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Early on in Happy Mutant Baby Pills, author Jerry Stahl invokes Naked Lunch—a nervy move, I thought, since what book, what writer, could weather the comparison? Jerry Stahl can. Stahl’s supercharged prose, his black humor, and his dexterity in eviscerating the most toxic detritus of pop culture make his books some of the wildest rides since Burroughs. In Happy Mutant Baby Pills, Stahl follows Lloyd, a junkie with a perverse knack for penning pharmaceutical fine print. When Lloyd meets his romantic/psychotic counterpart in Nora, passive-aggressive greeting card writer, they embark on a trip through an amped-up landscape of modern discontent, with stops in Occupy LA and Christian dating site offices and every seedy bus stop along the way. It’s a totally deranged ride—and one I highly recommend.
I talked via email with Stahl about nuclear-grade testosterone supplements, CSI, and life in an age when, as Lloyd says, “What doesn’t kill us, just makes us us.”
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: Nora and Lloyd seem to me represent both the symptoms and the cure for the addled cultural moment they inhabit; as a sarcastic greeting card writer and a side-effects/dating-website copy guy, no one is more conversant in feel-good corporate doublespeak than the two of them, but they’re also deeply, sometimes furiously, critical of the cultural sludge in which they’re trafficking. Am I right in imagining there’s some of you in Lloyd and Nora this way? Where would you place yourself on that continuum from disgruntled consumer to man behind the curtain?
Jerry Stahl: What strikes me is how subtly this pharma-language has crept into the general vocabulary. To the point where people discussing their lack of bowel control or genital malfunctions in commercials has now become the norm. I guess, my spot on the continuum is a bit off-center. I would describe myself as a fan. At this point, I confess to preferring the poetry of catheter advertisements to John Ashbery – though this says more about me than the great Mr. Ashbury.
EKH: And a related question: do you think Nora and Lloyd are characters distinctly of our particular moment in time, characters who could only exist now? Are their grievances ones that are new, or ones that would have their analogs in earlier eras?
JS: I’m sure alienation and disengagement from the quote-unquote mainstream are as old as civilization. What makes Nora and Lloyd of our time is the particular bent of their disenchantment. You know, Job would have been given anti-depressants had they been around in Yahweh days – or else he’d have copped some dope or Mollys to handle the stress.
EKH: For me, one of the chief pleasures of Happy Mutant Baby Pills is its brilliance at a language level with all the great rhetorical flotsam of Monsanto and Christian dating profiles and the Occupy movement, and especially the stuff of our modern pharma-wonderland. (Maybe I was pre-disposed here; my mom is a psychologist, and I grew up in a house stocked with freebie Effexor pens and Rozerem wall clocks and squeezable rubber Abilify brains. I used to make sad-to-happy face flipbooks out of pads of Prozac sticky notes.) What appeals to you in playing with this particular sick vernacular?
JS: Pharma-toys for Tots! What could be better. Getting you primed for baby’s first anti-psychotic. I’m sure if Joseph Goebbels had the opportunity, he’d have passed out Auschwitz sno-globes to Polish mayors. Along with the requisite Bergen-Belsen pens and Lebensraum fridge magnets.
I don’t even know that it’s ‘vernacular.’ This is our language now. Side-effects are like selfies – something conceptually unheard of in earlier decades. Back in the 50s, you would have never expected the promoters of SERUTAN – “That’s Nature’s, spelled backwards!” – to end their spots with warnings of bleeding eyeballs or occasional night-drools. But now side effects are part of the package. But it’s not just the language that commands attention. It’s the ellipses: the unspoken, as well. The assumptions underneath the words. For example, the assumption behind Axiron, a testosterone supplement you smear in your armpit, is that, to grow more muscle mass and look more manly at 53, it’s worth the risk of stroke or inducing pubic hair in a two-year-old you accidentally touch with the shit. The trade-off, or some version thereof, is implicit in all pills with these morbidly festive side effects. But it isn’t openly discussed – it’s assumed. Like Count Basie said, ‘it’s the notes you don’t play that count.”
The writers of this material know exactly what they do not have to say. They don’t have to persuade – they just, by law, have to warn. The subtext is simple: if you want to feel better, just take all this stuff that is going to make you feel horrible and possibly kill you. And people don’t think twice. On some level, this is all you need to know about America.
EKH: How did you conceive of the structure of Happy Mutant Baby Pills? Lloyd’s trajectory here is one I could never have foreseen—but then such is the nature of world in which he lives. Still, I wonder if you were as surprised as Lloyd and I both were to find him, say, executing murder-by-paperclip in a bus station bathroom?
American Indians make up only 1% of the United States population, but faux images of us abound in pop culture. From Pocahontas to Tonto to Dances With Wolves to the use of cartoon faces of Indians as mascots, inauthentic portraits of Native people fill the big and small screen, and were once common in books. Fortunately, there’s a growing body of literature written about Indians by Indians, all with the power to transport readers into the real world of Native people. As a citizen of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma and a former practitioner of federal Indian law, I know how much our lives are shaped by the histories of our tribal communities and the federal government’s laws and policies regarding tribes and Indian people. The full and authentic representation of Indian people—the good and the bad, the tragic and the hopeful—is represented in the incredible poems and stories written by Native people today.
If you’re interested in reading kickass fiction, poetry and memoir that leans experimental and incorporates myth, traditional stories, and non-linear story structure, take a look at the following books. The first four include authors you may already be familiar with, and the following eight are writers you’d do yourself a favor to get to know. Because tribal citizenship is important to Indian people, I’ve included each author’s tribal affiliation.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Spokane Indian): No list of American Indian fiction, short stories or poetry would be complete without Sherman Alexie, whose work has the ability to make most people laugh and cry – often on the same page. Of everything he’s written, The Absolutely True Diaries of a Part-Time Indian, an autobiographical Young Adult novel, is probably my favorite. In it, he tells the story of Junior, a cartoonist and basketball player growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. When Junior leaves his troubled reservation school to attend an all-white farm town high school (where the only other Indian is the mascot), he must confront race, class, death, and the strong pull of “home” — all the while struggling to exist in two worlds. (Side note: Alexie is a must-follow on Twitter; he’s snarky and irreverent and will have you falling out of your chair with laughter.)
The Round House (P.S.) and Love Medicine (P.S.) by Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians): Two novels by Louise Erdrich are particularly special to me. The Round House, which won the National Book Award for Fiction for 2012, follows 13-year-old Joe, an Ojibwe Indian residing on a reservation in North Dakota, in the aftermath of his mother’s brutal rape and beating by a non-Indian on land near the tribe’s ceremonial grounds. It’s a gripping novel with vivid and original characters, and is considered one of Erdrich’s most accessible novels. It’s a coming of age story about love, justice, family, culture, and history.
Love Medicine is Erdrich’s first novel and was originally published in 1984. The book explores 60 years in the lives of Ojibwa Indians living on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. A different character narrates each chapter, and the large array of characters and their familial connections can be a dizzying but beautiful experience. Thankfully, Erdrich includes a family tree at the beginning of the novel, which aids the reader in keeping track of the array of characters and familial connections. Themes include cultural identity, the impact of federal Indian policy, and Native spirituality.
Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo (Mvskoke/Creek): This is the story of Joy Harjo’s journey to becoming a poet and musician. In it, Harjo guides the reader on a non-linear path through myth, mirth, and survival, from pre-birth to Harjo’s salvation through poetry and art. Harjo structures the book using the American Indian concept of “four directions,” common among a number of tribes, and which symbolizes the totality of the universe. East represents the direction of “sunrise” and “beginnings”; North, the direction of “difficult teachers” and “cold wind”; West, “the direction of endings”; and South, where “release,” “fire” and “creativity,” are found.
Harjo writes, “I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you.” She begins writing poems, and uses them to survive the panic, alcohol, monsters, and dreams that threaten her existence. “It was the spirit of poetry,” she writes, “who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.”
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo): Ceremony, published in 1977, was the first novel by an American Indian woman to be published in the United States. Set on the same Laguna Pueblo reservation where she grew up, this novel is a wonderful mix of Pueblo myth, spirituality, and imagination. It tells the story of Tayo, an army veteran who returns to his reservation after World War II. Silko takes the reader through Tayo’s journey from drinking away his sorrows and rage towards his Indian past as he fulfills his quest to cure himself of mental anguish and bring rain back to his community.
When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz (Fort Mohave and Gila River): “I write hungry sentences,” Natalie Diaz once explained in an interview, “because they want more and more lyricism and imagery to satisfy them.” Diaz achieves this and more in her debut book of poetry, a 2012 Lannan Literary Selection and a 2013 Pen/Open Book Award shortlist. In it, she experiments with form, from couplets to parts, lists to prose poems. Her poems include a diabetic grandmother without legs, a brother returned from Iraq and suffering an addiction to crystal meth, the families that are torn apart by war and bigotry towards American Indians, and the landscape of the reservation. Formerly a professional basketball player, Diaz now lives at home, on the reservation, where her day job is preserving the Mohave language.
Ledfeather by Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet Nation): The Ledfeather, set on the Blackfeet Indian reservation, follows the life of one Indian boy, Doby Saxon, through the eyes of the people in his community who witness it, and the boy’s connection to an Indian Agent who served the U.S. government over a century before. Told by multiple narrators and in a disjointed structure, the book demands focused and intelligent reader. Ultimately, it’s a story about life, death, love and the power of a single moment. This book is the coolest I’ve read in a long time because of the way that Jones meshes the two storylines. In addition to books on American Indians, Jones also writes experimental, horror, crime and science fiction.
The Hiawatha by David Treuer (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe): David Treuer’s second published novel, The Hiawatha, is about an American Indian family who migrate to Minneapolis in 1961 as part of the federal government’s relocation program, which was designed to move Indians from reservations into urban areas, with the goal of assimilating them into the dominant culture. It’s a portrait of one Ojibwa family’s struggle with poverty, violence and racism, and the quest for the American dream. Treuer’s sentences are exquisite, and the backdrop of relocation is an important historical component that affects Native people to this day.
Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation): Published in 2002, Perma Red is set during the 1940s and focuses on Louise White Elk, a character modeled after Earling’s own aunt Louise, and the people of the Flathead Indian Reservation who are constant in her life. The story, told in alternating perspectives and in first and third person, blends past and present, memory and perception to create a dreamlike quality that many, including Sherman Alexie, have compared to Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.
The Dance Boots (Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction) by Linda LeGarge Grover (Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe): The Dance Boots, published in 2010, is a collection of linked stories about an Ojibwe community grappling with the legacy of Indian boarding schools, the preservation of indigenous traditions in a changing society, alcoholism, violence, and the beauty of family. The book won the 2009 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2011 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. It’s an important piece of work, and showcases the profound disruption that the boarding schools caused in the lives of many Indian people.
Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan (Chickasaw Nation): Mean Spirit is set in Oklahoma during the oil boom of the early 1920s and focuses on two Osage Indian families, the Blankets and the Grayclouds. It opens with the murder of Grace Blanket, owner of oil-rich land. The killing is the first of many, as white men try to steal the Indians’ oil-rich land and personal fortunes. Mean Spirit reads like a thriller (with elements of magical realism) but achieves so much more: it is an exploration of the consequences of the U.S. government’s assimilation policies towards American Indians and the atrocities committed against them, while U.S. officials looked the other way.
Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe (Choctaw Nation): Shell Shaker, winner of the 2002 American Book Award, interweaves two tales of murder involving Choctaw political leaders, one in the mid 18th century and the other in 1991, both connected through the Billy family. The title comes from a Choctaw ceremony in which a “shell shaker,” a female dancer with empty shells tied around her feet, dances and prays to spirits to carry out a request. Themes of family, connection to land and spirits, and the circular notion of time and nature permeate this beautiful novel.
Night Sky, Morning Star (00 Edition) by Evelina Zuni Lucero (Isleta/Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo): Night Sky, Morning Star is the story of a family: artist Cecelia Bluespruce, a successful sculptor and potter, who is secretly troubled by dreams and shadows of her past; Cecelia’s grown son, Jude, who seeks the father he’s never known; and political activist Julian Morning Star, imprisoned twenty years for a crime he did not commit. Set within an Indian community, it’s the familiar story of family reconciliation, but it’s also a reflection on unresolved historical trauma that will cling to the reader long after the book has been read. Night Sky, Morning Star is the winner of the 1999 First Book Award for Fiction from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas.
Shelby Settles Harper holds a Juris Doctor from the University of Colorado, a Master of Arts in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, and is a citizen of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma. Her work can be found in Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine (March 2013), Bethesda Magazine (July/August 2013), So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art (November 2013), Defying Gravity: An Anthology of Washington, DC Area Women (January 2014), and Gargoyle Magazine #61 (2014). Shelby lives with her husband and three children in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, where she writes for the parenting blog Red Tricycle about family-friendly adventures in the nation’s capitol.
The cab pulled up outside Gerhard’s, and I paid the driver. Sophie pulled me close and pressed her wet face to mine. I didn’t understand what was happening. I stepped from the cab and waited for her to follow me out. Then the door closed, and she was gone. I hadn’t heard her say anything to the driver, and I didn’t know where he was taking her. I was too surprised to do anything but stand in the rain, watching her go.
Inside, Max sat watching his movie. It might have been his second time through since we’d left, or his third.
“Beware the pathetic fallacy,” he said, when he saw me dripping in the doorway. “Attend to the weather in your heart.”—Christopher Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): It’s dark and wet and freezing in New York right now. I want to be in California. I also, evidently, want to be in an outlaw motorcycle gang. I have been marathoning old episodes of Sons of Anarchy, my vice-iest vice since I was addicted to Californication, probably for similar reasons. I’m three seasons and about 12 separate gang wars, 8 inside jobs, 70 incidents of unfortunate collateral damage, and a baby-napping in so far. I hear an Ashley Tisdale cameo as a prostitute is still to come. All this, plus the sunny hills of northern CA!
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House): I’ve been tuning into Serge Gainsbourg these past weeks, songs that are bluesy and haunting and full of a particular swing. Celebrated and prolific singer, songwriter, poet, actor and director, Gainsbourg wrote the duet, “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus” in 1967 for his girlfriend, superstar Brigitte Bardot, but the version that became temendously famous was the one sung with the inimitable Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg’s companion and muse and paramour for many years in the 1970s. The video for “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus” is classic Parisian cool and the song is a swoon-inducing ballad that makes the winter day a little bit brighter, less bitter cold.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant, Tin House): I’m hooked on Nic Pizzolato’s new HBO’s anthology show True Detective. The cinematography and direction make Louisiana look gorgeous and threatening (That burnt-out church, right? Right?), and the music is the scariest kind of blues. Matthew McConaughey’s dark, depressed, deeply cynical Rustin “Rust” Cohle lets monologues as dark and slow as tar pour out of his mouth, and although I always want to agree with him, I’m often glad that Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart is there to call him on his bullshit. It manages to undercut the show’s pretentiousness, which is good, because it’s toeing that line in almost every scene. I’m still not convinced that it’s all going to come together, but it’s an anthology show, so it’s nice to at least know the season will be self-contained. Even if it ends up being half fluff, at least it’s pretty, and even if it was just the scenes of Matthew McConaughey drinking a sixer of Lone Star in a “Big Hug Mug” koozie, during a police interview for an hour every week, I’d watch it.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer, Tin House): I just got back from a family vacation where a sort of Iron Chef law was established (a theme ingredient was chosen for every dinner). Each night, I took my place behind the bar and concocted a cocktail to match. To complicate matters, I was also tasked with creating a virgin version for my pregnant cousin, for whom the following drink is named. It’s perfect paired with mango salsa and ahi (preferably seared).
3ish ounces Coconut Rum (2 ounces if you’re a lightweight)
2ish ounces Mango (puréed)
1 ounce Fresh Lime Juice (about 1 Lime)
Stir together Rum, Mango, and Lime Juice. Pour into a stemmed glass (I like snifters because of Rear Window). Top with Soda.
(For Virgins, combine 4 ounces Mango, 1 ounce Lime Juice, and 1 ounce Simple Syrup. Top with Soda.
It had been raining snakeskins for days. The cool air dried them on the parched earth, and the wind sent them floating into the night like paper lanterns. In the morning we found hundreds of them hanging like fragile ribbons from the trees in our yards.
These snakes were imposters, giant pythons from other lands. They were netted in jungles, plucked from nests when no bigger than worms, and sold here as pets. That was neat. That was exotic. But in a matter of months they grew too big for their tanks. They tipped them over with the weight of their bodies—like muscled arms, and found refuge in our murky swamps. They grew fat on deer and our largest gators. But it wasn’t until a single skin the size of a bed sheet was found fluttering from a telephone wire that an official call was made.
The snakes were hunted by canoe and kayak. They were lassoed to the surface of brackish water—their hides punctured with spears, and curled into coolers to stifle the smell. They were dragged back to shore in the dead of night. We lit fires and watched as hundreds of them were tossed into pits, for counting in the morning.
After it was over we carried torches back to the swamp and ringed the water’s edge with light. We pried open rusty beach chairs. There was singing and chanting—the drumming of knees. Someone pointed to Pisces, but clouds crept in and blocked the stars before the rest of us could see. We didn’t care. We stared up at nothing until our eyes ached. It felt like eons ago. When the singing stopped, we told stories—ghostly tales of ancient beasts that crept from oceans on sprouted limbs, in search of something nameless.
Sara C. Thomason holds an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She was awarded second prize in the 2012 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest, and she has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train. This is her first publication.
The Open Bar is now accepting submissions for a new feature, Flash Fidelity: Non-Fiction in 1000 Words or Fewer. Submissions to The Open Bar may be sent in the body of an email or as an attachment, with the category of the submission in the subject line, to email@example.com.
This week, Tin House Reels offers up the animal-frenzied dance party that is Jordan Bruner’s The Leaf Woman and the Centaur. Bruner’s work, which ranges from advertisements for major brands to full length films to animated poems, tends to bring small elements together into an intricate motion that celebrates community.
The Leaf Woman and the Centaur is the first episode in her series about creation myths. Bruner writes that the film is “a stop-motion animation that looks to reconcile [creation myths—and to value] the act of experiencing the story as their central component. In the same way that Paradise Lost articulated the felix culpa (beneficial fall of man), or Dante’s Inferno explored our ethical and spiritual scaffolding, The Leaf Woman and the Centaur will use the same basic tropes present in every creation myth to emphasize the value of an ancient experience that died with the cold logic of words.”
It is a particularly sensually engaging film. Puppets reminiscent of Eric Carle’s illustrations but more speckled in their fleshy bodies fight, embrace, and cover the earth with their seeds. Bruner made the film by building small puppets out of watercolor paper and wire, filming them in stop-motion with Dragonframe and compiling the whole with After Effects.
Jordan Bruner is an animation director living in Brooklyn, NY. Jordan has worked with clients including Linda McCartney Foods, Friskies, and Etsy, collaborated with bands ranging from the Mountain Goats to Paramore, and shown her short films in festivals all around the world. In amongst creating 2D and Stop Frame animations, Jordan finds time to paint, collect hologram paintings, and be part of a bowling team. She wishes she had a mascot, so please get in contact if you’d like to apply for the position.
FuturePerfect created the musical score.
Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.
We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also send us a file directly.
Rumor had it that breakfast at the World Bank’s cafeteria wasn’t as good as breakfast at the IMF’s cafeteria, even though both were made by Marriott from identical recipes and ingredients. The debate was, of course, not about breakfast at all; it was about the participants in the debate, a select group in the twin organizations, where breakfast wasn’t popular, since most people took it at home. Joining the debate indicated you were prepared to take at least two of your daily meals at the office, which suggested ambition.
William Hamilton, the United States’ executive director at the World Bank, pioneered the breakfast argument. In a memo circulated among the executives of both organizations, he claimed to have conducted a taste test of both cafeterias’ biscuits n’ gravy (chosen because “it requires the most skill to pull off well”). He concluded, “Unfortunately, the Fund’s cafeteria kicked our behinds!”
At the time, Paul Wolfowitz was six months into his term as president of the Bank. Wolfowitz had reportedly never had breakfast at either cafeteria, but he circulated the only response, jokingly calling Hamilton a “turncoat,” and saying that “any good economist knows how to read the data in a way to get a favorable result!”
After the memo exchange, Hamilton—who’d worked with Wolfowitz at the Pentagon—made a daily show of going across the street to the Fund’s cafeteria for breakfast. Wolfowitz, meanwhile, continued to forgo the meal.
On days like the one in question, when there were protests on Nineteenth Street, Hamilton used the tunnel connecting the two buildings’ parking garages. Due to the low attendance at breakfast and the odd arrangement of the Fund’s cafeteria—a labyrinthine warren of interconnected and irregularly shaped rooms, none of which had windows—Hamilton often had a room to himself.
According to rumor, he ate two eggs, two sausages, and an English muffin, but Tuesday was salmon cake day and he always treated himself to one.
“Oh yes. It’s definitely better,” he said, when Vincenzo sat down and asked if there really was a difference. “But my cholesterol, I don’t even want to think about it.” Hamilton was a stout man, physically conspicuous. Though mostly bald, a blond cirrus adorned the peak of his shiny dome. He had jovial eyes, an affable way, and looking at him up close, this early, Vincenzo’s antagonism dimmed a little.
Still, he wanted to limit the banter; he was considering calling his daughter Leonora. If she answered and he heard crowds, he’d know she had gone to the protests that were raging outside today. If he heard the clacking and caterwauling of a train, he’d know she’d left, had gone back to New York, as promised. If she didn’t answer, he’d have to decide what to think. It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. “You wanted to talk to me about something?”
“I wanted to talk about Bolivia. You heard about the poll?” He forked a mouthful of salmon cake into his mouth and chewed slowly.
“I did. So, why did you want to see me?” Of course, he knew why and was just being difficult. A new poll of the presidential race in Bolivia put Evo Morales, the indigenous socialist candidate, a former coca-farmer with an eighth-grade education, with a strong lead. The results were a surprise to everyone, no doubt to Evo himself.
As the liaison from the U.S., Hamilton worked for the State Department, and he had presumably been asked to persuade the World Bank’s management—namely Vincenzo, vice president in charge of Latin America—to cut aid to Bolivia if Morales kept his campaign promises.
“You know that he intends to seize foreign-owned gas refineries?” Hamilton snorted. “He’ll kick out foreign investors, increase the production of coca. It’s going to be their number one crop.”
