at 15 Usher’s Island where his great aunts, Mrs. Mary Callanan and Mrs. Julia Lyons, had held their annual holiday party in the rented floors where they lived above a corn merchant’s office. Joyce had walked up the narrow steps from the front door many times and had perhaps even lingered in that same spot just below the half-landing where Gretta listens to the old ballad “The Lass of Aughrim” and suddenly remembers her lost love, a boy named Michael Furey who died of tuberculosis after walking out in a storm to see her (an incident drawn from Joyce’s own jealous memories of a story Nora had told him about a boy from her teenage years in Galway, Sonny Bodkin, who’d died of rheumatic fever after declaring his love for her on a stormy night). Like the Misses Morkan in “The Dead,” Joyce’s great-aunts “believed in eating well” despite a “modest” income and offered “the best of everything”: roast goose with all the trimmings, accompanied by dancing, musical performances, and a speech (often given by Joyce’s father). So if Dubliners needed to balance its “scrupulous meanness” with a taste of Irish hospitality then Joyce would take his readers to the house on Usher’s Island.
Yet over time the very site of a story that’s so rooted in memories and ghosts nearly became one itself. By the end of the 20th century, as the properties around it were razed and much of the world that Joyce had known was lost to the sort of urban development that reshapes any major city, the house at 15 Usher’s Island fell into ruin. Its roof and upper floor were removed in the 1970s. Its back wall buckled and crumbled. Its foundation ebbed away. Its fireplaces and its fanlight above the front door (“a particularly fine fanlight,” according to Irish Senator and Joycean scholar David Norris) were stolen. Eventually the property became a squat for prostitutes and heroin addicts. Though plans were drawn up to restore the house in 1995 and the city government even stipulated to a local developer that the construction of an adjoining apartment complex would be contingent on the restoration of 15 Usher’s Island, nothing was done.
Until, that is, in 1998 a local barrister heard about the demolition of a different house in Dublin, one where Joyce had lived as a teenager (one of the many houses briefly occupied by the Joyce family as they plummeted down through the city’s socio-economic strata), and rushed to the site to buy the rubble before it could be carted away. Brendan Kilty hadn’t yet read any of Joyce’s works when he’d first visited Usher’s Island with a fellow student from Trinity College in 1979 on Bloomsday—June 16th, the day celebrated in Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses—but like Gretta on the stairway and Gabriel transfixed looking up at her, Kilty experienced his own vision that night: that one day he would own the house himself. Like Michael Furey too, walking out into a storm in the grip of an unbreakable passion, Kilty eventually convinced the developer who owned the property to sell him what remained of the house at Usher’s Island. “I think he thought, if I was mad enough to buy the rubble, then I deserved the house,” Kilty told The Sunday Times of Dublin. After filling two buckets with abandoned syringes, he set about the work of restoration—a new roof, a new floor in the basement lifted a few inches above the tides from the River Liffey that had rotted away the old floor, a restored foundation and back wall—until the house could be reopened to the public on Bloomsday in 2004.
“History still has a strong handshake here,” Kilty told me during a visit to the house in summer 2015. A barrel-chested man with a sweep of white hair and that particularly Irish gift for infusing his speech with poetry and legend, Kilty hosts recreations of the dinner from “The Dead” and has published and offered for sale a lavish Centenary edition of the story to raise funds for continued work on the house and its ongoing structural maintenance. (For more information on donations to the house and purchasing Kilty’s edition of “The Dead,” visit here.) But in Dublin today—where historic sites and monuments sit side by the side with luxury stores and franchise restaurants, where tourists wielding rubber axes and broadswords ride in buses outfitted like Viking ships, and men in Leprechaun costumes give away coupons for Guinness only a few steps from the statue of Joyce on O’Connell Street—history is also routinely transformed and commodified. And how do you hold on to the past then?
“The Dead” itself is suffused with loss and an awareness of people and traditions passing away. In his speech at the Misses Morkan’s party, Gabriel celebrates his aunts as the very embodiment of the sort of Irish hospitality that Joyce evoked in his letter to Stanislaus. But Gabriel is all too aware as well of his aunts’ frailty. His words are really as much an elegy as an encomium: “As long as this one roof shelters the good ladies aforesaid . . . the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us and which we in turn must hand down to our descendants, is still alive among us.” Because, as Gabriel knows, the Misses Morkan will become ghosts too and even the roof above them will eventually be sheared away by time and change. “One by one they were all becoming shades,” Gabriel thinks at the end of the story as he watches Gretta sleep after she’d revealed the story of how Michael Furey had died for her.
Yet just as Joyce meticulously worked—sometimes meanly, sometimes lovingly—to preserve in words the places and traditions that he knew were vanishing, Kilty also works to salvage and restore the remnants of another time with the same passion for detail. From his rediscovery of the fireplace where Joyce’s great-aunts had their holiday meal prepared, to his mixing of ash from that fireplace—perhaps even the ashes from one of those holiday parties—with the ink for his edition of “The Dead,” Kilty’s painstaking work makes history tangible. “Better pass boldly into that other world in the full glory of some passion,” Gabriel thinks, “than fade and wither dismally with age.” To step through the doorway of 15 Usher’s Island now is to feel the glory of such passion and, for a while at least, to step through another doorway back into the world of “The Dead.”
Michael Kobre is Dana Professor of Literature and Chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte. His essays and stories have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Tin House, TriQuarterly, West Branch, MAKE, and other journals. He’s the author of Walker Percy’s Voices.
For seventy-nine recorded seconds in 1957, poet Kenneth Patchen and a group of jazz musicians achieved a perfect melding of minds and biorhythms. A few years before, Patchen had begun a series of collaborations, performing and recording with the Chamber Jazz Sextet in San Francisco, the Bed of Roses Chamber Group in Seattle, the Alan Neil Quartet in Vancouver, and the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop in New York. These projects were successful artistically and financially. The $4,545 he made in 1959 from performance tours far outstripped any other year’s earnings. Patchen was a poet’s poet, and a favorite among musicians. Charlie Parker carried a volume of Patchen’s poems with him, and spoke lines from the poems as he played. More recently, the free jazz powerhouse, Peter Brötzmann, made Patchen’s 14 Love Poems the basis of an acclaimed solo album. Patchen’s literary fans back in the day included Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, John Ciardi, and James Laughlin. Even Marianne Moore was won over after attending Patchen’s show at the Blackhawk Club in the Tenderloin. Moore was surprised by the fact that “every word was audible against the music (or should I say ‘with’ it?).” Moore’s self-correction begs the question: What does it mean for a poem to be with or against the music that surrounds it?
The piece in question is the first track on the first album Patchen recorded with musicians, “The Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid Wearing Lemon-colored Gloves.” It is to my mind one of the few instances of music and poetry perfectly integrated—by which I mean that in this piece, poem and music are maximally in contact, both with and against one another. This collaboration between Patchen and composer and band leader Allyn Ferguson is a revelation, anticipating Robert Creeley’s interplay with bassist Steve Swallow almost 50 years later. But where Creeley’s pre-recorded poems were digitally retrofitted into Swallow’s soundtrack, Patchen performed his poems live and in the studio with horns blazing. Listening to this deep cut is for me a continuous shock and thrill–a reminder of what’s possible when poets close their eyes and keep their ears wide open.
But first, eyes open: Patchen’s poem on the page. It appeared originally in Cloth of the Tempest (New Directions, 1942) exactly as it is reproduced on Patchen’s Poetry Foundation page. In comparison with Patchen’s other work this poem looks more like a sketch than a full-blown poem. Typographically, the layout is striking, but crude. The words hint at an encounter, but they stop well short of dialogue or plot. Why the single, surrealist detail (“lemon-colored gloves”) in the title? Why only one “now” if there are two murders? Unaccountability rules this poem. In its whetting and frustrating of its reader’s generic appetites, the poem stages its own powers of deferral. At the very least, and perhaps at the very most, the poem on the page is about itself.
Rereading the poem, I feel the truth of what Orlando White wrote recently about white space: that such space between text is “the vital sign of silence,” and that one of our jobs as poets is to “[make] language and silence collaborate.” White’s piece is a revamping of Charles Olsen’s 1950 manifesto, “Projective Verse,” in which Olsen offers the great formulation, “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE/the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE,” and his idea of composing by field. Writing in the Olsen orbit, Patchen would have been hip to White’s metaphors of body and text: background as the throat of the page, the pulse of the folio, the line and its breath.
The white spaces threading Patchen’s poem stood silently on the page for 15 years, waiting like unopened invitations for someone to hear their as-yet unexpressed exhales. Ferguson answered the poem’s call, composing music that he said he hoped would “fortify the emotional content of the poetry.” Patchen’s poem grew into itself in the company of Ferguson’s band.
Ferguson’s sextet is a good example of chamber jazz, a form of cool jazz that flourished in the 1940s-1950s. Closely associated with the West Coast scene, chamber jazz developed out of the wartime recording ban and the demise of the big bands. These ensembles were characterized by their small size, unusual instrumentation (French horn, oboe, bassoon, etc.), and compositional style that incorporated the influence of symphonic music. As cool jazz was taking form, bebop was cresting, and hard bop was on its way. All of these cats were swing players as well. Six weeks after Coltrane recorded “So What” with Miles Davis in 1959–an album that many think of as the epitome of cool jazz, he threw down “Giant Steps,” single-handedly reinventing jazz improvisation. Earlier that year, Mingus’s “Ah Um” signaled a new, funkier strain of bop that honored the sounds of Ellington and gospel and New Orleans jazz.
Ferguson’s “Murder” is of this musical moment. The opening melodic line, delivered in big band-style unison by the horns, uses bebop rhythm and phrasing, although harmonically it stays in the realm of swing. Eight bars into the piece the drummer switches from Philly Joe Jones-style, swinging eighths on the cymbal to play the melody on the snare along with the horns. At this point the band divides into two sections, and counterpoint and harmony come into play. Syncopation increases as the final four phrases, delivered by the band in unison again, deflect off one another lopsidedly, pinball fashion. The band is well rehearsed, swinging easy and tight.
