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My father inherited a small fortune when his mother died, and on my twenty-first birthday he handed me a card with a check inside. I spent a year in Paris after high school and had been living with Dad since then, working at a pottery store and reading my way through a box of moldy French novels and partying at the local bar with college students who wore American- flag bandannas and U.S. Army pants even though they went to a liberal arts school in New England. “Do you dress like that because you support the wars?” I asked one of these boys, after we’d slept together. He laughed with his nose. “Whatever,” he said. I was glad I’d decided not to go to college. Better to use my father’s money to travel than to sit in class with a bunch of morons. And now I had enough money that I didn’t need to make decisions at all. My father beamed as I gazed in astonishment at the four zeroes on his check, proud of his ability to provide for his child. I started driving around the country with a tent and sleeping bag in the back of my car, settling in whatever town could hold my interest for a few months, sometimes doing business transcription or working in coffee shops. I lived frugally to make money that wasn’t mine last. So I was shocked to find myself penniless one day, unable to pay for my sandwich at a deli in Carpinteria. I called my father, and he provided me with a few more years of choicelessness.
It was nearly dark when I hung up the phone. I’d have to spend the night in this maybe seedy, maybe idyllic coastal California town. I went to a bar to find out about campgrounds in the area. A guy looked me up and down when I walked in. Then he started a game of pool. He had thick arms and goldfish tattoos on each wrist; pale, pockmarked cheeks; a dainty nose. His jeans were too short and his legs were stubby. I was not attracted to his appearance. But I was attracted to him. I drank three pints of Guinness and watched him win four games. His brown eyes were open wide, so he could watch his shot and stare at me at the same time. His look reduced me, not unpleasantly, to sex. When I got up from my stool to walk to the bathroom, I felt the cotton of my underpants shifting over my buttocks, my asshole tingling and contracting as if I were lying facedown in the sun after swimming in icy water.
When he walked to the back patio, I followed him out and asked for a cigarette. The arbor above our heads was interlaced with broken Christmas lights. They flickered dizzyingly as he lit a Camel for me. I hoped he wouldn’t notice that I winced with each inhale; tobacco is one of the few drugs I hate. “You know you’re sexy, thank god,” he said. “So we don’t need to talk about it all night.” I was wearing a short skirt with ripped black panty hose and a tight tank top with a ladybug embroidered over my left nipple. My breasts are small and my legs are short, but I have a perky ass and symmetrical features. Jared was right. I love my body. I like my face, too. It’s not that I’m a knockout, but you don’t have to be a knockout to be desired. My appearance is one thing I don’t worry about. “I don’t like talking, anyway,” I said. Jared dipped a key into a small baggie, held the white powder under my nose.
After the bar closed, I hopped on the handlebars of his bike. Jared stopped short in front of a turning car and I flew forward. The heels of my boots weren’t sturdy enough to support the impact of my fall. My ankles twisted as I spiraled to the ground, landing on my back with my feet crossed. Jared grinned as he helped me up. “Took yourself a tumble, didn’t ya darlin’?” I touched my face. Smooth, dry. I straddled the front wheel and hopped back onto the handlebars. His breath warmed my neck as he raised himself off the bike seat to hurtle us through a thicket of fog-softened headlights. When I woke up in his bed the next morning, it looked like someone had sewn a piece of midnight blue fabric onto my hip with yellow thread. Jared shook his pillow out of its case, filled the case with ice and held it to my side. “I like you so much,” he whispered in my ear. He caught the back of my neck in his teeth. Icy waves lapped at my hip. His teeth tickled my skin. I got dizzy, free of thought.
I stayed with Jared for the next few days. We stumbled into a stranger’s party and danced until dawn and skinny-dipped in the ocean under a huge orange moon and set out on bikes with beer and sandwiches, riding equestrian trails through woods that led to sea cliffs, taking breaks to have sex in eucalyptus groves. Here was an answer to the question of what to do with my life.
I found a room for rent in a tiny, lopsided cottage occupied by a forty-year-old bachelor who had blown off his right hand in a drunken fireworks accident. Our bedrooms shared a thin wall. I wondered if Ron was always sheepish or if the accident had made him that way. The rent was negligible. I got the impression he wanted someone around, just in case. A week after I moved in, I peeked into the garage that we were not allowed to use. Piles and piles of lace-up shoes. Ron only wore slip-ons. The accident had happened years ago, but maybe he was still hoping to learn. Or to find someone to do the tying for him. In any case, I wasn’t worried about finding a job anytime soon. The money I had left from my dad felt like a lot to someone who had never really thought about money.
So when I wasn’t with Jared, I had plenty of time to indulge my recent obsession: the torture of so-called terror suspects, meaning mostly poor Muslim men whom corrupt warlords handed over to the United States in exchange for bounties. Not that you could talk like that in public or people would think you were not sufficiently distressed over 9/11. A handful of lunatics succeeded in changing the way regular people thought about sadistic violence. Torture was now acceptable. You needed a measured rationale to justify being against it—it was ineffective; it was a recruiting tool for the terrorists; it made it more likely that captured American soldiers would be mistreated. I learned these reasons because I had to. If I said, even at a bar in a liberal town in Southern California, that my opposition to torture was based on a feeling—the feeling that it’s wrong for one human being to inflict as much pain as possible on another human being—then I was pitied for being idealistic and sentimental. But if the problem with sentimentality is that it wastes our need to feel on false, trivial tropes—a Nazi who weeps at the opera but is unmoved at the gas chamber—then wouldn’t the solution be for us to feel strongly about real stuff instead, for pure, uncomplicated emotion to be aroused not by baby animals on YouTube but by ordinary people in pain?
The first act of sadistic violence I witnessed was a crow pecking a baby bat to death in my backyard. I gave the bat a funeral at which I read a memorial poem (“I will never forget you little bat / It was so mean of the crow to do that”) and then had to stay home from school for two days because I couldn’t stop crying. I was probably six. My mother was worried; my father was proud. It was from him that I learned to anguish over mass suffering I could do nothing about. Throughout my childhood, he spent several hours a day reading terrible news stories, which he would talk about throughout dinners, rides to and from school, trips to the grocery store. My mother would tell him not to disturb a child; my father would say privileged people not wanting to be disturbed was the cause of the problem. Since my father never did anything with his knowledge except get angry and then depressed, I thought my mother might have a point. But after she abandoned us for a pretty dimwit, I sided with Dad: My mother was frivolous; my father’s angst was purposeful and important. I filled my adolescence with books about slavery, the Holocaust, the Stasi, the Gulag, the Chinese oppression of Tibet, the Gaza Strip. I used to wonder what I would do if I lived in a country that imprisoned people in massive, indiscriminate sweeps (Rumsfeld’s leaflets “falling like snow” over Afghanistan, promising “wealth and power beyond your dreams” in exchange for turning in supposed enemy combatants) and tortured them without ever charging them with crimes (the legal memos with graphic descriptions of waterboarding, stress positions, beatings to inflict maximum distress without causing organ failure or death). After Abu Ghraib and Bagram and Guantánamo, I knew what I would do: feel rage, shame, disgust, loneliness, helplessness, sorrow, despair, great and debilitating hatred for everyone who did not also feel these things.
A young woman from PeaceByPeace knocked on my door in Carpinteria one afternoon, asking if I had a minute for peace. What she really wanted was money, but at least she was out doing something. So I tried canvassing, too. But I hated asking strangers for money that I wasn’t even convinced helped all that much. PeaceByPeace lobbied politicians to support their initiatives. I had no faith in politics; the first presidential election I voted in was decided by a single American who happened to be on the Supreme Court. And even at PeaceByPeace human rights was not a popular cause. The fastest way to get people to give—other canvassers advised me—was to make an economic argument against Bush’s policies, something I couldn’t have done even if I wanted to. You had to slip in the human rights stuff later, once you’d hooked them—the same way that, if you were writing a novel, you wouldn’t want to start off with a diatribe against torture and indefinite detention or you could turn off a lot of potential readers. Maybe you could slip the political stuff in later, after you’d made a particular Muslim character really sympathetic, perhaps in an unlikely feminist way, like he collected bits of charcoal to make rudimentary writing implements for poor, oppressed schoolgirls. Then you could have him detained and tortured and readers might care.
I understood the method. I just couldn’t abide it. After the twentieth door was slammed in my face as soon as I mentioned humane treatment for so-called enemy combatants, I quit. Reading the news alone was less depressing than trying to do something about it.
I met a few girls in Carpinteria that I liked to go out and drink with, but I couldn’t imagine becoming really close with them. They weren’t up against anything, having spent their lives running between the mountains and the sea. When I complained to one of them about how difficult it was just to be a decent person, she suggested I go to the beach, listen to the ocean, and “soak up the inspiration.” Southern California is a great place to soak up ethereal nouns.
But Jared suffered. He was real. He read David Foster Wallace with a dictionary, taking notes in a journal. He read the way he did everything: desperately, driven by too much need for things to be too different from what they were. He was the only person—aside from my father—whom I could talk to about the war on terror (another ethereal noun). We had feelings, not arguments—only an insane person could argue intellectually about something like torturing and jailing people for years without ever charging them with a crime—which of course made us ineffective political thinkers. Jared read the newspaper like it was a book, looking not for facts but for stories: What was happening to regular people? It’s hard not to be compelled by suffering when you’re suffering yourself. But if I was paralyzed by my feelings, Jared was at war with his. Alcohol was the quickest way to win.
He was the rhythm guitarist for a mediocre rockabilly band that played the local bars most weekends; he made his living selling drugs. He did drop-offs at dawn, midnight, noon. Couldn’t afford to disappoint his clientele. Carpinteria was a small town with a lot of dealers. Susan was my introduction to this clientele, a few months after I’d settled down in Carp. She was petite and blond and full- bosomed, wearing red lipstick and a tight sweater, standing next to us at the bar one night, demanding that Jared buy her a drink. “I’m broke,” she said, sticking out her lower lip. Jared took a twenty out of his wallet and handed it to her. I raised my eyebrows. He shrugged. We went outside and danced to the Cure, which was blasting from speakers on the back patio. Susan found us, shimmied against Jared, pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and took long, dramatic drags as she told me how far back she and Jerrie go, that she’s been stealing his cigarettes at the end of a long night for years. When she went inside to get another drink, I told Jared to stop flirting with that whore, hating my stereotypically competitive tone, hating him for making me assume it.
“Suze? You’re trippin’. I fucked her once. But that was years ago. Stop trippin’, girl.”
To Drunk Jared I was just one more needy female, as in “Woman, you are a handful” and “Girl, get off my back.” He turned away from me. I turned on my heels. Pride dragged me toward home. After two blocks, I remembered that I was clacking my way to a dark apartment where I’d hiccup and sob into my pillow, trying not to wake my depressed roommate. But when I got back to the bar, Jared was gone. I searched wide-eyed, clutching the sides of my dress, forcing myself not to break into a run.
“Are you looking for the guy in the red shirt?” the bartender asked me. Yes, I was, that adorable red shirt with the bluebird over the left breast pocket. “He took off. He was really trashed. Better let him sleep it off.” When Jared called me the next afternoon and asked if I wanted to meet at a diner, I told him that I would never see him again. He left a present on my windowsill every day for the next week—earrings, chocolates, flowers. Stupid things, the perfect things. Eventually I agreed to let him take me to a Wilco concert in L.A. “I’ll be your designated driver,” he said, and drank only Pepsi at the show. Afterward, he drove us back to his house and we jumped on his trampoline under the stars, Santa Ana winds somersaulting down the piney mountains. He fed me avocado-and-tomato sandwiches in his bed. We had sex three times and slept entangled till noon.
One night, I had two orgasms and he had none. I kept trying, desperate for proof of his attraction to me, reminding him of how he used to come so quickly, too quickly. “Because you were brand new,” he said, yawning into my hair. The next day, I bought a pair of lace-up, knee-high boots for two hundred bucks. When Jared saw me wearing them, he said, “Where’d you get those boots? The Sexy Store?” I cringed; he knew I was trying to please him. The first time I wore the boots, the right heel came off in chunks on the dance floor. I left a trail of rubber everywhere I went.
And it turned out Jared didn’t give a shit about my sexy boots. He cared about seeing me from every possible angle, under the brightest lights, his nose an inch from my skin. “But—” I’d protest as he parted my legs or rolled me onto my stomach. “Come on,” he’d say. “Let me see you.” Attraction was access to knowledge that could not be gained from any other kind of interaction. There was nothing to hold back.
Hannah Tennant-Moore‘s work has appeared in the New York Times, Elle, The New Republic, n+1, Tin House, Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and has twice been included in The Best Buddhist Writing. Wreck and Order is her first novel.
Wreck and Order (Hogarth) is available February 9th, 2016.
A friend of mine died last month. We weren’t particularly close, but I liked her a lot—we’d have coffee near Union Square every so often and she’d talk about her budding music career and I’d talk about my long-gestating novel. I tend not to enjoy unifying conversations about art that include me. I admire the obvious external talents of actors and singers and basketball players more than the writer’s drudging isolation and, karaoke daydreams aside, I don’t crave the immediacy of reaction that performers chase. But my friend’s genuine enthusiasm for what she called “our craft” was infectious and I always got a creative jolt out of seeing her. She was too earnest, too well-liked, too attractive, to have ever generated evident self-consciousness.
A year ago, my friend found out that she had a really dire, painful kind of cancer. She spent the rest of her life enduring a sequence of atrocities—bone marrow transplants, hotel stays near the Mayo Clinic, experimental treatments that gave her a false sense of hope, multiple resuscitations. Hers was the kind of suffering that eventually pushes you into a null state somewhere beyond empathy. Gradually, I got used to the idea that she would soon disappear. Each text was a bit more valedictory; I was more relieved with every one of her email replies.
When we know someone is going to die, hope dwindles as a matter of course. Reality steadily evaporates the well-spring of optimism. We can and do pre-mourn for people who are still alive, and the pain manifests as a single scoop of a sine wave: very difficult at first, even worse at the end. If it was tough for me, a mid-level friend at best, I can’t imagine how her boyfriend dealt with her decline. They hadn’t even dated that long before she got sick. He’d only had a smattering of weeks with the beautiful, talented person I’d known for a decade. But he stuck by her, quitting his job, suspending his life.
My friend and I were talking on the phone a couple of months ago (I never saw her in person again after the diagnosis) and I asked about her relationship, expecting to hear the usual cancer boyfriend platitudes. Honestly, I was looking forward to them. There’s a reason clichés become clichés. But instead, she said that she was seriously bored of him and was considering breaking it off. She even laughed about it. I was shocked. It wasn’t just the scars and the baldness and the imposed isolation. My friend was 99.9% sure going to die—how could she not wait it out for what would be, best case scenario, half a year, so her boyfriend, who had been so good, wouldn’t have to live on knowing that the woman he’d most loved had dumped him while she was terminal?
But then: who’s a deathbed really for? So many of life’s passages, the graduations and the weddings, are really meant for other people to bear witness to our change. But the body shutting down, the last connections to reality severed—should that be a private experience for the patient or a public transition for her loved ones? Now me, I’m someone who believes in nothing. You end and the universe that’s yours ends with you. So I understand why my friend didn’t want to spend her last days with someone she’d lost interest in. Why waste time on him when she could share a little more love with her loved ones?
My friend died before she could go through with the break-up. After all of that slow suffering, it happened fast. Her boyfriend couldn’t make it to the hospital in time to say goodbye. Of course, I’m glad she didn’t end up dumping him. And I’m changing enough details that I hope he’ll never find this. But I don’t know—as always with her, I was compelled to write something after we talked. I laugh whenever I think about the ballsiness of it, of her. I most appreciate the way she told me. It was as casual as sitting on a Union Square bench with iced coffees in the summer watching skateboarders whirl round: “I don’t quite think it’s working, but I’m not sure why.” And it’s a retroactive revelation of why I was so drawn to her; she never did have time for false narratives.