“Isn’t it already—” Vincenzo said, but he didn’t bother completing that thought.
“He’ll cut off gas to Chile. It’d be a disaster for the continent.”
“Well, let’s not get carried away. Cut off their gas?”
“He’ll spike the price.”
“They pay market, and if the price drifted up a few cents, that would have no real effect on BOP, right?” Vincenzo didn’t actually believe this argument, but it would do.
Hamilton’s eyes widened. He had apparently used a dull razor that morning, his skin was speckled with razor burn, and the blood had stained the ridge of his starched white collar a rusty brown. “I’m just asking what you plan to do if Evo does this shit.”
“Well . . .” Vincenzo frowned, shrugged. He waved a hand, as if to dispel the rest of his incomplete thought.
“If Evo makes a scene, you’re going to cut, right?”
“This sounds like a political issue more than an economic one, so I don’t think I’d do anything.” He was playing with semantics now, the last refuge of an ill-equipped debater. “You should put it to the executive board.” Vincenzo knew that the board would not be discussing Bolivia again for another ten months, and that Hamilton might not be able to gather enough votes, anyway.
“He’s kicking out foreign gas companies on day one, apparently. We can’t wait.”
“If I cut Bolivia off, I’ll have to cut off Venezuela, too—because they’re just as bad. Are you saying you would have no problem if the Bank took action against oil-saturated Venezuela?”
“Goddamn it, Vincenzo. Forget it. Let’s just let it go.” Hamilton’s lips pressed shut, white with pressure. Vincenzo knew that, despite his vulgarity, Hamilton was more or less within his purview—he wasn’t demanding action.
Then, in an unfortunate step in the direction of absolutes, Hamilton said, “As I interpret it, you’re not going to touch Bolivia no matter what Evo Morales does.”
“If you and the board vote to change the Bank policy in Bolivia—”
“In ten fucking months!”
“Yes, if—in ten fucking months—you can get enough votes to change the policy, I will impliment the new policy, but I don’t think that this demonstrates egregious malfeasance”—he made a point of using a direct phrase from the Bank’s written policy—“that would require an intrusion from—”
“You axed an eighty-million-dollar tranche in Brazil last month!”
“Completely different!” Vincenzo snapped. “A failed subsidy!” He paused and took a breath. He was becoming truly angry, too, now, too angry to continue, too angry not to continue. “I didn’t cut it because the president of Brazil was saying George W. Bush is an asshole. Personally, I don’t think the Bank should become an instrument for Condoleeza Rice to coerce or bribe favorable policies from poor countries.”
And, although this had seemed like just another jagged point to score in an already jagged argument, when Vincenzo almost immediately realized this marked a key transition. They’d strayed far outside the implicit boundaries of these conversations, and he’d led them there.
When Hamilton put his fork down and said, “You better watch yourself,” Vincenzo knew the conversation was approaching its endgame. All of the major decisions had been made.
“Are you threatening me?” Vincenzo hoped he came off amused, not furious.
Hamilton shrugged, had a sip of coffee.
“If Wolfowitz calls me about this I will go directly to the Washington Post,” Vincenzo said, which was rash, irrevocable, and signaled a definitive transition into endgame.
Vincenzo had been playing chess with Walter at least three days a week for ten years and he’d found that the mid-game was the key to speed chess. At that pace, the opening was all reflex and the endgame was often averted either by a forfeit or time running out, so all the real strategy took place in the middle. One player usually made a fatal mistake in the middle, some apparently innocuous move. And if conversations were most like speed chess in that they were a rapid-fire negotiation of surprising, changing terms, with formalities up front and closing remarks at the end, then the outcomes of conversations were also determined by the decisions made in the middle.
Hamilton picked up his coffee cup again, but then put it down. Vincenzo could hear his own pulse in his head now—the conversation had its own direction, its own momentum, and he was just filling in the blanks.
“Well,” Hamilton said, “you’ll lose your job.”
“And you’ll lose yours.”
“Would it be a consolation?”
“Yes,” Vincenzo said. He could back down, now, he knew, but he didn’t really want to. Stalemate was just that: stale. “I have worked here for twenty-four years,” he said. “They will push me into early retirement. What about you? How old are you, forty-five? If this breaks, you’re done. You’ll be working as an adjunct at some tiny think tank. If you’re lucky, you get to be an associate professor at a university in Ohio.”
“That’s bullshit.” Hamilton’s eyes darted away, and although the gesture was small, in it Vincenzo saw doubt, and judged that he had the initiative.
No one else was in the room, so he said, “If Wolfowitz contacts me about this, I will call the Post immediately. I swear.”
There was a pause. The threat was unprecedented. There existed hallowed, if unwritten, agreements about the sanctity of these kinds of conversations, and talking to the press about them was completely out of the question.
In a five-minute game of chess you can’t always consider the permutations of every move, but must try to work entirely on a broad strategy. This move of his had been a straightforward gambit. In the famous Queen’s Gambit, which Vincenzo rarely used against a strong opponent like Walter, but often against a weaker player, white opened with a defenseless pawn on the queen’s side. If black took the pawn, white could move to gain initiative and take control of the center of the board.
“Is it worth this much to you to make me look like a fool?”
“I don’t care about you, William. That is the truth.”
“Jesus—you came here looking for a fight, didn’t you? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I don’t care about you, William,” Vincenzo repeated.
“And you don’t care about yourself either?” Hamilton said.
“There are worse things than being forced into early retirement.”
Vincenzo shook his head, stood up. He buttoned his suit jacket. “I’m telling you that I can live with this. I want to live with it. My wife and I bought a farm in Italy six years ago and I haven’t been there since she died. The house needs a lot of work!” Hamilton’s mouth twitched slightly when Vincenzo mentioned Cristina. It was clear Hamilton really did want him to back off, that Hamilton was afraid of what violence Vincenzo might inflict on them, but Vincenzo couldn’t bring himself to retreat.
And so, at that moment—standing and staring down at William Hamilton in the IMF’s subterranean cafeteria—Vincenzo’s life pivoted, and the lives of millions pivoted with him.
To spare his brother from having to endure
Another agonizing bedside vigil
With sterile pads, syringes but no hope,
He settled all his accounts, distributed
Among a few friends his most valued books,
Weighed all in mind and heart and then performed
The final, generous, extraordinary act
Available to a solitary man,
Abandoning his translation of Boileau,
Dressing himself in a dark, well-pressed suit,
Turning the lights out, lying on his bed,
Having requested neighbors to wake him early
When, as intended, they would find him dead.
—I.M.E.M. by Anthony Hecht, from The Darkness and the Light
I’ve always been both in awe of and terrified by poetry. During my graduate education in writing, where I focused on fiction writing, I avoided poetry classes, preferring to study its nuances on my own, far away from the judging eyes of other writers. And so when I signed up for a syntactic revision course, I assumed I was safe. Poems don’t even have sentences, I thought.
As I soon learned, actually, they do. In fact, poets like Anthony Hecht write better sentences than many fiction writers. “I.M.E.M.” is one 87-word, completely grammatically correct sentence, and part of its awe, for me, is how it tells a life not in a story or a novel, but in one complex sentence.
Hecht begins with a transitive infinitive phrase, “To spare his brother.” Starting here not only signals the beginning of the sentence, but also the beginning of the purpose, the impetus of the rest of the action in the sentence. Everything that comes after this phrase is completed, by “he”, our unnamed main character, in order “to spare his brother.” This phrase also gives us, the readers, a peek into our character’s backstory before this moment, signaling that the brother is another important character.
Inside this introductory transitive infinitive phrase is a prepositional phrase that further develops this backstory. What does “he” have to spare his brother? To protect him from having to endure another agonizing bedside vigil with sterile pads, syringes but no hope. This dense phrase, both emotionally and grammatically, first contains the nominative present participle “having”, signaling that our character, if not his brother, feels like this experience is something the brother must do. Next, there is another infinitive verbal, “to endure.” I think the word choice here is especially important; “endure” connotates a situation that neither our character nor his brother can change. This is further established by the prepositional phrase “with sterile pads, syringes but no hope”, signaling that there is perhaps treatment for whatever ails our character, but no cure.
Next we come to what I consider the scaffolding of the sentence, the independent clause: “he settled all his accounts”. This clause, subject-verb-direct object, structures the most compelling kind of sentence, I think. The subject names the specific being we can latch onto in this story, our main character; the use of the pronoun “he” makes our character seem universal, everyman. The predicate, a transitive verb and noun combination, gives us an action that is performed upon something, rather than an action that is an end in and of itself. Taking into consideration the phrases we get beforehand, this “he settled all his accounts” is ominous; our character is preparing the world for his absence.
You can now read Alexander Maksik’s contribution to our Winter issue online. We spoke with the author about the strange world that is “Trim Palace.”
Tin House: What was the biggest obstacle in writing “Trim Palace”?
Alexander Maksik: In earlier drafts, I included a great deal more of Pete’s life – past and present. As is often the case at the beginning, I found that I was writing those scenes more as a way to discover Pete’s character than in direct service to the story. I find it’s the best way for me to start – don’t think, include everything. The problem is that I fall in love with sections (or sentences) that serve me, but not the reader. That was the case with “Trim Palace” and it took me years to excise what needed to be excised. I know it’s been said a thousand times, but it’s true: you’ve got to be ruthless.
TH: When you read this story in the future, what do you think you’ll associate with the period of writing it?
AM: Years when I was moving constantly, going anywhere people would take me. Years when I was doing a lot of housesitting – a generous way to say freeloading. I love to work in other people’s homes. It allows me to pretend that there’s nothing in the world to worry about, but writing.
TH: Do you have any writing rituals?
AM: I start writing about the same time each morning. When it’s going well, I write a thousand words a day. When it isn’t, I just sit there. But I always sit there.
TH: The last sentence you underlined in a book?
AM: “This is a decidedly sinister assessment: how, one might well ask, is it possible to “overvalue” air and water? Perhaps a truer indication of mental illness (or, at least, psychospiritual disconnection) can be found in the far more common tendency to passively accept the abuse of the very systems that keep us alive.” -John Vaillant from The Golden Spruce – one of the most moving and absorbing books I’ve read in a long time.
TH: What is the next story I should read?
Alexander Maksik is the author of the novels You Deserve Nothing and A Marker to Measure Drift. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, Harvard Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Salon and Narrative Magazine, among other publications, and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is the recipient of fellowships from the Truman Capote Literary Trust and The Corporation of Yaddo. He has taught at the University of Iowa, where he was the Provost’s Postgraduate Visiting Writer in Fiction.
