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Jul 032017
 

Mark Sampson Photo by Mark Raynes RobertsAuthor photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

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Singles Bar for Zombies

Sure, the blonde sitting there at the bar
is hot in a conventional way: coffin-ready
curve to her dress, the way she cups her wine
like a chalice of blood. But tell me this:
Does she have brains?
You could talk to her till you’re green in the face.
She’ll just look through you with a deadened gaze.
Down here’s still better than up there
where the cars all burn till the sky is smoke.
This bar’s subterranean.
A waitress with no eyes asks: “Wanna
see a food menu?” With your worm-brown mouth,
you answer, “No thanks. I’ve already eaten.”

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Je, Zeus

My name means
nothing. Mark my
words. I will smite you
with my thunder-
bolts just as easily
as heal your blindness
or turn water into wine.

What is it with you,
storyteller, that you insist
our names speak
to some higher or more
subtle calling?
What chance did Joyce’s
Dedalus have?
What are we to make
of Margaret Atwood’s all-
seeing narrator named
Iris?
And explain to me how
the one morbidly
obese star pilot
in the squad that
confronted the Death Star
just happened to be named
Porkins?

We may be fictional characters
but we still have rights!

Some very unwise men
brought gifts to my birthday—
a party moved from Mount
Olympus to some shit-
soaked barn about a two-hour
drive from Tel Aviv—and
told everyone that I
was the son of God,
the sun that shone
out their asses.

I can’t handle this kind of pressure.

To spite my mother (raped
by an angel, but that’s
a whole other story)
and her exorbitant expectations
of me, I enrolled
in a carpentry class
at the local community college.
Forget it, boys! I said.
Pay no attention to the
deitous (yes, it’s a word!)
reference in my name.
This particle-board cabinet
isn’t going to assemble itself.

Surely I’m allowed
to pick and play
the life I want.
Surely I can choose
which cross to bear.
Fate’s not everything.
I’ve a real lock
on this tabula rasa.
Doesn’t everyone?

Lou Gehrig
died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Go figure.

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Open Ground Coke

A dented smile on the
sidewalk, a gap-toothed
tab-pulled Titan of sticky
sybaritic joy. I knew the can
was half full when I took
a kick at it.
I mean, you’ve really got to believe
in optimism if you’re going to leave
a partially drunk Coke on the ground.
Whoever she was, and she was, at least
to my mind, a she – the indifference of lip gloss
smeared across the can’s silvery rooftop,
indentation along its side
the result of a woman’s thin, thoughtful
finger (I mean, a dude would’ve just
drained it dry and then
crushed that sucker flat) –
she must have had faith in the
wealth of the world,
dreamt of the fecund pampas, farm fields
that promise an abundance of sugar cane;
a princess asleep in the certainty
that our polar ice caps are going nowhere.
Here’s the thing about a positive attitude:
You’re still here whether you have one or not.
If you spend too long thinking just how filthy
these sidewalks are,
you’ll stroll yourself straight into madness.
You’ll miss the open ground Coke
taunting us with its air of waste.
It’s a harbinger of something,
though I’ll be damned if—

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The Mattress We Chose

The salesman said, You’ll probably get
eight good years out of this baby.

With that, a future as soft and firm as flesh
flourished before our eyes, a spell cast deep
in the unstained wellsprings of fabric.
This was a bed for aging on,
flopping cruciform on, tired,
a bit overweight on, at the end of our days.

Where will we be in eight years?
A raft of arguments, no doubt. Sweaty
summer sheets that need washing. A
breast cancer scare? The Sunday mornings
ruined by unconscionable cats screaming
for their breakfast? More grey hair found
in the thatches of my chest.

Yet, what I murmured under my breath was:
That’s a lot of sex – a thousand and forty
(at our present rate) steamy acts
of coupling. The wife laughed.
Yeah, right!

But I held my ground.
Could this bed, this marathon sack,
this Let’s grow old together mattress
handle all that?

The salesman blanched when I asked him.
He was no prophet of variable lust.
He was merely selling a place to lay
our burdens down.

—Mark Sampson

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Mark Sampson has published three novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007), Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), and The Slip (Dundurn Press, 2017) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, published by Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

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Mar 122017
 

In The Long Dry, Jones writes very well about ducks, their sex lives, and their feces. In fact, if there were an International Literary Prize for Writing about Ducks, Their Sex Lives, and Their Feces, Jones would easily win it. These passages are moments of levity in an otherwise dark, brooding, brutal and devastating novel. –Mark Sampson

The Long Dry
Cynan Jones
Coffee House Press, 2017
136 pages; $15.95

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If there’s one thing novelist Cynan Jones knows very well, it is the menace of ducks. Ducks are a menace. Anyone who grew up on or near farmland knows this. Ducks have a way of wreaking havoc on a farm, especially with their feces. Cynan Jones knows this. In his novella, The Long Dry, Jones writes very well about ducks, their sex lives, and their feces. In fact, if there were an International Literary Prize for Writing about Ducks, Their Sex Lives, and Their Feces, Jones would easily win it. Behold:

Given the way they have to have sex, it’s remarkable that there are any ducks. More remarkable that they have sex often. The male more or less drowns the female, who has to focus hard on staying afloat, and they both have to deal with wings and beaks and water and feathers, and it looks nasty, and they still have sex. So there were a great many ducks. And they all shat everywhere.

It became a problem for the tourists, and the locals didn’t like it. People talked about the ducks in pubs, and if you stood in lines at the local shops you heard people talk about ducks … If you put your washing out, somehow the ducks knew, and by some defiance of physics managed to crap on it. And duck crap isn’t nice. It’s green like baby shit. If you fed a baby on broccoli for a week …

The reason why they shat so much … was because “the people” fed them chips, whoever “the people” were. A duck should eat things from the water; that’s what they’re designed to do. But they were lazy and so hoovered up whatever people threw them, fighting off the seagulls and the errant starlings and the pigeons and, if they had to, fighting off each other, too. This poor diet is making the poor ducks poo. That was one take. Answer: we should give them proper food. Genius. So they tried. It was not the answer. They ate the food put down and the fish and chips and had sex even more. Ducks’ arses were no tighter than they’d ever been. There were simply too many ducks.

This passage is a moment of levity in an otherwise dark, brooding, brutal and devastating novel. The Long Dry is Jones’ debut book, first published in the U.K. in 2006 and made available in North America this year by Coffee House Press. Jones has published several other books in the years since, including The Dig, Bird, Blood, Snow, and Everything I Found on the Beach. His prose has been compared to that of Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway – that is, lines of spare, almost taciturn beauty that belie the tension and fraught emotions that coil below the surface by using short, compact sentences with a deceptively simple syntax that carries a surprising amount of descriptive weight. It is a style that could (and, perhaps, should) be labelled derivative of those two masters, but it is also one that serves the setting and themes of The Long Dry well.

This short novel (my reviewer’s copy is paginated at just 119 pages) is set on a hardscrabble farm in Wales. Jones structures the book using many briefly, almost elliptical chapters that act as a kind of narrative pointillism, slowly painting us a bigger picture. Our protagonist is Gareth, who inherited the farm from his father and lives there with his wife, Kate, and their two children, Dylan and Emmy. A couple of issues become apparent at the beginning of the book: a harsh and unforgiving drought has swept across the countryside, and a pregnant cow on Gareth’s farm has gone missing. These two misfortunes will prove the catalyst for a series of vignettes that will reveal the various physical, financial, sexual and psychological deprivations surrounding this family. As the reader soon learns, Gareth’s is a world plagued with miscarriages, sexual frigidity, infidelity, money woes and a looming family tragedy.

The novel’s central tension exists between Gareth and his wife, Kate. They do love each other but they are, we come to learn, very often on opposite sides when it comes to matters of the farm and their own success on it. Much of what divides them is the hard road they had to travel to give birth to Dylan and Emmy, as the couple suffered multiple miscarriages between their births:

They continued to try, first easily then with more need, to give their son a brother or sister. She miscarried twice. On the third time they told her she couldn’t have children then. She was thirty-four and damp like autumn, not wet in the way young women are, like spring, but damp and rich and earthy, and it didn’t seem right that she could not have a child. She was fertile and hungry, like fallen leaves.

In the midst of all this, Kate allows her herself to engage in a brief and regretful dalliance with a farmhand one day while Gareth is away. The encounter is short and loveless – the farmhand basically fucks her against a filthy tractor tire in the shed – and yet it casts Kate into a deep depression and acts of self-harm. Gareth, as far as we can tell, does not learn the truth: “It was two years before she was well again but she still feels sick now when she thinks of what she did, and the nagging doubt haunts her sometimes. It has never been the same since then. He blamed it on the miscarriages.” Through her depression, we can see how much more the farm means to Gareth than it does to her, and this divide will lead to an explosive exchange between them near the end of the novel.

Gareth’s father purchased the farm in 1951 to quit a job at a bank that he hated. Jones gives us little detail about how the father’s views on farming varied from his son’s, but one is left with the impression that Gareth’s holds an idealized view of what this land meant to his father and he is desperately trying to live up to an unspoken sense of expectation. A key link between the previous generation’s farming and Gareth’s is the story of Bill, who comes from the farm next door. Bill’s father killed himself after the hogs he had invested money in contracted a rare disease and had to be destroyed. Bill himself is described as “simple”, and never fully grasps that his family actually sold the farm prior to his father’s suicide or that the family must move into the village afterward. In an act of charity, Gareth’s father gives a portion of his land to Bill in the wake of his father’s death, a kind of pretend farm that Bill is free to work on, and it’s a kindness that Gareth himself continues to extend:

So Gareth’s father gave some land to Bill. He fenced off a few acres by the road and said to Bill it was his land now, and he could farm it. So he takes the orphaned lambs and grows things there and helps out on the farm when help is needed, like a shearing time, and he cuts grass for old ladies in the village and takes people spuds and cabbage, but underneath, as Gareth knows, he doesn’t understand still.

Perhaps fittingly, Bill’s situation on the farm features prominently in the climatic argument between Gareth and Kate near the novel’s end. Kate, fearful of their future, is pushing her husband to sell some of their land to home developers, but Gareth refuses to pull the carpet out from under Bill’s feet. “My father gave him that land,” he tells his snarling wife, “and I won’t take it from him.”

The biggest, and also darkest, irony in The Long Dry is that neither the lingering season of drought nor Gareth’s lost cow about to calve are the worst tragedies about to befall this farm, this family. We are told, in a kind narrative aside, that nine days from the conclusion of the novel’s main action, a fate will befall daughter Emmy that will lead to her sudden death. Emmy, we learn, will lose her life after eating a poisonous mushroom while out for a walk in the woods. The mushroom she eats is one of the most poisonous found in Europe: the amanita virosa, or “destroying angel.” It is especially lethal due to a delay between initial ingestion and the onset of symptoms.

Indeed, Jones goes into great chemical detail as to what happens to Emmy’s body as the toxins move through her after she eats the fungus; and it is startling how much emotional power he’s able to rend out of such a clinical description. Emmy’s death hits us hard, not because we have gotten to know her particularly well over the preceding 80-odd pages, but because Jones frames her death as just another hardship that comes from farm life, from an existence so very dependent on grappling with the natural world in all its capriciousness. Somehow, this makes Emmy’s fate even more devastating.

Thankfully, there are glimmers of hope that come near the end of The Long Dry – in the somewhat predictable form of the arrival of rain. It is what we, and Gareth’s family, are left with: the sky opening up and giving us a reprieve from all that has taken its toll on us, but also a reprieve from the even darker tragedies that await us in the wings.

—Mark Sampson

N5


Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His new novel, The Slip, is forthcoming from Dundurn Press in 2017. Mark’s stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

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Oct 072016
 

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It is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take a standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally. –Mark Sampson

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The Gloaming
Melanie Finn
Two Dollar Radio, 2016
318 pages, $16.99

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Stop me if you’ve heard this premise before. A sensitive but troubled character, at or near the threshold of middle age, suffers some major or minor tragedy in his or her life, and, looking for a fresh start, or reboot, or whatever, decides to travel to a far-off and “exotic” land, which, through the sheer scope of its exoticness, its novelty, provides the precise experiences or perspectives that our intrepid protagonist needs to learn something important about him or herself, or life in general, or whatever.

Yes, from Heart of Darkness and The Quiet American to Eat Pray Love, there are many works whereby the allure of foreign landscapes, of exotic adventures, supplies the writer with fecund and fruitful narrative soil. I myself have admired many novels that follow the general template described above, and, yes, even published one myself a couple of years ago. So it is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take this standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally, in her new novel, The Gloaming. If you yourself are a writer and thinking about forging your own “going aboard to learn something about yourself” kind of story, you would do no harm to it by reading this small masterpiece. It’s good to know what you’re up against.

Finn certainly holds some serious “foreign land” credentials. Having lived in Kenya until age eleven, she was educated in the United States and engaged in a busy journalism and screenwriting career while living in no fewer than six countries. Beyond her well-received debut novel, Away from You, published in 2004, she is also known for working alongside her filmmaker husband, Matt Aeberhard, to create the acclaimed 2008 documentary film, The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, in Tanzania. Reading The Gloaming, one gets the sense that this is a writer who knows Africa intimately, who understands the rich panoply of its cultures, its histories, its contradictions. To say this novel offers an unvarnished view of Tanzania would be an understatement, and yet there is a raw and terrifying beauty to the abject privation and misery that Finn unpacks in these pages.

The particulars of The Gloaming’s plot do not do justice to the emotional journey it takes the reader on. Our hero, a young, attractive, thirtysomething woman named Pilgrim Lankester (née Jones) is the wife of a successful human rights lawyer named Tom, whose work takes them to various countries around the world. When they end up in Switzerland, Tom meets, falls in love with, and leaves Pilgrim for a younger woman named Elise. Pilgrim, now stranded in a bland Geneva suburb called Arnau, is devastated by both the suddenness of her husband’s betrayal and its sudden flourishing (Tom and Elise have a child together very soon after pairing up). But the real tragedy of Pilgrim’s life is yet to come: while out on a drive, she loses control of her car and slams into a bus shelter, killing three young children on their way to school.

This horrific accident would be bad enough if it had occurred as a result of negligence on Pilgrim’s part and she was declared a Kindermörderin (“child murderer” in Swiss German). But it’s almost worse when the investigation and subsequent court judgment rule that what happened was, in fact, a “no fault” accident. Pilgrim becomes a pariah on the streets of Arnau, receiving regular insults and death threats from the locals, so she decides to flee Switzerland and her divorce and travel to Tanzania. After a guided tour takes an unexpected turn, she disembarks in the impoverished town of Magulu and decides to stay.

Now going by her maiden name, Pilgrim begins to meet a curious swath of characters who are in Tanzania for a variety of noble or ignoble reasons. There is the diminutive doctor, Dorothea, who tries to provide health services to Magulu despite a lack of supplies and a surfeit of superstition. There is the ruthless mercenary from eastern Europe, Martin Martins (his name conjures an allusion to Lolitia’s Humbert Humbert) who spends the early part of the novel referring to Pilgrim as “Princess” and trying to get her into bed. Later, we meet the character of Gloria, an “ugly American” stereotype who has much more going on than what first appears: she is in Africa on humanitarian work after the death of her son, and we soon learn that her grief may hold a key to Pilgrim dealing with her own guilt over the children she killed back in Switzerland.

An air of the damned soon descends over Pilgrim’s journey into the chthonic heart of Africa when a mysterious package arrives in Magulu. The box holds the remains of an African albino – the telltale curse of a witch doctor – and Pilgrim offers to get the box out of town and to its proper recipient. Yet this action prompts a journey that will reveal just how closely associated Pilgrim’s accident back in Switzerland is to the life she is now trying to live in Africa. She will eventually learn that the figurative distance between these two worlds is not as wide as she first thought, and certainly not wide enough for her to escape what she has done.

Indeed, the narrative structure of The Gloaming shows just how tightly linked the place Pilgrim has fled from is to the place she has fled to. For the first sixty per cent of the novel, Finn alternates chapters between what happened in Arnau the previous winter/spring and what is happening to Pilgrim in Africa now. This flipping back and forth is expertly rendered, and in the process we meet two Swiss men who have the largest impact on Pilgrim’s pilgrimage to Tanzania. The first is Paul Strebel, the Geneva detective assigned to investigate the accident that killed the children. Trapped in a loveless marriage to his well-meaning wife, Ingrid, Strebel develops a brief but intimate relationship with Pilgrim during the investigation, and he soon finds himself obsessed with her. The other is Ernst Koppler, the father of one of the dead children. Koppler is a deeply tragic figure – he lost his wife to cancer not long before his daughter is killed in the accident – and he too becomes obsessed with Pilgrim. Strebel eventually learns that Koppler, in his grief, has tracked Pilgrim to Tanzania and is travelling there with perhaps the idea of causing her harm. Lying to his wife about attending a police conference in Iceland, Strebel follows Koppler to Africa in the hopes of intervening in whatever plan he has in store for Pilgrim.

This additional thread is what sets The Gloaming apart from other stories that use the well-worn trope of travelling abroad to escape an unseemly event at home. Most novels, if they tie in the tragedies of the past, do so lightly, symbolically, allowing the present action in the foreign locale to dominate the narrative. Finn has opted for the opposite approach. Instead of having Pilgrim be figuratively unable to escape what happened back in Switzerland, Finn literally makes those events an integral part of her character’s journey. This creates a tightness, an intimacy between the past and the present that is often absent in books with a similar structure. Instead of relying on an “emotional” inability to let go of the past, The Gloaming makes the past an actual character in the present action, affecting events in a very literal sense.

Along the way, Finn shows an adept hand at balancing all the characters she has created, the two landscapes that dominate her book, and the themes that weave their way through it. Every aspect of The Gloaming’s complex structure reveals a clear-eyed vision and a near-perfect execution. The shame and threat of violence hanging over Pilgrim’s appearance in Magulu is almost immediate (there is a scene not long after she arrives when she is briefly terrorized by a gang of children) and reminds us of the atmosphere captured in another great African novel, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Through just a handful of short descriptions, we get a sense of Pilgrim’s stilted, stunted life as “Tom’s wife,” the way she tried to remain an anonymous cipher so that he could build a successful career: “For hours at any given dinner table I was able to deflect to reveal not a single thing about myself while giving the impression of participating in the conversation.”

There are other resonant flourishes. Finn captures the jingoism and xenophobic paranoia that seems to grip a lot of Swiss culture; her creation of Pilgrim’s mettlesome Arnau landlady is a wonderful view into that. She also does a great job of showing what it’s like to be an itinerant global citizen, the way you can feel at once like a worldly, urbane ladder-climber while at the same time be completely alienated from the succession of adopted homes where your (or, in this case, your spouse’s) career takes you. Yet, in the end, The Gloaming’s penetrating insights into Africa is where it shines best. The vividness, the poverty, the fear that Finn is able to exact upon the page is palpable. One scene stands out in particular. Pilgrim and Gloria are travelling through Tanga in May, looking to visit the Amboni Caves just north of the city. These dark, complex caverns, so reminiscent of the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, hold a deadly legacy: a husband and wife got lost in them while chasing after their errant dog and were not able to find their way out. Pilgrim’s discovery of this from a tour guide becomes full of ominous portent:

The ground without warning, a socket; impossible to see unless you were looking for it; impossible to know its depth. ‘The husband and wife decided to climb in to try to get the dog because they could hear it barking.’ He pauses for effect and to make a small sigh. ‘They were swallowed by the cave. Never seen again. Completely gone.’

This episode is rich in symbolic foreshadowing of what is about to happen to Pilgrim in Africa, what the continent itself is threatening to do to her.

And then a curious thing happens around page 175 of this 310-page novel. Finn diverts from Pilgrim as her protagonist and dedicates each of the remaining chapters to one of the secondary characters we have already met. It’s a daring narrative risk, but one that succeeds by the sheer luminosity of The Gloaming’s prose and character insight. By ditching Pilgrim’s singular, centralized viewpoint, Finn is able to flare out the wider aspects of this story like a fan, giving us much more access the book’s narrative arc. The strongest of these chapters is the ones focused on Strebel. We get a profound sense of his struggling marriage, the dangers and inanities of being a police detective, and just how deeply he falls in love with Pilgrim during their one, brief sexual liaison. By the time we are finished with his sections of the book, we feel as if we know Strebel just as well as we have come to know Pilgrim herself. Dorothea, Gloria, and even Martin Martins get their own chapters of varying length, and with each switch in the point of view we realize just how immersed Finn is in the lives of all these characters, and how close to the surface each of them remain in her story.

The Gloaming, in the end, defies convention and carves a new and innovative path for itself in the canon of expat literature. Finn has fashioned a book that is rich, dark, engrossing and infinitely complex – much like the continent it spends many of its wonderful pages portraying.

—Mark Sampson

N5

Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His new novel, The Slip, is forthcoming from Dundurn Press in 2017. Mark’s stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Jun 132016
 

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Hale’s collection is its own, singular thing – sharp and gripping, artful and devastating, with a unifying theme that coils like a spring beneath each story. —Mark Sampson

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The Fat Artist and Other Stories
By Benjamin Hale
Simon & Schuster, 2016
288 pgs.;$26.00

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Call it book reviewer’s pride. I was infinitely pleased with myself that I had caught, without prompting, the literary reference in the title of Benjamin Hale’s new short story collection. Because I am a responsible critic, I went back and reread Kafka’s fabled tale “A Hunger Artist” before I even cracked the covers of Hale’s book, thinking it would prepare me for what I assumed was an album of short fiction that wears a Kafkaesque homage heavily.

But Hale resists this temptation. While the title story does acknowledge its antecedent in Kafka and borrows from his dark, absurdist world view, The Fat Artist and Other Stories is, on the whole, influenced more by famed footnoter David Foster Wallace, and by the gritty, violent realism of, say, Raymond Chandler, than it is by that Czech scribbler writing prescient tales about the looming horrors of the twentieth century. What’s more, Hale’s collection is its own, singular thing – sharp and gripping, artful and devastating, with a unifying theme that coils like a spring beneath each story. Hale is the author of a previous novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, and he has been (forgive the pun) hailed as a dark, comic risk taker in his fiction, someone unafraid to mix together tenderness and the weird. This new book lives up to such a reputation. It’s about what to do with bodies: bodies that have died and need disposing of, bodies that have aged and betrayed their owners; bodies that need nourishment and respect; bodies that have grown fat for the sake of art.

Indeed, the title story here is an unalloyed masterpiece. Tristan Hurt is an avant-garde artist who slogs through the duo battles of staying on top of the New York art world and hiding from everyone that he is, more or less, a fraud. He shares with the reader some of his more embarrassing secrets:

As a person, I was nearly as lazy as I was self-absorbed. I had never actually read very much. Almost nothing, really. All that critical theory in college and graduate school? All that heady French gobbledygook? Not counting the front and back covers, I probably read a cumulative fifteen pages of it … I knew the names of the writers I was supposed to have read, and could pronounce them with haughty accuracy and ironclad confidence that withered on the spot those who had actually read them.

(Despite his general disinterest in reading, Tristan does possess a rich vocabulary of ten-dollar words that had me digging with glee into the dictionary: bloviate, piccolo, petrichor, soporate, etc.)