Adam Dalva is a recent graduate of NYU’s MFA Program, where he was a Veterans Writing Workshop Fellow. He was an Associate Fellow at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center. His work has been published in The Millions, Public Books, Lumina, and elsewhere. He is also a dealer of French antiques.
I met Tony Tulathimutte over drinks one afternoon. We’d followed each other on Twitter and, on a rare social impulse, I thought I’d chance getting to know him better. Online, he was funny and incisive in his commentary. In person though, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To my delight, we spent our time surprisingly in-step with a minimum of lit-scene gossip and a maximum of day-drinking.
Reading Private Citizens (William Morrow, 2016), it’s hard not to see Tony in his work. The novel is thoughtful and sly, at turns eloquent and hilarious and caustic. It follows the post-collegiate years of four friends on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse. There’s Linda, the failed writer; the transient autodidact Henrik, the socially conscious Cory, and Will—the book’s one Asian character, whose racial neuroses borders on obsession. What astonishes me most about Private Citizens is the way these characters become so much more than their labels. Together and alone in the young urban landscape of San Francisco, they learn to create meaning in a world that keeps insisting they have none.
Tony and I met again to talk about Private Citizens last December at Black Forest Brooklyn Biergarten in Fort Greene, where we discussed—among other things—writing, race, and self-loathing.
Bill Cheng: Private Citizens is actually your second book. Can you talk about your first book?
Tony Tulathimutte: I wrote a story collection, which I didn’t bother trying to publish as a book. Except the novella, I drafted all the stories in undergrad and when I put them together I was unsatisfied with them. There was this unwashable stink of shame surrounding them because I suspected I was being a good boy. I’d never written an Asian character, except in one case where I retro-jected Asianness onto the character way after the fact. I know a lot of novice Asian writers who had this problem, they think, “Well, I grew up around mostly white people and so it makes perfect sense for me to write about them.” It’s a way to rationalize internalized racism and justify what you’re really doing, which is trying to dodge the burdensome label of an ethnic writer, an Asian writer.
BC: In some ways, you try to address that with the character Will. On the face of things, Will is a lot like you: he’s Thai, went to Stanford. But what makes Will different from Tony?
TT: The name. (Laughter.)
Once time I had my roommate send me a piece of my novel while I was at work. He said, “Sorry man, I just opened your computer and I saw a bunch of notes open. I just wanted to remark that I did see on top of this file, a huge bold text equation that says ‘WILL = ME – WRITING + GIRLFRIEND.’” That was sort of a joke to myself, but what I wanted was not to give myself any wiggle room, abstracting characters away from me because that’s what I thought good writing was.
BC: What did framing Will that way do for the writing?
TT: It removed the checks and balances from my psyche. When I have these sort of insecurities or desires ruthlessly indulged I imagine I would become a kind of a monster.
What I didn’t want was to write the kind of novel people write when they set out to make a big statement about a racial experience. In the attempt to give a voice to people of their race, they often end up over-generalizing. There’s this total overreach. What I did in this book is very specific. If people are going to identify with the experience of Asian-ness this character has, it’s going to be in this heavily qualified way, just because in spite of the many stereotypical traits I deliberately saddled him with—short, angry, tech savvy, girl-troubled—you find that he’s nothing like most people, Asian or otherwise. I’d be hard-pressed to compare anyone to Will, even myself, in spite of him sharing my biography. In fact he doesn’t resemble me any more than the other three characters.
BC: Let’s talk about them. Most of the action is set in those years after college, when they’re each deeply invested in their individual lives and those bonds aren’t as present.
TT: I don’t know about you, but in New York I barely see my closest friends. Everybody I know has a lot of banal obligations that take them away from regular day-in, day-out exposure to the people who’re closest to them.
If there’s one thing I am concerned with, it’s the experience of our fantasy life vs. our real life. That, when your friends are not there, you’re still thinking, “What would Jenny say about this? What would Alice say if she saw me doing this?” Even though they’re not actually there, nonetheless their influence is present.
In this book, the characters are deeply involved in each other’s mental lives, even more than their actual circumstances. Everything Henrik does is a response to breaking up with Linda. Everything Linda does is to move beyond Henrik. Linda has informed Will’s resentment of women. And Cory is constantly comparing herself to Linda. So there’s a skein of relationships that are operating even when one character is just sitting there alone.
BC: With four protagonists, how did you manage to capture the diversity of all these voices?
TT: I had to get at the book edgewise. I spent two years floundering and not being able to just sit down and write. What I had to do was tackle the alternate project of trying to write about everything that was happening in my life, everything I was thinking about, with no preconceptions about how they were interrelated or would cohere into a story.
BC: Like what?
TT: I was thinking about political obligations as somebody living comfortably in San Francisco. I was thinking about technology, as a tech consultant in Silicon Valley, and race, and writing—like almost everybody, I felt like I had the talent to write but a total inability to do it. And I was thinking about my inherited defects. Right in the middle of my 20s all these new allergies kicked in. I couldn’t eat fruits with thin skins; I was diagnosed with exercise-induced anaphylactic urticaria. Literally allergic to exercise. I had to have surgery to correct a deviated septum and enlarged nasal turbinates.
Having to descend into this crazy bureaucracy of health, just to feel like I was a normal functioning person. Operating under all these strictures and paranoias about new illnesses. And mental stuff as well. I had conquered four psychiatrists and was feeling like I was looking down a long corridor of unwellness, and not really seeing where I was going to come through the other side—that’s a lot of Henrik’s neuroses come from.
None of these things are obviously connected. Putting it together literally amounted to writing out random sentences or thoughts in a million different text files and seeing, “Oh these two kind of relate to each other, I’m going to move them closer.” Then I’d glom them together and they become kind of like a T-1000 pool of living metal. I stitched those together into a passage, which gets stitched together into a scene, which gets assigned to a character. This is the most ass-backwards way to write a novel, which is why it took seven years.
BC: What I enjoyed the most about the book is the strength in the voices of these characters.
TT: They tend to rant. Part of that is Philip Roth’s influence, part of it is my desire to write criticism inside the novel.
BC: I feel like a lot of writers— and I include myself in this— are often paralyzed by that kind of interiority.
TT: Really? I feel like that’s what everybody does when they want to self-indulge.
BC: Maybe I like movies too much. But for me, there’s no “brain voice” in my head. My brain doesn’t speak to me in English but rather this different, primal language. Putting that on the page, I find, is difficult.
TT: Nabokov once said that only illiterates think in language, that people generally think in images. To me it’s not possible to mimic your brain voice, but you can translate it to English. And oftentimes when we do it, we realize, “Oh shit, I’m a horrible person.” When writers talk in this vague grandiose way about wanting to get at the truth, usually they’re just trying to figure out what they’re thinking.
I think there’s an E.M. Forster line that goes, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” That’s the idea. If you’re not cornered into actually articulating what you’re after, then how can you endorse or deny it?
BC: In a lot of ways, Private Citizens is an examination of self-loathing. Do you think this is something particular to where we are now as a generation?
TT: My first workshop at Iowa hated my book. I had almost no defenders. A lot of what I was perceiving as self-loathing was read as contempt. They felt there was this authorial sensibility that was basically saying the equivalent of “ha ha look at these fucking Millennials, look how stupid and entitled and narcissistic they are”—and in a way that’s the critique I fear most, even if it’s positive. Where somebody says “Check out this scathing takedown of Millennials!” Because I think that’s bullshit.
Every generation, except the one that fought World War II, gets maligned as worse than its predecessor, and for the dumbest reasons. “Oh, Millennials, they boomerang, and live off their parents.” Well, you shouldn’t have dismantled America’s manufacturing base and rolled back financial regulations and cut every reliable job. We didn’t ask for the gig economy. That’s not on us.
BC: Do you identify as a writer, an Asian writer, or a Thai writer?
TT: Either way it’s a no-win. One way, you are either pigeonholed as a Thai writer, an Asian writer. The other way, you’re being dishonest, especially in my case where I am writing about race, among other things. If someone asks me, “Am I Thai and a writer?’” Well, that’s true. Some of my writing is bound up in the question of being Asian in America.
But to drill down to the next level of your question, there’s actually a distinction between calling yourself an Asian writer or a Thai writer, right? Because one actually presumes a healthy and nuanced enough discourse that makes significant distinctions between Thai writers, Chinese writers, Japanese writers, Korean writers. And I don’t think that’s the case. In spite of the staggering diversity of ethnicities within Asia, to most people what matters more than those differences is that you either look Asian or you don’t. The particularities are completely paved over, including the things they expect of you as a writer or read into your writing.
In real life my Thai-ness only comes into play when I’m talking to other Asian people and they’re feeling out whether or not we have any deeper cultural ground than the experience of being treated as an Asian. I didn’t know many Asian people my age until I went to Stanford, and even then, it wasn’t our Asianness we bonded over, it was writing. I didn’t join the Asian-American Students Association, which I thought was corny—they had a newsletter called Communicasians, for instance. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in terms of racial identity; there’s just also nothing to be proud of, except insofar as you know you’ve had to overcome shit because of it.
If there’s a basis for pride, it’s in spite. Which, funny enough, were working titles for my novel. Pride and Spite.
BC: Do you think your writing is in some way motivated by anger?
TT: Anger to me seems like the wrong word because it connotes a lack of control. That’s why spite seems more useful. It is this thing to stew over, to elaborate. It can be intellectualized and rationalized and at a certain point it becomes less a feeling than a value. A ton of my work had to do with that. To say anger, I don’t know, I tend to turn my anger inward in self-destructive ways that later become material.
BC: Self-destructive how?
TT: Look at how the characters act out in the book. Cory has an eating disorder, Will’s self-destruction becomes very literal, and Linda repeatedly nukes her situation and finds herself without a fixed address. You can see how somebody could justify her behavior as standing up for yourself, or autonomy, but it’s also self-sabotage and a desire to be confirmed in your dismal worldview.
It’s that cog-psych principle of depressive realism, where you’re disposed to see the world as a bad place so that when bad things happen you feel validated by being right. Every time people will take being right over being happy. Every time.
Tony Tulathimutte is the author of the novel Private Citizens (William Morrow, 2016). A graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has contributed to VICE, Salon, The New Yorker online, Threepenny Review, AGNI, The LA Review of Books, The American Reader, and other places. He has been selected for an O. Henry Award and a Macdowell Fellowship; his website is at tonytula.com.
Bill Cheng is the author of Southern Cross the Dog. He is a 2015 fellow in Fiction for the New York Foundation for the Arts and a 2016 recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship.
Keep it on the DL, but a little bird told us Dorianne Laux might appear in our Summer 2016 issue. In celebration of these rumors, here is one of her fine poems from Issue 48.
In another life you might hear the song
of your neighbor clipping the hedges, a sound
oddly pleasant, three coarse dull snips,
three thin branches thumping softly as death
onto the closed doors of the mown lawn.
You might get your every dark wish: chocolate plums
for breakfast, mud swelling up between your toes
as you brush green scum from the face of a pond
with a stick, gold carp flying like flocks of finches
through azurite blue, a copperhead with a minnow
struggling in its mouth winding away from you.
In that hush you might hear the gods
mutter your name, taste diamonds of salt
melting on your tongue. You could lie there
molten and glowing as a blade hammered to silver
by the four-billion-year-old middle-aged sun.
In another life you might slip under canal after canal
on a coracle boat, look up to see river light
scribbling hieroglyphs on the curved undersides
of each stone arch. You might hear
an echo, the devil’s fiddle
strummed just for you, and you might sing, too,
unbuckle your voice. You can’t speak
the meaning of being, the nurses can’t help you,
beautiful as you are with your plasma eyes,
beautiful as they are in their mesh-blue protective booties,
their sugary white dresses, so starched, so pressed.
Your deepest bones might ache with longing,
your skeleton draped in its finest flesh,
like the lush velvet curtains that open so slowly
before the opera begins.
Dorianne Laux’s fifth collection, The Book of Men, winner of The Paterson Prize, is available from W.W. Norton. Her fourth book of poems, Facts about the Moon won The Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also the author of Awake; What We Carry, a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; Smoke; as well as two fine small press editions: Superman: The Chapbook and Dark Charms, both from Red Dragonfly Press.
As accurate now as it was when it first appeared in Tin House Issue 33: Fantastic Women.
Aries—A harsh wind blows on the ram this year and heavy wool socks are strongly recommended. Hot potatoes work well too, and yelling at your delinquent daughters, who will pierce their tongues after the first Virgo moon.
Taurus—Get a tape recorder and repeat after me: The snap pea habit has got to stop. A rotten pod has your name on it, Taurus, and three tiny round fuckers are laughing it up.
Gemini—Two pairs of hands and you can’t do a fan dance? Frankly, I have no advice. You might have bathed babies, painted holiday eggs, but instead you leap naked and never touch.
Cancer—Let’s face it, Crusty, we never got along. You were always so complacent about all those visitors. Especially Alma. Guess your own future.
Leo—Shake your fulgent mane, for this year you’ll find love. Or at least good lighting for the long hall, the one you papered so carefully last summer. Italian jellyleaf, a fakir’s green.
Virgo—For far too long you’ve acted like a dryad, mossing your titties, diving into brooks. The sylvan life ends this year, Virgo. When the mists start rising, you’ll see your own feet.
Libra—You will like your short new wife. She will make you stew. She will plump her little bowl of a bottom in the pot-shaped seat of your rocking chair.
Scorpio—You’re not so bad. You’re not even that ugly; you just need different hair. Go to Charcot Street and ask for Clemm.
Sagittarius—Stop shooting cans. Stop shooting bottle caps. Stop shooting rats. I can’t believe you’ve named that stupid blue pistol. Throw it away and have a baby.
Capricorn—Enough with the herring. You’re a goat, for God’s sake, and it’s time to eat trash. When Pisces enters the second house, you’ll nip a piece of ass with sequins on it.
Aquarius—All you needed was a kiss, you said. You will need a year to wash it off.
Pisces—The pins are in a jar. The jar is in the drawer with the trim and missing socks. You will use the pins to make a six-yard sampler, roses and squares, alpaca wool. For your son’s funeral. You’ll wrap him in it twice.
Jane Avrich is the author of The Winter Without Milk, a collection of short stories. Her stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Story, and other journals and have been nominated for The Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Born and raised in New York, she received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard and her master’s from Columbia. A teacher for thirteen years, she currently teaches English at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn and lives in Manhattan.
A passionate sailor, striving writer, and unwilling movie star, Sterling Hayden lived a picaresque life in which his nascent internal struggles were compounded by the American century in which he lived. The chief literary artifact of this extraordinary existence, Hayden’s mid-life autobiography Wanderer, published in 1963, distinguishes itself amongst its genre through its formal imitation of the tumultuous, singular life of its author.
Born in Montclair, New Jersey in 1916, Hayden spent his youth rootless, searching with his mother for stability after the premature death of his father. In adolescence, he discovered and quickly came to love sailing.
Against the warnings of his mother and, frequently, his fellow sailors, Hayden took to the ocean as a teenager, working on any boat that would have him. By his early twenties, he had traversed the Pacific several times, weighed anchor in Cuba, Tahiti and Florida, and risen to the rank of first mate. Hayden adopted the leathery captain of a trans-Pacific pleasure cruiser as his mentor, and spied in that man’s boat a template for the career he hoped to imitate.
An almost unbelievable confluence of chance interrupted Hayden’s plans. A “tall youth, with bulging forearms, and a faraway look in his eyes,” Hayden cut an impressive figure. Spying potential in Hayden’s looks, a friend recommended that he try to get into movies, as a way to make money in between his voyages at sea. Wary of both acting and the entertainment industry, Hayden nonetheless agreed to give it a shot and spent a miserable interval in New York failing to gain traction in the worlds of either theater or cinema. He was on the cusp of returning to the sea when an acquaintance wrangled him an audience with Edward Griffith of Paramount Studios, who not only liked Hayden, but selected him immediately for entry into Paramount’s star-making apparatus.