At the close of the first A section of “Murder,” the band cuts out and Patchen enters with the laconic announcement of the poem’s title–at a considerably slower tempo than the music that preceded, and with subtle hesitations that intimate the rhythmic play to follow. Four words into the title, the bass enters with quarter notes and then, somewhere between the end of “lemon-colored” and the beginning of “gloves,” the drummer doubles up his time, moving into the swinging eighths he will maintain through the end of the tune. As Patchen reaches the end of the title, the band resumes the upbeat head, joining the bassist’s quickening step.
When we hear the beginning of the A section repeated, we may expect the piece to move into a familiar jazz form. But this expectation is almost immediately disturbed. In what follows one can hear distinct echoes of the first theme, punctuated by brief gaps when no one plays: the musical equivalent of caesuras. Into these each of these fourteen silences Patchen inserts an iteration of the word “wait,” each with distinct attack, intonation and metrical value–at one point, even a stutter. After the poet says his last word, the band hits and holds the final chord.
The general pattern of expectation and its fulfillment or frustration is the modus operandi of the piece. By the end, being caught off-guard has come to feel familiar. Or at least just familiar enough to make me want more. That the word I desire and keep on getting delivered is itself a sign of deferral makes the whole thing even more delicious. But with the last word, “NOW,” that new toy is yanked away. Having been simultaneously held off and indulged with those “waits,” the delayed action is rhetorically completed at last. But we have grown used to waiting, and we like it, so that the “now” feels more like “no, not now, you will have to wait to hear more of those ‘waits.’” The final chord sounds the first cliché of the piece. It hangs, somewhat sour, an unwanted end.
The cover of the album sports a blurb from “Archie”: “Puts muscles in your ears,” he says. I haven’t been able to find out who this Archie is, but I like his formulation. “Murder” stages in miniature the processes that neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says are basic to our appreciation of music. Levitin tracks our listening pleasure to our ability both to anticipate patterns and to register surprise. Surprise brings affect into the experience. “Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectation. . . Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat.”
Levitin focuses attention on the cerebellum, the oldest part of our brains. Ready to react, rather than to integrate or make sense of, the cerebellum is the part of the brain that makes us flinch when we hear a loud and unfamiliar sound. It is also one of the key seats of emotion. The emotion that is most useful for our self-preservation as a species is fear. We startle at a sudden sound, sense danger, and run to safety. Or we hear the flutter of an animal smaller, weaker and tastier than ourselves, feel hunger, and run toward our prey.
The role of the cerebellum in the processing of music is still something of a mystery. “It fires when people are listening to music rather than to noise; to music they like, versus music they don’t like; and to familiar rather than unfamiliar music.” The cerebellum governs toetapping and our sense of groove. “Music breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does, and our cerebellum finds pleasure in adjusting itself to stay synchronized.”
In the joint experiment of poet and composer, “Murder” aims multiply at the cerebellum. The rhythmic components work on an interlocking principle–a version of hocketing, or what Philip Tagg calls “interpunctuation,” syncopated interruptions of cadence that create a jerky and energizing effect. Close your eyes again and listen for the mixed signals: the push and pull of Patchen and band, the interlocking of monosyllables and the musicians’ complex phrases, the fight-or-flight subtext, the violence that is promised but only as abstraction.
And then there are those gloves. Lemon yellow. Leather? Or rubber? To hide fingerprints, to do the dirty work and protect the murdering hands? The yellow of stain, depravity and disease, the mark of quarantine—but also, and perhaps more immediately, the ‘50s yellow of sweater sets, Cadillacs and the cover of Patchen’s next lp. The color seeps into the poem’s spaces, belied by the music. The solo poem, on the page, is sinister, withholding. When spoken into the music that insinuates and energizes, the poem pants and begs and then shuts up, abruptly. In this collaborative performance, words and silences work with and against the music to put muscles in our ears.
Cassandra Cleghorn is a poet whose first book, Four Weathercocks, is being published by Marick Press in March of 2016. Her work has appeared in many journals including Paris Review, Yale Review, Southwest Review, New Orleans Review, The Common and Poetry International. She teaches at Williams College and serves as Associate Editor of Tupelo Press.
My father inherited a small fortune when his mother died, and on my twenty-first birthday he handed me a card with a check inside. I spent a year in Paris after high school and had been living with Dad since then, working at a pottery store and reading my way through a box of moldy French novels and partying at the local bar with college students who wore American- flag bandannas and U.S. Army pants even though they went to a liberal arts school in New England. “Do you dress like that because you support the wars?” I asked one of these boys, after we’d slept together. He laughed with his nose. “Whatever,” he said. I was glad I’d decided not to go to college. Better to use my father’s money to travel than to sit in class with a bunch of morons. And now I had enough money that I didn’t need to make decisions at all. My father beamed as I gazed in astonishment at the four zeroes on his check, proud of his ability to provide for his child. I started driving around the country with a tent and sleeping bag in the back of my car, settling in whatever town could hold my interest for a few months, sometimes doing business transcription or working in coffee shops. I lived frugally to make money that wasn’t mine last. So I was shocked to find myself penniless one day, unable to pay for my sandwich at a deli in Carpinteria. I called my father, and he provided me with a few more years of choicelessness.
It was nearly dark when I hung up the phone. I’d have to spend the night in this maybe seedy, maybe idyllic coastal California town. I went to a bar to find out about campgrounds in the area. A guy looked me up and down when I walked in. Then he started a game of pool. He had thick arms and goldfish tattoos on each wrist; pale, pockmarked cheeks; a dainty nose. His jeans were too short and his legs were stubby. I was not attracted to his appearance. But I was attracted to him. I drank three pints of Guinness and watched him win four games. His brown eyes were open wide, so he could watch his shot and stare at me at the same time. His look reduced me, not unpleasantly, to sex. When I got up from my stool to walk to the bathroom, I felt the cotton of my underpants shifting over my buttocks, my asshole tingling and contracting as if I were lying facedown in the sun after swimming in icy water.
When he walked to the back patio, I followed him out and asked for a cigarette. The arbor above our heads was interlaced with broken Christmas lights. They flickered dizzyingly as he lit a Camel for me. I hoped he wouldn’t notice that I winced with each inhale; tobacco is one of the few drugs I hate. “You know you’re sexy, thank god,” he said. “So we don’t need to talk about it all night.” I was wearing a short skirt with ripped black panty hose and a tight tank top with a ladybug embroidered over my left nipple. My breasts are small and my legs are short, but I have a perky ass and symmetrical features. Jared was right. I love my body. I like my face, too. It’s not that I’m a knockout, but you don’t have to be a knockout to be desired. My appearance is one thing I don’t worry about. “I don’t like talking, anyway,” I said. Jared dipped a key into a small baggie, held the white powder under my nose.
After the bar closed, I hopped on the handlebars of his bike. Jared stopped short in front of a turning car and I flew forward. The heels of my boots weren’t sturdy enough to support the impact of my fall. My ankles twisted as I spiraled to the ground, landing on my back with my feet crossed. Jared grinned as he helped me up. “Took yourself a tumble, didn’t ya darlin’?” I touched my face. Smooth, dry. I straddled the front wheel and hopped back onto the handlebars. His breath warmed my neck as he raised himself off the bike seat to hurtle us through a thicket of fog-softened headlights. When I woke up in his bed the next morning, it looked like someone had sewn a piece of midnight blue fabric onto my hip with yellow thread. Jared shook his pillow out of its case, filled the case with ice and held it to my side. “I like you so much,” he whispered in my ear. He caught the back of my neck in his teeth. Icy waves lapped at my hip. His teeth tickled my skin. I got dizzy, free of thought.
I stayed with Jared for the next few days. We stumbled into a stranger’s party and danced until dawn and skinny-dipped in the ocean under a huge orange moon and set out on bikes with beer and sandwiches, riding equestrian trails through woods that led to sea cliffs, taking breaks to have sex in eucalyptus groves. Here was an answer to the question of what to do with my life.
I found a room for rent in a tiny, lopsided cottage occupied by a forty-year-old bachelor who had blown off his right hand in a drunken fireworks accident. Our bedrooms shared a thin wall. I wondered if Ron was always sheepish or if the accident had made him that way. The rent was negligible. I got the impression he wanted someone around, just in case. A week after I moved in, I peeked into the garage that we were not allowed to use. Piles and piles of lace-up shoes. Ron only wore slip-ons. The accident had happened years ago, but maybe he was still hoping to learn. Or to find someone to do the tying for him. In any case, I wasn’t worried about finding a job anytime soon. The money I had left from my dad felt like a lot to someone who had never really thought about money.
So when I wasn’t with Jared, I had plenty of time to indulge my recent obsession: the torture of so-called terror suspects, meaning mostly poor Muslim men whom corrupt warlords handed over to the United States in exchange for bounties. Not that you could talk like that in public or people would think you were not sufficiently distressed over 9/11. A handful of lunatics succeeded in changing the way regular people thought about sadistic violence. Torture was now acceptable. You needed a measured rationale to justify being against it—it was ineffective; it was a recruiting tool for the terrorists; it made it more likely that captured American soldiers would be mistreated. I learned these reasons because I had to. If I said, even at a bar in a liberal town in Southern California, that my opposition to torture was based on a feeling—the feeling that it’s wrong for one human being to inflict as much pain as possible on another human being—then I was pitied for being idealistic and sentimental. But if the problem with sentimentality is that it wastes our need to feel on false, trivial tropes—a Nazi who weeps at the opera but is unmoved at the gas chamber—then wouldn’t the solution be for us to feel strongly about real stuff instead, for pure, uncomplicated emotion to be aroused not by baby animals on YouTube but by ordinary people in pain?