Tristan begins a shaky romance with a creative writing instructor named Olivia who can see through his ruses. As a gift, she gives him a copy of her beloved collected stories of Franz Kafka, leaving a condescendingly harsh inscription inside: “Tristan— Here you go. Most of them are pretty short. Olivia.” (We soon learn just how precarious this romance is: Tristan discovers that she had bought a previous copy for him, but had to get a new one after she accidentally wrote “Love, Olivia” in the inscription.) Being what he is, Tristan immediately latches on to the story “A Hunger Artist” included in the book, a tale of a man who sits in a cage and starves himself as a work of art. But when Olivia breaks things off with Tristan, he goes in the opposite direction. Exiling himself to his New York City condo, he spends 10 months in near-total isolation, doing nothing but eating, drinking, doing drugs and watching online pornography. He emerges as a 500-pound fatso, broke and in desperate need to re-establish himself in the art world. After attending a hoity-toity party, he gets an idea: he will become his own artwork, the inverse of Kafka’s creation, gaining even more weight in full public display with the aim of reaching 1,600 pounds and thus becoming the largest human being ever recorded in history. Here’s his rationale:

The concept was elegant in its simplicity: to turn Kafka on his head. “A Hunger Artist” in part derives the power of its allegory from the sheer horror of self-abnegation. Why on earth would anyone deliberately starve himself to death? But in a culture of abundance and affordable luxury, bodily self abnegation no longer retains the primeval horror. Rather, the twenty-first century middle-class American must actively labor not to become fat. Thus eating becomes moralized behavior.

The project is thus: Tristan is set up on a large bed-cum-weight scale in a museum, with catheters attached to his anus and penis to pump waste away unseen from his body. The public lines up around the block day after day to both see him and bring him something to eat. Provided the gifts are edible, Tristan sets a rule for himself that he must eat everything his audience brings him: buckles of fried chicken, boxes of pizzas, plates of spaghetti, bags upon bags of candy. He inhales it all, and his weight climbs accordingly. The installation is a smash! Glowing reviews appear in the media, and the crowds keep coming. Tristan’s weight soon plateaus around 1,360 pounds as he tries to push through to his goal.

But then, just as quickly as the public embraced him, it soon loses interest in his project. The crowds disappear and Tristan’s visitors dwindle to a trickle. He actually begins to lose some weight. Here, Hale’s commentary is subtle but clear: even when the artwork involves our bodies, the interest in that artwork is capricious at best. The story is both rib-cracklingly hilarious and a little bit sad, especially when Olivia shows up at the end to visit Tristan in his now morbid state. She comes with news of the death of his father, and brings Tristan flowers as a gesture of condolence. What he does with those flowers after she leaves the museum is both deeply comic and wholly heart-wrenching.

It would seem the haughty, art-world humour in “The Fat Artist” comes naturally to Hale, which makes the fact that he is able to write in other, equally adept registers in this collection all the more impressive. One story that feels like the polar opposite of the title piece is “If I had Possession over Judgment Day”, a dark and intricately laced narrative set in a hardscrabble, blue-collar world. There are several threads and tropes weaving throughout this piece, and Hale leads us through them with a skilled hand. The story opens with images of satellites orbiting the earth, hovering like silent observers to the violence about to unfold. The narrative shifts and introduces us to two characters, Caleb and Maggie, whose relationship begins in childhood with an act of unmistakable cruelty. Caleb, age nine, is the habit of pinning Maggie, age seven, down on the ground after they’ve gotten off the school bus in order to spit in her face. But the way Hale describes this attack hints at a more sexualized overtone that foreshadows events later in the story:

[Caleb] would dredge up a glob of snot from the back of his throat with these exaggerated sucking noises, mix it with his spit, let it dribble out, coil onto her face in a long string. He liked to get it in her eyes and her hair … [H]e would slurp it back up like a yo-yo, chew on it some more, until he could no longer abstain from the pleasure of seeing it slopped on her face.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Caleb and Maggie fall in love with each other much later on, in high school, and eventually move in together for a time. But then Maggie leaves him for a guy named Kelly, and the two soon marry and have a child together named Gabriel. Caleb, however, remains on the periphery of Maggie’s life.

The narrative then shifts to describe Kelly in his struggles as a breadwinner and father. Maggie becomes a plumping, unemployed stay-at-home mom, and Kelly needs to work two grueling jobs in order to support them. The first is working on a construction site by day, and the second is delivering newspapers overnight using his frequently unreliable pick-up truck. Hale takes us into the very core of Kelly’s misery: he loves Maggie and Gabriel but knows that he is failing them, failing life, and that he is not quite man enough. The pressures of his hanging-on-by-a-thread poverty imbues each day with whetted despair.

Things take a turn when Maggie accuses Caleb of coming over one night while Kelly is at work and raping her. The narrative shifts once more and adopts the gritty, street-lingo diction of one of Kelly’s coworkers as the two of them plan their revenge on Caleb. The idea is to lure him to a deserted park at night and assault him with a crowbar. Meanwhile, the satellites in their sky look on.

While all of this happens, there is a subplot to “If I had Possession over Judgment Day” involving a photographer named Fred looking to take artful nude photographs of his intellectually precocious 16-year-old niece, Lana. Their conversations are charged with flirty literary allusions, and there is something deeply sexual about their interactions even though Lana wears full body paint for the photo shoot. The two of them end up in the same park as Kelly and Caleb during the attack with the crowbar, and the way these two narrative threads loop into each other is nothing short of brilliant. Indeed, all of the elements that have been in play for several dozen pages – the constantly stalling truck, the naked teenager, Maggie’s scolding over Kelly’s lack of manliness (“I want you to grow a dick,” she tells him at one point) come to a head beautifully.

Another stand-out in this outstanding collection is “Leftovers,” a tale similar to “Judgment Day” in its subject matter and well-plotted narrative. A soon-to-be-retired corporate lawyer in southern Texas named Phil Grassley is having an affair behind the back of Diane, his wife of 30+ years, with a young woman from his office named Veronica. While Diane is out of town at a conference, Phil invites Veronica over for an evening of dinner, margaritas, and fucking. Over the course of this date, we learn just how shallow and entitled Phil is: he looks forward to a retirement of drinking beer, sailing his catamaran, and enjoying these dalliances behind his wife’s back, without a care about how hurtful his actions are. As he takes Veronica on a tour of the house, we learn about Phil’s three children, the middle of whom is a screwed-up drug addict named Julian that nobody has heard from in over a month.

It comes to pass that, after Phil and Veronica have had sex in the bed he shares with his wife and fallen asleep, Julian arrives at the house in the middle of the night looking to steal the TV in order to, presumably, sell it for drugs. Phil hears the intruder and creeps down in the darkness to confront him. Whereas “Judgment Day” uses a crowbar as its weapon of choice, “Leftovers” finds Phil taking up the rolling pin he had used to crush the ice for the margaritas to defend his home and property. He doesn’t discover that the invader is his own son until he’s cracked him over the head. Not that it much matters – the assault reveals just how callous Phil really is, and it’s Veronica, now emerged from the bedroom, who shows Julian some kindness.

But things grow complicated when Julian comes to and discovers that his father is cheating on his mother. The broader intent of the story becomes clear: Phil, we see, has a life full of what Alice Munro would call the kindness of women, and yet he is completely oblivious to his great fortune, and cannot see past his anger at Julian for being such a fuck-up.

And a fuck-up he is: the boy is still in rough shape, a stoned and wrecked-out mess. And when he dosses down on the couch and then dies in his sleep after choking on his own vomit, Phil has an opportunity to rid his son from his life for good and also hide his sexual dalliances from his wife. He conscripts Veronica in his plan:

“Nobody knew where the hell Julian was for a month, or more. He was totally incommunicado. We still don’t know, actually, and probably never will at this point. Point is, this didn’t have to happen. You see what I mean?”

Eventually, she saw what he meant.

It’s striking how little editorializing Hale does as Phil concocts a plan to use his catamaran to dispose of his own son’s body in the Gulf of Mexico. The author keeps the moral gauge at neutral and does not lose the story’s propulsion despite the fact that his protagonist is an entirely vile human being. It’s an impressive feat in a tale – much like “Judgment Day” before it – about keeping a murder secret.

This authorial detachment is just one of Hale’s skills. Throughout The Fat Artist, he shows a talent for writing in multiple registers, for tackling a variety of subject matter and giving each of his stories its own rich, believable world. In “Venus in Her Mirror”, we have another dead body that someone is unsure what to do with. Rebecca is in her late thirties and working as a BDSM call girl under the name “Mistress Dalilah.” Divorced and wanting a child, she’s developed a close bond with a client, a high-profile Democrat in Washington whose name is Sam but goes by “The Representative” in their sex play. When he dies suddenly from a heart attack during one of their engagements, Rebecca is forced to confront both the realities of her own life as well as the secrets of the man whose corpse she must now deal with.

“Beautiful Boy”, meanwhile, shows us the confluence in early 1980s New York City of the murder of John Lennon, drag queen culture, and the rise of AIDS. The final piece in the book, “The Minus World”, set in Boston, shares a kinship with “Judgment Day”: Peter is fresh out of prison/rehab and down on his luck, turning to his brother Greg and his wife Megan to help him get his life turned around. Greg lands Peter a job driving a truck that delivers squid from the wharf to the biology lab at MIT. But like Kelly in “Judgment Day”, Peter just cannot get a handle on his various vices, and the story ends with a violent vehicle accident that snaps into focus just how desperate his life has become.

Individually, these stories are immensely compelling and brilliantly imagined. Taken together, they reveal a broader vision that is so much more enriching than that Kafkaesque tease in the title would suggest. I suspect it will be a long, long time before I enjoy a short story collection as much as I enjoyed this one.

—Mark Sampson

NC
Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

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Mar 142016
 

Lina Wolff

The real strength of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs isn’t that it hews closely to this one prescribed theme. In fact, the reason this book haunts and horrifies and challenges us so much is that it strays so widely, and so wildly, from any fixed structure or approach. — Mark  Sampson

Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs
Lina Wolff
Translation by Frank Perry
And Other Stories, 2016
$15.95

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Men are dogs. This is the prevailing theme of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, a debut novel that has already turned Sweden’s Lina Wolff into a literary sensation. Wolff’s project – a text at once fragmented enough to pass for a short story collection and yet untraceably centred on the character of Alba Cambó, a writer of violent, horrifying tales who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer – draws a connection between the canine-like nature of human males and the limitations of revenge against their more animalistic natures by women. Setting Alba’s story mostly in colourful Barcelona, Wolff renders it into a kind of narrative kaleidoscope, told through the eyes of her friends, lovers, and acquaintances.

Wolff’s own life seems as kaleidoscopic as the story she has created. She has done stints in both Spain and Italy, and now lives in southern Sweden. She has published one previous book, a short story collection called Många människor dör som du (Many People Die Like You; Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2009), which was met by strong reviews. She writes with an unmistakable focus on feminism – but it is a peripatetic feminism, one that looks to travel widely across the expanse of gender dynamics, and to hit them from a multitude of angles. Ironically, one of her biggest literary influences appears to be French shit disturber Michel Houellebecq, whose own work makes a deliciously comic appearance in Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs.

Wolff’s novel’s title is explained by the back-cover copy, but readers will be misled if they think the following is a summation of the whole book: “At a run-down brothel in Caudal, Spain, the prostitutes are collecting stray dogs. Each is named after a famous male writer: Dante, Chaucer, Bret Easton Ellis. When a john is cruel, the dogs are fed rotten meat.” In actuality, this sequence comes relatively late in the novel, and yet captures the very essence of book’s theme. Here it is, narrated by character named Rodrigo Auscias, a man who once had a threesome with Alba and one of her casual boyfriends:

We’ve got a kennel and the dogs in it are all named after famous writers, she had said. Whenever some guy pays us a visit and is nasty to us, we give the dogs rotten meat. I couldn’t help laughing at the whole idea at the time. Passive rebellion is what they call that, I informed her. When you’re powerless, passive rebellion is what you come up with. It’s also called projection. You make the dogs suffer for what the men have done to you because the dogs are weaker than you. It’s like a father who abuses his children because the factory owner has forced him to work too hard.

Rodrigo goes on to ask where the women got the idea from, and the say they were once visited by an “intellectual feminist” who planted the seed in their minds. This term, passive rebellion (one might also dub it a kind of low-level terrorism), has, the reader will now realize, played a huge role in the various chapters that have preceded this scene. This idea of punishing an animal for the sins of a person has appeared a couple of times already in the novel, with the murder of a canary in one chapter and the boiling of a cat in the other. With a sharp, unflinching eye, Wolff shows us that revenge can take many strange, off-kilter forms.

Yet the real strength of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs isn’t that it hews closely to this one prescribed theme. In fact, the reason this book haunts and horrifies and challenges us so much is that it strays so widely, and so wildly, from any fixed structure or approach. This lack of a traditional narrative arc allows Wolff’s imagination and talent to sore: there were several points throughout the novel’s episodic approach where I was wowed by her out-of-left-field audacity and the unexpected twists in the turn of events.

A summary of these sequences would prove to be as disjointed as the novel itself. The story begins with an unnamed narrator recounting the time that Alba was spending time with one of her lovers, a man named Valentino, and informed him after a romantic episode together that she was in fact dying from cancer and would not be around for very much longer. The novel then shifts and we soon learn who this narrator is: a young girl named Araceli Villalobos, who lives in the same apartment building in Barcelona as Alba. We learn that Alba is gaining notoriety in the neighbourhood for publishing a series of brutal, feminist-infused short stories in a magazine called Semejanzas (Spanish for “Similarities.”) The most memorable of these pieces involves a man who kills himself after humiliating himself at his own surprise party by farting loudly just before turning on the lights.

The story soon shifts as Araceli learns of a woman from South America named Blosom who is living with Alba. Alba attempts to pawn off Blosom to Araceli and her mother as a kind of live-in housekeeper. After that happens, Wolff takes us on a detailed, first-person tour of Blosom’s life. We learn that she was once married and had a young son who was killed in a traffic accident. We also learn that Blosom began an affair with a married man while working as his housekeeper, right under his wife’s nose. The tension in the household comes to a head during a scene in which Blosom is helping the wife, whose name is Jessica, take a bath. This was one of the most audacious scenes in a novel full of them:

“You’re a pretentious little ignorant cow,” Jessica cried. “Is that what got drilled into you while you were growing up, that there’s nothing more important than giving a man a child? Hah. Along with all those Venezuelan soaps you watch. that’s soft porn for old ladies, all of them thinking the best thing you can do for a man is to give him a child and then the women are left with chains around the ankles and a ring through the nose, stuck with life in a cage. Fortunately, Vicente doesn’t belong to the old school. He doesn’t actually want to have children.”

Our eyes met in the mirror on the other side of the bathtub. I hate you, I thought. I hate you so much it’s killing me.

“You’ve got something in your hair,” she said.

“What?”

“It looks like sperm.”

“Well it’s not that.”

“Would you mind washing it off, please.”

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is full of these kinds of jarring, shocking sequences, and they infuse the novel with an inventiveness rarely seen in contemporary fiction. As we go along, the perspective of the book changes once more. By the time we meet a girl named Muriel, a classmate of Araceli’s at the translation school where she is studying, we get a sense of just how decentralized this book’s structure is.

Eventually we loop around to the story of Rodrigo. He has his threesome with Albo and her casual boyfriend Ilich. Ilich uses his cell phone to film part of the encounter and threatens to reveal the video to Rodrigo’s wife, Encarnación, unless Rodrigo agrees to help him. What does Ilich want? He wants Rodrigo’s help breaking in the Spain’s competitive timber market. It’s actually more compelling than it sounds. Rodrigo does what Ilich wants of him and he comes to think he is now free of the man. But Ilich shows up one day at Rodrigo and Encarnación’s apartment in a scene that is rife with domestic tension. The section concludes with Rodrigo watching as his wife descends into a harrowing alcoholism that he cannot stop.

Themes of cruelty and of vengeance churn through this book at every turn, to the point where such acts feel completely normalized. Yet Rodrigo, in detailing his encounters with Alba and Ilich, offers a powerful counterbalance to the notion “passive rebellion” discussed above:

I have no political convictions. I don’t give a damn about politics. People with political convictions frighten me. People who are willing to sacrifice themselves for an idea are also willing to sacrifice other people for the same idea. That applies to people who have been the victims of injustice as well. They are the most dangerous people of all because they believe themselves entitled to revenge.

This one passage helps to snap so much of this novel into focus. The idea that revenge is an entitlement, even if (or, in the case of passive rebellion, especially if) the victims of that revenge are not the same individuals who victimized you in the first place, feels very much like a contemporary preoccupation. The entire world, this book is seeming to say, is full of randomized violence and cruelty, and ideas of “motive” or “blame” may very well be passé in this new reality. Wolff’s dark vision of how our world now operates is a disturbing, but deeply compelling, one.

— Mark Sampson

NC

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels, Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Nov 072015
 
Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson is a poet, novelist and critic. He has already written two reviews for the magazine. He’s no stranger here. See his review “Intoxication of Influence: Review of Samuel Archibald’s Arvida” in the magazine’s current issue. Also his “Small-City Chatter: Review of Jeff Bursey’s Mirrors on which dust has fallen” in the August issue. So it’s a great pleasure to announce that he is officially ascending the the masthead at NC with all the rights and perquisites accorded that august and rarefied body (aka gang of scamps and wastrels).

Please welcome him.

Mark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Nov 072015
 
author

Samuel Archibald, via Ottawa Citizen

What you’ll find on these pages is not the anxiety of influence; it is the delirium of influence, the intoxication of influence, a willingness to let a life of reading speak through you as you try to say something about the place you come from. —Mark Sampson

cover

Arvida
Samuel Archibald (translated from the French by Donald Winkler)
Biblioasis
213 pages, Paperback $19.95 CAD
ISBN: 978-1-77196-042-7

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TO BEGIN, YOU NEED TO KNOW what Samuel Archibald’s Arvida is not. From what you might gather after a quick glance at the back cover copy, this book – which has been shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize – could be a quirky little album of short stories centred around thinly fictionalized characters in the real-life industrial town in Quebec from which the book takes its title. You may surmise that, as per the model for such a collection, these characters’ exploits intersect through the collection in predictably unpredictable ways, and accompanied by a familiar, nonthreatening theme humming just below the surface – something about how small-town life can be at once suffocating and impossible to let go of. We have, after all, seen and read and honoured many short story collections that have done exactly that.

Ahem.

Archibald – and, by extension, his English translator, Donald Winkler – would already deserve a wheelbarrow’s worth of kudos for this book’s nervy, expertly rendered sentences, its polished prose. But what separates Arvida from its peers, what casts it in a blinding hue of originality, and what probably attracted the attention of the Giller jury in the first place, is the fact that Archibald so thoroughly subverts many of our expectations about what this kind of short story collection can do, or should do, or dares to do. Arvida is not a series of interlocking tales forming a larger narrative arc; it is not a gently designed pointillism of stories painting a bigger picture. You need to know what this book is – which is a cacophonous display of multiple styles and approaches, a flawless showcase of different tonalities and modalities, and, most of all, a book unafraid to wear its founding inspirations on its sleeve. What you’ll find on these pages is not the anxiety of influence; it is the delirium of influence, the intoxication of influence, a willingness to let a life of reading speak through you as you try to say something about the place you come from.

Take, at random, the story “In the Midst of the Spiders.” Hemingway is all over this piece, what with its terse sentences, brief core interaction, and sharp sliver of realism. Archibald’s unnamed narrator (presumably from Arvida) is hanging out in an airport, given the unpleasant task by his employer to confront a fellow worker, a travelling salesman named Michel, and fire him. Michel is at the height of vulnerability – “[f]ifty-two years old, a sick wife, and three daughters in university” – and does not take his termination well. It’s a brutal conversation these men have, with one delivering a ruthless and disinterested execution upon the other. But Archibald, in a very Hemingwayesque way, counterbalances this with the narrator’s more gentle memory of the fragile spiders creeping around his home garden, saying, “he took them in his bare hands and dropped them delicately onto the leaves.” It is a gentle, beautiful juxtaposition to run against what happens in that airport lounge.

You will find an equal amount of realism in the story “América,” a tale about a band of misfits from Arvida attempting to smuggle a woman from Costa Rica into the United States via the Windsor-Detroit border. Their plan is sound but the men’s vices soon undo them, and they are stopped by edgy border security (the tale is set in the summer of 2002) and thwarted. This piece is reminiscent of the another Giller-nominated Biblioasis title, Alexander MacLeod’s 2010 story collection Light Lifting. In “América,” you will find the same obsessive drive in the narrative, an unrelenting focus on a singular task, and characters who try to escape their desires but cannot.

Yes, realism plays a role in both Arvida the book and Arvida the town, a small community built in the early 20th century around an aluminum factory. In the story, “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness – Arvida II,” Archibald establishes both the parameters of the town’s landscape and the tabula rasa from which it sprung:

The sinuous and labyrinthine designs of the town’s streets, the proximity of the bosses’ houses to those of the foremen and workers, the big parks at each corner, and the flanking of the houses of worship by two schools and a skating rink, everything in Arvida attested to the fact that this model town was the little utopia of a billionaire philanthropist, built from scratch right in the middle of nowhere.

But it is this sense of both a real place and a nowhere place that allows Archibald to unleash his prismatic imagination and take an unfettered approach to capturing his hometown in fiction. Realism slips away in a number of these piece. The tradition of ghost stories, for example, looms large at a number of points. In the story “Antigonish” two men from Arvida take a road trip to Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail, and one falls conveniently asleep while the other discovers a ghost-like figure haunting the side of the road. Magical realism appears in the story “Cryptozoology,” a tale about the men of Arvida trying to track down a mythical creature haunting the forest beyond the town; it is also about how these men come to process mythology itself.

Proust is also here. He plays a big role, as you would expect, in the story “My Father and Proust – Arvida I.” The schism in this tale is between abundance and paucity (“My father no longer lacks for anything, but he misses the taste food had when there was not enough of it”), and the story is about how change – including, perhaps, a shift in one’s economic fortunes – can bring with it both progress and depraved behaviour. In this piece, Archibald allows us to contrast the expansiveness of Proust’s oeuvre with the scantness, the precision, of a short story.

So diverse are the narrative tactics in Arvida that Archibald even allows himself to include a story set on the other side of the world and, seemingly, unrelated to the goings-on in the town of Arvida. The piece “Jigai” takes place in early 20th century imperial Japan, and involves two women – Misaka and Reiko – who kindle a relationship based on lesbianism and, shockingly, horrific mutilations. These women maim each other as a kind of protest against the oppressive, patriarchal, misogynist culture that permeated so many aspect of imperial Japan. This oppression is relayed through an incantatory phrase repeated throughout the story, “I came from the ends of the earth with pebbles in my pockets.” It is an apt maxim, as the carrying of stones (or pebbles) in a woman’s pockets is a metaphor for her oppression – particularly her sexual oppression – in East Asian culture.

With the air of a genuine Japanese folk tale, “Jigai” pivots when the women of the village, instead of being horrified by these disfigurations, begin to mimic them as their own protest against the men in their lives:

The repugnant mutilations that Misaka and Reiko inflicted on flesh became a fashion, an uncontainable compulsion, an enchantment, and there was no way to break the spell, not in reasoning with the wives, or in crying after them, or in trying to shake them out of their torpor, or by beating them.

Readers should prepare themselves for some extremely graphic imagery in this story, but they should also prepare themselves to ask how “Jigai” – so strange, so elliptical, so distant from the Quebecois sensibility found in other pieces leading up to it – fits into the bigger project of Arvida. There is a hint, perhaps, that the story alludes to some unspeakable violence decades and thousands of miles away, and with his groundwork in unfettered storytelling already laid, Archibald, somehow, makes it all work.