During the next decade, Hayden developed a prominent career as a film actor, even as his distrust for Hollywood ossified into outright contempt. “There’s nothing wrong with being an actor,” he later wrote, “if that’s what a man wants. But there’s everything wrong with achieving an exalted status simply because one photographs well and is able to handle dialogue put in one’s mouth by others.”
He averaged a salary of $150,000 a year and enjoyed sizable, and to his mind unearned, celebrity. Though he longed to cut and run, Hayden’s weaknesses—for money, for women, for booze—kept delaying his escape. By the early 1940s he had become a movie star, and he hated it.
World War II added another unlikely chapter to Hayden’s saga. Under a pseudonym, he ditched Hollywood to serve in the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor organization to the CIA. A desk jockey in neither spirit nor practice, Hayden spent the war working as an undercover agent, executing missions that included parachuting into fascist-held Eastern Europe and running the German naval blockade to deliver supplies to Yugoslav partisans. He came away from the experience with a hard-won admiration for Yugoslav revolutionary Josip Tito, an exacerbated drinking problem, and the conviction that the Army, like the Hollywood system, the government, and the workaday world, was bullshit.
Like many intelligent youths of iconoclastic tendency, Hayden for a period considered himself a Marxist. A clique of Hollywood leftists introduced him to the philosophy in the 1940s, and though the political convictions failed to stick, they left a trail of evidence thick enough to put Hayden at risk when Senator Joseph McCarthy began treating Hollywood to anti-Communist purges in the early 1950s.
Fearing for his freedom, Hayden opted to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He named names. The Feds let him walk, to a chorus of congratulations that he dismissed as “jingoistic drivel.”
He starred in more lousy movies; he married and divorced; he fought with his wife for custody of their children. He drank. By 1959 he had had enough. With a schooner purchased on loan from Paramount, and a tenuous legal claim to his four, elementary-school aged progeny, he set sail for Tahiti. His crew of soft-handed dreamers he had assembled from a want ad. On deck, he drank freely. Though he had planned to finance the voyage by making a documentary about his exploits, once at sea he ignored the $5,000 worth of camera equipment sitting in his hold and began to write Wanderer.
I first learned about Wanderer while listening to an interview with the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. He mentioned that he had kept Hayden in mind as the model for a character in his film Inherent Vice, an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name and an exploration, in part, of anti-authoritarian paranoia. Even in Anderson’s ten-second summary, Hayden’s life appeared to beggar belief. When I heard that Hayden had chronicled his own remarkable exploits, I sought out the book, which has drifted into and out of print since its original publication, and discovered a work as forthright, startling and contradictory as the man himself.
A florid, careening book, Wanderer begins with a burst of enthusiasm evidently bred from Hayden’s joy at having slipped free of Hollywood. “Poor wanderer,” he writes, “trapped in the greenbacked cradle of Outer Hollywood; laced in the straight jacket of the big time – big houses big salaries big fuss when you walk down the street big fuss as you check into hotels – big big big.”
Hayden’s blunt prose resembles that of Norman Mailer and John Fante, both of whom shared Hayden’s attraction to brusque, masculine romanticism. His talent shines with the greatest intensity in his scenes of dialogue, and in his precise, literary sketches. He describes a director as looking “important and confused, like a small town mayor.” Of the San Francisco Bay at dawn he writes, “a crust of yellow air hung over the endless square miles of housing tracts, resembling an acute case of acne on the ruddy cheeks of the valley.”
That these scenes and portraits fail to cohere into a larger narrative speaks to the manner of the book’s creation; Wanderer reads like it was assembled by a drunk because it was. Writing with the bottle as an almost constant companion, Hayden let his narrative slosh back and forth between his then-present-day exploits in Tahiti, his beloved youth at sea, and his dreaded years in the miasma of Hollywood.
The book begins in California, detours to Boston, washes up in New York, spends a louche idle in Los Angeles, then makes time for layovers in Tahiti, Yugoslavia and New Jersey. Hayden sails, seduces, acts, ponders, testifies and submits, for a cringe-worthy passage, to psychoanalysis. Like his trip to Tahiti, the book is “not so much a voyage as an act of defiance.”
Despite its formlessness, Wanderer nonetheless assumes narrative momentum as Hayden draws near the event that constitutes the book’s climax, and the defining moment of his own life—his testimony before HUAAC.
He avoids even mentioning that he turned stoolie for McCarthy until the final third of Wanderer. However, once the subject creeps into his narrative, it becomes clear that the four hundred pages leading up to it have been prelude.
The passages describing his testimony are grueling. Hayden tries to cheat his fate with lawyers, psychoanalysts (“You know, Mr. Hayden, there are times when alcohol, properly handled, can bring relief”), and stalling, but he ultimately caves. His willingness to sell out his fellows recasts the Thoreau-ian bombast with which he begins Wanderer. “In almost all countries,” he writes, “a man who collaborates with those who would punish freedoms arouses the hatred of his countrymen. And yet today, in the United States of America, the way to loyalty is this – down the muddy informer’s trail.”
Money and legal wrangling eventually recalled Hayden from his adventure in the South Pacific. Upon returning, he continued to act, but split his time between the movies and his boat. He made meandering voyages through the rivers of France and out into the Mediterranean. He drank and smoked pot and wrote, producing a 700-page nautical adventure novel at the age of fifty-four. When he ran out of money, he would do a couple of movies to replenish his bank account, then return to sea. It was during this era that he landed his most enduring roles, turning in brief, commanding performances as a corrupt police captain in The Godfather, and a deranged general in Dr. Strangelove. Despite remaining in steady demand well into his sixties, Hayden never quite acclimated himself to the idea of being an actor, and instead spent more and more time at sea, a mer-creature of freedom and constraint.
Wanderer expresses Hayden’s dilemma perhaps better than even its author realized. The vigor apparent in his performances animates the book as well. But in literature as in life, Hayden failed to direct that wellspring towards a single end, in this case adorning a listless narrative with periodic passages of brilliance.
Toward the end of his life, as the world and his role within it continued to disappoint, Hayden clung with ever-greater ferocity to his boat. “If I knew myself as well as I know this vessel,” he wrote, “I’d be of some use to this world.”
Shane Danaher is a writer and journalist. He lives in Brooklyn.
They sat on the linoleum floor, the two of them. His watch was the only thing moving. Through the small window above the sink the rising sun was bleaching the room white. The sound of a garbage truck, a man calling his dog, newspapers hitting doorsteps. Her long, bare legs were out in front of her, knees like turned down saucers. He loved her legs. Something he’d miss. Their backs on the kitchen cabinets, his arm so close to hers. They were tired, but more thirsty. A glass of water would change things, she thought, if he would just get up and get a glass of water.
Libby Flores is is a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine,The Rattling Wall, CODA Quarterly, and FLASH: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. She is the program manager at PEN Center USA’s Emerging Voices Fellowship.
The legend you’ve heard is true. A woman did live in this eyesore house and her sister did chop her cleanly in half with a sickle. They had quarreled for two years before the older one built the house next door, the front door facing the younger’s place, as if to say: Here is my face: spit in it, if you can reach. For years they lived as neighbors, never speaking, avoiding contact with each other, growing old in San Francisco until the younger turned twenty-six and old Daddy died and left her sister more than half. And then it happened: The “farming accident” in which she, the younger, chased her older sister through all twenty-one rooms, backed her into the parlor, sliced her body clean in two. There sure was a lot of farming that needed to be done at Bush and Octavia.
This is what we know about the older one:
She collected pigs, the murdered one. She had a pet pig named Mrs. Schwartz she took out walking on a leash like a dog.
She never liked to be alone. Is this why she comes back to visit?
She did not like the smell of wine or any sort of spirit, so if you happen to be celebrating, don’t stagger home on this block, find another street, unless you want to see that face, the Victorian woman, not yet thirty, drifting unquietly up and down the sidewalk. You may ask yourself, What kind of revenge is this? You call this justice? This eternal floating?
Look at this. I happen to have the key to the parlor. When I point it toward the house. (Hold my hand, it’s not a trick, it’s not the wind on this still night.)
See that? It turns.
Anne-E. Wood is a fiction writer. She has a BA in Dramatic Arts and English from Macalester College and an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University. Her collection Two If By Sea won the 2006 Michael Rubin Award. She has taught writing at San Francisco State University, Rutgers University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Gotham Writers’ Workshop and in homeless shelters, juvenile halls, public schools, and community centers all over the country. She currently lives in Brooklyn where she is at work on a novel.
Come hone your craft and get inspired with our Tin House Craft Intensives in Brooklyn! Master the micro-essay with Ann Hood in Flash Essay. Discover what you know about what you don’t know with Darcey Steinke in The Writer’s Journal. Plumb the depths of your writing’s mysteries with Alexandra Kleeman in The Unknown. And see things anew with Adam Wilson in You Down with POV? Yeah, You Know Me!.
Are you intense? Now accepting applications.
It’s a book
full of ghost children,
where dead means
or not wanting
to be known.
Heaven is symmetric
with respect to rotation.
when one thing changes
while another thing
remains the same.
“seen by humans.”
Rae Armantrout‘s books include Next Life, Up to Speed, and Versed, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent book is Itself (2015, Wesleyan University Press).
I find it by accident, pressed between two large volumes on the shelf. Though it has been over twenty-five years, I recognize it instantly: a mere sliver of a book, about half the size of an American trade paperback, with tan card-stock covers smudged from handling.
This is my copy of Yukiguni—in English, Snow Country—by Yasunari Kawabata, the first novel I ever read from start to finish in Japanese. I hold it up to my nose, breathe in the musty smell, and feel a terrible mourning for the loony stupidity of my youth. The feeling is so strong and so complicated, so full of what the Japanese call mono no aware, the sadness of things, that I can only stand there with the thin little volume in my hands, half wishing I hadn’t found it, half wanting to put it back.
Over the years, I’d come to think of myself as a failed student of Japanese: too soon frustrated, too easily distracted. But turning the pages of Snow Country, I am startled by the sheer amount of work I put into reading it. Notes are scrawled everywhere, in a childlike Japanese handwriting, and they contain almost no English. Rather than use a Japanese-English dictionary to look up the words I didn’t know, I’d limited myself to a regular Japanese dictionary and gotten the definitions in Japanese, which meant that here and there I was forced to branch off and define a word in the definition, too—again, without resorting to English. It was a purist’s semi-delusional procedure.
But then consider that I marked up my copy of Snow Country in a suburb of Tokyo, while living in a little six-mat room smelling sweetly of new tatami. I was a nineteen-year-old Japanese lit major who had never been so far from home, and I was both terrified and elated—the terror and elation sometimes hard to tell apart or disentangle, because I was also in love with everything around me: the local shrine with its stone steps and red gate, the trains clacking past, the smell of roasting chestnuts in autumn, the silvery drill of the cicadas at night. Of course, I fell in love with every woman I met, including my landlady, a widow in her sixties who would invite me in to eat red-bean cakes and watch the sumo matches on her black-and-white TV.
I channeled all that desire and that sense of being lost into learning Japanese, as if it were possible to slip into another life through another language. My notes focus only on grammar and vocabulary, the literal meaning of each sentence, but they seem to ache with an unspoken yearning. I didn’t simply want to understand the book: I wanted to be a part of the culture that had produced it, wanted to dream its collective dreams and share its secret codes—wanted to belong.
I probably don’t have to point out the absurdity of this wish. Japan was a pretty insular place back then, ambivalent about the outside world and uncertain about outsiders. Little kids would run from me on the street or, conversely, ask to touch my skin. There was no possibility of forgetting that I wasn’t Japanese, that I already had a history, a personality, a language, and a culture of my own. I couldn’t be somebody else, even if I didn’t like who I was.
But then again, don’t we ask for doomed and hopeless things from books all the time? Looking at my notes, I feel that incredible emotional hunger come back to me, and I realize that Japan showed me what books are truly for: they are laboratories for our contradictory desires.
So now, instead of putting Snow Country back on the shelf, I sit down and begin to read. The story comes back to me in a weird sort of stereo, as if I am simultaneously reading on the couch in my ramshackle house in North Carolina and reading by the window in my six-mat tatami room, and what I soon understand is that my nineteen-year-old self somehow chose a pretty apt book for that moment in his life, a book about loneliness and the wish for connection.
Snow Country takes place in the 1920s, in a Japan that is both traditional and poor, a country where women have few options outside of marriage, and a struggling family might be forced to sell a daughter as a geisha to cover its debts. The book’s point-of-view character is Shimamura, a wealthy Tokyo aesthete, the kind of guy who devotes himself to writing about the ballet, though he has never seen one. (In one extraordinary section worthy of W. G. Sebald, we also hear about his connoisseurship of Ojiya-chijimi, a fabric that can be woven only during the long winters by young girls with delicate fingers, who then lay it out in the snow to bleach, which gives it a pure cold whiteness perfect for summer kimonos.) Shimamura is thus someone we might meet in a play by Chekhov: self-aware, self-mocking, professing to be amused by his uselessness while secretly fearing the emptiness of his existence. A part of him wants to escape the bubble of privilege in order to really live, but all his instincts push him in the other direction, back to the safety inside his head.
At the opening of the story it is winter, and Shimamura has come to a hot-spring resort in the mountains—snow country—in search of Komako, a young woman with whom he had a brief affair during his last visit, six months before. He’s back because he sensed something genuine in her, something with enough charge to move him into the realm of feeling, but what he finds is that in his absence she has sold herself as a geisha in order to help pay the medical bills of a man she grew up with and was supposed to marry, though he left her for another woman. Komako’s sacrifice is an act of deep humanity, but Shimamura can understand it only in aesthetic terms, as a beautiful yet pointless gesture expressive of her spiritual purity—white and clean like the Ojiya-chijimi bleaching in the sun. They resume their affair, but in the end it proves pointless: Shimamura is incapable of real love. The two are left to their separate forms of loneliness, he in Tokyo, she in the mountains.
Sketching the story out like this, I realize it sounds deceptively familiar: the rich cad, the beautiful, doomed young geisha. But it reads as something completely fresh and new because of the deep particularity of the characters. Shimamura’s self-entrapment is plain to see—he is, you could argue, the worse off of the two because he is so completely estranged from his feelings and the reality of other people. Komako, by contrast, is fully, vibrantly alive. She is a wonderful character, utterly alone in that small mountain village, living in the attic of a farmhouse where silkworm cocoons were once stored, reading by candlelight for glimpses of the outside world she will never be a part of. She keeps a series of notebooks in which she writes the plots of everything she reads, all the characters and their connections, but nothing of her own opinions. “I could never do anything like that,” she tells Shimamura. She is only nineteen.
It is impossible for me to know now how deeply I understood Snow Country when I first read it, since I didn’t write down my opinions, either. I think I worried that I might be a little like Shimamura, as I suspected, even then, that the Japan I loved so much was a construct of my imagination more than an actual place. But reading it now, I feel so deeply for Komako, her loneliness, her desperation, and her bravery, that I can barely keep turning the pages. And then I see my nineteen-year-old self as a version of her, yearning to be saved from his isolation, and I feel pity for him, and forgiveness for what he put me through over the years.
Robert Anthony Siegel‘s novels are All Will Be Revealed and All the Money in the World. He has written on Japanese writers for The Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Ploughshares (where he also has a piece on being an unreliable Japanese tour guide). Other work has appeared recently in Bookforum and The Harvard Review.
Meg Storey: The Sleep Garden takes place mostly within an apartment complex called “The Burrow,” but a few characters do not exist in this space. Why did you choose to extend the story beyond the Burrow?