The first act of sadistic violence I witnessed was a crow pecking a baby bat to death in my backyard. I gave the bat a funeral at which I read a memorial poem (“I will never forget you little bat / It was so mean of the crow to do that”) and then had to stay home from school for two days because I couldn’t stop crying. I was probably six. My mother was worried; my father was proud. It was from him that I learned to anguish over mass suffering I could do nothing about. Throughout my childhood, he spent several hours a day reading terrible news stories, which he would talk about throughout dinners, rides to and from school, trips to the grocery store. My mother would tell him not to disturb a child; my father would say privileged people not wanting to be disturbed was the cause of the problem. Since my father never did anything with his knowledge except get angry and then depressed, I thought my mother might have a point. But after she abandoned us for a pretty dimwit, I sided with Dad: My mother was frivolous; my father’s angst was purposeful and important. I filled my adolescence with books about slavery, the Holocaust, the Stasi, the Gulag, the Chinese oppression of Tibet, the Gaza Strip. I used to wonder what I would do if I lived in a country that imprisoned people in massive, indiscriminate sweeps (Rumsfeld’s leaflets “falling like snow” over Afghanistan, promising “wealth and power beyond your dreams” in exchange for turning in supposed enemy combatants) and tortured them without ever charging them with crimes (the legal memos with graphic descriptions of waterboarding, stress positions, beatings to inflict maximum distress without causing organ failure or death). After Abu Ghraib and Bagram and Guantánamo, I knew what I would do: feel rage, shame, disgust, loneliness, helplessness, sorrow, despair, great and debilitating hatred for everyone who did not also feel these things.
A young woman from PeaceByPeace knocked on my door in Carpinteria one afternoon, asking if I had a minute for peace. What she really wanted was money, but at least she was out doing something. So I tried canvassing, too. But I hated asking strangers for money that I wasn’t even convinced helped all that much. PeaceByPeace lobbied politicians to support their initiatives. I had no faith in politics; the first presidential election I voted in was decided by a single American who happened to be on the Supreme Court. And even at PeaceByPeace human rights was not a popular cause. The fastest way to get people to give—other canvassers advised me—was to make an economic argument against Bush’s policies, something I couldn’t have done even if I wanted to. You had to slip in the human rights stuff later, once you’d hooked them—the same way that, if you were writing a novel, you wouldn’t want to start off with a diatribe against torture and indefinite detention or you could turn off a lot of potential readers. Maybe you could slip the political stuff in later, after you’d made a particular Muslim character really sympathetic, perhaps in an unlikely feminist way, like he collected bits of charcoal to make rudimentary writing implements for poor, oppressed schoolgirls. Then you could have him detained and tortured and readers might care.
I understood the method. I just couldn’t abide it. After the twentieth door was slammed in my face as soon as I mentioned humane treatment for so-called enemy combatants, I quit. Reading the news alone was less depressing than trying to do something about it.
I met a few girls in Carpinteria that I liked to go out and drink with, but I couldn’t imagine becoming really close with them. They weren’t up against anything, having spent their lives running between the mountains and the sea. When I complained to one of them about how difficult it was just to be a decent person, she suggested I go to the beach, listen to the ocean, and “soak up the inspiration.” Southern California is a great place to soak up ethereal nouns.
But Jared suffered. He was real. He read David Foster Wallace with a dictionary, taking notes in a journal. He read the way he did everything: desperately, driven by too much need for things to be too different from what they were. He was the only person—aside from my father—whom I could talk to about the war on terror (another ethereal noun). We had feelings, not arguments—only an insane person could argue intellectually about something like torturing and jailing people for years without ever charging them with a crime—which of course made us ineffective political thinkers. Jared read the newspaper like it was a book, looking not for facts but for stories: What was happening to regular people? It’s hard not to be compelled by suffering when you’re suffering yourself. But if I was paralyzed by my feelings, Jared was at war with his. Alcohol was the quickest way to win.
He was the rhythm guitarist for a mediocre rockabilly band that played the local bars most weekends; he made his living selling drugs. He did drop-offs at dawn, midnight, noon. Couldn’t afford to disappoint his clientele. Carpinteria was a small town with a lot of dealers. Susan was my introduction to this clientele, a few months after I’d settled down in Carp. She was petite and blond and full- bosomed, wearing red lipstick and a tight sweater, standing next to us at the bar one night, demanding that Jared buy her a drink. “I’m broke,” she said, sticking out her lower lip. Jared took a twenty out of his wallet and handed it to her. I raised my eyebrows. He shrugged. We went outside and danced to the Cure, which was blasting from speakers on the back patio. Susan found us, shimmied against Jared, pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and took long, dramatic drags as she told me how far back she and Jerrie go, that she’s been stealing his cigarettes at the end of a long night for years. When she went inside to get another drink, I told Jared to stop flirting with that whore, hating my stereotypically competitive tone, hating him for making me assume it.
“Suze? You’re trippin’. I fucked her once. But that was years ago. Stop trippin’, girl.”
To Drunk Jared I was just one more needy female, as in “Woman, you are a handful” and “Girl, get off my back.” He turned away from me. I turned on my heels. Pride dragged me toward home. After two blocks, I remembered that I was clacking my way to a dark apartment where I’d hiccup and sob into my pillow, trying not to wake my depressed roommate. But when I got back to the bar, Jared was gone. I searched wide-eyed, clutching the sides of my dress, forcing myself not to break into a run.
“Are you looking for the guy in the red shirt?” the bartender asked me. Yes, I was, that adorable red shirt with the bluebird over the left breast pocket. “He took off. He was really trashed. Better let him sleep it off.” When Jared called me the next afternoon and asked if I wanted to meet at a diner, I told him that I would never see him again. He left a present on my windowsill every day for the next week—earrings, chocolates, flowers. Stupid things, the perfect things. Eventually I agreed to let him take me to a Wilco concert in L.A. “I’ll be your designated driver,” he said, and drank only Pepsi at the show. Afterward, he drove us back to his house and we jumped on his trampoline under the stars, Santa Ana winds somersaulting down the piney mountains. He fed me avocado-and-tomato sandwiches in his bed. We had sex three times and slept entangled till noon.
One night, I had two orgasms and he had none. I kept trying, desperate for proof of his attraction to me, reminding him of how he used to come so quickly, too quickly. “Because you were brand new,” he said, yawning into my hair. The next day, I bought a pair of lace-up, knee-high boots for two hundred bucks. When Jared saw me wearing them, he said, “Where’d you get those boots? The Sexy Store?” I cringed; he knew I was trying to please him. The first time I wore the boots, the right heel came off in chunks on the dance floor. I left a trail of rubber everywhere I went.
And it turned out Jared didn’t give a shit about my sexy boots. He cared about seeing me from every possible angle, under the brightest lights, his nose an inch from my skin. “But—” I’d protest as he parted my legs or rolled me onto my stomach. “Come on,” he’d say. “Let me see you.” Attraction was access to knowledge that could not be gained from any other kind of interaction. There was nothing to hold back.
Hannah Tennant-Moore‘s work has appeared in the New York Times, Elle, The New Republic, n+1, Tin House, Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and has twice been included in The Best Buddhist Writing. Wreck and Order is her first novel.
Wreck and Order (Hogarth) is available February 9th, 2016.
A friend of mine died last month. We weren’t particularly close, but I liked her a lot—we’d have coffee near Union Square every so often and she’d talk about her budding music career and I’d talk about my long-gestating novel. I tend not to enjoy unifying conversations about art that include me. I admire the obvious external talents of actors and singers and basketball players more than the writer’s drudging isolation and, karaoke daydreams aside, I don’t crave the immediacy of reaction that performers chase. But my friend’s genuine enthusiasm for what she called “our craft” was infectious and I always got a creative jolt out of seeing her. She was too earnest, too well-liked, too attractive, to have ever generated evident self-consciousness.
A year ago, my friend found out that she had a really dire, painful kind of cancer. She spent the rest of her life enduring a sequence of atrocities—bone marrow transplants, hotel stays near the Mayo Clinic, experimental treatments that gave her a false sense of hope, multiple resuscitations. Hers was the kind of suffering that eventually pushes you into a null state somewhere beyond empathy. Gradually, I got used to the idea that she would soon disappear. Each text was a bit more valedictory; I was more relieved with every one of her email replies.
When we know someone is going to die, hope dwindles as a matter of course. Reality steadily evaporates the well-spring of optimism. We can and do pre-mourn for people who are still alive, and the pain manifests as a single scoop of a sine wave: very difficult at first, even worse at the end. If it was tough for me, a mid-level friend at best, I can’t imagine how her boyfriend dealt with her decline. They hadn’t even dated that long before she got sick. He’d only had a smattering of weeks with the beautiful, talented person I’d known for a decade. But he stuck by her, quitting his job, suspending his life.
My friend and I were talking on the phone a couple of months ago (I never saw her in person again after the diagnosis) and I asked about her relationship, expecting to hear the usual cancer boyfriend platitudes. Honestly, I was looking forward to them. There’s a reason clichés become clichés. But instead, she said that she was seriously bored of him and was considering breaking it off. She even laughed about it. I was shocked. It wasn’t just the scars and the baldness and the imposed isolation. My friend was 99.9% sure going to die—how could she not wait it out for what would be, best case scenario, half a year, so her boyfriend, who had been so good, wouldn’t have to live on knowing that the woman he’d most loved had dumped him while she was terminal?
But then: who’s a deathbed really for? So many of life’s passages, the graduations and the weddings, are really meant for other people to bear witness to our change. But the body shutting down, the last connections to reality severed—should that be a private experience for the patient or a public transition for her loved ones? Now me, I’m someone who believes in nothing. You end and the universe that’s yours ends with you. So I understand why my friend didn’t want to spend her last days with someone she’d lost interest in. Why waste time on him when she could share a little more love with her loved ones?
My friend died before she could go through with the break-up. After all of that slow suffering, it happened fast. Her boyfriend couldn’t make it to the hospital in time to say goodbye. Of course, I’m glad she didn’t end up dumping him. And I’m changing enough details that I hope he’ll never find this. But I don’t know—as always with her, I was compelled to write something after we talked. I laugh whenever I think about the ballsiness of it, of her. I most appreciate the way she told me. It was as casual as sitting on a Union Square bench with iced coffees in the summer watching skateboarders whirl round: “I don’t quite think it’s working, but I’m not sure why.” And it’s a retroactive revelation of why I was so drawn to her; she never did have time for false narratives.
Adam Dalva is a recent graduate of NYU’s MFA Program, where he was a Veterans Writing Workshop Fellow. He was an Associate Fellow at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center. His work has been published in The Millions, Public Books, Lumina, and elsewhere. He is also a dealer of French antiques.
