Daily Postings
literature : review

Beginnings & Endlings

by Liza St. James

A bestiary of human proportions in Elena Passarello's Animals Strike Curious Poses

In "Why Look at Animals?" John Berger writes, "Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises." He goes on to detail the ways in which, in 1977, this is no longer the case; animals no longer hold the mysteries required for acts of the imagination. Berger describes a culture saturated with the animal imagery of late capitalism—toys and costumes, stuffed animal reproductions. He explains that when a child visits the zoo, they cannot help but be disappointed, cannot help but wonder, "Why are these animals less than I believed?"

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literature : review

Arrogant Class Renegade

by Daniel Lefferts

Sexual awakening amid poverty and violence in Édouard Louis's The End of Eddy

Early in The End of Eddy (FSG, May 2017), the autobiographical debut novel of twenty-four-year-old Édouard Louis, the protagonist, Eddy Belleguele, recounts his mother's frequent vituperations against what she calls "the politicians." To her, such figures seem like distant, mysterious overlords who only ever make their presence felt, at least in their impoverished, semi-rural village in northern France, in the form of reductions to welfare payments. She resents them, and yet, when conversation turns toward crime, or "Arabs," or "any kind of sexual behavior she didn't approve of," she doesn't "hesitate to invoke those same powers," telling Eddy, "What we need is some law and order in this country." Later, once Eddy has fled home and availed himself of an education, he'll find in his mother's conflicted raillery echoes of those women who, in 1789, went in droves to Versailles to vent their grievances, but upon seeing Louis XVI, chanted Vive le Roi! Much like those women, and Eddy himself, his mother is "torn between absolute submission to power and an enduring sense of revolt."

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literature : first proof

White Girl

by t’ai freedom ford

She sitting across from me on the train and people are shooting crazy looks at her cause she shoulda got off four stops ago with the rest of the white people. They prolly wondering if she missed her stop. I know she ain't, but no one's asking. She act like she reading a magazine, but I know she staring at me. Studying a brother.

We come up out the station and the heat pimp slaps her cheeks red. She look confused, like she don't believe how hot it is in Brooklyn. When she left the city, it was cool, around eighty degrees or so. But here, the big bank clock at the junction is flashing ninety-six degrees. She must not know how the mayor got a big-ass AC in the sky that pumps out cool air all over Manhattan to keep the tourists and the big Willie white people comfortable.

All these brown bodies just absorb the heat and store it up for the winter. It's the only way tropical people can survive in New York when it starts to get cold.

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literature : review

Hello, My Name Is: Abu Dhabi

by Melissa Gronlund

Deepak Unnikrishnan's Temporary People and the fantastical realities of life in the Persian Gulf

One morning two bulldozers climbed on top of an abandoned white building that sits at the end of a major T-junction. They shimmied their way up and took a rest to enjoy the view. After a day or so they lifted their blades up to the sky, and then set to work peck-pecking the building apart. Within two weeks they had reduced the entire structure to rubble. Then they sat, gloating, on the pile. After another few weeks they moved on, and, where the building once stood, the sun now streams into drivers' eyes.

There is something about this city—Abu Dhabi—that makes you want to anthropomorphize what it contains. It could be the sterility of a place ruled by artificial rhythms: waves of construction and demolition, the foraging routes of roaches, the flux of foreign-born workers and residents. Parks are peopled in stages: the early afternoon is the white Westerners' shift. (They bed their children first.) The Levantine Arabs, who put their children down later, come afterward; they are followed by the Gulf Arabs, whose children never seem to sleep at all.

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literature : first proof

Three Poems

by Emily Hoffman

There is a particular
alleyway, not in this country.
I was late, it was dark,
and the fastest way
to reunite with my companions
was to walk down a very long
passage lined on each side
by the backs of buildings
then across a stretch of open road
through to the back entrance
of a gated theater complex
where we were meant to see a play.
Even before I began walking I knew
it was a bad idea.
I was drawn down the alley
by a feeling of inevitability and doom
such as one feels
walking to the gallows
in a hanging dream.

