March 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
1. AWP was a no-go for me this year, doubly unfortunate because I love everything about Seattle, but I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s morning-after posts. Cf. Samuel Snoek-Brown, Mira Gonzalez at Hobart, Aaron Gilbreath at Salon, and Book Fight! My hope is to make it to Conversations & Connections in Philadelphia this fall.
2. R.I.P. Sherwin B. Nuland. Author and physician best known for the book How We Die, credited for ushering in new and sensitive thinking in the consideration of end-of-life care. Dr. Nuland was more familiar to me as the author of The Wisdom of the Body (retitled for the paperback edition as How We Live), an exquisitely written primer on human physiology and its gross and gorgeous mechanisms.
3. Nick Ripatrazone continues to kick ass over at The Millions. His wistful article on postal submissions struck a chord with me. I began submitting my stories in 2007, when only a handful of journals had begun using Submittable (then Submishmash), and I have fond memories of setting aside time on Saturday mornings to make trips to the post office with a stack of clasp envelopes addressed neatly in black Sharpie. The whole process made the act of submitting feel like an important piece of business.
4. At Electric Literature, Michael J. Seidlinger (The Laughter of Strangers) has done the literary community an enormous service with his compilation of indie and small press titles due out in 2014.
5. My only fear in signing up for that Amtrak writer residency would be rejection of my work by the Secretary of Transportation, who I’m told is turned off by “loner protagonists” and “endings for the sake of endings.”
March 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
Fast Machine, Elizabeth Ellen. A little brick of a book picked up at the Hobart table at last year’s AWP. This collection arranges half-page microfictions alongside 30-page layered narratives, which creates a book not pinned to any decisive themes but intended more as a complete picture of this chapter of the author’s career. There are ninety-three stories in Fast Machine, many of them about young characters feeling their way through tricky relationships, adolescents pitted against untrustworthy adults, single mothers seeking to rebound from disappointment, and more than a few about older people similar to the author looking back on the decisions of their youth. It is obvious, from the disclosure of certain narrative particulars, that some of the stories are nonfiction.
Much like Bukowski, the narrative tension of Ellen’s writing resides in the immediate and shallow nature of decisions presented to protagonists more interested in surviving the moment than projecting their futures. In addition, there is a lot of name-dropping of pop culture references and attention to linear detail, both of which give the stories a legitimate down-to-earthiness and relatability:
We open a ten dollar bag of cookies from the mini bar and sit on towels in front of the TV and wash the cookies down with the rum punches we brought back from the pool. We watch half a biography of Ray Liotta and when that gets too sad we watch a game show on MTV and then we decide to watch porn. There are twenty different movies to choose from and we watch all the teasers once, trying to decide, and then it doesn’t matter anymore because your fingers are in my mouth and then they are in both our mouths and I can taste bits of rum and suntan lotion and chlorine on us and I like tasting us, our recent history and all that. (“Awesome Like Us”)
The day before we leave for Florida, I find a vial of coke in my mother’s purse. I am sitting on our porch with a bowl of shredded wheat. She’s gone in to make coffee. It’s morning and the sun is so bright I can’t look straight ahead without shutting my eyes. I take the vial across the driveway to the cornfield and watch the contents dust the soil. I return the vial to her purse and eat the rest of my cereal as though nothing has happened. (“Winter Haven, Florida, 1984”)
The flash-fictions, when placed alongside the more intense longer fictions, feel like place holders, and the more essayistic narratives can’t segregate what is important from what is not. Personally I felt the longer stories were more enjoyable reads, and I think they would have made for a more interesting and cohesive collection if left on their own.
Selected Stories; We Don’t Live Here Anymore; The Times Are Never So Bad, Andre Dubus. Nick Ripatrazone’s illuminating Millions essay on Dubus père made me hungry to go back and read my collection of the author’s works with a fresher perspective. (I haven’t finished Meditations From a Movable Chair.) Of these, I had already read We Don’t Live Here Anymore and The Times Are Never So Bad.
We Don’t Live Here Anymore is a collection of three novellas: “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Adultery,” and “Finding a Girl in America.” The first two stories were the basis for the 2004 film directed by John Curran.
The title story opens with a conversation about ale, and there is much casual opening of bottles in this series about two couples—writer Hank and his wife Edith, and professor Jack and his wife Terry—and their interlaced affairs. Hank and Jack are old friends from their days as students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Hank is successful, but his writing receives the regularly scheduled attention that Edith does not, and at various stages, dominoes fall: Edith cheats on Hank with Jack; Edith later becomes lover and caretaker to a dying Catholic priest; Hank and Edith divorce and Hank takes up with ex-student Lori, barely older than Hank and Edith’s children.
The stories are unique in how much slack each character is given to grind apart his or her life. There is a lot of confession, or thoughts about confession, not so much out of concern for one’s reputation or purity in the eyes of God but as a double-checking of the earnestness of the soul. Dubus’s characters are seeking, in their marriages, a perpetual intensity that marriage cannot provide, but cliff-dangling risk can, or seem to.