Jim Krusoe: The Sleep Garden is a combination of two elements. At first, all I wanted to do was to find an isolated stage a few characters could inhabit, a place that would let me learn who they were, and I thought of an underground dwelling that would be called “The Burrow.” But then, the whole time I was picturing them wandering around, doing this and that, I couldn’t stop thinking about the myth of Jason sowing dragon’s teeth, how he watched them spring up out of the ground as armed men. And this image of warriors born, fighting, then dying, all in a moment, seemed terrible and mysterious because, I guess, it is. It was only after I had fully populated the Burrow that I realized I also needed characters who lived outside the Burrow, ones who live in our world, to make a connection between the two places. It was this second set, the outsiders, who became the other half of the story of the dragon’s teeth.
MS: How did you decide on the vignette-based structure of the novel? What was it about this structure that appealed to you?
JK: I like it when books don’t reveal themselves all at once. Sometimes I think of The Sleep Garden as a collage that takes place over time so the connections between the parts aren’t always instantly apparent. In that way a reader can make his or her own connections, has to make a jump—as we jump when reading poems. Also, as with poems, the spaces between the sections become the great repositories for everything that is left unsaid but is still important.
MS: One character, Raymond, is obsessed with ducks—why ducks?
JK: It so happens the very first poem I ever learned was “I Saw a Ship A-Sailing,” which ends with a duck saying the words quack quack. At age three, I thought this was the funniest thing I had ever heard because it was duck language but, of course, was human language, too. Then, many years later, my son’s first word was duck. More to the point, I find a kind of innocence built into ducks; their round bills seem benign compared to the pointed beaks of other birds, and their webbed feet are the opposite of talons. Ducks are brave, too—not that they know it—flying those long distances through all kinds of weather. They make me happy.
MS: In this novel, you juggle different writing styles, from prose to letter writing to screenwriting. How did you decide which style was appropriate for different parts of the narrative? For example, there is the surreal, slightly absurd sitcom called Mellow Valley. Why did you want to include a sitcom?
JK: I didn’t want to include a sitcom. Mellow Valley was actually the single moment that worried me the most. On the one hand, the first episode was almost too much fun and easy to write, but afterward I wasn’t sure it could be blended into the rest of the story. I worried that it was going too far outside the narrative, whatever that was to be. The decision to hang with it—along with dreams, children’s books, letters to the editor, and adventure tales—forced me to stretch the boundaries of the envelope. And in the end The Sleep Garden is very much about how things that seem different on the surface are part of the same fabric. It’s about how, over time, out of everything we forget, important or frivolous, what remains becomes a single story with its parts assuming more or less equal weight.
MS: Your work is infused with an absurdist humor that provides some relief to what could be considered heavy themes and characters (death, the afterlife, psychotic former child actors). How do you approach the interweaving of existential questions and humor?
JK: I am very serious about the themes of this book. Humor allows us to stand back and watch scary events take place, but also to feel safe. We laugh because although it could happen to us, we don’t really believe it will. This may well be an overstatement, but l sometimes think all laughter is nervous, a sound we produce in order to separate ourselves from what’s out there that worries us, so humor is at once both distancing and intimate.
MS: The narrative alternates among characters’ points of view but at moments there does seem to be one overarching narrative voice that poses questions and offers observations. Whose voice is it?
JK: I suppose the voice is mine. Although I didn’t plan it, in retrospect it seems evident that with so many themes and elements, there had to be some faint but present steady narrator to hold things together. Nobody else was volunteering.
MS: What’s next?
JK: I’m working on a conspiracy novel that my son has pronounced “ethically challenged.”
Jim Krusoe is the author of the novels Parsifal, Toward You, Erased, Girl Factory, and Iceland; two collections of stories; and five books of poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. He teaches at Santa Monica College and lives in Los Angeles.
Meg Storey is an editor with Tin House Books and copy editor of Tin House magazine. She was a faculty member of the Summer Literary Seminars St. Petersburg, Russia, program in 2007 and 2008, and she currently teaches developmental editing in Portland State University’s publishing program and mentors participants of the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Her interview with the short-story writer Etgar Keret appeared in Tin House and her interviews with the novelist Sayed Kashua and graphic novelist Rutu Modan appeared in Words Without Borders. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon.
“Walter fired Polly,” Marsha said. “Because she wouldn’t let him kiss her.”
“Well, I wouldn’t let him either,” Sally said. “Good for her.”
“He caught her near the supply closet. Not a very original thinker.”
“I wonder if he really had hopes. Do you think he expected she would? That might mean that he got away with it once. Do we get paid today?”
They stopped there. When they got paid it was with with those hand-written checks, and they ran as fast as they could to his bank to cash them. There was never enough money to cover all the checks; sometimes only the first check drew money. But they were students working at anything they could get. It was hard to find jobs for a couple of hours here and there.
They came to work the next day only to find the office dark. Marsha and Sally stood outside the door, shifting from leg to leg. “They’ve picked him up, I’m sure of it,” Sally said. “He must owe everyone. I’m tired of answering the phone and saying he’s not here. And for some reason it feels worse when he tells me to say he’s out of the country.”
Marsha shook her head. “He’s his own country. When he’s not in the office, he’s officially out of the country.” She paused and considered what she’d said. “I got that mixed up somehow. I’ll figure it out later.”
They waited for an hour. At that point, the office secretary, Alice, showed up. “Ah, you haven’t heard?” she asked, though how they would have heard anything was beyond them. “He is dead, that man, he died from a knife wound. In the street. I keep the books so I know there’s no money to pay you; whatever there is must go to bury him.”
Marsha and Sally showed their shock and amazement, as was only proper, then went to a café to drink coffee and share a pastry. “Which one of us killed him, do you think?” Marsha asked. There were two other part-time employees.
“One of us?” Sally asked, dismayed. “You really think one of us would do it?”
“I hope so,” Marsha said, and took a sip. “I’ve been imagining it for months but it was only wishful thinking.” She put her cup down. “One of us is very brave.”
Sally shook her head. “And what makes you think it wasn’t just a random mugging? It happens all the time.”
Marsha sighed. “Where would be the justice in that?” she asked, sounding depressed. “I’ve been waiting for justice on lots of things now. For years and years.” She looked down at the crumbs of her pastry.
“Oh,” Sally said, thinking about it. Marsha had had bad luck all her life, all kinds of bad luck. And, really, it was generous of her, allowing someone else to feel the satisfaction of revenge. She pursed her lips and tilted her head to the side. “You know,” she said, “I really think it must have been Penny. It just makes sense. He insulted her and then he fired her.”
Marsha’s smile was enormous. She slapped the table lightly. “Let’s take her to lunch, just to say we know and we’ll never tell.” She began to go through her pockets and took out all the bits and pieces of money she had.
Reluctantly, Sally did the same. “We won’t get the final paycheck, you know,” she said unhappily. “Alice already told us. I can’t really afford anything.”
They paid for the coffee and pastry and put down a minuscule tip.
“Maybe not lunch,” Marsha said, after counting their combined resources twice. “But we’ll buy her a coffee. Just to show that we know.”
“And that we approve.”
“Of course we approve.”
“I really like Penny,” Sally said. “I’ve always liked her.”
“Really?” Marsha asked. “I found her annoying. She whistled.”
Sally nodded. “And she is, after all, a murderer.”
“The first killing is the only hard killing, I think.”
“Ah,” Sally said, putting an end to the question of coffee. “Ah.”
Karen Heuler writes both literary and speculative literature. Her stories have appeared in over 80 magazines and anthologies, from Alaska Quarterly Review to Kenyon Review to Weird Tales. She has received an O. Henry award, been a finalist for the Iowa short fiction award, the Bellwether award and the Shirley Jackson award for short fiction. The New York Times called her first short story collection “haunting and quirky’; Publishers Weekly included her second collection, The Inner City, in its Best Books of 2013 list. Her fourth novel, Glorious Plague, concerns a simply beautiful apocalypse.
Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. Up this week is Shawn Donley with Powell’s Books .
Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?
Shawn Donley: I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and like many small towns it was very inwardly focused. Books like Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days are what initially opened my eyes to the greater world and in the process created a life-long love of both travel and literature. I can still remember hopelessly trying to convince my Mom to let me spend summer vacation following in the footsteps of Phileas Fogg.
THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?
SD: There are so many memorable characters in literature (Humbert Humbert, Rabbit Angstrom, Patrick Bateman). They aren’t however, the kind of people who you’d really want to hang out with. I’d rather spend time with someone who is amusing, yet harmless, highly educated, but lacking in ambition. So a perfect day for me would be a bumbling tour of New Orleans with Ignatius Reilly. We’d wear matching green hunting caps and indulge in many Dr. Nut sodas and Paradise hot dogs.
THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?
SD: One of the great joys of bookselling is recommending books to others. Before I started working in a bookstore I never thought much about other people’s tastes, only in cultivating my own. But now after having spent the majority of my adult life surrounded my books, I ‘d say that recommending titles to friends, family, customers and acquaintances gives me as much pleasure as the reading itself. I’m rarely more than a few pages into a book before my mind starts thinking about who else would enjoy it.
THB: What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?
SD: My favorite book of 2015 was Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. He’s a lifelong surfer and a long-term staff writer for The New Yorker. Through this combination of talent and skill he is able to explain convincingly why so many surfers become obsessed with this sport. Finnegan writes especially well about the difficulty in balancing a consuming activity with the demands of work and family. You don’t need to be a surfer to enjoy Barbarian Days (though it may turn you into one).
THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?
SD: While most everyone has read The Little Prince at some point in their lives, few people I believe are aware of Saint-Exupéry’s other masterpiece, Wind, Sand and Stars. The book recounts his life as a pioneer aviator, flying harrowing airmail routes across the Andes and the Pyrenees. Both National Geographic and Outside magazine have chosen it as one of the best adventure books of all time. It is a book that perfectly captures his view on how to live a passionate life without compromises.
Shawn Donley is the New Book Purchasing Supervisor with Powell’s Books.
January 20th, 2000, The Netherlands
Believe it or not, nobody objected. Not one of us stood up in the bedroom and said, “Don’t kill him.” Neither did anybody else in the house for that matter, the cleaning lady, the unobtrusive nurse. We all accepted my father’s fate with eyes wide open and mouths shut. Imagine us grateful, if you can.
It was logical that the undertaker never made a fuss. He was accustomed to death and more, made a living from it. For him to say, “Don’t kill him” would be counterproductive. The minister would have objected, surely, if we had invited him that day. But the minister had only been welcome the previous day or the day before that—in the end I lost track. The man of God had come into the bedroom to bless my father’s second marriage, which hadn’t taken place in a church. My father’s second wife, a lapsed Catholic, imagined that the blessing would somehow console (save? validate?) her after her husband’s death. And perhaps it did. Who knows what luminous thoughts hold back the dark?
On a different day, before or after the blessing, my father picked out his coffin. Nobody objected to this either. An emaciated, bed-ridden man, fifty-three years old, flipping through folders, demanding prices. Strange, yes. Unjust, of course. But we accepted the situation, because taking control of his death sparked something inside my father we thought had long died. Now we saw he was not beaten. Not yet or not anymore. There was a niche, however small, in which he could be in charge, making decisions. As we planned the brief future together, we tried to match his manner by remaining light-hearted and rational. There would be a small-scale cremation and a large-scale memorial party. We would have balloons and mimosas! (But not with fresh orange juice or real champagne for that would be a waste of money.)
“All these sweet people,” my father said, “what a shame I can’t be there.”
Without too much effort, I could see my own mouth in his.
Naturally, our victory was short-lived. At the hour of truth, nerves ran every which way, but they ran invisibly. As nothingness approached, we kept our cool. We waited like Blue Helmets, peacekeeping soldiers, searching for meaning in the absurd. We wanted to fight but where were our weapons? I remember sighing under the weight of missing words.
The doctor arrived on time. She put her black bag on a wicker chair and explained the process calmly. First this, then that. We nodded like apt pupils. Two types of drugs through intravenous injections. Sleepiness. Breathing would cease and eventually the heart. Objections did not exist; they were wiped off our planet along with our hopes for his survival. Did anyone offer the doctor a cup of tea?
We took our places. The wife pulled up a stool and claimed her husband’s head. She would share the head and the left hand with their twelve-year-old son. I formally requested my father’s right hand and climbed on top of the marital bed. My brother made do with a foot. As did my grandmother. She would object years later, softly and confused, though not about the foot. When her son was already ill, she had lost her daughter to cancer in the U.S. She had witnessed the slow, bitter demise from wakefulness into morphine coma. Was her son’s speed date with death any better?
Yes, grandma, I would tell her, it was better. He was in pain, physically and mentally, and he wanted out. Not wanting to be cared for like a baby. Not wanting to be rushed to a hospital for an emergency. Not wanting death to carry him off when we weren’t there. And we were there, remember? Wanting what he wanted. We could have objected, I suppose, we could have said, “Don’t kill him” but we knew he would have died anyway. Our objection would not have changed the inevitability of his death. Only the hour.
With all of us in place, holding his limbs, stroking his hair, the doctor asked my father a question in a gentle yet clear voice, the voice of an angel. “Are you ready?”
We are free to choose yet not free to avoid choice.
Yes, he was ready. But wait. Don’t forget the glasses. He took them off and put them on the side table. It was the last thing he did before he said he loved us. The glasses were smudged. They would not need to be cleaned.
Time slowed, stood still, took up again, and having lost its relevance now, it was anyone’s guess how much of it went by. Let’s say: the moment lasted a while.
Did we look at each other or at the instruments the doctor took out of her bag? Did we stare into the dying man’s eyes to witness his fall into timelessness? After my father closed his eyes, I kept mine on the artery in his neck, and watched how it pulsed and pulsed, slower now, and weaker, but with a discernible beat, until his heart finally stopped.
Again, nobody objected.
We sat there quietly, in grief and gratitude, as though killing someone was the last gift you could grant that person in life, and of course it was.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author of four novels. Her prose in English has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, Hobart, Folio, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere. She has recently finished her first novel in English. She lives in Paris, but you may find her find her at @clairepolders or http://www.clairepolders.com.
I came to Tove Jansson’s work late in life and in a backward fashion. Most people familiar with the Finnish author and illustrator know her as the creator of the Moomins, a family of hippopotamus-like creatures first introduced in a children’s book series in 1945 and then adapted for a comic strip. The tales of the Moomins and their fantastical journeys through Moominvalley are something of a cult classic and I’m sad to have missed them in my youth.
Lesser championed are Jansson’s novels for adult readers, which do not feature fantastical beings but, instead, follow the lives of very real humans. After spotting her 1972 novel, The Summer Book—a slim volume with a muted, pastel cover with the silhouette of an island in its center—on display at a local bookstore, I decided to give this author I’d never heard of a shot.
The opening chapters have a flash-fiction feel: they are short, choppy, and do not appear to be linear. But as you continue to read, you realize they’re linked vignettes of life on an isolated island, the story of a cheeky grandmother and her precocious granddaughter, Sophia. (The young girl’s mother is dead and her father is relegated to the background.) The two, each the other’s primary companion, while away the hours amid the fauna and marshes of their seasonal home, moving between simple conversation and that which delves deeper:
The sun had climbed higher. The whole island, and the sea, were glistening. The air seemed very light.
“I can dive,” Sophia said. “Do you know what it feels like when you dive?”
“Of course I do,” her grandmother said. “You let go of everything and get ready and just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown, and the water’s clear, lighter toward the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.”
The funny thing about Jansson’s books is that while they contain a darkness, the prose is light and spacious. Emotionally, philosophically, the words have weight, but they flow through your mind with ease. The same is true for the psychology of the characters. There is a heaviness to their inner workings, but Jansson manages to create levity through her use of dark humor.
It was after picking up her 1982 novel, The True Deceiver, that I noticed the recurring themes of nature and community. Both play central roles in her work—even in the Moomin books, which I then read as well. In her stories, seasonal changes, landscapes, and the surrounding community—or lack thereof—are more important than plot.