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literature : review

Sound Over Sense

by Marjorie Welish

Syntactical adventure and rolling ruminations in Clark Coolidge: Selected Poems 1962–1985

In his introduction to Clark Coolidge: Selected Poems 1962–1985 (Station Hill Press, April 2017), Bill Berkson recalls something John Ashbery once told him about "Europe," a poem published in his 1957 collection, The Tennis Court Oath. Ashbery said that the work of Clark Coolidge was "the best extension he could imagine to what he was doing." High praise to be sure, yet there's more. That Ashbery has since omitted "Europe" from his own Selected Poems, published in 1985, has been interpreted a number of ways. Here is another: Ashbery left it out because Coolidge ran away with it.

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literature : review

Sex, Tattoos, & Geocatastrophe

by Lauren LeBlanc

Freeing Joan of Arc from her Catholic trappings in Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan

Studying the lives of the saints is not a gentle undertaking. What seems at the onset to be a series of seemingly pious portraits turns into a coldly fascinating look at obsession and sacrifice. To a young Southern Catholic like me, the histories of Saint Lucy or Saint Teresa of Avila felt entirely detached from my reality. At thirteen, I was a believer, but their experiences felt dated or conditional. Then, along came Joan. As part of the evaluation process for confirmation, our parish priest said he would ask our families if we were sexually active. His perverse curiosity belittled all that encompassed my life as a Catholic. Was I nothing more than a body? It was the same feeling I had when I learned about Joan of Arc. When men looked at her, they saw a girl they could destroy by burning her body.

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From The Australian

by Emma Smith-Stevens

On the streets of Melbourne, the Australian parades around dressed as Superman, paying his way through university by posing for photos, conscious of the bulge of his cock. Novelty, sex object, comic relief—it is all good. Radios across his nation have been playing a song that goes, "I've got the brains, you've got the looks, let's make lots of money." In his mind, the Australian is both of the people in the song. He is smart—smart enough to know when effort is absolutely required and when he can fake it—and he is handsome, with chiseled abdominal muscles underneath the chiseled abdominal muscles of his costume. He smiles widely, his teeth luminous, his canines threatening. All his life, he has been indiscriminate with his enthusiasm, invincible within the hedonistic splendor of the present moment, like some kind of inverted Buddha.

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literature : interview

Polina Barskova

by Michael Juliani

"I'm interested in subterranean culture that says 'I will trick you' to official culture, 'I will play you.'"

Polina Barskova was born in 1976 in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg), a city that hosted one of the most destructive arenas of the Second World War. The Nazi Siege of Leningrad claimed more than one million lives, trapping its citizens for over three years in a landscape of darkness, starvation, and disease. Barskova left Russia at the age of twenty to pursue a PhD in Russian Studies at UC Berkeley, having already earned a graduate degree and become an accomplished poet in her homeland. I first found her work in The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, co-edited by fellow émigré Ilya Kaminsky, who translated a short volume of her poems for Tupelo Press, This Lamentable City (2010). Barskova is also the author of several books in Russian, the earliest of which was published during her adolescence. Some of this work is represented in The Zoo in Winter: Selected Poems (Melville House, 2011). As a professor of Russian literature at Hampshire College, Barskova began an archival project that resulted in Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad, an anthology of work written during the siege that remained unknown for decades. Barskova's book gives form to the fluidities of poetic lineage, cultural context, and literary translation, a meld of aberrations optimized by what Barskova calls "the siege surreal." In service of these five poets, who found themselves caught in an often misrepresented moment in Russian history, Barskova and the several translators of this book have rendered these pieces from the catacombs of the twentieth century.

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literature : review

The Fog of Family

by Charlotte Whittle

Legacy and estrangement in Diego Zúñiga's Camanchaca

Camanchaca is a coastal fog that blankets the parched Atacama Desert of northern Chile. In Diego Zúñiga's novel of the same name (Coffee House Press, March 2017), the camanchaca is present both in landscape and story; in this fragmentary account of a desert journey, fog hangs above the highway and clouds the nameless protagonist's mind, obscuring both road-trip snapshots and memories of the past with its opacity.  

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literature : first proof

One Poem

by Wendy Lotterman

Lifted up by blonds and the comic victory of the particular, like the city and my mom in a fake, spontaneous duet. The financial district falls into her lap so that no good thing can be saved from a three-legged relay with the bad. Layers of grudge and wonder collapse into a single unsalted cracker, while miles of superstitious sun signs combust in a triangle of fire with liquor and wet-wipes.

