- Art of the Sentence
- Bookseller Spotlight
- Broadside Thirty
- Carte du Jour
- Comics Sans
- Correspondent's Course
- Flash Fidelity
- Flash Fridays
- Free Verse
- From the Magazine
- From The Vault
- Lost & Found
- Tin House Books
- Writers' Workshops
Sign Up for News, Sales
Tweets by @Tin_House
News & Events
From Issue #62
DIAGRAM OF SELECT CUTS
Divided like a continent. Spitting image
of the British Jack. Brisket I whispered,
disregarding the language of the area,
I am on to you. Who doesn’t want to be
reconfigured? Asking nothing of the condemned
but bones and a clean break. This close to you
I am skeletal, sir, unlucky. The structure
is already underway, its spiked beams and bright
steel. How will this distress be concealed
in the pictorial dictionary? A diagram of select
cuts. A coat of arms with Catherine wheels.
Carey McHugh‘s first collection of poems, American Gramophone, came out in May.
The following appears in the current issue of Tin House, Faith.
Writing about the subject of faith in a country named for faith, founded upon faith, with faith as the central word of its national motto, is, shall we say, a somewhat fraught endeavor. I have for the past six years again lived in Pakistan, where I was born and spent about half of my younger life. Pakistan is the stan, the land, of the pak, the pure. It was founded as a home for the Muslims of British Imperial India as the British left and partitioned India. Pakistanis learn from our first schoolbook, and see inscribed on signs and posters and sometimes in the form of flowers on the grassy margins of roads, the exhortation “Unity, Faith, Discipline.” Unity around faith. Discipline in faith. Unified, disciplined faith.
Even so, I was struck anew upon my return to Pakistan by the degree of coercion and compulsion and indeed violence in matters of faith. When I was a child, restaurants still served food, albeit discretely, during the fasting hours of the month of Ramadan. They do so no longer. When I was a child, I did not know which of my friends were Shia. It did not seem to matter. Now people are not infrequently killed for being Shia, murdered by shadowy assassins. Others are killed for belonging to other sects, or for questioning the nation’s blasphemy law, or for defending those who question the nation’s blasphemy law.
No, my present home does not seem a particularly auspicious venue for inquiries into faith.
And yet faith takes many forms. There is, of course, the faith one might have in organized religion. And then there is the faith a farmer has when planting a seed purchased with borrowed money that this year the rains will arrive on time, that it is possible to farm and make a living from farming, that a farmer and his family can somehow survive. There is the faith a parent has when sending a child to school that she will return. There is the faith a writer has when sitting down alone, day after day, year after year, that the words will come.
There is also the faith that the place where one lives is indeed a sensible place to call home. In my case, this last item of faith has during the past six years faced a bit of a test.
“Why the hell do you live there?” friends in New York and London have been known to say, a question somehow both mildly offensive and warmingly touching at the same time. My friends say this especially after a recent massacre or bombing or discovery of a terrorist mastermind residing next door to the country’s military academy.
My answers turn to family: to the pleasure I get, having grown up in an extended, tri-generational family, to live in a situation where my children can play with their grandparents every morning before the children go to school and the grandparents, who reside next door, go to work. I tell my friends about the importance to me, a storyteller, of feeling I am part of a story, and how I do feel part of a story here. I mention some vague yet not flimsy romantic attachment to Lahore, the way the city moves me.
But I know, have perhaps always known, that the choice to live in Pakistan is at heart a matter of faith: the faith that this land will live up to at least some of its vast potential, that it will stop devouring the dreams of its residents, that its children will grow up with more stability and less potential violence than they face today.
When I first moved back I felt cautiously optimistic. Pakistan had survived so much. Free elections had just transpired. Surely things would begin to improve.
I do not remember the first time I despaired. Perhaps it was brought on by an untimely funeral. Or by schools closing for the holidays prematurely, because of a fear of attacks. Or by glancing at a newspaper one morning. Or by yet another friend finally, after long resisting, packing up and moving abroad.
I have often thought of leaving again myself, but I have not yet left.
My faith in this place has, I will admit, been shaken. But my faith in New York was once shaken, when I lived there. My faith in London was once shaken, when I lived there.
I suppose I have learned to live with intermittent faith in a place. I leap from moments when I think, yes, my home will flourish, to others when I think, no, all that awaits is decline. Maybe this ebb and flow is common. Maybe it has more to do with me. Maybe it is the nature of a fiction writer, some fiction writers, to exist suspended between what is and what we desire there to be, unable, in the end, to pick one over the other, to commit to the life, to reality, or otherwise to the dream.
Mohsin Hamid is the author of three novels, Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and a book of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations. Born in Lahore, he has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York, and California.
While Marlon James was a deserved winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize for A Brief History Of Seven Killings, British Indian author Sunjeev Sahota, or rather his publishers, could have been forgiven for feeling a little disgruntled at the outcome. His brilliant second novel, The Year Of The Runaways, which was a runner up for the esteemed literary prize, is an enthralling look at the lives of illegal Indian immigrants living in Sheffield in Northern England. It weaves a compelling tapestry of hard luck stories and the brute determination needed to exist in the underbelly of society.
Soul crushing tragedy interspersed with brief moments of triumph co-exist in the lives of three men, Tochi, Randeep and Avtar, along with a British Indian woman, Narinder as we follow their journeys from India to England. All are in flight, living under the radar, surviving, fighting for scraps. Tochi, a chamar or untouchable, the lowest rung on India’s complex class system ladder, has the added handicap of dealing with the bigotry of his fellow Indians.
It’s the kind of novel whose characters and their plights seem as real as if they were blood relatives and who stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. As Salman Rushdie blurbed, “All you can do is surrender, happily, to its power.”
Jeff Vasishta: These characters are so detailed and rich, I wonder if you take a pen and pad every time you stay in India.
Sunjeev Sahota: I often think I should, but there’s always so much other, more pressing stuff to be getting on with in India – family, festivals, food, drink, the general havoc of the country – that a pad and pen just doesn’t figure. I am, however, constantly asking questions, constantly interested.
JV: There’s a little known faction of British Asian culture that you capture so well. In particular, Sikh culture often seems to be so insular and regimented which is why the depiction of Savraj, the prostitute living in a garden shed, is so shocking. How did her character come about? Was it based of someone in particular?
SS: Not on any one particular person, no, but her story does mirror what some women who made the trip across to the UK experienced. Really, her character didn’t exist, even in my mind, until I started writing Narinder’s chapter. I mean, I didn’t start the novel with an intention to show the plight of women from the subcontinent who have been forced into being sex-workers in the UK. I needed Narinder to have a UK-based, characterological link to India and from there Savraj grew.
JV: The world of your stories is so fully formed and you talk about India with real authority. How long have you been going there? Do you just stay with relatives or travel around?
SS: I was six when I made my first trip, a family holiday, and have been going roughly annually ever since – my maternal family is there, on the old farm. I used to always just stay with relatives, in Punjab, but over the last 10 years or so I’ve broadened things out: Kolkata, Kerala, Tamil Nadu (Kanyakumari, in fact). However, it’s also true that I was born and brought up on an estate in Derby amongst a strong immigrant community, full of recent arrivals from Punjab; so strong and recent that, looking back, it was like an Indian village transplanted to northern England.
JV: People may be surprised to find out that you did a degree in math before turning your hand to writing. Where did you work? How did you find time to write?
SS: I worked in financial services for a while – in insurance and then in mortgages – writing in the evenings, weekends, and holidays. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing a book and I think that was right for me: there was no pressure; I could take my own sweet time. Continue reading
The diabetic alcoholic across the street had lost all limbs by now. He only came out anymore for Medi-Van transport to dialysis. It took two strong men to hoist him and his wheelchair down the splintered wooden front stairs. He lived alone with his aging mother, who never came out to wave goodbye. That mother? I’d guess she was about a hundred and fourteen by now.
She was on a reverse mortgage, hidden away.
The diabetic had gone to dialysis. It was a blasting hot spring day. I was staring out the window, enjoying the calm. A Cutlass pulled up in a rush of shaking bass blasting from rattling speakers. A girl ran out of the diabetic’s tiny, old house toward the street. She ran like an escapee, and moved like a track star, fast and smooth. The sun flashed against a long silver blade in her hand, making her gleam like a goddess. She clutched a butcher knife. She slammed against the Cutlass and yelled, “Get out of here or I will kill you.” Every word carried the force of her full conviction.
A flood of people poured out of the house behind her. So maybe the diabetic didn’t live alone with his mother? Except, who were all the rest of those people, and when had they ever gone in the house? I had never seen any of them arrive. I’d never seen them knock, or leave, or hang out on the porch. It was like they were born inside the house and never emerged until now, as far as I could tell. Some were barefoot. They were all in lounge wear, pajamas and slips. One kid, maybe ten years old, came out still holding a box of Fruit Loops, spilling as he trailed behind.
They yelled, “Don’t do it!” The voice of reason came as a chorus. They yelled, “You’re only wrecking your own life.”
A man pushed his way ahead of the pack and caught the raging girl by her elbows. He pulled her backward. She stabbed the knife in the air toward the car, but she let herself be dragged. In his arms, she walked backward down the sidewalk, over the yard, up the stairs, into the house. The car peeled out backward. Everything had gone into rewind.
When the street was quiet the Medi-Van brought the diabetic home, back to home sweet home, to recover.
Late that night, I was still up when the doorbell rang. It was a drunk who climbed onto our porch, who rang the bell just after midnight. Our front door was open to bring in the cool night air, the security door we call a screen door there to hold the world out.
He said, “I love you! I’ve always loved you. I will love you forever.” Those words traveled like the worst kind of threat, the wrong kind of love, a rusted razor of high hopes.
I offered back, “You have the wrong house.” Wrong person, wrong time, wrong season, wrong promise.
He said, “I love you! Only you!”
It was too late to close the door without moving close to this man, where his fingers were laced through the grating. From my dark corner, I said, “Good night.”
He said, “But I love you.” His voice cracked with his truth.
I didn’t call for help and he didn’t make any threats except eternal love, a non-threat that seemed able to sustain itself forever.
I said, “I don’t know you.”
He said, “Only you.” I was alone and he was alone and we had nothing in common short of being human at night. The moon loomed over his shoulder, white and bald.
“You have to go,” I said, Juliet to his Romeo.
Finally, he turned around. He wobbled down the stairs. He tipped to the right toward the roses, then he tipped to the left, and held the old metal railing to keep steady. “Goodbye,” I whispered, just loud enough that he might hear.
He turned back to me then. He said, “I never loved you. Not at all. I never did.” He took his cloud of sweat and love and left me only the moon, alone.
Monica Drake is the author of The Folly of Loving Life, Clown Girl, and The Stud Book. She holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and designed and launched the BFA in Writing at the Pacific Northwest College of Art where she currently is faculty. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the The New York Times, Paris Review Daily, The Sun, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Northwest Review, and other publications.
The cover art for Tin House #67: Faith is part of a series concerning past lives and soulmates. Artist James R. Eads says that A Hundred Sunsets “is meant to capture the indescribable feeling of being reunited with someone after what feels like thousands of years.” He writes further in this companion poem:
A Hundred Sunsets
And then it happened
like a hundred sunsets all at once
the many secrets of life and death
were no longer hidden
and we were left alone
to bask in the light.
Though his artistic background is traditional, Eads’s work has a distinctly modern feel—the colors and amoeba-like shapes of A Hundred Sunsets have a neon, almost psychedelic vibe. An experienced woodcut artist, Eads has translated his knowledge of mark making into the digital medium. These printmaking techniques are evident in his use of negative space, specifically where fine lines of color break up the black silhouettes of his figures. He is also influenced by the Impressionist paintings of Monet and Seurat.
Through his art, Eads expresses complex themes, such as the notion of an eternal soul and the passage of time. He gives the soul a physical form, suggesting “something inside us in between the heart and the mind.”
You can see more of his work at www.jamesreads.com.
Today, we dip back into Tin House #59: Memory, for this conversation between Rachel Kushner and Dana Spiotta, both faculty at this year’s Summer Writer’s Workshop.
Dana Spiotta and Rachel Kushner mine our artistic and political history in a way that few contemporary novelists do. They are the descendents of DeLillo and Didion, but each has struck out on her own to stake claim on new fictional ground. Both writers’ work is characterized by their sharpness of language and their precise emotional registers, as well as their ambitious, politically charged themes. Spiotta is the author of three novels, Lightning Field, Eat the Document (a finalist for the National Book Award), and Stone Arabia (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Kushner is the author of two novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers, both of which were finalists for the National Book Award.
In the fall of 2013, Kushner ventured east from her Los Angeles home and taught a seminar on Proust at Syracuse University, where Spiotta is on the faculty. On the occasion of these two great writers and thinkers being in the same place at the same time, we asked them to talk about process and cultural memory. Not only did they oblige, but they also went down a few surprising and inspiring avenues, including how to make a life out of one’s idiosyncratic strength and how to achieve “bravery from reading.”
Dana Spiotta: Can you describe your writing process? Where did you begin with each of your novels? How did you find your way into them?
Rachel Kushner: Because I’ve written only two novels, I don’t quite feel there is a system. Or maybe I don’t want to settle into the confidence of thinking there is one. The process was perhaps different with the first, Telex from Cuba, than with the second, The Flamethrowers. But there were elements of commonality. I’m drawn to images and seem to start with them. Or one. Something I imagine, a scene or detail, or even a photograph, something that has a charge of meaning that can’t be easily reduced. With the first book, I had gone to Cuba and spent almost a month there—just for a trip, not to write about it—and while visiting the newly renovated Castro family farmhouse, which is near Preston, a former American colony, I realized that the place had been recently painted the color that United Fruit painted all their company homes, a bright but chalky mustard yellow. I thought, Hmm. Perverse. The long answer to how Fidel’s revolutionary government could come to accidentally coat its leader’s boyhood home in the paint of the American occupier would probably require a whole novel. And yet I don’t get near trying to explain that specific thing in the actual book I wrote. Rather, I delved into the atmosphere that was imported and sustained by the Americans, the ways in which they witnessed and maybe sped up the oncoming revolution by their more or less colonial presence on the island.
With The Flamethrowers, I was thinking about New York City in the 1970s, the kind of classic image of the looters in the Bronx during the blackout of July 1977. And downtown at that time, the artists, the way their pieces were also sometimes a kind of looting, Gordon Matta-Clark breaking into an empty pier building and sawing a giant half-moon-shaped hole in it. So I started with that: New York as a blighted place of freedom and unpredictability. But very quickly, I made a kind of sharp left into what was going on in Italy in the 1970s. I was thinking of an image of one hundred thousand people pouring into the streets of Rome, also in 1977, just a few months before the blackout. And I had a photograph that I’d printed out and taped up, of a girl in theater makeup, singing, a playful act of defiance, countered by police with tear-gas canisters.
In short, I think, daydream, take notes, and, finally, try to find the tone. That can take a very long time. I don’t really move forward until I’ve found the tone, the register, of the telling. I’m sad to be reminded that the tone of both books took me quite a while to locate. But once it was located, then things moved along swiftly. There was no middle for me, somehow, with either of those novels. There was a long beginning, a rooting in the dark, and then a hurtling toward the end.
DS: We are very happy to have you teaching Proust in the Syracuse MFA program this fall. Can you tell me how your work has been influenced and inspired by Proust? I find I return to the novels that help me feel brave and take bigger risks. What does reading Proust permit you to do in your own work? Which other writers (fiction and nonfiction) do you return to for inspiration?
RK: It’s been a lot of fun and also a real honor being an interloper at your program. I like that idea, of getting bravery from reading, instead of from whiskey (which I don’t drink). It changes for me what writers and books I go to. For boldness, with The Flamethrowers, it was perhaps Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, and Gaddis—but specifically the first novel, The Recognitions, which for me is something singular and apart from his later work. With Telex, it was Duras, and Alejo Carpentier, and maybe Baudelaire and Genet. Also Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, which is crazy, on account of its long prologue. No one would get away with that now. We have absolutely no equivalent to Victor Hugo. Proust is always an inspiration to me, and teaching him has been exhilarating: it’s the only word that can describe the experience of rereading him as a teacher, the one who is supposed to walk into class with a structure, a theory, and help form a bridge between the practice of writing and Proust’s literature. His book is a wonderful laboratory on the formation of an artist, and as a rumination on the properties of art, and of genius, and, of course, on all the earthly stuff of daily life, jealousy, love, memory, egos, ambition, loss, the social world, Second Empire and turn-of-the-century France, and so on and so forth. I think when I first read him I felt inspired to take my time with each sentence, letting it flow to its needed length, with phrases that take little trips, become tributaries that then rejoin the main point, all in the interest not of indulgence but of precision, to render a truth that has an exact and full meaning. Sometimes language, rhetorically called into service, can clip or reduce, for its effect. With Proust, that never happens. The rhetorical structure is bigger, more complicated, initially more difficult to navigate than a lot of literature, because it is fully in service to meaning: it is meaning. In Proust, the sentence is never a trick of language.