Naturally, I don’t want to give the impression that this book is all creepy ghost stories and bodily violations. Arvida has also, in several places, some extremely funny scenes, reminiscent of Kingsley Amis and, perhaps, P.G. Wodehouse. The story “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness” tells a light-hearted tale of retired NHL players (including the Quebec icon Maurice “Rocket” Richard) coming to Arvida to play a local team. The story, replete with David Foster Wallace-like footnotes, (another obvious influence on Archibald), is full of brassy dialogue and laugh-out-loud moments.

Speaking of humour, there is also the story “The Last-Born,” a piece about, among other things, masculine loyalties and screwing up one’s life, that comes with this paragraph of unalloyed comic genius:

That night, Raisin took part of Martial’s five hundred dollars and went to buy a lot of beer at the corner. He walked as far as the baseball field … sat on the players’ bench, and downed, one by one, the twenty-four bottles in the case. Zigzagging home, he looked like a domestic bull to which one had administered a powerful sedative. At the steps of the Blackburn, his cat, which had again run off, was rolled into a ball in front of the door. Raisin grabbed the cat by the skin of its neck, kicked open the door, and heaved it inside. In the air, the terrorized animal, which was not a cat but a skunk, emptied its sphincters full force, showering Raisin and the walls with a foul liquid, part ammonia and part excrement.

I only wish I could say I’ve never been that drunk.

Of course, the best story in this collection, the real crown jewel, is a decidedly darker tale called “Home Bound.” In it, an alcoholic man becomes obsessed with a dilapidated house, which he buys and then moves into with his wife and daughter. It becomes apparent that the house – with its hidden rooms and sinister crannies and nooks – may very well be haunted. The house soon drives a wedge between the man and his wife. The influence here is over-the-top obvious: if you don’t spot Stephen King’s The Shining on virtually every page, you should probably resign your reading life right now. But what makes “Home Bound” such a gem – beyond its impeccably crafted characters and spot-on atmosphere – is the way Archibald can work in the King (not the mention the Shirley Jackson) influences without making the story come off as derivative of them. There is a pristine originality in the prose and positioning of this piece, one that transcends its clear-cut antecedents. Unlike The Shining, “Home Bound” hinges on a very human reversal, a fatherly betrayal involving a cliff, a trusting daughter, and a dead dog.

To say that Arvida skewers our expectations of a “linked” short story collection would, of course, be a gross understatement. So pungent are the stylistic shifts and contrasts in this book, that the less-generous reader may feel a bit baffled by them. But the reason this book has been such a success – 25,000 copies and counting sold in its original French; its nod from the Giller for the English translation – is because it breaks new ground in that very genre.

Indeed, it may be fair to say that we’ll never look at a linked short story collection quite the same way again.

—Mark Sampson

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Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

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Aug 142015
 

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey cover

Mirrors on which dust has fallen
Jeff Bursey
Verbivoracious Press
344 pages, Paperback $22.99 CAD
ISBN: 978-981-09-5437-6

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NOBODY WOULD ACCUSE JEFF BURSEY of being lax in his demands on literature. In much of his book reviewing and other literary criticism – including pieces published here on Numéro Cinq – Bursey argues vehemently against a prescriptive approach to fiction. He trumpets the elasticity of form; he challenges his fellow novelists to eschew tried-and-true strictures on structure; he shames those who take a paint-by-colours approach to characterization; he begs us to embrace experimentation in the truest sense of the term. Mostly, he hates it when writers make rigid statements about what can/can’t be done, should/shouldn’t be done, or must/mustn’t be done when it comes to a creative work.

This mindset is very much on display in Bursey’s own fiction. His debut novel, Verbatim, published in 2010 by Enfield & Wizenty, is written almost entirely in Hansard, the official transcriptive record of a Westminster-style parliament. The book is a kind of literary curios: in it, Bursey shows how much of the muck and mess and pulse of a place –in this case, the city of Bowmount in an unnamed, fictitious Canadian province – he can capture via the verbatim excretions of elected officials. Here Bursey hews closely to perhaps an overtired tenet of fiction (write what you know), as he himself works for Hansard in the provincial legislature of my home city of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Full disclosure: During biannual visits home from Toronto, I will summon Bursey to attend a social gathering I affectionately refer to as the Prince Edward Island Writers Mafia (members include J.J. Steinfeld, David Helwig, Judy Gaudet, Steven Mayoff, and Beth Janzen) in which Bursey’s position resides somewhere between secretariat and chief thumb breaker. Bursey and I see eye to eye on many – though not all – literary conventions and trends, and I’ve generally judged his reviews, even the harsher ones, as well above the belt. One thing is clear from both reading and socializing with him: he is adamant in his insistence that novels be, well, novel.

Which brings us to his latest offering, Mirrors on which dust has fallen, an explosively unconventional, deeply disturbing, and relentlessly original work. This is not, in effect, your daddy’s Canadian Literature. The novel is set in Bowmount in the late 1990s, same as Verbatim; and rather than dropping the reader in medias res, the opening pages provide us with both general details of the town and some specific issues of the day. One of the larger challenges the city is facing, it seems, is to engender a sense of community among a certain contingent of its populace: “Clearly, for those alleged troublemakers Bowmount was not a community but a point on a map, not a City rich in varied history but a town with a grandiose self-conception.” While these prefatory remarks appear a bit rough around the edges – why is city capitalized here? what is “self-conception”? do we mean “self-perception?” – Bursey does a good job of situating us in a fully imagined and concrete place. (With the novel opening in such a prefatory way, it is unfortunate, and somewhat redundant, that publisher Verbivoracious Press decided to include an incoherent, academically pretentious, and wholly unnecessary introductory essay by Christopher Wunderlee.)

The narrative picks up heft as we begin to meet, through alternating chapters, the book’s motley ensemble of characters. There is Loyola, a university-drop out who works a soul-sucking job at a clothing wholesaler. There is his sleazy, supremely confident friend Jules Deeka, offering all manner of temptation from the wings. We meet a deeply compelling woman named Ivy, who struggles with the onset of middle age and its concomitant frustrations. We get a view into a radio station looking to update itself with the times (at the expense of several of its employees) and we also encounter the local Catholic church grappling with a sex abuse scandal. We lounge around in perhaps Bowmount’s most down-market watering hole, Johnny Bar’s, and we learn about three cops killed in a hostage taking at the local pet shop.

Bursey presents each of these threads in fragmented form, the chapters twitching and looping and hopping from one narrative to the next. Unsurprisingly, these strands intersect in surprising ways, and we soon learn about Bowmount’s darker auras glowing just below its skein of lower-middle class normalcy. What impresses most is the level of occupational detail that Bursey weaves into these stories. He is equally comfortable writing about the logistics of clothing wholesalers and the challenges of running a small radio station as he is about the quotidian detail of Catholic ceremonies and the grit needed to keep a seedy pub afloat. Here is an example of this kind of mastery, taken from a chapter called “The priests”:

The archbishop had descended from the refined heights of Toronto and Montreal, and regarded the priests and laymen of the Catholic Church in this province as boobs. Oh yes, intelligent decisions were made now and then, but less than the law of averages allowed; and of course, good works of a highly Christian nature were performed almost every other week. But to his mind the capillaries of the local Church were clogged by the lacklustre efforts of poor priests recruited from the local population, and by the vapouring laymen and church committees.

This level of specificity helps to offset the larger challenge that Mirrors presents to readers – that of a carefully constructed and confounding set of elisions.

What form do these elisions take? Funnily enough, they are very similar to those found in his previous novel, Verbatim. When you write a book almost entirely in the language of Hansard, (not that you have, or I have, or anyone else has, as far as I know; this seems to be strictly Bursey’s domain), you create the unusual constraint of limiting nearly all of your prose to dialogue – specifically the official dialogue of a provincial legislature. In Verbatim, the novelty of this was sharp and rendered into a very believable verisimilitude. A number of our expectations get thwarted or left out as a result: these elisions include descriptive writing, internal thoughts, and other nuanced interactions between characters.

But interestingly, much of Mirrors is also written in dialogue. There are long stretches that consist almost entirely of two or more characters riffing on each other over some element of their individual narratives, with their exchanges demarcated by dashes. Indeed, like Verbatim before it, much of Mirrors reads like a transcription – and as such, it too comes with various exclusions and limitations. Through most of the book, we get very little exposition, almost no physical descriptions of the characters, and a paucity of internal thoughts or monologues. In this sense, Mirrors is like a mirror of Verbatim. But whereas the previous novel was concerned with the “official-speak” of politicians looking to put their best foot forward and get the upper hand on opponents, Mirrors concerns itself with the rough and rowdy transcript of the street. Its characters talk at length about the filth and failure and frustrations of their personal lives. They discuss thwarted ambitions, secret desires, and their often strange or uninspired sex lives. This is the opposite of politicians’ orating formality in a legislature. This is workaday people being baldly honest in the agora of the public square.

Throughout these narratives, there is one issue, one preoccupation, one motif that occurs and re-occurs. It is an obsession of Bursey’s that I failed to spot in reading his first book and his literary criticism, or in socializing with him personally – that of the human anus. The human anus is, it should be said, the closest thing that Mirrors has to a main character. It makes numerous appearances in the different intersecting narratives of the book. At one point Ivy, suffering from some kind of gastric malady, reflects back on a sigmoidoscopy she received, “its camera transmitting pictures of pink flesh, white flesh, red veins in chain lightning patterns, the camera bungling around the nooks and crannies of her intestines during its serpentine intrusion.” At another point, two men discuss how to prepare for the inevitable unpleasantness of prison life with the aid of a carrot. In a particularly provocative section, Jules and Loyola get into a debate about sex’s more cloacal joys:

– But enjoying it? With a man?

– Before AIDS, when things were safer, you went in the back door with a woman, had a bit of anilingus.

– What? Jules explained, finishing with –a pungent meat, like game, make sure you wash before and after. The fundament is one of those places you get a lot of pleasure out of. Slapping, tickling, biting, kissing, enemas if you’re into that, so why not anal intercourse? Greatest warriors in the world did that, the army, the navy, you name it. Natural. Not healthy, not now, but natural. You’re looking pink. It isn’t the chili, is it?

Of course, not all interactions with the anus in Mirrors is consensual. The book also includes a harrowing anal rape scene, recounted by its perpetrator to the fellow lowlifes who inhabit Johnny’s Bar. This man tells how he stalked a young girl whose clothes (or lack thereof) reveal a bit too much of her backside for his liking. His subsequent assault on her on an isolated bike trail is told in chilling casualness, couched as an act of prostitution because he throws the girl forty dollars before raping her. This is as dark as Mirrors gets, and many readers who find their way to this chapter will no doubt be disturbed by it. As someone who has himself included difficult scenes of sexual assault in a novel, I have no advice or solace to provide other than this: as horrific as the scene is in Mirrors, it’s important to see how it fits into the larger thematic structure that Bursey has built for us. There are many ways this novel shows how the city of Bowmount – rendered into such stuffy officialdom in Verbatim – is still very much in touch with its lizard brain. For all the macro social engineering that occurs at the municipal level, individual citizens still feel – and resign themselves to – their basest human instincts.

The rape scene in Mirrors simply takes this to an unconscionable extreme.

Yet change is coming to Bowmount. Indeed, one could argue that change is the ultimate theme in both of Bursey’s novels. In Verbatim, it takes the form of new (and somewhat corrupted) management at Hansard that actually influences the transcripts of the legislature. In Mirrors, the change comes as an unpleasant intruder into the lives of its core characters. Many of them, it seems, wrestle with the brutality that time can exact on us all and the very instability of modern life. Yet this novel ends on a surprisingly tender note in a chapter called “A new cycle.”

What awaits our intrepid Ivy as she is about to take one step toward a man that she should have been with all along? She doesn’t know, and neither do we, but what we’re left with is the knowledge that it’s probably very important to take that step forward anyway. It’s important that dust not settle on the mirrors we hold up to ourselves.

—Mark Sampson

 

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

 

Oct 122018
 

 

I am delighted and charmed to (drum roll) be able to say that I just received my author’s copies of Ingrid Ruthig‘s wonderful collection of essays David Helwig: Essays on his Works. I have mentioned this before on the blog, in the pre-order stage. Forgive me for repeating myself. It’s a lovely book. I mention in my essay an earlier essay by the late Tom Marshall, and Ingrid managed to snag the rights that essay and include it in the book. And so many Numéro Cinq alums had their hands in it, including Mark Sampson, rob mclennan and George Fetherling. And, of course, Ingrid herself published in the magazine (poetry and art). The book is published by Guernica Editions.

My essay “The Arsonist’s Revenge” on David Helwig‘s novella The Stand-in was commissioned by Ingrid especially for the book. I had a lovely time writing it. Helwig is a master of the novella form, also a master poet, novelist, memoirist — you name it.  David is an old, old friend (inimitable) and also multiple contributor to the magazine. Not only that, but (have I mentioned this?) the book is stunningly good. Coincidentally (or not), the estimable and inimitable publishing house Biblioasis re-issued a splendid new edition of The Stand-in. You can buy a copy on the Biblioasis site or Indigo or Amazon.

—dg

Mar 122017
 

This section of The Long Dry provides a wonderful snapshot of the novel as a whole. Here we can spot the tense-yet-loving dynamic in Gareth and Kate’s marriage; we sense the interminable hardship and danger of farm life itself; and we get a glimpse of the book’s central plot point: the cow that has gone missing at the height of a drought. Perhaps most importantly, we also get a snippet of Jones’ lean, spare prose — the signature quality of this fine book. — Mark Sampson

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The Finger

Inside she sets the table. The knives and forks and plates in piles on the vinyl cloth. She starts to read her catalog of supplements, things she hopes will stop her aging, help her hold less water, help her be less tired, and make her want sex more. For her age, she is a very beautiful woman, but she does not see it. It is beginning to go from her. She knows it.

He comes in, scraping his feet on the metal grill outside the back door, not because he needs to, but from habit. Or perhaps it is his announcement—a signal they have always had but never spoken of. They had many of these when they were younger.

She rinses the cafetière and warms the cup with water from the kettle, which she’s boiled several times while she has waited for him. She does not make the coffee. Some things she mustn’t do. She’s threatened by the coffee, about how strong to make it, how it tastes when it is made. He makes coffee every day, just for himself as no one else drinks it. He makes a strong potful of coffee at this time of the morning and it does him for the day, warming up the cupfuls in a pan as they are needed, which makes them stronger as the day goes on. No one else touches the pan. She says it’s why he does not sleep. His first coffee each morning is the remnants of the night before because he does not want to wake the house grinding the beans, and the children sleep above the thin ceiling of the kitchen.

He sits at the table with a loose fist and runs his thumb over the first joint of his forefinger in the way he has, so it makes a quiet purring sound, like rubbing leather.

“What about the dosing?”

“It’ll have to wait,” he says.

He rubs his finger. He does this always at the table, talking or reading a paper, even with the handle of a cup held there, so that this part of his finger is smooth and shines. Whenever he’s at rest.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve checked the obvious places and she’s not there. She’s got her head down and gone.”

He does not tell her about the stillborn calf.

“It’s typical. It has to be today,” she says. “I should have gotten up to check.”

“She would have gone anyway,” he says quietly.

He looks down at the missing part of his little finger on his right hand and makes the sound against his thumb again. She still blames herself for this damage to him. He was trying to free the bailer from the new tractor and she had done something and the catch had just bit down. He takes a mouthful of coffee. It was a clean cut and it healed well and he could have lost his hand instead. That’s how he looks at it. In some ways he loves it.

She burned the toast, so he goes quietly over and makes some more while she tries to rescue the wrecked slices.

“The vet phoned about Curly,” she says.

“Oh.”

“He wants to come today.”

He knows the vet will put the old dog down. Not today, he thinks. It’s a hard thing to have happen today, if he has
to find the cow too.

“You should have some breakfast,” he says to her. It’s odd how seriously we take the silly names of animals.

The door latch snaps and Emmy comes in still dressed in her pajamas and with her blanket tucked in her hand, thumb in her mouth. She shuffles over to the old settle and curls up with her green-and-purple zebra. She would come down when she heard her parents talking in the kitchen below in the morning.

“Hello, sweetie,” says her mother.

She shines her eyes up at her mother, looks to her father quickly, shyly. Something secret passes between them and she smiles and settles. They stop talking of the cow.

He sits there rubbing his finger and looking at the stump of his little finger fondly.

“It’s going to be hot again today,” he says.

—Cynan Jones

“The Finger” is excerpted by permission from The Long Dry (Granta Books and Parthian Books, 2014; Coffee House Press, 2017). Copyright © 2014 by Cynan Jones.

N5

Cynan Jones is the author of six novels, including The Dig, Everything I Found on the Beach, and Bird, Blood, Snow. He lives in Wales

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Feb 252017
 

Ceramic box by Michel Pastore

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I’m calling this issue the Magic Box, Numéro Cinq‘s magic box issue, mostly because I am so taken by the image above, a ceramic box by the Swiss artist (and fashion designer) Michel Pastore. Pastore, together with his partner Evelyne Porret, are a truly remarkable duo. They live on an oasis outside of Cairo, where they operate their studio and a ceramics school and live in exotic splendor. We have a ton of images from their desert hideaway, stunning objets d’art that are both utilitarian and dreamy, fantastic shapes and colouring. All courtesy of Rikki Ducornet, who knows the couple well.

But to paraphrase the excerpt from Agustín Fernández Mallo’s poem below, inside a box there is always another box, and another, and another…

Even I am astonished and the depth and variety in this issue.

Ceramics artists Michel Pastore & Evelyne Porret

Pastore/Porret house and studio at Fayoum, outside of Cairo

Rikki Ducornet

And from Rikki herself, an essay on Gnosticism, a dramatized evocation of the beginning of everything and the light.

Attempt to imagine – and the task is futile – an absence, as when the night sky is empty of her moon, of moonshine, of stars, of starlight. Imagine a void in which you are without purchase (there is no place to stand); a night as unfathomable as a pool of ink (there is no pool, no ink) in which the vast firmament has dissolved. There is nothing but absence. (And you, the one who attempts this imagining, are nowhere to be seen.) —Rikki Ducornet

Kelly Cherry

Kelly Cherry sent us a story with a promising title — “Burning the Baby” — of course, we’re publishing it. And more.

The constant sun enervates. Yes, night still arrives, but one’s skin is burnt so bad that sores appear on arms, legs, and bald heads. People give up on clothes, abandon their garments, for it is too painful to wear them. Everyone gives up. —Kelly Cherry

Carlos Fonseca

And something truly special, writer/translator Jessica Sequeira interviews Costa Rican/Puerto Rican novelist Carlos Fonseca on his brilliant novel Colonel Lágrimas.

Then again, you can never escape your obsessions. So the novel ended up addressing some of the ideas that intrigued me at the time: the idea of a history as a giant museum, the inability to pass from thought to action, the Borgesian notion of history being reduced to a giant encyclopedia or archive. And then, there is also the story of how – as an adolescent – I wanted to be a mathematician. Perhaps, now that I think about it, the novel was a way of rethinking my past. —Carlos Fonseca

Jessica Sequeira

Ben Slotky

Also inside the box this month, we have new fiction from Ben Slotsky, recommended to us by no less than Curtis White.

Flow, content wording, prioritize critical information, establish a model and keep it. These are precepts, they are tenets. Processes, forms. You are not paying attention. It doesn’t matter. There is too much, a wave, a wash, and it is over, over, and you are gone. —Ben Slotky

James Joyce & Sean Preston

From East London, we have a short story by Sean Preston, ex-pro-wrestler (among other things).

She had her habits. One of them was buying cheap furniture from places that were so fucking far away, by the time you paid for travel to the ungodly zones of south-west London, you hadn’t really saved much money at all. —Sean Preston

Maura Stanton

And we have poems — and then MORE poems — wonderful poetry by Maura Stanton, Susan Elmslie, Fleda Brown (who has a new collection just out), and, from Spain, the legendary Agustín Fernández Mallo translated by Zachary Rockwell Ludington.

Trust me. I’m one who loves all fogs—
misty, yellow, blue, rolling or grey—
I’ll walk your fog down busy thoroughfares
at any hour, clean up its wet messes,
pull it away from streetlamps and hydrants
but let it sniff around in the shrubbery
or blow its light breath against a window.

……………………………………….—Maura Stanton

Agustín Fernández Mallo

Underneath this skin is another skin,
and under that another, and another, and another,
and thus, as many layers as you like, until n∊N→∞
antecenter of the center which is finite.
That center is the mask.

……………………………………….—Agustín Fernández Mallo

Susan ElmslieSusan Elmslie

After the chaos there is silence,
a failure of words but not of sound,
which we know travels in waves,
and the speed of which is still the distance
travelled per unit of time.

…………………………………….—Susan Elmslie

Fleda BrownFleda Brown

Good, the blatant coffin, the procession,
the undertaker, the taking under.
To turn a body to ash—I can see how
it flies in the face of full-on facing
how slow the earth means to be.

………………………..—Fleda Brown

J. M. Coetzee

Our Book Review Editor, the inimitable Jason DeYoung, reviews the latest from that other inimitable — J. M. Coetzee.

By the way, no one in this novel is clearly named or called Jesus. Only the title teases that one of the characters is—perhaps—the historical Jesus. Perhaps post crucifixion, perhaps not? Perhaps this isn’t the historical Jesus at all—perhaps Coetzee is  playing a game on us. Perhaps not. But the reader can’t help looking for parallels. —Jason DeYoung

Anne Hirondelle’s Aperture 14, 16″ x 16″

Anne Hirondelle returns to our pages with a mix of drawings and ceramics. Readers loved her work last time, and she has a new show just opened.

Anne Hirondelle working in studioAnne Hirondelle

Cynan Jones

Mark Sampson reviews Cynan Jones’ “otherwise dark, brooding, brutal and devastating” novella, in which ducks appear.

In The Long Dry, Jones writes very well about ducks, their sex lives, and their feces. In fact, if there were an International Literary Prize for Writing about Ducks, Their Sex Lives, and Their Feces, Jones would easily win it. These passages are moments of levity in an otherwise dark, brooding, brutal and devastating novel –Mark Sampson

Show Girl in Hollywood page

J P McEvoy still from Woman Accused 1933

Also we have from Steven Moore, a vastly detailed (lots of images) and fascinating essay on the protean, prolific and once famous “avant-pop” novelist-cartoonist-screenwriter J. P. McEvoy.

But literary historians have overlooked a novelist from the same decade who deployed these same formal innovations largely for comic rather than serious effect, adapting avant-garde techniques for mainstream readers instead of the literati. —Steven Moore

Steven Moore

Montaigne

Linda Chown is a new voice at the magazine. She’ll be back. But first this lively review of a new anthology of essays by Michel de Montaigne.

Repeatedly, Montaigne thinks of his efforts as flawed, monstrous or distorted. To become his reader, I have had to become a kind of ventriloquist engaged in an act of translation and projection, of time, genre, gender, language and many translations.  It was only when I found how uncertain, fearful and tentative he was that I could begin to write of him wholeheartedly. —Linda E. Chown

Linda E. Chown

Yannis Livadas

The Greek poet Yannis Livadas, whose poems have appeared on these pages in the past, returns with an essay on the theory and inspiration behind his experimental work.

What is born is condemned to death and to being absorbed by the newly born. The newly born is more specifically regulated by death. The newly born is the exchange value of death. Life, is the daemon – poetry, is the teaching of the absolute nullity. The irreversible perforation of what has been poetically affirmed by those who are still spendable. —Yannis Livadas

Amanda BellAmanda Bell

From Ireland this month, we have a beautiful and evocative Childhood memoir from Amanda Bell.

