Daily Postings
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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literature : review

Tókȟaȟ'an: To Lose, to Suffer Loss, to Be Gone

by Gillie Collins

Wordplay as dissent in Layli Long Soldier's Whereas

Over the course of twenty poems, Layli Long Soldier's Whereas (Graywolf Press, March 2017) provokes discomfort—that woozy, nauseous feeling that comes from confronting one's naiveté for the first time. "Now / make room in your mouth / for grassesgrassesgrasses," the book begins, and the earth seems to shudder.

Long Soldier, who is Oglala Lakota, writes poems that respond to political events, from protests at Standing Rock to the 2009 Congressional Resolution of the Native Americans. Formally, the poems are eclectic: some are straightforward prose poems; others invoke unexpected typefaces, margins, footnotes, and borderlines. They testify that the ground we stand is still disputed and English is a weaponized language.

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literature : review

Shadow Selves

by Frances Richard

Palimpsests and invocation in Marjorie Welish's So What So That

Marjorie Welish's new collection So What So That (Coffee House Press, 2016) includes a poem titled "So That: So What." Another is called "Aesthetic Education," while in still others the author ponders "Turbulence, how to use" and reminds herself, or the reader: "Avail yourself of cause and effect. // And trouble." In short, Welish is fascinated—as has been her wont in a long career as a poet, painter, and critic—by the forces that have shaped her as an artist. Her writing is marked by the legacies of multiple modernisms and by sly misprisions and recursions, an obsession with logical forms that flip abruptly into their shadow selves.

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literature : first proof

Stan, Standing

by Thomas Chadwick

Stan, standing on the rug by the mirror by the door, nursing a weighty head cold that's come up sudden overnight, drinking coffee from an unwashed mug, staring at his reflection in a mirror that once belonged to his mother's brother, but which has been a mainstay in the hall by the door since Stan moved into the flat two years previous when his parents dropped round a job lot of his Uncle's things—including the mirror that Stan's at now—all on account of Uncle Al having downsized, heavily, again, after another still more devastating divorce that no one wanted to discuss yet, especially given how cut up Uncle Al had been over his first divorce, a stretch of time that involved weeping and mealtime silences and Stan getting home from school to find his mother and her brother sat out on the cold patio so that Uncle Al could smoke, something Stan's mother never let him do in her home even if Uncle Al clearly did so in his, or at least had done when he owned the mirror Stan's looking in on now, with that yellowing toward the edge and those stray burn marks on the frame as if Uncle Al did—as Stan suspects he did—stare himself down in the mirror as he smoked, before stubbing out on the frame and storming from the house, a thought which Stan finds concerning as he looks in on the mirror, sipping, sniffing, standing, wondering about today being the day of his brother's wedding.

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literature : review

Play On

by David Hobbs

Music that never was in Nathaniel Mackey's Late Arcade

No, this new thing I'm trying goes back to a story Yusef Lateef tells about the days when he was first in Mingus's band, a story I was deeply struck by when I first heard it, a story I think about from time to time.

The thing with Nathaniel Mackey's "new thing" is that it isn't, and doesn't, I don't think, want to be. Late Arcade (New Directions, February 2017), is the fifth volume in an ongoing, open-ended epistolary fiction collectively called From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. Like the previous installments, it is a series of letters written by a visionary horn player, N., who lives in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, addressed to an Angel of Dust. While Mackey's fiction has always had an eye on the past, the first installment appeared in 1986, five years after the story it depicts took place. We're now thirty years on and the story has only progressed by four. As a result, the quotidian elements of N.'s letters have only become more radiant, as if Mackey's interests in music, mysticism and the recent past have been distilled to their most potent forms.

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literature : review

Theoretically Personal

by Sarah Hoenicke

Resisting confession in Yiyun Li's Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

"For years I have had the belief that all my questions will be answered by the books I am reading," Yiyun Li writes in her latest effort, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (Penguin Random House, February 2017). But, as Li concedes, books "only lead to other books." Dear Friend, too, could lead its reader to any of the writers written about in its pages—William Trevor, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen, Thomas Hardy, Ivan Turgenev—but the books and authors are so intricately connected to Li's thought process that it would feel wrong to take them solely as recommendations. Dear Friend, dubbed a memoir, is a collection of autobiographical essays on Li's reading life and the meditations therein.

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literature : interview

Eleni Sikelianos

by Srikanth Reddy

"Poetry is contested space, and the battles about what is allowed to go in and stay out are important."

The title of Eleni Sikelianos’s latest collection of poetry, Make Yourself Happy, is a timely imperative for the new Dark Ages in which we find ourselves. Haunted by the 20th century’s dismal record of global species extinction and an uncertain world-historical future ahead, this book uncovers new forms of resistance to apathy and despair through a return to the etymological root of "poet" as "maker." Whether Sikelianos is writing about making a paper globe, making a family, making a statement, or making yourself, she surveys the field of human endeavors to find new prospects for care amid precarious political contexts.