He had an unparalleled command of language and an otherworldly gift at putting it to use telling the secrets about what it’s like to be alive. It’s hard to express all this briefly without sounding both corny and kind of reductive. He’s the master. The more I read him, the more convinced of this I am.
DS: Can you tell me about your early writing? Did you work on short stories? If so, what were they like?
RK: My early writing is poetry. Then the poems became prose and I decided to try to get an MFA in fiction, so I wrote “stories” in order to apply, and then when I went to Columbia, I worked on stories because that was what everyone else was doing, and I felt out of my depth and wanted to go along to get along. It’s probably not that simple, but it’s hard for me to think back, now, and recall ever wanting to be a writer of short stories. The goals, the arc, the structure, the pressure on the sentence, the need for an epiphany: I don’t relate to it even remotely. My earliest writing, from elementary school, is strangely not all that different from how I write now. There is something about the tone that is the same. I wrote a novel in first grade. It’s very short and has, you know, illustrations. It’s called, “The Richest Cat in Hestery” [sic]. It’s about a “plutocat” who flaunts his wealth and thinks he’s superior and goes around putting down the other cats. By the end of the book, needless to say, he is mauled and driven off by them. Maybe my endings are less predictable now. I hope so.
DS: Did you ever have a breakthrough moment in your writing? What helped you develop into the writer you are today?
RK: I guess finding the right tone for Telex was a breakthrough. There are parts of it—the prologue, and a late chapter in which an American social club is bombed—that were, initially, more like prose poems, and I decided, just . . . that’s who I am. I don’t have to approach the novel as other people do. Now that idea seems like, Well, of course. The idea is to use your secret idiosyncratic strength, just exploit the hell out of it, make of it a life, a synthetic reality. But initially, I did not have the confidence in myself to do that. Once you do do that, there is really no risk, I don’t think, of being overly affected by influence, because anything you read goes into the brew, the brew of one. A solipsism that takes in the world, but remains itself. Continue reading
My mother and I found The Desert Fathers in a Kansas City used bookstore called Prospero’s. It was my second trip to the store and her first—I brought her there after discovering a tall shelf devoted to Catholic spirituality that I knew she would want to see. While we browsed the packed display tables, one of the employees snored in an armchair while another laughed at his coworker from behind the counter. On one table, bundled together as if from a single donor, my mom and I found a sort of mystical trove: The Flowers of St. Francis, Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation, Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, and The Desert Fathers—Helen Waddell’s 1936 translation of the stories and sayings of fourth-century Christian monks living in the deserts of northern Egypt. We grabbed them all and walked past the sleeping employee to the counter, where my mother insisted on buying them for me, as a gift. The book would stay on my nightstand, along with the other mystical texts, for about a month.
It was a strange summer for me, and I think my mother’s gift was a small kindness acknowledging this. I’d just finished a year on a writing fellowship and, with no clear idea of what I’d do next and no money coming in until a nannying job began in the fall, I subleased my Ann Arbor apartment and moved in with my family in Kansas City for the summer. I spent those months staining strangers’ decks, watering plants, digging post holes, and, in one case, shaping a pile of five hundred bricks into a tidy stack of five hundred bricks. At night I’d return to my parents’ house covered in red deck stain, looking like I’d been attacked by wolves. I was lonely and often theatrically sad.
The other, greater reason she bought me the books was our shared interest in Catholic mysticism. Mine was ostensibly for fiction. I had grown up in Indiana, attending a strict Catholic school (a pre-Vatican II throwback) where we wore uniforms and were required to attend Mass every morning. At eighteen I had moved with my family to Kansas, where members of Fred Phelps’ congregation protested my college graduation with crude signs that read “GOD HATES FAGS!” By the time I applied for an MFA in fiction, I had disavowed religion entirely. Over the course of graduate school, I had come to explore religious themes in my writing, but with a what I’d hoped to be an ethnographic remove.
My mother’s interest in Christian mysticism was deeper and more urgent: In the fall she would begin the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius—a program of guided mediations and mental exercises—at a nearby Jesuit parish. She was preparing herself.
It was these, the Spiritual Exercises, that would finally bring me to read The Desert Fathers. Shortly before I returned to Michigan, my mother told me she had finished her written account of her faith journey to submit to her potential spiritual director. I asked if I could read it. Instead, she read it to me aloud, by the TV in the living room.
She’d written the story of her life: her identification with God the Father after her own father’s death when she was ten, her marriage to my father, her brother’s death from AIDS in 1995.
“Kansas was a desert,” she said, referring to the year my family moved from Muncie, Indiana, where my brother, sister, and I had been born and where she’d lived for twenty years, to Manhattan, Kansas. She talked about my brother’s and sister’s difficulties with the move, my depression, and her loneliness in all of it. This desert had humbled her, she said, and made her rely on God. This, all of it, was the first frank account of her loneliness and suffering I’d ever heard from her.
I asked if I could have a copy, and before she turned in the original to the Jesuits, she gave me a photocopy of the handwritten pages.
Later, while thinking about what she’d said about the desert, I picked up The Desert Fathers and began reading.
I found myself confused as to where, exactly, The Desert Fathers began, or what it was in the first place. The men known as the Desert Fathers (or simply “The Fathers”) fled the cities of Alexandria and Thebes to found their desert communities in the third and fourth centuries. For the next millennium their stories and sayings existed in various editions until they were compiled in the Vitae Patrum (“The Lives of the Fathers”) by a seventeenth-century Jesuit named Heribert Rosweyde. The resulting text is a messy, multi-book anthology—a patchwork of histories, accounts, books-within-books by different authors, many the subjects of biographies of their own (St. Jerome, John Cassian). Waddell’s The Desert Fathers, published in 1936, is a selected translation of the larger, motley text.
Helen Waddell’s reputation nowadays is modest (she edited the journal The Nineteenth Century, socialized with Max Beerbohm, George Bernard Shaw, and Siegfried Sassoon), but her output—a novel, two plays, nearly a dozen translations of medieval Latin verse—is astounding. Her 1936 introduction to The Desert Fathers gives a sense of her energy. Here, Waddell gives an overview of the Desert Fathers’ philosophy and legacy, mostly through reproducing the accounts of their lives found later in the book, or framing the Fathers’ ethics in contrast to the Roman civets of their urban, humanist contemporaries. What is more interesting, however, is the stirring moment in which Waddell champions what the Desert offers the human arrogance of her own time. After an anecdote of a young monk’s sad, unnecessary death, she offers her own, frank Jeremiad that reads as a prophesy not only for the world war only three years in the future, but for the rest of the twentieth century as well:
For the martyr’s grave of these lesser pilgrims is not only the waste of youth in human experience. Leaving aside the annihilation of an entire generation in four years, not yet a quarter of a century ago, how many have died or been maimed in chemical or biological research: how many liter the track to the Northern or Southern Pole: how many have been taken by Everest and his peers: how many dead and still to die in the conquest of the air, or in that last exploration which gives this generation its nearest approach to religious ecstasy, the annihilation of space in speed? (22-23)
As for the lives and sayings of the Fathers themselves, the text is certainly hagiography. Abbott Macarius converses with a severed head (XX.xvi). Agathonicus cuddles with a lion (Patrum Spirituale clxvii). Occasionally the Devil shows up and complains about the monks’ annoying piety. But the most fascinating passages of the Vitae Patrum have nothing to do with the magical or miraculous. While much of the Vitae Patrum depicts frightening feats of self-denial and deprivation (what might look like eating disorders to modern readers), others offer mysterious, moving stories of love and compassion:
There is another place in the inner desert […] called Cellia. To this spot those who have had their first initiation and who desire to live a remoter life, stripped of all its trappings, withdraw themselves: for the desert is vast, and the cells are sundered from one another by so wide a space that none is in sight of his neighbor, nor can any voice be heard. One by one they abide in their cells, a mighty silence and a great quiet among them: only on the Saturday and on the Sunday do they come together to church, and there they see each other face to face as folk restored in heaven. If by chance one is missing in that gathering, straightaway they understand that he has been detained by some unevenness of his body, and they all go to visit him… (History of the Monks of Egypt, xxii)
A certain brother had sinned, and the priest commanded him to go out from the church. But Bessarion rose up and went out with him, saying, “I too am a sinful man.” (IX.ii)
The Fathers privilege silence, and when they do speak, it is mostly in koans: “An old man said, ‘The cell of the monk is the furnace in Babylon, where the three young men found the Son of God: and it is also the pillar of cloud from which God spoke to Moses,’” (VI.xxxviii). The bulk of The Desert Fathers consists of terse parables depicting the monks’ rigor as they overcome the temptations of the world within and beyond their cells. As Waddell reminds us, “[T]he records are of their ways with men. There is little or nothing of their ways with God.” The monks, in keeping with their conception of God as a mysterious being, do little to define or contain the divine in terms of doctrine. These accounts are, in many ways, about the inexplicable nature of a god that lives somewhere far beyond language or comprehension. This is perhaps their greatest legacy. Thanks to the Fathers, Waddell says, “The sense of infinity is now in our blood.”
That summer, my Kansas City certainly wasn’t a desert. (If anything, it was a vast, sprinklered lawn.) But in The Desert Fathers I found a pursuit of holiness, of goodness, that was without dogma—one that has helped me find a “sense of infinity” in my own blood. And it was in my blood. Reading the Fathers’ book and hearing my mother’s testimony, I felt moved by the longing for a kind of truth I found in both accounts. It is this, the lonesome striving for truth and goodness, that I so admire in my mother. Together, they have helped me to understand religion as a language for the ineffable, not simply as an excuse for uniforms or hateful protest. They have allowed me to see myself as one of many inheritors of the ancient projects of making meaning in the sprawling deserts of the world, whether in Egypt or Kansas.
The end of Waddell’s selection offers the biographies of two women, St. Mary the Harlot and St. Pelagia, also known as “the Harlot.” As their titles suggest, these women’s stories are more about their conversions (credited to monks) rather than their wisdom. Reading beyond Waddell’s selection, however, I learned more about the other women who shared in these monks’ search for holiness in the desert. The accounts of the Fathers were written by men for a male monastic audience (no surprise here), and so the Mothers have mostly been overlooked—aside from the short “harlot” biographies, they represent only two or three lines within The Desert Fathers. But since the publication of Waddell’s translation, their lives have been rediscovered. Saint Paula, Amma Syncletica, Amma Sarah of the Desert. These women, like my mother, came to the desert striving for their own sense of the divine. There were Desert Mothers, too.
Daniel Hornsby‘s work has appeared in Indiana Review, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry, and Unstuck. He is currently working on a novel.
As you may have noticed, we’re having some good old fashioned website problems. We’re working on restoring the content we lost (including the online excerpts from our new Faith Issue and the last few months of blog material. We’ll try to have your favorite recent Art of the Sentence, Lost & Found, and Flash Fridays posts up again ASAP. In the meantime, to revisit our Flash Fridays series, you can always check those stories out on the Guardian Books Network.
Now, because you deserve something new and shiny when you visit The Open Bar, please enjoy this excerpt from the Faith Issue by Natalie Diaz.
THE HAND HAS TWENTY-SEVEN BONES
Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, where you go.
1. I make my faith in my hands. A writer can declare faith in nothing but must bear faith in her hands. Hands are the inventors of language. We make words for what we must do. Our words are made of hands. 2. The pen isn’t separate from the hand but like all instruments it is an extension of the hand. Pen becomes hand. 3. Written letters, manuscripts, are drawn like threads from the manus, are connected to the manus. Manus as puppeteer—bowing the n in supplication, lifting then lowering the leg of the h as it breaks into a run, opening the mouth of the v to its white teeth, making a cup of the u then drinking from it. 4. We press our hands into the page until the page becomes our body. We are an ouroboros—writing ourselves onto ourselves. 5. Consider your hand in its moment of making. Hold your fingers and thumb together so there is no space between them. In this pose it’s easy to remember your hand as it was in the beginning, before it became itself—a paddle, a fin, a solid clayed thing. This was before we were finished. 6. To be finished, the hand had to be broken. Lessened before it became more, split four times, crafting the fingers and thumb—our hand-some hydra. 7. Georgia O’Keefe called lover Alfred Stiegletz, my hand. She wrote, Greetings—my hand—It’s Sunday night 9:30— 8. I once had a lover I called my hand. 9. I had another lover whom I also called my hand. 10. Both lovers are gone. My hands remain. 11. My hands are an archive. 12. Some linguists believe masturbate is derived from the words manus (hand) and stuprare (defile). 13. A year ago, my mind and body wrecked. I had to find a new way. My doctor prescribed medicine I didn’t want to take. I talked about this worry to a friend, who is also a poet and doctor. He said, You need to masturbate. I laughed. He said, You need to masturbate a lot. 14. The scientific explanation: orgasm releases oxytocin and lowers cortisol. (Midwives once masturbated women suffering hysteria as a type of treatment.) I took my medicine and my friend’s advice. 15. My hands wanted to touch your hands / because we had hands, wrote Frank Bidart. It’s a mise en abyme—he wrote about his hands with his own hands. To touch a lover’s hands with our hands, to know our hands in a new way through hands not ours, to become them as they are becoming you, is to be placed into the abyss of touch. 16. Physics say we never truly touch anything. Electrons in our hands repel electrons in the object we think we are touching. Touch is the brain’s interpretation of the repulsion taking place between our body’s electrons and the object’s electromagnetic field. 17. The feeling of touch is just luck. 18. In alchemy, the Hand of Mysteries represents the transformation of man into god. The symbols above each finger signify the formula for physicorum, a red ethereal fluid that can turn any substance into gold. 19. There are twenty-seven bones in the hand and twenty-seven protons in the nucleus of an atom of cobalt. Cobalt blue. Our hands are the masters of our blues. How many times have I given up my head for them to hold? 20. Are the acts my hands act on my behalf, the tasks I set them to upon her body, different than what our creators did when they molded our bodies? When I am behind her, my hands pressing her hips and shoulders, she pushing back into me, doesn’t it seem as if my hands have conjured her? From this position, if you looked upon us, would you believe she is leaping brand-new from my rib? 21. A hand lying on the shoulder or thigh of another body no longer belongs completely to the one it came from, wrote Rilke. I don’t know if he wrote this before or after he pushed his wife down the stairs. Pushed implying hands—perhaps there was a moment when they were not his hands fully but half hers. Did he believe she shared the blame? 22. In Florence I saw the hand of David. Like the way Athena was born from the axed-open head of Zeus, David’s body must have escaped from this soft marble hand. Michelangelo’s hand again and again upon the hand of David—the bend of his fingers and his own smooth veins. A hand giving birth to a hand. 23. Cheiromancy divines the future by studying lines of the hand. To know my hands is to know me—they are my thoughts. Their wishes become mine. Read my hand, can’t you tell they will soon reach to touch her? 24. My hands—my body’s gates of tenderness, the tools of my wonders. The things I reach out with—toward her wrist, toward the orange and the stone alike, into every darkness before me. Strikers of flame to the lantern wick, looseners of the laces of my shoes. 25. Again and again they command the copper button of her pants back through the button loop and each time it is no different than leaping a bright tiger through a fiery hoop to the applause and whistles of the crowd of blood dizzying my head—all this, the circus of love, the lighting of dark, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, at the tips of my fingers. My little makers, my ringmasters, my revelers of joy. 26. Without the hand, the lamp would stay cold. 27. I’m an artist because of my hands. They are two artists building things with me. My hands, me—we are three in one.
Natalie Diaz was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She splits life between Princeton, New Jersey, and the Mojave Desert.
For readers of Jon Krakauer and Susan Orlean, The Coyote’s Bicycle brings to life a never-before-told phenomenon at our southern border, and the human drama of those that would cross.