The boat bay was fringed with hazel scrub and thorn trees, and purple loosestrife and blue scabious grew in the coarse yellow sand. It was a very good place to catch grasshoppers and daddy-long-legs for dapping, and because I was small and moved quietly I was the champion hopper-catcher. —Amanda Bell

Timothy Ogene – photo by Claire MacKenzie

The Nigerian poet Timothy Ogene (whose poems have appeared here) has written an essay on the American poet Ruth Lepson (whose poems have appeared here).

In Lepson’s work, thought reveals itself in the choice and structural placement of words and, in other instances, a reluctance to carry an emotion to an expected end. The goal, it seems, is to create a binary that balances overt emotions with critical deliberations. —Timothy Ogene

Melissa Febos

And our own Carolyn Ogburn pens a rave review of Melissa Febos’ memoir Abandon Me.

I’m told if you score a bullet across its tip with a pocketknife, first lengthwise then across, your shot will penetrate its target cleanly, but ravage the organs inside. I thought of this when reading the blunt, clean prose of Melissa Febos in her new memoir, Abandon Me. —Carolyn Ogburn

But there is MORE!

2017

 
Vol. VIII, No. 8, August 2017 (the final issue)
Vol VIII, No. 7, July 2017

Vol VIII, No. 6, June 2017

Vol VIII, No. 5, May 2017
Vol VIII, No. 4, April 2017

Vol. VIII, No. 3, March 2017

Vol. VIII, No. 2, February 2017

Vol. VIII, No. 1, January 2017

 Comments Off on 2017
Feb 222016
 

gayraud3-001Joël Gayraud

March is coming, the new issue, the Exotic/Quixotic issue, the overflowing cup issue!

Striking a blow for freedom of expression and the protean nature of art, we like to publish things that don’t fit in conventional slots, especially those academic creative writing niche slots like the personal essay (you know, where you write about something interesting but bring in your relationship with your boyfriend as well). We love the aphorism, the short nonfiction form. We publish aphorisms and extended aphorisms and essays that are formally long aphorisms. We also publish memoir and place pieces and book reviews that bring in craft and structure. In the latter, I am firmly convinced, you express yourself in the choices you make (without having to mention, um, yourself or your boyfriend).

One of the highlights of this issue is the excerpt from Joël Gayraud’s The Shadow’s Skin, translated from the French by S. D. Chrostowska (whose own incendiary book of extended aphorisms MATCHES: A Light Book we excerpted in our December issue). Books like these owe much to the example of Nietzsche who wrote in fragments or mini-essays or thought experiments or, perhaps, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, one of my all time favourites.

It’s also worth noting that in this issue we have a veritable plethora (you have to get the word “plethora” in every six months or so) of book reviews. This is a consequence of our policy of (like the airlines) double booking reviews, which have a way of not coming in on time or disappearing entirely (this has more to do with the vagaries of publishing schedules and the mail than our tribe of reviewers, a punctual and hardworking group). But then every once in a while a whole bunch of reviews arrive at once and suddenly the double booked flight is, well, double booked.

So this is a huge issue!

The development of sadomasochistic practices contributes more effectively than many revolutionary discourses to undermining the psychological foundations of power. When, in the intimacy of their bedroom, couples experimented with the game of submission and dominance—even where the sexual roles themselves remain uncriticized, the mere fact that this game took place enables the objectification of old fantasies of domination and slavery—fantasies that, as a consequence of the brutal and barbaric establishment of relations of domination, have been buried deep in the breast of humanity. — Joël Gayraud

Chrostowska_s_d_retouched_scaled_croppedS. D. Chrostowska

CaptureFrank Stanford

Allan Cooper reviews What About This, The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford. Stanford was a great, undersung, Mississippi-born cult poet, one of those divine eccentrics. The book has been named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, winner to be announced March 17.

If we’re lucky, once or twice in a generation an artist comes along who changes the complexion of our entire landscape and gives us a way of seeing the world as we have never experienced it before. Often these artists receive little or no recognition in their lifetimes, and it takes years–sometimes generations–for their genius to be acknowledged. I think of the work of William Blake and John Clare, Emily Dickinson, Vincent van Gogh, Paula Modersohn-Becker and the haunting, other-worldly poems of Frank Stanford. —Allan Cooper

Ivan Seng in concertIvan Seng

New to the magazine, Carolyn Ogburn answered one of my want-ads for a music writer. This is her first contribution, an interview with the North Carolina musician/composer Ivan Seng. The title of the piece is “a random walk,” but you need to know what a random walk is. See below where Ivan Seng explains.

Well, random walk is a mathematical term. It comes from Brownian motion. Do you remember the story of the guy [botanist Robert Brown] who was looking though his microscope at tiny particles in water. He saw these particles and he saw them bouncing around – he saw that these particles were following this completely random motion, Brownian motion – and I think it’s how they realized that there were atoms, because it ended up being that these atoms were bouncing off of these small little particles and it was pushing the particles around… So if we took a very basic motion… say you have a 3-sided die, marked 0-1-2, and each number correlates to a particular movement.  And [your particle, or sound, in its own placement is affected by the dictates of the die] and you start at a certain number, 0, and you can go up a step or down a step. But it’s unpredictable. —Ivan Seng

Carolyn OgburnCarolyn Ogburn

Kenneth HarrisonKenneth E. Harrison, Jr.

We also have a fist full of poems from Kenneth E. Harrison, Jr., delicate, lambent, melancholy.

A morning difficult to walk across
the slain crocuses a song
or a silent movie
a memory of a wound
floated out to sea
at the beginning of the war
the fields covered by searchlights
at the edge of a garden before we were born

—Kenneth E. Harrison

Lina WolffLina Wolff

Mark Sampson reviews the wild and wooly collection of fragments/stories Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs by the Swedish writer Lina Wolff.

Wolff’s project – a text at once fragmented enough to pass for a short story collection and yet untraceably centred on the character of Alba Cambó, a writer of violent, horrifying tales who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer – draws a connection between the canine-like nature of human males and the limitations of revenge against their more animalistic natures by women.  — Mark  Sampson

Georgi-TenevGeorgi Tenev

Natalia Sarkissian reviews Party Headquarters by the Bulgarian novelist Georgi Tenev.

In Party Headquarters Georgi Tenev reduces the traditional novel with its linear time, clear relationships, memory and complex characters to an indissoluble essence. Characters, for example, are nameless—they are merely bodies or even types. Memory, hallucination and current narrative merge creating a fluid world where time is relative. —Natalia Sarkissian

Alan-Cunningham-03 19.33.08Alan Cunningham

We have this month inspired, comic, eccentric, Monty Python-esque fiction from the Irish writer Alan Cunningham.

Idea for a script, no, play.

No, idea for a novel.

A man – no, woman – too many men in literature, opens a suitcase in a living room of a building apartment, starts to place all these, like, well, all these different objects into it. Not sure what they could be – yet. She puts all these – well, things – she puts all these things into the suitcase, leaves her apartment in a city – let’s say, London – and starts walking. —Alan Cunningham

Richard SkinnerRichard Skinner

The English novelist turns his hand to short story analysis and structure, beginning his exploration with Alice Munro’s short story “Jakarta,” using a device called the Greimas Semiotic Square to parse a set of relationships he finds crucial to the short story.

All these magnificent stories are highly organised, intense studies of humans interacting and behaving oddly with each other. They throw light on sublimated desires and warped motives. Ultimately, however, in all of these stories, it is some kind of lack, absence or failure of one corner of the square that triggers catastrophic change and collapse in the other three. There must be a black hole, a sacrificial lamb, for the story to work and it is these black holes that are the secret keys to the stories. Through them, we slip down a wormhole and emerge at the story’s end with fresh understanding of just how weird and wonderful human beings can be. —Richard Skinner

Julian_bioJulian Hanna

Julian Hanna contributes an offbeat What It’s Like Living Here piece, Julian walking in Madeira where he lives, a tale of a complicated beauty, of a place both difficult and enticing.

If I dig deep, I think it’s that I love the contrast – between the breathtaking beauty, the tropical flowers and sun and sea on one hand; and the plague of traffic and stupidity and all kinds of human failings, which are universal failings, on the other. Anyone who has travelled in southern European cities like Athens or Barcelona or Naples, not to mention the cities of the global south, knows this contrast and its peculiar frisson. Something about the ugliness and beauty of human life, the union of pain and pleasure, is ultimately why I live here and why I walk. I like things to be difficult. —Julian Hanna

Karen MulhallenKaren Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen returns to the magazine with a handful of love poems, mad love, foolish love — is there any other kind?

It can’t be helped
I wasn’t ready, or maybe I was really ready
ready for love
had no defenses
wasn’t prepared
just jumped in
and now
the undertow is
taking me down.

—Karen Mulhallen

Richard FarrellRichard Farrell

Richard Farrell continues to mine the stories of his past, especially his years as a prospective U. S. Navy pilot — this time a sublime and sublimely sad essay about a classmate, a plebe, who committed suicide at the Academy.

Ten years after the Worcester Air Show, still pursuing my dream of becoming a Navy pilot, I returned from physics lab to my room at the United States Naval Academy, only to find that a plebe from 10th Company had climbed out of his fifth-floor window and plunged to the brick walkway below.

His shattered, uniformed body was visible from my window as paramedics rushed in vain to save his life. Ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars had cordoned off the road, but the air was eerily still. I expected sirens, but heard only the chirping of birds, the rustle of a breeze off the Chesapeake. Again, it was September. A warm, clear day sparkled. Spinnakers billowed on the Severn River as sailboats tacked their way out to the hazy bay. —Richard Farrell

Jenny ErpenbeckJenny Erpenbeck

Frank Richardson reviews a book he loves, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days.

The End of Days, a book of elegant style and penetrating insight, filled with arresting characters and provocative questions, is a book to come back to a second time, and a third, and . . . who knows how many times? Erpenbeck writes with a gentle intensity—a feeling light as a dream yet so grounded in the moment that if a grenade exploded outside your window, you wouldn’t jump. Although death frames the novel, The End of Days celebrates the beginning of days, for it affirms life’s multiplicity and the potential of every human life. Erpenbeck quotes W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz in an epigraph; in part, he asks—“where will we be going now?” This question vibrates throughout her novel and remains with us as we move on from this book, and this life, to the next. — Frank Richardson

Sam-Savage-author-photo1-923x1024Sam Savage

Jeff Bursey sums up the life & works of the great Sam Savage.

Sam Savage has a genius for getting inside his characters’ heads and bringing out their worst and best traits in such a way that we are never in doubt that the individual—it can be man or woman or, yes, animal—is a presence who has felt pain and sorrow and has a story to tell. His lead characters are intensely believable because the language is intense and believable. This exquisite combination of words and psychology, along with Savage’s knowing penchant for idiosyncratic behaviour, is rare indeed, not found in fiction as frequently as we might desire. —Jeff Bursey

Cover_of_firmin_novel_by_Sam_Savage

jose_eduardo_agualusa_0José Eduardo Agualusa

Jeff Bursey, who appears twice, yes, in this issue, reviews the novel A General Theory of Oblivion by history-obsessed, Angolan-Portuguese author José Eduardo Agualusa.

…strong women, women praised for their beauty, ignorant men, thick-headed and greedy men, victims of tragedy, and the kind-hearted. Above them all is Ludovica (Ludo) who has accompanied her sister, Odete, and her new brother-in-law, Orlando, from Portugal to Angola just before independence is brought about. She is the figure Agualusa focuses on. Through her, despite her isolation in an apartment building, we are given an overview of Angolan history and society. —Jeff Bursey

self-portrait through a keyholeRoger Weingarten, Self Portrait through a Keyhole

And there is, as I always say, MORE! Including art work from the poet Roger Weingarten, excerpts from the anthology DIRT: A Love Story, a new NC at the Movies, and new work from Ireland.

2016

 

Vol. VII, No. 12, December 2016

Vol. VII, No. 11, November 2016

Vol. VII, No. 10, October 2016

Vol. VII, No. 9, September 2016

Vol. VII, No. 8, August 2016

Vol. VII, No. 7, July 2016

Vol. VII, No. 6, June 2016

Vol. VII, No. 5, May 2016

Vol. VII, No. 4, April 2016

Vol. VII, No. 3, March 2016

Vol. VII, No. 2, February 2016

Vol. VII, No. 1, January 2016

Jan 112015
 

IMG_0002Michael and Kate


PART I (June 2014)

Two years ago I wrote an essay on returning to reading following the death of my wife. She was forty-four. We’d been married four years and nine months. She had breast cancer for twenty-one months. She left me with two kids (eight and eleven) and an ex-husband to negotiate. More accurately, she left her ex-husband with two kids and a second husband and step-parent to negotiate.

I intended to follow up my essay a year later with another on reading through grief, but I couldn’t manage it. The flow of grief left me unsettled to the extent that I never felt secure enough to speak. Never felt grounded, is what I mean. How could I write an essay on anything when every time I tried to put my thoughts together they shifted? Also, I had wanted to write how, one year later, I had “read through” grief, and about how I was now on the other side looking back. Except I wasn’t on the other side. Not only did I feel nowhere near the other side, I felt increasingly in ever deeper, ever more tumultuous water. For eighteen months, I felt concussed. And when those symptoms relieved, I felt something worse.

The grieved get used to people asking, “How’s it going? Better?” Things are supposed to get better. We have clichés for that. Time heals all wounds. We all know about the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Sadness. Acceptance. As a grieved person, you are granted a certain leeway to be crazy. Emotionally overloaded. Out there. Behaving irrationally, unpredictably, outside the norm. And then you are supposed to “get over” all of that. You are supposed to acknowledge that folks have “allowed” you this period of disrupted expectations. You are supposed to be grateful how everyone has been “there for you,” which they have been, on the whole, even if it really seems that all anyone has really done is try to wait you out. Wait for you to declare, “I’m back.”

Early on I decided I was never going back. In my wife’s final months, I read The Five Ways We Grieve by Susan A. Berger and I’d absorbed the message that grief was transformative. You may respond to it in any number of ways, but you will not remain unchanged. After my wife died, I read Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan, a book recommended to me by one of my wife’s friends who’d lost her only son at age four to cancer. The transformation message was reprised there and to it was added a second: feel your feelings. Do not fear the darkness. Open your heart and mind and let the grief process carry you on its current. Healing will come in stages, and you will experience unexpected gifts.

I did experience unexpected gifts. Many involved suffering a rainbow of unremitting pain. All the better to teach you resiliency, my dear. Off in the distance a witch cackles. Ah haha. That I can write this now shows that I am released from this spell, which as I said was concussion-like. After my wife died, I chose to read Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Woolf was my wife’s favorite author, and Mrs. Dalloway was her favorite book. I’d never read it, and I chose it to honour her. Waiting for Godot called to me. I felt I was caught in an absurd, Beckettian situation. I had spent so many hours sitting in hospital waiting rooms with my wife (waiting! rooms), so many months waiting for the disease to progress or not, so many weeks, then days, then suddenly minutes at the end, waiting for death. I felt I had confronted the void, and I felt I needed Beckett. Woolf, too. (And I did.) But what next?

Michael

I once made a list of the ten to twelve books I read that first year. It’s still around the house somewhere, but I’m not going to search for it. There were as many books, likely more, I started and set aside. I fell into no rhythm, felt no progression, struggled against despair. I believed in prescribing myself books. I felt I could self-medicate with literature and get through my hard times, but while some books clicked, in general I felt myself slipping downward. Of course, downward is a literary journey, too, but I decided against attempting Dante. Early on I tried Hamlet, a tale of grief and madness, and I thought it fantastic. I read it about the same period of time after my wife’s death as the period of time between the death of Hamlet’s father and the re-marriage of his mother. Too soon! Holy smokes! I also re-read T.S. Eliot’s essay on Hamlet and thought (again) that he was full of it. The capture of Hamlet by chaos and his urgent need for sense, pattern and meaning gripped me as perfectly sensible. Order had been overthrown, and what was it now?

In my own life, I had lost my role as husband and my role as a step-father became severely ambiguous. The children continue to spend time with me, but half what they spent before. The three of us were the ones closest to their mother, and we have a bond that has been forged in fire and is unbreakable, and my separation from them terrified me. If we can make it through seven more years, and get the youngest one out of high school, then we will have achieved something remarkable. It once seemed barely plausible. Now it seems more likely.

Levi

I decided to read Primo Levi. I started with The Periodic Table. I loved it. I wanted to stay with him forever. I thought, “This is what you do when you confront the void. You turn it into something like this.” Years earlier I had read Philip Roth’s interview with Levi. That was my only previous exposure to him. One of my wife’s friends had also told us a story about professional advice she’d received to help her deal with a toxic work environment. The advice was: read Holocaust literature. The premise was: it will make your toxic work environment seem less severe. At least that was her interpretation. I said, “Maybe it means your work is comparable to a concentration camp.” Except, of course, no mass murder. I had both interpretations in my mind when I started reading Levi. I had found the cancer period Beckettian, and the death administration equally so. Again and again I was confronted with the absurdities of our bureaucratic modernism. Trying to deal with my wife’s estate, I tried to process a cheque through the bank, but they wouldn’t do it. I complained to customer service, and got a lecture on the phone from a woman who explained to me that bank policy trumped the law. “We need to protect our customers,” she said. I explained to her that her customer was dead, and I was her husband and executor and that I WAS THE ONE who was responsible for protecting her, and the she was in fact thwarting her customer’s interests. No dice. I lost. I had to find another way of cashing the cheque.

Now that, it’s clear, isn’t a concentration type problem. No. Never. But the gift of Levi is his incredible ability to classify behaviours and identify sub-strata of groups within groups. Even in this darkest of dark environments, the concentration camp, the lager, Levi shows how meaning can be made and maintained, and how victims can create victims. As he notes, the survivors survived because often they were the ones who were able to find an advantage. An extra bowl of soup. An extra piece of bread. Avoiding beatings. Levi himself survived because of his chemistry training. He was put to work in a lab, and even then barely made it out alive. The Periodic Table is framed around chemistry. Each chapter is named after an element. It tells the story of his early life, his chemistry training, the rising anti-Jewish restrictions in Italy, his budding romances, his radicalization, capture and transport to the camp. The camp itself, and later liberation, his return to professional chemistry, and his interactions with Germans, both through his work at a paint factory and through his writings. What a profound life. What a profound contribution to humanity.

After reading The Periodic Table, I read The Drowned and the Saved, which I also found moving, but not as brilliant as The Periodic Table. I started to read Survival in Auschwitz, but put it down after a couple of dozen pages. My interest had shifted. I felt that Levi had given me as much as I could get from him at that time. I reflected on the horrible bureaucracy of the camps, the savage efficiency they implemented, and the homicidal logic they represented. Going through the healthcare system with my wife, we had often remarked, “You’re just a number.” When sit in the waiting (!) room, anticipating your five minutes with the world class specialist, lining up your questions, and wondering what koan he’s going to drop on you for the next week or three until you see him again, you remind yourself that he doesn’t know you. He doesn’t know your life, your ambitions, your dreams, or anything more about you than the list of numbers he sees on your chart, your blood work results, your hormone levels, your this and that and you don’t even know what because they won’t tell you. In the camps, though, you literally were a number, and it was tattooed on your arm, and the purpose of the camp was to kill you, while the purpose of the hospital is to save you. Except for many, they don’t. For my wife, they didn’t. After her mastectomy, back in her hospital room, she said, “I wonder where my breast is now,” and I said, “I know where it is. It’s in the lab.” Because that’s where the doctor had said it would be, to analyze the cells, and include the results in their database and research project. They had asked her permission to do this, of course, but that didn’t make her any less a statistic and a research subject. Catch-22. As a patient you want the benefit of that research, but as a patient you also want your doctor to see you as a human being. Sometimes this happened, and other times, not so much.

For eighteen months I felt concussed, but when that lifted, I felt worse. What was going on? Emotionally over-whelmed. Exhausted. I had survived the cancer period with the help of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, sedatives, blood pressure meds, extra strength Tylenol, beer, wine, gin of increasing proportions. Little by little, I let go of those. The anti-depressants first, then the blood pressure meds. The need for Tylenol diminished. I cut the sedative dose in half. I tried to cut back on the drinking. I kept the anti-anxiety pills in reserve. I went to grief counselling. “Remember you have a body,” the counsellor said. You can’t think your way out of this. Like Miriam Greenspan said, feel your feelings. I wrote a blog throughout this period. I tried to chart my changing emotions. I felt I was getting better. I’m not sure I was getting better, only changing. I couldn’t convince myself that my wife was gone. I knew she was dead, but she felt present. I cried daily, often in sharp painful jags. They were just about the only thing that offered any relief.

What was going on? I had absorbed a blow so powerful, the bruise was taking months and months to work its way out. My head was a cloudy mess. I couldn’t anticipate a future. I tried to write new fiction, but I couldn’t. I could barely read, and often I couldn’t. Television struck me as trivial and dull. The news attracted me not at all. In her final months, my wife had spent a lot of time playing Scrabble on the ipad. I couldn’t even open that application, but I sat most evenings and weekends (when the kids weren’t here) plugging away at various online strategy games. And then I downloaded Candy Crush Saga. The distance between The Periodic Table and Candy Crush Saga, I’m here to tell you, isn’t as vast as it first seems. The attraction, in fact, was similar. At least in my case. Each both excited and calmed my mind, took the random and chaotic and led it into patterns, filled up the time on the clock. Time heals all wounds, the cliché says. Not so, but wounds do need time to heal. Some lots of time, months, even years. As I am relieved from one wound, I seem to confront yet another and then another. Through the cancer period, we looked only forward, never back, and it was a horrible time that we filled with much joy (because we were alive and together and it was our mission), and at first I thought my wound was her death, but after eighteen months I realized that it was also the way she had died. Just the other day, while I was at work in the office, I found myself asking: “Dear God, Why? If you had wanted to take her, why didn’t you just take her? Why did she need to suffer so first?” Thinking like this, makes me think the comparison to the concentration camps isn’t so misplaced. Except one is an act of God, and the other an act of Man.

In March 2014, I felt violent palpitations remembering her mastectomy surgery in March 2011. The memories came upon me suddenly, unexpectedly. I tried to puzzle out why. I had violent images of her scar and “drainage tubes” and her pain and struggle to overcome the loss of muscle under her arm also removed. At the time, we had remained calm, focused, constructive, forward-looking. In 2012, we hadn’t been looking back. Things for her we so much worse. In 2013, I had only been thinking about 2012, her last months, the process of her dying. In 2014, my memory took me back to 2011. I felt ill. I took a couple of days off work. I felt violently shaken with disbelief that they had cut her breast off. Oh my fucking God! What savagery is that!? And we had just let it happen. We had been glad that it happened. We had praised the good work of the surgeon. What a clean, beautiful scar line! All of this seemed impossible to me now. No way. How horrible all of that was. How abnormal. How perverse. What knots we tied ourselves in to make it all seem permissible. No. It was brutal and horrible and a lasting terror. And then, as quickly as they had come, those dark feelings lifted.

I read three J.G. Ballard novels in the first year after my wife died, and one more in the second. First three: Concrete Island, The Day of Creation, Super-Cannes. The forth: Millennium People. I had read Cocaine Nights previously, and some of his short stories. I had a sense that Ballard would be good to read, and he was. Why?

.