“Blue jays argued in the shrubbery. The birches stood al- ready bare, while, other than the hue of their leaves, the maples stood in mantles of full summer. Had either Char- lie or Julia bent to lay a hand to the ground, they would have felt the oncoming winter seeping up through the earth like a snowfall in reverse.” —Karen Shepard, The Celestials
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): Everyone told me to read Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. Everyone was right. From talking to Strayed acolytes, I had some idea of the book’s generosity, Strayed’s ability to see a Sweet Pea in each and every one of her writers and thus render them so sweet. What surprised me more was how deftly she also calls folks out on their bullshit, how little she suffers fools. It’s this balance that to me makes the advice Dear Sugar offers remarkable. Strayed articulates the truth of her writers’ situations with such an honesty that when she says that, in spite of the bad stuff, it’s going to be okay, you know Sugar’s right and it’s true.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): “There have always been two kinds of breakfast,” writes Seb Emina in The Breakfast Bible, “the everyday and the event.” In his cookbook, breakfast dishes large and small, sweet and savory are defined, refined and celebrated. Emina is the creator and editor of the spirited and very fun blog The London Review of Breakfasts which, in addition to special dispatches from the UK and the US for breakfast hotspots, includes an “Opinion & Eggitorials” section that is not to be missed. Recipes in The Breakfast Bible are comprehensive and clear and there’s no need to look further than this cookbook for all that you need to know about tasty Bubble and Squeak or the best songs to tune into in the kitchen in the section “Songs To Boil An Egg To.” (Spoiler alert: for a classic soft boiled egg, Emina recommends, among others, The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”) Breakfast is served all day every day, on the page.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I’m reading the incredibly smart and amusing The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman—it’s one of those books in which the main character’s self is just laid bare, his insecurities, attractions, snobberies and strivings. Everything else in his world is observed just as closely, with that cool awareness that suggests a narrative voice sitting in the corner of the bar, swirling its drink and eyeing everyone’s rather desperate zigzags around the room.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): It’s time for my annual attempt to establish a Tin House branch in Hawaii so I’ve done most of this week’s reading on a plane or beach. I read Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God in the air and discovered that it pairs pretty well with the new Mazzy Star album (though not so well with the sounds of fidgety kids). McCarthy tells the tale of Lester Ballard, a man careening from isolation to brutality and depravity. The story is told by several unnamed narrators, giving the feel of something between gossip and oral history. Child of God isn’t my favorite McCarthy novel, but that’s like saying Old Grand-Dad isn’t my favorite bourbon … it’s still delicious and satisfying. I’m currently reading The Starboard Sea, by Amber Dermont. The book centers around Jason, a senior at an elite boarding school in the late 80s. I’ve barely made any progress, but I’m enjoying the story so far. It looks to be heartbreaking.
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): Whenever I take a ferry (which doesn’t happen as often as I’d like), I feel like a character in an Alice Munro story: a woman traveling through an isolated and potentially dangerous yet stunningly beautiful landscape in which anything might happen and change her life forever. And so, for a trip to Vashon Island, in the Puget Sound, last weekend, I took along Munro’s 1974 collection, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. As with many of her stories, the main theme of the collection is betrayal and the various female characters’ experience with it (whether they are the betrayer or the betrayed or, in one story, both). The more I read Munro’s work, the more I am amazed by how she mines this theme and yet never repeats the same story line: a testament, I think, to the myriad ways in which we all betray each other, as well as ourselves, in both small and large ways. On the one hand, my trip to Vashon was simply a vacation, a relaxing getaway, and on the other hand, it was a time to reflect on the betrayals that have happened in my life and where they have brought me: a woman on a ferry traveling through an isolated and potentially dangerous yet stunningly beautiful landscape in which anything might happen and change her life forever, a collection of Alice Munro’s short stories along for the ride.
Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): As I am of the tribe that waits until they have a solid sandwich size pile of New Yorkers going before taking half a Sunday off to read them, I just now discovered the terrific* Antonya Nelson story “First Husband,” which appeared in the January 6th issue. This is a nasty piece of fiction writing in that, like a changeup thrown on a fastball count, what first appears to be a rather simple story ends up being devastatingly effective. Familial drama is in Nelson’s literary wheelhouse, so it comes as no surprise at how deftly she handles the plot here (a woman, Lovey, is asked to watch her former step-daughter’s children in the middle of the night). What lingers from the piece is how invested (and with such economy) Nelson gets us in Lovey’s relationships with the children, particularly her step-grandson, Caleb. Until recently, I have never given much thought to how hard it must be to be a divorced step-parent. To have that extra distinction added to an already complicated roll-call. “Caleb would grow up and perhaps grow away from her—there was no shared blood, and someday he would understand that. Someday he might untie the knots of those prefixes that labelled Lovey, ex- and step-.” The emotional geography Nelson covers in this short story is remarkable. As such, it will be one of those New Yorkers that makes its way from the Sunday pile to the keeper stack.
*Also terrific is the fact that there is a character named Lance, who vanity dictates is based on me. He appears in one line of the story and is a drunk.
When unpacking her suitcase from their trip to the other continent, the woman finds the toy baby slipped into her new crocodile skin slingbacks. In a pointed toe, pale pink glows against the gold leather insole. She peers closer. A small plastic toy baby, as small as her thumb, like the ones frozen in ice cubes for baby shower games. As she pulls the shoe from her bag, the toy gleams brighter until she spills it radiantly into her hand. When she closes her eyes, she sees an afterimage, luminous and red.
The brightness fades. The toy’s mouth opens, as naked and raw as the mouth of a kitten. She almost drops it in her surprise. The baby lies warm and trembling in her palm. It has no navel. Its penis is an exotic tiny mushroom.
She moves through the house, looking for the man. Her breasts are heavy, sensitive against the gauze of her shirt. The man reads the newspaper in the yard, sitting in the garden chair he always prefers. He’s finished watering the plants and the ground is wet around the beds of overblown peonies. While they were out of the country, the tomato plants grew wild, tendrils escaping from the wire cages, branches heavy with dark red fruit and plump horned worms. She’ll have to can the tomatoes before they rot on the vines.
The woman balances on the edge of the other chair, the baby cupped in her palm. The baby has grown: he’s now the length of her hand and as heavy as the thick gold coins used as currency on the other continent. The legs and arms stir.
She holds out the baby. “What’s this?”
He folds the newspaper and prods the baby with a damp finger. The baby turns his head to the man, eyes still shut. “Looks like a very small baby. What kind of joke is this?”
She has to hold the baby now with both hands, he grows so fast. His mouth is bright red, his cheeks rouged.
“Did you put this in my bag?” she says.
“Why would I do that?”
“You didn’t want me to stop treatment.” The woman cradles the baby against her shoulder. She is careful to support his neck, as her friends instructed her when she held their newborns.
“Maybe all we had to do was to go on vacation to get a baby,” he says. “What everyone told us.”
The woman looks away. The garden walls are thick with vines, the morning glories tight cylinders like the hand-rolled cigars sold in the country they visited. Beyond the walls of their garden, the hills are undeveloped; in the summer heat, the wild grasses have browned, the plants already flowered, and the birds fledged.
The baby has grown to the length of her arm and bobs at her shoulder like a bird pecking. His fingernails are flexible and almost translucent. She traces the arch of his foot; his skin peels between the toes and in the folds of his legs. “When I found him, he was plastic,” she says.
“Are you sure?” The man strokes the baby’s hair. His fingers graze her arm.
“Of course I’m sure.” She holds the baby tighter. He mews in protest against her blouse. “What if he changes back to plastic?”
“Let’s worry about that if it happens,” he says. “With kids, there’s enough worry.”
At her feet, nasturtiums bloom the color of a Buddhist monk’s robe. The flowers will taste bitter in their salad tonight. She thinks: in birth, there is always the promise of death. She closes her eyes and feels herself floating, as if interlocked arms carefully bear her up the slope of the hill to the wildness outside the walls. But when she opens her eyes, she has not moved, and the baby has stopped growing. He roots into her neck, her chest.
She unbuttons her shirt, moves the cup of her bra aside, and puts the baby to her. He takes her nipple in his mouth and a sting as vigorous as an electric shock singes her breast. She focuses on that pain.
Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California with her husband and two daughters. Her fiction has appeared in The New Orleans Review, Clapboard House, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, and elsewhere.
Which writers are you a fan of, I was asked recently. The question was put, in broken English, by an Italian woman who was passionate about books. It was clearly frustrating for her that her limited English prevented her delving deeper into the subject. I thought about her question and mentioned various names, trying hard not to overlook any. But the exercise proved frustrating for me, too. I wanted to praise the observational brilliance of Muriel Spark, the stylistic grace of John Updike, but I couldn’t find the words. We spoke a little about the Italian novelist Leonardo Sciascia, expressing as best we could our admiration for his courage in writing about the mafia. Then we went our separate ways, both feeling inadequate.
That’s one of the problems with literary fandom. You want to explain well why a writer means so much to you, to praise their words, only for your own words to fail you. You’re left feeling you’ve done them a disservice. Then, for literary fans who choose to take up writing themselves, more problems lie ahead. Either you are so intimidated by what others have written that you don’t dare begin or, if you do take those first tentative steps, whether by design or accident, you start to produce pale imitations of the work of your heroes, and so you give up.
I have no lofty ambitions, I don’t dream of literary fame. I simply want to write a story from beginning to end. But in the past, each time I’d start, I’d get no further than the opening lines when those intimidating voices would return. Finally, I came to a realisation: if I wanted to finish my story, I had to stop reading (or re-reading) my most cherished writers. I stopped reading at once.
Shortly after beginning my literary abstinence I found myself in the seaside town of Trouville, Normandy, standing before a statue of another of my heroes, Gustave Flaubert. The statue is life-size, perched on a six-foot plinth, and situated a few feet from the harbour, where fishermen offload crates from their boats, sending some interesting odours towards one of France’s most celebrated authors. Flaubert’s chin is held high, and beneath his big moustache is a smile of satisfaction, as if he’s just finished a large lunch or a particularly troublesome passage of writing. He looks dapper in his suit, and his flowing hair and the lapels of his jacket are captured blowing in the wind. Dazzled by the force of the personality shining out of this lump of stone, I realised that the whole time I’d been standing there, I hadn’t been thinking about his books at all. Instead, I was asking myself whether he’d drunk Calvados, how much money he’d spent on suits, whether he’d played cards. My thoughts were so occupied by the person, I’d entirely forgotten the books. No doubt Flaubert, who saw the writing as everything and the writer as nothing, would have been disgusted.
As I stood there speculating on Flaubert’s life, I began to think of the lives of my other literary heroes. Suddenly an idea struck me, one which might allow me to resume reading their books. Instead of reading their fiction, why not focus on their autobiographies, their letters? I reasoned that, with this type of writing, I’d be too distracted by the details of their lives to get hung up on their writing styles. This would be the perfect compromise, I told myself optimistically. I would not be abandoning my most prized authors entirely, and at the same time I could continue my own writing undisturbed.
I began with two authors I judged sufficiently colourful: Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. For the former, I chose volume one of his autobiography, for the latter, volume two of the collected letters. At first my plan seemed to work. I was totally absorbed by Mark Twain the person: his childhood cigar-smoking, his inability to sit through dinner without getting up to pace the room, his dread of legal jargon (he demanded to hold his cat for reassurance while his lawyer explained contracts to him). I was equally fascinated by Hemingway, who not only showed the vigorous side of his character, writing ‘like a demon’, boxing three times a week, but also an unexpected fragility in his letters to loved ones.
Unfortunately it didn’t last, and soon I began to fixate not on the men but the writers. How was it, I wondered, that Twain could describe in such forensic detail a Florentine villa he had stayed in many years before? How was he able to recall so vividly his school friends? How could he move so effortlessly between random subjects—duelling, gold prospecting, spelling, US foreign policy—and with such intelligence and wit? And, just to compound matters, he produced this stuff from his bed, apparently dictating his thoughts as they came to him. Meanwhile, I was becoming increasingly conscious of Hemingway’s craftsmanship. In a letter sent to Archibald and Ada MacLeish in 1924, for example, he apologises with great eloquence for arriving at their home the previous evening in an ‘advanced state of alcoholism’ and then leaving with their corkscrew. He ends with a line of brilliant economy: ‘At any rate here is the cork screw and great remorse.’ If Hemingway can write this after a night of heavy drinking, I thought, and if Twain can produce such material spontaneously, from his bed, then what hope for the rest of us?