Prologue: EVERYBODY LOVES A BIKE
This is the story of several thousand bicycles that made an incredible journey. They were very ordinary, used bicycles. Mountain bikes, with their knobby tires and sturdy frames, made up a large percentage of the total. Some of these sported shocks and disc brakes—accessories you might think necessary for a trip of this distance and nature. But there were also fragile-looking ten-speeds, three-speeds, and fixed-gears. I once glimpsed a pink-and-purple girl’s bike with a small white seat and frills at the handle grips. Heavy American beach cruisers rolled on comfortable balloon tires. English roadsters and Dutch omafiets suggested sleek market runs down grass-lined lanes. The bikes were made in France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China. They were adorned in all manners, but the consistent theme was an admirable patina of road wear, rust, dings, dents, and scrapes. The seats and handle grips took the shapes of the bodies that touched them. Yet there were bikes with no seats, no brakes. Some bore labels of origin—shop emblems, registration stickers, or evidence of sale at auction by a police department. In a superstitious, totem-like fashion, an unknown cyclist had drawn simple, elegant waves along the black rubber sidewalls of an unremarkable bike’s tire—giving it the blessing of oceanic drift. There was another cycle I remember because of its brilliance: a classic lowrider fashioned from a boy’s Schwinn, with the “ape-hanger” handlebars, crushed velvet banana seat, gold piping, and gold-colored rims. The bike lay on its side, spokes sparkling in the dirt like a roulette of icicles. Many of the bikes fell into the category of “utility,” a style that peaked in the 1960s and conjured the image of a straight-backed professor pedaling between ivy towers. There were a number of rugged BMX racing bikes that evoked sunny suburban lots and dirty socks. A few high-tech-looking road bikes and classic gems turned up, but soon vanished. I never saw a tandem bicycle, but could easily have missed it. A high-wheel would have been impossible. Clown bikes, depending on personal definitions, abounded. Most of the bikes were not worth much. Some of them were missing important parts. All of them had generated thousands of dollars in their life spans. They had been snatched up by criminals, confiscated by police, purchased by human smugglers, dumped in a swamp, sold to a movie studio, contracted to the military, utilized in war training, co-opted in prisoner reform, donated to orphans, sold at swap meets, cycled and recycled again and again.
Not one human being who influenced the course of the bikes understood their full trajectory or end destination. No one knew how far they had traveled in a group. Few who handled or pedaled them were aware of their specific bike’s origin, its next step, or even its next owner. The bikes were not invisible, but at important stages, they were unseen.
The journey was not made entirely on their own two wheels.
The bicycles rode in trucks packed tight alongside boxes of AK-47s, grenade launchers, and pyrotechnics. They shipped out to a small, craggy, restricted island off the coast of California called San Clemente. They were crammed into the backs of border-enforcement vehicles. They flew to the Hawaiian archipelago. They drove north to Canada, east to Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia. The bikes rolled over the Mexican border powered by the feet of illegal immigrants. They rolled under the seats of actors and horse trainers and pumpkin farmers. Convicts rode them in prison. Real soldiers preparing for battle in Afghanistan took time out to pop wheelies on them. Finally, after years of service, the bikes again coasted under the feet of regular citizens, boys and girls. The bikes are out there now, still rolling. You might own one yourself. Most of their riders have no idea how well traveled their well-worn wheels really are.
When I tell the story of the bikes, listeners invariably ask, “How do you know?” or “Who arranged it all?”
To the first question, all I can say is that I happened upon a large pile of ordinary bikes in an unlikely place, under bizarre circumstances. Everybody likes bikes, I’ll say, and when I saw this motley collection of tubes and cranks and frames and wheels—the bicycle equivalent of a shipyard after a hurricane—I discovered that I liked these bikes most of all. I am a person attracted to thrift stores and yard sales. The more battered and unloved an item’s appearance sparks an equal and opposite sentiment in me. But I wasn’t the only one. A small, feverish cadre of people—ranchers and farmers and alley-trawlers—drawn by the mysterious arrival of bicycles in the bushes, in the river, abreast trails, by the roadside and under bridges, bicycles that poured down with a winter rain that seemed never to end, stopped to pick them up without knowing why. Or, maybe, even caring. Lucky finds don’t inspire deep inquiry.
I, however, am also attracted to a yarn, to irony, circularity, and meaning. It is a documentary flaw, I know. Phenomenal events take place without portent or meaning every day. And so, despite the mystery of the bicycles in plain sight, it is understandable that not many who wheeled their prizes homeward ever bothered to ask why—why here? A front-page article in the city’s only major newspaper reported the event but never asked as much—emitting only a “Huh, look, a bunch of bikes.”
And yet, varying ideas of value just might help answer the question of “Who arranged it all?” Because, maybe, we all did. A pile of discarded cars is an eyesore called a junkyard. The last time I entered a junkyard, I needed a rear turn-signal assembly for a 1982 Nissan extra-cab. I didn’t look around or admire the other clunkers. Bikes, however, belong to that class of essentially elegant innovations of travel—an airship, an airplane’s wing, a sailboat’s hull, a keel, a kite, the fin of a surfboard, a bicycle in motion. Bicycles execute the willpowers of the people who buy, find, steal, trade, and use them; they mark the memories of the people who love them. I like to think that it was the curious sight of ownerless cycles descended from nowhere that sits at the heart of this tale—because suddenly they became available to the will of whoever came upon them next; suddenly their destinies were without limit. I didn’t collect the bicycles myself. I merely wanted to know where they came from and where they were going and how far they could get. I began to understand the nature of their remarkable journey only by seeking out, speaking to, and investigating the people who had handled them one to the next.
At a certain point, as I charted the expanse of the bikes’ adventure, I tried to draw rude diagrams and flow charts. I once tried to draw a map of the journey, but this was difficult; I needed to illustrate things as big as the world yet include details as small as a ditch. In truth, I felt as though I’d caught the tail of a comet, all of the glinting and glittering bits shooting past in the darkness and somehow the very trailing end slowing just enough to get me all tangled up in it. The question of the bikes cost me a good few productive work years when I could least afford it. Following worthless bikes, I was warned a number of times, could cost me everything. On a couple of occasions, I was told, “Don’t end up with your head in a bucket,” and “You might end up off in the desert somewhere.” This was due to the fact that on my own, I was unqualified to sniff this story out. My Spanish is questionable. I’m not a criminal. I’m not affiliated with the military. My motives to expose the story ran at odds with the interests of those who knew the story best. There was no way I could ever keep up with either the speed or trajectory of this comet. It was headed for strange places and worlds that wouldn’t admit a regular, unassociated citizen like myself.
So on the trail, I made unlikely allies: movie makers, a Border Patrol agent, a Homeland Security investigator, a couple of Navy SEALs, a few ranchers, some environmentalists, human rights activists, human smugglers—people Mexicans generally refer to as “malandros” or bad guys—bike freaks, social agitators, artists, architects, academics, and people obsessed in various ways with small aspects of a story I couldn’t always explain. Everybody likes bikes, was my simple premise. Everybody likes to talk about bikes. And to get this story right, I had to believe that people like to talk about bikes to the extent that they’ll talk about them even while they’re stealing them, fencing them, breaking them down into sellable pieces.
The most critical part, however, the questions of where the bikes I was interested in had come from, and how they ended up in ownerless piles, was only answered after I made an alliance that became a friendship, with a fifty-year-old, ex-con deportee who worked at the public bathrooms in Tijuana and lived in a fake ship. Our meeting was not preordained, but it was meaningful in a way that defied logical connections. Because, as it turned out, El Negro was not just a man with entrée but an extraordinary investigator who delved into the border slums. And from his underworld interviews—with the dons of Tijuana smuggling and itinerant cycle mechanics alike—I was able to piece together the story of El Indio, an impoverished child of campesinos who walked out of his tiny Oaxacan village, arrived at la frontera, and built an empire on the strength of a single foolhardy idea.
Abandoned bicycles hold the unique ability of reflecting the desires of their finders. They are equally junk and prizes. Art and vehicles. They move people and goods and plans along. They become machines in the service of their riders’ willpowers and destinies. By following the mass of these bikes that caught my eye even as they rested, I thought I’d discover just where that collective willpower and destiny led.
Everybody likes bikes.
Kimball Taylor is a longtime contributor to Surfer Magazine, and the author of two books about the sport: Return by Water: Surf Stories and Adventures and Drive Fast and Take Chances. Taylor holds a BA in journalism, a MFA in creative writing, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
The first thing you should know is that I had the privilege of witnessing nearly every poem in Amanda Nadelberg’s remarkable new book, Songs from a Mountain, move through multiple draft stages and sometimes into radically different forms.
Amanda and I have been friends for a long time. Since her Minneapolis days, when she lived in a 1920s apartment with iron radiators that clanked and hissed six months out of every year. This was in the Linden Hills neighborhood, which is neither terribly hilly, nor full of an unusual number of linden trees.
So how can it be that Amanda’s poems are still so wonderfully mysterious to me? I should be the world’s defining expert, but I still feel like a total novice. I think it would be easier for me to explain lava. Songs from a Mountain is swirling and immersive in ways that make it very difficult to describe outside of the poems. As its title suggests, it’s a book that invents a new kind of mythic singing for our distracted, troubled age.
John Ashbery says of this book: “Amanda Nadelberg’s poetry resembles a city where all kinds of things are happening at once, some of them funny and others pretty scary. The quasi-epic ‘Matson’ takes the form of a swarm. Suddenly words, thousands of them, have accrued to this particular subject; no one knows why. Its mass is almost frightening but good to be with. Songs from a Mountain is a dizzying achievement that rings out loud and precise and clear.”
Dobby Gibson: Because I think it’s one way to understand the shape of your new book, can we begin by having you describe the shape of your daily routine?
Amanda Nadelberg: Oh good one. I work in the city in the afternoon for a nonprofit environmental law firm, so I spend the morning at home usually. I wake up early, I enjoy coffee, one cup now. I walk up these crazy staircases and little paths on the Oakland / Berkeley border that have helped me improve my decision making skills and also function as a natural gym, of which I make use now that I have this new bionic hip (five years now). Sometimes I walk up the hills with my next-door neighbor. I’ll do side jobs like editing for other people in the morning, sometimes I write but not regularly. I read. I read the news and send articles to my parents. I write you and others emails. In the late morning I walk thirteen minutes to Bart and wait for about seven more because I’m always early even though it only takes me thirteen minutes to walk a distance I allow twenty for, and then I ride twenty minutes more into the city (if I’m lucky there is a dance performance and clapping on the train car) where I go to work and as a Receptionist and moonlight there (in the day) as a therapist/candy-bartender/life guru to the good people I work with, telling them about companies that stand by their return policies (L.L. Bean) and Marie Kondo (I’ve converted at least 2 people) or how you should only buy plane tickets on Tuesdays—I let them know when cookie-cakes, flowers, and their packages have arrived, I ask a lot of questions, sometimes about what they’re reading and watching, and on one occasion accidentally helped a guy remember it was his anniversary—while the doorbells and phones ring, faxes come and go. At 3:00 each day I have a 20-minute break and take a small walk in the FiDi, maybe I find a penny, I began to pick them up again two years ago, and I hear what people say and what they’re constructing today, who is honking at whom. The city still feels make-believe to me, how can it go on? I go home after 5 and sometimes take the bus with my friend (it’s slightly more expensive but a lot nicer of a way to go home, above the Bay than below) or sometimes get squished on the train, watching passengers be horrible to each other. I walk home, I make dinner, sometimes I meet friends. I don’t have a dishwasher—I wonder if I ever will—I wash the dishes. My closest friends don’t live here so I communicate with them. I don’t know if I’ll ever enjoy texting. I use the telephone. I talk to my sister. I try to remember to do 20 or 30 pushups, since last December, which I associate with beginning to watch Game of Thrones but I think it’s unrelated. I look at the calendar a lot like it’s a book to read, not with appointments, just the empty days. I go to bed at a reasonable hour because sleep is important, it’s nature’s best beauty aid, no it’s not (yes it is).
DG: Interesting that you don’t mention any kind of daily “poetry practice” (poetry is not pushups!), and yet the poems in this book exude an unmistakeable dailiness. Sometimes I even experience them as elegies for the very dailiness out of which they appear to have sprung. Did these poems just sort of occur to you everywhere? I’m thinking of that Ashbery quote where he says he senses poems going on all the time in his head, and to write one he simply has to reach up and snip off a length.
AN: In the past couple years I’ve tried not rushing to record things when they happen, to see if they’ll come back (or if other things will) when I make time to write. I’ve lost a lot of lines, surely, but I’ve also become more trusting of the whole process. I’ve never been someone who writes every morning, and I don’t think I’ll ever be. (I’d rather do something else than sit there and force a bad poem into the apartment.) And while I do a lot more editing than I did ten years ago, I see how a few of the poems, at least the ones with longer forms, create a shape for days to fit into. I think you’re right, that there is an accumulation of thinking and then a form is sprung, and the actual writing becomes a way to record time. I realized in the last few years that it’s good to use the life you’re in to make forms. When I was little and on a swim team I’d create these little games to combat the boredom of laps, (i.e. when I’m between the flags and the wall a shark can get me, or when I’m between the flags and the flags a shark can get me, etc.) and in the past few years I see how I’ve found my way back to that kind of logic in making forms for poems, and once the form is there—however imaginary—it’s a container. Form is another word for propulsion. Matson, for instance, I began on Memorial Day weekend, 2013, and ended by Labor Day, and I spent the summer in it. That was a container (and rudimentary form) for those particular days. And when I wanted to write, the writing went into that.
DG: So let’s talk about Matson for a second, an important poem to this book. Here, not only is form a “container for…days,” as you say, but the poem’s triggering subject is a particular form of container: a shipping container. For those who don’t know—which is probably nearly everyone—what is Matson? And how did your daily Matson experience get poured into this particular poem container?
AN: I started working where I do in the city in the fall of 2012. The first day, while commuting—nervous, disoriented by Bart manners and protocol—I noticed as the train went past the Port of Oakland these beautiful arrangements of shipping containers, and they appeared to me as a concrete poem in space, and I wrote in my notebook a little picture as if they were a concrete poem with the accompanying sounds of “Matson, Matson, Matson!” Each day the configuration would be a little different, a few of the vessels removed or delivered. On some days the big Matson ship would be there too, picking up things for the sea. And there’s this actual audible element, when the train goes by the Port, it slows a little and in slowing it makes a new note—sometimes I wonder about commissioning a composer to write the music of the commute, there are also bell sounds when you’re in the tunnels approaching a station—I think the note by the port is a little higher, and it kind of emits an “Aaaaaaaaa!” Holy Heavens sound which tends to make me turn from the highway to the water and there would stand this little concrete poem of Matsons built. So since that first day I knew that I wanted to write a poem called Matson but it wasn’t until eight or so months later that I realized the form: a simple doubling of stanzas creating accumulations of lines and then decreasing back into a couplet. (But! Deciding to begin the form happened to directly precede a listserv job blast about a position at the Matson shipping HQ. I almost wept from the coincidence which became a kind of mandate. I mean what are we looking toward in life if not that?) To answer your other question, Matson is a transportation company with the mission to “Move freight better than anyone.” I think it also used to serve as a tourism cruise company, but now no more. The Matson building on Market Street is also beautiful, though I never noticed it until long after the poem was finished. In the winter of 2014, Matson’s dock moved, so it’s harder now to see from the Bart rails. It’s so funny how cumulative increments of time prove the changes in things. For instance, there have been three different flower shops in the same little spot on my walk to the train station. Still flowers. But textured depictions of time and efforts in the form of brick and mortar. Continue reading
This month sees the release of our newest issue, the Faith issue. Read our Editor Rob Spillman’s introduction below, scope some hopefully tantalizing quotes, read a few excerpts online, and then buy the issue or—better yet—subscribe! We have faith you’ll make the right call.
Samuel Beckett famously ended his novel The Unnamable “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Why? How? Is it faith that drives us onward? And if so, faith in what? Writers have struggled with this question since the first hominids started scratching symbols into rocks. Do we put our faith in our survival skills or create a pantheon of deities to guide and protect us? By the Twentieth Century, writers like Beckett put their faith in words. In our time of worldwide upheavals and immanent climate catastrophe, our faith in words is under constant assault. Yet writers do go on. For Joy Williams, a selection of micro-fictions from 99 Stories of God (soon to be published by Tin House Books) grapples with many of the same themes of her nearly fifty years of writing—the divine and the uncanny. Poet Natalie Diaz writes, “I make my faith in my hands.” Alan Lightman puts his faith in the laws of nature, while Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid contemplates the fraught nature of writing in a country named after faith. President Obama’s favorite writer-interview subject, Marilynne Robinson, argues that “faith and religion are neither synonyms nor antonyms.” Mira Ptacin visits Maine in search of the Spiritualists, while Alex Mar examines the life and legacy of Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft. Father-and-son authors Jonathan and Adam Wilson discuss their faith in the family seder, the rituals and food that transcend time and space. In his primer on the history of faith, James Carse makes the case for complexity and how not to define religion. We know that there are no simple answers to questions of faith, but after reading this issue perhaps you will be as Plato said, “twice armed if we fight with faith.” Our hope is that you are fighting the good fight.