I met Tony Tulathimutte over drinks one afternoon. We’d followed each other on Twitter and, on a rare social impulse, I thought I’d chance getting to know him better. Online, he was funny and incisive in his commentary. In person though, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To my delight, we spent our time surprisingly in-step with a minimum of lit-scene gossip and a maximum of day-drinking.
Reading Private Citizens (William Morrow, 2016), it’s hard not to see Tony in his work. The novel is thoughtful and sly, at turns eloquent and hilarious and caustic. It follows the post-collegiate years of four friends on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse. There’s Linda, the failed writer; the transient autodidact Henrik, the socially conscious Cory, and Will—the book’s one Asian character, whose racial neuroses borders on obsession. What astonishes me most about Private Citizens is the way these characters become so much more than their labels. Together and alone in the young urban landscape of San Francisco, they learn to create meaning in a world that keeps insisting they have none.
Tony and I met again to talk about Private Citizens last December at Black Forest Brooklyn Biergarten in Fort Greene, where we discussed—among other things—writing, race, and self-loathing.
Bill Cheng: Private Citizens is actually your second book. Can you talk about your first book?
Tony Tulathimutte: I wrote a story collection, which I didn’t bother trying to publish as a book. Except the novella, I drafted all the stories in undergrad and when I put them together I was unsatisfied with them. There was this unwashable stink of shame surrounding them because I suspected I was being a good boy. I’d never written an Asian character, except in one case where I retro-jected Asianness onto the character way after the fact. I know a lot of novice Asian writers who had this problem, they think, “Well, I grew up around mostly white people and so it makes perfect sense for me to write about them.” It’s a way to rationalize internalized racism and justify what you’re really doing, which is trying to dodge the burdensome label of an ethnic writer, an Asian writer.
BC: In some ways, you try to address that with the character Will. On the face of things, Will is a lot like you: he’s Thai, went to Stanford. But what makes Will different from Tony?
TT: The name. (Laughter.)
Once time I had my roommate send me a piece of my novel while I was at work. He said, “Sorry man, I just opened your computer and I saw a bunch of notes open. I just wanted to remark that I did see on top of this file, a huge bold text equation that says ‘WILL = ME – WRITING + GIRLFRIEND.’” That was sort of a joke to myself, but what I wanted was not to give myself any wiggle room, abstracting characters away from me because that’s what I thought good writing was.
BC: What did framing Will that way do for the writing?
TT: It removed the checks and balances from my psyche. When I have these sort of insecurities or desires ruthlessly indulged I imagine I would become a kind of a monster.
What I didn’t want was to write the kind of novel people write when they set out to make a big statement about a racial experience. In the attempt to give a voice to people of their race, they often end up over-generalizing. There’s this total overreach. What I did in this book is very specific. If people are going to identify with the experience of Asian-ness this character has, it’s going to be in this heavily qualified way, just because in spite of the many stereotypical traits I deliberately saddled him with—short, angry, tech savvy, girl-troubled—you find that he’s nothing like most people, Asian or otherwise. I’d be hard-pressed to compare anyone to Will, even myself, in spite of him sharing my biography. In fact he doesn’t resemble me any more than the other three characters.
BC: Let’s talk about them. Most of the action is set in those years after college, when they’re each deeply invested in their individual lives and those bonds aren’t as present.
TT: I don’t know about you, but in New York I barely see my closest friends. Everybody I know has a lot of banal obligations that take them away from regular day-in, day-out exposure to the people who’re closest to them.
If there’s one thing I am concerned with, it’s the experience of our fantasy life vs. our real life. That, when your friends are not there, you’re still thinking, “What would Jenny say about this? What would Alice say if she saw me doing this?” Even though they’re not actually there, nonetheless their influence is present.
In this book, the characters are deeply involved in each other’s mental lives, even more than their actual circumstances. Everything Henrik does is a response to breaking up with Linda. Everything Linda does is to move beyond Henrik. Linda has informed Will’s resentment of women. And Cory is constantly comparing herself to Linda. So there’s a skein of relationships that are operating even when one character is just sitting there alone.
BC: With four protagonists, how did you manage to capture the diversity of all these voices?
TT: I had to get at the book edgewise. I spent two years floundering and not being able to just sit down and write. What I had to do was tackle the alternate project of trying to write about everything that was happening in my life, everything I was thinking about, with no preconceptions about how they were interrelated or would cohere into a story.
BC: Like what?
TT: I was thinking about political obligations as somebody living comfortably in San Francisco. I was thinking about technology, as a tech consultant in Silicon Valley, and race, and writing—like almost everybody, I felt like I had the talent to write but a total inability to do it. And I was thinking about my inherited defects. Right in the middle of my 20s all these new allergies kicked in. I couldn’t eat fruits with thin skins; I was diagnosed with exercise-induced anaphylactic urticaria. Literally allergic to exercise. I had to have surgery to correct a deviated septum and enlarged nasal turbinates.
Having to descend into this crazy bureaucracy of health, just to feel like I was a normal functioning person. Operating under all these strictures and paranoias about new illnesses. And mental stuff as well. I had conquered four psychiatrists and was feeling like I was looking down a long corridor of unwellness, and not really seeing where I was going to come through the other side—that’s a lot of Henrik’s neuroses come from.
None of these things are obviously connected. Putting it together literally amounted to writing out random sentences or thoughts in a million different text files and seeing, “Oh these two kind of relate to each other, I’m going to move them closer.” Then I’d glom them together and they become kind of like a T-1000 pool of living metal. I stitched those together into a passage, which gets stitched together into a scene, which gets assigned to a character. This is the most ass-backwards way to write a novel, which is why it took seven years.
BC: What I enjoyed the most about the book is the strength in the voices of these characters.
TT: They tend to rant. Part of that is Philip Roth’s influence, part of it is my desire to write criticism inside the novel.
BC: I feel like a lot of writers— and I include myself in this— are often paralyzed by that kind of interiority.
TT: Really? I feel like that’s what everybody does when they want to self-indulge.
BC: Maybe I like movies too much. But for me, there’s no “brain voice” in my head. My brain doesn’t speak to me in English but rather this different, primal language. Putting that on the page, I find, is difficult.
TT: Nabokov once said that only illiterates think in language, that people generally think in images. To me it’s not possible to mimic your brain voice, but you can translate it to English. And oftentimes when we do it, we realize, “Oh shit, I’m a horrible person.” When writers talk in this vague grandiose way about wanting to get at the truth, usually they’re just trying to figure out what they’re thinking.
I think there’s an E.M. Forster line that goes, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” That’s the idea. If you’re not cornered into actually articulating what you’re after, then how can you endorse or deny it?
BC: In a lot of ways, Private Citizens is an examination of self-loathing. Do you think this is something particular to where we are now as a generation?
TT: My first workshop at Iowa hated my book. I had almost no defenders. A lot of what I was perceiving as self-loathing was read as contempt. They felt there was this authorial sensibility that was basically saying the equivalent of “ha ha look at these fucking Millennials, look how stupid and entitled and narcissistic they are”—and in a way that’s the critique I fear most, even if it’s positive. Where somebody says “Check out this scathing takedown of Millennials!” Because I think that’s bullshit.
Every generation, except the one that fought World War II, gets maligned as worse than its predecessor, and for the dumbest reasons. “Oh, Millennials, they boomerang, and live off their parents.” Well, you shouldn’t have dismantled America’s manufacturing base and rolled back financial regulations and cut every reliable job. We didn’t ask for the gig economy. That’s not on us.
BC: Do you identify as a writer, an Asian writer, or a Thai writer?
TT: Either way it’s a no-win. One way, you are either pigeonholed as a Thai writer, an Asian writer. The other way, you’re being dishonest, especially in my case where I am writing about race, among other things. If someone asks me, “Am I Thai and a writer?’” Well, that’s true. Some of my writing is bound up in the question of being Asian in America.
But to drill down to the next level of your question, there’s actually a distinction between calling yourself an Asian writer or a Thai writer, right? Because one actually presumes a healthy and nuanced enough discourse that makes significant distinctions between Thai writers, Chinese writers, Japanese writers, Korean writers. And I don’t think that’s the case. In spite of the staggering diversity of ethnicities within Asia, to most people what matters more than those differences is that you either look Asian or you don’t. The particularities are completely paved over, including the things they expect of you as a writer or read into your writing.
In real life my Thai-ness only comes into play when I’m talking to other Asian people and they’re feeling out whether or not we have any deeper cultural ground than the experience of being treated as an Asian. I didn’t know many Asian people my age until I went to Stanford, and even then, it wasn’t our Asianness we bonded over, it was writing. I didn’t join the Asian-American Students Association, which I thought was corny—they had a newsletter called Communicasians, for instance. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in terms of racial identity; there’s just also nothing to be proud of, except insofar as you know you’ve had to overcome shit because of it.
If there’s a basis for pride, it’s in spite. Which, funny enough, were working titles for my novel. Pride and Spite.
BC: Do you think your writing is in some way motivated by anger?
TT: Anger to me seems like the wrong word because it connotes a lack of control. That’s why spite seems more useful. It is this thing to stew over, to elaborate. It can be intellectualized and rationalized and at a certain point it becomes less a feeling than a value. A ton of my work had to do with that. To say anger, I don’t know, I tend to turn my anger inward in self-destructive ways that later become material.
BC: Self-destructive how?
TT: Look at how the characters act out in the book. Cory has an eating disorder, Will’s self-destruction becomes very literal, and Linda repeatedly nukes her situation and finds herself without a fixed address. You can see how somebody could justify her behavior as standing up for yourself, or autonomy, but it’s also self-sabotage and a desire to be confirmed in your dismal worldview.
It’s that cog-psych principle of depressive realism, where you’re disposed to see the world as a bad place so that when bad things happen you feel validated by being right. Every time people will take being right over being happy. Every time.
Tony Tulathimutte is the author of the novel Private Citizens (William Morrow, 2016). A graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has contributed to VICE, Salon, The New Yorker online, Threepenny Review, AGNI, The LA Review of Books, The American Reader, and other places. He has been selected for an O. Henry Award and a Macdowell Fellowship; his website is at tonytula.com.
Bill Cheng is the author of Southern Cross the Dog. He is a 2015 fellow in Fiction for the New York Foundation for the Arts and a 2016 recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship.
