In Our Magazines
- AN INTERVIEW WITH MANJUSHREE THAPA
- An Interview with Garrett Caples
- How to Burn Potatoes at High Altitude
- An Interview with Madison Young
- An Interview with Elisabeth Sheffield
- Writing with Miha Mazzini
- An Interview with Jane Mead
October 24, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
My beautiful friend in Philadelphia sent me an email with a beautiful line in it. Re: "Ben Lerner isn't terrible":
"Most everything today is anxious, and so little beauty finds its way into anxiety."
-The NYT Magazine piece about trans men at Wellesley and other women's colleges is a something I enjoyed reading because it was very uncertain and in-depth and has a cracking good ending, of which creative nonfiction teachers could take note. It's a spotlight on the difficulties of determining what should be included in an inherently exclusive system (that is also appreciated because it is in some ways inclusive), and the focus on Wellesley and women's colleges magnifies the potential conflict of interests between feminism and trans activism in a way that doesn't immediately make you think, "Fuck, are these feminists fucking serious?" the way that New Yorker piece about "the dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism" did. (Is "transgenderism" a word? Sounds offensive, or at least stupid.) It's strange to read pieces like these in mainstream publications if you're used to reading about them on relatively obscure feminist websites/forums/etc., where the tone is (necessarily?) one of furious, indignant confidence.
-You know how models from Eastern Europe are seduced and shuttled to America with promises of fame and glamorously earned fortune? Now they're being seduced and shuttled to China, too. I haven't watched the documentary, but maybe it's something to (hate?-)watch. (The article itself is whatever; I'm just into the possibly nuanced take it's possibly exposing to its audience.)
"I didn’t get the sense they were being exploited, except in the fact that the implied promise is so great and it clearly isn’t being delivered. When you’re told you’re going to go abroard [sic] and be a model, what springs to mind is not being jammed in a big bus and being driven around to have mysterious people make remarks about your body in a language you don’t understand. That doesn’t seem to be what it says on the tin."
-I think the conclusions the writer comes to are a bit point-missing, but this essay about Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace and the will to keep going is an affirmation of my love for both of them.
-An essay about the "cult of personality" and the misconceptions it creates in development work, emphasis on Cambodia and sex slavery. The writer, Laura Agustín, has a great blog ("The Naked Anthropologist") about "migration, sex work, trafficking, and the rescue industry." Spoiler alert: she does not like Nick Kristof.
October 23, 2014
October 22, 2014
The new issue of Spolia is the long-planned and -awaited Henry James tribute. Have you guys heard of Henry James? To be introduced through this would be to introduced in reverse, and I think it would work. It costs $5; it comes in a PDF and other kind of e-form that I don't understand how to use. Regardless: it's fucking impressive. Buy it here.
-Eimear McBride (yeah) with short fiction after "The Private Life"; it's so good, says the girl who loves Ben Lerner:
Hot in his hand so. Hello. Nice to meet have a seat. Am I late? Not, no. Plump in his proffered -sinus chubby with cigs- low flat seat ahead.
Do you mind if I? No, not a bit. Click and turn. Dictaphone. Can I say at the outset that I think what you’ve done is not like anything else. Thanks. But grilled flesh, she thinks she can smell it and it soon might be her own.
To forestall, vivid up she into seen and smiles at his eggish pingueculae flirting away to the roots of her eyes. She lights to it. Must. Gives as if in his cavern of questions she’ll sprawl in the nip dishing toes through private pools. And does intend she? Does she? Well. Sales will wait and see.
-Poems by Jenny McPhee
-Some male writers
-Jessa Crispin on Washington Square, "the only book that James chose not to include in his collected work":
There is a certain type of spinster life that is represented in novels and movies, the glamorous life of the unattached. There is Paris, there is society, there is the freedom to decide what to do with one’s own wallet. There is a steadfast wisdom, born from watching others fling themselves to and fro in the name of love, seeing the madness from the outside. But there is also the sad, bitter, turned-inwards old women, the women who never overcame their disappointments or resentments and now their faces are pinched into a permanent scowl.
But James abandons Catherine on the brink of her becoming. She’s gone from this un- to a creature with the potential for something. We see the things she has said no to, we have not yet seen the things she will say yes to. We do not know the type of life she will choose to have.
But we also do not know if a life alone would be better than a life with the scoundrel.
October 21, 2014
What We're Reading
by Will Mawhood
Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus by Oliver Bullough
I picked up Let Our Fame Be Great in a rather wonderful bookshop in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the hope of getting a sharp perspective on the wonderful, weird place I had found myself in. I was initially disappointed to find that the "Caucasus" in the subtitle referred not to the independent states of the South Caucasus, but the land on the other side of the mountains: Russia’s troubled, and predominantly Muslim, North Caucasus region (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia…). This was not somewhere I had even considered going, or knew anything about, apart from being vaguely aware that horrific things happened there on a near-daily basis.
As I found out, this is possibly one of the world’s most staggeringly complex places: a predominantly mountainous and inaccessible region, so remote as to be fortress-like, where almost every valley seems to have its own language and culture. Bullough is an excellent guide, able to unpick the differences between the many, many groups residing in these mountains, and always ready to detail, with an enthralled eye, their customs and peculiarities. (We learn, for example, that the Circassians are very big on firing into the air at weddings, despite the occasional fatality resulting from bullets falling back to earth.)
The North Caucasus’s recent history has, though, mainly been defined by its relationship with its sprawling neighbor to the north. Russia has traditionally viewed its inhabitants in a way that will be very familiar from Western colonialism: seeing them at best as charmingly free-spirited and uninhibited, at worst as savages deserving only of brutality.
Bullough’s greatest achievement is to tell stories that have hitherto been muffled, both as a result of the region’s inaccessibility, and due to the deliberate silencing policy of the Soviet regime—and, increasingly, of Putin’s bullish modern Russia. So we learn about the Circassians, the original inhabitants of the eastern coast of the Black Sea, almost completely wiped out by the Russian army in the mid-19th century, their descendants scattered far and wide; the Turkic peoples of the Caucasus mountains, deported en masse to Kazakhstan by Stalin in the 1940s on trumped-up charges of banditry; and the endless, horrible cycle of violence that is Chechnya. Bullough is clearly passionate about the subject, and is at times unashamedly partisan—at one point comparing Russia’s decision to send troops into Chechnya to contemporary Germany doing the same thing to western Poland—but he clearly knows Russian culture and literature inside-out and appreciates the best of what it has taken from and brought to the region. A fine book (so far), and a profoundly alive one considering how desperate much of the contents are.
October 20, 2014
October 17, 2014
Image: "Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist" by Lucas Cranach the Elder. No reason.
Weekend Recommended Reading
-Maybe it's because I'm in the melodramatic throes of radical relocation (Jessa says it's because of Pluto; the perks of working for Bookslut are hypothetical astrological sources for anything that might be happening in your life), but the Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakeable Love for New York run-up campaign seems to be speaking to me, even though the essays have seemed to come down on the side of "New York—terrible, but I just do!" Jon-Jon Goulian's essay about Transient Wade from Columbia is a good personal essay; don't write personal essays unless they're good, OK?
-I read some pieces from the Lena Dunham book because some paperbacks showed up at the bookstore, to be prominently displayed for immediate purchase. Sounds like a memoir written by someone whose parents kept the house stocked with New Yorkers while driving home the importance of individuality. I don't understand how she integrates so many incredibly specific (and often funny and insightful, don't get me wrong) anecdotes and still manages to remain voiceless, but here we are, earning back that advance. Why is everything just, like, so acceptable? For the record, I do not think "people are buying it, so..." is an appropriate conclusion to come to in realms outside, say, shades of lipstick. Blue lipstick never hurt anyone. Except when it contains carcinogens or was tested on animals.
-Here's a little thing about the weird death mask of Chopin's hand. Spoiler alert: there's also one of his face, but it was very disappointing.
-An analysis of the public apology at Aeon, through a legal lens but definitely applicable to, say, male literary figures espousing oblivious misogyny. By which I mean a legitimate question: what do we want them to do after they do something stupid? E.g., Grisham, who just seems pathetic.
-Oh, I'm supposed to give you something long and multifaceted to savor in your sun-drenched weekend breakfast nook. I think this weekend you should reread something you didn't really "get" because it has difficult language.
-Tom Whalen's "Why I Hate the Prose Poem," from Twitter.
October 16, 2014
I was not really in love; I simply enjoyed the company of women during my lonely travels in the South. Although Flannery was both conventional and religious, we eventually became so close that she, while the car was parked, allowed me to kiss her. At that moment, her disease revealed itself in a new way: there was no strength in her lips. I hit her teeth with my kiss, and since then I've thought of it as a kiss of death.
October 15, 2014
Image by Chang Chao-Tang
In the October issue of Bookslut, Lightsey Darst writes about Last Words from Montmartre by the (queer) Taiwanese author Qiu Miaojin. Reading this conjured up a mental image – a memory actually – of Shiang-chyi in What Time Is It There? / Ni na bian ji dian, wandering through the streets of Paris, ending up in the bed of a woman but failing to connect. It might be just a statement about the lasting impression that Tsai Ming-liang cinema can leave or it could be an alarming sign that I have paid no attention to Taiwanese literature. As a first step toward giving Taiwanese writers the due attention, let’s take a closer look at the work of Qiu Miaojin.
Over at Guernica, there’s an excerpt from Last Words from Montmartre. It is the twentieth letter, from June 17 and it recounts the day the narrator and her lover Xu bought their pet Bunny: “Xu sat down in an open seat next to me and played with the rabbit in his little paper box….Watching the two of them, I resolved that they were my companions for life and that I would fight for them on the treacherous journey of life, until death.” Those “[h]ints of the meta” that Lightsey Darst mentions are also visible in this excerpt: “Oh…if one were to call this book an unintelligible collection of hieroglyphics with no words and a plot that had long since disappeared, one would be right. I am confused about whether it’s a matter of our love trying to capture me, or to capture her, or of us trying to capture our love.”
The sense of love that the narrator from Last Words exhibits seems to be shared, to a certain extent, by Meng-Sheng in Notes of a Crocodile, who is involved in a gay relationship that would best be described as cruel. The intensity, the obsession, the temptation to self-destruct from Last Words – it’s all there, in Notes of a Crocodile as well.
“The second you see each other, you start to fight. Would you call that love or vengeance?”
“Didn’t Hsia Yü have a poem called ‘Sweet Revenge’? I only mention it because I thought you might have heard of it. It’s like the title of the poem. Because mutual love means vengeance, and because it’s vengeance, you’re going to fight, and because you’re fighting, it’s mutual love. It’s a combination of those three things. It’s like if the intensity of lust reaches a certain level of frustration, and the fixation of that lust isn’t cast off by release or eradication, the void of nothingness isn’t removed, and it never attains the lightness of air. Much the opposite, it only increases suicidal despair and attachment to the object of lust. At that point, the body thoroughly assimilates it through the death wish. In the very beginning, I was self-destructive. My lust was simply assimilated, and never found its way out. That’s the scariest thing. There was one day when it suddenly flared up, and I grabbed a pair of scissors and began stabbing myself. That was something that happened before Meng-Sheng and I broke up. Before that, I learned to lower the scissors and give part of my destructiveness to Meng-Sheng. There was no cure. I still longed to be with him. The love I had stored burned away, and all that remained was a fire that he could put out. It brought about all kinds of connections.”
Qiu Miaojin, Excerpt: Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile (translated by Bonnie Huie) | Asian American Writers’ Workshop
Eileen Myles on Last Words from Montmartre:
I’d put Last Words in a category that includes much of Kathy Acker and Henry Miller. Stein, too. Their goals were very different, but what they made was art with a demonstration in mind more than narrative pleasure. These writers confound some readers (and all readers sometimes) because theirs are not really modern texts at all, but ritual ones. And as Musil proposed, in his own struggle to understand the relationship between modern art and magic, ritual songs and poems arise differently:“The form of the ritual text is the same as the ritual act.” In Last Words, from page 1 till the end of Qiu’s book (and life), it’s all being. Even being being ended. Having felt “the juices” of an eternal love for a brief time, Qiu chose to only engage that eternal love (not the lover). She’s existing in a heightened once. Is this even a book, I wondered at one point. Not because it was unreadable but because its flowery will is so very hard to bear. It’s a deeply personal text. Yet it bears reading and rereading an abundance of times. That’s the effect of ritual art. Of cult. Always again. Like spring. Having failed in the attempt to have an eternal love, she now only addresses the eternal, thus revealing herself. It’s a little divine. These are not letters she mails to “Xu,” because, as she explains, that would only incur further wounding. She sends them to us.
Eileen Myles, Missive Impossible | Bookforum
In Stigmatic Bodies: The Corporeal Qiu Miaojin, Fran Martin focuses on Qiu’s early writing (the two short stories “Platonic Hair” and “Zero Degree”) and offers a wider context – how Qiu’s writing was reflective of the shifts in views on gender and sexuality in the late '80s / early '90s Taiwan.
October 14, 2014
Random Unrelated (Though Is Anything? Etc.) Recommendations
-Choire Sicha's Bookforum review of the Rich Kids of Instagram book, which I am NOT linking for purchase or even italicizing. Thanks to the Rich Kids for putting it on the Internet even though that is not the nature of paywalled content. What is paywall to Rich Kids.
-Not that Guardian piece in which Will Self walks along the Berlin Wall. He's pompous and wields his vocabulary ineffectively, which is NOT to say all vocabulary is bad, Jesus. Also, why was he even there? A very tenuous linking of public figure and timely historical event. Can we get Choire instead?
-Cool-named Rainbow Chan's cool mix for The Lifted Brow, which is a great magazine you should read and I don't just say that because they published me once. Australia! They also have good coffee.
October 13, 2014
At the bookstore yesterday, my friend was working on a paper. I asked her what it was about.
"Globalization," she said. She is Swedish.
"What about it?" I asked.
...So now she stood, with Ahmed beside her, and listened to how if she went to bed early having taken this medicine, she would be less nervous in the morning.
Kate thought that this would not be true: what was waiting for her, the moment she gave it a chance, was not going to be patted and pushed out of sight by sedatives. She was going to have to return to London, to be alone somewhere for two months, and to look, in solitude, at her life. Of course, she had been invited to various countries by various men and women whose good friend she had become—friendship in the style of this way of living, casual, non-demanding, tolerant, friendship that was in fact all negation. It did not criticize. It did not make demands. It took no notice of national or racial differences, which, inside these enchanted circles, seemed only for the purpose of agreeable titillation. And it was, sexually, democratic. Hearts did not get broken. Of course not, careers were more important than love, or sex: probably this was the sexuality of the future; romantic love, yearning, desperation of any kind would be banished into a neurotic past. Such friends, such past or future lovers, could part in Buenos Aires after intensive daily contact, not exchange another word for months or years, or even think of each other; and meet again in Reykjavik with discreet and carefully measured pleasure for another bout of adjusted intimacy. Rather like actors and actresses in a play, who suffer or enjoy such intense closeness for a short time, and then scatter, to meet again, wearing different costumes, ten years later.
-From The Summer Before the Dark, Our Lady of Excellent Passages, Doris Lessing
October 10, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
Someone came in to the bookstore where I work today and asked if we had "Capital by Thomas Piketty." Remember when everyone was frantic about that? The good old days. We didn't have it.
-How many Prousts of our time are there? Modiano sounds a bit more whimsical, though still very French.