Finland is very much an enigma to me. What little I know about its citizens comes from bite-sized facts—some fun, like the Finns’ massive coffee consumption (according to data gathered in 2008, the average Finn consumes roughly twenty-six pounds of coffee a year, much more than his American counterpart, who averages 9.25 pounds), and some tragic, like their suicide rate. But one of the more intriguing qualities of this northern country is what Jansson’s work taps into, its odd patterns of light and darkness and rapid weather changes, with most of the country icebound in winter. Finland’s northernmost territory experiences sixty consecutive days of full sunlight, something called the Polar Day. Conversely, during another part of the year, it has Polar Night: full darkness for fifty-one days.
In The Summer Book and The True Deceiver, weather patterns are integral to the tone of the story and influential in the psychology of the characters. In the latter, winter forces the inhabitants of a small village to remain indoors, so much so that even business slows; the continuous snowfall creates an “imprecise darkness that was neither dusk nor dawn, and it depressed people.” Whereas in the former, the summer climate allows much of the story to be set outside and the characters take full advantage of the opportunity to explore the surrounding nature. Both stories begin by placing the reader in the season:
It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colors everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rain forest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. (The Summer Book)
It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling. No window in the village showed a light. . . . It had been snowing along the coast for a month. As far back as anyone could remember, there hadn’t been this much snow, this steady snow piling up against doors and windows and weighing down roofs and never stopping even for an hour. Paths filled with snow as quickly as they were shoveled out. The cold made work in the boat sheds impossible. People woke up late because there was no longer any morning. (The True Deceiver)
Each novel begins in one season and ends as another encroaches (should Jansson blend winter and summer into one book, her characters’ personalities would have to flip halfway through, since who they are is so bound up in the season):
Every year, the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great, warm silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin. There are no stars yet, just darkness. (The Summer Book)
When reading Jansson’s work, something else will jump out at the reader—something, arguably, precipitated by remote locations and extreme weather. Contradicting what many of those living in large cities believe about small-town life, Jansson is unsentimental about neighborly relations. While one might associate small villages with hominess—a neighbor popping in for a cup of sugar or flour—part of Jansson’s charm, and humor, is her characters’ ambivalence to those around them.
In The Summer Book we learn that “the family had one friend who never came too close, and that was Eriksson. He would drive by in his boat, or he would think about coming but never get around to it. There were even summers when Eriksson came nowhere near the island and didn’t even think about it, either.”
And while The True Deceiver takes place in a village with neighbors and shopkeepers, the characters’ isolation is largely due to the winter weather, which keeps them at home. In Finland, temperatures can dip below -20°F, with a frigid -50°F not entirely unheard of.
In winter, the men in Västerby worked only in mild weather to save on fuel, and the boat shed closed before dark to save electricity. . . . If it got really cold, it didn’t make sense to go on working. The shed wasn’t insulated, and the stove was barely able to warm it enough to keep their hands from stiffening. They locked it up and went home.
As readers work their way through these two novels, observing the dance of nature and human psychology, Jansson offers a study in extremes. While one person cannot speak for an entire nation, Jansson’s Finland resonates, sticks to your bones and rattles them. With her passing in 2001, the world lost a great Nordic storyteller. We should consider ourselves lucky to have the books she’s left behind.
Gabrielle Gantz works in publishing and is the blogger behind The Contextual Life. Her interviews have appeared on The Rumpus.
None of the dolls could sleep.
The braided rug dreamt of being
a traveling companion.
The snow stopped, briefly,
on its way past the window.
The mother and father did not
touch each other, but each felt
they could hear laughter coming
from China, and the child felt
knocked by the earth,
and though she was blind
and would always be blind,
one day she would tap blindly
with her white-tipped stick,
wearing orange high heels.
Mary Ruefle‘s latest book is Madness, Rack and Honey, a collection of essays on poetry.
My wife still wouldn’t leave her room so I had to take the afternoon off to bring Buster into the vet. At home the dog was hungry and all the lights were off. There were two more sympathy cards in the mail. I threw them away. Buster was tearing ass around the house and wanted to play so I had to tackle him to get him into his crate. He cried and cried.
It was Buster’s one-year check-up. The vet breathed hard through his mustache and prodded my dog everywhere. Buster sat still for once. “You’ve got a healthy little guy,” the vet said. “Weight good, heart and lungs good, teeth good, everything good.”
“His actual birthday is tomorrow,” I said. “How would you celebrate a dog’s birthday?”
The vet leaned down and said, “Happy birthday Buster!” right in my dog’s face. To me he said, “Maybe an extra treat. Maybe a new toy. However you’d like.”
“What I mean,” I said, “is how would you celebrate it in a way that the dog understands?”
“I’m not sure I follow you,” the vet said.
“I want him to get it,” I said. “I want him to know it’s his special day. A lot of things never make it to their first birthday.”
The vet shook his head. “Dog’s aren’t so good at understanding things like that,” he said.
Buster threw up in the car on the way home but not too much. I cleaned it off the seat while he chased a bee around the front yard. Jesus Christ dogs are dumb. I knew it was stupid to want to celebrate a dog’s birthday but a first birthday is a big deal.
The next day I bought a marrow bone and a new rope toy at the pet store. I let Buster chew the bone into little pieces in the kitchen. “It’s your birthday,” I told him. “You’re one year old today.” I wanted to make him understand so I got down next to him and looked into his eyes. He stopped chewing the bone and looked at me. “You’re one year old today,” I said. I heard Julie shift in bed upstairs. You’re one year old today. One year. One year boy. One year.
Ian Denning‘s work has appeared in New Ohio Review, Washington Square Review, Five Chapters, and elsewhere. He lives in Seattle, is at work on a novel, and tweets at @iandenning85.
The taxidermist will mold, skin, gut, preserve, reassemble, and mount a creature, usually with the goal of making it look the way it did when it was alive. The final product can serve a variety of purposes—amusement, utility, education, and in terms of taxidermied pets, nostalgia: it helps preserve emotional connection. Carey McHugh manages the language equivalent to the art of taxidermy. The poems that make up her debut book, American Gramophone, restore life to the long dead and permit us to view, up close, these foreign and often dangerous animals, people, places, memories, or experiences. In “And Now, the Educated Hog,” McHugh writes, “You could say it was an adjustment. Like a tree/ uprooting inside me. Like being bricked up/ in a silo. Even the sun put me to sleep. At first/ I was content without a knife. Then, I couldn’t walk/ across a field without dreading roundworm.” Each poem is meticulously assembled and tightly sutured, as is the entire book; reading American Gramophone is akin to visiting a forest diorama in the Natural History Museum and standing at arms-length before a lynx, mid-kill.
In early December, Carey (who is, unsurprisingly, obsessed with taxidermy) came over to my apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. Over a few glasses of wine, we discussed her startling new book.
Robert Ostrom: Talk about the process of writing this book.
Carey McHugh: I started writing it in graduate school, and it has appeared in various permutations throughout the decade. For me, the process of putting a book together involves rearranging it and sending it out and getting a bunch of rejections and then rearranging it again and sending it out and getting a bunch more rejections and thinking, “Alright, maybe if I pulled this poem and put this one in, that’s going to be the lynchpin. Now it’s gonna get accepted!” So for a while I was stuck in a revolving door of poems, which I think I once advised you never to do.
RO: What is the oldest poem in the book and which one is the newest?
CM: The oldest poem is probably “The Ferrier.” I think the newest one is probably “Seafaring to Tracheotomy” or “And Now, the Educated Hog.” Those two came around the same time. “Self-Portrait as Shedding” is really old. “Somnambulist” is old. It’s weird to go back and still see those. In fact, I tried to take the “Somnambulist” out because it just seemed ancient and dusty.
RO: How do you feel about it now?
CM: I feel ok about it now. It took me a while.
RO: So does it sort of settle?
CM: More like congeals. Like an aspic. Like, put it in a fridge, or put it between a cover, you know, and then you think, alright this is a thing. And now I can’t change it, so it feels like it was always meant to be this way.
RO: Talk about the title. How did you come up with it? Were there other possibilities? Did you send it out under other titles?
CM: I sent it out for many years under the title Aviaries and Asylums, which is now a four-part poem in the book. And I sent it out with this title because I was thinking, “What’s holding this book together? It’s birds and madness. And I thought, well, in “Aviaries and Asylums,” there’s this strange community that’s somehow been locked up, imprisoned. And early on I was writing a lot about insane asylums that had been built in the late 19th century, early 20th century and abandoned. I think I was watching a lot of Ghost Hunters at the time, and they always go to these abandoned sanatoriums and it terrifies me. That shit scares the shit out of me. I’ll watch when I’m alone and I can’t stop.
RO: Why do you watch it if it scares you so much?
CM: Because I want to see if they make contact with the other world, ok?! I just want to see it! And every episode they’re like, “Ah ha! I saw movement! It could be a human spirit or a rat.” And I always think, “Oh this time they’re really gonna find a ghost.” So I’m kind of obsessed with those old abandoned buildings, and at the time I was thinking about asylums and captivity, and I liked the idea of writing about it.
RO: Why do you like that?
CM: Disease and mental illness are unexplainable in some ways. I’m thinking of it, specifically, in the context of “ye olde” medicine and how people didn’t understand the science behind it. It must have seemed like a connection to another world. It’s shocking and unpredictable—is it demonic possession or is it genetics? It must have been terrifying and outlandish to have gone through life facing a mental illness at that time, or to have been a doctor having no idea what you’re dealing with.
RO: I also think, at least in the poems, it serves as a metaphor, representative, if a little exaggerated, of a common state. Those extreme examples can be an easier way to talk about our own feelings.
CM: Right. It’s like our current state, but heightened.
RO: I feel like with a lot of books, while writing them, the author, herself and her work, changes. Some of this change is deliberate—you don’t want to keep making the same gestures over and over again in your poems, but other stuff is more circumstantial. Do you agree with this? And can you talk about what changes you and your work underwent during the decade-long evolution of this book?
CM: I became sort of bored hearing my voice in the same way over and over and over. I think when I started writing the book I was more concerned with language and how the sounds of words pivoted off of each other within a poem. I think I was less concerned that each poem would be understood, in terms of having a clear meaning. I was really interested in scaffolded sound and how one sound would plant the seed for another word later on in the poem. As the manuscript progressed, I wanted to start doing something a little bit different.
RO: Do you think that the change from those more sonic concerns to a different voice, perhaps concerned more with conveying experience, is also part of getting older?
CM: It isn’t getting older; for me, I think it’s becoming more vulnerable. We’ve talked before about the necessity of doing whatever is the most difficult thing to do when writing a poem. And the thing that’s hard for me is to just tell the truth and to be vulnerable in my writing. And I think I’m moving towards that.
RO: I think that’s great. My hope is that the act of writing benefits us in some way, and doesn’t steer us off bridges.
CM: Writing is like therapy plus a relief valve. Someone came up to me after the reading and said something like, “Oh now I see why you write poems like this. So that you don’t kill people.” I was like, “Yeah. Exactly.”
RO: Was that an admission?
CM: Haha. “Your honor, we have her on tape!”
I started thinking about it like, maybe poetry is where I keep my anti-civilization emotions. Maybe I just put all that in here so that I’m more free to walk around the world and not be as creepy and homicidal.
RO: Do you have a sense of what, now that this book has come to fruition, you’d like to do next? Besides work on your deltoids. Or, of course, you can talk about that too… And how does having this first one out there impact your thoughts on future writing? Could it be limiting?
CM: First of all, let me say I’m glad you mentioned my delts.
RO: They’re huge.
CM: Yeah, I’m still working up to having the biggest delts this side of the Mississippi but…
RO: Where are they?
CM: Delts? Right here.
[where the deltoids are]
RO: Oh yeah, because you want wings.
CM: Yeah. So I can get around by flying. It seems more expedient. In addition to deltwork, I want to continue writing. In the new poems I’ve been writing, there are some real bald-faced, bold statements that feel to me like, “Hey, how do you do? Welcome to my real life.” So I think maybe I will continue in that direction. Not to say that it’s all going to be autobiography from here on out, but I think it’s interesting to keep opening that door and see what sort of emotional turn it takes.
RO: It’s interesting because I feel like students are often urged to hide their experiences and emotions, or at least mask them in poetry.
CM: Well I think for this book, I wanted to just suck all of the sentiment away. I wanted it to be skeletal like branches with no leaves. I wanted it to be a creepy outline like horns on a skull. This bare, stark, maybe appalling thing. And now that I’ve done that, maybe the next book doesn’t have to be that.
RO: Ok I want to come back to that when I’m less afraid. So, now that this first book is done…
CM: Thank god!
RO: Now that it’s out in the world, do you think it can be limiting in any way? Do you think you’ve announced, this is how I write and therefore . . .
CM: I think it’s useful to have the book out. I mean you’ve got to start somewhere, right? And then you have to make a movement from that. This was my first effort, this is what I had in me, and now I hope that I can do something else. I hope this isn’t all I can do.
RO: I’m sure that it is.
CM: I wish we had a stenographer that would actually be…typing this interview.
RO: She’d have to be really old.
CM: Yeah. She’d be sitting on a stool right over there.
RO: Are you relieved in some way that your book didn’t get taken earlier?
CM: Yeah. I guess so. I can say that now because it’s out. If you had asked me that before it was published, I would’ve just flicked you off. The thing for me is, it had to stop or it would’ve just been this revolving selection of poems every time I wrote a new poem and found another to be too old. So I had to get it out so there could be a stopping point. Otherwise I would’ve revised it to dust.
RO: I know the owl poems are some of the younger ones in the book, and I’m wondering if you can talk about this project. To me, they maintain everything I love about your work, but allow a little more whimsy. Can you tell me about how the project began, took shape, and what you felt like it allowed you to do in this book?
CM: I was actually researching (I use that term loosely)… I was looking for a cool-sounding owl species to put in a poem, and I came across this website called The Owl Pages, which has a frequently asked questions section. Some are your basic owl questions: What do owls eat? Why do they hoot? And some are so outrageous and so bizarre and so spectacular and I was like, I also have these questions about owls and other living things, and I want to answer these questions for myself. They seemed to fit with all the birds in the book (they’re everywhere) and I thought it would fit well with my voice and my intentions for the book. So the questions became titles. Having question as titles, particularly absurd questions, was very freeing. It allowed me to be less rigorous. The titles are funny. So I think it opened the possibility to a little levity in my poems.
RO: Great answer.
CM: Advantage, McHugh!
RO: This isn’t a tennis match.
CM: That’s what you think.
[for comparison, an actual tennis match]
RO: I’m gonna ask you one more question and then we’ll take a break and get some more wine.
RO: When I think about American Gramophone the musical, I basically think of money. Because it’s brilliant. I mean, the book is brilliant, but also my musical adaptation is a goldmine.
CM: I hope Meryl Streep is playing the lead.
RO: Maybe. No doubt the chorus would be made up of lumberjacks and carpenters. All the instruments would be made from bird bones, rusty tools, and torture devices.
CM: Advantage, Ostrom!
RO: But really, the book has a remarkable cast of characters: ex-marksman, the farrier, the messenger, a woman with her throat cut, the warden’s girl. And yet, when I read the poems, the voice in my head is singular. They don’t feel like persona poems. Do you agree? Is it the same for you? Where did all these characters come from and why are you so drawn to them?
CM: You know what I’m drawn to? Ye olde professions. Like a farrier (a shoer of horses). Farrier is such a strange word for it, and also, what a bizarre thing to be done! Or a lumberjack—I like the idea of someone going out into the woods and just cutting down a tree with heft and delts and blade. This singular work. I’m not sure I thought of the poems as persona poems. I can’t say that I did as I was writing them, though I guess technically, that’s what they are.
RO: It just feels to me like it is the voice of your poem.
CM: It’s like my poems are wearing different hats. Now my poem has an ax. Now it has a horseshoe and an apron.
RO: It’s almost as if the poem is possessing those people, not visa versa.