Keep it on the DL, but a little bird told us Dorianne Laux might appear in our Summer 2016 issue. In celebration of these rumors, here is one of her fine poems from Issue 48.
In another life you might hear the song
of your neighbor clipping the hedges, a sound
oddly pleasant, three coarse dull snips,
three thin branches thumping softly as death
onto the closed doors of the mown lawn.
You might get your every dark wish: chocolate plums
for breakfast, mud swelling up between your toes
as you brush green scum from the face of a pond
with a stick, gold carp flying like flocks of finches
through azurite blue, a copperhead with a minnow
struggling in its mouth winding away from you.
In that hush you might hear the gods
mutter your name, taste diamonds of salt
melting on your tongue. You could lie there
molten and glowing as a blade hammered to silver
by the four-billion-year-old middle-aged sun.
In another life you might slip under canal after canal
on a coracle boat, look up to see river light
scribbling hieroglyphs on the curved undersides
of each stone arch. You might hear
an echo, the devil’s fiddle
strummed just for you, and you might sing, too,
unbuckle your voice. You can’t speak
the meaning of being, the nurses can’t help you,
beautiful as you are with your plasma eyes,
beautiful as they are in their mesh-blue protective booties,
their sugary white dresses, so starched, so pressed.
Your deepest bones might ache with longing,
your skeleton draped in its finest flesh,
like the lush velvet curtains that open so slowly
before the opera begins.
Dorianne Laux’s fifth collection, The Book of Men, winner of The Paterson Prize, is available from W.W. Norton. Her fourth book of poems, Facts about the Moon won The Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also the author of Awake; What We Carry, a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; Smoke; as well as two fine small press editions: Superman: The Chapbook and Dark Charms, both from Red Dragonfly Press.
As accurate now as it was when it first appeared in Tin House Issue 33: Fantastic Women.
Aries—A harsh wind blows on the ram this year and heavy wool socks are strongly recommended. Hot potatoes work well too, and yelling at your delinquent daughters, who will pierce their tongues after the first Virgo moon.
Taurus—Get a tape recorder and repeat after me: The snap pea habit has got to stop. A rotten pod has your name on it, Taurus, and three tiny round fuckers are laughing it up.
Gemini—Two pairs of hands and you can’t do a fan dance? Frankly, I have no advice. You might have bathed babies, painted holiday eggs, but instead you leap naked and never touch.
Cancer—Let’s face it, Crusty, we never got along. You were always so complacent about all those visitors. Especially Alma. Guess your own future.
Leo—Shake your fulgent mane, for this year you’ll find love. Or at least good lighting for the long hall, the one you papered so carefully last summer. Italian jellyleaf, a fakir’s green.
Virgo—For far too long you’ve acted like a dryad, mossing your titties, diving into brooks. The sylvan life ends this year, Virgo. When the mists start rising, you’ll see your own feet.
Libra—You will like your short new wife. She will make you stew. She will plump her little bowl of a bottom in the pot-shaped seat of your rocking chair.
Scorpio—You’re not so bad. You’re not even that ugly; you just need different hair. Go to Charcot Street and ask for Clemm.
Sagittarius—Stop shooting cans. Stop shooting bottle caps. Stop shooting rats. I can’t believe you’ve named that stupid blue pistol. Throw it away and have a baby.
Capricorn—Enough with the herring. You’re a goat, for God’s sake, and it’s time to eat trash. When Pisces enters the second house, you’ll nip a piece of ass with sequins on it.
Aquarius—All you needed was a kiss, you said. You will need a year to wash it off.
Pisces—The pins are in a jar. The jar is in the drawer with the trim and missing socks. You will use the pins to make a six-yard sampler, roses and squares, alpaca wool. For your son’s funeral. You’ll wrap him in it twice.
Jane Avrich is the author of The Winter Without Milk, a collection of short stories. Her stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Story, and other journals and have been nominated for The Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Born and raised in New York, she received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard and her master’s from Columbia. A teacher for thirteen years, she currently teaches English at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn and lives in Manhattan.
A passionate sailor, striving writer, and unwilling movie star, Sterling Hayden lived a picaresque life in which his nascent internal struggles were compounded by the American century in which he lived. The chief literary artifact of this extraordinary existence, Hayden’s mid-life autobiography Wanderer, published in 1963, distinguishes itself amongst its genre through its formal imitation of the tumultuous, singular life of its author.
Born in Montclair, New Jersey in 1916, Hayden spent his youth rootless, searching with his mother for stability after the premature death of his father. In adolescence, he discovered and quickly came to love sailing.
Against the warnings of his mother and, frequently, his fellow sailors, Hayden took to the ocean as a teenager, working on any boat that would have him. By his early twenties, he had traversed the Pacific several times, weighed anchor in Cuba, Tahiti and Florida, and risen to the rank of first mate. Hayden adopted the leathery captain of a trans-Pacific pleasure cruiser as his mentor, and spied in that man’s boat a template for the career he hoped to imitate.
An almost unbelievable confluence of chance interrupted Hayden’s plans. A “tall youth, with bulging forearms, and a faraway look in his eyes,” Hayden cut an impressive figure. Spying potential in Hayden’s looks, a friend recommended that he try to get into movies, as a way to make money in between his voyages at sea. Wary of both acting and the entertainment industry, Hayden nonetheless agreed to give it a shot and spent a miserable interval in New York failing to gain traction in the worlds of either theater or cinema. He was on the cusp of returning to the sea when an acquaintance wrangled him an audience with Edward Griffith of Paramount Studios, who not only liked Hayden, but selected him immediately for entry into Paramount’s star-making apparatus.
During the next decade, Hayden developed a prominent career as a film actor, even as his distrust for Hollywood ossified into outright contempt. “There’s nothing wrong with being an actor,” he later wrote, “if that’s what a man wants. But there’s everything wrong with achieving an exalted status simply because one photographs well and is able to handle dialogue put in one’s mouth by others.”
He averaged a salary of $150,000 a year and enjoyed sizable, and to his mind unearned, celebrity. Though he longed to cut and run, Hayden’s weaknesses—for money, for women, for booze—kept delaying his escape. By the early 1940s he had become a movie star, and he hated it.
World War II added another unlikely chapter to Hayden’s saga. Under a pseudonym, he ditched Hollywood to serve in the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor organization to the CIA. A desk jockey in neither spirit nor practice, Hayden spent the war working as an undercover agent, executing missions that included parachuting into fascist-held Eastern Europe and running the German naval blockade to deliver supplies to Yugoslav partisans. He came away from the experience with a hard-won admiration for Yugoslav revolutionary Josip Tito, an exacerbated drinking problem, and the conviction that the Army, like the Hollywood system, the government, and the workaday world, was bullshit.
Like many intelligent youths of iconoclastic tendency, Hayden for a period considered himself a Marxist. A clique of Hollywood leftists introduced him to the philosophy in the 1940s, and though the political convictions failed to stick, they left a trail of evidence thick enough to put Hayden at risk when Senator Joseph McCarthy began treating Hollywood to anti-Communist purges in the early 1950s.
Fearing for his freedom, Hayden opted to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He named names. The Feds let him walk, to a chorus of congratulations that he dismissed as “jingoistic drivel.”
He starred in more lousy movies; he married and divorced; he fought with his wife for custody of their children. He drank. By 1959 he had had enough. With a schooner purchased on loan from Paramount, and a tenuous legal claim to his four, elementary-school aged progeny, he set sail for Tahiti. His crew of soft-handed dreamers he had assembled from a want ad. On deck, he drank freely. Though he had planned to finance the voyage by making a documentary about his exploits, once at sea he ignored the $5,000 worth of camera equipment sitting in his hold and began to write Wanderer.
I first learned about Wanderer while listening to an interview with the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. He mentioned that he had kept Hayden in mind as the model for a character in his film Inherent Vice, an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name and an exploration, in part, of anti-authoritarian paranoia. Even in Anderson’s ten-second summary, Hayden’s life appeared to beggar belief. When I heard that Hayden had chronicled his own remarkable exploits, I sought out the book, which has drifted into and out of print since its original publication, and discovered a work as forthright, startling and contradictory as the man himself.
A florid, careening book, Wanderer begins with a burst of enthusiasm evidently bred from Hayden’s joy at having slipped free of Hollywood. “Poor wanderer,” he writes, “trapped in the greenbacked cradle of Outer Hollywood; laced in the straight jacket of the big time – big houses big salaries big fuss when you walk down the street big fuss as you check into hotels – big big big.”
Hayden’s blunt prose resembles that of Norman Mailer and John Fante, both of whom shared Hayden’s attraction to brusque, masculine romanticism. His talent shines with the greatest intensity in his scenes of dialogue, and in his precise, literary sketches. He describes a director as looking “important and confused, like a small town mayor.” Of the San Francisco Bay at dawn he writes, “a crust of yellow air hung over the endless square miles of housing tracts, resembling an acute case of acne on the ruddy cheeks of the valley.”
That these scenes and portraits fail to cohere into a larger narrative speaks to the manner of the book’s creation; Wanderer reads like it was assembled by a drunk because it was. Writing with the bottle as an almost constant companion, Hayden let his narrative slosh back and forth between his then-present-day exploits in Tahiti, his beloved youth at sea, and his dreaded years in the miasma of Hollywood.
The book begins in California, detours to Boston, washes up in New York, spends a louche idle in Los Angeles, then makes time for layovers in Tahiti, Yugoslavia and New Jersey. Hayden sails, seduces, acts, ponders, testifies and submits, for a cringe-worthy passage, to psychoanalysis. Like his trip to Tahiti, the book is “not so much a voyage as an act of defiance.”
Despite its formlessness, Wanderer nonetheless assumes narrative momentum as Hayden draws near the event that constitutes the book’s climax, and the defining moment of his own life—his testimony before HUAAC.
He avoids even mentioning that he turned stoolie for McCarthy until the final third of Wanderer. However, once the subject creeps into his narrative, it becomes clear that the four hundred pages leading up to it have been prelude.