The Nobel academy was unable to reach Mr. Modiano before the announcement. During a halting, nearly hourlong news conference at Gallimard’s headquarters, Mr. Modiano said he learned he had won when his daughter called him as he was walking in the street. “I was a bit surprised, so I continued walking,” he said. He said winning the prize felt “unreal” and that he vividly remembered when Camus won the Nobel for literature in 1957. (Sartre won in 1964.) He also expressed puzzlement over being chosen. “I would like to know how they explained their choice,” he said.
-Bijan Stephen has "A Brief History of the Personal" [Ad] at Hazlitt.
It’s the self, commodified in yet another way: a personal is a meticulously crafted self-portrait that, like any good painting, reveals the future as much as it does the present—we’re seeing ourselves as we are while we reveal who we want to become, what we want to be seen as.
-I hate the trend against "feminist scrutiny" (ahem, cough), and bell hooks agrees with me. Kat Stoeffel is being vaguely snippily doubtful here: "Unoriginality, it seems, is still a greater artistic crime than deference to the patriarchy." But I think making shitty art is much easier to avoid—and thus more annoying—than deferring to the patriarchy, though at this point I think we can hold public figures to standards in both. One could argue that women making original (/good) art is fighting the patriarchy in itself, and if there are no standards—how can anything good happen?
-Here's a paragraph from an essay I'm working on:
I’ve already mentioned Gay’s inconsistencies regarding being an "example." She does not want "to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal" because "[p]eople who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose" and "get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up." This is another thing I want to agree with, but I don’t know if it’s avoidable; in espousing a kind of Fuck you! I do what I want! feminism, Bad Feminist has placed Gay on the very "Feminist Pedestal" she rejects. Her philosophy is a seductively permissive one—which is why, I imagine, so many people love the book.
-I also have an essay about the alt lit rape scandal up at Dazed Digital; if the title "Ten essential thoughts on rape in Alt Lit" sounds insensitive to you, it's a riff on the fact that I used to do a top-ten column for them. I don't know why people capitalize "alt lit," but whatever. I link to a hilarious and mostly irrelevant Camille Paglia article.
Words seem to bestow a lot of the power here, which makes sense in a literary community. I mean, they don’t work so well IRL – Katz said she was not consenting to sex in several ways, and Dierks didn’t listen to her. But online: we praise "conversation" and are "inspired" by "responses". Sure, no one really takes the Internet seriously, since we can just delete or ignore whatever we want on it. Like what we do to "make him finish faster", it’s our "at least", a compromise: men continue to do what they want with us, and after it’s already "happened", we get to feel like we’re making a difference by publishing many furious editorials about the injustices we face, because what else can we do, realistically, with what we’ve got to work with? Sarah Jean Alexander’s outing on Facebook suggests that words (or "GOSSIP", even) – rather than real-life actions: in-the-moment screaming, in-the-moment repeated and firm refusals, going to the hospital for a rape kit, or taking immediate legal action – are the best weapons women feel we have against the power structures we’re up against. This is, again, unfathomable to some people, but those people usually don’t know what it’s like to be a teenage girl, or they are willfully forgetting what that’s like.
October 9, 2014
"Anything that knows it is being watched changes its behavior." This is St. Vincent's Annie Clark on the lyrics of "Digital Witness." She continues: "We are now so accustomed to documenting ourselves and so aware that we are being watched and I think psychologically that takes a strange toll, which is going to show itself more and more as we progress."
After having reviewed their book for the August issue of Bookslut, in the September issue, James Orbesen talks to one half of the Gold brothers, whose book Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness returns upon what is now known as the Truman Show Delusion. Last week I mentioned the Japanese reality TV show Susunu! Denpa Shonen, whose first contestant, Nasubi, wasn't even aware that his struggle for survival wasn't watched just by the show's producers but also by an entire nation. On This American Life, the interview with Nasubi had as a prologue a short interview with Dr. Joel Gold. And what better way to introduce an episode about our culture's obsession with watching / being watched than a discussion on the Truman Show Delusion?
What The Truman Show had to say about broadcasting your life to a network of viewers was strangely prescient: Six years before Facebook existed, the movie told us we were as drawn to the idea of being the center of attention as we were horrified by the same prospect. In 1998, we may have been more concerned with the film’s commentary on what it meant to be a voyeur looking in on a captive, a person who had been purchased for entertainment purposes before being born and was then held in his meticulously crafted cage for more than 30 years. We used to worry about the Truman Burbanks, but now we worry we are the Truman Burbanks.
Tess Lynch, Reimagining 'The Truman Show' for Our Current-Day Delusions | Grantland
But before Truman Burbank, there was Ragle Gumm. Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint (a reference to Hamlet which points to a shift in perception) presents a constructed reality built to accommodate Ragle Gumm's fantasy. It is meant to protect him but also to exploit him, and ultimately, to keep him trapped.
In his essay on reality and paranoid delusions, Mike Jay, the author of A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine, gives a historical background to the (obviously unconscious) practice of incorporating modern technologies and modern fears into one’s delusions.
In their instinctive grasp of technology’s implicit powers and threats, influencing machines can be convincingly futuristic and even astonishingly prescient. The very first recorded case, from 1810, was a Bedlam inmate named James Tilly Matthews who drew exquisite technical drawings of the machine that was controlling his mind. The ‘Air Loom’, as he called it, used the advanced science of his day — artificial gases and mesmeric rays — to direct invisible currents into his brain, where a magnet had been implanted to receive them. Matthews’s world of electrically charged beams and currents, sheer lunacy to his contemporaries, is now part of our cultural furniture.
Jay also offers this insight:
Rather than being estranged from the culture around them, psychotic subjects can be seen as consumed by it: unable to establish the boundaries of the self, they are at the mercy of their often heightened sensitivity to social threats.
Mike Jay, The Reality Show | Aeon
To come full circle on the links for the September issue of Bookslut, let's go back to Vanessa Manko's The Invention of Exile and its character’s “suspicious mind:”
[...] Austin never gives up his desperate attempts to reunite with Julia and his children. Fourteen years pass by and Austin becomes more and more preoccupied with becoming a US citizen, eventually driven to a sort of obsessive madness. His inventions and his letters become a self-made barrier between the rest of the world and him; they take over all of his thoughts and actions. Austin's mental preoccupation reaches a head shaking extreme when the reader first realizes that an FBI agent who at first seems like someone who actually is following Austin, is really an image conjured up by his own madness. In regards to his inventions and drawings, the "agent" tells Austin "it's like building a fortress only to realize you aren't protecting yourself from anything, you've simply locked yourself inside." Meanwhile, the bureaucracy and red tape that prevent him from returning to America continue to make it impossible for Austin to feel complete. A bartender refers to him as "the inventor who cannot invent himself out of Mexico."
Rebecca Silber, The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko | Bookslut
There's a fashion blog for the Frankfurt Book Fair. The Germans are looking consistently sharp, unsurprisingly. If I had known it would be a chance to incorporate my vanity into my publishing endeavors, I might have gone.
October 8, 2014
Image: "My Wife, Nude..." (1945) by Salvador Dali.
A Good Female Character Who Is Also the Wife of a Genius And Manages To Appreciate It Without Letting It Subsume Her Own Personhood
The first time we'd embraced, a few months earlier, I'd been afraid that I would break him in two. After the massive, brushy torso of my first husband, I was unused to his brittle, hairless body. I didn't initiate him into sexual matters, but I had to teach him about intimacy. At the start of our relations, sex was a release for him, a concession to biology. A detail to be addressed lest his mental acuity suffer.
Earlier, she puts an apple in his mouth like he's a pig on a spit.
On my nights off, I waited for him outside the Café Reichsrat across from the university. It wasn't my sort of café, being more for talking than drinking. The talk was always of rebuilding the world, a project I saw no need for. On that night the meeting was to focus on preparations for a study trip to Königsberg. I was perfectly happy not to be going, as a conference on the "epistemology of the exact sciences" was no sort of tryst....
I was cooling my heels under the arcades when he finally emerged from the café, long after most of the others had left. I was thirsty, hungry, and planning to make a scene, just on principle.
-From The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec, out to be bought from Other Press on October 14. I'm on page 45, so I reserve the right to withdraw these assessments, but so far I think: fun but not stupid! Particularly apt on genius man/"ordinary woman" (if not also very self-aware) relationship and on older woman/young, wisdom-seeking woman relationship! And I want to know what happens.
October 7, 2014
Some Books I Like
3. Between Parentheses by Roberto Bolaño
4. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
5. The Half-Inch Himalayas by Agha Shahid Ali
6. Roget's International Thesaurus, 7th edition
8. Savage Coast by Muriel Rukeyser
October 6, 2014
Image: "Loving Care" (1993) by Janine Antoni.
Good whatever-time-of-day-it-is! I feel a deep and constant self-loathing for not posting links for you on Friday, bereft as I know you are of links, but the long and short (but mostly long—I can't help myself) of it is that I have been trying to write a Concise yet Definitive Explanation for/Response to the alt lit "rape" scandal, since my effortless cool, passionate youth, and history engaging with alt lit and Internet feminism combine to make me quite suited to this task, just like everyone else, but isn't it funny how Concise yet Definitive Truth in writing, as in life, is impossible and yet we are doomed to forever be seeking it until we go crazy or give up? ISN'T THAT HILARIOUS?
Anyway, enough about my prolonged and inevitable failures; hopefully you will be able to engage with them in all their "problematic" glory soon, like tonight or tomorrow. A new issue of Bookslut is here! I'm nosy, and so partial to Mairead Case's reading diary. I find what is hugely popular in countries that are not my own—but relatively unknown there—very interesting, and so I'm partial to Noah Charney's piece on Miha Mazzini, "the best selling novelist in Slovenian history." I went to a launch party last week at which several people told me in impressed tones that Deborah Levy was present, and so partial to John Wilmes's review of An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell.
Also, don't forget that you have a mere one month to decide what kind of "crazy" your outfit will go for our Daphne Awards party, which I assume is the first thing you think about when you wake up and the second-to-last thing you think about when you go to sleep, the last thing being obviously misogyny in small, once-alternative literary scenes.
October 2, 2014
Three thoughts about A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing
1. It is brilliant, and it is experimental, and I think the reason it is brilliant is that its experimentation is emphatically not hard. The language makes complete sense despite being agrammatical. (Aggrammatical? Also sort of implies "aggressive," which works, too.) Sorry I'm not directly quoting any foundations for these presuppositions; you know what I'm talking about. I spent all day writing a piece about rape and then I got an email from this girl saying she wasn't around when I needed her because I was "on balance hugely negative," which she finds "taxing." These two things are I'm sure at least tangentially related to Eimear McBride's nine-year struggle to publish this brilliant and not-even-hard book about a horrific female existence, but let's keep going.
2. Sort of weird (by which I mean: not) that the New Yorker and the New York Times and the Washington Post all thought the best person to discuss "what all the fuss is about" over this book would be a man. That condescending lede-cliche is a great example of how the Washington Post was particularly mistaken.
3. I forgot the third thing. What was the third thing? Oh:
I don't want to spoil anything, and I also want to convince those skeptical of unanimous praise that here their skepticism is wrong. So I'll just say the ending is brilliant in the same way the experimentation is brilliant: emphatically not hard, as in it's not surprising or original plot-wise, but it is the only ending that would make sense. It is a perfect ending.
October 1, 2014
The Artist's Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse by Adolph Menzel
In the September issue of Bookslut, Nic Grosso is in conversation with the Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik about her first book that has been translated into English: The Blue Room (Like sant som jeg er virkelig). The room in the title is the room where Johanne is locked in by her mother.
In literature, there are many famous rooms that trap characters within their four walls (Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, just to name a couple), and one of the most intriguing aspects to follow in these books is the question of limited space. How does the author manage that limited space? Does the reader stay in the room, trapped as well, feeling the claustrophobia? Or is the reader taken down memory lane alongside the trapped character?
Elaine Showalter tries to explain the public’s attraction to captivity stories, a genre that poses complicated ethical questions. (“We feel guilty being attracted to these stories, almost complicit in the exploitation of women.”)
What makes these books so powerful? They have some affinity with classic Gothic fiction, in which women are imprisoned in castles with a lush décor symbolic of female sexuality — crimson draperies, jeweled caskets, veiled portraits. Angela Carter’s 1979 novel “The Bloody Chamber” dwells lovingly on scented hothouse flowers, a ruby necklace, mirrors and marrons glacés. But the realistic cells of captivity narratives are small, barren, dirty and dark. Donoghue’s “Room,” described by Jack, the 5-year-old son of a woman abducted at 19, contains only a few objects — Wardrobe, Rug, Plant, Rocker — that Jack and Ma have made iconic and comforting through the power of imagination.
Elaine Showalter, Dark Places | The New York Times
In the late 18th century, following his participation in a duel, Xavier de Maistre was sentenced to forty two days in his room in Turin. That time in that space brought to life his Voyage autour de ma chambre / A Journey Around My Room. This little, light book undermines travel writing and remains a literary oddity worthy of being discovered.
In general, narratives set in a room are told in the first person, which is why the second-person narrative Un Homme qui dort / A Man Asleep, by Georges Perec really stands out and demands attention. Naturally, this choice only emphasizes the man’s growing indifference toward the outside world. In the 1974 film adaptation (by Bernard Queysanne and Perec), we see him withdraw in his room while a female voice-over announces:
Tu n'as envie de voir personne, ni de parler, ni de penser, ni de sortir, ni de bouger. C'est un jour comme celui-ci, un peu plus tard, un peu plus tôt, que tu découvres sans surprise que quelque chose ne va pas, que tu ne sais pas vivre, que tu ne le sauras jamais.
Georges Perec, Un homme qui dort
In Japan, the people who withdraw from society and lock themselves in their rooms are known as the hikikomori. The place to start is Saitō Tamaki’s Hikikomori: Adolescence without End. But for a better understanding, it would be helpful to take the issue out of the Japanese context and filter it through works like Perec’s Un homme qui dort.
In the cruelest experiment in reality TV history, in 1998 Japanese producers locked a man in a room with no clothes on and with no food. He would have to earn his food and other items necessary for survival by entering sweepstakes. Nasubi (or the Eggplant-Man), the first ever contestant in Susunu! Denpa Shonen, was not even aware his show was actually being broadcast and that an entire nation was mocking his struggle for survival. But here’s what might be difficult to understand for westerners: the door was never actually locked. Nasubi could have left at any moment.
September 30, 2014
Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please:
Did you guys know that I am a young person? Yes, it is true; despite my incisive wit and prescient wisdom, I am but a humble millenial, ears forever perking to the sound of bored indie rock bands, nose hyper sensitive to the smell of third-wave coffee that takes 24 minutes to be prepared by a shitty screenwriter whose parents bought her a loft space in Williamsburg in which to take cocaine. And as a millenial, a young person, it is my great pleasure to announce:
There's going to be a party!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And it is not just any party, ladies and gentlemen, no, but a party at which significant honors will be conferred, at which libations will be consumed, at which we will celebrate authors departed and consider those authors who will one day be. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, after months of anticipation and woeful commiseration about the state of the publishing industry, we finally see a light at the end of this tunnel of two-dimensional characters and unnecessary memoirs: the winners of the first annual Daphne Awards, celebrating the best forgotten, ignored, or otherwise snubbed books of 50 years ago, are soon to be announced, in a live and public forum. Being a millenial, I am also easily distracted by occasions for which I can imagine possible outrageous outfits, so here is where I turn things over to the older and wiser Jessa Crispin, who, since abdicating her Bookslut throne, now speaks in a sagacious omniscient third:
The Daphne Awards
WHAT: BYOB Day of the Literary Dead
WHEN: November 6 (full moon), 7:30 pm
WHERE: Melville House headquarters
145 Plymouth St, DUMBO
Brooklyn, NY 11201
DRESS: "Go crazy"
[Editor's note: In the run up to the event, watch this space for many-a hairstyle slideshow.]