PART II (Nov 2014)

It is now over four months since I wrote the first part of this essay, and I have not written a word towards answering that one word question. Life intervened, and also writing the first part of this essay exhausted me. Reading it recently, I was surprised by the anger it contains. I remembered it as “cool” and “dispassionate,” but it is nothing of the sort. I had written about my wife, Kate, without naming her, a distancing strategy. Coming to terms with grief requires a distancing strategy. It is a distancing strategy. Letting go of the past. Trying to get up some momentum for the future.

In September I attended a three-day “Camp Widow” conference in Toronto. Organized by Soaring Spirits International, a California-based grief support organization, this event brought together 120 widowed individuals (110 women, 10 men) and offered a variety of workshops, seminars and peer support opportunities. I wasn’t sure I would like it. I wasn’t sure I would get anything out of it. But I did like it, and I did get a renewed sense of vigor and momentum out of it. Primarily, it helped me realign my heart and my head, accept that I am a widower now, and a widower forever, and understand, perhaps for the first time, that moving on does not require letting go.

I mean, I knew that. I was living that. But this is where the peer support was so important. In my life, I have no peers. I know no one my age who has lost a spouse. People my age tell me things like, “Divorce is like a death.” And they tell me how horrible it was to lose a parent. These events are horrible, and painful, but these people are not my peers. I go to work day after day and try to be a productive person, but my sense of belonging in my life is shattered. Everyone wants me to get “back to normal,” but there is no normal to go back to. If I have a new normal, it will be something I need to build out of the shattered remains of my former life. “Camp Widow” made that crystal clear.

J.G. Ballard was a widower. His wife died in 1964, suddenly from pneumonia, leaving him to raise three children. Of course, he had also spent part of his childhood in a prisoner of war camp in Shanghai. His novels chart the shattered remains of the (post-)modern world. Life after the catastrophe. If Levi was life within (and after) the catastrophe, Ballard is also charting “after the end.” I felt at home in these novels, which are more often read as pre-apocalyptic visions, but I think that’s a misreading. One paraphrase I read in a book on grief noted Heidegger said it was best to live as if the end had already come. This is exactly how I felt after Kate died. Where was I? How could she suddenly be gone? How could we be separated? That wasn’t supposed to happen. What was this place, without her? It wasn’t the world I had known. It was a place “after the end.” I felt pain, but I also felt free in a way I had never felt before. I could do anything, anything at all, and yet all I wanted to do was nothing. Just sit in front of a fire in the woods and poke at it with a stick.

I told these thoughts to a friend, and he told me about Walter Benjamin and his Angel of History:

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

I believe I had said to my friend that Kate’s death had freed me into a land of infinite choice, and yet I felt powerless. The world rumbled on, and I watched it in horror, wondering why it was full of shit. Violence. Madness. Degradation of such variety it was impossible to keep up. None of this was necessary, and yet none of it could be stopped. I seemed to have a front row seat and an awareness heightened beyond anything I had ever experienced. Propelled backwards into the future, we go. Fuck ya.

Ballard

Concrete Island (1973) is a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, except the island is a traffic island lost in a sea of traffic lanes and overpasses. It’s a slim book, and if I wasn’t specifically interested in Ballard I don’t think I would have picked it up, but it gripped me. A middle-aged man on his way home from a rendez vous with his mistress goes over the barrier in his fancy car, rolls down a hill and is trapped in an odd parallel universe, which is within reality and also outside of it. He discovers the island has other denizens, a self-supporting ecosystem, and no way to escape. His expectations of life are fundamentally and suddenly altered, and he must adjust, or die. I identified with that.

The Day of Creation (1987) is also an “after the end” novel. The action takes place in Central Africa, a parched and desert-like place. An Englishman, Doctor Mallory, goes on a Heart of Darkness-type quest after a mysterious river is suddenly sprung free from the earth. In a chaotic world, ruled by paramilitaries, bureaucrats and a freelance television crew, Mallory brakes free and leads all and sundry upriver, seeking its source. There’s some high adventure in this one, but also lots about a world under stress from capitalism, militarism, technological expansion and, let’s just say it, men. The mystery of the natural world is set against all of this. The power of women and girls, too. The new great river. The land mass of the African continent. A wild, post-pubescent, silent girl, who enters carrying a gun, and is equally terrifying and heartbreaking. The novel quickly reveals the foolhardiness of those who think they “know” anything about anything. Propelled backwards into the future, we go. Fuck ya.

Super-Cannes (2000) takes us into a world of ultra-capitalism and a different kind of desert, a kind of intentional community, though it is built for Forbes 500 companies, not 1960s back of the landers. It is also a post-catastrophe novel, in this case a murder rampage which had disturbed the perfectly controlled, micro-managed village just before the arrival of the protagonists, a husband and wife. She is the new doctor (replacing the doctor turned mass murderer), and her husband is the narrator, who has a lot of free time to investigate the goings on of his new surroundings. The genre explored here is whodunit? Or more precisely, whydunit? The plot thickens and thickens, as our hero is introduced to the reigning psychiatrist, who explains the theory and practice of the super village. It is designed to take care of its residents’ every need, so that they can be as productive as possible, and rake in the dough for the multinationals who are paying all of the bills. Taking care of everyone’s needs leads to an unexpected result. Folks are bored. All work and no play, it turns out, isn’t healthy, and the dark side of the soul needs to be exercised. So the folks organize under-the-cover-of-darkness vandalism brigades. Plus much more. I didn’t identify with the plot here, not in a “post-grief” way. But the undercurrent of swirling chaos felt very real. It made me think of the cancer period. It made me think of the dark truths hidden by systems.

Millennium People (2003) continues down this path. The action is set in contemporary England. A bomb has gone off at Heathrow, in the arrivals luggage area. The protagonist is a senior psychologist and his ex-wife is among those killed by the bomb. Through his job, he becomes involved in the investigation, but he begins his own independent research as well, getting drawn deeper and deeper into a shadowy world of domestic terrorism and anti-capitalist rebellion. The book contains an enlarged critique of big money and the faux surface “realities” of consumer culture and mass media. As with Super-Cannes, the plot plays with the idea that violence leads to a truer engagement with life, an idea that Ballard has returned to for decades. See, for example, Crash (1973), where characters stage car accidents for sexual pleasure. I found Millennium People to be the least satisfying of the four Ballard novels I read in this sequence. Some of the ideas felt recycled. The protagonists were starting to blur together. But the insights about an outer shell of mass media images obscuring and inner crust of essential “being” expressed what I felt to be intuitively true in my post-grief blurriness.

Being in a “liminal” world, is something Kate spoke about, as she lived with terminal cancer. Liminal = in between, life and death, here and there, fear and hope. And so on. I often felt in that space, too. Outside the main flow of life. And as I watched her die I felt as close as you can get to the other side without slipping into the void. Kate had spoken to a friend about the writing of Stephen Jenkinson, a palliative care specialist. She seemed to like what he had to say, but we didn’t talk about it much. She didn’t like to talk about dying, at least with me. She wanted us to just life, stay in our groove. But one of the things Jenkinson focuses on is fear, confronting fear, specifically. One story he tells is how most people when they confront death, aren’t actually confronting death; they’re too lost in the fear. He says that meeting death is like meeting love. You meet a new lover and at first you confront feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Is this going to work out? Can I actually connect with that person? And you go through those emotions, and then you connect with love. Connecting with death is the same, he says. And that describes what I felt, waiting, watching Kate get sicker, knowing that death would come soon, but never really sure when. Months, then weeks, then days. Imminently.

Five days before she died we were at the hospital for the last time, and her bloodwork was terrible. The numbers were not good, and she knew what that meant. She said, “I guess this is it.” Later, she asked me what my biggest fear was. I said it wasn’t that she was going to die. I wasn’t afraid about that. Now, reflecting on then, I’m stunned. We were there with death and we were both, “Oh, well. I guess it’s really going to happen.” The fears I had were about what would happen after she died. I told her that, but I also told her that I knew she didn’t want to discuss any of that with me. She didn’t. We sat in the sun outside the hospital, and I told her I wished we could just stay there forever. It wasn’t the disease that was the problem; it was time. We said some other things to each other also. It was really beautiful. Then we had to go home and re-enter reality and play the drama out. Three days later she was no longer speaking. She died two days after that.

Have I made it clear how Ballard’s multiple levels of reality felt just right to me? I hope so.

Just recently I recounted Jenkinson’s story about going through fear to get to death to my psychologist. I wanted to make the point to him that nobody told me I would have to go back through the ring of fear to get back into ordinary life. For a long time, I didn’t want anything to do with ordinary life. I liked being in the liminal space. I wanted to just stay there. It was a place full of insight, and a level of quiet peace that was sustaining, even if not fully real. But you can’t stay there. At least, I couldn’t. It’s that infernal engine of time again (another of Ballard’s obsessions, also; there’s some fantastic short stories that attack time savagely, but that’s for another…well…). Time wouldn’t let me drift in a void-like space for long, and getting back to a sense of normalcy was very, very painful. Ballard didn’t help with that. Levi, not so much, either.

I didn’t seek out novels about grief. I tried to read Murakami’s nonfiction about the sarin gas attack. I couldn’t get into it. I thought I would feel an “after the end” connection to it, but I didn’t.

On the first Valentine’s Day after Kate’s death, I bought Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). God, I hated this book when it came out. Everyone who told me about it made it sound horrible. I found the title unforgiveable. I had tried to read a number of different Eggers titles and found them unwelcoming to my tastes. But Kate liked his stuff. And this was a novel about grief and moving through it and past it, and in a moment of perversity I bought it, then devoured it quickly. I then put it on the shelf with Kate’s other Eggers titles (her books are still separate from mine). I felt, in a way, that I had read it for her. I know that sounds weird. There was more than a little magical thinking going on. I really hated the “Dave” character, pretty much all the way through, but I also got what he was doing, and I knew that I only got it because I was going through something so, so similar. I felt that I was in a place that only I could understand, and I was having visions that were like x-rays, but I knew none of this was because of genius, and also that it was heartbreaking in a quotidian way. It was pretty simple. My wife had died when I was 43. I had been 38 when we married. Eggers was in his early twenties when both of his parents had died from cancer in short succession, leaving him with custody of his much younger brother. Holy fuck, I thought. Now that’s a raw deal. And the novel is often raw, and sometimes it’s just plain stupid, but it is a song of pain that is staggering, heartbreaking, and even, yes, at times, genius. But it still left me trapped in Jenkinson’s wall of fear.

levels-of-life

Julian Barnes lost is wife in 2008, suddenly to cancer. In 2013, he published Levels of Life, a memoir of his grief. In 2011, he published The Sense of an Ending, a novel deeply reflective of the mysteries that haunt our lives. I read both of these books in close succession in the past year, and they are each remarkable and each marked, I believe, with the sharp pain and clarity of vision that grief can bring. Levels of Life is specifically about Barnes’ own grief and he tells of hard, hurting moments, but he also gives us a magical story about balloons. It’s really amazing, how he grounds the reader with enormous weight, and also makes us feel lighter than air. This is an incredible book, and it lifted my heart. The Sense of an Ending is also an incredible book, and now that I think about it it has grief at its core also. The protagonist is an older man, reflecting on the death of a close friend when he was young. Recent events draw him back into the past, and he discovers that things he thought were so, weren’t at all. He wonders if he has made a mess of his life, but he is not without opportunities to correct it, at least partly. I bought this book at Heathrow on a visit to London, and read it in the lounge and on the plane, completing it before landing in Toronto. Both of these Barnes titles are about transition, and in the past two-and-a-half years that has been my life, over and over. Will this bloody transition ever end?

I was already feeling a new sense of something when I went to “Camp Widow,” but that experience broke open emotions I hadn’t felt in a long time. It made me realize and articulate, finally, that Kate would never leave me and that I would also move on past her, and that these two facts weren’t in contradiction. She will always be with me, but I can’t stay here, in the now, which is the past. What is that thing, that sense of an ending? Is it a different level of life? I will have my own, new future, and she will be part of it, but she also won’t be part of it. Is that what happens when you get old? You realize that the past is always with you, and nothing ever really ends?

I said to my psychologist, “Returning to ordinary life is fucking horrible. Ordinary life is fucking horrible.” I meant this in an Angel of History way, but also just: my magical powers are fading. Grief is an extraordinary emotion, and living deep in grief is an extraordinary experience. At “Camp Widow” I heard of others who had contemplated suicide, others who had succeeded. Going back through the ring of fear and re-entering ordinary life is a risky period of “time.” To let go of the magic of the grief: hard. To let go of the dreams of being with the loved one: hard. To accept the new reality of here/not here: hard. Some don’t make it. Eggers’s older sister didn’t make it. Barnes muses about suicide as an option. Levi either killed himself or died in an accidental fall. Ballard’s vision includes violence as a kind of release. I was never suicidal, but one question pounded in centre of my mind: why should I go on? Why, without her? As I have gone on, I’ve realized again and again that I’m not without her. I don’t know how to explain that, except I have a glowing certainty that it’s so. And my PTSD pain, the memories of her suffering, etc., fades, too. The soul is lighter than air, it rises like a balloon.

.

CODA

Okay, the PTSD pain. Yes, it fades, but it also comes and goes. The concept of “trigger warnings” is growing in common usage, and I was initially skeptical. I’m naturally skeptical. But the first week of November, the date I’m writing this, is the week Kate had her first chemotherapy. I’m self-conscious of anniversaries, and careful. Better to anticipate feeling crappy than to have it sneak up on you. Well, this week snuck up on me. Yesterday I felt like utter crap. Not as bad as I have often in the past, but worse than I’ve felt in a while. What happened at this time? I asked myself, and then I knew.

Here’s the thing about that first chemotherapy. We took a video camera. I have about a dozen video files of Kate from that day after various stages of the process. I had forgotten that entirely and then a while back found these files. We must have been crazy. We were crazy. Kate was adamant, however, that the disease wasn’t going to change her. She is seen plugged up to the machine and laughing. She is seen at home in bed, towel on her head, complaining of a headache and laughing. In one video she has the camera and she points it at me. I make a funny face. Looking at her doesn’t automatically make me sad any more. Looking at myself, was shocking.

I want to be that guy again, but I cannot. Nor can I tell him, buddy, hold on. You are in for a wild ride. If there was one thing I could tell him (me), it would be that the strategy of laughing your way through cancer will fall apart. You may think, dude, that cancer was bad; and it was; but losing her, this will be worse. (You will not laugh your way through grief, though your step-daughter will expect it of you. So like her mother, she will say, “I don’t like to see you cry.”) To put it in terms of this essay, I read and wrote through the cancer period. I clung to my reading (as did Kate) like a life raft. I read in many hospital waiting rooms. I wrote a book review weeks before she died. All of that fell apart in the tunnel of grief. This essay has been about putting my reading life back together. I have piles of books scattered all over the house, as I did before she died. I am reading widely and randomly, as I have always liked to do. On this good news, I will end.

— Michael Bryson [1]

Link to Kate’s Photos: http://kateorourkephotos.blogspot.ca/

 

.

Michael Bryson has been reviewing books for twenty years and publishing short stories almost as long. His latest publication is a story “Survival” at Found Press. In 2011, he published an e-version of his novella Only A Lower Paradise: A Story About Fallen Angels and Confusion on Planet Earth. His other books are Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), The Lizard (2009) and How Many Girlfriends (2010). In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review, and published 26 issues of fiction, etcetera, before taking a break in 2009. TDR resumed publication in 2011. He blogs at the Underground Book Club.

/
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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Here’s a short list of some books I’ve read recently that I’m enthusiastic about:
    Mad Hope, Heather Birrell
    How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti
    Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson
    Nothing Looks Familiar, Shawn Syms
    Interference, Michelle Berry
    Polyamorous Love Song, Jacab Wren
    Bourgeois Empire, Evie Christie
    The Desperates, Greg Kearney
    You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence, Donato Mancini
    The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, Sherman Alexi
    Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Cambell Scott, Mark Abley

    Here’s some books I hope to get to soon:
    Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon
    What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, Lynne Tillman
    Come Back, Sky Gilbert
    Stories in a New Skin, Keavy Martin
    All the Broken Things, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
    I know you are but what am I?, Heather Birrell
    Ellen in Pieces, Caroline Adderson
    The Outer Harbour, Wayne Compton
    Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder
    Life is about losing everything, Lynn Crosbie
    Sad Peninsula, Mark Sampson
    Gender Failure, Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote
    In the Language of Love, Diane Schoemperlen
    Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
    Boundary Problems, Greg Bechtel
    All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews
    The Incomparables, Alexandra Leggat
    Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, Jacob Wren
    Professor Borges, Borges
    Rap, Race, and Reality, Chuck D
    The Collected Stories of Stephan Zweig
    Tobacco Wars
    , Paul Seesequasis
    Voluptuous Pleasure, Marianne Apostolides
    Sophrosyne, Marianne Apostolides
    Consumed, David Cronenberg

    Read on.

2015

 

Vol. VI, No. 12, December 2015

Vol. VI, No. 11, November 2015

Vol. VI, No. 10, October 2o15

Vol. VI, No. 9, September 2015

Vol. VI, No. 8, August 2015

Vol. VI, No. 7, July 2015

Vol. VI, No. 6, June 2015

Vol. VI, No. 5, May 2015

Vol. VI, No. 4, April 2015

Vol. VI, No. 3, March 2015

Vol. VI, No. 2, February 2015

Vol. VI, No. 1, January 2015

 Comments Off on 2015
May 282012
 

Book News, Reviews, Orders

“…a master of narrative structure” (Wall Street Journal)

“…every literate person in the country should be reading Glover’s essays.” (Globe and Mail)

———–

Order Attack of the Copula Spiders

———–

 

April 25, 2013

Brendan Riley review in Review of Contemporary Fiction:

This is not literary craft reduced to statistical formulae and write-by-the-numbers word-bytes. Glover’s admirable ability and patient willingness to cast a careful—not cold—eye on what makes sentences hum and flow is fueled by a vital, infectious fascination with words, enabling him to reveal the inspired, alchemical, verbal concatenation at work in the most alluring and memorable fiction writing.

Read the whole review here.

§

March 30, 2013

3 Canadian Writers with Buzz @ The Reader

 

 

attack

§

March 9, 2013

A Canadian author’s book on writing went viral on social media recently, leading to thousands of would-be fiction writers searching their manuscripts for “Copula Spiders.”

Douglas Glover’s book Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis) coins the term to refer to the multi-appendaged mess created by circling and linking all of the variations of the verb “to be” in a paragraph. (Copula is a term for the link between subject and predicate of a verb.) Excessive use of sentence constructions like “he was happy” or “the building was unassuming” lead to “flaccid and uninteresting prose,” he writes.

Joe Ponepinto, book review editor of the Los Angeles Review, brought Glover’s ideas to the literary world in a much-circulated blog post subtitled “Why I’ll never write (or read) the same way again.”

via Cameron Dueck’s arts column – Winnipeg Free Press.

§

March 2, 2013

from Joe Ponepinto @ The Saturday Morning Post

I reviewed a book a while back that has stayed with me for many months and has affected the way I write and read, and it’s opened my eyes to a weakness in much creative writing, even in published books. Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis, 2012) criticizes many aspects of fiction, but saves its most withering scorn for the rampant and indiscriminate use of copulas.

The Secret of Maimonides-Submission for 2-26

I hear you asking, “What’s a copula? I admit I had to look it up. Webster’s definition says: “the connecting link between subject and predicate of a proposition.” In most cases, this refers to a form of the word “be.” But what does that mean to us everyday writers? It means banal, didactic, often passive sentences, almost completely lacking in action or depth.

As Glover says: “A copula spider occurs when a student uses the verb ‘to be’ so many times on a page that I can circle all the instances, connect them with lines, and draw a spider diagram. Now there is nothing grammatically wrong with the verb ‘to be,’ but if you use it over and over again your prose is likely to be flaccid and uninteresting.”

via The Case of the Copula Overdose, or, Why I’ll Never Write (or Read) the Same Way Again by Joe Ponepinto @ The Saturday Morning Post

§

December 9

From Chapman/Chapman’s Favorite Longreads of 2012.

“‘A Scrupulous Fidelity: on Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser’ by Douglas Glover, The Brooklyn Rail

Close reading doesn’t get much better than this. Glover expertly unpacks the logorrheic hilarity of Bernhard’s text without ruining any of the fun.”

 §

November 24

Attack of the Copula Spiders named one of the top non-fiction books of 2012 by The Globe and Mail.

“[By] by the time I reached the penultimate chapter, a brilliant examination of, among other things, the catastrophic meeting of the 15th-century book cultures of Europe and the oral cultures of the new world, I had decided that every literate person in the country should be reading Glover’s essays.” — Charles Wilkins

via Non-fiction books from this year that are worth a read (or two) – The Globe and Mail.

§

November 9

Governor-General Podcast Interview with Sky Hornig in Calgary during Wordfest in mid-October.

The Governor-General Podcast Interview – Douglas Glover

via Douglas Glover – CJSW – Calgary’s Independent Radio 90.9 FM.

§

September 29

A few months ago I read a book by Douglas Glover titled Attack of the Copula Spiders. At the time, I didn’t even know what a copula was. Once I understood, I spent days fixing copula-laden writing, and sweated over every sentence I wrote to make sure I was using more active verbs. In time, though, those fixations fade into the subconscious, which is where they belong. The key to good writing, I believe, is not to ignore rules and not to obsess over them. It’s to incorporate the ones you believe are true into your writing psyche so that you are aware of them without thinking about them. — Joe Ponepinto, Book Review Editor at LA Review. Writer, editor, teacher. Occasional curmudgeon. Dad to henry, the coffee-drinkin’ dog

§

September 29

 §

September 5

If I had to guess what events will sell out first, my money would be on the Douglas Glover Master Class. He’s a spectacular Canadian writer who has kindly agreed to do a three hour class on the mechanics of good creative writing for WordFest patrons. The best part about it? It’s only 30 bucks per person. What are you waiting for? Follow this link and buy tickets now!

via Post-Launch Blog: A Response | WordFest Blog.

 

§

July 17

Shelagh Shapiro interviews dg on his new book Attack of the Copula Spiders at Write the Book, Shelagh’s long-running radio show, which, by the way, is fast becoming an institution in its own right, a vast trove of writerly advice and experience. Listen to the interview on Shelagh’s site or download the podcast — it’s also available at iTunes.

Douglas Glover – Interview

Award-winning Canadian author Douglas Glover, on his latest book: a collection of essays on writing, Attack of the Copula Spiders, published by Biblioasis.

§

July 15

Douglas Glover and How to Write a Novel

by Jane Eaton Hamilton

I’m reading “Attack of the Copula Spiders” by Douglas Glover. i remember him trying to drill the matters in his first piece, “How to Write a Novel,” through my thick brain back in Saratoga Springs in the early 90s. It was the best advice I had ever gotten on making a novel. Really, it still is, and I’m glad to see it again in other than my own scrambled notes. 

§

July 6

Vivian Dorsel interviews Douglas Glover in upstreet 8.

upstreet with Douglas Glover

Dorsel:  What do you emphasize in your teaching of writing?

Glover: Reading. The first thing I give students is a reading rubric and an analytical check-list to begin to reform their reading skills. As I say in Attack of the Copula Spiders, we live in a post-literate age. On a certain level that book is about the act of reading. I am pushing a critical aesthetic that is a bit like New Criticism and a bit like Russian Formalism; but, to my mind, as a writer, it just seems reasonable and immeasurably expands comprehension. You read a story and pay some attention to how it’s put together and, beyond the illusion of fictional narrative, you suddenly engage with the text on a whole other, rather exciting, level of grammar, rhythm and meaning. You begin to see connections that hitherto you vaguely passed over supplying your own dreamy connotations (as you’re taught to do in high school). We’re at a moment in our culture when differences in the ability to read and comprehend a text are critical.