The passages describing his testimony are grueling. Hayden tries to cheat his fate with lawyers, psychoanalysts (“You know, Mr. Hayden, there are times when alcohol, properly handled, can bring relief”), and stalling, but he ultimately caves. His willingness to sell out his fellows recasts the Thoreau-ian bombast with which he begins Wanderer. “In almost all countries,” he writes, “a man who collaborates with those who would punish freedoms arouses the hatred of his countrymen. And yet today, in the United States of America, the way to loyalty is this – down the muddy informer’s trail.”
Money and legal wrangling eventually recalled Hayden from his adventure in the South Pacific. Upon returning, he continued to act, but split his time between the movies and his boat. He made meandering voyages through the rivers of France and out into the Mediterranean. He drank and smoked pot and wrote, producing a 700-page nautical adventure novel at the age of fifty-four. When he ran out of money, he would do a couple of movies to replenish his bank account, then return to sea. It was during this era that he landed his most enduring roles, turning in brief, commanding performances as a corrupt police captain in The Godfather, and a deranged general in Dr. Strangelove. Despite remaining in steady demand well into his sixties, Hayden never quite acclimated himself to the idea of being an actor, and instead spent more and more time at sea, a mer-creature of freedom and constraint.
Wanderer expresses Hayden’s dilemma perhaps better than even its author realized. The vigor apparent in his performances animates the book as well. But in literature as in life, Hayden failed to direct that wellspring towards a single end, in this case adorning a listless narrative with periodic passages of brilliance.
Toward the end of his life, as the world and his role within it continued to disappoint, Hayden clung with ever-greater ferocity to his boat. “If I knew myself as well as I know this vessel,” he wrote, “I’d be of some use to this world.”
Shane Danaher is a writer and journalist. He lives in Brooklyn.
They sat on the linoleum floor, the two of them. His watch was the only thing moving. Through the small window above the sink the rising sun was bleaching the room white. The sound of a garbage truck, a man calling his dog, newspapers hitting doorsteps. Her long, bare legs were out in front of her, knees like turned down saucers. He loved her legs. Something he’d miss. Their backs on the kitchen cabinets, his arm so close to hers. They were tired, but more thirsty. A glass of water would change things, she thought, if he would just get up and get a glass of water.
Libby Flores is is a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine,The Rattling Wall, CODA Quarterly, and FLASH: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. She is the program manager at PEN Center USA’s Emerging Voices Fellowship.
The legend you’ve heard is true. A woman did live in this eyesore house and her sister did chop her cleanly in half with a sickle. They had quarreled for two years before the older one built the house next door, the front door facing the younger’s place, as if to say: Here is my face: spit in it, if you can reach. For years they lived as neighbors, never speaking, avoiding contact with each other, growing old in San Francisco until the younger turned twenty-six and old Daddy died and left her sister more than half. And then it happened: The “farming accident” in which she, the younger, chased her older sister through all twenty-one rooms, backed her into the parlor, sliced her body clean in two. There sure was a lot of farming that needed to be done at Bush and Octavia.
This is what we know about the older one:
She collected pigs, the murdered one. She had a pet pig named Mrs. Schwartz she took out walking on a leash like a dog.
She never liked to be alone. Is this why she comes back to visit?
She did not like the smell of wine or any sort of spirit, so if you happen to be celebrating, don’t stagger home on this block, find another street, unless you want to see that face, the Victorian woman, not yet thirty, drifting unquietly up and down the sidewalk. You may ask yourself, What kind of revenge is this? You call this justice? This eternal floating?
Look at this. I happen to have the key to the parlor. When I point it toward the house. (Hold my hand, it’s not a trick, it’s not the wind on this still night.)
See that? It turns.
Anne-E. Wood is a fiction writer. She has a BA in Dramatic Arts and English from Macalester College and an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University. Her collection Two If By Sea won the 2006 Michael Rubin Award. She has taught writing at San Francisco State University, Rutgers University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Gotham Writers’ Workshop and in homeless shelters, juvenile halls, public schools, and community centers all over the country. She currently lives in Brooklyn where she is at work on a novel.
Come hone your craft and get inspired with our Tin House Craft Intensives in Brooklyn! Master the micro-essay with Ann Hood in Flash Essay. Discover what you know about what you don’t know with Darcey Steinke in The Writer’s Journal. Plumb the depths of your writing’s mysteries with Alexandra Kleeman in The Unknown. And see things anew with Adam Wilson in You Down with POV? Yeah, You Know Me!.
Are you intense? Now accepting applications.
It’s a book
full of ghost children,
where dead means
or not wanting
to be known.
Heaven is symmetric
with respect to rotation.
when one thing changes
while another thing
remains the same.
“seen by humans.”
Rae Armantrout‘s books include Next Life, Up to Speed, and Versed, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent book is Itself (2015, Wesleyan University Press).
I find it by accident, pressed between two large volumes on the shelf. Though it has been over twenty-five years, I recognize it instantly: a mere sliver of a book, about half the size of an American trade paperback, with tan card-stock covers smudged from handling.
This is my copy of Yukiguni—in English, Snow Country—by Yasunari Kawabata, the first novel I ever read from start to finish in Japanese. I hold it up to my nose, breathe in the musty smell, and feel a terrible mourning for the loony stupidity of my youth. The feeling is so strong and so complicated, so full of what the Japanese call mono no aware, the sadness of things, that I can only stand there with the thin little volume in my hands, half wishing I hadn’t found it, half wanting to put it back.
Over the years, I’d come to think of myself as a failed student of Japanese: too soon frustrated, too easily distracted. But turning the pages of Snow Country, I am startled by the sheer amount of work I put into reading it. Notes are scrawled everywhere, in a childlike Japanese handwriting, and they contain almost no English. Rather than use a Japanese-English dictionary to look up the words I didn’t know, I’d limited myself to a regular Japanese dictionary and gotten the definitions in Japanese, which meant that here and there I was forced to branch off and define a word in the definition, too—again, without resorting to English. It was a purist’s semi-delusional procedure.
But then consider that I marked up my copy of Snow Country in a suburb of Tokyo, while living in a little six-mat room smelling sweetly of new tatami. I was a nineteen-year-old Japanese lit major who had never been so far from home, and I was both terrified and elated—the terror and elation sometimes hard to tell apart or disentangle, because I was also in love with everything around me: the local shrine with its stone steps and red gate, the trains clacking past, the smell of roasting chestnuts in autumn, the silvery drill of the cicadas at night. Of course, I fell in love with every woman I met, including my landlady, a widow in her sixties who would invite me in to eat red-bean cakes and watch the sumo matches on her black-and-white TV.
I channeled all that desire and that sense of being lost into learning Japanese, as if it were possible to slip into another life through another language. My notes focus only on grammar and vocabulary, the literal meaning of each sentence, but they seem to ache with an unspoken yearning. I didn’t simply want to understand the book: I wanted to be a part of the culture that had produced it, wanted to dream its collective dreams and share its secret codes—wanted to belong.
I probably don’t have to point out the absurdity of this wish. Japan was a pretty insular place back then, ambivalent about the outside world and uncertain about outsiders. Little kids would run from me on the street or, conversely, ask to touch my skin. There was no possibility of forgetting that I wasn’t Japanese, that I already had a history, a personality, a language, and a culture of my own. I couldn’t be somebody else, even if I didn’t like who I was.
But then again, don’t we ask for doomed and hopeless things from books all the time? Looking at my notes, I feel that incredible emotional hunger come back to me, and I realize that Japan showed me what books are truly for: they are laboratories for our contradictory desires.
So now, instead of putting Snow Country back on the shelf, I sit down and begin to read. The story comes back to me in a weird sort of stereo, as if I am simultaneously reading on the couch in my ramshackle house in North Carolina and reading by the window in my six-mat tatami room, and what I soon understand is that my nineteen-year-old self somehow chose a pretty apt book for that moment in his life, a book about loneliness and the wish for connection.
Snow Country takes place in the 1920s, in a Japan that is both traditional and poor, a country where women have few options outside of marriage, and a struggling family might be forced to sell a daughter as a geisha to cover its debts. The book’s point-of-view character is Shimamura, a wealthy Tokyo aesthete, the kind of guy who devotes himself to writing about the ballet, though he has never seen one. (In one extraordinary section worthy of W. G. Sebald, we also hear about his connoisseurship of Ojiya-chijimi, a fabric that can be woven only during the long winters by young girls with delicate fingers, who then lay it out in the snow to bleach, which gives it a pure cold whiteness perfect for summer kimonos.) Shimamura is thus someone we might meet in a play by Chekhov: self-aware, self-mocking, professing to be amused by his uselessness while secretly fearing the emptiness of his existence. A part of him wants to escape the bubble of privilege in order to really live, but all his instincts push him in the other direction, back to the safety inside his head.
At the opening of the story it is winter, and Shimamura has come to a hot-spring resort in the mountains—snow country—in search of Komako, a young woman with whom he had a brief affair during his last visit, six months before. He’s back because he sensed something genuine in her, something with enough charge to move him into the realm of feeling, but what he finds is that in his absence she has sold herself as a geisha in order to help pay the medical bills of a man she grew up with and was supposed to marry, though he left her for another woman. Komako’s sacrifice is an act of deep humanity, but Shimamura can understand it only in aesthetic terms, as a beautiful yet pointless gesture expressive of her spiritual purity—white and clean like the Ojiya-chijimi bleaching in the sun. They resume their affair, but in the end it proves pointless: Shimamura is incapable of real love. The two are left to their separate forms of loneliness, he in Tokyo, she in the mountains.
Sketching the story out like this, I realize it sounds deceptively familiar: the rich cad, the beautiful, doomed young geisha. But it reads as something completely fresh and new because of the deep particularity of the characters. Shimamura’s self-entrapment is plain to see—he is, you could argue, the worse off of the two because he is so completely estranged from his feelings and the reality of other people. Komako, by contrast, is fully, vibrantly alive. She is a wonderful character, utterly alone in that small mountain village, living in the attic of a farmhouse where silkworm cocoons were once stored, reading by candlelight for glimpses of the outside world she will never be a part of. She keeps a series of notebooks in which she writes the plots of everything she reads, all the characters and their connections, but nothing of her own opinions. “I could never do anything like that,” she tells Shimamura. She is only nineteen.