Speaking of voice, talk about your writing process. Do you read your poems aloud when you’re done with them or as you’re composing them.
CM: I used to do that a lot more. I’ve found that I don’t do that as much right now until I feel like they’ve come to a state that could be a first draft and then I read them. I rarely just sit down and crank out a poem. What I do is either use an assignment, create an assignment for myself, or do a negative image, or if I find a title that I really like I can sort of have that as a platform, a jumping-off point for the poem. So those are the ways I write these days. Unfortunately. Rarely do I just sit down and blooobloooblat! And it just comes from my pancreas and spills out onto the page.
RO: If I had to describe your poems, the first word that comes to mind is density, both sonic and in terms of content.
CM: You mean destiny!?
RO: I mean density. You write about metal and horses and timber. There’s a lot of muscle in this book: commands like, “Tell the trees to pin me down or clear out.” And I love this about your writing, but I wonder if you ever received any pushback? If people maybe expected you to write differently?
CM: I think people want a story. People like a narrative, and I think sometimes what I’m aiming for is an emotional experience, or rather to convey an emotional intelligence instead of a linear narrative, so I’ve had a lot of pushback on that because, yeah, I think naturally, people want a story. People want to see me baking cookies too, but that’s never going to happen.
RO: Your poems repeatedly refer to the body, which often is injured, broken, or decaying. And, more so than not, it is resigned to this. For instance, “The spine spoils it’s own alignment.” Or, of course, “Woman with Her Throat Cut.” Why do you think this is? Where do you think this impulse towards violence comes from? Can you tell me a little about what accounts for this violence?
CM: I think of it in terms of aging, rather than violence. “Woman with Her Throat Cut” is different, of course. The title comes from an Alberto Giacometti sculpture. When I first saw it, it floored me, it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen because you can kind of make out her ribs and you can kind of see her bent knees and the trachea that’s just been a little bit cut. And even though there’s no head, there’s no hair, no real appendages that look human, it is devastating.
I think a lot about antiquated machines, like the gramophone, and the body is this organic machine, headed, ultimately towards decay, and how do we live with that? How do we reconcile it?
RO: Lots of horses in this book. What’s that all about?
CM: It’s funny because I have so many horses here in New York City! I was thinking about writing this book, because I wrote it all here, and I was wondering if I had been living in another place, if I’d been living in Tennessee, would I have written this book. Probably not. Can I talk about that in terms of taxidermy? If I can get there?
RO: Yeah and I’m also interested in what the distance from the location that’s inspiring the poems does to the poems.
CM: As you know, I moved around a lot during my life, but my extended family is in Tennessee, they always have been, that’s the one constant, the one place I’ve always returned to. When I was a kid, my father and my grandfather had a cattle farm in northern Georgia, near the Tennessee border, and we would go up there on weekends. They had horses for a while, and they had other animals, I think, but by the end it was mainly cattle. And I have these really strong memories of being there. There were all these things that were dangerous, things that we weren’t allowed to touch. “Don’t go up into the hayloft. You’ll fall out.” It was this sort of mysterious place that was so different from my suburban Atlanta life or wherever I was living at the time; it just seemed like another universe that belonged to my dad and my grandfather. And it fascinated me. There was always work to be done at the farm: roofs to be mended and fences to be fixed and cattle to be tagged and branded and fed. It informed so much of my early memory and imagination. It was something special—this whole other universe that existed outside of my life. And now my parents have since moved back to Tennessee and they have some horses and some property there. So again, it’s this place I go back to that still has these elements that are so different from where I’m living in New York.
RO: Do you think there’s something about it being in your memory that alters it?
CM: I think it’s like memory and imagination being conflated somehow. I think it’s the same with taxidermy. There’s a lot of taxidermy in the book. And in fact, we had this one deer head hanging in our living room for a long time. It was a deer that my dad had shot, and I was always appalled by it. I didn’t understand it. Why was it inside the house? Why did it have eyes? I remember being really young and looking up at it, and I remember this panic but also intrigue. How did this come to be here like this? And sometimes they’d take it down to dust it and I’d just pet it and be like, “Is it creature? Is it ornament? What is this thing!?”
It’s a reminder, maybe, of some history that I visit but don’t completely enter. Because I don’t hunt like my dad and my uncles and my brother. I’m a vegetarian in fact. But it’s something that’s always been present in my life. There was always talk of camo and bird dogs and guns. It wasn’t like those things were foreign objects. They were always in the mix somehow. And that’s so foreign to my life now that I think I go back there in my memory and I try to pull it up somehow and understand it.
RO: I remember being up at your parent’s last year and seeing all these things and thinking, oh, now I see where these things are coming from. In particular, I remember the horsehair birds nests.
CM: They’re so cool. They’re heartbreaking. Those were in a poem.
RO: Do they use them?
CM: Who? The horses? The horses can’t do a thing with them! The birds, yeah, they use them.
RO: If your book was sold with one prop or had a kind of crackerjack box surprise, what would it be?
CM: It would either have to be a rusty nail, a shotgun shell, a heron feather, or an owl feather. Or a hoof. Some sort of boney, animal part. This is not being packaged with food, right?
RO: I might have something here.
[RO reaches into drawer, pulls out a plastic bag]
[actor’s pre-enactment of McHugh’s horrified scream]
CM: Oh what is it? OH MY GOD, THAT’S NOT . . . They’re not human!?
RO: Yeah. They are.
CM: So apparently what we have here in Rob’s drawer is a human jawbone. A fragment, complete with three intact human teeth.
RO: Can you put it away? It scares me too much.
Describe your ideal reader.
CM: My ideal reader is wearing boots, some sort of work boot. They may or may not be wearing some sort of bone earing. Not human bones.
RO: Are you just describing yourself?
CM: They have a dark streak. They’re open to whatever language is giving them.
RO: This is your first book and somewhere someone you don’t know is reading it, has read it, or is going to read it. And that must feel pretty crazy. Larissa Szporluk has this line in Dark Sky Question: “the girl somewhere,/ who reads you,/ whose skin has memorized your life./ Nothing stops her fingers;/ they swim with you at night.” Talk about the experience of, after all this time, having readers.
CM: I like that you just implied I had no readers for 10-plus years. I was just writing in my dungeon at home.
RO: Well pretty much. But you know what I mean. These 10-plus years are now bound and someone’s going to crack it open.
CM: Yeah, I think that it’s very strange to have people reading it that I don’t know. On one hand it’s strange to have people reading it that know me well but who don’t know my poetry. But then there’s that other thing where people I don’t know are reading my book and commenting on it online. Which is just a whole new sort of bizarre thing because they’ll say things like, “In this poem where this is happening.” And I’m thinking, “That’s happening in that poem? I had no idea.” I’m learning a lot by reading what other people have to say and the conclusions they draw from reading my work.
RO: Is it kind of exciting?
CM: Yeah. It’s exciting. It’s a little scary too because, like, say it to my face, sucker!
Again there’s vulnerability in it. I have no control anymore. Which is somehow freeing, right. It’s like, well, it’s out there, and there’s nothing I can do.
RO: If all of civilization nearly died out, and your book was the only text to survive, how would you imagine a new people or religion that developed believing your book was a holy text? Which it is.
CM: They’re an agrarian people. They’re living off the land. I wouldn’t call them primitive, but they’re hunting and fishing.
RO: They’re aggressive. I mean, they know what they want.
CM: They have sharp tools.
RO: And sharp tongues.
CM: They’re shooting straight from the hip.
RO: Saying things like, “Plainclothes, help me to my things.” I like these people.
CM: Yeah, they’re wearing hats. They’re a little sinister. They give you the sidewinder, if you’re not careful. They’re skeptical. These are a skeptical people but they’re hard working. They’re industrious.
RO: They sound like Lutherans.
Riddle me this: Your book has to marry another book. Which does it marry?
CM: There are two books I can think of. I think it marries The Youngest Butcher in Illinois or Ritual and Bit. They’d both be really good companions.
RO: It can marry both of them.
CM: Is this a polygamy thing? Then yes, those two.
RO: In preparing for this interview, I asked my 7-year-old niece to help me brainstorm some questions. She had a lot of ideas, and I’d like to end the interview with one of her questions because I think it really implicates your readers in the writing of the book.
[Ostrom’s niece pulls no punches in her questions for McHugh]
RO: So, after the dedication to “Rob,” would it be appropriate for people to write “Ostrom”?
CM: The book is actually dedicated to my husband Rob. I’m sorry for the confusion.
RO: That’s weird because it doesn’t say that.
CM: I’m sorry.
RO: So yes?
Carey McHugh’s poems have appeared in Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, and Tin House, among others. Her chapbook, Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds &c., was selected by Rae Armantrout for the Poetry Society of America’s 2008 New York Chapbook Fellowship. Her first collection American Gramophone (Augury Books) was released in October. She lives and works in Manhattan.
Robert Ostrom is the author of The Youngest Butcher in Illinois (YesYes Books 2012). His chapbook, Cross the Bridge Quietly, is forthcoming from Phantom Books, and Saturnalia is publishing his second book, Ritual and Bit. He lives in Queens and teaches at New York City College of Technology and Columbia University.
Lily Kaye is a second grader who lives in Western New York. She is currently working on a novel, Diary of Coco the Magic Unicorn.
The Visit of the Royal Physician, which I cannot stop reading, sometimes even long enough to eat a yogurt, begins like so:
On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII of Denmark, and four years later he was executed.
Why do I find this opening line—an unvarnished statement of fact regarding an obscure historical episode—so thrilling?
Ah, let me count the ways. First, because it contains a potent and nearly invisible irony: the man called upon to heal an ailing monarch winds up murdered by his patient. Second, because the reader naturally ponders how and why this gruesome event transpires and is therefore left in an exquisite state of suspense. Third, because the author, the Swedish novelist Per Olov Enquist, has established a narrative style unburdened by the pervasive modern compulsion to gin up the action by plunging us into frenzied scenes of court intrigue. We get history distilled to its essentials.
When he wants to highlight an event of particular importance, Enquist writes simply, “Here is what happened.” The effect is oddly incantatory.
So. Here is what happens: Struensee is summoned to Denmark because the teenage king has been driven mad by corrupt minders, systematically terrorized “to develop powerlessness and degradation for the purpose of maintaining the influence of the real rulers.”
The German doctor helps stabilize Christian and fosters his interest in the nascent principles of the Enlightenment. Struensee soon acquires enough power to issue edicts on behalf of the king, who prefers to spend his time frolicking like a child.
Two decades before the French Revolution, the “filthy little country” of Denmark becomes an unlikely torch amid the “reactionary darkness” of the church. Struensee sets about abolishing cronyism and torture, funding hospitals, and granting common Danes unprecedented freedoms, including the right to copulate in parks once reserved for nobles.
At the king’s urging, he begins to spend time with the young queen, a lonely and spirited Englishwoman named Caroline Mathilde. Enquist captures the rhythms of their courtship with a delicacy that befits the couple’s perilous circumstances. (It’s a capital offense to touch the queen, let alone bed her.)
If you need proof of just how seductive Enquist’s prose is, check out this scene, in which the pair transform a private reading of Ludvig Holberg’s philosophical tract Moral Thoughts into incredibly hot foreplay:
“Touch my hand,” she said. “Slowly.”
“Your Majesty,” he said. “I’m afraid that . . .”
“Touch it,” she said.
He went on reading, his hand sliding softly over her bare arm. Then she said:
“I think that Holberg is saying that the most forbidden is a boundary.”
“A boundary. And wherever the boundary exists, there is life, and death, and thus the greatest desire.”
His hand moved, and then she took his hand in her own, pressed it to her throat.
“The greatest desire,” she whispered, “exists at the boundary. It’s true. It’s true what Holberg writes.”
“Where is the boundary?” he whispered.
“Find it,” she said.
And then the book fell out of his hand.
Holberg, we hardly knew you!
Struensee enjoys a few months of prosperity. He sits at his desk, issuing humane decrees. He soothes the king. He makes love to the queen and soon impregnates her.
Then it all falls apart. The dowager queen and a canny religious fanatic named Guldberg conspire against Struensee, who lacks the political guile, and the will, to go after his enemies. The military kidnaps the king in the name of purifying the realm, places the queen under house arrest, and imprisons Struensee.
There is no cinematic intervention. Struensee’s reforms are rescinded and he himself is publicly beheaded, drawn, and quartered. Enquist reports these events without sentiment. The book’s hypnotic power resides in his quiet determination to lay bare the tortured inner lives of those embroiled in the drama.
Struensee is revealed as a well-meaning coward, the king as an unloved waif imprisoned by his court, and Guldberg as a self-loathing zealot who converts his illicit sexual impulses into a pious crusade.
The lone figure to emerge from the saga with some semblance of self-knowledge is the queen. “She had felt a unique pleasure when she understood for the first time that she could instill terror,” Enquist writes. “But [Struensee] did not. There was something fundamentally wrong with him. Why was it always the wrong people who were chosen to do good?”
The broader question is whether noble ideas alone are enough to improve the world or whether bloodshed is the necessary price of such improvement.
On the one hand, the novel is a celebration of the “Struensee era.” Even as the royal physician’s head is cleaved from his body and left to lie upon a bloody scaffold in a public square, Enquist assures us that the ideas he advocated will endure in the world.
But the scene that haunts Struensee himself as he awaits his fate tells a more complicated story. Here is what happens: At the height of his influence, the royal physician decides to take the king on a tour of the countryside, so that he can witness the conditions under which his subjects actually live.
At dusk, they happen upon a severely beaten teenage serf seated on a wooden trestle. The king, recalling his own abuse, panics. Struensee jumps out of the coach, hoping to secure a pardon for the boy. But a mob of peasants approaches and he grows frightened. Enquist writes, “Reason, rules, titles, or power had no authority in this wilderness. Here the people were animals. They would tear him limb from limb.” It’s a moment of abject personal revelation. Struensee has only the purest of motives, but deep down he mistrusts the very people he is trying to save.
The lesson is a bitter one. Reason alone will never tame our savage impulses. Moral progress cannot be issued by fiat, or legislated. It must be enforced at the price of our own valor and conscience and flesh.
Consider the case of America, a land born of war, and liberated from the sin of slavery only at the price of half a million lives. Even today, the basic tenets of the Enlightenment—scientific reason, tolerance, justice—are routinely subverted by a democratically elected ruling class, happy to exploit the tribal grievances and paranoid superstitions of an ignorant and indentured population.
And because I am crazy in this particular way, I find it impossible to read about Struensee without thinking of another enlightened neophyte who came to office promising change only to be stymied by the feverish obstruction of his opponents.
Am I suggesting that President Obama will need to declare war on the reactionary forces of our country to enforce sensible economic, social, and environmental policies? Yeah, with considerable sorrow, I am.
But the genius of Enquist’s novel resides ultimately in its ability to locate moral struggle not only within the upheavals of history but also within the private torment of the soul. “Was that what a human being was?” Struensee wonders. “Both opportunity and a black torch?”
The ultimate war is the one inside us.
Steve Almond spent seven years as a newspaper reporter in Texas and Florida before writing his first book, the story collection My Life in Heavy Metal. His non-fiction book, Candyfreak, was a New York Times Bestseller. His short fiction has been included in The Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies, and his most recent collection, God Bless America, won the Paterson Prize for Fiction. Almond writes commentary and journalism regularly for The New York Times Magazine and The Boston Globe. A former sports reporter and play-by-play man, Almond lives outside Boston with his wife and three children. His most recent book is Against Football.
The BECU parking garage with the small set of stairs we ollied down across from the church our fathers made us attend, where the middle-aged pastor whom I loathed and admired had said Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” When the cops pulled in, lights flashing silently, we fled into the rainy night, our wheels clacking over the seams of the sidewalk, trucks slashing water near us.