How does one throw a party for a book award when (almost) all of the writers nominated are dead? Do it on a full moon, round about Samhain/Day of the Dead/All Soul's Day.
Bookslut is gathering at Melville House headquarters to announce the Daphne Awards, celebrating the best book that should have won a literary prize 50 years ago. But we'll also be marking the writers lost that year and this, all the writers who have come and gone and yet still feel like our ancestors. There will be readings and wine, conversation and feasting. We will also have an altar.
The Daphne Award was born when, after about a bottle of wine and an argument about this year's nominees for all of the major prizes, Bookslut founder Jessa Crispin decided to look up who won 50 years ago. It was a great year for literature. Julio Cortazar's immortal Hopscotch was born. Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are both found publication. And yet: the award went to John Updike. A middling John Updike, even! The Centaur took the prize. Nonfiction was no better. Despite Eichmann in Jerusalem changing the way we all think about how the Holocaust could have happened, the award went to some Keats biography.
Acknowledging that occasionally greatness takes time to recognize and understand, the Daphne looks to use its hindsight to good advantage. A shortlist was quickly compiled. For fiction, Sylvia Plath and Julio Cortazar were joined by Heinrich Boll, Jim Thompson, and Tarjei Vesaas. In nonfiction, Arendt is going up against Primo Levi, James Baldwin, and Jessica Mitford. Poetry and children's book winners will also be announced.
Guests are asked to please bring an offering of spirits for the spirits and the living. There will be a feast, but mostly for the dead. Food for the living can be summed up as "potato chip bar."
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
The Clown by Heinrich Böll
Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Dreambook for Our Time by Tadeusz Konwicki
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson
Burning Perch by Louis MacNeice
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks
Five Senses by Judith Wright
Poems by Gwen Harwood
At the End of the Open Road by Louis Simpson
The Dot and the Line by Norton Juster
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Mr. Rabbit by Charlotte Zolotow
Harold’s ABC by Crockett Johnson
Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein
The Moon by Night by Madeline L’Engle
Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol
Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
September 29, 2014
Image: "Olympia" by Manet.
Lena Dunham sucks. She obviously doesn't have any kind of media coach, because if she did she wouldn't make egregiously selfish oversights and then have to immediately and sort of blandly unapologetically backtrack on them. "Some good points were raised"—girl, I KNOW they taught you about the passive voice at Oberlin. And as for the comedian just grateful to open for her—can we just not?
An exciting and alcoholic announcement coming this week; I'd recommend checking back hourly.
September 26, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
I'm going to be honest, everyone: I'm in London and haven't read anything online in, like, four days. They have been some of my happiest in months, which I only attribute 40% to everyone speaking English and 10-15% to every moment having the potential to be a moment in which Indian food is enjoyed; the rest is likely related to the laid back vacation mindset, but whatever: the point is that I am not up on "the conversation," for which I apologize and feel guilty. I can only offer you:
LO: So you think there’s no room for intellectuals anymore?
DS: Not in the sense that Sontag managed to do it. By that I mean she really was at the tail end of a cultural movement where culture valued smart people and gave them the opportunity to actually be listened to and be read. Someone like Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir would be unimaginable today. There are some French intellectuals, there are smart people in Germany, there smart people in the US, but it’s not the same.
-It's TS Eliot's birthday, and I spent yesterday afternoon at the Virginia Woolf exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. (Best line from a letter: "Never did any woman hate 'writing' as much as I do. But when I am old and famous I shall discourse like Henry James." Preliminary assessment: still pining for good old days of incestuous intellectual circles.) Thus, a theme emerges: go through the Modernism Lab wiki at Yale. And then read the Hermione Lee biography of Virginia already, for God's sake.
-Emily Gould has a good top ten list of books to read in the fall at PAPER. I feel like I want to read most of the books on it, though my personal experience with top ten lists tells me it includes lies and disappointments.
-I asked my very smart friend with the PhD in something dealing with German literature, etc., whom I've mentioned before and will likely mention again—see: very smart—what reading I should recommend, and he said that we should be thinking about the University of Colorado professor who is suing the university for $2 million in damages after they "banished" him "for a joke he made about suicide." This article doesn't offer much more detail than that, but let's all look for it.
-I just read Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley, but you wanna know what? 10:04 deals with similar themes less obnoxiously! I'm all for in-depth discussion of philosophy and intellectual history in fiction/whatever, but I do not feel it was as successful as it could have been!
-Let's save the discussion of "successful" and/or notions of "good" in art for some other time.
September 25, 2014
Image: Susan Sontag in a bear suit, by Annie Leibovitz, which I got here.
An Interview with Daniel Schreiber: Part 2
So continues my talk with Daniel Schreiber, the author of Susan Sontag: A Biography, out from Northwestern University Press last month. To read the first part of the interview, in which we talk about loving/hating Sontag, gossip, and the problems that arise with biography, click here.
LO: Do Germans see her differently than Americans?
DS: She spent so much time in Europe. In Germany especially, and in France, Sweden, Poland, Italy and Spain, she has always been this American ambassador of culture. She was always the person to get an opinion from when something happened in the US—the person to ask for an explanation. So she was very much admired here. Of course she was also admired in the US, but we don’t have this portion of people—we don’t have these neoconservative people who reviled her.
LO: Ha—you don’t have them at all?
DS: No, we do, but they hate other people; they don’t hate Sontag. And we have fewer of them, which is great.
LO: And would you say they’re relegated a bit further to the edges of politics than in America?
DS: Yeah. Our neoconservative extremists have more to contend with. That being said, there is this kind of racist Tea Party-extremism on the rise all over Europe, including in Germany. They are not a cultural force, but sadly they seem to be becoming a political one.
LO: What other American cultural figures would you say were also important to Germans, alongside Sontag?
DS: Mostly male writers, funnily enough. Philip Roth.
DS: He’s huge here. Still is. And Paul Auster is really big.
LO: But in terms of cultural critics...
DS: Sontag was, in a way, the last intellectual. I wrote about it in the book. I believe that very strongly.
LO: So you think there’s no room for intellectuals anymore?
DS: Not in the sense that Sontag managed to do it. By that I mean she really was at the tail end of a cultural movement where culture valued smart people and gave them the opportunity to actually be listened to and be read. Someone like Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir would be unimaginable today. There are some French intellectuals, there are smart people in Germany, there smart people in the US, but it’s not the same. They don’t have this...
DS: Glamour—that’s the way Sontag did it. That’s the way Sontag was able to have this position for that long, because she brought a new sensibility to it—staging and creating this person. And that’s why she became this media persona.
LO: Do you think her being that way affected the decline of intellectualism?
DS: No. That’s just a cultural movement, you see it everywhere. In Europe it happened a bit later than in the US. People in general are not interested in smart people anymore.
LO: I guess it might be appropriate to mention those lowbrow/middlebrow/highbrow delineations being discussed a lot now. Just in terms of arguments one reads about this—do you mean middlebrow people are not interested in highbrow culture anymore? Or that highbrow culture is seen as inaccessible, not populist enough?
DS: I guess these delineations don’t exist anymore. What used to be middlebrow would now be considered highbrow, and what used to be highbrow is now part of academia. And academia is not readable for people. Lowbrow took over, and you know—it’s a question of money and education. If more people want to read books that aren’t complex and they buy books that aren’t complex, that’s it. People used to really understand that you could make a living as a writer, by writing books—of course you could do that! But that’s dead. Today—I mean, we don’t even have to say.
LO: Do you have an opinion on that? Or do you see it as "That’s the way it’s worked"? Do you feel a loss? When I was reading your book, I felt really nostalgic, which is ridiculous because I wasn’t alive for it.
DS: Of course I have a certain sense of nostalgia for those times and for those lives—I’m fascinated by those lives. But, now, to be upset about it, as a writer—that would be silly. You just have to accept it the way it is.
LO: Do you think Susan Sontag would accept it?
DS: Oh, no, she didn’t accept it. All her later essays were about the great power of literature; in the very, very end much of her writing was very old-fashioned and out of touch. She wouldn’t accept it.
LO: I also read a review of your book in the Gay and Lesbian Review, and I’m wondering about the reception of Sontag and your book within the queer population. I think a lot of the time you see queer writers lauding her because she was bisexual or non-conforming...but it sometimes feels like a bit of an overcompensation. Do you know what I mean?
DS: I know exactly what you mean. The way Sontag presented herself with her writing and her public persona—so many people were able to project onto it. And let’s put it this way: she didn’t do anything to stop it. She was happy to be applauded for many things.
But if people in the LGBT movement would read her correctly, they would have a hard time making her a part of their cause. The same is true for feminism. Obviously she was a feminist and the way she lived her life was mind-boggingly brave, impressive, and amazing for a woman at that time. But as for the movement, she was outside it. And she was outside the LGBT movement as well. She was a part of the Manhattan elite, in the end; she didn’t have any interest in her private life being discussed openly. It was a cultural practice that was common in Manhattan to keep your sexuality an open secret—to live it out sort of openly, but to have the agreement that we don’t talk about it. Since there were so many gay men and lesbian women in Manhattan, it was possible to maintain that.
It changed with the 80s; the movement had to become more outspoken because of the AIDS epidemic. The AIDS book [AIDS and Its Metaphors] is really the only book I don’t like by her. Her language is really out of touch—she speaks about "the homosexual" all the time. It seems like it’s written for a wider American audience, but it’s insincere: she obviously had a very different experience, and she obviously was gay herself, and she obviously was touched by the deaths of so many of her gay friends in a very different way than she wrote for that imagined audience.
If you read her diaries, for instance, you see she had this really difficult relationship with gay men. Most of her friends were gay, but it was a real sort of love/hate relationship she had with them. I have no idea why. It always seemed like a form of projected self-hate. As for her own sexual life, she was very promiscuous and very outgoing, for the time especially, but as with many personal things in her life, I feel she didn’t come to terms with it in a way that made her really happy. The AIDS book was not a success; gay men in particular didn’t like that book.
LO: Now there are a lot of contemporary feminist and queer writers say you have a responsibility to talk about your private life for the benefit of future generations, or whatever.
DS: I don’t think that’s true. I don’t feel like anyone should. I understood her not doing it. We can look at this today and see: this is what happened, we can now see there she wasn’t being sincere. But I would have done the same thing if I were her. She was born in 1933—she grew up during the 30s and the 40s! And she really fought hard to make her living as an intellectual in New York. As a single mother. As a lesbian single mother. I mean, come on. I wouldn’t have been like, "Hey, I’m a lesbian, but I also like to sleep with guys sometimes!" either.
LO: I agree. I mean, she could barely wear pants! She was wearing jeans in college, and everyone was like, "Oh my God, can you believe that woman?"
DS: If you speak to people like Edmund White, who was very outspoken, her main point was that she was afraid that she would be the lesbian writer, and the thing is that she was right. Edmund White is the gay writer, and it would have been the same for her, I feel.
LO: People get pigeon-holed like that now as well. Her media awareness seems very prescient: you see that construction of persona so well with social media now—you wonder what she would have done with it. I think you hear that a lot, with dead intellectual people: "How would she have done Facebook?"
DS: I think she would have enjoyed it. She would have run with it. She would have hired a few young gay guys to do Facebook for her.
September 24, 2014
Image: Susan Sontag in 1966. I got it here.
An Interview with Daniel Schreiber: Part 1
When I told my flatmate that I was going to meet the German writer Daniel Schreiber for coffee, she said, “Oh, he’s so cool! And he’s a proper journalist!” Schreiber wrote a biography of Susan Sontag (as well as a memoir, Nüchtern out in German last month), and having read it, I’m inclined to agree. The book came out in Germany in 2007, under the name Susan Sontag: Geist und Glamour, and it did well, but English didn’t get a translation until last month, when Northwestern published it under the less sassy Susan Sontag: A Biography.
I get why it was translated less sassily, but I'll still say that "Geist und Glamour" is a good subtitle. It examines the entirety of Sontag’s life through the lens of her public persona—how she constructed it, why she constructed it, where it intersected and diverged from her private life—and I think it really succeeds in creating an image of Sontag as both open and mysterious, as well as in absorbing you in the good old days of incestuous intellectual circles. It’s kind of appropriate, then, that at the beginning of our conversation Daniel said, "Don’t judge me" before ordering an amazing-looking apple pastry. Or maybe that's a tenuous, introduction-y excuse for me to share use that anecdote. I was judging him, but in a good way.
Lauren Oyler: In America Susan Sontag seems to have become kind of trendy in the last couple of years—I wonder if Maria Popova has had a lot to do with that.
Daniel Schreiber: I think she had a lot to do with it, actually. I love her website. She has this attitude—“I want to read books that challenge me and talk about them in a way that doesn’t have to be opaque, that doesn’t have to be pseudo-academic.” And it’s no surprise that she’s also such a fan of Sontag’s work. Sontag had a very similar attitude.
LO: Popova also really liked your book. Has there been much biographical work on Sontag since your book came out in 2007?
DS: Mine was the first biography since Sontag’s death. But all in all my book is the second biography. The first one [Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock] came out when Sontag was still alive; it didn’t cover all of her life. To be honest, it was a very tendentious book. I don’t know whether you’ve read it…
LO: Well, I read your book, and you talk about how she was incensed by it.
DS: She was, and partially because she was Susan Sontag but partially rightly so. [Rollyson’s and Paddock’s] book did an important job in terms of contributions to research; without that book, I wouldn’t have been able to write the biography in the way that I’ve written it, so I’m actually very grateful to those guys. But they did lack an intellectual understanding of most of Sontag’s writing, and they had a very clear-cut political agenda. It was very clear from the beginning that they hated Sontag, that they wanted to destroy her.
LO: Why did they hate her?
DS: They were neoconservative. They were very motivated politically. It’s the same way that the Wall Street Journal hates Susan Sontag.
LO: Did I just read their review of your book? With the lede something like “With Susan Sontag, you either hate both the ideas and the woman or you just hate the woman, and it’s clear that Daniel Schreiber is in the second group”? Would you say that’s fair?
DS: Not at all. It’s so outrageous that I almost wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal. It’s ridiculous on two levels: I do not hate Susan Sontag, not at all. And then, the quote the writer tried to prove his assumption with, you know—it doesn't say what he says it says. In the preface, I write about ambivalence and about how biography has to acknowledge that. To get [what he got] from the text—I couldn’t tell whether he'd read the book or not.
[The WSJ quote is: "Writing on Sontag, the German critic tells us, was both wonderful and difficult: 'Wonderful because I had the chance to immerse myself in almost everything Sontag had ever written or said....Difficult, also, because Sontag's character made it impossible for me to adopt the tone of unbridled admiration authors of literary biographies usually adopt.'"]
LO: Sontag’s work is not exactly straightforward itself.
DS: It’s very important to talk about this with Sontag, which is what I try to do. The book tries to keep a very neutral attitude towards her, and as I said in the preface, writing this book was really about learning to live with ambivalence, because I really admire Sontag and I admire her work and I admire the way that she came up with being that person. It’s so impressive! And if you read the tiniest bit about the time she was doing this, it’s mind-blowing.
But on the other hand, she could be very difficult, and mean, and downright cruel sometimes. To pretend that this side of her didn’t exist would be wrong. People are not one or the other.
