The Highbrow Era of TV Guide at Electric Literature

June 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

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But in its best years, TV Guide was more than a guide; it allowed you to participate in the cultural conversation of television even through those shows you never watched, like you might read The New York Times Book Review about books you don’t ever plan to read. Before the Internet was available to host this conversation, TV Guide was the document that brought it to the masses, physically and metaphorically denser than the gossipy, photo-filled space-holder we find in the supermarket today. Its editors were determined to ensure that Americans embrace television as serious, even highbrow art.

Up at Electric Literature today I am thrilled to have a new essay about a magazine that was can’t-miss weekly reading in my formative years: TV Guide. 

This piece is new critical territory for me and I’m grateful to editor Kelly Luce for giving it an excellent home.

 

Head under Water at Prick of the Spindle

May 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

If they liked you, they’d remember you. And every once in a while a kid pops back in to say hello. A little fuller in the face, a little more run-down. Out of the Army or Marines with erect posture, rounder head, clearer gaze. The women thicker in the hips, more sass, more sashay.

They shake hands with their old principal and say hey there, Mr. Rush, you’re lookin’ good, and they chat Edwin up, because they want to retrace things and show him they’re different people now, they talk a different game.

At Prick of the Spindle today I have a new story, “Head under Water.” It’s by far the longest story I’ve ever written, and “new” is a bit of a relative term, as it turns out that according to my records I’ve been working on the story in some form for over eleven years. It’s undergone several substantial revisions and at least three title changes. I’m glad for it to have found a home in what is definitely its final form, and I’m grateful to editor Cynthia Reeser for picking it up.

Drawing Names

May 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Last November, when we visited Montreal, we made a trip to Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, an edgy bookshop known for its sweet selection of graphic novels. This is from Mile End, by Michel Hellman, which I have been reading slowly with Bing Translate close at hand. Though I took five years of French in school and two more semesters in college, I don’t hear it well enough to maintain a conversation. Reading the words essentially as captions to illustrations has provided a fun and useful way to brush up on my French and learn about life in the Mile End neighborhood of Montreal (where Librairie Drawn & Quarterly happens to be).

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Perhaps with cartoons on the brain, yesterday I went for a walk into town and came back with Michael Tisserand’s Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, an exquisitely designed brick about the curious life of the man who created Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse.

Herriman was born in New Orleans, of Creole descent to a family that took pains to hide its African-American heritage. That peculiar backstory seems to inform a lot of the mischief and anarchy that came through in the Krazy Kat comics. This is going to take me a while to get through.

 

Zoo Stories

April 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Last Friday night, in Amherst, I attended a reading by Porochista Khakpour, author of the novels Sons and Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion.

Born in Tehran, Khakpour immigrated with her family to the United States as a young child. It was interesting to hear her stories of growing up in a bilingual household and discovering her love for literature by way of the western-canonical writers she thought she was supposed to like (Shakespeare) before discovering the ones that spoke to her (Faulkner).

She told about growing up in a country that, in the eighties, went out of its way to telegraph its hatred for her people, a country where FUCK IRAN buttons were sold in grocery stories.

Khakpour read an essay originally published in Guernica titled “Camel Ride, Los Angeles, 1986,” about a childhood trip to the Los Angeles Zoo and her father’s stubborn insistence that his children enjoy a ride on a camel, notably his refusal to see the implications of a Middle Eastern family riding a camel for the amusement of westerners.

Out loud he said, “Are you ready? Come on, everyone! This is what you’ve been waiting for!”

What we’d been waiting for was more likely a place where we could be like everyone else, rid of a certain yellow and maroon script, rid of rides on the backs of things or just the idea of us riding on the backs of things, especially that thing. We were somewhere else altogether.

The Last Illusion adapts a tale from the Persian Shahnameh and projects it onto a backdrop of post-Y2K and pre-9/11 New York City. The main character, Zal, is a “bird boy” who was raised in a cage by his mother. He is rescued by a psychologist named Hendricks, who specializes in the study of feral children. In the original poem from the Shanameh, Zal is an albino child, whose paleness causes his parents to abandon him on a mountain.