“What is redemption, real redemption? It is sometimes ordinary. It is my parents saving Green Stamps so that their daughter, raised in a little North Dakota town can listen to King Lear every night as she falls asleep.”
“During a particularly easy period for things unrelated to the complicated business of baby-making, a YouTube series I’d started, called Nate Draws the Internet, took off.”
“This world compares to the next world as sleeping does to wakefulness.”
“Quantum mechanics doesn’t somehow salvage the supernatural, but it does introduce quite a weird and seemingly ineradicable wiggle into the natural.”
“I make my faith in my hands. A writer can declare faith in nothing but must bear faith in her hands.”
“A few times in my life I’ve felt a woosh of divinity, but never do I sense the invisible world more strongly than I do in one of my favorite novels.”
“Seven children squatted in a semicircle surrounding him in the middle of the railway footbridge, almost pressing him against the barrier, just as they had done some half an hour earlier when they first attacked him in order to rob him, exactly so in fact, except by now none of them thought it worthwhile either to attack or to rob him, since it was obvious that, on account of certain unpredictable factors, robbing or attacking him was possible but pointless because he really didn’t seem to have anything worth taking, the only thing he did have appearing to be some mysterious burden, the existence of which, gradually, at a certain point in Korin’s madly rambling monologue—which ”to tell you the truth,” as they said, “was boring as shit”—became apparent, most acutely apparent in fact, when he started talking about the loss of his head, at which point they did not stand up and leave him babbling like some half-wit, but remained where they were, in the positions they had originally intended to adopt, squatting immobile in a semicircle, because the evening had darkened around them, because the gloom descending silently on them in the industrial twilight numbed them, and because this frozen dumb condition had drawn their most intense attention, not to the figure of Korin which had swum beyond them, but to the one object remaining: the rails below.” —László Krasznahorkai, War & War, trans. George Szirtes
This is the second sentence of the novel War & War. The first, consisting of just twenty-three mostly single-syllable words, is more dramatic—its purpose, I suspect, to pull the reader into the narrative—a little getting one’s feet wet before the plunge. It works, too, but I have to say this second one made me twitch with absolute pleasure, in large part because of its length. Long sentences are like unpacking complicated gifts, gifts that often are not what they appear to be on the surface, and Krasznahorkai is a contemporary master of this kind of unwinding, begun, he once said, as a way for him to wrap himself in a shield of words that the (then) Communist state could not penetrate—not so dissimilar to the way Korin’s rambles protect him from the mini-thugs.
The next thing I love here is the situation: a guy is intimidated by children in a sort of reversal of roles that demonstrates simultaneously 1) his powerlessness and 2) his maintaining power by ignoring his tormentors, all contained in a single unit of thought. One of the other things about long sentences is there’s plenty of room for things to happen inside them; they’re little novels, in a way. And speaking of things happening, notice in this case how the pronouns shift from him to them, and also how the vision slides from being in the middle of things (with semicircles and halves, and twilight) to that last view of the “one object remaining: the rails below.” So this is a sentence that manages to waver between being vaguely threatening and comic, then ends on that ominous note of the rails below.
One of the other pleasurable things about any long sentence (in fact, almost a requirement for a long sentence) is that the whole thing be tied together by patterns of repetition. Here the repeated words are: rail, squat, semicircle, attack, point, and apparent, as well as all the pronouns. (Repeated sounds also hold long sentences together, but I’m not even going to try here because this is a translation.) Plus, there’s an unexpected bonus. Right after the tantalizing hint of “a mysterious burden,” comes the lovely moment smack in the middle of this sentence where the menacing children themselves are allowed to speak, to force themselves into the scene as if they are being interviewed (by whom?) about the quality of Korin’s monologue. Their verdict: “boring as shit.”
Finally, as is often true in the openings of many stories and books—although we can’t know this at the time we are reading it—the whole terrific novel that follows this will in fact be a digressive, tragic, and comic journey from here to “the rails below.”
So if you haven’t guessed, I’m a huge Krasznahorkai fan, and not only for his long sentences (the one I quoted is a baby compared to most) but also for the rigorous seriousness of his vision. “Heaven is sad” is the author’s epigram that begins War & War. Yes indeed, but it’s also heaven.
Jim Krusoe is the author of the novels The Sleep Garden, Parsifal, Toward You, Erased, Girl Factory, and Iceland; two collections of stories; and five books of poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. He teaches at Santa Monica College and lives in Los Angeles.
A man stops and stares at the water for a long time, looking for something. A while later, he walks away.
You see him from a distance. You are sitting, watching, you realize, the man watching the water. Did he find what he was looking for? You decide to approach the water to see if you can find it too, some meaning perhaps, some small vision.
When you arrive, are near enough to see the ripples approaching the edge at which you stand, you have your answer, or, really, two possibilities: either he did not find what he was looking for because it was not there, or he did, and he took it away with him.
Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of several books, most recently To Keep Love Blurry, and is the editor of Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, due out in April from New Directions. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and children.
From our Theft Issue, the tables turn as Mary Higgins Clark gets robbed.
Eighteen years ago, I decided to insure my jewelry. I realized that over the years I had gradually accumulated valuable rings, necklaces, bracelets, and pins. The reason for my treasure trove was that every year when I turned in the latest book and got paid for it, I treated myself to an expensive reward for all my hard work. I also rationalized that with three daughters and two granddaughters everything I had would be greatly enjoyed by them in the future.
When I insured the jewelry, the insurer told me in no uncertain terms that I would have to keep it in a safe. Before that, I hid my goodies, except for what I was wearing, under old clothes in a box in my crowded attic. A new state-of-the-art security system was installed. The only problem was that we couldn’t figure out how to turn on the motion detector that would have signaled movement within the house.
One evening, we were going to a black-tie affair, so I was wearing some of my jewelry. At the dinner a waiter came to the table to say that there was an urgent phone call from the Saddle River police. Their message was that we had been burglarized. The police were searching for a gang of two or three men who had driven into town in a Mercedes. All wore ties and business suits, so they blended very well with the residents. The night we were robbed they hit three other houses in our neighborhood.
As it happened, even though the alarm would have been set off if any of the doors and windows had been opened, the sophisticated thieves had smashed a picture window in the library and gained access that way.
They did exit by opening the front door. I guess they didn’t want to risk crawling out over all the broken glass. When that door was opened, it triggered the alarm and the police immediately responded. By then the crooks had taken off with my jewelry in their Mercedes.
The new safe had been broken into as easily as though they had opened a can of tuna.
As I mourned my losses, I could only think that if my good jewelry had only been in the attic, snuggled under old clothes, it would have been safe.
I especially mourned one particular ring, which had a history to it. Sixty-five years ago, when I was a young bride, my mother-in-law had taken a number of diamonds from rings she seldom wore and had them designed into a beautiful three-tiered dinner ring. When she showed it to her son, my husband, she asked him how he liked it. His reply was, “Mother, to tell you the truth, I think it’s vulgar.”
She laughed and said, “Thanks very much. I was planning to leave it to Mary.”
She did leave it to me, and I loved it.
That was why, of all the lovely jewelry I lost that night, I missed the vulgar ring the most.
The burglary happened during November. The following spring, the landscaper arrived one morning to start the usual spring cleanup. A few minutes later he knocked on the door. He was holding an object caked in mud in his hand. It was the vulgar ring. It must have been dropped by one of the crooks on his way out of the house.
I have been happily wearing that ring to all the grand occasions ever since that burglary eighteen years ago.
Don’t you love semi-happy endings?
Now I have a formidable safe bolted into the floor and walls. But if any light-fingered crook happens to read this essay, don’t bother to try to open that safe or pull it off its moorings. It would be a wasted effort.
My good jewelry is now snuggling under old clothes in an even more crowded attic. Lots of luck finding it.
Mary Higgins Clark’s books are worldwide bestsellers. In the US alone, her books, including thirty-four suspense novels, have sold 100 million copies.
More than thirty years ago Thomas James shot himself in the head, but this isn’t about that. When I was twenty-seven, Lucie Brock-Broido gave me, like she had given countless other poets over the years, a poorly xeroxed copy of James’s Letters to a Stranger, but this isn’t about that either. As I read him for the first time, I was the same age as James was when he killed himself. But, really, this isn’t about any of that.
This is about how “the dead have such sweet breath.”
For me, poems fall into three categories: poems I admire and want to steal from; poems I admire, but don’t want to steal from; and, the third and largest category (of course), poems I simply don’t like. There is, however, a secret, fourth category: poems I admire and want to steal from, but know I’ll never be able to use, because the imagination behind them is too different from mine, the thinking too foreign.
This is about those poems; the poems that “dream of the innumerable antlers of winter.”
In Brock-Broido’s introduction to the reissue of Letters to a Stranger, reissued from Graywolf in 2008, she says:
How is it, exactly, that I can explain the peculiar spell cast between poets and this text? How is it that, when I teach this book, invariably, young poets seem to want to go home (as soon as possible) to write back to Thomas James, to begin their own dialogue with him? . . . Thomas James’s protégés want to reach him, see him, raise him (in all sense of that term), risk for risk.
As a poet who wants to write back to Thomas James, I do indeed want to see him and to raise him, but I know that I cannot match him risk for risk, because James is one of the riskiest of poets, willing to fail utterly at times, in order to be utterly perfect at others.
But this isn’t about the failures, it’s about “some small boy who owns the snow.”
It’s James’s pitch-perfect knack for turning the image just a little beyond slant that redeems his wildest exuberances. On first listen, the lines “I am too full of my own poisons / To be swallowed by anybody’s love” smack of familiarity, but the unexpected placement of the verb swallowed in this sequence, marrying it with the less expected clause, torques the image just enough, giving it a fine balance of familiarity and imagination.
This is about that balance, about “suffusing every muscle with importance.” Continue reading
Never let the ink
of biographers touch you,
but if it happens
learn what you can
of their witchcraft.
It will be useful
should you ever find yourself
I would never have risen
or circuit judge had I not studied
the alchemy of metaphor.
There are maybe two dozen gaps
in a given sentence.
Never mistake silence
for death or obedience.
Just because an anthem can’t be heard
over the bluegrass
of lawn parties and amphitheaters
doesn’t mean it can’t be sung.
If you stand on the porch
of the state house on a Sunday
you will hear the great flag
of the confederacy.
On some occasions
you may have to lower an earlobe
to the tongue whipping in the mouth
of the one Negro servant
who remains when everything else
is burned. Avoid anyone,
even your secretary, who talks
openly about revenge.
Master the filibuster,
for it will wear out the sentries
of heaven. Cultivate horticulture.
Marry after forty. Outlaw basketball.
Outlaw school buses. Outlaw
the manufacturing of transistors.
Outlaw jive-talk and rhythm.
If you intend to be re-elected
certain moods must be abolished,
it goes without saying. Remember
your duty. If you must apologize,
let it be in a language no one comprehends.
Grandma calls her sex robot Sony. We tell her that’s just the company who makes it.
“Well,” she says, “he looks like a Sony. Doesn’t he?”
We tell her he doesn’t. We tell her ‘he’ looks like an automaton with silver skin and copper eyelashes, which is exactly what he is, one of many mass produced for the pleasure of the lonely. We point to the round brass orb at the fulcrum of his legs. Do you know, we ask Grandma, what happens when that opens? Do you know what’s inside?
“Of course,” Grandma says. “A smart dildo. So?”
So. So nothing. We just ask her not to name him Sony.
To which she replies, “Well, what else am I supposed to call him?”
We tell her she shouldn’t call him anything. We tell her it is unseemly, having it in her house. We point to the needlework on her walls, the antique picture frames on her shelves, the holographic displays of great and great-great-grandchildren. Then we point at the sex robot, naked save for the round brass orb, stunning sculpted muscles in plastic relief, modeled, in fact, after Michelangelo’s David, though individual models are, of course, customizable.
Grandma’s, for instance, had the chest widened. Grandma is a sucker for a big chest.
“All sorts of people have these things,” Grandma says. “Why shouldn’t I?”
We tell her, people have them, they just have the decency to hide them. Their sex robots are in their closets, the corners of their basements. Their sex robots are tucked under their beds—all sex robots, of course, fold into the fetal position for easy storage. We tell her, you can have it, just keep it out of sight.
“Well,” Grandma says, “I’m just honest, I guess.”
No, we say, you’re insane. It’s too much, we tell her, too much. The sex robot is always with her. When we come to visit, it opens the door. When we call, she tells the sex robot what we’re saying to her. At Christmas, when we gather at Grandma’s house, the sex robot is there. Grandma puts presents for it under the tree. She knits a stocking with its name and hangs it over the chimney. At Christmas dinner, it carves the turkey. It sits next to her; it spoons sweet potato casserole into her mouth. And when she is finished with her meal, it massages her calloused feet. We tell her to stop. We tell her there are children present. Not physically, maybe, but digitally, watching open-mouthed through their screens.
“If you want to take him,” Grandma says, “you can. Just be careful stepping over my dead body, I want to look good for my funeral.”
We give up. The sex robot stays with her for seven years. Then, one night, Grandma’s heart monitor fails. The sex robot alerts local paramedics. No one knew it had that feature. We didn’t know it could open the door for the EMTs, or call and alert us after. We didn’t know it could stay by the door, opening it for us when we returned to figure out what could be sold and what could be shared.
The sex robot continues as if Grandma is there. At night, it sleeps on the left side of her bed, until we have her bed removed; then it sleeps on the floor where the left side of the bed used to be. Early in the morning, it wakes and makes coffee, until the coffee machine is gone. It picks out a grapefruit from the refrigerator, until there is no more grapefruit, no more refrigerator. The worse is when it sits at the table, when it cuts the grapefruit into perfect wedges, when it raises them and places them gently where Grandma’s lips used to be. When the sex robot lets go of the grapefruit, it falls on the chair with a wet plop. Until there is no more chair.
None of us has the heart to shut it down. It is powered wirelessly; if we do nothing, it will go on endlessly. Yet day by day, as we remove every last trace of Grandma, the sex robot remains. Until at last, it is the only thing that remains. In an empty house, it continues its precise pantomime of their lives. We decide together enough is enough. We must shut it down. Tomorrow.
Except, when that tomorrow comes, the sex robot is not there. We look everywhere. We know they can fold themselves into more compact units. We told Grandma so many times. We look in every corner, every closet. We’re all worried, but we don’t admit it. We just keep looking.
Someone suggests looking for the sex robot at the mausoleum. We laugh. We make fun. It doesn’t sound sincere when we do. Really, we were all thinking it. We were all picturing the robot, leaving the house at night, walking the streets, guiding itself to Grandma’s remains. We picture it there, looking on the brass plaque hiding her ashes.
But none of us admits to this, and none of us go to check to see if we’re right. We’re too afraid we might be wrong. Instead we go home. We perform our accustomed routines. We eat, we bathe, we climb into our beds. And from our closets, our basements, from under our beds, our sex robots unfurl themselves and join us, programmed to hold us until we fall asleep.
William Hawkins is currently a student in the MFA Program in Fiction at UC Irvine. He lives in Los Angeles.
I was in high school in England when, in 1984, the IRA bombed Brighton’s Grand Hotel where Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party were meeting for their annual conference. I remember watching the BBC news with my dad. I was probably too young to recognize the audacity of the attack and, as the IRA was rarely out of the news back then for blowing up one thing or another, it was soon forgotten in the tumult of my adolescent life. Without much emotional skin in the game it was easy to move on.
Now, as an adult I can appreciate just what a daring and sinister attack it was. It is to British author Jonathan Lee’s credit that his absorbing novel, High Dive (Knopf), which is centered on the bombing, makes for such a compelling read. The book transcends 80s nostalgia, its Choose Life t-shirts and the potential for stock caricatures of Irish terrorists and British politicians. All sides of the equation are humanized, both the IRA assassin and the innocent, fictionalized staff members of the Grand.
At the novel’s center are two invented characters, the hotel’s deputy general manager, Philip “Moose” Finch, and his teenage daughter, Freya. Once a promising teenage high dive prospect and local sporting hero, Moose is now middle aged, out of shape and divorced. He hopes that the British PM’s visit to his hotel, which he helped arrange, will be a career boost. Freya, too is finding her way. Her mother has all but walked away from her, and is left disappointed by a vacuous romantic interest, Surfer John, who also works at the hotel.