One or two reviews have suggested that I’m not apologetic enough about her—because she had such a hard childhood and her mother was an alcoholic. And it’s awful to grow up with an alcoholic mother, of course, and there were poor phases in her childhood, but all in all, growing up in the 30s and 40s—there have been more difficult childhoods. I don’t think you need to apologize that she was the way she was because she achieved a lot, and she lived her life in a very impressive way. To now pretend that she was also this super nice, sane person—she wasn’t.
Tim Parks wrote an essay for the NYRB about how literary biographies in the US usually take this hagiographic tone; it’s sort of like you have to do it, in a way. I felt the pull to do this, because it’s much easier to write a hagiography. But writers are people, too.
LO: Where does your interest in her come from?
DS: I moved to New York in 2001, shortly before September 11. Then I moved back to Germany for a year to work at the university [Freie Univeristät in Berlin] and to do a PhD. And after a year of working here, I realized it wasn’t for me, and I moved back to New York. It was really crucial for me to read intelligent texts—I loved to read intellectual writing. But I didn’t want to read academic writing, because that seemed so fake to me, and as writing it’s also not beautiful. So many of those texts are not interesting to read, and so much is about power struggles and what’s in fashion. Sontag was this insanely smart, intellectual woman who was able to write in a very, very, very intelligent way without being unentertaining or dull. I was really impressed by her. I met her once!
LO: Yeah? I was about to ask.
DS: "Meeting" is too much. I saw her at a talk she gave after September 11 at the journalism department of NYU.
LO: Just, like, in a line or something like that?
DS: Yeah, standing in a line. I was 23 back then, utterly impressed and utterly petrified. She was so brilliant—and so impervious, I think, after the talk. But it was great!
LO: Would you say the reception of your book has been different in Germany versus in the US?
DS: Yes, of course it has been. In Germany the book was surprisingly successful. It was on TV, and it was even on the bestseller list for a couple of weeks. So that was great, and it was really well reviewed by mostly everyone, too. But that was seven years ago. And now it’s fantastic that the New Yorker recommended it, which was unimaginable; it was wonderful. But it’s a small university press. And it’s a book by a German guy.
LO: And you wrote that you didn’t have access to the diaries at the time.
DS: No I didn’t. The Sontag archive at UCLA wasn’t open to the public until ten years after her death. But, of course, I had access to a part of her diaries, to other archives—for instance her publisher's, FSG. And of course I talked to many of her close friends and peers. But to be frank, my book is not a biography in the sense that it's a 700-page tome that tells you about what she felt in this week of her life or that. That's not something I wanted to write. It's a book that's mainly focused on the public persona and her work and of course it does give as much private information as possible, but it was really about the persona: what she did to become this person, what she achieved with it, where there were problems with it—and whether all that made her happy.
LO: She’s such a gossip-worthy figure in intellectual circles that I’m sure it was tempting.
DS: Everyone has gossip about her. Everyone you talk to has met her and has their story about her, very often about how outrageous she could be.
LO: Did you find it difficult to decide what to believe? Did that stuff color you as you were writing?
DS: To be honest, I did journalistic work there. If there was only one person saying something—if I couldn’t fact-check it—I just didn’t write it.
LO: You said in the preface that you wouldn’t have done anything differently if you’d had access to the diaries before they were published, except maybe put more emphasis on her addiction to amphetamines. Do you still feel that way?
DS: It was really shocking for me to read [that she was addicted for so long], to read about the extent of her addiction. I had known and written about it, but back then I didn't find it that important. A lot has happened in my life as well that has led to me seeing things a bit differently today. People always think, "Oh, you take drugs, and then you’re normal when you’re not on them." No! It changes you. It might explain a lot—how she acted towards people, how she always felt she had too little, how she always felt like she wasn’t happy, how she always felt like people were treating her awfully when they weren’t.
Part 2 of the interview will be posted tomorrow; it's about European vs. American perspectives on Sontag, the death of the intellectual, and Sontag's relationship to feminism and queer politics.
September 23, 2014
Image: Woman's Head by Alexei von Jawlensky
Where / what is home? That’s the nagging and confusing question the immigration experience poses. Finding an answer becomes all the more urgent as all too often a person risks remaining just a number in statistics on immigration. In the September issue of Bookslut, Rebecca Silber reviews Vanessa Manko’s The Invention of Exile. It’s the story of Austin Voronkov, a Russian immigrant who falls victim to the Palmer Raids from 1919-1920 -- the consequence of the so-called Red Scare. For more on Russian immigrants in the US, here are a few suggestions:
Reading this review coincided with my listening to a podcast on anarcha-feminism that mentions Emma Goldman -- also a Russian immigrant, also a victim of the first Red Scare. The only difference: Emma Goldman really was an anarchist. Her US citizenship made no difference, she was deported to Russia. Though optimistic at first, the new Russia, the Soviet Union, did not fit Goldman’s vision. And as an anarchist, Goldman did not fit into this new Russia. Goldman wrote about her Russian experience in My Disillusionment in Russia. About her deportation she writes:
It was on December 5, 1919, while in Chicago lecturing, that I was telegraphically apprised of the fact that the order for my deportation was final. The question of my citizenship was then raised in court, but was of course decided adversely. I had intended to take the case to a higher tribunal, but finally I decided to carry the matter no further: Soviet Russia was luring me.
Ludicrously secretive were the authorities about our deportation. To the very last moment we were kept in ignorance as to the time. Then, unexpectedly, in the wee small hours of December 21st we were spirited away. The scene set for this performance was most thrilling. It was six o'clock Sunday morning, December 21, 1919, when under heavy military convoy we stepped aboard the Buford.
For twenty-eight days we were prisoners. Sentries at our cabin doors day and night, sentries on deck during the hour we were daily permitted to breathe the fresh air. Our men comrades were cooped up in dark, damp quarters, wretchedly fed, all of us in complete ignorance of the direction we were to take. Yet our spirits were high -- Russia, free, new Russia was before us.
- Emma Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia
A place of transit for prisoners who would end up in labor camps during the Stalin regime, Magadan is also the connection between the nine stories from Kseniya Melnik’s Snow in May. Melnik discusses her childhood Russia, remembered through the prism of nostalgia, the real Russia (“whatever that is”), and other writers’ Russia in the short essay "Selling Your First Soul":
Almost thirteen years after I’d emigrated as a teenager, I travelled back to Stavropol, my mother’s hometown in the South of Russia, to see my sick grandmother. I felt I was taking a creative risk: how would my writing change in the face of such a strong dose of reality?
After a three-day trip from Alaska and my initial awe at the transformation of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport (clean bathrooms! free wifi! flat-screen TVs!), we finally reached Stavropol. From then on, whether we were at the hospital, the pension fund, stores – you name it – we were assaulted by absurdities of Ilf-and-Petrovian caliber. The drunken operator of the only functioning elevator in the hospital, off for her fifteen-minute break. The only place to make copies of documents for the passport bureau – at a nearby parking attendant’s booth. No Internet at the Internet Café, and so on.
I was finally observing it all first hand. I would out-Shteyngart them all!
Kseniya Melnik, Selling Your First Soul | Granta
Speaking of Shteyngart: during these past few years, the author has indeed become one of the most known voices in the story of Russian emigres.
The Shteyngarts come to the United States as part of the wave of Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate under an agreement Jimmy Carter made with the Soviet government. In Shteyngart’s précis, “Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run: all in all, an excellent trade deal.”
Andy Borowitz, Mr. Shteyngart’s Planet | The New York Times
While in New York, Sergei Dovlatov still wrote in Russian. Twelve books in twelve years. He left the Soviet Union in 1978 and arrived in New York in 1979 to join his wife and daughter, part of the so-called “third wave” of Russian immigration (an anxious transit anticipated in Pushkin Hills and more fully described in A Foreign Woman and the memoir, Ours, which traces the stories of four generations of his family).
James Wood, Sergei Dovlatov and the Hearsay of Memory | The New Yorker
Vanessa Manko on living in a never-ending state of longing:
That's really where the book began for me. I had an image in my mind of a man alone in Mexico City, walking down the street, not connected to anybody. Living in exile, broken and alone. I began to make the empathetic leap into what that would be like. It was partly based and inspired by the life of my grandfather I never knew. I grew up with different versions of the story but never knew the man himself. When I finally did research and began to understand what had happened to him, that I had a grandfather, a Russian in exile living alone in Mexico City, it brought up all sorts of questions.
Vanessa Manko interviewed by Royal Young, Vanessa Manko Goes Long | Interview Magazine
September 22, 2014
Interview with Peter Schneider
By Corinna Pichl
Peter Schneider is best known for his novel The Wall Jumper, which explores life in divided Berlin on both sides of the Wall. Schneider came to West Berlin as a student half a century ago, and he got involved in the student revolts of the 1960s. His political activity led to him being initially denied a career as a schoolteacher after graduation, before he established himself as a writer.
In the new essay collection Berlin Now, Schneider looks at Berlin with his decades-spanning perspective to offer a sense of how the city became what it is today, 25 years after the fall of the Wall. On love in Berlin, he starts off by evoking Christopher Isherwood's 1920s, then goes on to tell the story of a bugged Nazi brothel, and then describes the phenomenon of sex tourism across the border and reflects on differences between East and West regarding gender roles.
Other themes addressed in the book include minorities in Berlin and new forms of racism, the ongoing drama surrounding the Berlin airport [editor's note: still not open], and the story of the tearing down of the old GDR Palace and the resurrection of the Prussian Palace in its place.
We live quite far apart from each other, so I asked my questions over Skype.
[Another editor's note: She also conducted the interview in German and translated it into English, because she is great.]
Corinna Pichl: Why did you want to write a book about Berlin now?
Peter Schneider: Berlin plays the leading role in all my texts, and in the US I was especially successful with Wall Jumper. The book came out in 1982, and it was the first prediction of the "Wall in the head"—I coined this phrase—that this "Wall in the head" will keep standing longer than the thing made of concrete. I wrote this in 1982, and now my American publisher wanted to know: what does Berlin look like after the fall of the Wall? I hesitated at first because, as I said, I had already dealt with Berlin, and I thought: you know everything I know. Then I decided that I could only do it if I pretended not to know anything. To research and go see everything that interested me again.
CP: During your research you also went to the clubs in Berlin. I found it interesting how you described the crowd waiting in front of Berghain, as dressed discreetly and alike.
PS: It was like that when I went there. Maybe it is different at other times, but I was very surprised. It seemed to me that they had all been warned through information in the Internet that you don't get in if you're dressed very conspicuously. The only one, who was really noticeable, was this Sven Marquardt [the doorman]. He would never get into Berghain. He is a star now; he has written a book, too, and it got two pages in Der Spiegel, which doesn't review real books anymore. When I left I asked him if he would give me an interview, and he just said: you have to ask my agent. Even as a doorman you can become a star in Berlin.
CP: Would you say that today's generation is more conformist than earlier generations?
PS: I would never say that. Today's generation is in a completely different situation, and people are as conformist and non-conformist as we used to be back then. That we rebelled against our fathers' generation in this way was a unique historical situation; it was only possible for the generation after the Nazis. Today's generation is in a completely different situation. And the revolts take place elsewhere and maybe not in politics.
CP: At the beginning of the 60s, you moved to Berlin as a student from south Germany, and you became active in the protests of 1968. In your book, you describe the difficulties many West German leftists had in dealing with the totalitarian, but also leftist, GDR state. How did you resolve this conflicts? Have your political attitudes changed a great deal over the years?
PS: These [attitudes] changed significantly. Back then, in 1967-68, we believed we could make a revolution, that we could replace capitalism with something else, etc. We were particularly interested in the fate of the so-called "Third World" countries: Why were there extremely poor countries and rich ones like ours? The "Third World" is less of a topic today. Today they are called "emerging" or "BRIC" countries. These are euphemisms; the exploitation is still taking place, of course.
I do not believe in revolutions anymore. I believe that revolutions will take place over and over again because there is no other way when oppression gets too bad and when violence is the only way to defend oneself—this happens again and again. But revolutions don't actually bring anything good, because new tyrants occupy the place of the old.
I believe that radical reforms are the best means to change a society. This is one of the important positions that I changed. But there are a lot more.
CP: You also describe the alternative art scene in West Berlin in the 80s as closed in on itself and separated from the rest of the world.
PS: It was turned inwards. Self-regarding. The whole impetus to engage with the outer world, to change society, from before was gone all of a sudden. This was, of course, related to the failed plans for revolution; it was a logical consequence.
CP: Do you still see this tendency today?
PS: No, I think today there are many things on the Internet that we didn't know back then and that continue a lot of ideals that we had. For example, the open-source community, which is based on the conviction that inventions belong to the public, to the world, and must not be bought and marketed by huge Internet companies. There are many developments like this—they make me very interested. Also, all these exchange services, like car-sharing, this sharing without getting money for it—these are great developments that don't have a revolutionary ethos, but which I find very exciting.
CP: You also tell the story of Bar25, [a legendary club on the Spree] whose space could have been saved from being sold to real estate companies. Do you think the sale of free spaces to investors is unavoidable?
PS: Unfortunately, this is the course of the real estate market, and if nobody puts a stop to it, then what's happening now will keep happening. You could say the same thing about the economic crisis of four years ago: if this isn't opposed with rules, then financial markets will again bring the world close to collapse.
I believe that it is indeed possible to do something, and I believe that Berlin—the Senate does deserve some praise in this regard—followed other principles in some cases. There's the Kater Holzig club, which is Bar25 all over again: they got their property at Jannowitzbrücke because the Senate was told that it belongs to Berlin, that it is a piece of culture that we can preserve and that we can't just sell to the highest bidder. This is the right way to do things. It should be this way in many cases, but so far this is the exception, not the rule.
CP: You also write that the western part of the city might be resuscitated when it gets too expensive in districts like Neukölln.
PS: Not exactly Neukölln—it will take a while until it gets as expensive as Charlottenburg. But Prenzlauer Berg is definitely expensive enough already that people are moving to Wilmersdorf instead. Of course, there are constant migrations within the city, and it has been this way since the 1920s; in the middle of the 20s, bohemia moved to the west all of a sudden, even though things were still happening in the east.
This could definitely repeat itself. I don't believe in the predictions that say Charlottenburg is a retiree's paradise now, that it will never recover from that. It's all going to change again.
September 19, 2014
Image: "Charakterköpfe" by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
Weekend Recommended Reading
I'm in a wacky mood because I haven't slept and spent all day writing an invective. My best advice for you this weekend is to not read and sleep instead. Also don't subhead any New York Times opinion pieces with "There Are Social and Political Benefits to Having Friends." David Brooks's writing is indistinguishable from my mother's sorority sisters' Facebook status updates.
-Scotland—you have so many thinkpieces already. All I can add is that haggis is disappointingly not that disgusting and Edinburgh is cheaper than London if you're looking for a vacation spot where people call you "love" at "the shops."
-The response to 10:04 hasn't been as obsessive as I would agree with. BEN LERNER IS A GENIUS AS WELL AS GREAT!! I want to shout it from the rooftops! I was going to pitch an involved, meta-nonfictional review about it to several new-wave intellectual publications, because I love that book so much and feel no one has done it justice, but I don't really want to actually write the review, so I'm not. Anyway, read everything he's written and then this long conversation he had with Ariana Reines!
-Two long and worthy things at The Baffler: this about Kickstarter and this about the work fetish. Yes, I know, AGAIN with the work fetish, but it's good! It was originally published in German, a language I should have really learned by now, in Die Zeit, and it has a postscript responding to the (significant) comments it received there.