It is impossible for me to know now how deeply I understood Snow Country when I first read it, since I didn’t write down my opinions, either. I think I worried that I might be a little like Shimamura, as I suspected, even then, that the Japan I loved so much was a construct of my imagination more than an actual place. But reading it now, I feel so deeply for Komako, her loneliness, her desperation, and her bravery, that I can barely keep turning the pages. And then I see my nineteen-year-old self as a version of her, yearning to be saved from his isolation, and I feel pity for him, and forgiveness for what he put me through over the years.
Robert Anthony Siegel‘s novels are All Will Be Revealed and All the Money in the World. He has written on Japanese writers for The Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Ploughshares (where he also has a piece on being an unreliable Japanese tour guide). Other work has appeared recently in Bookforum and The Harvard Review.
Meg Storey: The Sleep Garden takes place mostly within an apartment complex called “The Burrow,” but a few characters do not exist in this space. Why did you choose to extend the story beyond the Burrow?
Jim Krusoe: The Sleep Garden is a combination of two elements. At first, all I wanted to do was to find an isolated stage a few characters could inhabit, a place that would let me learn who they were, and I thought of an underground dwelling that would be called “The Burrow.” But then, the whole time I was picturing them wandering around, doing this and that, I couldn’t stop thinking about the myth of Jason sowing dragon’s teeth, how he watched them spring up out of the ground as armed men. And this image of warriors born, fighting, then dying, all in a moment, seemed terrible and mysterious because, I guess, it is. It was only after I had fully populated the Burrow that I realized I also needed characters who lived outside the Burrow, ones who live in our world, to make a connection between the two places. It was this second set, the outsiders, who became the other half of the story of the dragon’s teeth.
MS: How did you decide on the vignette-based structure of the novel? What was it about this structure that appealed to you?
JK: I like it when books don’t reveal themselves all at once. Sometimes I think of The Sleep Garden as a collage that takes place over time so the connections between the parts aren’t always instantly apparent. In that way a reader can make his or her own connections, has to make a jump—as we jump when reading poems. Also, as with poems, the spaces between the sections become the great repositories for everything that is left unsaid but is still important.
MS: One character, Raymond, is obsessed with ducks—why ducks?
JK: It so happens the very first poem I ever learned was “I Saw a Ship A-Sailing,” which ends with a duck saying the words quack quack. At age three, I thought this was the funniest thing I had ever heard because it was duck language but, of course, was human language, too. Then, many years later, my son’s first word was duck. More to the point, I find a kind of innocence built into ducks; their round bills seem benign compared to the pointed beaks of other birds, and their webbed feet are the opposite of talons. Ducks are brave, too—not that they know it—flying those long distances through all kinds of weather. They make me happy.
MS: In this novel, you juggle different writing styles, from prose to letter writing to screenwriting. How did you decide which style was appropriate for different parts of the narrative? For example, there is the surreal, slightly absurd sitcom called Mellow Valley. Why did you want to include a sitcom?
JK: I didn’t want to include a sitcom. Mellow Valley was actually the single moment that worried me the most. On the one hand, the first episode was almost too much fun and easy to write, but afterward I wasn’t sure it could be blended into the rest of the story. I worried that it was going too far outside the narrative, whatever that was to be. The decision to hang with it—along with dreams, children’s books, letters to the editor, and adventure tales—forced me to stretch the boundaries of the envelope. And in the end The Sleep Garden is very much about how things that seem different on the surface are part of the same fabric. It’s about how, over time, out of everything we forget, important or frivolous, what remains becomes a single story with its parts assuming more or less equal weight.
MS: Your work is infused with an absurdist humor that provides some relief to what could be considered heavy themes and characters (death, the afterlife, psychotic former child actors). How do you approach the interweaving of existential questions and humor?
JK: I am very serious about the themes of this book. Humor allows us to stand back and watch scary events take place, but also to feel safe. We laugh because although it could happen to us, we don’t really believe it will. This may well be an overstatement, but l sometimes think all laughter is nervous, a sound we produce in order to separate ourselves from what’s out there that worries us, so humor is at once both distancing and intimate.
MS: The narrative alternates among characters’ points of view but at moments there does seem to be one overarching narrative voice that poses questions and offers observations. Whose voice is it?
JK: I suppose the voice is mine. Although I didn’t plan it, in retrospect it seems evident that with so many themes and elements, there had to be some faint but present steady narrator to hold things together. Nobody else was volunteering.
MS: What’s next?
JK: I’m working on a conspiracy novel that my son has pronounced “ethically challenged.”
Jim Krusoe is the author of the novels Parsifal, Toward You, Erased, Girl Factory, and Iceland; two collections of stories; and five books of poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. He teaches at Santa Monica College and lives in Los Angeles.
Meg Storey is an editor with Tin House Books and copy editor of Tin House magazine. She was a faculty member of the Summer Literary Seminars St. Petersburg, Russia, program in 2007 and 2008, and she currently teaches developmental editing in Portland State University’s publishing program and mentors participants of the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Her interview with the short-story writer Etgar Keret appeared in Tin House and her interviews with the novelist Sayed Kashua and graphic novelist Rutu Modan appeared in Words Without Borders. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon.
“Walter fired Polly,” Marsha said. “Because she wouldn’t let him kiss her.”
“Well, I wouldn’t let him either,” Sally said. “Good for her.”
“He caught her near the supply closet. Not a very original thinker.”
“I wonder if he really had hopes. Do you think he expected she would? That might mean that he got away with it once. Do we get paid today?”
They stopped there. When they got paid it was with with those hand-written checks, and they ran as fast as they could to his bank to cash them. There was never enough money to cover all the checks; sometimes only the first check drew money. But they were students working at anything they could get. It was hard to find jobs for a couple of hours here and there.
They came to work the next day only to find the office dark. Marsha and Sally stood outside the door, shifting from leg to leg. “They’ve picked him up, I’m sure of it,” Sally said. “He must owe everyone. I’m tired of answering the phone and saying he’s not here. And for some reason it feels worse when he tells me to say he’s out of the country.”
Marsha shook her head. “He’s his own country. When he’s not in the office, he’s officially out of the country.” She paused and considered what she’d said. “I got that mixed up somehow. I’ll figure it out later.”
They waited for an hour. At that point, the office secretary, Alice, showed up. “Ah, you haven’t heard?” she asked, though how they would have heard anything was beyond them. “He is dead, that man, he died from a knife wound. In the street. I keep the books so I know there’s no money to pay you; whatever there is must go to bury him.”
Marsha and Sally showed their shock and amazement, as was only proper, then went to a café to drink coffee and share a pastry. “Which one of us killed him, do you think?” Marsha asked. There were two other part-time employees.
“One of us?” Sally asked, dismayed. “You really think one of us would do it?”
“I hope so,” Marsha said, and took a sip. “I’ve been imagining it for months but it was only wishful thinking.” She put her cup down. “One of us is very brave.”
Sally shook her head. “And what makes you think it wasn’t just a random mugging? It happens all the time.”
Marsha sighed. “Where would be the justice in that?” she asked, sounding depressed. “I’ve been waiting for justice on lots of things now. For years and years.” She looked down at the crumbs of her pastry.
“Oh,” Sally said, thinking about it. Marsha had had bad luck all her life, all kinds of bad luck. And, really, it was generous of her, allowing someone else to feel the satisfaction of revenge. She pursed her lips and tilted her head to the side. “You know,” she said, “I really think it must have been Penny. It just makes sense. He insulted her and then he fired her.”
Marsha’s smile was enormous. She slapped the table lightly. “Let’s take her to lunch, just to say we know and we’ll never tell.” She began to go through her pockets and took out all the bits and pieces of money she had.
Reluctantly, Sally did the same. “We won’t get the final paycheck, you know,” she said unhappily. “Alice already told us. I can’t really afford anything.”
They paid for the coffee and pastry and put down a minuscule tip.
“Maybe not lunch,” Marsha said, after counting their combined resources twice. “But we’ll buy her a coffee. Just to show that we know.”
“And that we approve.”
“Of course we approve.”
“I really like Penny,” Sally said. “I’ve always liked her.”
“Really?” Marsha asked. “I found her annoying. She whistled.”
Sally nodded. “And she is, after all, a murderer.”
“The first killing is the only hard killing, I think.”
“Ah,” Sally said, putting an end to the question of coffee. “Ah.”
Karen Heuler writes both literary and speculative literature. Her stories have appeared in over 80 magazines and anthologies, from Alaska Quarterly Review to Kenyon Review to Weird Tales. She has received an O. Henry award, been a finalist for the Iowa short fiction award, the Bellwether award and the Shirley Jackson award for short fiction. The New York Times called her first short story collection “haunting and quirky’; Publishers Weekly included her second collection, The Inner City, in its Best Books of 2013 list. Her fourth novel, Glorious Plague, concerns a simply beautiful apocalypse.
Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. Up this week is Shawn Donley with Powell’s Books .
Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?
Shawn Donley: I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and like many small towns it was very inwardly focused. Books like Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days are what initially opened my eyes to the greater world and in the process created a life-long love of both travel and literature. I can still remember hopelessly trying to convince my Mom to let me spend summer vacation following in the footsteps of Phileas Fogg.
THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?
SD: There are so many memorable characters in literature (Humbert Humbert, Rabbit Angstrom, Patrick Bateman). They aren’t however, the kind of people who you’d really want to hang out with. I’d rather spend time with someone who is amusing, yet harmless, highly educated, but lacking in ambition. So a perfect day for me would be a bumbling tour of New Orleans with Ignatius Reilly. We’d wear matching green hunting caps and indulge in many Dr. Nut sodas and Paradise hot dogs.
THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?
SD: One of the great joys of bookselling is recommending books to others. Before I started working in a bookstore I never thought much about other people’s tastes, only in cultivating my own. But now after having spent the majority of my adult life surrounded my books, I ‘d say that recommending titles to friends, family, customers and acquaintances gives me as much pleasure as the reading itself. I’m rarely more than a few pages into a book before my mind starts thinking about who else would enjoy it.
THB: What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?