Lee succeeds in capturing the end of season melancholia of a British seaside town and combines it with the downward trajectory of its inhabitants whose lives are about to change. Suffused in are the quirky eccentrics of parochial Britain. The love between an impressionable teenage daughter and the single father who raised her is the novel’s tragic but brilliant beating heart.
Jeff Vasishta: How much IRA and general research did you do into the bombing? Roy Walsh the real name of the bomber but the other name you use for him, Dan wasn’t. How hard was the process of splicing fact and fiction?
Jonathan Lee: I did lots of research, as you’d expect, but the facts of the bombing of the Grand Hotel run out fairly quickly. We know the date it happened, the fact the bomb exploded in room 629, the fact a man named Roy Walsh checked into the hotel and planted it there, the fact Margaret Thatcher was the target … Move beyond that and you quickly get into the realm of speculation. That’s the realm I most enjoy inhabiting as a fiction writer. I’ve never found much truth, much depth, in straight-faced facts. What I was interested in trying to do with this book was to re-inhabit a moment of history and make it human again. Rather than distorting real lives, I chose to perform that re-animation by inventing three characters and placing their stories within the framework of the central factual event: the bombing. So we have the stories of the assistant manager at the hotel, his daughter, and a second bomber — the sorts of stories history so rarely records.
The second bomber was particularly interesting to me — in court testimony, staff at the Grand Hotel recalled a second man being in room 629 on the day when the bomb was planted. He’s never been found. So, I found him— in my imagination, I mean. I began to imagine his story. What’s that Kinky Friedman line? “There’s a fine line between fiction and non-fiction, and I think I snorted it somewhere in 1979.” Well, I snorted it too, somewhere between draft four and draft twenty.
JV: I grew up in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk so I’m very familiar with eccentric characters like the Captain. Every British town has them. Was he real?
JL: Great Yarmouth, eh? I so miss the names we have for places back home. Percy Passage. Boggy Bottom. Bushygap. Shitlingthorpe. Thanks for mentioning The Captain. I think about him often; he’s very real to me. The other day I thought I saw him in the street. And you recognized him, by the sounds of it. So he must be real, right?
JV: You show great insight into Moose’s marriage and fatherhood. What was the inspiration for his character, and why high diving in particular? It’s not a sport which was especially popular in the UK in the 1970s.
JL: No, you’re right. I wanted to find a sort of fringe sport, a lost sport, in the same way I was reclaiming, in the book, these lost stories of everyday lives. Whenever I tried to picture Philip “Moose” Finch, my deputy general manager at the hotel, I had this image of a guy who kept falling into trapdoors in his own past—falling and falling, unable to live fully in the present. I sensed he was a former sportsman of some sort, but given the kind of guy he is, it had to be one of those sports where you could be the fifth or sixth best practitioner in the whole of the United Kingdom and you‘d still be an absolute nobody, as far as the public is concerned.
It’s always difficult to talk about what I seek to do in my writing, because so much of it is beyond the level of consciousness, as with almost all writers, and you start lying as soon as you open your mouth. But when I look at everything I’ve written in the last 10 years, it’s all been, to some extent, about trying to magnify mundanity in some way— about trying to capture the sadness and absurdity of everydayness, of lost moments, of half-heard conversations, of half-formed dreams or betrayals or miscommunications. I want to find the animating quality in small moments, and the fun thing about writing High Dive was doing that act of personal salvage within the wider context of public history — the politics of the day, this extraordinary assassination attempt, offered a framework. Anyway, once I put Moose on the diving board, he was animated. My friend Elliott Holt, a brilliant writer who was once a talented high diver too, encouraged me to keep going in my attempts to capture what it’s like to spend your days in mid-air. I think we all know the feeling, to some extent.
The other reason high diving felt like an appropriate sport to include in the book is that I imagined the whole novel as a kind of dive. It’s all about the build-up to the bombing. The novel begins with this initiation of a young Belfast guy into the Provisional IRA and then follows the fall-out through the years that follow. We, the readers, are going through somersaults and twists, moments of slowness and moments of quick rigidity, heading towards this point of inevitable impact — the explosion. That was the idea, anyway, to tell the story of the before. So many disaster narratives focus on the aftermath. I wanted to tell the story of what life was like before it was broken.
JL: The epigraph for High Dive comes from Czesław Miłosz. He once said that, “when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” Well, plenty of friendships get finished, too. At some point or other, every interesting corner of lived experience becomes material for a book, and you end up stealing your friend’s best in-the-pub stories. My friend Ed, years ago, told me a story about a friend of his. It was one of those friend of friend of friend stories that I love so much. This friend was dog-sitting for someone. The dog died on his watch, of natural causes; it was an old dog. But, shit, the dog was dead. What was he going to do? He needed to take the dead dog to a professional—a dog undertaker or vet or whatever. It couldn’t just lie there on the carpet for two days, could it? So he put it in a suitcase, took it on the London Underground, and the suitcase ended up being stolen. So, that went in the book: a dead dog in a suitcase being stolen, and the idea of a thief opening it and finding himself—not rewarded with designer clothes—but placed as the punch line of a shaggy dog story about a shaggy dog. Continue reading
Bryan Hurt on the Life of a Writer: Investment Banking, What Imaginary People Feel, and How Not to Teach Creative Writing
Bryan Hurt’s Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France was the winner of the 2015 Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and published last fall. If you’ve read any of the stories in The Kenyon Review, The American Reader, Guernica, Tin House, or the New England Review (to name a few places), then you know it. His voice and the stories themselves are equally fresh, strange, and imaginatively researched—Aimee Bender meets George Saunders on the pages of a National Geogrpahic magazine or World Book Encylopedia. Says TC Boyle of the collection: “Bryan Hurt’s stories are like no one else’s. They are by turns hilarious, whimsical, arresting and heartbreaking, but what makes them such a delight is the sly simplicity and off-handed charm of their telling.” And it’s true—the stories are charming. They are whip-smart and challenging, yet absolutely pleasureable and fun to read. Bryan thereby strikes a balance between writing innovative fiction and upholding a promise to entertain his readers that is worth celebrating or—if you haven’t read them—definitely worth checking out.
In one of my favorites, The Beast of Marriage, the wealthy but famously ugly 18th Century Thomas Day (who can’t dance) adopts two girls in the hopes of raising one of them to be his wife. In another, we meet Alan Bean, the actual fourth man to walk on the moon, thrust into a sad but beautiful world of under-appreciated artists. I’m lucky enough to know Bryan from graduate school at the University of Southern California, and recall a trip to the MOMA where we were encouraged to take a good look at Rauschenberg’s Monogram (Angora goat meets used tire, for the uninitiated). So many of Bryan’s stories remind me of what is so unusual, sponteaneous and oddly emotionally resonant about the unexpected juxtaposition, or marriage, of that goat and tire. Bryan is also the editor of the successful Watchlist, an anthology of stories on surveillance, to be re-released from Catapult Books this spring. To read some of Bryan’s newest fiction, and latest nonfiction and critcism, check out his website at www.bryanhurt.com.
Bryan took a little time out of his very busy writing, family-rearing and teaching schedule to tell us a little about the life of a short-story writer, what motivates and inspires him, and the source of some of these truly wonderful stories.
Bonnie Nadzam: Percival Everett, one of our teachers in Los Angeles, once told me it was the easiest thing in the world to tell a student they shouldn’t pursue writing as a career, and much harder to tell someone with the ability that they should brace themselves for the life of being an artist. Have you ever wanted to quit trying? Or hear from someone that you probably should? We have so many colleagues and friends with first-rate fiction struggling so hard to get their pages into book form, and even after publishing a first book, you face again the blank page. Is publication the reason to keep going, or would you have kept going without the official publishing industry acknowledgement that you are, as it were, “a writer”?
Bryan Hurt: I guess that’s one way that Percival and I are different—that and Percival is a confirmed genius and I, on my best days, struggle to tie my own shoelaces. I would never tell anyone not to pursue this (although I’d caution them against going into debt in order to pursue an advanced degree in writing). Making art is hard and being an artist is even harder. By my estimation there are about a million things in the world that will try to dissuade you from being a writer, not the least of which is the lack of material well-being and financial compensation. When someone asks me whether or not I think they should give it a shot, I always tell them to go for it. I don’t want to be one of those million things, and really there’s no way of telling who’s going to make it and who isn’t. I think talent plays some role in it, but only a very small one. Discipline matters an awful lot and so does luck and perseverance.
I count myself as very lucky. So far I’ve been able to meet my material needs met while also being a writer. Of course I worry that my fortune will change and I’ll have to figure something else out, although I have no idea what that would be because there’s not a lot else that I’m very good at. But I’ve never thought about quitting, at least not seriously. Some days I’ll struggle with the page or suffer a minor setback or some kind of rejection and wish that I could go back in time and become an investment banker. But that’s not realistic and I don’t think investment banking would make me any happier. I like writing and I like being read and I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to doing it. If nothing else I’m very stubborn.
BZ: You’re young enough to get an MBA or go to law school—but you won’t, right?
BH: That’s the same as the investment banker fantasy, and they’re all variations of “the grass is always greener.” My dad’s a lawyer and my wife is a very talented business person. I only have to watch what they do for about half-a-minute to realize that I don’t have the head or the heart or the stomach for it.
BZ: You spent some years writing “Everybody Wants to Be Ambassador to France,” and over these years, submitted it many places, to several contests. It finally wins the prestigious Starcherone Prize for Innovation Fiction, which comes with publication. But–after 15 years, the independent press for innovative fiction is closing its doors, struggling financially, and yours is its final title. How has this affected the experience of your first book publication?
BH: Publishing anything is really hard—a story, a poem, an essay, a book, it’s all hard—and so I think any time you’re lucky enough to do it it’s cause for some celebration. You’re right that I did send the book out a little before it was picked up by Starcherone, but each time it was rejected I was more relieved than disappointed. The book wasn’t ready and I knew it, but I was trying to fool myself otherwise. Luckily the editors weren’t fooled so easily. When I saw that Alissa Nutting was going to be the judge for the Starcherone Prize I sent the latest draft of the book and was cautiously optimistic. Alissa had rejected some of my earlier work when she was editor of the Fairy Tale Review, but she’d been really nice about it. Even after the book won the prize I did substantial edits. That’s the first thing I asked my editor at Starcherone when she called me about the prize. “I’m so embarrassed,” I said. “Can I change it?” I think that the published version of the book is almost 100% different.
It’s sad about Starcherone, and it was obviously something I knew about and that was hanging over the book the entire time it was in production. I wish that there had been more money for things like publicity and distribution, but I also know that Carra Stratton and Cheryl Quimba were working at and running the press as essentially volunteers and am grateful for their enormous efforts. I think that even without marketing or publicity the book has been getting some pretty good attention. My agent is looking for a new publisher to take over for a second printing, and I have every reason to be optimistic. I think what happened at Starcherone was an anomaly and doesn’t really signify any larger trends in the industry. As far as I can tell independent presses and short stories are thriving. I mean look at all of the really great independent presses: Catapult, OR Books, Graywolf, McSweeney’s, Coffee House, Melville House, Tin House (so many houses!), Two Dollar Radio. Adam Johnson recently won the National Book Award for his story collection; Phil Klay won last year. I think it’s a great time to working with independent presses and writing short stories.
BZ: It was not the first-book experience of multiple radio interviews, publisher-paid book tour, etc. Nevertheless, your book is getting great press. How did you do it?
BH: With a lot of help from my friends! Before the book came out I made a long list of names and emails. I called in favors, I asked for help. More often than not people were very generous. One of the authors who blurbed the book wrote an email along the lines of: “Phew! I really liked it!” This was particularly gratifying because I’m a big fan and so it was nice to know that there’s some kind of real and mutual admiration. But it was also good to hear because I want the book to be liked. I hope that it stimulates some kind of pleasure center. I think the people who’ve read it out in the wild are picking up on that and that’s one reason for the good reception. Recently, I was talking to a woman who read my story “Moonless” and she said, “It made me laugh!” Like this was some kind of surprise to her. I think it’s easy to forget that art runs the full spectrum. When we encounter “serious Literature” we tend to focus more on the tears than the laughter. But there’s room for both. They might even come from the same impulse.
BZ: The stories in this collection are beautifully written–fresh, engaging, surprising. They are–as its reviews and blurbs support–really good. I happen to know you write very slowly and deliberately–that just one of these terrific short stories, from start to finish, can take several months, or longer. How, given all the demands of our modern life and of raising a family, and the fairly insubstantial money and recognition most fictions readers get, have you come to the decision (no doubt repeatedly) to spend so much time and heartsblood writing stories? Why does it matter to you?
Reading a novel, I like to live cradled not in the hands of characters but lying full out in their skins and their skulls, becoming them—though not through stream of consciousness, which has always felt to me more like the meaningless flicker of dreams than any consciousness I’ve ever known—no, I like to live in the mind at its most refined, an emotion-scape crafted of precise language that follows the contours of a person’s inner and outer worlds with insight and honesty. This is where Christopher Bram takes me in his novel Gods & Monsters, into bodies and minds shaped by his brilliantly patterned lyricism, his deftly observed surroundings, into a world where self-pity is leavened by self-mockery and longing and love are cut with both cruelty and forgiveness.
It is 1957 and James Whale, the director of the Frankenstein movies, lives with Maria, his maid and only real friend. A gay man whose life has been conducted in a checkerboard of honesty, avoidance and outright lies, Whale is recuperating from a recent stroke that has brought on confusion and migraines. Vivified by everyday smells, long-buried memories of his first homosexual experience, fighting in Word War I, directing movies, and the disintegration of his relationship with his partner, David, kick off neural firestorms his damaged brain can’t repress. When a young, handsome gardener named Clay Boone begins working for Whale, he sees a chance to have a final bit of fun, then escape his last pointless, painful years: Whale will make a pass at Boone, provoking the simple, all-American man to beat him to death.
Bram had me by page 4, when Whale’s maid is consulting with his ex-partner David while he sits in the other room. “Whale cannot hear them but knows that he is the topic of conversation. He hates how illness has reduced him to a problem whispered about by others, a difficult child, an embarrassment.” These kinds of keen observations come one after the other. Later we get, “The capsules won’t take effect for several minutes, but to know that pain will pass makes pain bearable.” During a flashback of Whale at a movie premier, “[He] wears the droll half smile of a visiting foreign dignitary.” Of Clay Boone, Bram says, “[he] resists the impulse to stand at attention. He declares his independence by wiping his nose with the back of his hand.” Even on the third or fourth reading, these insights feel fresh and accurate, never contrived.
And yet, it’s not just one-off sentences that make the novel so beautiful and heartrending. Many authors are capable of this. What has always truly distinguished this book for me is Bram’s lyrical patterning.
Lyricism is a slippery concept. It brings to mind poetry and songs, but how does the term apply to prose? Emma Darwin furnishes a usefully broad yet specific definition on her blog The Itch of Writing: “[L]yrical writing wears its poetic techniques a little more on its sleeve than your prose does the rest of the time. That’s not just rhythm/sound/repetition/rhyme/pattern/echo, but also figurative language: metaphor, simile and images. And it’s not just about using the right metaphors to evoke ideas and sensations accurately, it might also be about using them as patterning, argument, idea.”
Bram does precisely this last, employing a pattern of metaphors that fuses opposites: the good and the bad, the future and the past, image and reality, beauty and ugliness, truth and lies, people and objects. The power of this fusion lies in its perfect reflection of the novel’s emotional arc, themes and characters. Whale is both a real person and a self-manufactured cutout who mistakes Boone for a kind of monster and tries to manipulate him, only to realize in the end that Boone is very human, and that using him as a means of suicide makes Whale himself the monster.
It begins with an image drawn from outside the book: Frankenstein’s monster, a creature defined by its opposites. He is simultaneously an object (a man-made thing) and a human (he experiences emotions like confusion, fear, and the need for love); simultaneously a victim (manipulated by Frankenstein and his cronies) and a perpetrator (a dangerous, amoral entity); simultaneously weak (he can be controlled by the superior machines and intelligence of the people around him) and strong (he is physically larger and more powerful than human beings).
Bram riffs on these opposites mainly through anthropomorphizing objects and animals while doing the inverse with the novel’s human beings: assigning them the qualities of animals or objects. The strategy begins immediately on page 2, where he describes Santa Monica Canyon, Whale’s neighborhood. “Seen from the air, both sides of the little valley are blue-eyed with swimming pools…[A] triangle of ocean tucked in the valley’s mouth loses its horizon and melts into white sky.”