-"It all started with a BDSM black latex mermaid suit, as the best stories often do. Permaid, the Persian mermaid who mysteriously washed up off the shores of Malibu in a giant clam shell, is fast becoming the it girl-fish of LA, touring hot spots and not spots and always causing a stir wherever she kicks up her wipe-clean black fins."
-Pair this Electric Literature piece about locura (madness) in early modern Spain with this brilliant and sickening one about military sexual trauma. "Son, Men Don't Get Raped."
September 18, 2014
Latvians—they're just like us!
September 17, 2014
Image: Starification by Hannah Wilke
In the Disappearance issue of Spolia, the excerpt from Breanne Fahs’s Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) is an attempt at retracing Valerie Solanas’s steps during her final years.
In the interview from the May issue of Bookslut, Breanne Fahs further discusses the disappearance of Valerie Solanas and how that parallels her work on the SCUM Manifesto:
I had originally called this biography A Life of SCUM, and I did this because Valerie's story is so deeply connected to and mapped onto the story of SCUM Manifesto that it was impossible to separate the two. Valerie always imagined that, if only she could publish a correct edition of SCUM Manifesto, if only her words were not plagued by typos and misspellings and sabotaging errors (mostly from her publisher Maurice Girodias), if only she could somehow get out her pure and precise SCUM Manifesto to the world, she would be able to achieve greatness. This story propelled her along for some time, all through her years in prison and mental hospitals, and even the years after that. But once she actually did publish, in 1977, the correct SCUM Manifesto, and once it, too, did not seem to "land," did not seem to connect in the way she had hoped, she, along with the manifesto, seemed to disappear. I found this timeline really poignant and incredibly sad. It was as if at the moment that SCUM Manifesto could no longer prop her up and hold her together, at the precise moment that SCUM Manifesto in its fully realized version failed to connect, Valerie also ceased to exist. She disappeared into the ether because she, in some ways, finally let go of SCUM Manifesto (though not fully; her last recorded conversation had her asking Ultra Violet about the manifesto and asking her to get a copy for her from the Library of Congress). Valerie defined her life by her writing, and defined herself as a writer; once she no longer did so, her madness consumed her.
Breanne Fahs interviewed by Coco Papy, An Interview with Breanne Fahs | Bookslut
(The interview is to be accompanied by the reading suggested by Ami Tian on the Bookslut blog on the radical feminist legacy of Solanas.)
The effort to piece together the puzzle that was Valerie Solanas’s life is doubled by the effort to separate her image from the shooting of Andy Warhol. It is interesting, though, to read about a biography of Valerie Solanas in Interview Magazine, which is basically a part of Warhol’s legacy. On Warhol’s interest in Solanas:
I love the odd relationship that they had. I think they are such polar opposites in certain ways, and almost identical matches in other ways. You have Andy Warhol operating in this mode of "I will be distant and detached, and coolly observant of everything." Then Valerie, like I said, is this live wire. She is total passion, earnestness, hotness, like heat. I think both she and Andy had a lot of similarities—they both come from this working-class background, they are running away from a certain kind of life that they grew up in. Certainly they share some kind of queer identity, somehow. There are all these things that seem like they should have felt more aligned than they did, but temperamentally they were just so different. This creates this, I think, one of history's most absurd and bizarre pairings.
After the shooting, Andy acts like Valerie shooting him was in her nature, and therefore she can't be blamed for it, and therefore he can't be all that angry at her. Valerie was kind of apologetic and sheepish about the shooting, but at the same time she said things like, "You're just trying to get publicity for yourself by pretending to be kind to me," and other blasphemous statements like, "I should have done target practice." She also realizes the cost of shooting him and how it kind of derailed her bigger purpose as a writer. It placed her in history as the woman who shot Andy Warhol.
Breanne Fahs interviewed by Hannah Ghorashi, Layers of SCUM: Uncovering Valerie Solanas | Interview
More on Valerie Solanas’s short and troubled connection with Warhol and the Factory:
Paul Morrissey loathed Valerie, and said plainly to me that he hated that I was writing this book. He screamed and ranted and carried on when we spoke on the phone, seething with resentment and saying that I should write about Lady Gaga instead. Some of the Andy Warhol crowd still harbors similar feelings, while others have taken a more nuanced and semicritical look at Andy. Certainly, the women associated with the Factory have been much more critical of Andy’s treatment of women in general, while the men in the Factory seem to have this unreflective and fanatic worship of Andy that I find troubling artistically and personally. Still, Andy did have streaks of generosity and goodwill, taking into his scene misfits, losers, freaks, drug addicts, gender trouble-makers of all sorts and eccentric artists. That said, I wholeheartedly believe that he made promises to Valerie that he later revoked or simply forgot about, and for Valerie that constituted a serious offense.
Breanne Fahs interviewed by John Williams, A Sad and Remarkable Life: Breanne Fahs Talks About ‘Valerie Solanas’ | ArtsBeat, The New York Times
Partly responsible for the difficulty of separating Valerie Solanas and her work from the Andy Warhol affaire in our recent collective memory is also Mary Harron’s movie I Shot Andy Warhol. (Personally, I can’t remember which one came first for me: reading the SCUM Manifesto or watching I Shot Andy Warhol.)
Mary Harron’s 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol offered some backstory to Solanas’s gripe with — and eventual assassination attempt on — the celebrated artist, but Fahs goes deeper, by explaining how much influence Warhol’s Factory and its superstars (or, as Solanas called them, “stupidstars”) wielded in New York’s art scene at the time. “Andy created women as offshoots of the male imagination, something Valerie could never (and would never want to) live up to. She was a dangerously real product of a world hell-bent on treating women as mirrored distortions of the male ego,” writes Fahs, and indeed, within the Factory’s silver-lined walls Solanas was given about as much consideration as a stray wad of chewed gum. And yet, marginality was everything to Solanas. Why was she attracted to Warhol and the Factory scene in the first place? Fahs attempts to puzzle that out, surmising that Andy, who hardly treated Solanas well, nevertheless “stood in for a variety of emotionally charged, missing, or distorted figures” in her life.
Andi Zeisler, Andi Zeisler on Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) – A One Woman Army | Los Angeles Review of Books
In her review of Breanne Fahs’s book on Valerie Solanas, Jennifer Pan focuses more on the radical politics of Solanas, managing to emphasize the relevance of her work in the context of both second wave feminism and today’s feminism.
During a time when the most visible expression of feminism centered on the assertion that women were as just as capable as men of waged employment, Solanas’s recognition of the political possibilities of failure was an unexpected – and radically provocative – gesture: one that, at once, recognized the centrality of women to capitalist production and also championed the destruction of that very system. Likewise, the feminist discourse that is commonly dismissed as “trashing” today often serves as a flashpoint for resistance against liberal feminism and includes, among others, women of color criticizing the systemic racism that continues to pervade much of these liberal feminist spaces.
If calls to end trashing are efforts to close the gaps between various factions within feminism, then Solanas has helped to remind us that trashing can also be the insistence that these gaps cannot be filled – that feminism must represent a multiplicity of claims and seek to redress several interlocking forms of exploitation.
September 16, 2014
Ten Irish Women and Their Names
1. Fionnula Flanagan (pronounced "fin-NOO-luh")
2. Nora Barnacle
3. Máire Mhac an tSaoi (pronounced like this)
4. Medbh McGuckian (pronounced like "Maeve")
5. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (pronounced "NOOH-luh nee GOH-null")
6. Orlaith Rafter (pronounced "or-la")
7. Una Troy
8. Nano Nagle
9. Erminda Esler
10. Eimear McBride (pronounced "ee-mer")
September 14, 2014
Two-ish weeks ago, I dropped in a little criticism of Brad Listi's interview podcast, OTHERPPL, saying he'd "lost the plot a bit" and was "always talking about himself." (If you're not familiar with the podcast, it's a pretty standard format: Brad does a 10ish-minute monologue followed by an interview with someone involved in publishing, usually an author but sometimes agents and editors, too.) This being the Internet, he saw what I wrote and sent me an email asking if I could elaborate on it. (NB: We've emailed before.) What I sent back is below, RAW & UNEDITED; file under: interview philosophy, narcissism, entertainment, criticism, "content."
If you want to hear parts of this read aloud in Brad Listi's sexy radio voice—or hear how he responded—it's in the monologue of this Sunday's OTHERPPL, which later features Wendy C. Ortiz.
from: Lauren Oyler
to: brad listi
date: Thu, Sep 11, 2014 at 3:03 PM
subject: Re: [Lauren Oyler] Contact
Important according to our magic sauce.
Hi hi hi,
Sorry—I didn't want you to think I was going to ignore your email but tweet you with apparent fervor, especially because I was just whining about how no one *~*gets*~* me, but I was really busy yesterday. Anyway. I'm tempted to launch into some pseudo-apologetic preamble about criticizing you, about how I debated with myself about whether I should say anything negative about the podcast on Bookslut because of the noted sentimental attachment I have for it but then was like, "Fuck it, if I can't stand people being lamely nice on the Internet then I must be the change I wish to see on the Internet," but I'm just going to let that discussion of the temptation to pseudo-apologize sort of count as the pseudo-apology and then say: I think it's in the interviews. I noticed that maybe your monologues have gotten shorter recently—I started skipping them, and maybe that says something to you, though I usually skip podcast monologues because I don't really care. But in the interviews it seems like you're constantly bringing up the same anecdotes or autobiographical tidbits, in a way that makes me think, "Oh my God, Brad Listi, we KNOW you hiked the Appalachian Trail! We KNOW you went to school in Boulder! We KNOW you had a traumatizing move at an impressionable pubescent age from one Midwestern state to another, similar Midwestern state! We KNOW you sort of wish you were bipolar, I mean, like, you know it's horrible and difficult, but wouldn't manic episodes be great for your productivity?" (Do people email you about that one?) I'm thinking about the interview with Brittani Sonnenberg, whose whole thing is about her childhood characterized by international relocations that were both causes and effects of trauma—like, she's a tall redheaded person playing on a basketball team in Singapore, where her sister later died of a rare and undetected and thus completely unexpected heart condition—and you talked about how much you hated moving to Indiana for, like, minutes. Or what seemed a lot longer than establishing-a-connection length.
To be fair, my sensitivity to this might have something to do with me having listened to the podcast fairly continuously, often one or two episodes a day for a few months—I was walking twin babies (in a stroller) in the snow for low pay—which would create a sense of familiarity with your biography that someone who listens only occasionally wouldn't have; the repetition of certain autobiographical themes of yours—or, rather, the increased repetition of autobiographical themes I've noticed of late—is more obvious if you're listening to the podcast regularly. But after awhile your interviews stopped feeling like they were about, ahem, other people and felt more like they were about what you could use other people to say about yourself. Which I totally understand—I'm not good at interviewing people because I'm a huge narcissist and interviews are usually about using yourself to give someone else more attention, and I often feel what I have to say or could say deserves more attention than what the person I'm interviewing has to say, which creates an additional resentment because it's like I'm giving them this gift of attention (also megalomaniacal) and they're wasting it on being boring. This is why I don't have a twice-weekly interview podcast (and try to only interview people who seem like they'll be interesting); if I were a better interviewer, I would probably be able to foster less boring interviews. This seems to contradict what I'm criticizing you for—if the interviewer is more interesting than the interviewee, shouldn't hearing about the interviewer be more interesting than hearing about the interviewee? Theoretically, yes, but I think we hold interviewers to different standards than we hold interviewees, because their express purpose is to give other people attention. It doesn't really matter how interesting the interviewer is; what matters is his ability to draw the interesting out of others. And especially when the interviewer does a lot of interviews and repeats the same (theoretically) interesting information to every interviewee, this disconnect between the theory of the interview and the practice of the interview is annoying, especially, I think, in an audio interview; it takes time to read an interview, yes, but the reader has more control over his experience there—reading is active, listening is passive.
On the flip side of this is the worshipful interviewer, who's too afraid of the person he's interviewing to have an actual conversation with her, and that's probably worse. I don't think you do that, but maybe you're wary of doing that, because it's important to have an actual conversation, establish a connection, etc. But I think you (one) can establish a connection by only succumbing to the autobiographical impulse when it will actually serve that conversation, and therefore the listener, and not just your(one)self. Right? Moderation! You seem to talk much less about yourself when you're talking to famous people, or to people who seem like they're able to hold their own enough to steer the conversation in the direction of what is interesting; these are always the interviews I like better and the people I sort of think will become the famous ones later. It's hard. I'm not going to be like, "Maybe you should interview fewer boring people," because boring people abound in the publishing industry and their lameness doesn't necessarily translate to their books and part of the point of the podcast is to grant attention to a variety of books and writers (right????), but I think it's the interviewer's responsibility, if he wants to be a good interviewer, to stave off as much of the boring as he can.
Anyway. I really do appreciate the podcast, and I know you waver (or were wavering) about why you do it or if you should be doing it and whether it is your "thing," what is your "thing," and I'm not going to say anything about that because I just overreached significantly—correspondences being, I think, different from interviews—but I agree with what a lot of people said about it being a huge and great contribution to "the conversation," and I do hope it doesn't start sucking.
P.S. I might blog part of this. Content, you know.
P.P.S. For typos: genuinely sorry.
September 12, 2014
Image: "Extraction of the Stone of Folly" by Hieronymus Bosch.
Weekend Recommended Reading
-Tonight begins my days-long enduring of the annual Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin, where two years ago I watched the worst interview I've ever seen take place on stage between a baffled Chad Harbach and another (native English-speaking) writer, who offered the somewhat reserved Harbach long and giggling pauses after questions like, "So...baseball? Like, what is it?" The Berlin literature festival doesn't have the best of reputations, for this and other reasons. Check back to see what I can find wrong with talks by Junot Díaz, Xiaolu Guo, Helen Oyeyemi, Carlos Labbé, Tao Lin, Chloe Arjidis, Ma Jian, and Joshua Cohen (whose collection of short stories, 4 New Messages, I'm reading now; I would describe it as Denis Johnson online, which I would in turn describe as not my favorite, but potentially someone else's).
-I got that link from the Fitzcarraldo Editions blog. They make beautiful books and have good taste.
-Juliet Escoria has a piece about marriage and mental health and mental health treatment at Hobart:
Scott’s doctor didn’t give him the test. Scott’s doctor hasn’t even told him about that side effect. Scott’s doctor hasn’t told him about any side effects. I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with Scott’s doctor, but there’s no way in hell I am going to Scott’s doctor.
In California, there were dozens of psychiatrists within a couple miles from me. I could have my pick. I went with mine because I didn’t hate her based on the photo on her website. I ended up liking her because when I told her I was having anxiety, she showed me some breathing exercises rather than handing me another prescription.
When it comes time for me to find a psychiatrist in Beckley, I Google “psychiatrist Beckley.” Scott’s psychiatrist comes up. The internet says he sees 60 patients a day.
I now understand what the fuck is wrong with Scott’s doctor.
-The Paris Review Daily posted an interview with Lynne Tillman yesterday.
-And if you're tired of looking at things, listen to Ruth Barnes's radio documentary on Judee Sill, here or tomorrow at "15:30," as they say, on BBC Radio 4.
September 10, 2014
There's a point at which homesickness stops being about what is better where you came from and becomes simply about what is where you came from. That is apparently the point I'm at, because I'm reading Americanah, which is often about America's particularly insidious and confusing brand of racism as perceived by Ifemelu, a "non-American black (NAB)" who writes a popular blog about race in America from this perspective, and my initial responses are 1) "Why did I not read this before! It is amazing!" and 2) "I yearn so wistfully for this problematic land!"