SD: My favorite book of 2015 was Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. He’s a lifelong surfer and a long-term staff writer for The New Yorker. Through this combination of talent and skill he is able to explain convincingly why so many surfers become obsessed with this sport. Finnegan writes especially well about the difficulty in balancing a consuming activity with the demands of work and family. You don’t need to be a surfer to enjoy Barbarian Days (though it may turn you into one).
THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?
SD: While most everyone has read The Little Prince at some point in their lives, few people I believe are aware of Saint-Exupéry’s other masterpiece, Wind, Sand and Stars. The book recounts his life as a pioneer aviator, flying harrowing airmail routes across the Andes and the Pyrenees. Both National Geographic and Outside magazine have chosen it as one of the best adventure books of all time. It is a book that perfectly captures his view on how to live a passionate life without compromises.
Shawn Donley is the New Book Purchasing Supervisor with Powell’s Books.
January 20th, 2000, The Netherlands
Believe it or not, nobody objected. Not one of us stood up in the bedroom and said, “Don’t kill him.” Neither did anybody else in the house for that matter, the cleaning lady, the unobtrusive nurse. We all accepted my father’s fate with eyes wide open and mouths shut. Imagine us grateful, if you can.
It was logical that the undertaker never made a fuss. He was accustomed to death and more, made a living from it. For him to say, “Don’t kill him” would be counterproductive. The minister would have objected, surely, if we had invited him that day. But the minister had only been welcome the previous day or the day before that—in the end I lost track. The man of God had come into the bedroom to bless my father’s second marriage, which hadn’t taken place in a church. My father’s second wife, a lapsed Catholic, imagined that the blessing would somehow console (save? validate?) her after her husband’s death. And perhaps it did. Who knows what luminous thoughts hold back the dark?
On a different day, before or after the blessing, my father picked out his coffin. Nobody objected to this either. An emaciated, bed-ridden man, fifty-three years old, flipping through folders, demanding prices. Strange, yes. Unjust, of course. But we accepted the situation, because taking control of his death sparked something inside my father we thought had long died. Now we saw he was not beaten. Not yet or not anymore. There was a niche, however small, in which he could be in charge, making decisions. As we planned the brief future together, we tried to match his manner by remaining light-hearted and rational. There would be a small-scale cremation and a large-scale memorial party. We would have balloons and mimosas! (But not with fresh orange juice or real champagne for that would be a waste of money.)
“All these sweet people,” my father said, “what a shame I can’t be there.”
Without too much effort, I could see my own mouth in his.
Naturally, our victory was short-lived. At the hour of truth, nerves ran every which way, but they ran invisibly. As nothingness approached, we kept our cool. We waited like Blue Helmets, peacekeeping soldiers, searching for meaning in the absurd. We wanted to fight but where were our weapons? I remember sighing under the weight of missing words.
The doctor arrived on time. She put her black bag on a wicker chair and explained the process calmly. First this, then that. We nodded like apt pupils. Two types of drugs through intravenous injections. Sleepiness. Breathing would cease and eventually the heart. Objections did not exist; they were wiped off our planet along with our hopes for his survival. Did anyone offer the doctor a cup of tea?
We took our places. The wife pulled up a stool and claimed her husband’s head. She would share the head and the left hand with their twelve-year-old son. I formally requested my father’s right hand and climbed on top of the marital bed. My brother made do with a foot. As did my grandmother. She would object years later, softly and confused, though not about the foot. When her son was already ill, she had lost her daughter to cancer in the U.S. She had witnessed the slow, bitter demise from wakefulness into morphine coma. Was her son’s speed date with death any better?
Yes, grandma, I would tell her, it was better. He was in pain, physically and mentally, and he wanted out. Not wanting to be cared for like a baby. Not wanting to be rushed to a hospital for an emergency. Not wanting death to carry him off when we weren’t there. And we were there, remember? Wanting what he wanted. We could have objected, I suppose, we could have said, “Don’t kill him” but we knew he would have died anyway. Our objection would not have changed the inevitability of his death. Only the hour.
With all of us in place, holding his limbs, stroking his hair, the doctor asked my father a question in a gentle yet clear voice, the voice of an angel. “Are you ready?”
We are free to choose yet not free to avoid choice.
Yes, he was ready. But wait. Don’t forget the glasses. He took them off and put them on the side table. It was the last thing he did before he said he loved us. The glasses were smudged. They would not need to be cleaned.
Time slowed, stood still, took up again, and having lost its relevance now, it was anyone’s guess how much of it went by. Let’s say: the moment lasted a while.
Did we look at each other or at the instruments the doctor took out of her bag? Did we stare into the dying man’s eyes to witness his fall into timelessness? After my father closed his eyes, I kept mine on the artery in his neck, and watched how it pulsed and pulsed, slower now, and weaker, but with a discernible beat, until his heart finally stopped.
Again, nobody objected.
We sat there quietly, in grief and gratitude, as though killing someone was the last gift you could grant that person in life, and of course it was.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author of four novels. Her prose in English has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, Hobart, Folio, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere. She has recently finished her first novel in English. She lives in Paris, but you may find her find her at @clairepolders or http://www.clairepolders.com.
I came to Tove Jansson’s work late in life and in a backward fashion. Most people familiar with the Finnish author and illustrator know her as the creator of the Moomins, a family of hippopotamus-like creatures first introduced in a children’s book series in 1945 and then adapted for a comic strip. The tales of the Moomins and their fantastical journeys through Moominvalley are something of a cult classic and I’m sad to have missed them in my youth.
Lesser championed are Jansson’s novels for adult readers, which do not feature fantastical beings but, instead, follow the lives of very real humans. After spotting her 1972 novel, The Summer Book—a slim volume with a muted, pastel cover with the silhouette of an island in its center—on display at a local bookstore, I decided to give this author I’d never heard of a shot.
The opening chapters have a flash-fiction feel: they are short, choppy, and do not appear to be linear. But as you continue to read, you realize they’re linked vignettes of life on an isolated island, the story of a cheeky grandmother and her precocious granddaughter, Sophia. (The young girl’s mother is dead and her father is relegated to the background.) The two, each the other’s primary companion, while away the hours amid the fauna and marshes of their seasonal home, moving between simple conversation and that which delves deeper:
The sun had climbed higher. The whole island, and the sea, were glistening. The air seemed very light.
“I can dive,” Sophia said. “Do you know what it feels like when you dive?”
“Of course I do,” her grandmother said. “You let go of everything and get ready and just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown, and the water’s clear, lighter toward the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.”
The funny thing about Jansson’s books is that while they contain a darkness, the prose is light and spacious. Emotionally, philosophically, the words have weight, but they flow through your mind with ease. The same is true for the psychology of the characters. There is a heaviness to their inner workings, but Jansson manages to create levity through her use of dark humor.
It was after picking up her 1982 novel, The True Deceiver, that I noticed the recurring themes of nature and community. Both play central roles in her work—even in the Moomin books, which I then read as well. In her stories, seasonal changes, landscapes, and the surrounding community—or lack thereof—are more important than plot.
Finland is very much an enigma to me. What little I know about its citizens comes from bite-sized facts—some fun, like the Finns’ massive coffee consumption (according to data gathered in 2008, the average Finn consumes roughly twenty-six pounds of coffee a year, much more than his American counterpart, who averages 9.25 pounds), and some tragic, like their suicide rate. But one of the more intriguing qualities of this northern country is what Jansson’s work taps into, its odd patterns of light and darkness and rapid weather changes, with most of the country icebound in winter. Finland’s northernmost territory experiences sixty consecutive days of full sunlight, something called the Polar Day. Conversely, during another part of the year, it has Polar Night: full darkness for fifty-one days.
In The Summer Book and The True Deceiver, weather patterns are integral to the tone of the story and influential in the psychology of the characters. In the latter, winter forces the inhabitants of a small village to remain indoors, so much so that even business slows; the continuous snowfall creates an “imprecise darkness that was neither dusk nor dawn, and it depressed people.” Whereas in the former, the summer climate allows much of the story to be set outside and the characters take full advantage of the opportunity to explore the surrounding nature. Both stories begin by placing the reader in the season:
It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colors everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rain forest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. (The Summer Book)
It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling. No window in the village showed a light. . . . It had been snowing along the coast for a month. As far back as anyone could remember, there hadn’t been this much snow, this steady snow piling up against doors and windows and weighing down roofs and never stopping even for an hour. Paths filled with snow as quickly as they were shoveled out. The cold made work in the boat sheds impossible. People woke up late because there was no longer any morning. (The True Deceiver)
Each novel begins in one season and ends as another encroaches (should Jansson blend winter and summer into one book, her characters’ personalities would have to flip halfway through, since who they are is so bound up in the season):
Every year, the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great, warm silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin. There are no stars yet, just darkness. (The Summer Book)
When reading Jansson’s work, something else will jump out at the reader—something, arguably, precipitated by remote locations and extreme weather. Contradicting what many of those living in large cities believe about small-town life, Jansson is unsentimental about neighborly relations. While one might associate small villages with hominess—a neighbor popping in for a cup of sugar or flour—part of Jansson’s charm, and humor, is her characters’ ambivalence to those around them.
In The Summer Book we learn that “the family had one friend who never came too close, and that was Eriksson. He would drive by in his boat, or he would think about coming but never get around to it. There were even summers when Eriksson came nowhere near the island and didn’t even think about it, either.”
And while The True Deceiver takes place in a village with neighbors and shopkeepers, the characters’ isolation is largely due to the winter weather, which keeps them at home. In Finland, temperatures can dip below -20°F, with a frigid -50°F not entirely unheard of.
In winter, the men in Västerby worked only in mild weather to save on fuel, and the boat shed closed before dark to save electricity. . . . If it got really cold, it didn’t make sense to go on working. The shed wasn’t insulated, and the stove was barely able to warm it enough to keep their hands from stiffening. They locked it up and went home.
As readers work their way through these two novels, observing the dance of nature and human psychology, Jansson offers a study in extremes. While one person cannot speak for an entire nation, Jansson’s Finland resonates, sticks to your bones and rattles them. With her passing in 2001, the world lost a great Nordic storyteller. We should consider ourselves lucky to have the books she’s left behind.
Gabrielle Gantz works in publishing and is the blogger behind The Contextual Life. Her interviews have appeared on The Rumpus.