Here landscape becomes face and ocean becomes tongue, suggesting Hollywood’s sensuality and beauty, its blue-eyed models and tongues making incursions into other faces, while at the same time figuratively laying the groundwork for what the reader will learn is part of Whale’s struggle: appearance vs. reality. To command respect in Hollywood, Whale has invented an upper class British past, projecting an image of himself as clever, educated, refined and confident while inside he worries that “his whole life is a poor cartoon, his love of beauty a clumsy aping of his betters.” Confused and fragmented after his stroke, Whale vacillates between embracing his false pretensions and giving reign to the truth. When he meets with a young man for an interview about his movies, he thinks, “This pretty story, made from the odds and ends of people he’s known and books he’s read, doesn’t feel as convincing as it once did. It hangs on him like a suit of clothes he’s too thin to wear anymore. The truth stands closer to him now, peering over his shoulder.” Through the metaphors Bram has a silent dialogue with readers, telling us that a lie is just a suit you can take off, but the truth is an actual person who can see you even when you don’t want to be seen.
When on p. 15 Whale approaches Boone in the yard for the first time he thinks, “What does he see? An old faggot, a withered fruit.” The play on the word “fruit” as a slur for a gay man is a bit tough and off-handed here, but becomes tender later, when Whale thinks of his plan to provoke Boone to kill him. “It had been beautiful in his imagination, beautiful and immediate, as simple as stepping into a lion’s cage. The beast would seize him in his claws and tear him apart with no more thought than a hungry boy ripping open an orange.” Here Boone=lion=boy and Whale, touchingly, becomes a sweet, humble orange. Elsewhere when Whale fantasizes Boone killing him he sees “….the enormous hands that would form fists like mallets. That blue tattoo like a price stamped on a melon.” Now Boone is the fruit, thicker-skinned and larger, but no less delicate and vulnerable inside than an orange. In this way Bram’s metaphors fuse Boone (young, poor, uneducated, and heterosexual) and Whale (elderly, well-off, educated and homosexual), making them one and the same in their humanity.
All of this metaphor builds the novel’s emotional complexity without letting it spin off into incomprehensible chaos because each comparison is apt in its narrow context. In addition, Bram remains close to the characters at every step, never allowing his own cleverness to hijack their perceptions. When Whale walks down to his art studio his first day home from the hospital he reflects that, “It feels good to find he has a body, something more corporeal than the achy joints and hospital gown floating behind him like a wedding train during his long weeks in hospital.” This is a comparison made by a man with Whale’s particular psyche: a gay man with an enormous yearning for dignity who nonetheless faces life with a lighthearted self-mockery that keeps the great pathos of his situation from sliding into self-pity. Bram also pulls off a kind of rhetorical magic here by exploiting the word “gown,” oddly applied to scanty patient garb and the finest of wedding attire.
Of his pain medications, Whale thinks, “[T]he barbiturate is already taking effect, breaking circuits, turning out lights.” Whale’s weakness and dizziness is evoked with “he slowly stands up into gravity, a heavy marionette,” and about his intrusive memories and stroke-damaged brain, Bram says Whale, “is like a city during a blackout, all manner of deformed, forgotten creatures coming out to wander his pitch-black streets.”
As Whale and Boone get to know one another, each sees the other with increasing sympathy yet resists the humanization. To Whale, Boone “smiled and looked as innocent as a box of cornflakes.” Boone thinks of Whale’s aggressive questioning about his experiences in Korea, “Like a dog marking out his territory, he pisses on everything, even Clay’s lie.” When he recognizes Whale’s frailty it is “his body folded like a bundle of sticks.” In Whale’s lovely home Boone feels “like a very large, dumb bull who’s blundered indoors.” A few pages later this zoomorphism is mirrored when Whale, lost in a memory of seeing a sheep blunder onto the battlefield during WWI, remembers, “Nobody dared go out and risk his life for a sheep…she remained out there, tiptoeing in hell like a four-footed ballerina.” Because of their proximity and the similarity of images (two farm animals) the similes interact with one another and the sympathy Whale feels for the sheep becomes sympathy for the bull-like Boone too.
Boone and Whale even begin to think about a person’s history the same way. When Boone notices the inconsistency in Whale’s life stories, he thinks, “Whale keeps becoming somebody new with each story…The man has more lives than a cat. Clay wishes he could pick and choose the lives he likes and throw away the rest.” This choosing and discarding is exactly what haunts Whale and by now we know it haunts Clay too. He allows people to assume, based on his tattoo “Death Before Dishonor,” that he is a Korean War veteran when in fact he was discharged shortly after enlisting due to a burst appendix.
Near the climax, when Whale is attempting to draw Boone in the nude, he observes that he can’t because “You are much too human.” This hurts Boone’s feelings. “What did you expect?” he asks. “Bronze?” implying that a statue with its fixed, perfect shape is superior to Boone, and to all living things. To dehumanize him, Whale retrieves an old gas mask and asks Boone to wear it. Though it seems “like handling a pair of handcuffs” he can’t help but put it on. Again, oppositions are fused: the fear of and desire for being restrained and dehumanized.
As the story nears its end, death imagery appears. When Whale wakes to find Boone wrapped in a sheet asleep in the living room chair “he sees the thing in the wing chair, something white, a corpse wrapped in a shroud” and thinks “But a nude American isn’t death, even with a gas mask.” Whale finally understands Boone is a person as much as himself, with as strong an inner life. The entire arc of the plot has led to this moment, but the intensity of the emotion we feel has been carefully built by the imagery. A catbird on page 2 “who has no song of its own but sings fragments and snatches of other songs” reappears on page 261 doing “a dazzling string of impersonations, ending in the sweet rendition of a nightingale.” We have been trained to equate the landscape and the animals with the people in this novel, which allows Bram once again to engage in a tacit dialogue with the reader, reminding us that, like the catbird, Whale had to live his life singing “a dazzling string of impersonations.”
In the end all opposites collide. “Everything is coming together. Past and present, life and death, all dissolve together in the solution of the pool.” The pool is a physical solution (water, chlorine) as well as a solution to Whale’s problem (how to die). Here again Bram exploits the duality and subtext of language. The reader understands: death sometimes is the only solution to life. Now the novel has come full circle. Whale’s early observation about Boone’s tattoo—“What a quaint, young sentiment. To think that death could be preferable to anything.”—is turned on its head and I find myself there, with Whale, toes on the rough edge of the pool, about to die, having lived a whole life in a few hundred pages.
Amy Gustine is the author of the story collection, You Should Pity Us Instead from Sarabande Books, available February 2016. Her fiction has received special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology and appeared in several publications, including The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, North American Review and Black Warrior Review. She lives in Ohio.
(Urgent to have a break between us. We’ll be right back after the break, as the movies during the dictatorship used to announce before kidnapping the steamy scenes that never came back. A long break and then we’ll see, I thought in the midst of uneasiness. A time without seeing each other and without talking on the phone so you can think. I was the one who decided on the break, wagering that the interruption would work like an evil love potion. That’s what I thought, but who knows what you were thinking when you unhappily accepted that pact of silence. We were thinking separately but simultaneously. We thought differently but at times the same. And your friends were also thinking for you. That it was necessary to resolve that long-distance mess, ethical dilemma, the emotional blackmail the blind woman was subjecting you to. They all said it their own way. Carmen correcting tests with one hand while with the other she stirred and tasted her ají de gallina, while her mouth complained about the villainous father of her son. Osvaldo planning a marriage celebration that we wouldn’t be attending. Gaetán training for his next ballet without concentrating on the steps but laughing, nervous, shouting in front of the mirror. Julián in his house smoked another cigarette slowly and gossiped through the keyboard with Carmen, who took a while to respond and copy Osvaldo, who would tell Gaetán, the groom. Laura answered her emails preparing her summer classes, exhausted or maybe bored. Mariana was putting on lipstick, attending to her eyelashes coiling like spiders, and smiled, then pursed her mouth, making faces at herself, evaluating the right face before the mirror, the correct way to think about this matter. Piously? Perfidiously? And she talked to the mirror about your bad luck. Of your bad eye. Of your becoming my seeing eye dog. That’s what they said to each other but most of all Arcadio, who dared to say it to you without making a scene in the cafe on the corner. No flailing or gesticulating, not even mussing his hair since he had just shaved it off; biting into a waffle cookie as thin as a host and dropping a pinch of sugar into his espresso and a drop of cream or maybe skim milk, pausing briefly, dazzled by the shine of his own skull. She, he said, with a calculated and dramatic pause, she isn’t your girlfriend, she’s blackmail. And he took another sip of his coffee with milk. Hearing that unhinged you, transformed you into another Ignacio, and that one’s eardrums pounded, his gums withdrew, his tongue dried out. He sat for a moment petrified with the cigarette hanging from his lips, attacked by a sudden pain in the pit of his stomach. That Ignacio paid his part of the bill and took off, livid but most of all dizzy, secreting acid, overcome with disgust. His brain recoiled like a live oyster drenched in lemon juice. But in his way, that pitiless way, that cold and offensive way, that son-of-a-bitch way of Arcadio’s, there was something of the truth in what he said, something that I had also seen in all my blindness. He’s right, I told you after hearing you kick the door and then hearing you unscrew the lid from the antacid tablets. He’s right, I repeated, consciously sowing resentment toward your people. They all think it but they don’t say it to you, or didn’t you notice the way they talk to you lately, or what they say to you when they call you, how I don’t exist in their conversations? And I went on struggling to separate my socks from the wool stockings designed to endure Chile’s raw winter. Arcadio hasn’t said anything you didn’t already know, I added then, to accompany your severe silence, without for an instant stopping my folding of long- and short-sleeved shirts and my jacket. All black, literally black but also black like the hate I professed for all of them, especially Arcadio. That friend of yours, I insisted in all frankness, feeling you were filling up with gasses, that you almost weren’t breathing, that Arcadio has hit the bull’s eye. And then, kicking my half-empty suitcase you said, violent, the bull’s eye, or that bastard’s mother’s ass, me cago en Dios.)
Time was speeding up. A shower. A brushing of teeth. A drying of the face. Full suitcases that exhale on closing. A Dominican taxi ordered by telephone and the subsequent arrival of the car that couldn’t have been yellow. The driver, who spoke a Carribbean Spanish, barely said a word to us, turned up the radio and muzzled us with a merengue that could have been bachata. My head had already set off on its own trip and only the shell of my body remained neglected in the backseat. We were starting to put mental miles and silence between us, although we were still tied with an invisible and elastic cord. I could barely make out that scene through the fog, but what I saw in that moment in horror, in terror, with true consternation, was that I was about to lose everything Ignacio gave me. I would no longer have his arms to guide me, his legs to direct me, his voice to warn me. I wouldn’t have his sight to make up for the absence of my own. I would be left even more blind. I realised I had been clinging to Ignacio like ivy, wrapping him up and entangling him in my tentacles, suctioning him like a leech stubbornly stuck on its victim. That imminent flight was like a knife slicing between us as the taxi approached the airport, and my adrenaline started to flow. The cut was happening, it was turning into a deep wound, and the taxi left us in the terminal and Ignacio paid and took charge of my suitcase. It was happening or it had happened, the laceration, in the security line as we moved forward in slow motion. Then, a fast forward. Ignacio took care of my passport check, he showed them my university student visa, the corresponding I-20, he asked them to give me an aisle seat, although in other times I would have chosen a window so I could watch the clouds during takeoff, and then he gave my luggage to the workers at the conveyor belt, took my hand and announced that the wheelchair had arrived. What wheelchair? I started to laugh, but, don’t laugh, Ignacio told me, I’m serious about the chair. A chair? Wheel-chair? Why did you ask for a chair? I have two legs! Ignacio put his arms around me while I fought him with flapping elbows, but he surrounded me energetically and soon he was a straightjacket, a jacket that smelled of ashtrays and old, acidic sweat, a jacket that in addition to squeezing me until I creaked, covered me in kisses, my temple, my nose, my ear; the straightjacket talked into my ear in a barely audible voice, and convinced me that it was better for an airport employee to take me through immigration and accompany me to the gate. That way I wouldn’t have to hold anyone’s hand. Wheelchair, I grumbled, swallowing saliva and brushing a lock of hair roughly away from my face. Lina, panted my straightjacket again, cutting off or squeezing my name, Lini, everything will be all right, I promise, don’t cry, por favor, that makes me feel like shit. In the blink of an eye you’ll have crossed the mountains and you’ll be in Chile, Ignacio went on, as if that were any consolation. I’ll be there in a few days, he finished, finally loosening his arms. And then I nodded and sat down and plugged some excessive sunglasses onto my face, and the chair started sliding backwards, and his voice gradually dissolved in the crowd while I finally sobbed freely.
Lina Meruane is one of the most prominent female voices in Chilean contemporary narrative. A novelist, essayist, and cultural journalist, she is the author of a host of short stories appeared in various anthologies and magazines in Spanish, English, German and French. She has also published a collection of short stories, Las Infantas (Chile 1998, Argentina 2010), as well as three novels, Póstuma (Chile 2000, Portugal 2001), Cercada (Chile 2000) and Fruta Podrida (Chile & México 2007). The latter won the Best Unpublished Novel Prize awarded by Chile´s National Council of the Culture and the Arts in 2006. She is the winner of the Anna Seghers Prize, awarded to her by the Akademie der Künste, in Berlin, Germany, 2011. Meruane received the prestigious Mexican Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize in 2012 with the publication of her most recent novel, Sangre en el ojo (Seeing Red). Meruane is a cultural journalist, columnist and stringer for written media, and currently serves as editor of Brutas Editoras, an independent publishing house located in New York City. Holder of a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature from New York University, Meruane currently teaches World and Latin American Literature and Creative Writing at NYU.
Megan McDowell is a literary translator of many modern and contemporary South American authors, including Alejandro Zambra, Arturo Fontaine, Carlos Busqued, Álvaro Bisama, and Juan Emar. Her translations have been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Words Without Borders, Mandorla, and Vice, among others. She lives in Santiago, Chile and New York.
Seeing Red is available from Deep Vellum February 23rd.
There are thick pieces of toast, but his mother is absent, even though she did place the plate in front of him and now leans against the counter watching him eat. In fact, she is waiting for him to ask for something: more butter, another flavor of jam, cinnamon, a different knife—one without these small flecks of orange corroding the teeth. She had not noticed these spots when she set the table, but she can see them clearly now, very clearly. Everything blurs but that burnt orange rust on ridged stainless steel.
He does not ask for another knife. He picks up the knife he has been given and slices through the butter, which is pale yellow and more liquid than solid, because the butter lives in a glass container on the kitchen counter, and the fall has been unseasonably warm, and the kitchen has many windows. The jam—strawberry, more solid than the butter—spreads easily across the toast, except for three thick lumps of strawberry, preserved almost in their entirety. These will not spread and when he looks at them on his toast, he imagines biting into them, something tough, then a soft bursting between his teeth, and he knows he wants to avoid this feeling. She watches the edge of the knife scrape these chunks of strawberry onto his plate, where they lay mushy, small chewed up tongues, seeds like engorged taste buds. Inside her, the nausea rises quickly; she feels bile, hot and abrading, burst into her throat. He sees her smile, but she is looking through him to a spot in the future when he has left for school and she can lie down again.
At school, he has started to fall asleep during story hour and, when his teacher, Mrs. Dorothy, lets him, he stays curled up on his mat through the art period that follows, not waking when the other children rise and put their mats away, line up by the door and stomp loudly down the bricked hallway. Mrs. Dorothy has begun to meet him at his bus, where she leads him to the school cafeteria and feeds him spoonfuls of peanut butter from an industrial-size tub, or cores an apple, placing slice after slice in his warm, pink hand. When the bell rings, she shuffles them both, late, to the classroom where the other children see him enter the room with his teacher. He feels special for the extra attention, but when he told his mother, she cried and went to take a bath and listen to music, loudly. When he went to find her, she was lying in cold water, and the music had stopped. Now, when she says Mrs. Dorothy’s name, she says it with an edge to it, like a knife, he thinks, slicing through the soft butter of Mrs. Dorothy’s flesh, which rolls at her stomach and plumps up at the top of her dress; he has put his head there and listened to her tell a story. He does not sit on his mother’s lap when she tells a story, but sometimes he lies under the covers with her while she reads to him from long, sad books about animals that never stay safe.