The planter we ollied over on the sidewalk outside IHOP at 2 a.m., where the woman studying engineering at UW found us studying a stream of ants packing pancake crumbs into a pinhole. She said we looked like her little brothers and she led us back to her apartment to sit on a rooftop over Lake Washington, listening to KEXP, while the garden lights of software engineers turned the water’s edge expensive colors. She got sarcastic when we didn’t swallow all of the prescription drugs she handed us. Doug Martsch said, “Wiggly days, wiggly nights.”
The sculpture of a broken obelisk we waxed the edge of in Red Square, where the cop car surprised us so we sprinted carefully over the slick bricks, boards under our armpits, until we found the hedge near the road where we crouched for an hour in the dripping leaves. We giggled, knocking our shoulders into each other, until they neared, they circled, they stopped (how did they find us?), their harsh light scanning through what hid us only barely, until you rose and burst through the other side and disappeared into the dark. I squatted, dizzy, doomed, until the gray-bearded man grabbed me out and handcuffed me to scare me and shouted at me for my name until I gave it to him and he shoved me free to where you waited on the porch with your father’s cigarettes for us to share.
The enormous, multi-level UW parking garage that plunged down like catacombs, like a tomb, where we escaped in the week after your mother had ordered your father out of the home for good, so we locked ourselves in the TV room downstairs while your mother strolled the halls with a cereal bowl held before her like treasure. I’d bought new ceramic bearings with my birthday money. We bombed down four levels until a pebble took my board out. We sat together on a parking block next to an empty parking booth where we watched the blood leave the wound in the heel of my hand. I asked you if you’d spoken to your father and you laughed and said no.
My bedroom in a home thirty minutes from yours, in the suburbs north of the city, where doctors or professors lived, at the edge of a ravine coyotes stalked, no sidewalks, few cars, freshly painted verandas, streets free of trash. After school, tender with worry for the world ahead, I locked my door and set my board against the wall and slipped under the covers and set my headphones over my ears against the noise of rain on the window. I wanted a darkness to quiet every thought.
The parking lot behind the video store where I landed my first kickflip. The hill by Ravenna Park where we flew. The tennis court where you caught your foot on the net and broke the bridge of your glasses. The bank under the bridge where we sat and talked to the Krishna proselytizers you made fun of. The Safeway parking lot the adults chased us out of. The gas station the adults chased us out of. The covered parking lot of the Washington Mutual they chased us out of. The middle-school basketball court they chased us out of. We rode pawnshop boards through empty parking lots, long after the day’s commerce had quieted, but they chased us like we had something of value.
Joe Aguilar is the author of Half Out Where (Caketrain). His recent work appears or is forthcoming in Okey-Panky, The Threepenny Review, and The Iowa Review.
It so happens that Michael Woodcock, whose painting St. Joseph’s Day appears as the cover of The Sleep Garden, also designed the cover of my first book of poems, a lifetime ago. It’s my hope that what follows will let others know how important he was to me and to everyone who knew him.
Awhile ago, in 2013, on Easter, after finishing dinner and observing it was still light outside, I decided to take a drive to the small hospital where my old friend Michael Woodcock lay dying. When I’d visited Michael a few days earlier, he’d drifted in and out of consciousness, but I thought this time there was a chance he might be able to say a few words, or listen, nod, or something. If not, I told myself, at least I’ll see him. The place Michael had landed, courtesy of some cost-effective insurance plan, was called a hospice but it didn’t look like any hospice I’d ever imagined. It was just a shabby, ordinary room in an extended care facility (a de facto hospice in itself, I guess), with the walk to his room a gauntlet of drooling ancients, abandoned, confused, or asleep in their wheelchairs in doorways and along the sides of the halls. Worst of all—at least to me—the staff, the nurses and the aides, had no idea who Michael was, what a remarkable person was passing away in their midst. I wanted to tell them, but of course it wouldn’t have helped.
I got to his room to find Michael in bed, lying on his back like an upturned boat. Always a big man, as his liver ceased to function, he had grown larger more full of fluid and his skin strained to enclose it all. He was unconscious, with an oxygen mask over his face, struggling to breathe, but at least, as far as I could tell, he was out of the terrible pain he’d been in earlier. His gray beard poked out the sides of the plastic mask like mattress stuffing and his eyes were shut. His wife said hello. She had been there for two weeks straight, sleeping in the bed next to his, feeding him, touching him, and she looked very, very tired. After a few minutes she asked if I would be there long enough for her to run home—about ten minutes away—and take a shower. “Of course,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
So she left and I sat holding Michael’s hand, watching him breathe. His breaths weren’t the rasping last breaths of the dying I had heard at other times, but they weren’t regular ones, either. There would be a breath, and then a pause just long enough for me to worry, and then he’d breathe again. Strangely, I found myself relaxing. It was enough just to be where I was, with him, and, for a change, words were unimportant. I’d brought a book to read to him, but realized that in order to turn the pages I would have to let go of his hand, so I just sat and held on, and listened to him taking in and expelling air. After a while his breathing got easier, and it seemed to me that somehow, even though he wasn’t conscious, I was helping him. Then his breaths got so easy I couldn’t even be sure if he was breathing at all, and I removed the oxygen mask to check. There was nothing. I felt for his pulse, and there was nothing there as well. His eyes had opened, so I shut them and kissed his forehead. “Good-bye,” I said, called for a nurse, and about that time his wife walked in, and she spent a long time crying.
The fact is that Michael had been dying for some time. About ten years earlier he’d had to retire from his job as an art professor and ever since, between seeing doctors, had spent more and more time in the garage he’d turned into a studio behind his house. He needed dental work, too, but couldn’t go because every time they touched his gums with a pick they wouldn’t stop bleeding. To me his studio looked like a mini barn, an art barn, because it was packed, floor to ceiling, with books and canvasses. It had its own small bathroom, and in later years, a bed. Toward the end he hardly left it, in part because he couldn’t go anywhere without his wheelchair, but also I think because he liked being there. It was his world, the one where he painted, made prints, and stared at his works-in-progress hung on the walls. This staring was necessary because in many ways Michael’s art was based on elaborate jokes, public and private, and it was important for him to strike the exact balance that was needed. For example, Michael liked to find a road sign, make a life-sized copy, and then replace the original with his copy. Or sometimes he would just put his copy next to the original and wait for Caltrans to haul it away the art and leave the inspiration. Or he printed copies of these copied road signs, or made lithographs of familiar images with out-of-left-field captions. But whenever there was a sky in his work, it was always the same one: a hopeful and unironic blue, Pantone 544. “Woodcock Blue,” we called it.
Michael’s favorite joke, or at least the joke I remember best, wasn’t all that complicated but he would draw it out for at least five minutes: A person from the city drives out into the country one day and stops to watch a farmer picking his crop of apples. The farmer holds a huge pig above his head, walks over to an apple tree, waits until the pig gets an apple in its mouth, and then, still holding the pig above his head, staggers over to a waiting bushel basket, where he stands above it until the pig lets go and the apple drops into the basket. So after the city guy watches the farmer repeat the process at least a dozen times, he gets out of his car. “Excuse me,” he says, “doesn’t it take a long time to pick apples that way?”
And the farmer answers, “What’s time to a hog?”
It was, Michael used to say, the funniest thing he had ever heard.
I saw a lot of him in the decades before he became a professor. He’d started a business making Plexiglas bases for art and, because he was losing money, he had time on his hands. I was living with my second wife by then, in a basement apartment with ceilings so low if I skipped—which I never did—I could hit my head on them. Once or twice a week Michael would show up in the evenings to play gin rummy and sit—disheartened, hopeful, funny, sweet, cranky, and large—with us on our carpet covered with grapefruit-sized clumps of dog hair (mysteriously, we’d managed to accumulate two Samoyeds). I would drink vodka martinis until I could barely see. Michael would drink only tea because, he explained, he wasn’t feeling good—his legs had started to swell from what he thought was gout. It was, of course, not gout at all, but the poison of the Plexiglas, but none of us knew it at the time.
So the three of us would play cards, and when I won, which was surprisingly often, considering the martinis, Michael would respond with epic, operatic, tragic howls over a universe that would allow such an imbecilic and haphazard individual to best him. Toward the end of those years he produced three elegant graphite portraits of my wife and none at all of me. For a curmudgeon, he got along surprisingly well with women.
Michael had also hit it off with my first wife when they met, which was the same day I first met him, about forty years before his death. It was a hot day in August, and I was sitting in a laundromat in Venice, California, watching my pile of blue work shirts go round in the dryer when I noticed a big guy next to me watching his load of plaid lumberjack shirts do the same. He looked like a lumberjack too, broad shouldered, with a full beard. Somehow—very possibly he told a joke—we started talking and it turned out that we liked each other. I asked him what he did and Michael responded that he was an artist. He was the first person I’d ever met who had ever made that declaration so seriously, and maybe it was the way he said it, but I absolutely believed him. I told him I was a poet and tried to sound equally convincing. When our shirts were dry, because the room in which he was living was on the way to my house, he offered to show me the canvases he was working on.
His room was about ten by ten and completely empty except for a paint-spattered mattress in the middle of the floor. Every wall was covered with paintings, big ones, some with huge Franz Kline-ian strokes, others stitched together, a technique he would soon abandon for canvases that were a grid of carefully emptied tea bags he’d glued on to them, then covered with layers of paint. Later on, he would give up the tea bags for the meticulous, beautiful graphite drawings, and eventually change to the road signs and lithographs, but at that moment they were still in his future.
Then I asked if he wanted to walk to where I was living and meet my wife. I could tell he was young enough that wives were novelties to him. They were to me, too. In Venice we were renting the bottom half of a house, and my wife had turned the front porch into a potter’s studio. The porch was where she would work all day throwing pots while I—when I wasn’t at the laundromat—sat in the kitchen and tried to write what I hoped would be important poems. Michael said, yes, he’d like to meet her, and so the two of us strolled on together beneath a blue sky filled with gulls.
So there we are, Michael young, maybe twenty-three or so, tall, strong, and full of excitement over everything he is sure will come his way, and I’m a little older, carrying a bag that holds my clean shirts. The day is still hot, and when we get to my place there is my wife, right where I said she would be, out in front, making her pots. She is young too, of course, and beautiful, with her flax-colored hair held back by a bandana and her forearms covered in wet clay as she concentrates on her potter’s wheel. Michael and I stand at the bottom of the steps and look up to where she works, oblivious to our presence, and at that exact moment it feels to me as if all three of us are gods of sorts, or at the very least, figures out of some myth I had read once and forgotten. This is what life is supposed to be—I remember thinking; a story is about to start, and although I cannot be sure of the details of its ending, I am certain it will be a great one, well worth noting.
“Hey,” I call, as my wife peers down the steps to see who’s standing there, and just for a second everything stands still: me at the foot of the stairs and her above us, smiling at me, whom in a couple of years she will be leaving, and also down at Michael, who unknowingly has just met the person whose hand he will be holding at his death. There are some red bushes in flower in the front yard and, out near the low, white, wooden fence by the sidewalk, a few cactus plants. In the window next to my wife is our new Siamese kitten that has the disconcerting habit of jumping out of drawers to startle me.
“Hey,” I call again. “You should meet Michael.” And then Michael and I walk up the steps, and everything begins.
Jim Krusoe is the author of the novels Parsifal, Toward You, Erased, Girl Factory, and Iceland; two collections of stories; and five books of poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. He teaches at Santa Monica College and lives in Los Angeles.
My Great Uncle Adolphus had a pet duck named Patrick. Patrick was insecure, needy, foul-tempered, and brilliant. Not just brilliant for a duck either, my Great Uncle would say. Patrick possesses a keen mind. He has a deep curiosity about everything under the sun and a bracing skepticism! Patrick would hiss at us whenever we went to visit. He would laugh nastily when we mispronounced words or displayed lazy, unoriginal thinking. When we left there was always duck poop in our shoes. The price of genius, Great Uncle Adolphus would say, smiling proudly.
After my Great Uncle Adolphus’s death Patrick came to live with us. We were not Great Uncle Adolphus’s closest relatives and I have never been sure why he selected us to look after Patrick. I was six, maybe seven. Patrick was delivered in a gold cage big enough for a medium-sized elephant. It was just Mother and I at home so it must have been a week day. I was eating cottage cheese when the delivery men knocked at the door. I preferred cottage cheese served in a shiny blue aluminum bowl and it was best with a sprig of parsley on top. Patrick sat in his cage with his bill tucked tightly to one side of his breast, completely still. Mother and I watched him closely. He was breathing heavily, a deep, shaky inward breath then a long, whistling exhale that stopped and started partway through. It was the saddest noise I had ever heard. “He is an unpleasant creature,” said Mother. “But he is ours. He’ll have your room now. You will sleep on the couch from now on.”
Patrick never recovered from the heartbreak of Great Uncle Adolphus’s death. We tried to cheer him up. We remembered how he had loved to mock us because of our lack of intellectual rigor. So we put on shows in front of his cage acting as stupid as we could. I would recite the multiplication tables but make serious, ridiculous errors. I would sing the alphabet song but get the letters mixed up and give up in a show of frustration. I would list the countries and capitals but I would say crazy things like the capital of Tanzania is Baltimore and the capitol of Iceland is Madrid. Father and Mother would discuss philosophy but instead of saying Aristotle and Heidegger they would say Donald and Goofy. Nothing worked. Patrick remained unmoved.
Then one day the sound of Patrick’s labored breathing stopped. We made arrangements for Patrick’s body to be laid to rest beside Great Uncle Adolphus’s. I got my room back and I felt joyful about that, which in turn made me feel guilty. I told Father that I hadn’t loved Patrick, not really. Neither did I, said Father. But your Great Uncle Adolphus did.
Years later I found out that Great Uncle Adolphus died of heartbreak. Patrick had started seeing a dull mallard named Mathilda, and Adolphus found out about the affair in an embarrassing manner. It was a tragedy for all concerned. Or, since I don’t know what became of Mathilda, I can’t say it was a tragedy for her. Perhaps it was merely a minor embarrassment in Mathilda’s world.
It’s funny how memory works. Years after Patrick’s death I still think about the price of genius. And I still find myself checking my shoes before I thrust my feet in, on the lookout for the foul stench of that brilliant duck.
Mark Hoadley‘s recent work has appeared in Word Riot and KYSO Flash. He is co-editor of the online poetry journal The Maynard. Mark lives in Vancouver, BC where he writes memoir, poetry and fabulist fictions, sometimes all at once.
Where are we?
How did we come here?
Where are we going?
And anyway, who lies sleeping here with us?
Wherever that is—
I mean—wherever we are.
To begin: the Burrow is a low mound that rises out of the ground. It rests on what would be, if not for the Burrow itself, a vacant lot on the edge of town, though not the farthest edge. On one end of the lot, on the west side of the Burrow, and far enough away so there are no drainage problems, is a small pond. What kind of pond? Picture a body of water about the size of a supermarket parking lot, with stands of cattails, frogs, tadpoles, and such, plus various insects, both on the water and flying above it. This pond grows larger in spring and in summer shrinks to the size of, say, a convenience store parking lot. In the fall and winter it stays somewhere roughly between the two extremes. On its eastern shore is a tree, possibly a cypress, but possibly something else entirely. A sad fact about the people who live in this town is that nobody knows much of anything about the names of trees.
Still, like so many other things in the world, this particular burrow is more than its name implies. This burrow has people living in it. It has five or six tenants, depending on how many of its apartments are rented at any given time, because, as you probably guessed, the Burrow is really an apartment building, and although it isn’t called “the Burrow” in any formal sense—it’s never had any formal name at all—it was the Burrow’s neighbors, the very same ones who can’t seem to tell one tree from another, who called it that back when it was first constructed. So to this day, whether out of affection or derision, “the Burrow” is how people, including those who live inside it, refer to the place. And while it’s true that some of the children in the neighborhood say the Burrow is scary, no one offers any specifics. It’s the kind of place that children like to pretend is scary on principle. It’s part of being a child, and certainly that doesn’t stop those same children from playing in the pond next to it when school isn’t in session, albeit giving the Burrow a glance from time to time to make sure there’s nothing frightening rushing toward them from it as they play.