So my literary abstinence has resumed. Now my reading material consists of newspaper reports on the stock market, car magazines, books on childcare. I don’t have shares, a car, or children, but the content is too abstract to affect my writing. And I am writing, slowly, but unhindered. But it isn’t easy, and I look forward to the day—perhaps once I’ve reached the end of my story—that I can become a fan again.
Andrew Hamilton was born and educated in Scotland, where he worked for several years as a journalist. He now lives in Paris, where he divides his time between writing and teaching English. His work was recently published in an anthology of travel writing, Whereabouts: Stepping Out of Place.
I live off Court Street, a busy two-mile strip that begins at the courthouse in downtown Brooklyn and dead ends behind the Red Hook projects. Walking south from the courthouse toward my apartment, you will pass a multiplex, a Trader Joe’s, several expensive clothing boutiques with little or no clothes in them, coffee shops that discourage sitting and drinking coffee, overpriced restaurants and grocery stores, and a few places of worship. You will also pass three bookstores. The first one is a Barnes and Noble. The second one, Book Court, is in many ways the Platonic ideal of an independent bookstore: it has inviting signage, warm lighting, a friendly staff, and a spacious room for events.
It’s the third one I want to talk about.
A few blocks past Book Court, on the opposite side of the street, is The Community Bookstore. Its sign is hand-painted: wonky black letters on a dirty white background. Its windows are in need of pressure washing, its facade is in need of paint. Often, when I mention The Community Bookstore to friends, they’ll assume I’m talking about a bookstore in Park Slope with the same name.
“I think I’ve been there,” they’ll say.
“No, you haven’t,” I’ll say. “You would have remembered.”
Alongside the boutiques and restaurants of Court Street, The Community Bookstore and its lone staffer, a sullen-looking gray-bearded man with dark eyebrows, seem out of place. Out of era, even. The man, who I assume is the sole proprietor and whose name I’ve never felt comfortable asking for, wears a ratty coat and reading glasses on a lanyard around his neck. He usually sits cross-legged outside the store on a foldout chair or crate, smoking a cigarette. Bins of books clutter the stoop and sidewalk around him. He fascinates me. There is something about him that is both shabby and distinguished; F. Murray Abraham might play him in a movie. When someone walks up to the store, he’ll get up and move nervously inside, waiting to see if the person will buy anything. He avoids eye contact, continues smoking while ringing you up. Amazingly, he accepts credit cards.
Probably most people never make it that far into their first encounter with The Community Bookstore. This is understandable. The interior resembles a hoarder’s lair. Piles of books, mostly used, though some new, scrape the ceiling, growing in a sedimentary fashion, slowly over time, until they spill out into the aisles. The aisles aren’t really aisles either: they’re just the spaces where, for the moment, there are no books. The business model seems to be: fit as many books as possible into all available space by any means necessary and never get rid of anything. I find the lack of pretense admirable. Here, simply, is a place crammed with books. Not without its perils though. You have to inch sideways through a dizzying labyrinth of book piles if you hope to access the deeper, danker caverns of the store, where a handwritten sign announces the “Autobiography” section. You must move at a pace which, I’ve found, encourages the discovery of treasures.
Despite the mold, dust, and seeming disarray, I’m always able to find the books I’m looking for at The Community Bookstore. Once, as a compliment, I said as much to the proprietor of the store, showing him a used copy of Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, still in good condition. The other two stores hadn’t seemed to have heard of the book or its author. The proprietor shrugged. “They mostly have new books over there,” he said. His was a different kind of bookstore. That was all.
“You fascinate me,” I wanted to say.
One strange evening a while back, I was on a quest for Donald Barthelme’s Not Knowing. I’d struck out at Barnes and Noble and at Book Court, so I set off for The Community Bookstore. I stepped over the little stoop and through the cramped doorway. I asked if the proprietor knew if he had a copy of the Barthelme book. He didn’t know. He disappeared somewhere into the center of the store. I tried to follow him towards the back, side-stepping apologetically past a customer in a black hoodie. I couldn’t see where he’d gone. In the interval, because the customer had the hood up over his head, I couldn’t see his face until it was two inches from mine. The face belonged to Junot Diaz.
Well-known people were always hanging out at Book Court a few blocks away: I’d once seen Ben Lerner browsing the poetry section; Paul Dano couldn’t find the NYRB paperback he was looking for; Emma Straub might have rung me up. But what felt strange, maybe even slightly portentous, was running into one of my favorite writers, threatened all around by the prospect of death-by-hardback-avalanche.
Looking back on that visit to the bookstore, the most surprising part wasn’t that I met Junot Diaz there, but that they didn’t have the Barthelme book I was looking for. “Sorry,” said the proprietor, returning from his search. “We don’t have it.” There was real sadness in his voice.
I had been so busy working up the nerve to talk to Junot Diaz that I had forgotten about the book. “Oh, okay,” I said to the proprietor, my heart racing. “Thanks.”
Before I had time to psyche myself out, I introduced myself to Junot Diaz. In that musty proximity, I told him that I was a writer and that his work has meant a great deal to me. He seemed humbled, grateful. He was with a female friend, who smiled kindly from near the counter. Recalling it now, the moment seems more and more like an anxiety dream I’m confusing with something that actually happened.
I wish I’d asked Junot Diaz what book he was looking for. That would have been a good thing to say. Maybe creepy. At least, given the context, it would have made sense. I would have assured him that he would definitely find what he was looking for here, exchanging a warm glance with the proprietor. Instead, painfully aware of the Trader Joe’s bags in my hands, I sidestepped past him out of the store onto Court Street. His voice followed me out into the night: “Good luck,” it said.
I wonder how The Community Bookstore stays in business. Sometimes, I’ll find it locked with a handwritten sign taped to the door — by now I know the proprietor’s scrawl — saying that he will return in a couple months. I wonder where he goes. During the months when the store is open, I pop in from time to time, rarely encountering other customers. It seems crazy that such a bookstore can exist in one of the most expensive zip codes in the city. A city where every other neighborhood bookseller without a sound business plan went under ages ago. Whenever I approach The Community Bookstore’s block, I brace myself for the inevitable: construction crews out front throwing books into a dumpster, a real estate sign in the window with a number to call if you’re interested in prime Boerum Hill retail space.
That it somehow manages to survive is certainly good luck: ours.
Mikael Awake previously wrote about a Zora Neale Hurston line for The Open Bar. His stories have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Witness, Callaloo, and elsewhere. He works in Manhattan and lives with his wife in Brooklyn, NY.
Next weekend, at the Tin House Winter Writer’s Workshop, Jon Raymond will join Whitney Otto, Vanessa Veselka, and 18 workshop participants in Newport, Oregon to immerse in discussion of the craft of fiction writing (and local flavor). Here, from Issue 40, Raymond discusses Saul Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein.
It’s perhaps no big surprise that Chicago, America’s meatpacking town, is also America’s great abattoir of politics. In the last decade alone the city has spit out not only a chief executive in its liberal Saul Alinsky mold but an entire administration packed with goons from its Leo Straussian neoconservative wing. One could almost define a national political dialectic by way of the Windy City alone, with its opposing poles of populism and snobbery fighting for primacy, though who’d be the populist and who the elitist would probably be subject to debate.
In any case, the community-organizing side of the equation is currently in ascendance, leaving those of us still puzzling over the reign of Greenspan and co.—indeed, over the soul life of neoconservatism in general—to keep the candle of memory alive. For this, we turn to Saul Bellow’s final novel, Ravelstein (2000), in search of lingering clues. Published the very year George W. Bush was first elected, the book’s fictionalized subject is none other than University of Chicago culture warrior, mentor of Paul Wolfowitz and Norman Podhoretz, among others, and decades-long Bellow confrere Allan Bloom, most famous as the author of The Closing of the American Mind—a jeremiad against multiculturalism, feminism, and all things non-canonical—and as a grandee at the center of a veritable fraternity of Republican power-mongers. Bellow, a neocon fellow traveler himself, paints a portrait of his dear friend in vivid colors, offering the reader insight, one hopes, not only into a daring conservative thinker, but also, perhaps, into a whole intellectual movement as well.
The book opens, ironically enough, in France, with Bellow surrogate Chick sharing coffee and brioche with Bloom surrogate Ravelstein in the Hôtel de Crillon. Ravelstein is in an effulgent mood, having recently published a gigantic bestseller and thus finally coming into the money he has always spent so profligately anyway. He registers immediately as a creature of large and eccentric habits, splayed out in his kimono, smoking his Dunhills, holding forth on Keynes and the Bloomsbury group. “Nobody in the days before he struck it rich had ever questioned Ravelstein’s need for Armani suits or Vuitton luggage,” the demure Chick observes, “for Cuban cigars, unobtainable in the U.S., for the Dunhill accessories, for solid-gold Mont Blanc pens or Baccarat or Lalique crystal to serve wine in—or have it served. Ravelstein was one of those large men—large, not stout—whose hands shake when there are small chores to perform. The cause was not weakness but a tremendous eager energy that shook him when it was discharged.”
The two friends proceed to talk. The first seventy pages or so of the book are mostly pure, high-minded Bellowian conversation, delivered, as usual, with a gusto bordering on ADD. We’re treated to heavy-duty philosophizing cut with American concreteness of thinking, aggressively painted sketches of faces and backstories, anthropological non sequiturs, and learned political analysis. Along the way we find ourselves caught up in the genuinely affectionate rapport between two great lovers of ideas, eagerly glimpsing the intellectual world they inhabit, a world thick with big ideas, sure, but also lewd gossip, psychoanalytic speculation, and risible Borscht-belt jokes. It’s a world not so different from the one seen in Bellow’s long short stories, “Cousins” and “What Kind of Day Did You Have?” or even Hertzog in a way—a place that no one, barring perhaps Bellow himself, has ever actually lived in, but a powerful fantasy region nonetheless, at least as much so as the Left’s dingier, more bohemian version. In Bellow’s world, belletristic Jews jet-set between Chicago, New York, and Europe, parsing geopolitics with world leaders, making snap judgments of foreign academics, wearing Hermès ties, drinking wine from fine crystal. It’s a heady scene, a veritable theater of masculine power, and in the male conversation one starts to make out the shape not only of Bellow’s imagination, but the imaginations of his and Bloom’s student offspring as well. Wolfowitz et al gain some color and scent in this well-appointed milieu, their postures and mental tics cohering into something like an overall weltanschauung. One hopes that, on the day this junta returns to power, as it most definitely will, this book remains near the top of the Bellow reading list, waiting to shed light onto the extra-ideological facets, the aesthetics, if you will, of the neocon lifestyle.