To be fair, a lot of the book is about Nigeria, and a lot of the book is about the UK, and I'm not exaggerating or doing one of those evasive book reviewer maneuvers when I say it's so even and good that I haven't succumbed to that When will you get back to the plot I like, I am the ultimate and most important reader, I want to read only what requires no empathetic or imaginative skill to register with me weakness that has defeated many-an Infinite Jest reader. This despite suffering a longing for the land of the free, home of the brave apparently so intense that I seriously thought, when the protagonist Ifemelu and her Yale lecturer boyfriend, Blaine, walk "down Elm Street, on their way to get a sandwich": "Oh my God, I WISH I WERE WALKING DOWN ELM STREET ON MY WAY TO GET A SANDWICH."
Once, as they walked down Elm Street, on their way to get a sandwich, they saw the plump black woman who as a fixture on campus: always standing near the coffee shop, a woollen hat squashed on her head, offering single plastic red roses to passers-by and asking "You got any change?" Two students were talking to her, and then one of them gave her a cappuccino in a tall paper cup. The woman looked thrilled; she threw her head back and drank from the cup.
"That's so disgusting," Blaine said, as they walked past.
"I know," Ifemelu said, although she did not quite understand why he felt so strongly about the homeless woman and her cappuccino gift. Weeks before, an older white woman standing in line behind them at the grocery store had said, "Your hair is so beautiful, can I touch it?" and Ifemelu said yes. The woman sank her fingers into her Afro. She sensed Blaine tense, saw the pulsing at his temples. "How could you let her do that?" he asked afterwards. "Why not? How else will she know what hair like mine feels like? She probably doesn't know any black people."
"And so you have to be her guinea pig?" Blaine asked. He expected her to feel what she did not know how to feel.
Okay, so it's not just the sandwich, and I hated Yale and don't experience pangs of Cole Porter-soundtracked memory when I think of Elm Street and the specific sandwiches one might purchase there. While my homesickness could be interpreted as me being nostalgic for a racism from which I most certainly benefit (I am white), I really don't think that's what it is, after much uncomfortable reflection on race in America inspired by this book and the Ferguson bullshit and living in a country (Germany) where blackness is just different (in terms of, e.g., ancestry, immigration status, particular long-standing racial tensions (blackface—they're still doing it), integration between racial groups, proportion of the general population that is of color—the last time I went to New York I got off the plane and thought, "Oh my God, I forgot about black people"—and all the effects these differences create). Europeans often offer a back-handed compliment when the topic of racism in America comes up; they insult your country with you, not at you, since you must obviously share their holier-than-thou, "America is so fucked up!" stance—after all, you left for a reason! But I often feel guilty for not being there, for having decamped to a culture where the issue of race is glossed over with a "What's the big deal?," where it doesn't really have to make me uncomfortable and few would understand, really, the many ways Americanah is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "fuck you" book. I want to be able to appreciate with someone the way her bad ass critical eye turns to what is so rarely critiqued and instead accepted as rightness. But instead I'm alone in my room, thinking, "Why did I not read this before! It is amazing! I yearn so wistfully for this problematic land, where I might find people who would understand how amazing this is without my having to explain it!"
She...wrote her blogs from his apartment, at a desk he had placed for her near the bedroom window. At first, thrilled by his interest, graced by his intelligence, she let him read her blog posts before she put them up. She did not ask for his edits, but slowly she began to make changes, to add and remove, because of what he said. Then she began to resent it. Her posts sounded too academic, too much like him. She had written a post about inner cities—"Why Are the Dankest, Drabbest Parts of American Cities Full of American Blacks?"—and he told her to include details about government policy and redistricting. She did, but after rereading it, she took down the post.
"I don't want to explain. I want to observe," she said.
"Remember people are not reading you as entertainment, they're reading you as cultural commentary. That's a real responsibility... Keep your style but add more depth."
"It has enough depth," she said, irritated, but with the niggling thought that he was right.
"You're being lazy, Ifem."
He used that word, "lazy", often, for his students who did not hand in work on time, black celebrities who were not politically active, ideas that did not match his own. Sometimes she felt like his apprentice.... She blogged about two novels she loved, by Ann Petry and Gayl Jones, and Blaine said, "They don't push the boundaries." He spoke gently, as though he did not want to upset her, but it still had to be said. His positions were firm, so thought-through and fully realized in his own mind that he sometimes seemed surprised that she, too, had not arrived at them herself. She felt a step removed from the things he believed, and the things he knew, and she was eager to play catch-up, fascinated by his sense of rightness.
September 9, 2014
In the August issue of Bookslut, Corinna Pichl interviews Chloé Griffin, the author of Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller. The underground writer and actress Cookie Mueller is mostly known for having been part of John Waters’s unique, repugnant and delightfully monstrous Dreamland. For more on Cookie Mueller and the Dreamland, here are a few suggestions:
Always with Castro on my mind I spent idle hours of the summer months in the woods behind my parents’ house. In these woods was a strange railroad track, where a mystery train passed through a tunnel of trees and vines twice a day, once at 1 PM and then again in the opposite direction at 3 PM. I would climb a steep hill which sat right on the tracks and I would look down into the smoke stack and always the black smoke would settle on my white clamdiggers. For miles and miles in the direction that the train was headed there was nothing except a seminary and an insane asylum so naturally my assumption was that one of the cattle cars was full of loons anxious to be committed and the other car was full of future priests, students of theology, who, as everyone knows, have to use public transportation because they’re far too religious to drive their own automobiles. The 3 PM train would return the other way carrying the dirty laundry. I imagined that both cattle cars were full of stained straight jackets and sweaty clerical collars. There was always a caboose full of shirtless men playing cards or strip Monopoly. This verified my assumptions, somehow.
Cookie Mueller, My Bio: Notes on an American Childhood, 1949-1959 | BOMB Magazine
Mueller’s book, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, contains more autobiographical writing. John Waters: "Cookie Mueller wrote like a lunatic Uncle Remus - spinning little stories from Hell that will make any reader laugh out loud." The humor she exhibits in her writing – especially her humor about being institutionalized – is the element that best reveals what a great fit she was for John Waters's crazy, outrageous, and yet funny world.
To better understand Cookie Mueller’s stylistic sensibilities, we need to plunge deeper into the Dreamland envisioned by John Waters:
In creating his world, John Waters was equally inspired by movies and books. He insists screenwriting is writing. And who could argue against such a statement without coming off as obnoxiously elitist? One can get more than just a glimpse at his writing influences as he is very open about what’s on his bookshelves. In a conversation at the New York Public Library, John Waters discusses his collection of trashy, politically incorrect books. A closer look at his shelves, though, reveals that John Waters is more intellectual than he’d like to admit: "Reading as a Pleasant Deviation: A Guided Tour of John Waters’ Library".
Going back to Cookie Mueller, Alexandra Molotkow writes:
Cookie Mueller had her own normal and her own values -- good values, adapted for a life that careened like a unicycle down a fire escape. She was the kind of person who seems to live adjacent to the rest of us, subject to different rules and different laws of cause and effect. Adventures just accrued to her, like money for some and lovers for others (“I’m not wild,” she wrote, “I happen to stumble onto wildness. It gets in my path”). And she was lucky, in her way: in Sicily, she rented a car, totalled the roof, then returned it to an inspector too short to notice the damage; in Elkton, Maryland she was kidnapped by gun-wielding hillbillies and escaped by hiding in the woods under the lining of her black velvet jacket. She lived a short life as a born survivor; you picture her losing an arm, then tossing it into the ice box as she fishes out a beer.
Alexandra Molotkow, "Funny But Not Beautiful, Beautiful But Not Smart" | Hazlitt
What We're Reading
by Will George
Image: "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)" (1915-23) by Marcel Duchamp
Before I found Chris F. Westbury’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even I’d never heard of Marcel Duchamp’s artwork of the same title; my knowledge of Duchamp was restricted to urinals. The original "Bride Stripped Bare," on permanent display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a 6'-wide-by-9'-tall abstraction showcasing no bride, no bachelors, no bare-stripped anything. Instead it sandwiches an image of an antique chocolate grinder between plates of crazed glass.
Westbury’s novel is crazed in a different sense. The narrator is a Duchamp-obsessed OCD sufferer whose fixations carry him to Philly to commission a pricey working replica of the chocolate grinder. He’s independently wealthy, so he can chase his interests full-time. Or more than full-time.
I can’t say I relate to this intimate first-person view of OCD: the constant hand-washing, the habitual anagrammatizing of names, the interminable group therapy, the minute over-description. I could definitely smile at it, though—I admire Westbury’s handling of this subject, humorous but without flippancy. I recommend The Bride Stripped Bare to fans of fiction or memoir about mental disorders (e.g., Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted).
September 8, 2014
Image: "L'Absinthe" (1876) by Edgar Degas
Ten Short Story Collections Featuring Recurring Female Protagonists Who Are Alienated and/or Despondent and/or Bitterly Cynical After Finding Themselves Victims of Patriarchal and/or Generally Unfavorable Situations
2. The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith
3. The Left Bank and Other Stories by Jean Rhys
4. The Habit of Loving by Doris Lessing
5. Widow: Stories by Michelle Latiolais
6. Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans
7. Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
8. Famous Fathers and Other Stories by Pia Z. Ehrhardt
9. Dangerous Calm: Selected Stories by Elizabeth Taylor
10. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
September 5, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
-I am in a terrible mood, involving both anger and despair, as well as a resentment that comes in waves of generality that crest and crash into specificities, and I do not want to talk about any of the 3-4 good books I'm reading right now. And why am I listening to Josephine Baker? What is the point? The beautiful resurgence of summer weather taunts, oppresses. This Prospect article about the problem with expectations of happiness has always been apt, but it's especially so on this pleasant fucking day:
The problem with Hawaii is that you are expected to be happy—by idiots like me, for example—so that when you are depressed, you are not just depressed, you feel guilty about being depressed too, so you’re doubly screwed...
“Yep,” she concluded, “Hawaii really sucks.”
The article is about how Hawaii is everywhere.
-I was going to write about that Women in Clothes book that came out yesterday, but it's so big, and so far my open-to-random-page, scan-for-something-interesting strategy has uncovered nothing worth talking about, except a series of photos of one woman's different kinds of bobby pins, which I think evokes a very particular and intimate aspect of feminine appearance, the behind-closed-bathroom-doors construction of that appearance. And I often think about the unfamiliar bobby pin on a nightstand as evidence of an affair. Anyway, I don't know; I will read more and get back to you. I can imagine there being great interviews in it, and I'm interested in knowing what all Sheila Heti's (sometimes rich) friends-of-friends spend on clothes, etc., but it's not really the kind of book you can read; it's more like a magazine you don't get the satisfaction of being able to skim in a single sitting.
-Adult has a great profile of the "emerging" painter Jamian Juliano-Villani that contains a pretty critical analysis of MFA (art) programs. (Spoiler: the piece is called "Discourse Sucks.") If you go to Adult's homepage, you will be greeted with a very round man ass. Unrelated, but possibly of interest.
-Yesterday I fell into a New York Magazine Science of Us spiral, initiated by a desire to vindicate my literal disgust for networking and then set in real motion with a procrastinatory link about how to avoid procrastinating that takes its illustrative example from Harry Potter. You don't need to read the articles, but what is kind of funny is the sole comment on the one that briefly, very anecdotally mentions our boy wizard. The author of the article says he hasn't read Harry Potter, so he makes a little joke about how he has no idea what the ultimately irrelevant Harry Potter terminology used in the study he's talking about means. Comment reads:
Uh, maybe find out what the Triwizard Tournament was all about before writing an article centered around it? Just an idea.
Uh, adult Harry Potter fans, maybe try to be a little less transparent. Just an idea.
September 4, 2014
There's a freshly translated Cortázar story, "Headache," up at Tor.com. I'm not going to summarize its premise in a blog-like manner, since part of the not-quite-fun-but-enjoyment,-pleasure of reading him is having to figure out what's going on, and I'm pretty sure I don't just say that because the first Cortázar story I read was "Axolotl" in Spanish class and I think our professor was doing it to fuck with us, figuring out what's going on in non-magical stories being task enough in Spanish class. What I will say is that it contains the sentence, "The cranium squeezes the brain like a steel helmet—well said," so I don't know why you're still here.
September 3, 2014
Image: "The Children's Class" by Henri-Jules-Jean Geoffroy.
September and a new issue of Bookslut are upon us: buy new clothes to fabricate a sense of rebirth and possibility, and then read! Literature pairs well with brown leather boots! You cannot achieve intellectual growth without products!
Nicholas Vajifdar is on point, as usual, with his The Forgotten Twentieth Century column, this time on Kathy Acker's essays:
Acker's other preoccupation is with something she calls "language," and again her repetition of the word creates a kind of hypnotic hum around it, suggesting esoteric meanings. Acker's "language" is not simply talking and writing, but the entire enterprise of trying to "pin things down," to particularize them in a system of symbols; it also encompasses the privilege of being heard and understood on one's own terms.
David Connerley Nahm, the author of Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, which is also reviewed in the September issue, is today's guest on Brad Listi's Other People (now OTHERPPL, but ugh, I just can't) podcast. I haven't listened to the episode, and Brad has, frankly, lost the plot a bit with Other People (see: OTHERPPL, always talking about himself), but maybe it's good? I used to listen to the podcast a lot while I was working a particularly horrible job that involved walking around outside for hours in Berlin in January, so maybe it's out of sentimental attachment that I want him to turn it around, but: I want him to turn it around.
Also, don't forget that if you're, ahem, looking for extracurricular activities, to return to the lame back-to-school reference, Bookslut is looking for new writers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interested in reviewing, interviewing, or writing a column.
August 31, 2014
Image: "Women Workers, Take Up Your Rifles!" (1918) by Lev Brodoty.
In celebration of American Labor Day and of Jessa and I having separate but equally limited Internet access until Tuesday evening—odds are I'll be drunk when you read this—I have some logistical and informational announcements:
1) Bookslut needs new blood—ideal candidates will prevail among the undead, but we're open to mortals. All sections of the magazine are fair game—features are interviews, reviews are reviews (fiction, non-fiction, and poetry), and we're always open to new column ideas. If you're interested, email Jessa at email@example.com.
2) Wizeo, a crowdfunding-for-charity startup that hosts 15-minute video chats with influential people ("Wizzes," which is the first and last time I'm going to quote that) in various fields, is featuring back-to-back literary types this week, on Tuesday and Wednesday. For a donation of any amount (any amount!) that will go to a specific charity, you can watch/participate.
On Tuesday at 8 pm EST, Ladette Randolph, the editor-in-chief of Ploughshares and author of the forthcoming memoir Leaving the Pink House (University of Iowa Press, September 2014), will advise emerging writers, impart general wisdom. Questions already submitted include: "What makes some works more or less likely to be published in Ploughshares?" and "What do you think of YA? Is it literature?" (Dramatic pause.)
Once more, with feeling, on Wednesday: same time, same place, different author. This time it's Alden Jones, who Michael Carroll interviewed for Bookslut in June. (Remember: you, too, could interview luminaries for Bookslut.) Jones has written a travel memoir, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia (University of Wisconsin, 2013), and a collection of short stories, Unaccompanied Minors, prompting the "How much is autobiographical?!?!" question, as well as "Do you keep a journal when you travel? How does it affect your work?"
August 29, 2014
Image: "Saint Jerome" (1606) by Caravaggio.