I went upstairs. Going up, I could hear the rifles cracking. That night I went to see Edith and Hank. They were drinking coffee at the kitchen table; the dishes were still there from dinner, and the kitchen smelled of broiled fish. From outside the screen door I said hello and walked in.
“Have some coffee,” Hank said.
I shook my head and sat at the table.
“A drink?” he said.
Edith got up to pour it.
“I think I’ll take in a movie,” Hank said.
Edith was holding the bottle and watching me, and it was her face that told me how close I was to crying. I shook my head: “There’s no need—“
But he was up and starting for the back door, squeezing my shoulder as he passed. I followed him out.
He turned at his car.
“Listen, I ought to dedicate my novel to you.” He smiled and took my hand. “You helped get it done. It’s so much easier to live with a woman who feels loved.”
One of my favorite stories in Selected Stories, “Voices From the Moon,” surrounds another wholly inappropriate love affair, this one told from multiple perspectives, as a divorced father carries on a relationship with his older son’s ex-wife. It also shares a quality with “Bless Me, Father” and “The New Boy,” two of my favorite stories from The Times Are Never So Bad: the willing corruption of young innocents by their adult caretakers. Richie is willing to be corrupted because he wants his father to have both happiness and purity of soul.
“You don’t mind her moving in with us? After we’re married?”
“No. I like her.”
“There must be something.”
“Am I going to visit him, like I do Mom?”
His father had not thought about that, Richie saw it in his face, the way it changed as abruptly as when he had stood so still with the spatula and half-raised cigarette, but more completely, deeply: the color rushed out of it, and the lips opened, and his stood staring at Richie’s eyes, his mouth, his eyes. Then in two strides his father came to him, was hugging him, so his right cheek and eye were pressed against his father’s hard round stomach, his arms held against his ribs by the biceps squeezing his own, the forearms pulling his back toward his father.
“You poor kid,” his father said. “Jesus Christ, you poor, poor kid.”
In Selected Stories there are also parents taking extreme actions, standing up their children both in place of and in defiance of God: “Killings” (the inspiration for Todd Field’s 2001 film In the Bedroom) features a father seeking revenge and redemption for the murder of his son by his lover’s ex; “A Father’s Story” is about a man who hides the evidence when his adult daughter is involved in a DUI hit-and-run. Dubus’s stories are heavy with adjectives and inner monologue and exploration; for that reason, they feel like slow reads, but accomplishments when they are finished. I get the same feeling of fulfillment I do when I read the stories of Frederick Busch, whose style I enjoy more. A comparative Frederick Busch-vs.-Andre Dubus essay probably needs to be written at some point.
February 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
The New Yorker has opened up its archive of stories by Mavis Gallant, who has died at the age of ninety-one. I read Varieties of Exile last November and loved it, particularly the Mme. Carette stories.
The title story from that collection is among the stories shared here.
Gallant’s New York Times obituary indirectly attributes her eye for detail, particularly her ability to capture characters pressed and made brittle through slights and unrealized expectations, to her work as a journalist:
“If I got on with the people,” she told The Times, “I had no hesitation about seeing them again – the widow of the slain shopkeeper or policeman, I went right back and took them to lunch. I could see some of those rooms, and see the wallpaper, and what they ate, and what they wore, and how they spoke, and their vocabulary, and the way they treated their children. I drew it all in like blotting paper.”
Gallant, who was detached from her parents (“I had a mother who should not have had children, and it’s as simple as that.”) and had no children of her own, used them as weapons of perception in her fiction:
Ms. Gallant also endowed children with special powers that vanish as they grow up. In “The Doctor,” she wrote: “Unconsciously, everyone under the age of 10 knows everything. Under-ten can come into a room and sense at once everything felt, kept silent, held back in the way of love, hate and desire, though he may not have the right words for such sentiments. It is part of the clairvoyant immunity to hypocrisy we are born with and that vanishes just before puberty.”
February 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
Maggie Estep has apparently died, of complications from a heart attack she suffered on Sunday.
If you are like me you first learned of her through her ranty, caffeinated promotional skits on MTV. That was in my late-teen years, and it was through Estep (and, to a lesser extent, Henry Rollins) that I discovered that poetry slams and spoken word performance and coffeehouses were a thing. They just weren’t a thing in the suburbs, where I lived.
She had released two records (1994’s No More Mr. Nice Girl and 1997’s Love Is a Dog From Hell) and wrote several books, including the darkly comic novels Diary of an Emotional Idiot and Hex. Her last blog post was on Friday, her last tweet Saturday.
February 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
I went to bed already and my stomick was gralling . I just didn’t want to hear my stomick gralling.
At Booth, read an excerpt of my friend Daniel Hales’ novel Run Story, set at a home for behaviorally challenged teenagers. A longer excerpt appears in Booth #6, print issue.