I can’t remember the moment when I actually invented the phrase “copula spiders,” I only foggily recall circling over and over again all the “to be” verbs and then noticing that I could make a diagram on the page and that the diagram resembled a spider (with far more legs than it should have). The real issue, the shocking point, is that when you teach writing you are basically teaching the same student over and over again. It doesn’t matter whether the student is writing nonfiction or fiction or that the student thinks the burning piece of paper in his hand is the next War and Peace because he has put his heart into it and it comes out of his own original personal thoughts and is different (he believes) from anything ever written before (or in the future). The shocking thing is the uniformity of mediocrity. The shocking thing is that intelligent adults can’t think of another verb to use (actually most students jog along with a verb repertoire of about five: to be, to look, to sit, to stand, to see—absolutely the most popular verb choices).

The crucial connector here is to realize that part of the reason proto-writers don’t notice they are doing this is because they don’t know how to read. Eighty percent of what I do every semester is teach students how to read like writers, that is, with attention to structure and the felicities of well-written prose. So the two aspects of my book are necessarily joined: you can’t teach people to write simply by telling them what they are doing wrong; you have to show them where it is done right, that is, you have to show them how to read.

Once you learn to read you can teach yourself how to write. Literature is an encyclopedia of technique.

§

June 5

“The best essays in this collection come further in as Glover, like a physicist dissecting atoms, breaks down the prose of several great writers of the past few decades. A successful fiction writer in his own right, he wants not only to identify the techniques of stylists such as Alice Munro, Mark Anthony Jarman, and Thomas Bernhard, but to understand the grand logic behind the structures, the God-like plans that such geniuses hatch to produce their greatest works. Although this is not specifically a “how-to” book, Glover’s analyses in Copula Spiders prove far more insightful than traditional criticism, and by extension far more helpful to writers who are serious about approaching perfection in their craft.” — Joe Ponepinto @ The Los Angeles Review

§

June 5

It’s a great book. Look for my review in the next issue of Broken Pencil. — Nico Mara-McKay @ nicomaramckay.com

§

June 3

The first bad review; always a landmark. DG taken to the barn and whipped with limp squibs by Daniel Evans Pritchard at The Critical Flame, a young man apparently lacking a sense of humor and a delusional optimist who seems to think all those e-books coming out are worth reading. Without a trace of irony, he quotes, um, a Gallup poll to tell us the state of literary culture in America. At least he spelled my name right (although he didn’t manage to copy Mark Anthony Jarman’s name with the same accuracy — Mark suddenly becoming French in the translation — Marc Anthony Jarman). Tiresome as it is, I herewith issue my usual challenge to a duel.

§

May 21

Such was the pace of my conversion, that by the time I reached the penultimate chapter, a brilliant examination of, among other things, the catastrophic meeting of the 15th-century book cultures of Europe and the oral cultures of the new world, I had decided that every literate person in the country should be reading Glover’s essays and was fixing to present them to my eldest daughter, who is about to begin literary studies at UBC.

Glover is at times rather detached in his assessment of the value of storytelling. And yet there is a subtext to his work, a sense that if a story is to have life beyond the intrinsics of its existence, it must, sooner or later, ease up to the imponderables at the heart of what it is to be human. As Joni Mitchell said of songwriting, if at some point a song’s lyrics don’t extend themselves into a larger orbit, “it’s all just complaining.” Charles Wilkins, The Globe and Mail

§

May 13

His sortie on the verb “to be” in “Attack of the Copula Spiders” is particularly brilliant. Mark Sampson at Free Range Reading

§

April 28

Attack of the Copula Spiders is a practical guide for anyone interested in writing. Glover’s first chapter, “How To Write A Novel,” alone is worth the price of the book. Telegraph Journal SalonBooks

§

Caroline Adderson, author of A History of Forgetting: “Just ordered it. The essay on “Meneseteung” alone is worth the price.”

§

April 13

“These essays are not just for writing students, however. Whatever heightens student awareness of craft also sharpens the awareness of the general reader who has no desire to try his or her hand at writing but would like better to understand literature. Glover has an essay on Alice Munro that is of value to any short story writer but also should be required reading for anyone interested in Canadian fiction.” Philip Marchand in the National Post

 §

April 10

“You should have a look at Douglas Glover on what may be the Mexican classic, Pedro Paramo, which was once described to me as “Mexico’s Joyce.” (The essay appears in Glover’s recent Attack of the Copula Spiders, which looks to be a great book of literary essays.)” — Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading

 §

April 9

“Thoughtful and erudite books such as Attack of the Copula Spiders are always useful as roadmaps for developing better readers and writers. Now if we could only get the world to read them carefully.” George Fetherling review in Quill and Quire

§

“I’m a few chapters into reading it a second time. All of it is wise and clear and exciting. The book is chock-full of good stuff, but the first and third chapters are especially brilliant. And the first paragraph of your essay on the Rooke novel is itself worth the price of the book. ” — Jack Hodgins, Governor General’s Award winning author of The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne and The Invention of the World

§

March 25

Douglas Glover interview re Attack of the Copula Spiders on The Danforth Review.

§

Douglas Glover’s Craftwork talk on the novel at the Center for Fiction — based on “How To Write A Novel,” one of the essays in Attack of the Copula Spiders

§

March 14

Craftwork: Douglas Glover — Wednesday, March 14, 2012, 7:00 pm, at

The Center for Fiction
17 E. 47th Street
(between Fifth and Madison)
New York, NY 10017
(212) 755-6710
info@centerforfiction.org

§

March 15

Douglas Glover Read at Celebration of The Literarian

The Center for Fiction
17 E. 47th Street
(between Fifth and Madison)
New York, NY 10017
(212) 755-6710
info@centerforfiction.org

Thurs

day March 15, 2012
07:00 pm

Come join us for drinks and micro-readings in celebration of our online magazine, The Literarian, featuring contribs Alan Cheuse, Anne Landsman, Barbara O’Dair, Carmela Ciuraru, Christine Schutt, Diane DeSanders, Douglas Glover, Elissa Schappell, Jane Ciabattari, Kim Chinquee, Leigh Newman, Leopoldine Core, Terese Svoboda, Tracy O’Neill, and Victoria Redel.

§

February 9

The Thomas Bernhard essay in Attack of the Copula Spiders quoted in The New Yorker online Book Bench.

§

Among the essays included in the book:

  • How to Write a Novel (dg’s famous Novel Lecture)
  • How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise (see examples of student stories written from the exercise here and here)
  • The Drama of Grammar
  • The Mind of Alice Munro
  • Novels and Dreams
  • A Scrupulous Fidelity: On Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser

§

February 5

UK Guardian reviewer and columnist and editor of the magazine 3 a.m. Andrew Gallix quotes from Attack of the Copula Spiders.

(This is in his Phantom Book category, related to language theory and a modernist aesthetic. dg is up there with Walter Benjamin, George Steiner and Herman Melville.)

§

February 1

Essay excerpted from Attack of the Copula Spiders in The Brooklyn Rail

Linked on A Piece of Monologue, ReadySteadyBook, and wood s lot.

“…excellent essay” — @ Who Killed Lemmy Caution?

“…excellent essay” — @ Three Minutes’ Chewing

“…a great essay by Douglas Glover about Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser (it is serialized from Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, published by Biblioasis. The essay makes a fine rundown of the various rhetorical devices that makes Bernhard Bernhard. So if you ever wonder how he manages to attain those typically Bernhardian effects, look here.” Scott Esposito @ Conversational Reading

§.

Attack of the Copula Spiders Book Signing at Vermont College of Fine Arts booth, AWP ChicagoThursday, March 1, 2-3:30pm. Books available. Bring cash or checks.

§

Attack of the Copula Spiders Party at AWP Chicago Friday, March 2, 7-8:15pm, Hilton Chicago Hotel Dining Room 4. Invitation below.
.

§

Invitation Flyer

§

 

Visit the NC Bookstore.

Buy books here and a percentage comes back to NC for the upkeep of the magazine.

Attack of the Copula Spiders

 

Attack of the Copula Spiders

Book News, Reviews, Orders

“…a master of narrative structure” (Wall Street Journal)

“…every literate person in the country should be reading Glover’s essays.” (Globe and Mail)

———–

 Order Attack of the Copula Spiders

———–

April 25, 2013

Brendan Riley review in Review of Contemporary Fiction:

This is not literary craft reduced to statistical formulae and write-by-the-numbers word-bytes. Glover’s admirable ability and patient willingness to cast a careful—not cold—eye on what makes sentences hum and flow is fueled by a vital, infectious fascination with words, enabling him to reveal the inspired, alchemical, verbal concatenation at work in the most alluring and memorable fiction writing.

§

March 30, 2013

3 Canadian Writers with Buzz @ The Reader 

 

attack

§

March 9, 2013

A Canadian author’s book on writing went viral on social media recently, leading to thousands of would-be fiction writers searching their manuscripts for “Copula Spiders.”

Douglas Glover’s book Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis) coins the term to refer to the multi-appendaged mess created by circling and linking all of the variations of the verb “to be” in a paragraph. (Copula is a term for the link between subject and predicate of a verb.) Excessive use of sentence constructions like “he was happy” or “the building was unassuming” lead to “flaccid and uninteresting prose,” he writes.

Joe Ponepinto, book review editor of the Los Angeles Review, brought Glover’s ideas to the literary world in a much-circulated blog post subtitled “Why I’ll never write (or read) the same way again.”

via Cameron Dueck’s arts column – Winnipeg Free Press.

§

March 2, 2013

from Joe Ponepinto @ The Saturday Morning Post

I reviewed a book a while back that has stayed with me for many months and has affected the way I write and read, and it’s opened my eyes to a weakness in much creative writing, even in published books. Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis, 2012) criticizes many aspects of fiction, but saves its most withering scorn for the rampant and indiscriminate use of copulas.

The Secret of Maimonides-Submission for 2-26

I hear you asking, “What’s a copula? I admit I had to look it up. Webster’s definition says: “the connecting link between subject and predicate of a proposition.” In most cases, this refers to a form of the word “be.” But what does that mean to us everyday writers? It means banal, didactic, often passive sentences, almost completely lacking in action or depth.

As Glover says: “A copula spider occurs when a student uses the verb ‘to be’ so many times on a page that I can circle all the instances, connect them with lines, and draw a spider diagram. Now there is nothing grammatically wrong with the verb ‘to be,’ but if you use it over and over again your prose is likely to be flaccid and uninteresting.”

via The Case of the Copula Overdose, or, Why I’ll Never Write (or Read) the Same Way Again by Joe Ponepinto @ The Saturday Morning Post

 §

December 9

From Chapman/Chapman’s Favorite Longreads of 2012.

“‘A Scrupulous Fidelity: on Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser’ by Douglas Glover, The Brooklyn Rail

Close reading doesn’t get much better than this. Glover expertly unpacks the logorrheic hilarity of Bernhard’s text without ruining any of the fun.”

 §

November 24

Attack of the Copula Spiders named one of the top non-fiction books of 2012 by The Globe and Mail.

“[By] by the time I reached the penultimate chapter, a brilliant examination of, among other things, the catastrophic meeting of the 15th-century book cultures of Europe and the oral cultures of the new world, I had decided that every literate person in the country should be reading Glover’s essays.” — Charles Wilkins

via Non-fiction books from this year that are worth a read (or two) – The Globe and Mail.

§

November 9

Governor-General Podcast Interview with Sky Hornig in Calgary during Wordfest in mid-October.

The Governor-General Podcast Interview – Douglas Glover

via Douglas Glover – CJSW – Calgary’s Independent Radio 90.9 FM.

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September 29

A few months ago I read a book by Douglas Glover titled Attack of the Copula Spiders. At the time, I didn’t even know what a copula was. Once I understood, I spent days fixing copula-laden writing, and sweated over every sentence I wrote to make sure I was using more active verbs. In time, though, those fixations fade into the subconscious, which is where they belong. The key to good writing, I believe, is not to ignore rules and not to obsess over them. It’s to incorporate the ones you believe are true into your writing psyche so that you are aware of them without thinking about them. — Joe Ponepinto, Book Review Editor at LA Review. Writer, editor, teacher. Occasional curmudgeon. Dad to henry, the coffee-drinkin’ dog

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September 29

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September 5

If I had to guess what events will sell out first, my money would be on the Douglas Glover Master Class. He’s a spectacular Canadian writer who has kindly agreed to do a three hour class on the mechanics of good creative writing for WordFest patrons. The best part about it? It’s only 30 bucks per person. What are you waiting for? Follow this link and buy tickets now!

via Post-Launch Blog: A Response | WordFest Blog.

 

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July 17

Shelagh Shapiro interviews dg on his new book Attack of the Copula Spiders at Write the Book, Shelagh’s long-running radio show, which, by the way, is fast becoming an institution in its own right, a vast trove of writerly advice and experience. Listen to the interview on Shelagh’s site or download the podcast — it’s also available at iTunes.

Douglas Glover – Interview

Award-winning Canadian author Douglas Glover, on his latest book: a collection of essays on writing, Attack of the Copula Spiders, published by Biblioasis.

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July 15

Douglas Glover and How to Write a Novel

by Jane Eaton Hamilton

I’m reading “Attack of the Copula Spiders” by Douglas Glover. i remember him trying to drill the matters in his first piece, “How to Write a Novel,” through my thick brain back in Saratoga Springs in the early 90s. It was the best advice I had ever gotten on making a novel. Really, it still is, and I’m glad to see it again in other than my own scrambled notes. 

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July 6

Vivian Dorsel interviews Douglas Glover in upstreet 8.

upstreet with Douglas Glover

Dorsel:  What do you emphasize in your teaching of writing?

Glover: Reading. The first thing I give students is a reading rubric and an analytical check-list to begin to reform their reading skills. As I say in Attack of the Copula Spiders, we live in a post-literate age. On a certain level that book is about the act of reading. I am pushing a critical aesthetic that is a bit like New Criticism and a bit like Russian Formalism; but, to my mind, as a writer, it just seems reasonable and immeasurably expands comprehension. You read a story and pay some attention to how it’s put together and, beyond the illusion of fictional narrative, you suddenly engage with the text on a whole other, rather exciting, level of grammar, rhythm and meaning. You begin to see connections that hitherto you vaguely passed over supplying your own dreamy connotations (as you’re taught to do in high school). We’re at a moment in our culture when differences in the ability to read and comprehend a text are critical.

I can’t remember the moment when I actually invented the phrase “copula spiders,” I only foggily recall circling over and over again all the “to be” verbs and then noticing that I could make a diagram on the page and that the diagram resembled a spider (with far more legs than it should have). The real issue, the shocking point, is that when you teach writing you are basically teaching the same student over and over again. It doesn’t matter whether the student is writing nonfiction or fiction or that the student thinks the burning piece of paper in his hand is the next War and Peace because he has put his heart into it and it comes out of his own original personal thoughts and is different (he believes) from anything ever written before (or in the future). The shocking thing is the uniformity of mediocrity. The shocking thing is that intelligent adults can’t think of another verb to use (actually most students jog along with a verb repertoire of about five: to be, to look, to sit, to stand, to see—absolutely the most popular verb choices).

The crucial connector here is to realize that part of the reason proto-writers don’t notice they are doing this is because they don’t know how to read. Eighty percent of what I do every semester is teach students how to read like writers, that is, with attention to structure and the felicities of well-written prose. So the two aspects of my book are necessarily joined: you can’t teach people to write simply by telling them what they are doing wrong; you have to show them where it is done right, that is, you have to show them how to read.

Once you learn to read you can teach yourself how to write. Literature is an encyclopedia of technique.

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June 5

“The best essays in this collection come further in as Glover, like a physicist dissecting atoms, breaks down the prose of several great writers of the past few decades. A successful fiction writer in his own right, he wants not only to identify the techniques of stylists such as Alice Munro, Mark Anthony Jarman, and Thomas Bernhard, but to understand the grand logic behind the structures, the God-like plans that such geniuses hatch to produce their greatest works. Although this is not specifically a “how-to” book, Glover’s analyses in Copula Spiders prove far more insightful than traditional criticism, and by extension far more helpful to writers who are serious about approaching perfection in their craft.” — Joe Ponepinto @ The Los Angeles Review

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June 5

It’s a great book. Look for my review in the next issue of Broken Pencil. — Nico Mara-McKay @ nicomaramckay.com

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June 3

The first bad review; always a landmark. DG taken to the barn and whipped with limp squibs by Daniel Evans Pritchard at The Critical Flame, a young man apparently lacking a sense of humor and a delusional optimist who seems to think all those e-books coming out are worth reading. Without a trace of irony, he quotes, um, a Gallup poll to tell us the state of literary culture in America. At least he spelled my name right (although he didn’t manage to copy Mark Anthony Jarman’s name with the same accuracy — Mark suddenly becoming French in the translation — Marc Anthony Jarman). Tiresome as it is, I herewith issue my usual challenge to a duel.

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May 21

Such was the pace of my conversion, that by the time I reached the penultimate chapter, a brilliant examination of, among other things, the catastrophic meeting of the 15th-century book cultures of Europe and the oral cultures of the new world, I had decided that every literate person in the country should be reading Glover’s essays and was fixing to present them to my eldest daughter, who is about to begin literary studies at UBC.

Glover is at times rather detached in his assessment of the value of storytelling. And yet there is a subtext to his work, a sense that if a story is to have life beyond the intrinsics of its existence, it must, sooner or later, ease up to the imponderables at the heart of what it is to be human. As Joni Mitchell said of songwriting, if at some point a song’s lyrics don’t extend themselves into a larger orbit, “it’s all just complaining.”  Charles Wilkins, The Globe and Mail

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May 13

His sortie on the verb “to be” in “Attack of the Copula Spiders” is particularly brilliant. Mark Sampson at Free Range Reading

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April 28

Attack of the Copula Spiders is a practical guide for anyone interested in writing. Glover’s first chapter, “How To Write A Novel,” alone is worth the price of the book.  Telegraph Journal SalonBooks

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Caroline Adderson, author of A History of Forgetting: “Just ordered it. The essay on “Meneseteung” alone is worth the price.”

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April 13

“These essays are not just for writing students, however. Whatever heightens student awareness of craft also sharpens the awareness of the general reader who has no desire to try his or her hand at writing but would like better to understand literature. Glover has an essay on Alice Munro that is of value to any short story writer but also should be required reading for anyone interested in Canadian fiction.” Philip Marchand in the National Post

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April 10

“You should have a look at Douglas Glover on what may be the Mexican classic, Pedro Paramo, which was once described to me as “Mexico’s Joyce.” (The essay appears in Glover’s recent Attack of the Copula Spiders, which looks to be a great book of literary essays.)” — Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading

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April 9

“Thoughtful and erudite books such as Attack of the Copula Spiders are always useful as roadmaps for developing better readers and writers. Now if we could only get the world to read them carefully.” George Fetherling review in Quill and Quire

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“I’m a few chapters into reading it a second time. All of it is wise and clear and exciting.  The  book is chock-full of good stuff, but the first and third chapters are especially brilliant. And the first paragraph of your essay on the Rooke novel is itself worth the price of the book. ” — Jack Hodgins, Governor General’s Award winning author of The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne and The Invention of the World

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March 25

Douglas Glover interview re Attack of the Copula Spiders on The Danforth Review.

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Douglas Glover’s Craftwork talk on the novel at the Center for Fiction — based on “How To Write A Novel,” one of the essays in Attack of the Copula Spiders

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March 14

Craftwork: Douglas Glover — Wednesday, March 14, 2012, 7:00 pm, at

The Center for Fiction
17 E. 47th Street
(between Fifth and Madison)
New York, NY  10017
(212) 755-6710
info@centerforfiction.org

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March 15

Douglas Glover Read at Celebration of The Literarian

The Center for Fiction
17 E. 47th Street
(between Fifth and Madison)
New York, NY  10017
(212) 755-6710
info@centerforfiction.org

Thursday March 15, 2012
07:00 pm

Come join us for drinks and micro-readings in celebration of our online magazine, The Literarian, featuring contribs Alan Cheuse, Anne Landsman, Barbara O’Dair, Carmela Ciuraru, Christine Schutt, Diane DeSanders, Douglas Glover, Elissa Schappell, Jane Ciabattari, Kim Chinquee, Leigh Newman, Leopoldine Core, Terese Svoboda, Tracy O’Neill, and Victoria Redel.

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February 9

The Thomas Bernhard essay in Attack of the Copula Spiders quoted in The New Yorker online Book Bench.

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Among the essays included in the book:

  • How to Write a Novel (dg’s famous Novel Lecture)
  • How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise (see examples of student stories written from the exercise here and here)
  • The Drama of Grammar
  • The Mind of Alice Munro
  • Novels and Dreams
  • A Scrupulous Fidelity: On Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser

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February 5

UK Guardian reviewer and columnist and editor of  the magazine 3 a.m. Andrew Gallix quotes from Attack of the Copula Spiders.

(This is in his Phantom Book category, related to language theory and a modernist aesthetic. dg is up there with Walter Benjamin, George Steiner and Herman Melville.)

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February 1

Essay excerpted from Attack of the Copula Spiders in The Brooklyn Rail

Linked on A Piece of Monologue, ReadySteadyBook, and wood s lot.

“…excellent essay” — @ Who Killed Lemmy Caution?

“…excellent essay” — @ Three Minutes’ Chewing

“…a great essay by Douglas Glover about Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser (it is serialized from Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, published by Biblioasis. The essay makes a fine rundown of the various rhetorical devices that makes Bernhard Bernhard. So if you ever wonder how he manages to attain those typically Bernhardian effects, look here.” Scott Esposito @ Conversational Reading

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Attack of the Copula Spiders Book Signing at Vermont College of Fine Arts booth, AWP ChicagoThursday, March 1, 2-3:30pm. Books available. Bring cash or checks.

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Attack of the Copula Spiders Party at AWP Chicago Friday, March 2, 7-8:15pm, Hilton Chicago Hotel Dining Room 4. Invitation below.
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Invitation Flyer

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Visit the NC Bookstore.

Buy books here and a percentage comes back to NC for the upkeep of the magazine.

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Douglas Glover, Theatre Passe MurailleDouglas Glover’s obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.” Luckily, he owns a dog and is not completely alone in the world. And occasionally someone actually reads what he writes: He has also been called “a master of narrative structure” (Wall Street Journal) and “the mad genius of Can Lit” (Globe and Mail) whose stories are “as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature” (Los Angeles Review of Books) and whose work “demands comparison to [Cormac] McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner” (Music & Literature). A new story collection, Savage Love, was published in 2013.

Glover is the author of five story collections, four novels, two books of essays, Notes Home from a Prodigal Son and Attack of the Copula Spiders, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was optioned by Isuma Igloolik Productions, makers of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner. His story book A Guide to Animal Behaviour was a finalist for the 1991 Governor-General’s Award. His stories have been frequently anthologized, notably in The Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Stories. He was the subject of a TV documentary in a series called The Writing Life and a collection of critical essays, The Art of Desire, The Fiction of Douglas Glover, edited by Bruce Stone.