At the same time, an illusionist named Silber seeks to perform one final stunt—to make the World Trade Center disappear. Intrigued by Zal’s freakish tendencies, he ropes the boy in as an assistant. Zal has odd birdish habits—such as eating insects covered in yogurt—and a desire to fly, a talent that Silber had demonstrated in his earlier spectacles. Zal’s girlfriend, Asiya, has odd eating habits as well–she’s an anorexic–and she experiences premonitions of disaster that cast a surreal pall. The reader, of course, knows exactly the disaster of which she speaks. So we get a novel that interweaves themes of flight and escape, showmanship, and the establishment and rebirth of identity against forces both resistant and inevitable. For that reason it reminded me of Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Khakpour has a memoir coming out next year, titled Sick, about her battle with late-stage Lyme disease.

My Father, the High Line at Catapult

April 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

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I have a new essay up at Catapult this week, the first long personal essay I’ve ever published. It’s called “My Father, the High Line“:

Given the opportunity to boast of a prize catch and back it up with evidence, along with some cat-and-mouse hijinks to boot, my father remained forever silent, leaving us to discover the story only after he was gone, folded along with his tube socks.

I’m grateful to editor Mensah Demary for picking this up, and for his editorial guidance.

 

Grief in the Modern Age

March 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

For no reason other than coincidence, three recent books I have read have touched on the subject of death and grief in modern and interesting ways. Or maybe calling it coincidence is a lie. A good amount of my own writing lately has been about parents and grief, and the physical and emotional residue that a parent’s death leaves for the next generation.

Each book has a death in its center, the vortex around which the book propels. In one book the deceased is a father; in another, a wife; and in the third, a close friend. I enjoyed all three to varying degrees.

Michael Kimball’s Big Ray came up during my Catapult Fiction Workshop in response to a story I had posted there, and that book happened to be sitting on my nightstand at the time, so I moved it up in the queue.

In Big Ray, the residue comes from the complicated relationship between Danny, the narrator, and the title character, his recently deceased father. Ray is a large man who can slide toward cruelty with heartless ease. Following his divorce from Danny’s mother, he stops taking care of himself, growing morbidly obese and gambling away his retirement savings.

The story is told in vignettes, with no real dialogue to speak of; little by little a life is sketched in, one of a man whose presence, it becomes apparent, could eat up all of the energy in the room. As Danny adds in more flashes of memory, some chilling realizations come to light. It’s an honest indicator of how death often causes us to regard our relationship with a person in wide angle for the first time.

My father used to do this thing when we were in public and he didn’t want to be seen yelling at me or hitting me. He would put his arm around me and rest his hand on my shoulder in a way that must have looked affectionate to anybody who saw it. Then he would grip some muscle in my shoulder so hard it would make me seize up. The gesture must have made him look like a good father, but I wouldn’t be able to move or talk or even scream out in pain.

There aren’t a lot of happy memories in Big Ray, but there are a lot of occurrences that shift the burden of the relationship onto the much more mindful Danny; it is as though he is retracing a path wondering where, if at all, things might have changed for the better. The reflections turn up a lament not for the father that Danny lost but for the one he never got to have.

Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door is a celebration of the bumps and stretches of a friendship between two strong personalities, the author and the novelist Denise Gess (Good Deeds), that grew when both were struggling to establish themselves as writers, as well as his relationship with his former lover, a poet known here as M.

Gess battled recurring cancer for much of her adult life and succumbed in 2009. Because she and Lisicky are both writers, meeting when he is a grad student at Rutgers and she’s a teaching assistant, already with a novel, their relationship, when not maneuvering around sickness, builds precariously on encouragement, envy and confession, resentment, and forgiveness. Lisicky handles ably what is essentially the responsibility of writing for two voices. From the tone of the email correspondence they exchange, the heaviness of their sighs, the prolonged silences, the reader is let in on the high plane on which these two personalities coexisted.