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literature : review

The Dreary Coast

by Ed Winstead

Difference and hyperbole in Mohsin Hamid's Exit West

I have always found the ancient practice of placing a coin in the mouth of the dead very striking. The term for such a coin is Charon's obol (the obol being a classical Greek denomination with a uniquely unimpressive name), and its purpose was to pay the toll for passage to the afterlife. It's sort of charming how literal it all was, and a nice reminder of how much a metaphor can weigh, how it can warp the scaffolds of our imagination and the things we rest upon them.

The metaphor at the center of Mohsin Hamid's Exit West (Riverhead, March 2017) serves a similar purpose. It takes the form of a door, through which our protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, flee their home. However, this is not a standard door. Nadia and Saeed walk through it in a building in an unnamed city that's cracking in the vice of war, and they walk out of it onto the island of Mykonos, in the Cyclades, off the southeast coast of Greece—"It seemed miraculous, although it was not a miracle, they were merely on a beach." That door, and the other doors that follow, are the only extraordinary things in the book (discounting the war they flee, the gigantic community of migrants they find themselves a part of, the reshaping of the world in turn—which seem somewhat less extraordinary these days). This is not a criticism, though.

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literature : review

Circles of Influence

by Rosa Inocencio Smith

Unreliable truths in Carl Frode Tiller's Encircling

"Having someone to live for is what makes us human," muses Arvid, one of the narrators of Carl Frode Tiller's novel Encircling, out this month from Graywolf Press. It's a characteristically "banal but true" statement, deceptively simple and yet deeply resonant in a novel where a man's identity hinges on other people's memories. David, Arvid's estranged stepson, has just lost his memory when the novel begins, and his psychologist has placed a newspaper ad calling on David's friends and relatives to explain to him who he is. Three people who knew him twenty years ago as a teenager answer the call—Jon and Silje, both friends and former lovers of his, along with Arvid. They write letters that in Silje's words "contain enough imprints, leavings and traces … for [David] to recognize something of that time and follow the trail back."

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literature : first proof

The Red-Shanked Douc Langur

by Tammy Nguyen

This visual narrative, arranged into a scroll format for online viewing, is the first chapter of Tammy Nguyen's fiction Primate City—a duet of artist books that draws upon a 1969 US military intelligence proposal to modernize Danang City. The work also makes use of Vietnamese mythology and geography to implicate this document in shaping the current geopolitical climate in the South China Sea. In 2014, Nguyen visited Danang City and learned about the animals who would become the protagonists of this story.

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literature : review

Hunger for Wholeness

by Jenessa Abrams

Deconstructing self-made myths in Melissa Febos's Abandon Me

The word colonize is derived from the Latin colere, meaning, "to inhabit." Melissa Febos's memoir, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury, February 2017), contends as much with inhabiting emotion and historical colonization as it does with the desires and consequences of abandonment itself. Whether she's examining an impassioned love affair, her Native American ancestry that's been subjugated by a dominant narrative, or societally imposed notions of fatherhood, her fixation with abandonment evolves into an exposé of what we can discover when we are most alone with ourselves.

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literature : review

Fast & Loose

by Kyle Paoletta

Earthquakes, rain of blood, and other fun things in Jean Echenoz's We Three

We Three (Dalkey Archives, 2017), Jean Echenoz's cavalier narrative experiment available this month for the first time in English, is a product of a certain prehistory in its author's career, penned well before he won the Prix Goncourt or had any of his novels, like 1914, become required reading in French schools. We Three was originally published in 1992, as his star was on the rise but before it had found its place in the French literary firmament. Perhaps that explains why, while reading it, one can't shake the feeling of a gifted writer intent on seeing what he can get away with and then fudging in a plot around the fun parts. 

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literature : review

After the Massacre

by Carlos Fonseca

Staging historical justice in Hernán Ronsino's Glaxo

Sometimes history looks to fiction in order to bury its specters. Latin American literature seems to agree: from Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo to Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd, it would appear that Latin American fiction is the last ground where the battle for historical justice can be staged. Hernán Ronsino's arresting Glaxo (Melville House, 2017), brilliantly translated by Samuel Rutter, revives this powerful tradition by immersing us in a world where the possibility of justice and forgiveness is always tainted by remorse and vengeance. In one of the four monologues that compose this short but delightfully structured novella, Vardemann—the town's barber—catches the sight of a kid playing outside as he gazes through his window:

Then I see Bicho Souza’s son, alone, moving through the rain with a green shotgun, made of plastic, playing at war and facing up at long last to those endless ghosts in the cane field.

The scene condenses, in the poignancy of its imagery, the novel's capacity to stage violence as something inherited, repeated, and displaced. Like Bicho Souza's son, we are all kids ignorant of the dangerous games we play. Like Vardemann's painful witnessing of a kid playing war, we readers are asked to face up to the endless ghosts of Argentina's history. In doing so, Glaxo sketches a spectral crime story where history, far from something abstract, is embodied within a terribly tangible landscape plagued by memory and guilt.

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