Glover has taught at Skidmore College, Colgate University, Davidson College, the University at Albany-SUNY and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has been writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick, the University of Lethbridge, St. Thomas University and Utah State University. For two years he produced and hosted The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program which originated at WAMC in Albany and was syndicated on various public radio stations and around the world on Voice of America and the Armed Forces Network. He edited the annual Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. He has two sons, Jacob and Jonah, who will doubtless turn out better than he did.

See also “Making Friends with a Stranger: Albert Camus’s L’Étranger,” an essay in CNQ:Canadian Notes & Queries; Consciousness & Masturbation: A Note on Witold Gombrowicz’s Onanomaniacal Novel Cosmos,” an essay in 3:AM Magazine; “Pedro the Uncanny: A Note on Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo,” an essay in Biblioasis International Translation Series Online;A Scrupulous Fidelity: Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser,” an essay in The Brooklyn Rail;Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought,” an essay on the history of ideas also in The Brooklyn Rail; and a dozen extremely wise epigrams at Global Brief

 

Senior Editors

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Book Reviews

Jason DeYoungJason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has recently appeared in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, The Fiddleback, New Orleans Review, and Numéro Cinq.
Contact: jasondeyoung@numerocinqmagazine.com.
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Numéro Cinq at the Movies

R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. His most recent book, a short story collection entitled Entropic, won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award in 2016. Additionally, he is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton..

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Editor-at-Large

Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is the author of Dysfunctional Males, a story collection, and Shetlag: una novela acentuada. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. He tweets at @f_sd.

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Translations

WoodardBenjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, Spartan, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews and essays have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, Numéro Cinq, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.
Contact bwoodard@numerocinqmagazine.com.

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Poetry Editors

aizenberg-thumbnailSusan Aizenberg is the author of three poetry collections: Quiet City (BkMk Press 2015); Muse (Crab Orchard Poetry Series 2002); and Peru in Take Three: 2/AGNI New Poets Series (Graywolf Press 1997) and co-editor with Erin Belieu of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia University Press 2001). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, among them The North American Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Connotation Press, Spillway, The Journal, Midwest Quarterly Review, Hunger Mountain, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and have been reprinted and are forthcoming in several anthologies, including Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier UP) and Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation (Etruscan). Her awards include a Crab Orchard Poetry Series Award, the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Levis Prize for Muse, a Distinguished Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska Library Association, and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner award. She can be reached through her website, susanaizenberg.com..

gillisSusan Gillis has published three books of poetry, most recently The Rapids (Brick Books, 2012), and several chapbooks, including The Sky These Days (Thee Hellbox Press, 2015) and Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids (Gaspereau Press, 2012). Volta (Signature Editions, 2002) won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. She is a member of the collaborative poetry group Yoko’s Dogs, whose work appears regularly in print and online, and is collected in Rhinoceros (Gaspereau Press, 2016) and Whisk (Pedlar Press, 2013). Susan divides her time between Montreal and rural Ontario..

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Managing Editor.

Deirdre thumbnailDeirdre Baker is a freelance web and copy editor living in Toronto. She worked for nearly three decades at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, most recently as manager of the Legislature’s website and intranet. After years of bills, proceedings, debates, policies, and procedures, she is delighted to finally have something interesting to read for work.

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Chief Technical Officer/Internet Security

Jonah Glover is a twenty-three-year-old human male. Jonah was hired into a technical role despite a long history of shoving chalk into the Glover family VCR. His tenure as CTO is a brazen act of nepotism by DG, so he says. In truth, he has rescued the magazine from malware attacks and hosting issues over and over again. He also designed the logo (many years ago). He works as a software engineer in Seattle and is completing a degree at the University of Waterloo.
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Contributing Editors.

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Riiki DucornetThe author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. She has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard and Anne Waldman among others. Her collected papers including prints and drawings are in the permanent collection of the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago Chile, The McMaster University Museum, Ontario, Canada, and The Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.

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Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

HeadsJulie Larios is the author of four books for children: On the Stairs (1995), Have You Ever Done That? (named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Outstanding Children’s Books 2001), Yellow Elephant (a Book Sense Pick and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book, 2006) and Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures (shortlisted for the Cybil Award in Poetry, 2008). For five years she was the Poetry Editor for The Cortland Review, and her poetry for adults has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, Swink, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Field, and others. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work has been chosen for The Best American Poetry series by Billy Collins (2006) and Heather McHugh (2007) and was performed as part of the Vox series at the New York City Opera (2010). Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University on July 13th, 2013.

Sydney Lea2Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications  released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013. In 2015 he published a non-fiction collection, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long (many of the essays appeared first on Numéro Cinq). His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.

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Special Correspondents

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Victoria Best small photoVictoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).

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Jeff BurseyJeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Garvin thumbnailGary Garvin lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, translator, writer, and cultural conspirator living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of a collection of Robert Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum, 2015). She is currently working on completing a collection of essays exploring the tension between spirit and matter in contemporary culture and a room-sized, illuminated, accordion book inscribed with one of the essays from the collection, along with many other fanatical projects. You can find Genese online at genesegrill.blogspot.com.

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JasonJason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.

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Bruce Stone4

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he edited a great little book of essays on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His own essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. He currently teaches writing at UCLA.
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Trimingham_Julie

Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.

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Production Editors

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Alyssa green backgroundAlyssa Colton has a PhD in English with creative dissertation from the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her fiction has been published in The Amaranth Review and Women Writers. Her essays have appeared in Literary Arts Review, Author Magazine, Mothering, Moxie: For Women Who Dare, Iris: A Journal about Women, and on WAMC: Northeast Public Radio. Alyssa has taught classes in writing, literature, and theater at the University at Albany, the College of St. Rose, and Berkshire Community College and blogs about writing at abcwritingediting.
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Nowick GrayNowick Gray writes fiction, essays and creative nonfiction that likes to bend boundaries and confound categories. He also works as a freelance copy editor and enjoys playing African drums. Having survived American suburbs, the Quebec Arctic and the BC wilderness, Nowick is now based in Victoria, frequenting tropical locations in winter months..

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Nic Leigh has had work published in Juked, The Collagist, UNSAID, Atticus Review, Requited, Gobbet, and DIAGRAM. A chapbook, Confidences, won the Cobalt/Thumbnail Flash Fiction contest and is forthcoming from Cobalt Press. Leigh is also a fiction reader for Guernica.

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CaptureKathryn Para is an award-winning, multi-genre writer with a MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in Grain, Room of One’s Own, Geist, Sunstream, and Vancouver Review. She is the 2013 Winner of Mother Tongue Publishing’s Search for the Great BC Novel Contest with, Lucky,  her first novel, which was also shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2014. Her stage play, Honey, debuted in 2004. She has also written, directed and produced short films.

Daniel Davis Wood is a writer based in Birmingham, England. His debut novel, Blood and Bone, won the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia. He is also the author of Frontier Justice, a study of the influence of the nineteenth century frontier on American literature, and the editor of a collection of essays on the African American writer Edward P. Jones. He can be found online at www.danieldaviswood.com..

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Assistant to the Editor

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mary-brindley2Mary Brindley is a Vermont-born copywriter living in Boston. A recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she writes creative nonfiction, performs improv, and is about to move to London.

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Contributors

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Anu2A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

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dylanbrennan-croppedCurrently based in Mexico City, Dylan Brennan writes poetry, essays and memoirs. His debut collection, Blood Oranges, for which he won The Patrick Kavanagh Award runner-up prize, was published by The Dreadful Press in 2014. His co-edited volume of academic essays Rethinking Juan Rulfo’s Creative World: Prose, Photography, Film is available now from Legenda Books (2016). In addition to his work as Mexico Curator for Numéro Cinq, he regularly contributes to the online Mexican literary site Portal de Letras. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan.

jeremy brungerJeremy Brungeroriginally from Tennessee, is a writer attending a graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests trend toward the Marxian: how capital transforms us, abuses us, mocks us. His writing on philosophy and politics has been featured on Truthout, The Hampton Institute, and 3 AM Magazine and his poetry has appeared in the Chiron Review and Sibling Rivalry Press. He can be contacted at jbrunger@uchicago.edu.
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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology, The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He helps edit the Wrath-Bearing Tree and is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Laura Michele Diener author photoLaura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine..

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Daniel Green is a writer and literary critic whose essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in a variety of publications. He is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (2016).

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A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.
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OgburnCarolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

Paddy Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and will begin work on an MFA at the University of Saskatchewan this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”

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Frank Richardson lives in Houston where he teaches English and Humanities. He received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Mark SampsonMark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Natalia SarkissianNatalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was an editor and a contributor at Numéro Cinq from 2010-2017.

 


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Joe SchreiberJoseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts.

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captureDorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.

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Authors & Artists of Numéro Cinq

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Ryem Abrahamson • Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix • Alejandro de Acosta • Caroline Adderson • José Eduardo Agualusa • Susan Aizenberg • Laurie Alberts • Ramón Alejandro • Taiaike Alfred • Gini Alhadeff • Abigail Allen • Steve Almond • Darran Anderson • Trevor Anderson • Jorge Carrera Andrade • Ralph Angel • A. Anupama • Guillaume Apollinaire • Jamaluddin Aram • Fernando Aramburu • Louis Armand • Melissa Armstrong • Tammy Armstrong • Glenn Arnold • Miguel Arteta • Adam Arvidson • Nick Arvin • Kim Aubrey • Shushan Avagyan • Steven Axelrod • Elizabeth Babyn • J. Karl Bogartte • Julianna Baggott • Louise Bak • Bonnie Baker • Sybil Baker • Martin Balgach • Brandon Ballengée • Zsófia Bán • Phyllis Barber • John Banville • Byrna Barclay • Mike Barnes • Stuart Barnes • Kevin Barry • Donald Bartlett • Todd Bartol • John Barton • Sierra Bates • Svetislav Basarav • Charles Baudelaire • Tom Bauer • Melissa Considine Beck • Joshua Beckman • Laura Behr • Gerard Beirne • Amanda Bell • Ian Bell • Madison Smartt Bell • Dodie Bellamy • Joe David Bellamy • Leonard Bellanca • Russell Bennetts • Brianna Berbenuik • Samantha Bernstein • Michelle Berry • Jen Bervin • Victoria Best • Darren Bifford • Nathalie Bikoro • Eula Biss • Susan Sanford Blades • François Blais • Clark Blaise • Denise Blake • Vanessa Blakeslee • Rimas Blekaitis • Liz Blood • Harold Bloom • Ronna Bloom • Michelle Boisseau • Stephanie Bolster • John Bolton • Jody Bolz • Danila Botha • Danny Boyd • Donald Breckenridge • Dylan Brennan • Mary Brindley • Stephen Brockbank • Fleda Brown • Laura Catherine Brown • Nickole Brown • Lynne M. Browne • Julie Bruck • Jeremy Brunger • Michael Bryson • John Bullock •  Bunkong Tuon • Diane Burko • Jeff Bursey • Peter Bush • Jane Buyers • Jowita Bydlowska • Mary Byrne • Agustín Cadena • David Caleb • Chris Campanioni • Jane Campion • J. N. F. M. à Campo • Jared Carney • David Carpenter • Michael Carson •  Mircea Cărtărescu • Ricardo Cázares • Daniela Cascella • Blanca Castellón • Michael Catherwood • Anton Chekhov • David Celone • Corina Martinez Chaudhry • Kelly Cherry • Peter Chiykowski • Linda E. Chown • S. D. Chrostowska • Steven Church • Nicole Chu • Jeanie Chung • Alex Cigale • Sarah Clancy • Jane Clarke • Sheela Clary • Christy Clothier • Carrie Cogan • Ian Colford • Zazil Alaíde Collins • Tim Conley • Christy Ann Conlin • John Connell • Terry Conrad • Allan Cooper • Robert Coover • Cody Copeland • Sean Cotter • Cheryl Cowdy • Mark Cox • Dede Crane • Lynn Crosbie • Elsa Cross • S.D. Chrostowska Roger Crowley • Alan Crozier • Megan Cuilla • Alan Cunningham • Paula Cunningham • Robert Currie • Nathan Currier • Paul M. Curtis • Trinie Dalton • J. P. Dancing Bear • Lydia Davis • Taylor Davis-Van Atta • Robert Day • Sion Dayson • Martin Dean • Patrick Deeley • Katie DeGroot • Christine Dehne • Nelson Denis • Theodore Deppe • Tim Deverell • Jon Dewar • Jason DeYoung • Susanna Fabrés Díaz • Laura Michele Diener • Anne Diggory • Mary di Michele • Jeffrey Dodd • Anthony Doerr • Mary Donovan • Steve Dolph • Han Dong • Erika Dreifus • Jennifer duBois • Patricia Dubrava • Rikki Ducornet • Timothy Dugdale • Ian Duhig • Gregory Dunne • Denise Evans Durkin • Nancy Eimers • Jason Eisener • John Ekman • Okla Elliot • Shana Ellingburg • Susan Elmslie •  Paul Eluard • Josh Emmons • Mathias Énard • Marina Endicott • Sebastian Ennis • Benjamin Evans • Kate Evans •  Cary Fagan • Richard Farrell • Kinga Fabó • Kathy Fagan • Jared Daniel Fagen • Tom Faure • David Ferry • George Fetherling • Kate Fetherston • Laura Fine-Morrison •  Patrick Findler • Melissa Fisher • Cynthia Flood • Stanley Fogel • Eric Foley • Larry Fondation • Paul Forte • Mark Foss • Tess Fragoulis • Anne Francey • Danielle Frandina • Jean-Yves Fréchette • Rodrigo Fresán • Abby Frucht • Simon Frueland • Kim Fu • Mark Frutkin • Róbert Gál • Mia Gallagher •  Mavis Gallant • Andrew Gallix • Eugene K. Garber • Rosanna Garguilo • Gary Garvin • William Gass • Bill Gaston • Lise Gaston • Noah Gataveckas • Jim Gauer • Connie Gault • Edward Gauvin • Joël Gayraud • Charlie Geoghegan-Clements • Greg Gerke •  Karen Gernant • Chantal Gervais • Marty Gervais • William Gillespie • Susan Gillis • Estelle Gilson • Nene Giorgadze • Renee Giovarelli • Jody  Gladding • Jill Glass • Douglas Glover • Jacob Glover • Jonah Glover • Douglas Goetsch • Rigoberto González • Georgi Gospodinov • Alma Gottlieb • John Gould • Wayne Grady • Philip Graham • Richard Grant • Nowick Gray • R. W. Gray • Áine Greaney • Brad Green • Daniel Green • Henry Green • Thomas Christopher Greene • Catherine Greenwood • T. Greenwood • Darryl Gregory • Walker Griffy • Genese Grill • Rodrigo Gudiño • Genni Gunn • Richard Gwyn • Gabor G. Gyukics • Daniel Hahn • Donald Hall • Phil Hall • Nicky Harmon • Kate Hall • Susan Hall • Jane Eaton Hamilton • Elaine Handley • John Haney • Wayne J. Hankey • Julian Hanna • Jesus Hardwell • Jennica Harper • Elizabeth Harris • Meg Harris • Kenneth J. Harrison, Jr. • Richard Hartshorn • William Hathaway • Václav Havel • John Hawkes • Sheridan Hay • Bill Hayward • Hugh Hazelton • Jeet Heer • Steven Heighton • Lilliana Heker • Natali e Helberg • Olivia Hellewell • David Helwig • Maggie Helwig • Robin Hemley • Stephen Henighan • Claire Hennessy • Kay Henry • Julián Herbert • Sheila Heti • Darren Higgins • Tomoé Hill • Anne Hirondelle • Bruce Hiscock • H. L. Hix • Godfrey Ho •dee Hobsbawn-Smith • Andrej Hočevar • Jack Hodgins • Tyler Hodgins • Noy Holland • Greg Hollingshead • Dan Holmes • Cynthia Holz • Amber Homeniuk • Drew Hood • Bernard Hœpffner • Kazushi Hosaka • Gregory Howard • Tom Howard • Ray Hsu • David Huddle • Nicholas Humphries • Cynthia Huntington • Christina Hutchings • Matthew Hyde • Joel Thomas Hynes • Angel Igov • Ann Ireland • Agri Ismaïl • Mary Kathryn Jablonski • Richard Jackson • J. M. Jacobson • Fleur Jaeggy • Matthew Jakubowski • A. D. Jameson • Mark Anthony Jarman • David Jauss • Amanda Jernigan • Anna Maria Johnson • Steven David Johnson • Bill Johnston • Ben Johnstone • Cynan Jones • Shane Jones • Pierre Joris • Gunilla Josephson • Gabriel Josipovici • Miranda July • Adeena Karasick • Wong Kar-Wai • Maggie Kast • Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius • Allison Kaufman • Aashish Kaul • Allan Kausch • John Keeble • Richard Kelly Kemick • Dave Kennedy • Maura Kennedy • Timothy Kercher • Jacqueline Kharouf • Anna Kim • Patrick J. Keane • Rosalie Morales Kearns • John Kelly • Victoria Kennefick • Besik Kharanauli • Daniil Kharms • Sean Kinsella • Rauan Klassnik • Lee Klein • Karl Ove Knausgaard • Montague Kobbé • James Kochalka • Wayne Koestenbaum • Ani Kopaliani • Jan Kounen • Lawrence Krauss • Fides Krucker • Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer • Anu Kumar • Sonnet L’Abbé • Yahia Lababidi • Andrea Labinger • M. Travis Lane • Zsolt Láng • Julie Larios • Mónica Lávin • Evan Lavender-Smith • Bruno LaVerdiere • Sophie M. Lavoie • Mark Lavorato • Daniel Lawless • Sydney Lea • Ang Lee • Whitney Lee • Diane Lefer • Shawna Lemay • J. Robert Lennon • Kelly Lenox • Giacomo Leopardi • Ruth Lepson • María Jesús Hernáez Lerena • Naton Leslie • Brian Leung • Edouard Levé • Roberta Levine • Samuel Ligon • Erin Lillo • Paul Lindholdt • Leconte de Lisle • Gordon Lish • Yannis Livadas • Billie Livingston • Anne Loecher • Dave Lordan • Bojan Louis • Adrienne Love • Denise Low • Lynda Lowe • Jason Lucarelli • Zachary Rockwell Ludington • Sheryl Luna • Mark Lupinetti • Jeanette Lynes • Joanne Lyons • Andrew MacDonald • Toby MacDonald • Alexander MacLeod • Patrick Madden • John Madera • Randall A. Major • Grant Maierhofer • Keith Maillard • Mary Maillard • Edward Maitino • Rohan Maitzen • Augustín Fernández Mallo • Charlotte Mandell • Louise Manifold • Jonathan Marcantoni • Philip Marchand • Micheline Aharonian Marcom • Vincent Marcone • Josée Marcotte • Julie Marden • Jill Margo • Dave Margoshes • Nicole Markotić • China Marks • André Marois • Jennifer Marquart • Toni Marques • Lucrecia Martel • Deborah Martens • Casper Martin • Cynthia Newberry Martin • Harry Marten • Rebecca Martin • Rick Martin • Ilyana Martinez • Michael Martone • Nicola Masciandaro • Momina Masood • Brook Matson • Melissa Matthewson • Lucy M. May • Stephen May • Micheline Maylor • Marilyn McCabe • Kate McCahill • Thomas McCarthy • Jaki McCarrick • Sharon McCartney • Clint McCown • Margie McDonald • Joseph McElroy • Cassidy McFadzean • Afric McGlinchy • rob mclennan • Paul McMahon • Ross McMeekin • Eoin McNamee • Paul McQuade • Zoë Meager • Ruth Meehan • Court Merrigan • Erica Mihálycsa • Joe Milan • Chris Milk • Billy Mills • Robert Miner • Erika Mihálycsa • Eugene Mirabelli • Rossend Bonás Miró • Salvador Díaz Mirón • Mark Jay Mirsky • Peter Mishler • Michelle Mitchell-Foust • Brenda McKeon • Ariane Miyasaki • Eric Moe • Susie Moloney • Quim Monzó • Jung Young Moon • Jacob McArthur Mooney • Martin Mooney • Gary Moore • Steven Moore • k. a. Moritz •  Adam Morris • Keith Lee Morris • Garry Thomas Morse • Erin Morton • Diane Moser • Sarah Moss•  Warren Motte • Horacio Castellanos Moya • Guilio Mozzi • Greg Mulcahy • Karen Mulhallen • Gwen Mullins • Hilary Mullins • Andres Muschietti • Robert Musil • Jack Myers • Jean-Luc Nancy • John Nazarenko • David Need • Rik Nelson • Pierre Nepveu • Joshua Neuhouser • Nezahualcóyótl • Levi Nicholat • Nuala Ní Chonchúir • Lorinne Niedecker • Doireann Ní Ghríofa • Christopher Noel • João Gilberto Noll • Lindsay Norville • Franci Novak • Margaret Nowaczyk • Masande Ntshanga • Michael Oatman • Gina Occhiogrosso • Carolyn Ogburn • Timothy Ogene • Kristin Ohman • Megan Okkerse • Susan Olding • Óscar Oliva • Robin Oliveira • Lance Olsen • William Olsen • Barrett Olson-Glover • JC Olsthoorn • Ondjaki • Chika Onyenezi • Patrick O’Reilly • Kay O’Rourke • David Ishaya Osu • John Oughton • Kathy Page • Victoria Palermo • Benjamin Paloff • Yeniffer Pang-Chung • Kathryn Para • Alan Michael Parker • Lewis Parker • Jacob Paul • Cesar Pavese • Keith Payne • Gilles Pellerin • Paul Perilli • Martha Petersen • Pamela Petro • Paul Pines • Pedro Pires • Álvaro Pombo • Jean Portante • Garry Craig Powell • Alison Prine • Sean Preston • John Proctor • Tracy Proctor • Dawn Promislow • Emily Pulfer-Terino • Lynne Quarmby • Donald Quist • Leanne Radojkovich • Dawn Raffel • Heather Ramsay • Rein Raud • Michael Ray • Hilda Raz • Victoria Redel • Kate Reuther • Julie Reverb • Shane Rhodes • Adrian Rice • Matthew Rice • Jamie Richards • Barbara Richardson • Frank Richardson • Mary Rickert • Brendan Riley • Sean Riley • Rainer Maria Rilke • Maria Rivera • Mark Reamy • Nela Rio • David Rivard • Isandra Collazo Rivera • Mary François Rockcastle • Angela Rodel • Johannah Rodgers • Pedro Carmona Rodríguez • Ricardo Félix Rodriguez • Jeanne Rogers • Matt Rogers • Lisa Roney • Leon Rooke • Marilyn R. Rosenberg • Rob Ross • Jess Row • Shambhavi Roy • Mary Ruefle • Chris Russell • Laura-Rose Russell • Ethan Rutherford • Ingrid Ruthig • Tatiana Ryckman • Mary H. Auerbach Rykov •  Umberto Saba • Juan José Saer • Stig Sæterbakken • Trey Sager • Andrew Salgado • José Luis Sampedro • Cynthia Sample • Mark Sampson • Jean-Marie Saporito • Maya Sarishvilli • Natalia Sarkissian • Dušan Šarotar • Paul Sattler • Sam Savage • Igiaba Scego • Michael Schatte • Boel Schenlaer • Bradley Schmidt • Elizabeth Schmuhl • Diane Schoemperlen • Joseph Schreiber • Steven Schwartz • Sophfronia Scott • Sarah Scout • Fernando Sdrigotti • Sea Wolf • Mihail Sebastian • Jessica Sequeira • Adam Segal • Mauricio Segura • Shawn Selway • Sarah Seltzer • Maria Sledmere • K. E. Semmel • Robert Semeniuk • Ivan Seng • Pierre Senges • Shelagh Shapiro • Mary Shartle • Eamonn Sheehy • David Shields • Mahtem Shifferaw • Betsy Sholl • Viktor Shklovsky • David Short • Jacob Siefring • Germán Sierra • Eleni Sikelianos • Sue William Silverman • Paul-Armand Silvestre • Goran Simić • James Simmons • Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons  • Thomas Simpson • George Singleton • Taryn Sirove • Richard Skinner •  SlimTwig • Ben Slotsky • Ariel Smart • Jordan Smith • Kathryn Smith • Maggie Smith • Michael V. Smith • Russell Smith • John Solaperto • Glen Sorestad • Stephen Sparks • D. M. Spitzer • Matthew Stadler • Erin Stagg • Albena Stambolova • Domenic Stansberry • Maura Stanton • Andrzej Stasiuk • Lorin Stein • Mary Stein • Pamela Stewart • Samuel Stolton • Bianca Stone • Bruce Stone • Nathan Storring • John Stout • Darin Strauss • Marjan Strojan • Dao Strom • Cordelia Strube • Dorian Stuber • Andrew F. Sullivan • Spencer Susser • Lawrence Sutin • Terese Svoboda • Gladys Swan • Paula Swicher • George Szirtes • Javier Taboada • Antonio Tabucchi • Zsuzsa Takács • Emili Teixidor • Habib Tengour • Leona Theis • This Is It Collective • Dylan Thomas • Elizabeth Thomas • Hugh Thomas • Lee D. Thompson • Melinda Thomsen • Lynne Tillman • Jean-Philippe Toussaint • Joyce Townsend • Jamie Travis • Julie Trimingham • Ingrid Valencia • Valentin Trukhanenko • Marina Tsvetaeva • Tom Tykwer •  Leslie Ullman • Kali VanBaale • Felicia Van Bork • Will Vanderhyden • Charlie Vázquez • Manuel de Jesus Velásquez Léon • S. E. Venart • Rich Villar • Adèle Van Reeth • Nance Van Winckel • Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin • Katie Vibert • Robert Vivian • Liam Volke • Laura Von Rosk • Wendy Voorsanger • Miles Waggener • Catherine Walsh • Joanna Walsh • Wang Ping • Paul Warham • Laura K. Warrell • Brad Watson • Richard Weiner • Roger Weingarten • Tom Pecore Weso • Summar West • Adam Westra • Haijo Westra • Darryl Whetter • Chaulky White • Curtis White • Derek White • Mary Jane White •  Diana Whitney • Dan Wilcox • Cheryl Wilder • Tess Wiley • Myler Wilkinson • Diane Williams • Deborah Willis • Eliot Khalil Wilson • Donald Winkler • Colin Winette • Dirk Winterbach • Ingrid Winterbach • Tiara Winter-Schorr • Quintan Ana Wiskwo • David Wojahn • Macdara Woods • Ror Wolf • Benjamin Woodard • Angela Woodward • Russell Working • Liz Worth • Robert Wrigley • Xu Xi • Can Xue •  Jung Yewon •  Chen Zeping • David Zieroth • Deborah Zlotsky
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May 052011
 

DG judged the FreeFall poetry contest this year. The winners were just announced in the current issue (which also contains the interview Gabrielle Volke did with dg plus a short Gabrielle wrote). Some of the poetry entries were very good indeed.