In the second half of the book, however, the tone shifts considerably, as Ravelstein, a gay man of decidedly pre-Stonewall vintage (he prefers the term “invert”), is stricken with AIDS, and here the book vaults far beyond any simple political reading. As Chick’s friend deteriorates, and as Chick himself ponders the breakup of his marriage and the beginning of another, the specter of death falls all around. A man with a transplanted heart visits Ravelstein’s deathbed, as does an elderly couple contemplating suicide. Chick debates the ethics of his acquaintance with a man named Grielescu, a former Romanian fascist most likely responsible, in some fashion, for mass murder. And then, in the book’s final third, our portraitist himself undergoes a near-death experience following food poisoning in the Caribbean, and the book’s ruminations on nihilism, Judaism, and the afterlife take on a harrowing, even hallucinatory aspect. What happens when death arrives? Chick is pressed to contemplate. “The pictures will stop” is the best he can come up with, though he approaches the question from many angles.
John Updike said that an author’s successful late works are often characterized by a “translucent thinness.” Relatively speaking, Ravelstein would be a decent example of that thesis. In it, we’re no longer dished up the thick, rich liver pâté of Bellow’s heartiest writing, but rather something smoother, a little less heart-clogging. The Bellow that emerges here is a surprisingly mellow guy, almost chastened with age, still disinterested to the point of subtle racism and misogyny in the world outside his class, but capacious within the folds of twentieth-century Jewish experience. In other words, he comes across as a pretty circumspect fellow, quite unlike the neocons we have come to know on TV and in the American Spectator, with their self-serving hawkishness, their highly selective consciences, their pseudo-Nietzschean contempt for human weakness of any kind.
The one thing we do learn from the book about that ilk is how they came to love their University of Chicago teachers so much. Ravelstein/Bloom is presented in a fiercely loving light, irascible, buoyant, charismatic to the end, and Chick/Bellow, his dutiful biographer, is at his most tender. But then again, the problem was never Bellow or Bloom themselves anyway, great writers and devoted teachers both. The problem was their students, who have so gladly adopted the teachers’ poses—the Turnbull and Asser shirts, the Maria Callas recordings—as well as their prejudices, but so rarely their passionate practice of self-analysis.
Jon Raymond is the author of the novels Rain Dragon and The Half-Life, as well as the short story collection Livability, winner of the 2009 Ken Kesey Award for Fiction. He is the writer of several films, including Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, and cowriter of the Emmy-nominated screenplay for the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. A 2009 Oregon Book Award winner, Jon lives in Portland with his family.
Carve out space on your nightstand—Tin House Books has some great reading coming up in 2014!
“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
Rebekah Bergman (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Reading Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing felt very familiar. Will, the novel’s protagonist, is a charismatic and passionate high school literature teacher whom the students adore. In the opening chapters, Will begins an affair with a student. I thought I knew where this was going. I was wrong. Maksik brings this premise to new territory and the surprises in the plot are a true delight. The novel, set in France in 2002, becomes almost a modern retelling of Camus’ The Stranger, a work Will’s students read for his class. Shifting between three narrators, the reader must consider different perspectives and accounts without the satisfaction of any one definitive answer. Impressively, Maksik makes this moral quandary incredibly relevant and real. He never loses sight of his characters, who are compelling and realistically flawed. As I questioned the morality of their choices I also cared about their fates and was truly sad to leave them at the close of the book.
Allyson Paty (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Lawrence Weschler’s biography of artist Robert Irwin, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees follows Irwin’s artistic practice and interests over the course of his entire career. Irwin states that he “one day got hooked on [his] own curiosity and decided to live it,” and the book tracks the trajectory of Irwin’s thinking about formal elements art—beginning with questions of the canvas, figuration, and line, and gradually giving way to essential questions of light, space, and presence—which in turn informs the trajectory of his life. Originally published in 1982 and updated in 2009, the book grew out of a series of conversations between Weschler and Irwin, which gives the text a grounded, spoken feel. To see a life propelled by a continuing line of artistic inquiry is, I think, hugely seductive for a creative person working in any medium.
Lauren Perez (Publicity Intern): For me, the first weeks of the new year are dedicated to furiously reading all the books I didn’t get to in the year prior, a fug of guilt reading. And I’m glad I do this, because otherwise I might have missed Yanagihara’s debut novel, The People in the Trees, eclipsed by my excitement for the new Lorrie Moore. Yanagihara’s novel is loosely based on the life of Nobel prize winner Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, a brilliant scientist and convicted child molester, who adopted 56 children from the South Pacific and went to prison for raping one of his sons. Yanagihara’s Dr. Norton Perina, while hewing fairly close to those basic biographical facts, is far more than the sum of his parts. Styled as a memoir-confession written by Perina in prison as a series of letters to his mentee and sycophant Dr. Ronald Kubodera, the voice she creates is captivating and obliviously cruel. He narrates the discovery and inevitable exploitation of the fictional Micronesian nation of U’ivu (probably an even greater creation than the character of Norton himself; Yanagihara has an amazing imagination and sense of detail) and the discovery of the Selene disease, spread by eating a specific endangered turtle, that can prolong human life for centuries—at the cost of the mind. Everything that happens in the book blends the inevitable with surprise, like a line of falling dominoes: colonialism, exploitation, moral relativism, glory, and the cost of discovery.
Brandi Dawn Henderson (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): Somehow, I made it to my thirties, and completed a master’s degree in writing, without ever reading Raymond Carver. “Ah, yes, very Carver-esque,” I would agree with my colleagues, “Definitely super Carver-like.” But, it was only when I discovered the masterful short stories of Charles Baxter last summer that my fiancé addressed his bookshelves and selected for me a simple blue and white book with a crazy-intense author photo on the front. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver contains stories from my childhood. They aren’t about my aunt’s toothless friend, Paul, who worked at a grocery store and brought us more charred soda cans than we knew what to do with after a fire burned milk and lettuce and the video rental section to the ground, and they aren’t about Paul’s girlfriend, Margie, who, after winning the “Ugliest Swimsuit” award at a water park a hundred miles from our house, also earned the whispered “Ugliest Woman” contest, according to my brother. But they are the stories of ordinary people living the kind of lives most people live, feeling the kinds of not-that-significant-in-the-grand-scheme but completely-valid-in-the-moment things people feel; they are glimpses into the lives of my neighbors, of your neighbors, of life within map dots all over the place. With simple, compelling narratives, Raymond Carver introduces us to ourselves, and that, my friends, is totally Carver-esque.
Molly Dickinson (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I’ve recently been re-reading Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. I know most people instantly think: snoozefest! But judge away, internet people; I maintain that this medieval mystic’s literature is still fascinating and relevant stuff. Julian (we’re on a first name basis) is an adept and exquisite word smith. And her philosophical and theological struggles with her medieval world are strikingly similar to the ones I witness people working through on a day to day basis. Revelations offers everything, really: you can approach it as a source for quiet introspection or a thrilling exploration of one badass lady’s non-conforming ideology.
Alyssa Persons (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): Somewhere between high school required reading lists and a major in English Lit, I failed to read a word of James Joyce. Instead, I was left with a poorly-formed (and probably misguided) impression of the author and his work and was too intimidated to take a stab at reading anything by him. These days, I’m eating my words because I’m halfway through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and I’m thoroughly embarrassed it took me this long to pick it up. For the remaining few who haven’t read it either, it’s a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that lays the groundwork for the technique and style Joyce continued to develop in his later work. So far, I’ve been completely engrossed, when I’m not feeling entirely confused and/or frustrated. This is what reading Joyce is supposed to feel like, right?
Alison Pezanoski-Browne (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): In Are You My Mother?, a follow-up to her acclaimed graphic novel Fun Home, Alison Bechdel turns her thoughtful, complex lens from her relationship with father to her relationship with her mother. Through prose and images, she weaves together storylines of her mother as a creative woman stifled by the weight her husband’s closeted sexuality, the work and life of groundbreaking twentieth-century child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, and Bechdel’s own history with psychoanalysis in order to cope with her life-long obsessive compulsive disorder. The result is an evocative depiction of how identity is formed by interlocking strands of thought, experience, relationships, and knowledge.
Victoria Savanh (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I fell hard and fast for Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, a novel filled with radicalism, counterculture, pop music, identity, and self-invention, spanning the 1970s through late 90s. With its energetic execution, passages seem to vibrate, beautifully written yet precise. All the theoretical ideas aside, the characters are real. There’s this mess of lives intertwined, consequences, loss. The narrators alternate, but the most satisfying storylines are Mary’s, an ex-radical with a fake identity, and her teenage son Jason’s, whose journal entries include analyzing pop music and bootleg recordings. “I wondered if my life was just going to be one immersion after another . . . unpopular popular culture infatuations that don’t really last and don’t really mean anything. Sometimes I even think maybe my deepest obsessions are just random manifestations of my loneliness or isolation . . . —no, it is beautiful to be enraptured. To be enthralled by something, anything. And it isn’t random. It speaks to you for a reason.” I have a feeling I’ll be quoting Eat the Document endlessly.
Dad came upstairs to ask me and Pete if we wanted to build him an airplane. It wasn’t a question. Dad never asked questions, he just made people think that he had. “Which one of you’s gonna clean out the garage?” Pete and me both ran downstairs.
Took us two days to empty the garage. Mom was away that weekend, so Dad had us trash a bunch of her stuff, records mostly, some dresses, photo albums he made us stop looking through. We trashed old toys and board games we didn’t know we had. It was sad seeing them go. We trashed the old push-mower, a couple shovels, a mildewed tent that Pete and me never camped in. When Mom saw the empty garage she threatened to leave. Just a threat.
On Monday we started construction. Tail got built first, with scrapped aluminum and rusty bolts. Then the fuselage, to the cabin, the wings and so on. Dad kept his head in the manual. Shouting instructions while Pete and me did the little we could to help out.
Dad grew old fast that year. His hairline retreated back over his head and the hair he had left turned gray in odd places, over his ears, his eyebrows. He started shaking when he wasn’t drinking. He quit brushing his teeth. Quit holding in farts and quit shaving. There were more important things to do than shave. Like building an airplane. Pete and me didn’t know why the plane was important, just that it was. We imagined Dad flying us to Disney World, or Pete and me parachuting into our soccer games, yanking off the harnesses and scoring a goal. We started skipping school to fix up the plane while Dad was at work. On the days we didn’t play hooky we sprinted home right after the bell. There was a bus, but we got home faster sprinting.
Pete sawed off a chunk of his pinky one day cutting through piping. He was crying and bleeding and yelling when he showed Dad the finger. Dad squeezed the bottom knuckle and led Pete to the kitchen. “Life’s not all about eating flapjacks,” he said, and cauterized the wound on the stove’s front burner. Later, I attached the propeller.
Once we built the whole plane we christened it Pepper, after Dad’s favorite spice. A couple days later a chubby bald man came to inspect it. He knocked on the fuselage with a clipboard. He wrote something down. He spun Pepper’s propeller. Pete and me had greased it something awful and the speed of its spinning could’ve took the man’s hand. He walked to the tail. “This a broomstick?” he asked, examining the speed rudders we’d made. “That’s temporary,” Dad told him. “I got a paycheck coming Thursday.” Pepper failed inspection.
Dad didn’t care. Two weeks later he drove us and the plane to a clearing north of town. A messy gravel path split the clearing. Dad asked who wanted to earn five dollars. Pete and me weeded the path, stomped on the rocks, trying to make it as flat as we could. When Dad said the runway was good we stopped. We lifted him into the cockpit. Once seated, he held out his hand and dropped a ten dollar bill. Pete caught it. Dad put on a pair of aviator sunglasses. “Remember boys,” he said, looking down at us so Pete and me showed in the dark lenses, “a man can learn a lot from the sun.” We smiled, thinking he meant to say, “his sons.” He checked the manual and flipped some switches. The propeller whizzered to life. Pepper lumbered over the gravel until it lifted itself into the air. We jumped up and cheered as we watched it fly higher.