The correspondence allows us to hear from Gess in her own words, for which it is clear she had a gift of projecting intimacy. Both share the writer’s playful, teasing code. In spite of illness, Gess carries on a string of affairs, including one with a married man known here as Famous Writer, which positions her as a passionate giver and unapologetic taker in contrast to the author’s cautiously treaded marriage to M. She finds the energy to get up and dance on the night of Barack Obama’s election in 2008; when she talks to another writer, her face brightens “as if promises and little deals are being passed back and forth.” She and the narrator cook a meal together, “a fifty-fifty thing, and the fact that we can move, without bumping or getting in each other’s way, seems like a beautiful thing.” Her heart sinks when her editor hates her second book and she can’t hide her bitterness when the author gets accepted into an exclusive writer’s conference, during which Lisicky writes, “But at every turn I’m thinking about Denise. Not just what I’ll reports back to her, but what I’ll withhold from her: I don’t want her to think I’m having too good a time.” There are misbehaviors, breaks in the spell, and efforts to mend without the embarrassment of full apology.

The third book, Tom McAllister’s The Young Widower’s Handbook, might be the most straightforward of the group. It also has the most modern sensibility, as it approaches grief from the angle of performance—the feeling that, in this day and age, we cannot even take on the task of hurting and healing without tinging the process with some kind of irony.

Framed as a road novel, The Young Widower’s Handbook follows a young man named Hunter Cady, whose wife has suddenly passed away. It happens when Hunter and Kait were still feeling out their dreams, finding traction. After Kait’s body is cremated and the insurance check cashed, Hunter finds himself alone in a new silence:

When he opens his eyes, he see thousands of ghosts in his home, each one a vision of Kait at a different stage of their shared life; they crowd into the house shoulder-to-shoulder and some are cooking and some are sleeping and some are dancing and some are hanging pictures and everywhere around him there are Kaits. Kait in the wallpaper and bubbling in the water supply and buzzing in the wiring in the walls. He calls out to her but she doesn’t respond. His voice sounds like it is underwater.

Eventually Hunter settles on an action plan: to take Kait’s ashes with him on a cross-country road trip, visiting all of the destinations they had talked about visiting together. The book then becomes a road trip novel, with Hunter encountering eccentrics along the way, and though it risks becoming one of those overstretched narratives in which a young, troubled character shirks his responsibilities, it rings true by avoiding easy solution and letting a sense of memory and emotional obligation be the driving force. Hunter takes selfies with the urn and posts them on social media, his friends reacting initially with support, then concern. Kait’s family grows impatient. Apart from his parents, who are limited in their willingness to empathize, Hunter has no sounding board: no bro-buddy or brother who can lure him toward an unserious perspective. We realize by the end that such a character wouldn’t have belonged because Kait was Hunter’s best friend.

What rings particularly true about The Young Widower’s Handbook is the expectation of behavior foisted upon us when someone close to us dies, when you feel others watching your every move. It it has wise observations regarding how we grieve in the Internet age, when there’s this perceived responsibility to show others that we are okay when we are not, or following the path of progress that is expected of us. Grief is idiosyncratic; frustratingly, no two routes are the same, which clashes with the impulses of those around us to guide our consolations along what is standard and predictable. There’s somehow this impression that we are violating the sanctity of another soul if we attempt to do something that makes our grief personal and ours.

How the Dictionary Is Made

March 17, 2017 § Leave a comment

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I don’t do much writing about my day job here, but I’m particularly excited about the release this week of Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by my good friend and colleague, Kory Stamper.

I’ve known Kory since I began working as a Merriam-Webster lexicographer almost 16 years ago. (In fact, for a long time her cubicle was in such close proximity to mine that we’d send snarky emails to each other whenever we’d be privy to the too-loud conversations about our neighbor’s medical appointments.) She is not only one of the best there is at what we do, she excels at putting into words the convoluted mental exercises that come with trying to pin down an ever-shifting language in a way that makes sense.

(Disclaimer: I’m quoted in the book a handful of times.)

You can read one excerpt of the book at Longreads and another at Slate, as well as a thoughtful review by Megan Garber in The Atlantic.