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literature : review

Ozark Millennials

by Michelle Hogmire

Disaffected drifting in Erika Carter's Lucky You

To respond to a catcall or not to respond to a catcall? If that's the question, Erika Carter's debut novel Lucky You (Counterpoint, March 2017) begins with an answer. Ellie—one of three female main characters—loses her electricity in an ice storm, and when a group of men accosts her on the street and offer to walk her home, she attempts to reject their advances with a double entendre: "'I don't have any power,' she said, in the spirit of protest, but it came out like an apology." Ellie extends an invitation and ends up drinking and sleeping with these strangers in the dark. This is a fine decision if it's a choice, but Carter's novel is saturated with this theme of powerlessness. The book takes place from January 2008 to February 2010—a perfect simulacrum of late-aughts disaffected drifting. Carter shows characters failing to vote in the context of Wall Street corruption, worthless English degrees, and millennial unemployment. Obama will be elected, then bail out the banks. So much for hope and change.

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literature : first proof

Keep Away from Things That Can Catch Fire

by Stephanie Chou

You stand outside your apartment waiting for it to burn or maybe not burn down to the ground, and think of your dead daughter's theory of the nought universes. It was a theory dreamed up during a neon summer away at church camp when she was twelve. You and your husband Mitchell are not religious people. But Beth had friends who went every year and convinced her it was more about water sports and friendship bracelets than the bible. Beth had one epiphany at camp: the theory of the nought universes. A nought universe buds from a time when you wish you hadn't done something. For example, she really wished she wasn't wearing overall jean shorts when she got her period in the middle of craft time. The accompanied nought universe was one in which fertility was far away like high school and learner's permits. One in which Beth finished making bracelets out of embroidery thread instead of holding her overalls under hot tap water (a mistake you'll tell her gently later, blood stains are best removed with cold water) in the campground's washroom hut.

You try to apply Beth's theory to your current situation. The fire alarm continues to blare, but you don't see smoke, don't feel heat. Tenants, the likes of which you have never seen before, spill out of the building onto the lawn and sidewalk. It is 10:32 at night, the sky is cloudy and the air is cold. A low fog has been hanging over the city. You are wearing two bathrobes underneath your down jacket. Someone close by lights a cigarette. Hours earlier, when you put on lipstick and leave the house to go meet your daughter's widower Jordie, the hallways smell like burnt rice. I hope there isn't a fire, you say aloud because you know no one will respond. Now you wish you hadn't said anything. What kind of nought universe did you summon with your hope?

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literature : review

Gone Below

by J. T. Price

Life and death in a mining town in Kevin Canty's The Underworld

New Yorkers don't talk much about coal mining, and why would they? Dreams of city glamor, of museum galas and tailored finery, inherently repel any notion of what goes on beneath the surface of the earth or the question of how we power our twenty-four-hour light. Total darkness is a rare event. In his sixth novel, The Underworld (W.W. Norton, March 2017), Kevin Canty delivers us down into the darkness of a mine (unnamed, though based on a mine ironically called Sunshine) out in Silverton, Idaho during the 1970s. Mostly though, Canty renders lives above ground—both in Silverton and not far away in Missoula, Montana—and how they are changed forever by a disaster that results in nearly a hundred deaths. The aftermath of this tragedy finds nearly everyone missing someone, at the very least a steady presence at the local bar, if not a son, brother, father, or husband.

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literature : interview

Fiona Maazel

by Tracy O'Neill

"Comedy is a great vehicle for spreading the bad news about who we are. It's also a mercy killing of the resistance that springs up whenever we're forced to look at ourselves."

A Little More Human (Graywolf, April 2017) is Fiona Maazel's third novel, and there is nothing little about it. Maazel's big, brazen voice and extravagant plotting were already evident in her earlier novels, Last Last Chance and Woke Up Lonely. In her latest, Maazel dives into the moral complexities at the interstice between man, medicine, and machine, which is to say, on some level, between life and death. Improbably, and wonderfully, she does so with a mindreading cosplayer, an ailing marriage, a financially-motivated seduction scheme, a blackout involving some sore genitalia, and a shiny institute for sometimes creepy medicine, the Sarah Snyder Center for Enhancement Technology, known mostly as the SCET.