The plane skimmed a stand of pines at the far edge of the clearing. It wobbled, but Dad righted himself and flew on, gaining more height and distance until the plane shrunk to a pinprick. It disappeared. Pete and me sat down next to the truck and waited. Pete touched the nub of his pinky. Then I touched it.
Originally from New Jersey, Alex McElroy currently lives in Arizona, where he serves as International Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. His work appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Booth, Pinball, and elsewhere.
This week’s installment of Tin House Reels takes you back to a time of imaginary friends and their place at the family dinner table.
The Imaginary Friend Project: Polish Kershaw, created by Alix Lambert & Jennifer R. Morris, arose out of a seminar Jennifer taught at Emerson College with her theatre company, The Civilians. “I helped them create an interview based theatre piece around the topic of home, “Jennifer told me, “and one of the questions the students came up with was, ‘Did you have an imaginary friend?’ I found their answers to be funny and strangely poignant. I wanted to create a series dedicated to preserving the memory of people’s real life imaginary friends.”
Jennifer then enlisted her fellow Civilian, Alix Lambert, to direct and co-create this series, which began by interviewing numerous subjects on the topic of long lost friends who just happened to be invisible to everyone else.
The first person featured in their series is Samuel Roukin.
“I was his bride’s Maid of Honor,”Jennifer explained. “At the rehearsal dinner, his brother’s toast was a letter from Sam’s long lost imaginary friend, Polish Kershaw. Apparently, Polish didn’t actually die when Sam shot her through the eye. She recovered and currently lives outside London. We had just started this project so, naturally, we cornered Sam for an interview.”
The unique look of the film, which reminds one of going through an old shoebox and pulling out faded postcards and images cut out from children’s periodicals, was created by animator Joe Alterio.
About his technical process, Joe says: “I took images: some were Creative Commons images I found online, others were images I made myself, and, if necessary, “aged” them and added things like halftone patterns. The series is really about memories, both real and invented, and using the physical evidence of decaying nostalgia was important to the look. I then animated them all in AfterEffects.”
The result is a film that not only allows you to bask in the memory of a stranger, but brings to the surface your own friends that you might have tucked under the bed or sent off on an adventure so many years ago.
Alix Lambert’s feature length documentary The Mark of Cain was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, received an honorable mention from the French Association of Journalism, and aired on Nightline. She went on to produce additional segments of Nightline as well as 7 segments for the PBS series LIFE 360. She has directed two other feature length documentaries: Bayou Blue (with David McMahon) and Mentor.She has directed numerous shorts and music videos including “You As You Were” for the band Shearwater (Sub Pop) and “Tiffany” (POV). Lambert wrote Episode 6, season 3 of Deadwood, “A Rich Find” (for which she won a WGA award) and was a staff writer and associate producer on John From Cinicinnati. She is currently in residence at The McColl Center For The Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Jennifer R. Morris is a writer/producer/actor. She just finished a run of Mr. Burns at Playwrights Horizons, which was named one of the “10 best shows of 2014″ by the New York Times. Jennifer is a founding member of the OBIE award-winning theatre company, The Civilians. Her most recent piece with The Civilians (of which she wrote and conceived), YOU BETTER SIT DOWN: tales from my parents’ divorce, is an interactive theatre piece that had digital partnerships with WNYC and the Huffington Post. Jennifer wrote and hosted shows on TV Food Network and WE and has created digital projects for ABC/Disney, Fremantle Media, and FMX. The short she produced, “Tiffany,” directed by Alix Lambert, aired on PBS. Most recently she co-produced the feature length documentary, Mentor, also directed by Ms. Lambert. She received her MFA from UCSD.
Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.
We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to email@example.com. You may also send us a file directly.
“These were the strokes we praised, weren’t they,/ the butterfly and the crawl, the lullabies/ we crooned on the first warm day of summer/ in honor of the non-swimmers Crane and Berryman,/ in honor of Orpheus, whose butchered head/ is forever singing above the choppy waves.” —Edward Hirsch, “The Swimmers” (Special Orders, 2008)
A poem praising suicide may not seem to make for a very good love letter. But my favorite one does. The closing lines of Edward Hirsch’s poem “The Swimmers”—an ode to his self-destructive predecessors, romantics all in their way—make use of intoxicating meter and language to remind us how to live. In describing an early-summer afternoon spent throat-deep in a river, discussing the great poets, “The Swimmers” celebrates the sensuality of water, verse, and life in a way that I find powerfully seductive, especially as it crescendos in these final lines. That’s why it works as a billet-doux. Consider it an invitation to go skinny-dipping.
Hirsch’s poem seduced me on a dark winter night. I was a college student, working late as a writing tutor in a nineteenth-century academic building known to be haunted (just google “Payne Hall AND ghost”). The English students’ lounge had a useless, dusty desktop computer and a bookshelf stacked with random old issues of literary journals. Nobody came in for essay triage, so I leafed through Poetry and found “The Swimmers.” I tore it out (sorry!). It’s the first poem I’ve ever memorized with no conscious effort—a testament to its lyricism. I tacked it up in the sad gray cubicle of my first job; I e-mailed it to my first serious post-college boyfriend. It still has a rhapsodic effect on me.
The thing that makes this sentence so powerful and so memorable is its shift in meter—that is, it has a definite meter. The beginning of the poem, like many others by Hirsch and his fellow contemporary poets, is written in unrhymed free verse. But this final sentence starkly changes the tone by employing a clear, if not strict, syllabic pattern. The concept of metered poetry might bring Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter to mind, along with vague recollections of vocab words like anapest, but Hirsch’s use of meter here is subtle and modern. And, more importantly, he’s using it for a good and practical reason.
The meter of this closing sentence brings to life the scene Hirsch has set. Its rhythm mimics that of the arm-over-arm strokes alluded to earlier in the poem; we’re enveloped by the sound and sensation of swimming. In effect, we’ve been dunked into the bathwater-warm river with Hirsch and his companion. To achieve this marvel of acoustics on the page, Hirsch relies on heavily accented verse, especially the foot of meter called a dactyl, consisting of one accented syllable followed by two slack syllables, with which he introduces the shift: “THESE were the” (DUM da da). The rest of that line consists of accented syllables followed by slack ones: “THESE were the STROKES we PRAISED, weren’t they….” Read the rest of the sentence aloud and you’ll hear the degree to which Hirsch leans on accented beats to create the effect of stroke after stroke, arm over arm, slicing the water. To compound that effect and give it extra weight, he repeats similar sounds on the accented beats. The rhyming pair of “butterfly” and “lullaby” sets off a chain of explosive hard-cr sounds—“crawl,” “crooned,” “Crane”—as well as the echoing hard-ch of “butchered” and “choppy” in the final two lines. The strong sense of repetition, both from meter and its not-quite-rhyming internal scheme, builds satisfying momentum.
Beyond meter and sound, there’s the fact that Hirsch is posing a question. He seems to be remembering a long-ago event in a new light and asking his friend for affirmation. (Hirsch dedicated this poem to a fellow poet, Gerald Stern, which seems to hammer home the similarities between the work of swimming and the work of composing poetry.) “These were the strokes we praised, weren’t they”? In other words: That’s what we were really doing, isn’t it? It’s actually quite a simple sentence: “These,” subject; “were,” linking verb; “strokes,” predicate nominative, renaming “these.” The rest of the sentence takes off, modifying and clarifying “strokes” in apposition. Which strokes? With that word, Hirsch encapsulates river-swimming, the pen strokes that translate words onto paper, and the death strokes that tolled the ends of these great poets’ lives. On one hand, the strokes are literally “the butterfly and the crawl”; on a lyrical, metaphorical level, they are “lullabies,” songs sung to soothe the weary. Looking back, Hirsch sees their swimming as an homage, their “butterfly” and “crawl” as “lullabies” “crooned” in remembrance of the great poets who gave up on buoyancy.
The next phrase tells us when: on this “first warm day of summer,” Hirsch and his companion are as alive as can be, talking brashly of suicide in the lukewarm embrace of a force that could easily drown them. The possibility that they might one day feel suicidal hasn’t yet occurred to them. All they can see is beauty—of their idols’ verses, of the silt-green river, and of their own freedom in it.
Punctuation altercation illustrates concern for clear communication.
Religion. Politics. The Oxford comma. These things should not be discussed in polite company, particularly by people who have strong feelings about them — raising the topic before the eyes of the readers of Tin House is the action of a madwoman.
“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t,” wrote Lynne Truss in her humorous punctuation book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, adding “and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”
The Oxford comma, the snappier moniker for the serial comma, looks just like any other comma. It falls before the final item in a list of at least three items. It is the most contentious of the commas.
“Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” sings indie pop band Vampire Weekend in their hit single, “Oxford Comma.”
I give a fuck about an Oxford comma, Vampire Weekend. And so do a lot of people, discovered Jason Boog, editor of GalleyCat, a blog that focuses on the book-publishing industry, in the waning days of June 2011.
“I’m watching Twitter every day,” Boog said, “looking to see what our readers are talking about, what they’re arguing about.” One of the people Boog follows, an anonymous editor tweeting under the handle @rantyeditor, wrote, “Oxford Style Guide ditches the Oxford comma. I have strong feelings about this, none of them good.”
“I actually have strong feelings about it, too,” said Boog, who prefers to write without the Oxford comma. The tweet’s attached link took him to the style guide for the University of Oxford Public Affairs Directorate.
The online style guide the anonymous editor and Boog were pursuing, an official-looking Oxford page, advised its writers to leave off the penultimate comma unless it was necessary for clarity. Neither of the two editors realized that this style guide was not the revered Oxford Style Guide maintained by the prestigious Oxford University Press (OUP), but rather the style guide for the Public Affairs Directorate — a PR department.
“I thought it was funny,” Boog said. “I thought it would be this funny little blurb to throw up in the summer.” He shot out the word “funny” in seeming self-disgust, as though a person with the temerity to be flippant about punctuation must be evil to his core. His funny little blurb blasted across the Internet in minutes; echoes from its blast sound years later in online conversations about the serial comma, linked by people who apparently fail to notice either the publication date or the update at the end of the post.
“For different reasons, the two of us believed that style was indispensable for living with a little hope, and either you lived with hope or in despair. There was no middle way.” – John Berger, Here Is Where We Meet
Is it true, do we style ourselves for a chance at something, in anticipation, with courage, or not at all?
Joan Didion—who most definitely had her uniform on lockdown with her simple bob and those frames elegantly yawning over half her face—understood the significance we put into our wardrobes at times when we seek renewal of the self. Times when, say, you are moving to a new city, a big city, a glamorous city, and your body is still an undressed mannequin in a sea of Looks all spelling out a different girl, a different profession, a different future, perhaps even a different past. When you put the cart before the horse, belt a new dress and step off the train to find your dress’s shade of green is just of few shades shy of success, its fabric a few counts away from catching the eye of those you want to impress. And it’s those times that serve you well, forcing your personality to come up through the cracks in the fabric to compensate as you learn—fast—what suits you and what you suit.