Weekend Recommended Reading
-A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation about the apparently emerging "books in translation" genre with EJ Van Lanen, who founded the eBooks-in-translation company Frisch & Co. (which is great/I've written about before), basically about how ridiculous it is that having originally been published in a language other than English relegates a contemporary book to a genre, the overarching problems of which I do not need to explain, and it's ridiculous not only because technically people like, you know, Proust should fall into it. It seems like this is changing, thanks partially to bestselling Scandinavians, partially to Murakami, and partially to everyone wanting to seem interesting and worldly. Thank God for the fall of the American empire. There's a great little profile of two Spanish->English translators, Edith Grossman and Natasha Wimmer, in Newsweek.
As I read more translated stuff, I find I'm often running into the same sort of "translation voice," characterized by an apparent skepticism of semi-colons and wide-eyed lack of contractions, as if all people who aren't anglophone write the same way. Dangerous, I say. Anyway, it's been said before, obviously, but damn, The Savage Detectives makes me feel like I'd trust Natasha Wimmer with my life. Her brilliance is especially obvious when you try to read Knausgaard, who is seeming, more and more, to have been a little shafted by his translator.
Wimmer moved to Mexico City while translating the book. She rented an apartment near one of the protagonists’ favorite coffee shops—it is a very geographically minded book, explains Wimmer, so understanding the neighborhood’s layout was important—and met with student fans of Bolaño to discuss the meaning of the book’s slang.
Still, when she was three-quarters of the way through translating the novel, Wimmer decided to start over; she felt as if her sentence breaks were too different from Bolaño’s.
And she has amazing hair, too.
-For all you upstarts compiling "Top 13 Foreign Words That Are Untranslatable in English" articles, the Wikipedia entry for "Untranslatability"would like to politely interject:
Quite often, a text or utterance that is considered to be "untranslatable" is actually a lacuna, or lexical gap. That is, there is no one-to-one equivalence between the word, expression or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression or turn of phrase in the target language. A translator can, however, resort to a number of translation procedures to compensate for this. Therefore, untranslatability or difficulty of translation does not always carry deep linguistic relativity implications; denotation can virtually always be translated, given enough circumlocution, although connotation may be ineffable or inefficient to convey.
-The New York Review of Books has a long piece about Khmer people who feel "denied their 'right to the precise term for what was done to us'" in the wake of the UN-backed tribunal's conviction of the last two Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity—and not "genocide." It's an interesting mini-history of the word in Cambodian culture vs. the precise meaning established by the 1948 Genocide Convention, and very follow-able/introductory if you don't know much about the Khmer Rouge. Plus Cambodian Folk Stories from the Gatiloke.
-And two things about lying in bed. 1) If only they'd had laptops in 1909. 2):
Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.
August 28, 2014
What are books anymore, even? I'm reading something because a publication asked me to review it, and it's just so fucking lame. I'm trying to finish it as quickly as possible so its lameness doesn't seep into the intricately woven fabric of my intellectual life, staining it permanently, but God, 300+ pages of the same two ideas presented unimaginatively is almost more depressing than a straight-up, your-mom-must-run-a-publishing-company-bad book; at least there you have something to actively rail against. If we want this literature thing to work out, we have to all do our part, and that means pausing and thinking very seriously about whether your successful Internet writing career will translate into a good book, which is a physical object, something that takes up space both literally and within the grand scope of human knowledge. I do not mean: will it sell? I mean: do the people need to read your writing in an expensive-to-produce form that is weighty with historical and intellectual significances, which imply the also-literally-weighty object has taken more time and thought to produce than just another WordPress site and is, thus, probably more worthy of consideration than a rant-y blog post some precocious 24-year-old wrote in a couple of hours? Or will you gather a bunch of your most decent journal entries together under a great title, thus marring all future potential uses of that great title with connotational lameness, and be like, "I published a book!"? If you have read great books and purport to respect and venerate them, then why would you do this? Why?
I really resent being told by swathes and swathes of people—and not just people, but people who ostensibly like books and read them—that a book is good, only to obtain it and find myself confronted with free-market capitalism funneled into something completely unremarkable, and I also really resent the alienation that goes along with that, when everyone is talking about a book and you finally read it and are like, "This? Really? Is something wrong with me?" I find myself thinking that it's not hard to see why people retreat into academia, and then I thirdly resent being made to wish I could fully express my exclusive, snobbish tendencies, because exclusive snobbery is much worse than this lameness, this lameness that seduces you with its simple sentences and uncomplicated, why-can't-everyone-just-get-along ideas. Lame people need shit to read, too, sure, but instead of giving it to them, maybe we could decrease the number of lame people if we encouraged everyone to read books that feel like they need to exist, that do not espouse complacency implicitly in their lameness of form or explicitly in their lameness of content. Also, let's be clear: "At least they're reading!"* might work for at-risk youth; it doesn't really work for upper-middle class liberal arts graduates working in the media, for people who already understand that reading is valuable and then coast along with not-challenging nothing-books. Quit doing that. Yes, I'm "reader-shaming," which is a neo-liberal absurdity I both can and cannot believe someone tried to coin, but I don't mean it along genre lines—it can't be all James Joyce all the time. I just mean, like, don't read(/write) books that are empty, that say the same things everyone else says in the same way everyone else says them.
Also, quit taking selfies.
*Tangential: "Who Reads Mein Kampf?" is not about the dangers of 21st-century literature of mediocrity, but it is a great piece about the more than 600 Amazon reviews of Mein Kampf, which, despite my fervor, I fully acknowledge is a book more damaging to society than boring Internet people are.
August 27, 2014
In the August issue of Bookslut, Kate Loftus-O’Brien reviews Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, The Hundred-Year House. With such an ambitious novel – extended time, limited space – Makkai is a writer to watch. To get to know her work better, here are more words by Rebecca Makkai:
Her first novel, The Borrowers – about a librarian who kidnaps / is kidnapped by a ten-year-old boy she helped smuggle books past his homophobic mother – has a rather strong opening:
I might be the villain of this story. Even now, it’s hard to tell.
Back at the library, amid the books and books on ancient Egypt, the picture the children loved most showed the god of death weighing a dead man’s heart against a feather. There is this consolation, then, at least: one day, I will know my guilt.
Rebecca Makkai, The Borrower
Lucy has an almost religious belief in the power of literature. She thinks that if she can get books into Ian's hands that nudge him toward questioning the authority of his evangelical parents, that this broadening of his outlook "might well be what would save his life." What about you? What matters most to you in a book? When you read, is there anything in particular you're looking for?
I don't think, at this point in my life, that I'm looking to be saved from anything particular -- but there is a certain salvation to be had from recognizing the commonality of experience, especially with an author very far removed from your own world. It's one thing to read a contemporary American writer talking about something we all agree on, like Isn't it embarrassing how people revert to cliche when they flirt? but then you read Madame Bovary, and here's Flaubert, one hundred and thirty years dead, making the same point with startling familiarity. And there's a reassurance in that, this reminder that we're not alone in the universe. I like to think it's the same feeling early humans would have when they stumbled upon cave paintings left by earlier tribes: "Dude, there are other people! And they hunt mammoths just like us!" That's the feeling I'm after, on whatever level, when I pick up a book: I want to sit there wondering how the author got inside my brain.
Rebecca Makkai interviewed by Reese Kwon, An interview with Rebecca Makkai | Bookslut
It was fun to play with those extremes: the delusional, monster kidnapper and his victim, versus the two misfit companions helping each other escape. Lucy isn’t sure where she falls on that spectrum, but, being the librarian she is, she sees her whole life through a sort of narrative lens and wants to define herself on those terms.
Nabokov’s influence actually helped me through a difficult pass in the writing of this story; I’d gotten Lucy and Ian on the road, but after they got past Chicago the story abruptly lost steam. I dug back into Lolita and saw what I’d forgotten, and what the old master had done so effortlessly: he had them followed. I embraced “Mr. Shades” as a nod to Lolita‘s Quilty plotline—but even if it hadn’t fit my larger thematic motives, I’d still have stolen the idea, because it was such a good, basic one. I’m pretty sure I literally hit myself on the head when I saw it. As soon as Lucy and Ian got a follower, too, I had a triangle—and that’s when plots (and life) get interesting.
Of course there’s a whole heaping dose of The Wizard of Oz in there, too, and there’s even some Ulysses, buried so deep that only the true-of-English-major-heart will find it.
Q. Why do you think the librarian’s stereotypical forlorn spinster image still persists?
I have absolutely no idea, because most of the librarians I know are loud and rebellious individuals.
On the potential difficulties of writing political fiction:
I don’t find it difficult so much as unavoidable. It’s funny, even when I think I’m writing a very apolitical piece (because it’s not directly about politics or revolution), it will end up being about race or class. You’d think I’d be a loudly political person in real life, but really I limit myself to voting and occasionally talking back to NPR when I’m alone in the car. And maybe that’s just what my stories will always be about, whether I want it or not – in the way that a Roth story is always about sex and a John Irving story is always about dismemberment and bears.
I think that whether I’m writing about a revolution or a bomb shelter or a public library, what I’m drawn to is the power structure – who’s in charge, who’s being oppressed, who’s working their way up that ladder. There’s a lot of drama inherent in that, and it’s not so much that I have a political ax to grind as that this is where I tend to find the story.
I do think that if someone sets out to write fiction just to prove a certain political point, though, it becomes unbearable. It’s why I can’t stand Tolstoy. I think politics can be the subject, but not the point.
Rebecca Makkai interviewed by Sabra Wineteer, The Millions Interview: Rebecca Makkai | The Millions
On limited perception and playing with viewpoints in The Hundred-Year House:
There’s someone in every story who knows the most about what’s going on. It might be the narrator or a major character, or it might actually be the reader. Sometimes that’s because the narrator’s understanding is limited (Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a fabulous example), and sometimes it’s because the reader is the only one who has access to multiple points of view. I wanted to play with that, and I also wanted us to be the only ones with access to multiple time periods. It’s something we’re denied in real life: I’m typing this in a coffee shop in a building that’s nearly 200 years old, and I have so much information at my fingertips (I mean, there’s Wi-Fi!), but one thing I absolutely cannot see is what was happening right here in 1918 or 1867, or even yesterday. In real life, not only are we never truly able to know each other, we’re never able to know anything but the present moment. Experiencing art (reading, watching a movie) is one of the only ways we can simulate this kind of understanding, this synthesis of different viewpoints or different times. It was fun writing in the 3rd person. My first novel was in 1st; after that, 3rd felt like flying. An early reader described the viewpoint as “Olympian,” and I loved that idea and tried to amplify it. Especially towards the end of the 1929 section, we’re sort of soaring through time and space.
Rebecca Makkai interviewed by Margaret Zamos-Monteith, An Interview with Rebecca Makkai, Author of The Hundred-Year House | Dead Darlings
In Gossip, the short story Rebecca Makkai read for This American Life, the writer amplifies this game of viewpoints. What the characters know and don’t know, what the viewers in the story see and don’t see – that’s the essence of Gossip. Moreover, there’s something almost alchemical about this piece of writing as Rebecca Makkai takes trash (reality TV) and turns it into something very close to gold.
August 26, 2014
If you happen to be a relative of the famous you are granted certain concessions and privileges, although you understand that your claim or the claim of others on behalf of you must first be recognised. Imposters are frowned upon. The question is, how does one decide in the first place which of the famous are imposters?
After death is best; time, sprung free of the trap, exercises itself day and night in long division, subtraction, blinding itself in the poor light of the grave where the little worms patrol the corridors carrying torches past each darkened room.
The remainders are framed in gold.
Now there was once a woman painter who became famous after her death when bearded men plunged swords in each other's hearts to possess one of her paintings or to donate one, suitably inscribed and recorded, to the local gallery which was dark brown, opening and closing with a faulty catch, like a broom cupboard where in spring and summer the dust is elbowed away and the shapes of paint are temporarily revived, with the sun warming the creaking damp joints of colour, the drip-dry bones of light blazing.
Now after the death of the painter, after her biography had been written, the memoirs of her friends printed and her work appraised as successful communication, a tunnel through dense mountain walls where the penalties of work are loneliness, suffocation, drowning in underground streams, pit-blindness, those who recognised her work and were grateful for human routes at any costs, for burdened ants who never swerve, decide to extend their interest.
'Has she any relatives?' they asked.
'None,' was the answer.
Then suddenly they heard of Wilfred, the nephew, the eccentric beachcomber with the encyclopaedic knowledge of flora, fauna, conchology.
They were amazed and excited.
'Why didn't someone tell us before?' they cried. 'To think that Wilfred has been living all this time in a remote northern seaside town, and not a word has been breathed that he was a relative of the famous!'
Few people knew.
-From "A Relative of the Famous" by Janet Frame
The woman next to me in this cafe is on her cell phone speaking a typically beautiful French, saying voilà, voilà. She's probably talking about plumbing, but wouldn't it be great if she were talking about the nature of artistic celebrity?
August 25, 2014
Image: "Dogs Fighting" by Paul de Vos
Post-Weekend Recommended Reading
Today's theme is snippy intellectual disagreements, sometimes Twitter-related:
-Big LOLs to everyone who came up with the same lame "Did no one edit this?!" joke in response to Hamilton Nolan's "Against Editors" piece at Gawker. Especially you, Sasha Weiss, clearly flustered from a mawkish, four-tweet paean to Elena Ferrante, writer of a series that "burrows deeper beneath the surface of life" than Knausgaard's. Cool metaphor! Never was support for Nolan's "writing and editing are two completely different skills" argument stronger than when you earnestly tweeted the word "palimpsest."
If you believe that having four editors edit a story produces a better story than having one editor edit a story, I submit that you have the small mind of a middle manager, and should be employed not in journalism but in something more appropriate for your numbers-based outlook on life, like carpet sales.
You go, Ham No-No. (Yes? No? Help! I don't have an editor!) (While you're at it, get that pause comma between "manager" and "and" the fuck out of there.)
-I've got a short story, "Smart People Talk About Sex II," up at the Quietus. It includes the phrase "pungent glob of lukewarm moisture," which, full disclosure, is a marketing strategy I've already tweeted.
-Mary Beard—I love her. Some might object to so much of this piece focusing on what she looks like, given that one of its central theses is that she's too busy gesticulating wildly about ancient Rome to give a shit, but no—it's a great profile.
-More in passive-aggressive Twitter linking and editorial strategy nit-picking: After the New Republic published a piece about the fourth-annual "World Domination Summit" ("a festival that's sort of like Burning Man meets South by Southwest, but for independently-minded professionals"), better-magazine Jacobin called them out for lazy modifiers ("Yes, lefty-socialist. Righty-socialism was never a good look for humanity.") and lazier citation of "In the Name of Love," Miya Tokumitsu's essay on the fallacy of "Do what you love!" (DWYL), which Jacobin published in January. ("We do appreciate @tnr directly citing a Jacobin article, then linking to the Slate reprint. We have enough elderly liberal readers as is.") It's good reason to (re)visit Tokumitsu's essay at Jacobin—not Slate.
August 22, 2014
Image: From the "Floating Heads" installation at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum. Photo by Shaun Killen.
Weekend Recommended Reading
The city had converted an elevated length of abandoned railway spur into an aerial greenway and the agent and I were walking south along it in the unseasonable warmth after an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death. We had ingested the impossibly tender things entire, the first intact head I had ever consumed, let alone of an animal that decorates its lair, has been observed at complicated play.