February 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
It wasn’t until late last night that I realized yesterday was William S. Burroughs’ 100th birthday.
While it’s not exactly what he was known for, here’s one of my favorite projects of his, recorded in 1996 for a project called Songs in the Key of X: Music From and Inspired by the X-Files.
February 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Laughter of Strangers, Michael J Seidlinger. The Laughter of Strangers is a novel about boxing, which made me think two things: how few novels these days, it seems, want to be about something, and two, how few novels there have been about boxing. Much of the literature that has stood the test of time is of the nonfiction variety: Joyce Carol Oates and Norman Mailer have written books about it, and there are classic autobiographies like Raging Bull that have made into feature films.
I say this as I’ve tried to write a story about an ex-boxer: The sport itself seems to have been outfoxed in the cultural conversation by mixed martial arts, as though regulations, punching, and gentlemen’s rules were dragging us down the whole time. But given its structure, it makes an ideal frame on which to draw out the intricacies of primal and inner conflict.
Seidlinger’s book takes us inside the mind of Willem Floures, a veteran heavyweight boxer who may be nearing the end of the line. (The title alludes to the public humiliation that comes with defeat; Morrissey’s song “Boxers” comes to mind here.) After Willem loses his top ranking, his trainer, Spencer, develops a scheme to win back public sentiment while Willem works to regain his crown. It is then that we are let in on a twist: all of Willem’s opponents are also named Willem Floures, distinguished only by their aliases (Executioner, Dynamite, etc.), suggesting they are merely figurative extensions of the protagonist’s psyche. At this point it is hard not to make comparisons here to another boxing-related book-turned-film about a man confronting a figurative extension of himself: Fight Club.
Seidlinger uses an interesting manner of first-person storytelling that interjects mental “shouts” in all capitals that seem to mimic a trainer’s yelling advice from the corner. They work for Willem’s thought processes as he operates in the ring:
X has me pinned against the ropes for a third of the round.
SHORT LIFELESS HOOKS TO THE BODY
It’s what I do to survive.
They also work as a kind of demonic hallucination interfering with his ability to process:
How many times have I hit the canvas at the expense of myself but to bolster what this is, the betterment of the brand?
ARE YOU ASKING?
Lately, it’s been a lot.
So what I’m saying is—
I COULD TAKE A PUNCH
Nowadays every punch feels like glass cutting skin, earth quaking up my spine, calling me collect, telling me to stay down.
END IT NOW
I’ve got a few fights left in me, thank you.
The story takes a somewhat sinister twist around the three-quarter mark with a device that envelops, among other things, Spencer’s young daughter and her imaginary friend. Seidlinger’s use of rhythmic jablike sentences and short chapters make for fluid and engaging reading.
Check out Seidlinger’s interview at Other People With Brad Listi, Episode 246, and Jim Ruland’s dynamite review of the book in the Los Angeles Times.
The Wes Anderson Collection, Matt Zoller Seitz. A Christmas gift from my wife. Seitz, longtime film & TV critic and Editor-in-Chief at RogerEbert.com, has put together a hefty and exquisite coffee-table-sized full-color tribute to the director of charming films about eccentric characters trying to exert control their own micro-worlds.
One chapter is devoted to each film in the Anderson oeuvre thus released (not The Grand Budapest Hotel) with insightful introductory comments by Seitz and an extensive interview with Anderson. The interviewer and interviewee have been acquainted since the days when Anderson was seeking a distributor for his first feature, Bottle Rocket, and so Seitz is comfortable enough to do away with straightforward question-and-answer and instead try out his own theories and interpretations of Anderson’s films on the director himself. (On more than a few occasions, Anderson replies to Seitz’s remarks with a coy, “Hmmm.”) What makes the book eminently browsable are the collected storyboards and set photos as well as the whimsical Chris Ware-esque illustrations by Max Dalton, the intentional flatness of which pay homage to Anderson’s diorama-like stage aesthetics.
Flying at Night, Ted Kooser. A Christmas gift from a couple years back, signed by the author the year he was named Poet Laureate of the United States. This collection assembles poems from Kooser’s volumes Sure Signs and One World at a Time covering the years 1965-85.
The imagery juxtaposes the rustic with the rusted, the domestic with the exotic. As on-spot as his description is, I think I enjoy Kooser the most when he injects a wry sidelong note of persuasion:
There’s a click like a piece of chalk
tapping a blackboard, and the furnace
starts thinking: Now, just where was I?
(Those k’s in the first two lines ignite the whole poem.)
At the end of a freight train rolling away,
a hand swinging a lantern.
The only lights left behind in the town
are a bulb burning cold in the jail,
and high in one house,
a five-battery flashlight
pulling an old woman downstairs to the toilet
among the red eyes of her cats.
(“Late Lights in Minnesota”)
I would say Kooser reminds me of Frost, with the caveat that as a novice poetry reader I only have a surface knowledge of Frost, but how does a poem called “Snow Fence” not remind you of Frost?