The joy of reading A Little More Human lies in the play between kooky humor and melancholic characters. Maazel's energetic prose is juxtaposed with the terrifying questions she asks us to confront: Is it possible to really know ourselves or another? What are the dangers of seeking knowledge, and when does that knowledge stop resembling wisdom? Does being human mean hurting those we love most? The inability to answer these questions hurls Maazel's characters into tragic and comedic outcomes. In the end, the question of how to live a life is probably best addressed by the character who tells his daughter, "Don't be so hard. Not every problem can be fixed. Just stay."

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literature : review

Now You See Them, Now You Don't

by Micaela Morrissette

Reliable uncertainty in Deb Olin Unferth's Wait Till You See Me Dance

Deb Olin Unferth, in her fiction collection Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press, March 2017), has her own, cruel twist on character development. Her characters undergo conventional arcs, changing for good or ill under various pressures. But her readers lag behind. Even as a character becomes something new, the truth about her old incarnation has just begun to surface. Our loyalties are distressed, our sympathies torn, our perspectives trifled with. Peripheral characters become protagonists while narrators are exiled to the outskirts of their own tales. A single character may be played by multiple character-actors, across stories or within the same piece. A clip-art image of innocence, such as a child entranced by a garden of flowers, seems a vision of sociopathy. These stories are deceptions in action: time-lapse photos of the self.

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literature : review

Hoaxing History

by Hayden Bennett

Obscuring the past to get at truth in Paul La Farge's The Night Ocean

In the Autobiography of Howard Hughes, the eccentric tycoon relates the time he visited Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, and Hemingway wanted to play fish. "One of us would have to be a marlin," he writes. "One of us would have to be a fish. And we would have to fight."

Not many people know the story because it's not true. Howard Hughes never went to see Hemingway, nor did he write the Autobiography. It was authored by a journalist named Clifford Irving, and he went to jail for it. Not for writing it, exactly, but for forging a fake passport and sending his wife in a disguise to Zurich to deposit McGraw-Hill's $750,000 advance under the Hughes family name.

Irving aside, most hoaxes are cheap tricks. But in the hands of an artist, and the context of a novel, the structure and logic of a hoax—truth and fantasy blurred together—can achieve something powerful. In Paul La Farge's new novel The Night Ocean (Penguin Press, March 2017), fiction is used to illuminate questions about history that can't definitively be answered. Exploring this absence of knowledge, La Farge makes the book trace an outline of what's missing. The ultimate effect is a complicated and beautiful demonstration of people trying to live and love in a world of unknowns.

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literature : first proof

One Poem

by Hannah Rego

Across the window, I could reach out & scale down rungs of light. Earlier, by the sidewalk, a man held a ladder up to nothing & kept it stable for another man to test his feet on. Construction workers rebuild an arsoned house across the street most of the week. They dog whistle at me like I'm a part of my body. Like I'm a body & I forgot that. Like I forgot the last 3 years. Imagine 3 years without contact. Imagine I wake up at noon on your kitchen floor & make coffee for everyone. I hand each friend a mug, non-dairy creamer, bag of sugar & they pass around a spoon. I'll mix up yours for you I say. I'm being helpful. I'm helping you. I stir in too much sugar. It's a difference you can notice in the room.

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literature : interview

Constance DeJong

by Jennifer Krasinski

"We were relegated to Chick Lit, romance novels, our subjects were love and motherhood and other sexually-defined things. Modern Love mocks that, to some degree. It pushes back."

Words disappear and reappear in the world all the time, and if one is a writer, one exists in part believing books have a cosmic timing all their own. Writer and artist Constance DeJong initially published her first major work, the novel Modern Love, in 1975–76. Serialized as five chapbooks, she designed, printed, and distributed it herself, then released a "proper book" through her own imprint, Standard Editions, the following year. She also performed the book—not as a reading or play, but as a kind of mark of narrative in time. Later, her texts spun into sound installations, audio objects, talking photographs, and other books. While DeJong continued to carve her very own space in literature and art, Modern Love fell out of print.

When I was first given a copy I must confess that the title turned me off. Kind of cheesy, I thought. After all, what's a more overwrought, exhausted subject for a novel—for anything, really—than love? And yet, I read it. And then, I loved it. The supple, groovy slipstream of her prose; the collapsing of time, voice, and genre; her recasting of the limited roles fictional characters are made to play. Now, in 2017, it seems nothing less than a masterpiece.