-I just finished 10:04, the new Ben Lerner, which is opened by the great sentences above, and to be completely honest, if I were you what I would do this weekend is pre-order it and then sit cross-legged in front of your mail receptacle, box or flap-in-door or, funnier, public PO box, until September 2, consuming only baby octopuses as an anticipatory homage. (If you haven't read Leaving the Atocha Station, it's kind of important that you read it first, 10:04 sort of containing and subverting, as well as making near-explicit reference to, it, so that is an acceptable activity in lieu of the unethical consumption of intelligent cephalopods.) It—10:04—almost certainly falls under the genre umbrella of what Jessa calls "floating heads," and I'm almost certainly so deeply in love with it because I have a lot in common with Lerner (and, thus, his protagonist(s)) w/r/t educational background, intellectual and professional pursuits, etc., but whatever: things would be better if we didn't have bodily annoyances to deal with, so many people do this kind of book wrong, and Ben Lerner is all the superlative adjectives. I'm not going to sling any book review bullshit, about it being a "complex meditation on time" or a "funny, completely modern reflection writing, genre, New York, x theme, y theme, and z theme," but seriously, it is formally fucking transcendental and feels right, especially if you hated My Struggle or Taipei but can't shake your begrudging respect for their literary projects. More TK.
-Vogue has a totally unremarkable and boring piece up about Elena Ferrante. Summary: She's super good at writing female friendships—duh—and they did the interview over email, so, no, revelations re: Ferrante's gender are not contained within.
-Freddie deBoer on online social liberalism, with a deft first-person plural in the clutch, at The Dish:
On matters of substance, I agree with almost everything that the social liberals on Tumblr and Twitter and blogs and websites believe. I believe that racism is embedded in many of our institutions. I believe that sexual violence is common and that we have a culture of misogyny. I believe that privilege is real. I believe all of that. And I understand and respect the need to express rage, which is a legitimate political emotion. But I also believe that there’s no possible way to fix these problems without bringing more people into the coalition...People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive. If we turn away from everyone that says or believes something dumb, we will find ourselves lecturing to an empty room.
-Xiaolu Guo has an essay at Aeon on Western influence and the rise of "wealthy socialism" in China.
As for me, I'm switching off between Zone, the 521-page, one-sentence debut from (the very slick) Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Prizes by Janet Frame. After "floating heads," "books by wrongly institutionalized female geniuses" is one of my favorite genres.
August 21, 2014
While toiling over what to write about today, time passing quickly and soundlessly, like a smooth-calved middle-aged man on some kind of stupid, overpriced road bike, I clicked over to Twitter—for inspiration—and was pleasantly surprised to see Jessa has a piece up at the New York Times. First thing to note is that she has somehow escaped the NYT's artless, paragraph-happy non-news editorial strategy and sounds original and witty, instead of like a po-faced drinker of iced lattes, which we can only attribute to her being "an intellectual or whatever." The second thing to note is that the piece is about tarot, which my afternoon companion did with a disappointed scoff and an "Oh. I mean, fine, but it would have been better if it were about literature."
The piece is, of course, about that, that (often, ahem, gendered) snobby dismissal of tarot as unintellectual, and it acknowledges the lameness of many tarot books/readers while also maintaining a faith in tarot's power—which is not that it can predict the future, Jesus Christ.
...if you take apart one of these tarot books, you’ll be left with nothing. Some soggy material full of mystical woo-woo language and soft ideas about karma and the spirit realm. Or self-help clichés, “no one will love you until you learn to love yourself” nonsense. The writers seemed incapable of distilling the experience I had had, and instead just wanted to tell me how to foretell the future or figure out why that guy left me.
I didn’t believe that the tarot cards were a way of the gods getting messages across (they can use Facebook, like everyone else). And I didn’t want to repair my psyche — I was unconvinced that it was broken....But I kept coming back to the power of that reading. What she was really doing was telling me a story about my life.
When you mention tarot (or astrology) to, for instance, a bright young literary man, his first reaction is always a sort of lean-back-in-surprise(-but-not-too-much-surprise-because-you're-pretty) thing, followed by, "You don't believe in that, do you?" My answer is always honest—"No, but it's fun to think about"—within the parameters of the bright young literary man's apparently limited worldview: I don't "believe in" tarot, or my horoscope, or whatever, not in the sense that I think they predict the future, speak volumes about my immutable character, etc. I do agree with Jessa, though, that there is value in using the cards (and their associated mythologies, stories, etc.) to show you alternative interpretations for your life. Letting those "mystical woo-woo" types define tarot—which, full disclosure, I'm not, like, super into; I can just get around it in the occasional fun and reflective setting—would maybe be like letting 50 Shades of Grey define novels. I'm suspicious when bright young literary men wave their hands at great portions of human thought/experience; is that not what literature is supposed to be about?
If nothing else, you can at least raise your glass to Jessa's brazen not quoting of Joan Didion. And read The Castle of Crossed Destinies, about which Calvino said, when he was asked whether his use of the tarot as a symbol for chance reflected a use of chance in how he wrote the book:
My tarot book, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, is the most calculated of all I have written. Nothing in it is left to chance. I don’t believe chance can play a role in my literature.
Image: Photo of Theresa Duncan and Baron von Luxxury
All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. - Susan Sontag, On Photography
If photographs are a reminder of a person’s vulnerability and mortality, after their death they also become proof. Proof of their existence. Moreover, photographs become the narrative of someone’s life. An incomplete one, but a narrative nonetheless. In the Disappearance issue of Spolia, Kurt Hartwig writes about such an album – filled with photographs and stories – that becomes a little girl’s connection to her dead parents.
Initially, the intention was to gather a few links and organize them thematically -- loss, mourning, memory. But like Sophia, the little girl in Hartwig’s story, I was reminded of the digital version of an album filled with stories and photos and got a little lost in there. So this entire post became all about Theresa Duncan.
I had never heard of Theresa Duncan till I stumbled upon a post on someone’s tumblr and hadn’t given this any thought until now. Following her suicide in 2007, all the traces she has left online as well as the memorial pages dedicated to her by friends and family have become her story. Probably the best word to describe Theresa Duncan is “storyteller.” This word encompasses all the activities she was known for: independent game designer, filmmaker, critic, blogger.
Looking at her blog now, titled The Wit of the Staircase, it’s rather difficult to understand its popularity. One has to dig deep to find those few posts that are more than just quotes and photos. Did the appeal of her blog reside in the fact that it showed that a creative life, filled with books, films and music (and the occasional frivolities) was not only possible, but it was also legitimate? More sensationalist, pseudo-socio-psychological interpretations could be offered, but let’s leave that to the “fast thinkers.”
Theresa Duncan has also left behind a large number of journals, glimpses of which can be caught on the tumblr kept by her mother, Memories of Theresa.
For someone who values the written word, their personal library can become an extension of their identity. This seems to be true of Theresa Duncan, too. Cary Loren writes about the books, writers and artists Theresa Duncan kept close to her heart.
August 19, 2014
We posted yesterday's interview with Catherine Lacey at a weird time, mostly because I'm a procrastinator and there are secret and mysterious server issues to which you are not privy, so today I'm just going to underline that you should read it. Hi, hello? You should read it, and you should do so knowing that it was conducted and published before I knew the New Yorker had glowingly reviewed Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine's debut novel, around which the interview centers. Sure, this glowing New Yorker review took place last Thursday, so maybe I should have caught it, but what do you think this is? I'm not a slave to the New Yorker, except sometimes. (To be fair, the review is also about 60% plot summary, which, I don't know, come on, guys.)
More importantly: read the brilliant Grantland piece about the Ferguson race riots—this is 2014—and then possibly read the Vanity Fair unique-perspective post about the "paramilitary posturing" there.
August 18, 2014
What We're Reading
This novel takes the setting of a pancake house as an occasion to ruminate on pancakes, their place in the heart of a man, and how the comfort they promise gives way to the disgusting way they feel in a gut before they're digested. This logic gets followed, in the mind of a psychologist narrator undergoing a breakdown, and as the book does not stop for chapter breaks I followed along with every step and felt the same insane and giddy out-of-body experience being described, as these feelings that seem so rooted in the body's urges were deconstructed. I laughed out loud in delight and in the end felt older, as the stuff of childhood was made to seem deeply unappealing so as to necessitate major life changes.
Image: Illustration by Sir John Tenniel for Alice in Wonderland.
An Interview with Catherine Lacey
I first heard (about) Catherine Lacey when she was on Brad Listi's Otherppl (née Other People) podcast, and I guess I sort of developed a crush on her. She talked about the sort of things that give people (the media) pause (being from Mississippi, selling her eggs, moving to New Zealand to work on a farm somewhat randomly), but she talked about them as if they were no big deal—as if she didn't necessarily consider her life and the choices she's made in it potential click bait—or even just material—and that was, I'm sad/weirded out to say, refreshing. She seemed to strike a balance between examining the ambiguity of the world and reacting to it, in particularly click-baity issues of gender (which we talk about) and in issues of art (which we also talk about); it made me want to read her debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing. I won't retread ground covered in the review in the August issue of Bookslut, but I thought the book was challenging and exciting and original, which felt like a great excuse for me to talk to her about female travel narratives, nervous breakdowns, and the aforementioned ambiguity.
One of the things I thought was most interesting about the book was the way you dealt with gender. It's certainly a factor in Elyria's interactions—the lone female hitchhiker warnings are the most obvious example of this—but I think a lot of (feminist) writers would have made a lot more of that angle. Did you set out to do anything particular with gender, or was this a byproduct? Had/Have you read the periodic calls for more (and less cliché) female road/travel literature, and do you feel like you're contributing to fixing that, whether you're actively trying to or not?
Catherine Lacey: I didn't intend to write specifically about gender or to contribute a female protagonist to the road trip narrative; however, I am very much aware of how women are hyper-perceived, misrepresented, and manipulated every goddamn day, and I can't leave that part of myself in bed while I get up to write. So now that I'm long past writing Nobody and I can back up and have a good look at it, I do hope it can adequately answer what Vanessa Veselka calls for in that American Reader essay, though it's not for me to decide.
Also, I didn't read the Veselka essay until after I'd gone on many-a solo trip and written this book, but this paragraph in particular feels ultra-relevant:
...my choice to leave home and hitchhike was certainly no stupider or more dangerous than signing onto a whaling ship in the 1850s, 'stealing' a slave and taking him across state lines, burning through relationships following some sketchy dude around the US, or accepting rides from drunk people while on hallucinogens. These tales are fictions, yes, but they deeply affect how we see people on the road. And the shadow cast by these narratives—one that valorizes existential curiosity, adventure, individuality, and surliness—does not fall over women. In a country with the richest road narratives in the modern world, women have none. Sure, there is the crazy she-murderer and the occasional Daisy Duke, but beyond that, zip.
Elyria's being female doesn't feel fundamental, though, even as the people she meets are trying to file her under gender-normative labels, most frequently "potential rape victim" or "wife."
I did an interview with Sasha Frere-Jones a few weeks ago, and he said he thought the character could have been a 50-year-old man instead of a 28-year-old woman and the story wouldn't even have to change much. This wasn't a goal while I was writing it, but I tend to agree. I don't really know if this helps, hurts, or does nothing to the role gender plays in the story.
I don't really know, either. When the people Elyria meets stereotype her, she tends to go along with it, or silently accept it and just move on; it's like it just rolls off her, the hey-you're-a-woman stuff, which highlights another thing I really liked: the intense interiority, the disconnect between the subject and the people around her trying to get her to share that interiority with them. Um...what am I getting at? I think: Was it hard to resist conclusiveness, decision, definition? Is ambiguity a priority for you?
Books that lack ambiguity or mystery bore me. People who avoid confronting ambiguity are even worse and are to be avoided at all costs or challenged relentlessly. Unless a person has deluded herself with one of the many worldviews that preach hard realities and absolutes, then she best get comfortable with ambiguity. For some, the concept of ambiguity is something they want to avoid in literature or film or music or their relationships or their day-to-day existence—I emphatically do not write for those people, unless they are open to challenging their relationship to ambiguity.
This reminds me of your piece for BuzzFeed about being psychologized through your characters—you try to delineate which parts of Elyria are you and which parts are her and end up concluding that it's impossible to do. It's all ambiguous boths and neithers, and with Elyria that's so frustrating; everyone wants to crack her code, and she's like, "There's no code!"
Elyria seems to believe that no one can oppress or categorize her more than she can oppress and categorize herself. She has an independence that has grown to the point of hermetically sealing her off from the rest of the world. In a way, this has led her into a struggle with the amount of instability in her life. No one has a code that can be cracked for someone else to understand them, yet we still attempt to understand others and be understood by others. Writing a character that rails against this idea is a good way to explore that concept.
I've read you (and reviewers) describe Nobody as a "story about a woman's mental dissolve," but do you see her as "crazy"? She makes a lot of sense to me. Well, she both makes a lot of sense and doesn't make sense. The desire for her husband to shoot her with a "microscopic bullet that would make [her] make sense again, a bullet that could send the proper wants through her body"—that makes sense.
I don't believe Elyria is crazy, but I do think it's clear she's going through a kind of dissolve, which isn't quite the same thing. The word "crazy" [would] separate her from the everyday person, and I don't think [hers is] such a rare experience—to feel completely adrift, to want more solitude than is actually healthy. Though Elyria is resourceful and scrappy and fearless in a deeply fearful way, she lacks the ability to take care of herself or console herself or loosen her strong hold on dread. She doesn't really know how to turn off the faucet of dread that we all sometimes wash our hands in.
I know plenty of intelligent people with irrational fears. Or smart people with deep anxieties. Probably everyone knows people like that. I think Elyria is kind of like this. Recognizable, but missing something.
The Veselka essay, again, makes an interesting point:
A man on the road is caught in the act of a becoming. A woman on the road has something seriously wrong with her.
I think Elyria is actually in the act of becoming, though we don't see her fully transform.
She's also always drawing a distinction between what is "regular" or "usual" and something else, so she ends up defining herself by what she's not—it's very slippery. Do you find the sense of there being a "normal" or "regular" way to be valid at all, or is it a (dangerous) delusion? Does Elyria believe that's where "meaning" is, in the "normal" she can't access?
I’m not entirely sure, but at some point in the narrative Elyria notices or wonders if other people might not experience the world in the feverish, unbearable way that she does. She thinks that makes her different or weird—which is a state that I think we all slip into sometimes. We wonder, Am I wrong? Am I doing life correctly? I think lots of people have moments (or long moments) during which we ask ourselves these questions. Most of us come back to the realization that everyone goes through times like these, despite the fact that we can't confirm for 100% sure that other people are sharing our experiences. But I wasn't trying to show the complete arc of this very human experience. I just wanted to dig into the uncomfortable part, to break down that state as fully as possible so I could better understand it.
Did you find yourself looking to other books for examples or help?
The one book that probably had the biggest effect on the structure was Alice in Wonderland. I read it on a solo camping trip while a tropical storm walloped my tent. I was writing the first draft and it was as if someone had just handed me the structure to the book I was already writing. Woman goes on journey, meets a lot of people, is kind of changed and kind of just the same. I used it like a map.
I read Leaving the Atocha Station after I was done writing Nobody, and I loved it so much and saw why it had been recommended to me. The same thing happened with Renata Adler's Pitch Dark and Speedboat.
I don't know about these emphatic non-Lerner women. I see a lot of similarities between Lerner and Adler and Jenny Offill and Thomas Bernhard and Plath—all writers I love. States of unravelment (I may have made this word up) are somewhat ungendered (maybe this one, too). If you're having a hard time with the frailty of existence (and in some ways all breakdowns, "dissolves," or unravelments are about exactly that), then it doesn't matter what gender you identify with. It may change the experience a little, but the bone of it is the same.