So picture a mound of dirt with things growing out of the top, plants, new shoots, weeds, but having a front door, and you are picturing the Burrow.
Meanwhile, inside the Burrow, Jeffery is thinking this: Suppose a person spent his whole life being way ahead of the curve, was Überbrilliant, far in front of every other person in the world who was also working on whatever problem this first person was working on, so incredibly advanced, et cetera, et cetera, that those in his dust were totally blind to the fact there was even anyone out in front of them? They would look, of course, but all they would see was a big dust cloud, without having the slightest idea what was causing it. And correspondingly, when the genius, or whatever you want to call him, looked behind, and squinted through the dust of his own making, those others weren’t visible.
But then, Jeffery thinks, one day, maybe thirty or forty years after this genius first embarked on his journey and the dust from the cloud settled, he happened to look back once again, and this time, because there wasn’t any more dust at all, he could see for sure there was nobody following him. There was only an empty plain, or road, or stage, or whatever you want to call it. In other words, whoever had been back there trailing after him must have taken a whole different path, or several different paths. So there he was—wherever “there” was—completely alone. But here’s the thing: out of all those people who, a long time ago, were working on the same idea as he was, nobody cared. Every one of them had moved on to other projects, much better and more timely ones, and as a result, the genius was not ahead of anyone anymore. He’d been totally forgotten and whatever he might have done, whatever he did, meant nothing. Zero.
And as for this supposed genius, what word would Jeffery use to describe him?
Jeffery is in his midthirties and has hair the color of untoasted whole-wheat sandwich bread. He’s still in fairly good shape because he exercises every day—squats, sit-ups, push-ups—right next to his bed first thing every morning. Though he’s starting to develop a little pot on his stomach, it’s not unusual for his age. He tells himself he needs to lay off the starch, but hasn’t gotten around to it. It’s not that big a deal.
Also: in addition to the problem with identifying their trees, none of the town’s inhabitants seem to be able to pronounce the name of their own town, St. Nils.
That is, they can and do pronounce it in one of two ways: Saint Niles, like the river, or Nils, which rhymes with pills, but it appears they have no idea which one is correct.
The fact is, it was Raymond who inspired this idea of the alleged genius-person-so-far-ahead-of-everyone-else to pop into Jeffery’s head, and Jeffery’s first Raymond-as-a-genius thought came when he was smack in the middle of Raymond’s living room in the Burrow, sitting on Raymond’s couch surrounded by a humongous number of decoys: on wall shelves, on tables, even lined up along the baseboards. Raymond had carved each one, and now, apparently, he waited for some mysterious future event to move them out of there. In addition to the finished decoys there were also several piles of lumber for future decoys. There were also open cans of paint leaking fumes and smelling up the place—not a bad smell, but, well . . . paint, and of course Raymond was living in the middle of all this.
Then Raymond sat down on the recliner opposite the couch and made it recline by means of a lever on one side. Next, he took off his right shoe, propped his right foot up on the part of the recliner that had turned into a little platform, and allowed his left foot, its shoe still on, to rest quietly on the rug.
So while it was clear that Raymond had a vision, Jeffery still had a hard time working out precisely what vision that might be.
Is he a genius or a complete idiot?
And, for that matter, what would you call Jeffery for thinking all of this?
And yet there is something troubling about the Burrow, something hard to name, maybe something about the low shadow it casts on the vacant lot around sunset, or maybe the smell of its walls after a November rain, so maybe the children—bless them— are right to keep their distance.
Because Raymond is a big guy, and gentle, and his head is big and gentle, too, with dark brown hair like burnt whole-wheat toast, and frizzy, the kind of hair a person might want to lean their own head against if he or she were tired, but if they did they would be disappointed because what they would be leaning on would be Raymond’s skull, which is very hard. As hard as a wooden decoy, a person who leaned his or her head against it might be thinking.
Meanwhile: outside the Burrow, new shoots of trees, new wood, reach out of the ground, toward air, toward sun, toward something they can’t actually see, something they have no way to be sure is even there.
What was Raymond’s reaction to Jeffery’s explanation of the dust cloud and the person making it? It was to settle deeper into his recliner and shut his eyes. Finally, after about five minutes, Raymond spoke. “Like jets,” he said, and proceeded to peel a Band-Aid from his finger and stare at the cut underneath, which Jeffery thought probably came from making decoys—a sliver or a slip of the knife. The skin beneath the Band-Aid was pale and puckered, not like skin at all, but more like those Styrofoam pellets people use for packing.
“Are you okay?” Jeffery asked. “And what do you mean, ‘like jets’?”
Raymond stuck the Band-Aid back where it was. “Like once upon a time,” he said, “there must have been some crazy old aeronautical engineer somewhere who spent his whole life thinking as hard as he could about how to get propeller planes to speed up, maybe by making bigger propellers, or shorter wings, or both, or whatever it would take, and let’s say that in the end he figured out exactly the way to do it; let’s say that he increased the speed by fifty or a hundred miles an hour, which nobody ever imagined could be done by anybody, so the guy was a genius. But in the meantime, somebody else had invented jets.”
“Oh,” Jeffery said, because he had to give Raymond credit: the man, no matter what else he was, was full of surprises, and even after Madeline left him to be with Viktor, Raymond stayed friends with Jeffery.
Because it was also true that before Madeline left Raymond to be with Viktor, she left Jeffery to be with Raymond.
Which made the two of them buddies in a way. Losers.
The winner being Viktor, of course.
Though terms such as “winner” and “loser” are pretty much irrelevant in the Burrow.
Madeline also lives in the Burrow, as well as Heather and Viktor. There used to be another guy—Louis, his name was—but he moved out in the middle of the night awhile ago, and now his room is empty.
Maybe if they put a big sign out in front, Jeffery thinks, and officially called the building “The Burrow,” then the place would be overrun with Middle Earth-o-philes, and the landlord, or whatever faceless real estate holding company actually owns this place, wouldn’t be having this vacancy problem. On the other hand, is it his problem, or even a problem?
Does Jeffery really want to have to get to know a new tenant and then have to set boundaries with him or her?
On the other hand: Who was it among the Burrow’s current crop of residents who called her fellow renters “a lonely, fucked-up group of individuals”?
That would be Madeline. She has red hair and once Viktor described her, correctly, as “a hot tamale.”
Tocar: to touch.
Meaning the fur beneath and between the fingers, meaning the warmth of skin beneath the fur, the pulse of blood, the sleeping house of muscle, its patient throb against the hand, the hand connected to that which is the other, meaning the self outside the self, the self mysterious in the way we cannot ever be a mystery to ourselves, the self known through touching others in the way we ourselves can never be known, the self outside the self, of it being touched, of our being connected, for once not alone but a part, for once no different, for once at home in a world where we are never at home, for once ourselves, remembering, wherever we may be.
To the St. Nils Eagle
I have been noticing for quite a while various problems associated with the use of firearms in this country. At the same time I cannot ignore the fact that, with crime rates being what they are, home protection is also an issue. Today I am writing because I believe there is a way to solve both problems at the same time. Namely, people should give serious thought to requiring every household in the land to have at least one crossbow on its premises, both for sport and as a deterrent factor. Here are the reasons I believe such legislation, if enacted, might reverse the trends of death by firearms and also the increasing dangers of home intrusions: 1) To load a crossbow requires a fair amount of physical strength, thus cutting down on any possibility of misuse by children, old people, or invalids. 2) Crossbows, being made of wood, are ecologically superior, and certainly do not carry with them the stigmata of cop-killer bullets and the discharge of poisonous gases or lead into the atmosphere. 3) The time it takes to pull back the string, and then to put an arrow (or bolt) in place, while not long, can provide a much-needed “cooling off” period in cases of a disagreement or domestic violence situations. 4) When necessary, they are deadly.
Many residents of the neighborhood say the Burrow has its origin in the Cold War, or even earlier, during the Second World War. Purportedly, the government built it back then as a secret place to hide officials if the fighting got too close. But to counter that theory: Why would the government build a place like that for only six people? And which six could they have been?
Others say that the Burrow has its origin in some sort of geological formation, a swelling in the earth that the builders simply used to make their job easier, digging down, in the natural direction of gravity, instead of building unnaturally upward. Then they installed plumbing, ran electrical lines, and plastered over walls of dirt. It is cool in summer, people say, and warm in winter, and they are right.
But there are still others who contend that the Burrow is not that old at all. They posit that its origin was as the entrance of a tunnel dug to smuggle drugs, or possibly humans—though from where to where is never specified. In any case, this faction claims that someone, probably a relative of one of the agents who exposed the operation, bought the vacant lot cheap, then took advantage of the considerable improvements that had already been made by the crime lords, and turned it into its present configuration of underground apartments, renting them out at an exceedingly reasonable rate.
Clearly, this is a lot of speculation by a group of people who can’t even bother to learn the names of their own trees. At the same time however, everyone agrees that one benefit to living there is that, possibly because the presence of the Burrow does not exactly announce itself to any criminal type, there has never been a break-in or a burglary in all the years of its existence. In other words, the Burrow is safe, and no matter what individual complaints its residents may have, they report feeling protected from the kind of harm they have felt in the places they lived before they arrived at the Burrow.
It has been many years since the Captain was at sea, expertly piloting his giant ocean liner, the Valhalla Queen, in and out of fjords as contented passengers lined its decks to snap photos of icebergs, glaciers, and baby seals before racing inside to the ship’s dining room to wolf down their sixth or seventh gourmet buffet of the day. Worthless, degenerate swine, the Captain used to mutter into the sleeve of his handsome dark-blue uniform, taking care that no one heard him. Then, as often as not, following his dinner at “The Captain’s Table,” the Captain hurried to the simple good taste of his own cabin, where he removed his jacket, stood in front of the bathroom mirror, put two fingers down his throat, and regurgitated everything into one of the black plastic bags he kept for that very purpose beneath his sink. When he finished, he’d rinse his mouth, replace his jacket, and carry the bag back outside, where he would nod at the various happy passengers who sat on deck chairs wrapped in blankets, staring stupidly at the Northern Lights as they awaited the midnight buffet to be set out in the second dining room. When he was certain he was totally alone, he’d hurl his former dinner as far away from the ship as he could, into the icy water, return to his cabin, and enjoy a dreamless sleep.
The Captain’s hair is white these days, but above his left eye there is still a stain: a birthmark in the shape of an anchor. He combs his hair over it, and so successful is this strategy that even people who have known him for years are unaware of its existence.
Sometimes the residents of the Burrow will ask each other about the pond or the tree that hangs over it.
“How does the tree look to you these days? Does it look healthy? Do you ever wonder what kind of tree it is, exactly?”
Or, “How deep is the pond these days?” Or, “Have the birds begun to build their nests in the rushes of the pond?”
And the answer will invariably come back: “Actually, it’s been awhile since I’ve been outside at all.”
Jeffery thinks that out of everyone who lives at the Burrow, Raymond is the wild card. And as if to demonstrate this truth, on the very day following their conversation regarding jet planes, just as Jeffery is about to grasp the knob of the front door of the Burrow to go outside, who should appear but Raymond, his arms spread, grabbing on to the sleeve of Jeffery’s tan, cotton-polyester, lightweight jacket.
“Jeffery,” Raymond asks, “do you remember your dreams?”
Even from Raymond, this is a strange question. But then, what strikes Jeffery as even more bizarre is that Raymond must have been lurking by the front door for God knows how long, like the Ancient Mariner, waiting for him. And, what is even stranger, it is clear to Jeffery that Raymond must have gone to the door directly from his bed, because he is still wearing his red-and-white-striped pajamas, which could use a wash. Truly.
Also, there are three or four fresh wood shavings in his hair, as usual.
Raymond, being the Burrow’s longest resident, is the one who remembers Louis best, and when Louis left suddenly, in the middle of the night, without an explanation, it made Raymond nervous. How could someone be there one moment and then in the next disappear? When Raymond tries to picture Louis now, he can only recall a tall, coffee-colored man with gray, curly hair who was fond of sweaters, and always polite, and who never failed to clean up after himself when he used the kitchen. But what else? He used to like to talk to Louis, he knows this, but what did the two of them ever talk about? What were Louis’s features? What happened to him? The man seems to have been washed away somehow, and the thing that sticks most in Raymond’s mind is, of all things, the sound of his name, Louis, which, curiously, was the same sound made by Louis’s worn brown leather slippers as he shuffled down the hall on his way to the kitchen. At any rate, with Heather in her room most of the time and Viktor being with Madeline these days, that pretty much leaves only Jeffery for Raymond to talk to.
No wonder he misses Louis.
Viktor’s favorite word is rectum. There are others that come close—rector, correct, erect, even rectitude—but for all-round satisfaction and simple purity of sound, rectum wins, hands down. Rectum, that great two-stroke gong of a word, beginning with the crispness of the rec, and then, just as the listener is brought to attention by the rec, comes the hollow tum of doom at the end: rec-tum, the whole journey of life in two syllables, and the end of life, too, if you think about it. And just guess where that exit point is? Garbage in/garbage out. People write all the time they ª something, so why isn’t there an equivalent for the rectum? It is literally amazing that here we have one of the most important organs in the whole human body, and yet most people refuse to give it the recognition it deserves, have failed to embrace the power of this simple word. But Viktor has embraced it. That’s his secret.
Meanwhile, Jeffery still has his hand on the knob of the Burrow’s dark front door, getting ready to leave. “Why do you ask?” he asks Raymond.
“Because,” Raymond answers, “I’ve been having the same bad dream lately, and I can’t seem to stop it.”
“Maybe you should write it down so you can remember it,” Jeffery says, and gestures toward the exit.
“I already remember it,” Raymond replies. Somewhat disconcertingly, he begins to tug harder on the sleeve of Jeffery’s jacket. It’s one Jeffery was given several years ago by an old girlfriend, and for that reason it is his favorite article of clothing. It still smells of her patchouli and, at least in his mind, of her spit, which would sweetly leak from her mouth like a child’s when she fell asleep on long rides, her head on his shoulder as he drove carefully homeward so as not to wake her. Her name was Pam, he thinks, or Jan.
“Okay,” Jeffery surrenders. “Let’s go to my apartment. You can talk about it there. ”
And what kind of town is it where people are so backward that they refuse to learn the names of the trees that are in their own neighborhood?
Cypress or pine—these careless people answer if you should ask them—what difference does it make, as long as they are there?
But aren’t the names of things important?
The Burrow, for one.
“Twilight souls” is the name the Captain gives to the uncomplicated and unaware primitive races he came into contact with during his days on the high seas, caught, as they were, somewhere between animals and a higher being. But caught where exactly, the Captain refuses to specify.
And where are we now?
How did we come to be here?
Where we going?
And anyway, do we even need to know?
Jim Krusoe is the author of the novels Parsifal, Toward You, Erased, Girl Factory, and Iceland; two collections of stories; and five books of poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. He teaches at Santa Monica College and lives in Los Angeles.
“How far can/will the elegy stretch?” Amy Gerstler asked our workshop participants this July. “Are there limits to what conventional or unconventional elegy can mourn, memorialize, honor, metabolize, question? Are there angry, comic, upbeat and/or love elegies? How about some stealth elegies?”
In her quest to find out, Gerstler examined poems from Terrance Hayes, Li Young Lee, John Berryman, Anne Carson, as well as considered the wealth of the possibilities for various elegiac incorporations in our own work.
Recorded in the Reed Chapel during the 2015 Summer Workshop, we give you Amy Gerstler’s lecture on the uses of the elegiac.
Author of over a dozen books, including the collection Scattered at Sea, which made the 2015 National Book Award Longlist in Poetry, Amy Gerstler resides in Southern California.