This month, Modern Love is being republished by Primary Information and Ugly Duckling Presse. For the occasion, DeJong and I spoke about the book's origin, and how language and text are central forces from which all of her many projects spin. Hybrid creators like her can be difficult to define, to name, and as we chatted, I told her I would try to come up with something, a way to describe her practice without the crutch of commas or hyphens or slashes. I still haven't found the right words—which, truth be told, says precisely everything about her.

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literature : review

Innocent Intellect

by Rachel Riederer

Heady fun in Elif Batuman's The Idiot

There's a gate at the edge of Harvard Yard that separates a block of freshman dorms from Massachusetts Ave. The street-facing side is emblazoned with higher-ed propaganda: "Enter to grow in wisdom." Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman's semi-autobiographical novel The Idiot (Penguin, March 2017) walks through this gate her freshman year and proceeds to stumble, study, and email her way toward this wisdom. Few novels, if any, do such a thorough job of representing what runs the risk of offering the driest depiction of school: a student's relationship to the material she's learning. Selin's conversations with friends are peppered with their discoveries about literature, philosophy, and math. And these are not just background details for the "real" drama. The process of learning is a plotline of its own. Batuman recreates lectures and course readings alongside narrations of class exercises and discussions.

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literature : from the editor
literature : interview

Patty Yumi Cottrell

by Amina Cain

"I knew from the moment I sat down to begin the book that I wanted something gray and drab and portable and contradictory."

In Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, the debut novel by Patty Yumi Cottrell out this month from McSweeney's, the reader is introduced to Helen Moran, who decides to investigate the suicide of her adoptive brother. This sounds very serious, of course. By this description you might think you know where the novel is headed, but it's going nowhere you might have imagined. The novel is serious, especially in how far it drops into loss and absence, into how hard it sometimes is to simply be alive, but it manages, in striking ways, to carry other registers of feeling and actuality. And it happens to also be funny. As Lindsay Hunter put it, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace had me opening my mouth to laugh only to hear sobs come tumbling out.

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literature : interview

Belle Boggs & Mike Scalise

"The perceived aversion to a male-centered illness narrative had to do with antiquated ideas about who should and shouldn't be vulnerable to a failing body, and what that vulnerability means."

I've known Belle Boggs for years, first as a teacher then as a wonderful fiction writer, and in 2012 our respective forays into memoir coincided—both of us pulled to personal stories by events that overtook our ability to clearly process much else, in our writing lives or elsewhere. For Belle, it was the journey of childbirth, or, more accurately, natural childbearing alternatives and the evolving influence of birth culture, which she channeled into the sprawling, hopeful, and moving book The Art of Waiting (Graywolf Press, 2016).

My book, The Brand New Catastrophe (Sarabande, January 2017), details a health disaster in my early twenties with acromegaly. The illness first amplified, then destroyed, my body's ability to produce hormones. Belle and I both embarked on stories about our bodies betraying their nature, and I thought often of her while writing my own, wondering what mysteries she'd uncovered. We'd both been turned into bloodhounds searching for our bodies' true purposes, and it was surprising, with our respective cases closed, to compare notes on what we solved, and what we didn't.

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literature : first proof

From Such Small Hands

by Andrés Barba

It was once a happy city; we were once happy girls. They used to say: do this, do that, and we did it, we turned our hands, we drew, we laughed; they called us the faithful city, the enchanting city. We had proud eyes, strong hands. People thought we were just girls then. We used to touch the fig tree in the garden and say, "This is the castle." And then we walked to the black sculpture and said, "This is the devil." And then we'd go back to the orphanage door and say, "This is the mountain." Those were the three things: castle, devil, mountain.                

That was the triangle you could play in.

And there was the hall mirror.

And our summer dresses.

And the night they changed our sheets and it felt so good to climb into fresh-smelling beds.

And the days we got sanjacobos for lunch: breaded fried ham and cheese.

It was as if we were all one mouth eating the ham, as if our cheese was all the same cheese: wholesome and creamy and tasting the same to all of us. The cheese was happiness. But then we had class after lunch, and it was long. And the time between lunch and class, and then between class and break time, passed slowly, suspended in the air.

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