To take us through the annals of a closet’s hopeful transformation—and our varied shades of optimism along with it—is Claire Cottrell.
Claire lends her light-saturated touch to all genres of things—lives, homes, clothes, words, dance—both as an editor for Berlin-based Freunde von Freunden, an international interview magazine and publishing house, and as a photographer, filmmaker and creator of Book Stand, and is herself a frequent subject of interviews about personal style.
In a season of reflections and resolutions, Claire invites us into closets where a long-forgotten sheepskin coat marks time and a pair of winter boots is replaced by the appropriate sandal, where clothing serves as a memory marker, a means of becoming and a layer of protection.
“When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew …” – Joan Didion, “Goodbye To All That” from Slouching towards Bethlehem
A lesser known line from one of Didion’s most notable essays comments on a dress she bought in Sacramento for her first trip to New York City. She doesn’t tell us the color or the style. Or, who the designer was. And it doesn’t matter. In this rambling sentence she tells us that she bought a dress to go to a new place. We know that she felt good about the dress at home, and not so good about the dress in the new place. We infer that she felt less sure of herself. Less confident. Uncomfortable. Out of place. Disconnected. Maybe even lost.
Our clothes are our armor and, here, Joan Didion explained why.
We were in the woods and we were high the first time we heard the wolves. Before the wolves, we were in my living room, drinking Mexican Cokes with the windows open. It was the first warm day of spring, the pavement wet from all it was losing, and the curtains blew wild above the empty hardwood, simple white cotton with pink polka dots. I imagined them unfurling and piling up, small moments made large upon accumulation, the way a whole life can be lived, the way millions of people will live them. They reminded me of the flowers found on license plates—the ones with the Eastern Goldfinch—and that’s when Jason said it. He said, “It’s like you were made to live in this state.”
I think he meant because of the landscape—that must’ve been what it was. The pastoral scenes evoking significance, and how I’d embodied them even in my home décor. Everything I owned exerted a Terrence Malick-like ambience: photographs of trees with despondent branches, birds diving shallow and swooping smooth, the lavender linen shower curtain that steam enveloped every evening I bathed. Still, it made me think about “The Bigger Picture”—if maybe things were happening in one particular way and not another for a certain reason. And then, naturally, came this: What is meant to happen next?
We’d met a few months earlier, Jason and I, on the outdoor patio of a landmark bar. He was sipping a tallboy of domestic beer, his hair still wet and dark from a day spent by the pool, reading novels and watching women as they lowered themselves into tepid water. I liked him for no good reason, and liked him even more when I figured this out—liked how I could be in control of so many things, but not my feelings, not the person who stirred them. I wanted to do all of the dumbest of things: smoke beside him on bridges, watch the floodwaters rise. My allegiance, it seemed to me, was going to lie wherever it wanted to lie, and this, too, was sort of attractive. I was a person in control of so many things.
Still, it took us weeks to determine that we shared both a common origin and this particular narrative moment, both of us loading our Pennsylvanian lives into a vehicle and driving a thousand miles west because we were twenty-two and lonely, in need of something new. And a landscape was like a wardrobe: you adjusted as you moved.
That first night, he propped his elbows on the grated table until it left an imprint across his skin. “It’s like we’re living the same story,” he said. “Quick, what’s the place you most want to go?”
“Austin,” I said.
“Dallas,” he said.
“Close enough,” I said.
In some way, I think I needed it to be true: that in some small way, I was meant to be in that moment, proof that I could be significant to somebody who was not me.
In the woods, there was no wind. Everything was still. The grass was wet marsh, the weeds growing horizontal from months packed under Midwestern snow. Jason stood beside me, our shared friend just beside him, and while I could feel their static presence, hear their shallow breathing and mud-stuck boots, I had this idea, in the back of my mind, that I was the only one left alive. Like I was the last woman to inhabit the Earth.
“It looks like footage from a movie,” I said, implying the power lines and woods, inviting like in a poem.
“Like a drama,” Jason agreed. “Predictable characters,” then, “predictable plots.”
“Predictable romances,” I said. “Predictable endings. Scenes above love filmed dizzily across a beach.”
The mutual friend was of shared interest: her purple pants and big, empty house. She reminded us of a librarian and she spoke like a dictionary, like a foreign language translation site, coupling the things I knew so well in patterns I had to think about to understand. Her house was a series of rooms with yellow shag, planters drooping low from vintage barstools, their leaves so big and flat the cat would chew on them until he hacked. I liked her for her strangeness, her unpainted nails and simple hair, and when I was high or was not high, I wanted to know if I could be like her.
I’d met an edge of adoration, and wanted to see how far it stretched beyond.
From time to time, she spoke to us about existence as one of many simulations, our world a blinking cosmic hard drive, and I liked most to consider that concept. It made me terrifyingly ecstatic, how bad it could get if the plug got pulled.
But in the woods, I thought of my jeans—how they were wet and full of gravel, and what was the purpose of such a small detail if indeed we were living within a simulation? It demanded an unnatural level of attentiveness, and it was this more than anything that made me uncomfortable in the woods, in the world.
Dusk was fast approaching. The weed had been strong and hallucinatory, but there was no mistaking them once I heard them. “Those are wolves,” I said, “we’re hearing.”
I scanned the slim horizon, its gnarled forest, the trees twisting upwards towards the sky. Individually, I could trace their paths, but in their plentitude I got confused. Beneath our feet, I knew, their roots knotted deep into complex networks, and exactly like the wolves, just because we could not see them didn’t mean they weren’t there.
Our friend pulled a cattail from the soil, held it up, lithe, to the scarred blue sky. “They’re dogs,” she said, “just dogs.”
“I don’t think they’re wolves,” Jason said, but his subtle movements suggested otherwise. They were little things I was noticing: his backwards lean, his hesitation to turn. His boot—brown, well worn-in leather—sinking slow into the mud.
He was realizing for the first time, I think, that we were in no position to fight—wolves or dogs or otherwise, we were not invincible, or enough alone, and there would later be many things, including wolves, that would prove bigger than ourselves.
Whether or not it was wolves seems to me now arbitrary. Years passed, and of course we lived, but that’s not what really matters. What matters, I think, is this: it was fear I felt in those woods in the same way it would be fear for years to come. I’d been warned of this before I left, reminded that halfway across the country might as well be halfway across the world for all it mattered. When you’re alone, you are alone, and no amount of self-assurance or delusional thinking about parallelism is going to make the facts of your life all line up.
Simulation or no simulation, you are alone in your moment of terror.
“I’ll find someone,” I’d said, but in truth, I had no intention. The scaring was part of it, no, the scaring was all of it. If a plug was going to be pulled, I wanted to be in control of the movement that pulled it.
Months later, away from those woods, I read of a local woman who disappeared after setting out by herself. Her neighbors heard a chorus of distant, frenzied barking, later found her jacket, torn up, in the snow. So what does it matter, the choices we make? The lives we may or may not be living?
Regardless of whether our acts are or are not of our volition, let me be in love and in love with losing. Let me see how small I feel.
Amy Butcher is an essayist and short fiction writer whose work appears in The Paris Review, Salon, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, The North American Review, The Indiana Review, Fourth Genre, Vela and Brevity, among others. She earned her MFA from the University of Iowa and is the recipient of scholarships and awards from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the University of Iowa, Word Riot Inc., the Stanley Foundation for International Research, the Academy of American Poets, and Colgate University’s 2012-2013 Olive B. O’Connor Creative Writing Fellowship. More at amyebutcher.com.
Copyright © 2014 by Amy Butcher.
Just in time for lettuce leaves and diets, January is high season in France for enjoying a slice or three of la galette des rois, or King’s Cake, made with flaky puff pastry and a rich filling of frangipane (with some variations on the recipe). Although the cake is officially for the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th, it unofficially gives everybody a good excuse to continue nibbling through the first weeks of the New Year. Bonus: each cake has a ceramic or plastic figurine baked into it and is sold with a paper crown. Tradition has it that whomever finds the fève, figurine, in their slice of cake is king or queen for the day. (Specific guidelines for or desires of monarchs may vary.)
Writer and eighteenth-century Enlightenment epicurean Brillat-Savarin’s observation that, “Dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye,” could extend this month to include a big slice of King’s Cake. And if you’re worried about what will happen when February comes, the French have it covered with Candlemas: February 2nd is la Chandeleur, when everyone eats crêpes as part of the celebration of this Catholic feast day.
Not limited by just desserts or the Age of Enlightenment, writers in this month’s Apéritif share their favorite cheeses and sweets and entrées that they have savored, dreamed about or cooked up. Grab your paper crown, some cutlery and a scepter—the party is starting over at the dinner table.
Michelle Wildgen (Bread and Butter):
I have never done much writing about eating in Paris because others do it better and more exhaustively, but I certainly do dream of eating there more. Actually, one of my favorites is a cheat; it was in Mougins about 15 years ago, not Paris. I can’t recall the main course, but the first course was a salad with wild mushrooms–and it arrived with an unheralded half-disc of foie gras terrine perched along the side. Only in France would they decide the foie gras need not be mentioned. Otherwise, when I think of Paris I think of rabbit, which not enough people serve here; pastry, obviously, though I have no particular affiliation with any one choice; but most of all, cheese: raw milk, redolent, funky cheese, cheese with those little crystallizations that arise with age, cheese with odoriferous, slightly sticky apricot-colored washed rinds, cheese with soft mushroomy bloomy ivory rinds, cheese with soft, chalky, goaty centers, cheese rolled in herbs and cheese veined with green, cheese the very variety and beauty of which is the best argument I’ve come across for not writing off the human race all together.
Jillian Lauren (Some Girl):
Two of the world’s most exquisite pleasures are eating with friends in Paris and eating alone in Paris. I did a lot of both when I was there last. I enjoy the adventure of grappling with menu French alone, even if it does result in debacles like believing I ordered a steak for lunch and choking down tartare instead (which was, confusingly, not called tartare). While at home I’m often guilty of scarfing lunch in the car; in Paris I ate a simple jambon beurre in the Place des Vosges. Or a fois gras and fig tartine, served with fresh grapefruit juice, in the sandwich shop next to the Poilane bakery, which has divine bread. And when I got tired of the contents of my own brain, I landed at Le Felteu in the Marais, where I gabbed with an expat friend over a hearty lamb plat du jour, soaking up the sauce with chunks of baguette, ordering a second carafe of wine. All this was served to us by a rakish chef, who stopped to chat and show me his Tweety Bird tattoos. Paris both sharpens my senses and slows me down, which is surely the best way to approach a meal- with sensual awareness and time to spare. And everything, everything tastes better there.
Michele Filgate (The Paris Review):
I’ve eaten the best meals of my life in Paris, but nothing comes close to one rainy August day when I decided to have an indoor picnic while I was staying at Shakespeare & Company. I wandered down to a bakery and bought a baguette that was still warm from the oven. It smelled so good that I ate some of it while standing under the awning of the shop. I picked out some juicy tomatoes and ripe avocados at the market. I went to the local cheese shop and bought duck pate, prosciutto, and two types of cheeses—one gooey and pungent, one firm. I paired it with a couple of glasses of Côtes du Rhône. It was quite the decadent meal, and I enjoyed every bit of it while looking out the rain-streaked window at Notre-Dame. It’s raining in Brooklyn as I write this. Gloomy days will always remind me of that sublime afternoon.