And so, for the past two weeks, she has gotten up with him in the morning, placed two pieces of toast in front of him, and watched him eat, ready always to hand him a different condiment or melt a piece of cheddar cheese on top, or to serve him a different breakfast altogether: shredded wheat with three spoonfuls of sugar, bacon heated in the microwave on a piece of paper towel, French toast—bread saturated in a bright eggy mixture, pliable and weak and threatening to fall apart as she transfers each piece to the stove. Granola, scrambled eggs, waffles, oatmeal, pancakes, eggs in the hole, donuts, sour white yogurt with pools of water on top, blueberry muffins, which seem to her bruised and rotting even when they are freshly baked. Anything, she would make him anything, to ensure he leaves her house full.
Eugenie Montague earned her MFA from UC Irvine. Her short fiction has been published by Fiction Southeast and NPR. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is working on her first novel.
How Do You Live In A World That’s Not The World You Thought It Was?: An Interview with Brian Evenson
Brian Evenson’s first book, Altmann’s Tongue, was unsettling enough to some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that its publication set into a motion a chain of reactions that led to Evenson’s departure from his professorship at Brigham Young University, and, eventually, from membership in the church altogether. (Readers interested in this part of Evenson’s career would do well to begin with “The Bad Mormon,” Ben Ehrenreich’s essay-review of Evenson’s novella Dark Property in the May 2003 issue of The Believer.)
In the years that have followed, Evenson has become a kind of elder statesman for innovative fiction. In addition to his dozen genre-defying novels and story collections, Evenson has dabbled in commercial fiction (writing series novels under the sort-of nom de plume B.K. Evenson), has published works of criticism on Robert Coover and the graphic novelist Chester Brown, and, in what amounts to a second career, has become a prominent translator of French language writers including Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, Manuela Draeger, and David B. This year he begins a new teaching position at CalArts in Valencia, California, after a long and influential stint at Brown University.
We corresponded for two weeks by email.
Kyle Minor: I thought the new book, A Collapse of Horses, was very interesting and challenging. I didn’t like all of the stories, although what I find with your work is that often liking the stories is beside the point, and sometimes the stories that I don’t like are later the stories that trouble me enough to cause me to return to them, which seems to me to be one way art might be measured and valued. What I did think about the book, and what I’ve thought about your work in general for all the years I’ve been reading it, is that it is singular. No one else could have written it and it doesn’t read like anyone else’s work, a distinction especially worth noting in a writer for whom play with the work of others often seems to be so foregrounded.
Brian Evenson: Most of the time when I’m putting together a collection, I think of it as a book more than a bunch of individual stories, and there’s a lot of work done putting stories in and taking them out again. What I’m hoping for in the end are stories that talk to one another, and stories that may take something you think you picked up in one story and rearrange it a bit, skew it. That’s all part of a general unsettling of the work as a whole, and if there are stories that trouble you, that makes me very happy. Usually, they trouble me too. As a reader I’ve always been fascinated by those stories that initially don’t seem to have much effect on me but which worm under my skin somehow and then stay there itching. They’re often not the stories that have the strongest initial impact. There are a couple of stories or pieces of novels that did that to me that I still find myself thinking about all the time, even decades later.
And it’s very kind of you to say the work is singular—I’m happy you think so. I guess it can be a good or bad thing for your fiction not to read like anybody else’s. When I was first publishing a fair slew of reviewers were pointing that out as a negative and saying how I had potential but how much better I’d be once the things that people now see as defining me had been beaten out of me. But at a certain point something clicked and suddenly people began to see those things as strengths. I’m glad they did, and hope it keeps up.
KM: In the acknowledgments that precede A Collapse of Horses, you make reference to sources that inform some of the stories. “Black Bark,” you say, wouldn’t have been possible without Laird Hunt’s Kind One. You quote from Jesse Ball’s “Pieter Emily” in “The Moans.” And you say that “The Window” came about “when Michael Stewart shared the particulars of an attempted break-in with me.”
This made me think about the implicit relationships between others of your stories and novels with other books, and also with events that are familiar from the public parts of your own life. Of course, this is a thing that writers often shy away from talking about, even though it’s unfailingly interesting to people who like to read books (and lives) against other books and other lives.
BE: I think there are a lot of connections there, especially with books because I feel that other books really nourish me, and I often find my way to ideas when I’m reading another writer and see ways that he could have taken the story or novel but didn’t. That ends up being very provocative, the moment of seeing where you might have written a story differently and then setting out to write a story that has elements of that. But yes, I feel like I’m often engaged in a conversation with other writers, responding to them, even offering things up that might be seen as critiquing their view of the nature of reality, humanity, etc. It’s of course not just books, either—something like “The Dust” can be read as responding to particular films, or stories like “Black Bark” are messing around with a kind of genre western story…
In terms of actual events or resonances with my own life, yes, those moments are there, but often in very strange ways. In “Windeye” there are a couple of moments that are taken directly from life, but they’re not the moments that you might expect, often small, insignificant things that still imbue the story with a kind of seriousness or power, as if making a kind of offering of a personal detail can energize the story in some way. Or maybe give me the feeling that I’m playing for keeps… It doesn’t matter if only I know that those details are there. In “Younger,” the house that’s depicted has the exact layout of a house I owned in Denver, and some of the things that the two girls do/play are things my sister and I used to do when we were young. Those details aren’t really necessary, but they make the story and characters feel embodied in a way that gives them a different sort of grounding—or convinces me as a writer they have a different sort of grounding in a way that translates into something more powerful for the reader.
KM: I’m interested in the long interplay you’ve enjoyed with genre, not just in the category sense (science fiction, horror, whatever people mean when they say “literary”), but also in the broader sense (intertextuality, different varieties of literary and intellectual discourse, play across traditions from different national literatures, etc.)
In A Collapse of Horses, I see tropes out of the Western (“Black Bark,” “A Collapse of Horses”), the clock suspense thriller (“A Report”), the Shirley Jackson (“The Punish”), the folk tale (“Three Indignities,” “Stump”), the Joyce Carol Oates gothic romance (“The Cult”), the urban legend (“Seaside Town”), the whodunit (“Dust”), the George Saunders (“BearHeart”), the captivity narrative (“Scour”), the procedural (“Click”), and, all the way through, horror-in-general. (Probably you will disagree with me about what genre play descriptor belongs with which story, but if so, it’s a response in keeping with the thing I’m wanting to ask you to talk about.)
BE: Yes, I’m interested in all those sorts of things, and I see them as all connected—for me thinking about genre in a categorical and broader sense very much go hand in hand. I also see genre in both senses as a tool rather than a restriction, something that can be used to create certain effects. And yes, I agree, that probably underlying all the stories in A Collapse of Horses (and to a greater or lesser degree most of my short and long fiction) is a collision between horror and the literary, which for whatever reason seems to me a really productive collision one that can be almost endlessly examined. It’s partly I guess because I love thinking about how possible or impossible it is to ever know anything for certain and because I’m very interested in those moments where reality seems to crumble and fall away. Horror’s exceptionally good at making us think in resonant ways about both those issues, and literature is too, in a very different way.
I like the list you give of tropes/connections to the stories, and it’s interesting for me to see what a particularly good reader and a writer I admire (i.e. you) is getting out of them. But yes, definitely our lists would be different in some of their particulars. “Seaside Town” for instance I see as being in a kind of “Strange Stories” vein, a pretty direct response to Robert Aickman, a wonderful and underrated writer. “Cult” is closely based on a story a friend of mine told me about his ex-girlfriend, though the particulars are a lot different, though it may be true that aspects of Oates wormed into it as I wrote it. “Dust” has ties to whodunits, but also to things like Outland and other murderous, claustrophobic SF. And there’s a whole bunch of creepy living doll stories that form a lineage for “Bearheart.” Some of those connections are probably very personal and things that most readers might not see. It’s really about curiosity for me, I think: an interest in what genres and modes can be made to do that they haven’t done already, and how they can be used to literary and original effect.
KM: So many times in your work, a limb or other body part is missing or goes missing or is excised. Often it seems that the reader is right away invited to begin reading the story in multiple ways, on the literal level, and at the level of metaphor, and in other ways the individual story invites the reader to read.
This is a thing that causes complaint in some readers—the use of a body trouble, a disability. as a metaphor. Other readers might say it’s hard to imagine the work of many writers working in suppressive contexts (censorious regimes, religious constraints, etc.) without these kinds of figurative tools. And, of course, they belong to an older, mythic tradition, which has deep roots in Western literature and Hebraic and post-Hebraic scriptures.
My own childhood background (the Southern Baptists, the educators out of the Bob Jones University tradition, the integration-opposed Christian private school movement of the 1970’s and 1980’s) is different from yours, which I hope I don’t reduce too much by invoking the word “Mormon.” But I wonder if it’s possible to observe your ongoing (obsessive, one might say) dialogue with this variety of the figurative without thinking about its relationship to your own people of origin.
BE: Yes, I think it comes out of that, and from the idea that you read the bible and the holy books simultaneously literally and figuratively. For Mormons that’s something that’s potentially done with every moment, every verse, so things simultaneously are what they are and are something else entirely. It goes even further: the idea that certain old testament prophet’s lives can be a “type and a shadow” of Christ’s life, so that not only can you read a text literally and figuratively, you can read a life as literal and figurative—and indeed many Mormons have a tendency to read their own lives in those terms. Add to that different levels of figuration and you end up with a religion that’s obsessed with interpretation. That’s led with me, I think, to an interest in the instability of interpretation, the way things can slide back and forth a little, the way that we move from the literal to the symbolic and back without noticing, all those sorts of things. It’s not exclusively Mormon, but there may be a kind of Mormon flavor to the way I do it.
KM: When you look back on your journey away from Mormonism, especially now that you have so much time and distance on the person you were when you were young and Mormon, how do you think about what that part of your life was, and what it meant for you then, and what it means for you, and for your work as a writer, now?
BE: It’s strange in that at this point it feels almost like the life of a different person. There have been a couple of seismic shifts over the course of my life and leaving Mormonism was probably the biggest, and the one it took the longest for me to have a clear separation from. I have two older daughters, one of which has stayed in Mormonism, and both my wife and I have parents still involved to a greater or lesser degree, so it’s something we come up against from time to time. When my eldest daughter got married, she was married in the Mormon temple, which meant I wasn’t allowed to attend the ceremony. That was an odd feeling, particularly considering how active and involved I’d been in Mormonism for so many years, and that I’d been inside the temple and participated in those ceremonies I was now barred from dozens if not hundreds of times—so many times that I almost had them memorized.
My connection to Mormonism goes back about six generations, so there’s a whole history there that can’t simply be shaken off, and much about that history, and about the way that I was raised, is still a huge part of who I am. I don’t feel hostile to Mormonism per se (though I’m pretty hostile to religious abuse and hypocrisy, and Mormonism has its share of both), but also don’t feel any temptation to return to it. Getting free of it was a long and arduous process, but now that I’m out I do feel exactly that: free. And I don’t expect I’ll ever have any interest in being a part of an organized religion ever again. I haven’t felt that yearning in the 13 or 14 years since I left Mormonism in any case.
KM: Are there other intellectual preoccupations taken up in your later life that have come to rival the things you experienced as a young Mormon in terms of intensity or formativeness? I guess what I want to know is: What is it like to age and grow into a person whose way of understanding yourself and the world is so radically different from the original baseline understanding of yourself and the world, and how much is the person you are now beholden to the person you were then? In what ways have you worked through these things, and in what ways do you continue to work through them? And do you think these processes are different in kind for a person who comes out of an early life immersed in a religious system than they are for a person who begins and ends in a more-or-less secular life of the imagination?
BE: I think that this may be one of the questions that my work tries to take up, but probably not in a way that’s detectible to anybody but me. I think I’m always asking: How do you live in a world that is not the world you thought it was? So much of my work ends up being connected to thinking through philosophical issues connected to the nature of reality and what we are capable of knowing, and I think that may well be a kind of way of saying “I grew up thinking I had answers, that a religion provided me with answers and a way of understanding the world, then increasingly became aware that those answers were consolations and fictions that allowed me to avoid taking a close and careful and perhaps dizzying look at what the world really was, if the world “really” could be said to be any one thing…”
KM: Here’s another preoccupation I notice in your work: The Double. So often, there are two men, and at first it is unclear to the reader which man is which. Sometimes it seems like in some way it might be unclear to at least one of the men. And then something changes. But always one of the men seems to be a kind of fulcrum the story pushes the other man against.
It’s interesting to me, because although literature is full of doubles (Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” Dostoevsky’s The Double, etc.), I think the more common use of two in contemporary literature is a structural use. The two-part set-up/payoff structure, as in those old New Yorker stories or in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” or the two-part juxtapositional structure, as in Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Those structural ideas seem distant kin to what you are doing, but they’re easier to parse. They direct the reader to one location where a singular lyrical stress falls, whereas your double narratives, even if they do converge or diverge someplace, seem often to produce a more dissipating or diffracting effect in the reader.
BE: Years ago I had a girlfriend who used to ask me why I liked doubles. No matter what I’d say or how long I’d talk, she didn’t seem to be satisfied. The thing that finally stopped her asking, probably because she didn’t know how to respond, was when I said “Because maybe there are two of them.”
I like all the writers you mention and their work, but the difference between what they’re doing and what I’m doing is that there’s no “maybe”. For them, there’s a two part structure but it’s clearly articulated. I think my interest in doubles comes more out of something like Beckett’s Molloy or Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” where there’s a kind of deliberate blurring taking place and a kind of proliferation. In Kafka’s story you do have that two part structure, but it’s a structure where something’s asserted and then negated, a world built up and then torn down—which is similar to what I do in a story like “Younger” (from Fugue State)—and it’s done in a way that makes it feel like the story is fighting against itself rather than presenting an elegantly hinged formulation. That story offers a proliferation of doubles on all levels (characters, events, structural, etc.), really a remarkable piece. In Molloy, you have a very clear division between two parts of the story but it becomes hard to know how to relate the two parts exactly—their remains a rift or a gap. I like the idea of having a story that is well-made and carefully considered (as both Kafka’s story and Beckett’s novel are) without it appearing so, and gravitate toward structures that welcome a kind of general unsettling of reality and of the reader rather than reaffirming something we know.
I like the Tobias Wolff story you mention, even like it very much, but I also feel like my feet are still on the ground at the end of the story, that there’s still ground for my feet to be on, that despite the difficult thing that happens in that story, and where it gets us, I’m still safe (even if Anders isn’t). But Wolff’s story “Hunters in the Snow” takes that ground away from me a little bit more, starts to get me a little bit off balance.
KM: When Coffee House Press sent me a review copy of A Collapse of Horses, they also sent me paperback reissues of three of your novels (Last Days, Father of Lies, The Open Curtain). I was delighted to see that when I put the four books together on the kitchen table, their covers added up to a single image, an illustration.
These kinds of publishing flourishes—re-issues, matched sets—don’t usually arrive at the beginning of a writer’s career. And they usually mean some things, such as: You’ve achieved a body of work that others deem to be lasting. You’ve achieved an audience interested in reading across the books. You’ve earned a place of pride with your publisher that brings the special extra effort and waves the big flag in celebration of it.
I remember, about ten years ago, visiting with a poet whose work had just been collected in a celebrated New and Selected edition. I meant to see him out of that kind of celebration, to congratulate him and say that it was right that the publishing house was validating the thing that had already happened in the imagination and interior life of his readers. But when I said so, he was despondent. He said that what it meant was that the life of artistic vitality was over, that he was being put out to pasture, that the volume in question would be, for his readers, the last word, the judgment rendered, on his body of work.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, he just kept writing poems, and publishing them, and because they were good, readers kept finding them and championing them, and he’s still at it to this day, working toward, I’d imagine, the inevitable depression he’ll feel at the publication of his New and Selected Part II, before he gets back again.
I suspect your emotional relationship to your work is more robust than that, but the circumstances of this round of publications must have given you some reason to think about what you’ve been doing with your work, and what it might be as a whole, and what you are pleased to have accomplished, and what disappoints you, and what you might hope to do in the years ahead, in light of what you’ve done already.
BE: The cover illustration is by my daughter Sarah Evenson. Initially, I think, Coffee House was talking with her about doing some sort of broadside or chapbook to go with the books and then suddenly she was designing the cover. I’m very happy with what she came up with, love the way the covers interlock.
I’ve been really happy for the three re-releases to have a new life. Father of Lies is appearing in paperback for the first time, which is great, and Last Days was originally published by a great genre press that was based in Portland, Underland Press, so it’s for it to have a new life and audience with Coffee House.
It was strange to go through the three rereleased books again, to think about them almost as if I hadn’t written them, to have forgotten certain details, to be a little surprised by them. And yes, it did allow for some reflection, and also was a kind of release. I think the thing it felt a little bit like was getting on top of something and being able to see an open vista, to feel once again that there were all sorts of possibilities. It’s been a little bit like removing a weight. Not that I’ll probably start writing stories with happy little elves in them, and there may not be differences that most readers will detect, but it still feels like a moment to gather my breath, consider, and then decide where I actually want to direct my axe.
Brian Evenson is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes and has been a finalist for the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the World Fantasy Award. He is also the winner of the International Horror Guild Award and the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel, and his work has been named in Time Out New York’s top books.
Kyle Minor is the author of Praying Drunk.
In the story, it’s simply “the dark gaunt house on Usher’s Island,” the site of “the Misses Morkan’s annual dance.” Here, on a cold night near the end of the 19th century when “the snow was general all over Ireland,” Gabriel Conroy—a husband, a son, a father, a teacher, and an occasional book critic with a fondness for European languages and fashions—looks up from the front hallway to see his wife Gretta lingering on the narrow staircase, listening to “a few chords struck on the piano” and a man’s voice singing, as a door to the past, which has never been securely closed at any moment in the story, is flung wide open.
James Joyce wrote “The Dead” while he and his family—his lover and future wife Nora Barnacle and their infant son Giorgio—were living in Trieste in 1907, and even the process of conceiving and composing the story was as much an act of memory as imagination. The year before, while living in Rome, Joyce had believed he was finished with Dubliners, a collection of stories written with what he called a “scrupulous meanness” that would portray Dublin as “the centre of paralysis” in a sclerotic and repressive country—a country he’d exiled himself from when he’d left for Europe in 1904 with hardly more than a few battered trunks and his pockets filled with borrowed money, accompanied scandalously by Nora. But in a letter to his brother Stanislaus on September 25, 1906, after the usual complaints about his poverty, Joyce acknowledged that the work he’d once called “a chapter of the moral history of my country” might, in fact, be incomplete. “Sometimes thinking of Ireland it seems to me that I have been unnecessarily harsh,” he wrote. “I have reproduced (in Dubliners at least) none of the attraction of the city for I have never felt at my ease in any city since I left it except in Paris. I have not reproduced its ingenuous insularity and its hospitality.”
And that was why, as he began to imagine “The Dead,” Joyce remembered the tall Georgian house at 15 Usher’s Island where his great aunts, Mrs. Mary Callanan and Mrs. Julia Lyons, had held their annual holiday party in the rented floors where they lived above a corn merchant’s office. Joyce had walked up the narrow steps from the front door many times and had perhaps even lingered in that same spot just below the half-landing where Gretta listens to the old ballad “The Lass of Aughrim” and suddenly remembers her lost love, a boy named Michael Furey who died of tuberculosis after walking out in a storm to see her (an incident drawn from Joyce’s own jealous memories of a story Nora had told him about a boy from her teenage years in Galway, Sonny Bodkin, who’d died of rheumatic fever after declaring his love for her on a stormy night). Like the Misses Morkan in “The Dead,” Joyce’s great-aunts “believed in eating well” despite a “modest” income and offered “the best of everything”: roast goose with all the trimmings, accompanied by dancing, musical performances, and a speech (often given by Joyce’s father). So if Dubliners needed to balance its “scrupulous meanness” with a taste of Irish hospitality then Joyce would take his readers to the house on Usher’s Island.
Yet over time the very site of a story that’s so rooted in memories and ghosts nearly became one itself. By the end of the 20th century, as the properties around it were razed and much of the world that Joyce had known was lost to the sort of urban development that reshapes any major city, the house at 15 Usher’s Island fell into ruin. Its roof and upper floor were removed in the 1970s. Its back wall buckled and crumbled. Its foundation ebbed away. Its fireplaces and its fanlight above the front door (“a particularly fine fanlight,” according to Irish Senator and Joycean scholar David Norris) were stolen. Eventually the property became a squat for prostitutes and heroin addicts. Though plans were drawn up to restore the house in 1995 and the city government even stipulated to a local developer that the construction of an adjoining apartment complex would be contingent on the restoration of 15 Usher’s Island, nothing was done.
Until, that is, in 1998 a local barrister heard about the demolition of a different house in Dublin, one where Joyce had lived as a teenager (one of the many houses briefly occupied by the Joyce family as they plummeted down through the city’s socio-economic strata), and rushed to the site to buy the rubble before it could be carted away. Brendan Kilty hadn’t yet read any of Joyce’s works when he’d first visited Usher’s Island with a fellow student from Trinity College in 1979 on Bloomsday—June 16th, the day celebrated in Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses—but like Gretta on the stairway and Gabriel transfixed looking up at her, Kilty experienced his own vision that night: that one day he would own the house himself. Like Michael Furey too, walking out into a storm in the grip of an unbreakable passion, Kilty eventually convinced the developer who owned the property to sell him what remained of the house at Usher’s Island. “I think he thought, if I was mad enough to buy the rubble, then I deserved the house,” Kilty told The Sunday Times of Dublin. After filling two buckets with abandoned syringes, he set about the work of restoration—a new roof, a new floor in the basement lifted a few inches above the tides from the River Liffey that had rotted away the old floor, a restored foundation and back wall—until the house could be reopened to the public on Bloomsday in 2004.
“History still has a strong handshake here,” Kilty told me during a visit to the house in summer 2015. A barrel-chested man with a sweep of white hair and that particularly Irish gift for infusing his speech with poetry and legend, Kilty hosts recreations of the dinner from “The Dead” and has published and offered for sale a lavish Centenary edition of the story to raise funds for continued work on the house and its ongoing structural maintenance. (For more information on donations to the house and purchasing Kilty’s edition of “The Dead,” visit here.) But in Dublin today—where historic sites and monuments sit side by the side with luxury stores and franchise restaurants, where tourists wielding rubber axes and broadswords ride in buses outfitted like Viking ships, and men in Leprechaun costumes give away coupons for Guinness only a few steps from the statue of Joyce on O’Connell Street—history is also routinely transformed and commodified. And how do you hold on to the past then?
“The Dead” itself is suffused with loss and an awareness of people and traditions passing away. In his speech at the Misses Morkan’s party, Gabriel celebrates his aunts as the very embodiment of the sort of Irish hospitality that Joyce evoked in his letter to Stanislaus. But Gabriel is all too aware as well of his aunts’ frailty. His words are really as much an elegy as an encomium: “As long as this one roof shelters the good ladies aforesaid . . . the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us and which we in turn must hand down to our descendants, is still alive among us.” Because, as Gabriel knows, the Misses Morkan will become ghosts too and even the roof above them will eventually be sheared away by time and change. “One by one they were all becoming shades,” Gabriel thinks at the end of the story as he watches Gretta sleep after she’d revealed the story of how Michael Furey had died for her.
Yet just as Joyce meticulously worked—sometimes meanly, sometimes lovingly—to preserve in words the places and traditions that he knew were vanishing, Kilty also works to salvage and restore the remnants of another time with the same passion for detail. From his rediscovery of the fireplace where Joyce’s great-aunts had their holiday meal prepared, to his mixing of ash from that fireplace—perhaps even the ashes from one of those holiday parties—with the ink for his edition of “The Dead,” Kilty’s painstaking work makes history tangible. “Better pass boldly into that other world in the full glory of some passion,” Gabriel thinks, “than fade and wither dismally with age.” To step through the doorway of 15 Usher’s Island now is to feel the glory of such passion and, for a while at least, to step through another doorway back into the world of “The Dead.”
Michael Kobre is Dana Professor of Literature and Chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte. His essays and stories have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Tin House, TriQuarterly, West Branch, MAKE, and other journals. He’s the author of Walker Percy’s Voices.
For seventy-nine recorded seconds in 1957, poet Kenneth Patchen and a group of jazz musicians achieved a perfect melding of minds and biorhythms. A few years before, Patchen had begun a series of collaborations, performing and recording with the Chamber Jazz Sextet in San Francisco, the Bed of Roses Chamber Group in Seattle, the Alan Neil Quartet in Vancouver, and the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop in New York. These projects were successful artistically and financially. The $4,545 he made in 1959 from performance tours far outstripped any other year’s earnings. Patchen was a poet’s poet, and a favorite among musicians. Charlie Parker carried a volume of Patchen’s poems with him, and spoke lines from the poems as he played. More recently, the free jazz powerhouse, Peter Brötzmann, made Patchen’s 14 Love Poems the basis of an acclaimed solo album. Patchen’s literary fans back in the day included Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, John Ciardi, and James Laughlin. Even Marianne Moore was won over after attending Patchen’s show at the Blackhawk Club in the Tenderloin. Moore was surprised by the fact that “every word was audible against the music (or should I say ‘with’ it?).” Moore’s self-correction begs the question: What does it mean for a poem to be with or against the music that surrounds it?
The piece in question is the first track on the first album Patchen recorded with musicians, “The Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid Wearing Lemon-colored Gloves.” It is to my mind one of the few instances of music and poetry perfectly integrated—by which I mean that in this piece, poem and music are maximally in contact, both with and against one another. This collaboration between Patchen and composer and band leader Allyn Ferguson is a revelation, anticipating Robert Creeley’s interplay with bassist Steve Swallow almost 50 years later. But where Creeley’s pre-recorded poems were digitally retrofitted into Swallow’s soundtrack, Patchen performed his poems live and in the studio with horns blazing. Listening to this deep cut is for me a continuous shock and thrill–a reminder of what’s possible when poets close their eyes and keep their ears wide open.
But first, eyes open: Patchen’s poem on the page. It appeared originally in Cloth of the Tempest (New Directions, 1942) exactly as it is reproduced on Patchen’s Poetry Foundation page. In comparison with Patchen’s other work this poem looks more like a sketch than a full-blown poem. Typographically, the layout is striking, but crude. The words hint at an encounter, but they stop well short of dialogue or plot. Why the single, surrealist detail (“lemon-colored gloves”) in the title? Why only one “now” if there are two murders? Unaccountability rules this poem. In its whetting and frustrating of its reader’s generic appetites, the poem stages its own powers of deferral. At the very least, and perhaps at the very most, the poem on the page is about itself.
Rereading the poem, I feel the truth of what Orlando White wrote recently about white space: that such space between text is “the vital sign of silence,” and that one of our jobs as poets is to “[make] language and silence collaborate.” White’s piece is a revamping of Charles Olsen’s 1950 manifesto, “Projective Verse,” in which Olsen offers the great formulation, “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE/the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE,” and his idea of composing by field. Writing in the Olsen orbit, Patchen would have been hip to White’s metaphors of body and text: background as the throat of the page, the pulse of the folio, the line and its breath.
The white spaces threading Patchen’s poem stood silently on the page for 15 years, waiting like unopened invitations for someone to hear their as-yet unexpressed exhales. Ferguson answered the poem’s call, composing music that he said he hoped would “fortify the emotional content of the poetry.” Patchen’s poem grew into itself in the company of Ferguson’s band.
Ferguson’s sextet is a good example of chamber jazz, a form of cool jazz that flourished in the 1940s-1950s. Closely associated with the West Coast scene, chamber jazz developed out of the wartime recording ban and the demise of the big bands. These ensembles were characterized by their small size, unusual instrumentation (French horn, oboe, bassoon, etc.), and compositional style that incorporated the influence of symphonic music. As cool jazz was taking form, bebop was cresting, and hard bop was on its way. All of these cats were swing players as well. Six weeks after Coltrane recorded “So What” with Miles Davis in 1959–an album that many think of as the epitome of cool jazz, he threw down “Giant Steps,” single-handedly reinventing jazz improvisation. Earlier that year, Mingus’s “Ah Um” signaled a new, funkier strain of bop that honored the sounds of Ellington and gospel and New Orleans jazz.
Ferguson’s “Murder” is of this musical moment. The opening melodic line, delivered in big band-style unison by the horns, uses bebop rhythm and phrasing, although harmonically it stays in the realm of swing. Eight bars into the piece the drummer switches from Philly Joe Jones-style, swinging eighths on the cymbal to play the melody on the snare along with the horns. At this point the band divides into two sections, and counterpoint and harmony come into play. Syncopation increases as the final four phrases, delivered by the band in unison again, deflect off one another lopsidedly, pinball fashion. The band is well rehearsed, swinging easy and tight.
At the close of the first A section of “Murder,” the band cuts out and Patchen enters with the laconic announcement of the poem’s title–at a considerably slower tempo than the music that preceded, and with subtle hesitations that intimate the rhythmic play to follow. Four words into the title, the bass enters with quarter notes and then, somewhere between the end of “lemon-colored” and the beginning of “gloves,” the drummer doubles up his time, moving into the swinging eighths he will maintain through the end of the tune. As Patchen reaches the end of the title, the band resumes the upbeat head, joining the bassist’s quickening step.
When we hear the beginning of the A section repeated, we may expect the piece to move into a familiar jazz form. But this expectation is almost immediately disturbed. In what follows one can hear distinct echoes of the first theme, punctuated by brief gaps when no one plays: the musical equivalent of caesuras. Into these each of these fourteen silences Patchen inserts an iteration of the word “wait,” each with distinct attack, intonation and metrical value–at one point, even a stutter. After the poet says his last word, the band hits and holds the final chord.
The general pattern of expectation and its fulfillment or frustration is the modus operandi of the piece. By the end, being caught off-guard has come to feel familiar. Or at least just familiar enough to make me want more. That the word I desire and keep on getting delivered is itself a sign of deferral makes the whole thing even more delicious. But with the last word, “NOW,” that new toy is yanked away. Having been simultaneously held off and indulged with those “waits,” the delayed action is rhetorically completed at last. But we have grown used to waiting, and we like it, so that the “now” feels more like “no, not now, you will have to wait to hear more of those ‘waits.’” The final chord sounds the first cliché of the piece. It hangs, somewhat sour, an unwanted end.
The cover of the album sports a blurb from “Archie”: “Puts muscles in your ears,” he says. I haven’t been able to find out who this Archie is, but I like his formulation. “Murder” stages in miniature the processes that neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says are basic to our appreciation of music. Levitin tracks our listening pleasure to our ability both to anticipate patterns and to register surprise. Surprise brings affect into the experience. “Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectation. . . Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat.”
Levitin focuses attention on the cerebellum, the oldest part of our brains. Ready to react, rather than to integrate or make sense of, the cerebellum is the part of the brain that makes us flinch when we hear a loud and unfamiliar sound. It is also one of the key seats of emotion. The emotion that is most useful for our self-preservation as a species is fear. We startle at a sudden sound, sense danger, and run to safety. Or we hear the flutter of an animal smaller, weaker and tastier than ourselves, feel hunger, and run toward our prey.
The role of the cerebellum in the processing of music is still something of a mystery. “It fires when people are listening to music rather than to noise; to music they like, versus music they don’t like; and to familiar rather than unfamiliar music.” The cerebellum governs toetapping and our sense of groove. “Music breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does, and our cerebellum finds pleasure in adjusting itself to stay synchronized.”
In the joint experiment of poet and composer, “Murder” aims multiply at the cerebellum. The rhythmic components work on an interlocking principle–a version of hocketing, or what Philip Tagg calls “interpunctuation,” syncopated interruptions of cadence that create a jerky and energizing effect. Close your eyes again and listen for the mixed signals: the push and pull of Patchen and band, the interlocking of monosyllables and the musicians’ complex phrases, the fight-or-flight subtext, the violence that is promised but only as abstraction.
And then there are those gloves. Lemon yellow. Leather? Or rubber? To hide fingerprints, to do the dirty work and protect the murdering hands? The yellow of stain, depravity and disease, the mark of quarantine—but also, and perhaps more immediately, the ‘50s yellow of sweater sets, Cadillacs and the cover of Patchen’s next lp. The color seeps into the poem’s spaces, belied by the music. The solo poem, on the page, is sinister, withholding. When spoken into the music that insinuates and energizes, the poem pants and begs and then shuts up, abruptly. In this collaborative performance, words and silences work with and against the music to put muscles in our ears.
Cassandra Cleghorn is a poet whose first book, Four Weathercocks, is being published by Marick Press in March of 2016. Her work has appeared in many journals including Paris Review, Yale Review, Southwest Review, New Orleans Review, The Common and Poetry International. She teaches at Williams College and serves as Associate Editor of Tupelo Press.