First place went to Catherine Owen for “Reincarnation Redux.” Second place went to Mark Sampson for “On Choosing a Mattress.” Third place went to Leslie Timmins for “Caravaggio to his Critics.” And honourable mentions went to Leslie Timmins again for “What is Served” and Catherine Owen (again) for “Solace/No Solace.” DG read the poems blind and did not know the names of the winners til the announcement was made. (You can listen to the first and second place poems read by their authors here.)

Here are dg’s comments as they appeared in the magazine. FreeFall is edited by Micheline Maylor—you may remember her poem “Bird at the University” published earlier on these pages.

Good writing, poetry or prose, dares to make large statements, to teach us about life, to parse existence and tell what is valuable and what is not. The top three poems I read for the contest all made this leap into the oracular. They were also all clearly aware of being inside a tradition of art; they spoke knowingly to and of other works.

First place goes to “Reincarnation Redux” which I adored because of its subversive (it uses the word) anti-sentimentality over the death of a loved one who, the poet imagines, has been reincarnated as a fly. The poem takes a sly, knowing jab at Jack Gilbert famous poems mourning his dead wife which are lauded in America but are also a bit self-pitying and, yes, sentimental. (In the one mentioned here, the poet imagines his wife coming back as the neighbour’s Dalmatian.) This poem sweeps away bushels of easy literary emotions and stock stances. It renders a lot of other poems impossible and thus is incredibly refreshing (also very funny).

My vision, I console myself, if it’s not as faithful or warm as Gilbert’s
has, nonetheless, a numerical advantage; even in wintertime one finds that flies
are quite populous, cleaning their delicate subversive limbs on windowsills.

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Oct 072016
 

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Tanga, May 28

‘Can’t you see what he’s trying to get you to pay for?’

I’ve just mentioned Jamhuri, who has told me about his child. She’s very sick. Gloria is driving me to the Amboni Caves north of town. She takes the road past the Hindu crematorium—a pretty, white colonial-style building surrounded by frangipani trees. It’s right next to the town’s fuel depot, and I wonder if this is a cause for concern.

‘The child has epilepsy,’ she says. ‘He wanted me to take her to a witch doctor. I won’t pay for that crap. So now he’s asking you.’

‘A witch doctor?’ I attempt a look of minor incredulity.

‘You can’t sling a cat in Tanga without hitting one,’ Gloria says. ‘But of course Jamhuri only wants the big gun. A certain Mr Sese.’

‘What does a witch doctor do?’

‘Oh, it’s not so much about the witch doctor, doll. It’s about the believer.’

I frown as if I don’t understand. But I’m thinking about Dorothea. ‘There is a place where many strange things happen. There are ghosts and spirits.’ I see her clearly in my mind, her grief and her terror of the box: ‘Take it away from here, take it far away from here.’

Gloria interprets my expression as disbelief, and rises to the challenge. ‘Last month, I took Jamhuri’s little girl to a specialist in Dar. He prescribed phenobarbital and reckoned she’d probably grow out of it in her teens. But you know how these people are—well, you don’t, do you? Jamhuri was expecting she’d get an injection or an operation and be completely healed, just like that. I don’t think he even tried the pills. That’s why he wants to go to Mr Sese. He thinks she’s possessed by shetani. He wants you to pay for his daughter to see Mr Sese.’

‘Shetani?’

‘Ghosts. Spirits. They’re everywhere. Apparently.’

‘And Mr Sese is—’

‘The pre-eminent witch doctor.’ She leans toward me in a stage whisper.

‘Headvises the president.’

Gloria brakes at an intersection, takes this opportunity to turn and regard me with her curious owl stare. She’s trying very hard to locate the rat she senses scurrying through my words.

A loud honking erupts behind her. ‘Where the hell do you think you’re going in such a hurry?’ she yells out the window, but shifts into first and pulls forward. ‘Don’t get me wrong. These guys like Sese are very powerful. When I first got here, I had a girl who came to cook and clean. She was a little thing. After a couple of months, I noticed she was turning gray. No kidding, her skin was turning gray. Like wet cement. I finally got her to talk to me. She said she was dying. I didn’t doubt that to look at her. I took her to the doctor. Full panel of blood work. A small fortune. No AIDS, no cancer, no TB, everything fine. The doctor told me she was indeed dying—from a powerful curse. I said, “You can’t be serious, you’re a doctor.” He said, “Of the body, not the spirit.”

‘He told me there are certain curses so powerful that the person who casts them must also die. The only way you can kill your enemy is to kill yourself. For instance, there’s this cooking pot curse. You sneak into your enemy’s kitchen and steal his cooking pot. You shout a curse into it, wishing their death. Then you smash the pot and bury the shards in the bush. If your enemy manages to find all the pieces and put the pot back together, then he will be saved. If not, well, kufa kabisa—he’s dead. But—’ she sticks a stubby finger in the air to make her point. ‘But, you die too. That’s the deal you make with the shetani. A twofer.’

‘Twofer?’

‘Sure. Two fer the price of one. And, you know, that little gray girl, I found her one morning in her room, curled up like a dead moth you’d find in the window. I suppose she’d died in her sleep, there was nothing to be done, she’d got it into her head that she was going to die, she’d willed herself to die. And so she died. I don’t know why she thought she deserved it. But that’s a powerful thing: to do with a thought what most of us can only do with a gun.’

I glance at Gloria’s profile. She is all soft. A small, putty nose, skin loose and soft as dough, her great soft body pillowing in her soft, drapey clothes. I notice for the first time that her pale blonde hair is actually dyed. Her roots reveal a mousey gray. Did Mary dye her hair—or does this belong to Gloria alone?

After a moment I ask her, ‘What do you believe, Gloria?’

She hoots a laugh. ‘Moolah, doll. I believe in Almighty Moolah.’

We pass the old Amboni Sisal estate, just bush now perforated by the occasional row of sisal. How precisely the sisal was planted, the immaculately measured rows. What were the colonial farmers thinking? That they could take this unscrupulous bush and make it neat as a formal garden? This Africa where people smash cooking pots and die of curses.

At some point, Gloria makes a left turn onto an unmarked dirt track. Only when we’ve driven several hundred yards do I see a small sign announcing: Department of Antiquities—Amboni Caves. Gloria makes several more turns—none of which are signposted—past a school, through the middle of a small village and a flock of chickens, cutting a hard right in what looks like someone’s front yard, and then down a steep, rocky hill. The bottom of the car crunches over rocks and jars against rills of erosion. Gloria doesn’t seem concerned. The car rattles and squeals.

We enter a thick screen of fig trees and cross a dry riverbed. The shadows are deep and cool and grateful, and soon we arrive at the caves. An old man in a Muslim kofia gets up from his chair under the trees. He stands very erect, like a soldier.

Gloria turns off the car. ‘Watch how he doesn’t give us a receipt. Not that I blame him, given what he must get paid.’

She greets the old man with great politeness, which he returns. They speak at some length in complicated Swahili.

He takes the money and disappears into a small, dark hut. He emerges carrying a flashlight and no receipts. ‘Swahili or English?’ he asks, looking at Gloria.

‘Oh, I’m not going in. I’ve been before.’

‘But you’ve paid, madam,’ the guide says in perfect English.

‘I’m waiting for a call. You go on.’ She opens her handbag and scrambles for her phone ringing inside. ‘The Ministry of Health. Let’s see how much they want.’ Then she sneers, ‘Uchawi, my ass.’

The guide leads me up a set of steps carved from the rock. ‘This is limestone,’ he says. ‘Long ago, it was beneath the sea. And the sea created these caves. But now the sea is very far away. Yes, the world changes.’

The entrance has been domesticated. Beneath the tall archway of stone and the canopy of wild vines, the sandy floor has been swept and plastic patio furniture placed on a natural terrace. There are potted plants and, on the table, half a clamshell for an ashtray.

From here I can see Gloria. She is standing with her back to us, gesticulating, as if she’s angry or perhaps just adamant.

‘Let us begin the tour, madam,’ the guide insists. And so we enter the caves.

He talks about the bats, which cluster like dark grapes on the cave roof above. When he shines his flashlight they twitter and fidget. I don’t have to worry about them, he assures me, they never attack. The danger is not from the bats but from the cave itself.

A couple and their dog were exploring the cave, he says, sweeping the flashlight to the right, illuminating a small chamber. ‘The dog fell down this hole.’ The ground without warning, a socket; impossible to see unless you were looking for it; impossible to know its depth. ‘The husband and wife decided to climb in to try to get the dog because they could hear it barking.’ He pauses for effect and to make a small sigh. ‘They were swallowed by the cave. Never seen again. Completely gone.’

We walk on. I think about the story, how it doesn’t make sense. If the couple were never seen again, how does anyone know they went looking for their dog down this particular hole? But I have no doubt that people have gone missing here, in this maze of dead ends and sightless corridors, unseen holes. There is no natural light. We are within the earth, like rabbits. The guide says the tunnel system goes so deep and is so extensive that cave experts have not been able to chart it. However, some believe it goes all the way to Mount Kilimanjaro—five hundred miles west.

He shows me another low and unexceptional cave where three Mau Mau fighters hid during the war for independence in Kenya. And here, around the corner, the rock has formed a chair. He is not satisfied until I sit in the chair and say, ‘Why, yes, it is exactly like a chair!’

We climb up a ramp of earth, squeeze between a crack. ‘Are you afraid of the dark?’ he asks. ‘I am going to make it very dark.’ He turns off the flashlight.

This is not darkness but a kind of obliteration.

I think about Strebel’s daughter telling him she thought she was dead.

The guide turns on the flashlight.

‘No,’ I say. ‘Just a few more minutes.’

He turns it off, makes a dry little cough.

My body blends with the darkness. The barrier of skin dissolves. I diffuse into the air, into the exhalation of my breath. I am the tiniest particles, un-being.

He sighs, turns the light back on. ‘Now I show you the image of Jesus.’ When I hesitate—for I feel the loss of that moment—he registers his annoyance, ‘You must come, please. The tour is for a limited time.’ We walk down another tunnel and he illuminates a smudge of mildew that vaguely resembles a face.

‘Yes, it looks exactly like the face of Jesus.’ My voice surprises me, as if it is coming back to me, an echo, from very far away. ‘Exactly like the face of Jesus.’

I have no idea that we have turned toward the mouth of the cave, only that I can feel my pupils begin to shrink. Daylight filters in, low down along the ground. We surface slowly into light.

Just before the entrance, I notice a small side chamber crammed with plates of fruit, sticks of incense, bottles labeled as rose water.

‘What is this?’

The guide hurries on, waving his hand impatiently, ‘Just local people. Pagans.’
‘But what is it for?’

‘I am a Muslim! This is for primitive people.’

‘Can I look?’

He sighs. He is a repertoire of sighs. This one expresses long-suffering acquiescence.

‘Why do they make the offerings?’

‘For good health, for money. Some women ask for help to get a child. For many different things.’

I kneel down. ‘Has this been here for a long time?’

‘Yes. Many, many years. As a boy I remember it.’

In my place, exactly here, the desperate have knelt with their hopes and desires. Women have begged to conceive. Mothers have prayed for their children to be well again. Men have asked for opportunity, for rain, for a new fishing boat, for good luck at sea.

How foolish to believe life could change with the lighting of incense, the purchase of rose water, the offering of eggs. And yet, when you have reached the end of yourself, what else is there? When the tangible world has failed you, why not indulge in the possibility that a corner of the universe might stir, send a shiver of atoms through space, that you might be delivered after all.

The guide shifts his weight. Any moment now he will sigh. I am about to obey, to stand.

But something among the bottles catches my eye: a small jar containing a piece of flowered cloth. I reach in and take the jar.

‘No, no!’ The guide steps forward, alarmed. ‘You must not touch the offerings!’

I’m not really listening. I take out the cloth. It is red cotton flannel with yellow and white flowers.

I look up at the guide, showing him the jar, ‘Do you know who put this here?’

‘Madam, please, I do not know. How can I know? Local people coming here do not report to me. They are free, this is their place. You must not touch these things.’

‘But if a white man came here you would know. Everyone would know.’

‘These are not your things. They are not for you to touch or meddle. You must be respectful.’

I replace the jar, stand and wipe the sand from my knees. I try to sound sensible. ‘Is it a curse?’ I want to see the truth in his eyes, I want to have some instinct. But he is hidden, he is vanishing back down a path into the bush.

‘I know that cloth. I recognize it. I want to know who put it here.’

‘The cave, madam, it has had an effect.’

‘I have money. I can pay you. More than he did.’

He moves nervously, definitively toward the entrance, ‘Your friend is waiting for you, madam.’

Back at the car, Gloria seems preoccupied and barely greets me. She turns the ignition. With a little cough—rather like the old guide’s—the engine starts.

‘Why did you bring me here?’

‘What?’ She’s looking straight ahead.

‘Here. Why are we here, Gloria?’

She grips the steering wheel and takes a deep breath, so her whole body expands and subsides. ‘Have you got a thousand bucks?’

—Melanie Finn

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Melanie Finn is the author of three novels: The Gloaming (Two Dollar Radio, 2016); Shame (W&N, 2015) and Away From You (St. Martins Griffin, 2014).

Jun 142016
 

R W Gray

For Numéro Cinq at the Movies this month we welcome writer and experimental filmmaker extraordinaire Michael V. Smith who in this month’s issue interviews our own R.W. Gray about his film “zack & luc.”Gray wrote about this short film in his article “Love at First Sight, or The Problem of Beginnings.” Next month, R. W. Gray will interview Smith about his film work and will turn the dialogue the other direction.


 

R. W. Gray’s short film “zack & luc” is a polyphonic love story, a duet that follows two young gay men falling in love then breaking up. Told using a pair of split screens which play out either character’s perspective, the images create a tension between its moments: tender first encounters play alongside the machinations of separating. The film feels contemporary and vintage, all at once. It feels at once innocent and experienced, as much weary as it is refreshing. It’s a lovely film, and sly. I had a discussion with Numero Cinq’s intrepid senior editor to get his thoughts on this little gem of a story.

MVS: There was this wonderful moment for me watching “zack & luc” where the split screens began to clearly do two very different things. And I wondered, isn’t he worried about us missing something in the film? We might miss an important clue, maybe.

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RWG: The ongoing conversation was always what does it matter most that the audience get and what can be left to subsequent viewings or never be noticed at all. When near the end of the film you see on the left the first moments they met, the tree / bird scene, the characters are physically further apart, the shot wider, because we and they know it’s going to end even as we remember the beginning. That changes the memory. I was conscious I was layering in details that might never get noticed.

MVS: Yes, the characters are also missing signs from each other. The small moments that lead to resentment. One doesn’t notice how he’s being irritating to the other. One character sleeps through an intimate touch in the night. So that we see through some of those moments how their information is incomplete.

RWG: I suppose in a larger sense I wanted this to be a film where you might wonder why the relationship doesn’t work out, might see some clues, but not be able to decide beyond the shadow of a doubt. One of my favourite films, Une liaison pornographique, has a similar conceit, where the two lovers meet for some unspecified sexual act in a hotel room, and they and the narrative never let you know what it was, though they do describe having a sore back, thighs and I think point out that they can’t really do it twice in one day. With “zack & luc” I wanted the same flirtation, but with heartbreak.

MVS: Yes, that incompleteness, that made me think about romance. The filmmaker has a god-like perspective on this piece. So do we. We can play it over and again and collect each half. I don’t think it’s the act of replaying that is romantic, necessarily, but the desire to do so. The filmmaker’s desire to capture all those conflicting intimacies strikes me as romantic. I’m going to be a jerk and say that that perspective—that we can know anything in its entirety—is naïve, because I suspect you can run with the provocation.

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RWG: I agree. I hope the film plays a little more with omniscience, the way fiction or the novel can more easily, but I didn’t want it to claim one could know another, the beloved. Each can never fully know the other. And, truly, they are never absolutely present in terms of time except in a throwaway staring contest in the epicenter of the film and in their final moments together. The two sides are never simultaneous except with the staring contest.

I’m attracted to that modern irreconcilable structure of narratives, what Kurosawa does in Rashomon with the three versions of the story that cannot be resolved into one truth. Intellectually. Luc and Zack, like the rest of us, are stuck in their little goldfish bowls, bumping against others hoping to find time and space to be together.

MVS: That sounds maybe a little jaded. A little anti-romantic.

RWG: Yet there is no romance, no desire, without that separation. But yeah, it does sound a little nihilist I guess.

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MVS: Balanced, I guess, which is ironic, because I was going to ask you about nostalgia next, which is like romance’s dreamy cousin. I want to argue that both the content and the aesthetics of the film are nostalgic—the characters are looking back on their relationship, the film quality is what? Early 1970’s split screen, where the voiceover in the story replaces dialogue, making two times overlap. I’ve seen lots of that overdubbing in ‘70s gay porn. Are you consciously remaking a history, or filling in the silences in a history? Is this telling a kind of love story we haven’t had in romance films? Is it showing the intimacies from those porn worlds, like we’re seeing the footage the films have left out?

RWG: Never thought of a porn connection. Super 8 film is very much home footage though, which taps it into the personal / subjective / memory category instantly. I love the memory pieces in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, though I don’t know if those were specifically super 8. I knew from the start that I wanted the look to be grainy, flawed, over saturated the way memory is.

Super 8 film has no sound, so no matter what I did there was going to technically be a gap between sound and image. But I wanted any dialogue or voice over to be stylized, dream like, dislocated slightly. I imagine this is the way dialogue or talking appears in dreams.

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MVS: There is also this sense of time standing still, or all times existing at once. Time repeating. Like with the repetition of the line, “Can I kiss you?” The strategy is tied to that delicious ending. What’s your sense of nostalgia’s relationship to time, playing out here?

RWG: The seed of the film was a relationship I was having where, in a sense, I think I was the man’s first love. On the other side of that, as I am sure you know, I have had a few more loves. We would have these conversations as we were starting to go out and as we were breaking up where I would invariably say something the gist of which was “So now this will happen,” like I knew how the story goes. Yet he didn’t. And, often, I was wrong about how the story would go.

In “zack & luc” there is Luc in the right hand, chronological frames, experiencing the relationship in real time. On the left hand side, there is Zack, who even from the first moment of the relationship has a sense of the ending on the left. And in the end, he is remembering the beginning. Some of us are more nostalgic creatures. The end is in the beginning. Once you have loved and lost a few times, firsts and lasts are layered this way I think.

MVS: I’m always interested in how metaphor is made from two things that in turn create a third. In “zack & luc,” the split screen sort of does this, making emotional ironies. There are bittersweet moments created with the tensions between happy and sad images sharing the screen simultaneously. I’m being reductive when I say happy and sad, but you know what I mean. The film celebrates the grey scale between white-and-black polarities. If this film is using the in-between as a strategy, I’m curious what you think it is between? “zack & luc” resides in a spectrum between what and what?

RWG: Technically, this was such a nightmare challenge for the composer Christian Berube. I am in awe of how he was able to read the two frames together musically.

I like what you’re saying about the idea of metaphor here. It’s like Eisenstein’s montage: two images clash to make a concept. The frames paired were always intended to clash, but some more than others. I don’t think they resolve themselves so much. At least for me it becomes about the irresolvable bits in a relationship. Moments of toothbrushing joy clashing with irritating cereal slurping. Sad break up conversation silences with first date breathless silences. These can’t be mulched up into one new thing so much as emerge as a feeling of ambivalence (seeing more than one direction at once, not apathy). A melancholy ambivalence. One that can look forward and backward at the same time. But also one that can see both joy and sadness in the same beloved at once.

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MVS: It displaces us, to some degree. Unsettles what we think we know—like a tap on the shoulder, we know more than we think, or care to admit.

I’d like to also ask about Kristjana Gunnars’s poem which is referenced in the credits. Was that where the story idea came from? If “zack & luc” is an answer to Gunnars’s poem, what do you think her next response would be? What do you imagine Gunnars’s answer would be to this film?

RWG: Her poem is the one Zack is reading next to the bathtub. For Zack, who in the film always seems to have his face in a book, I wanted a poem that had that tension, of great love yet terrible restraint, fear. I love Gunnars’s work, so much so that I wrote a dissertation on melancholia and focused partly on her work. She’s moved to painting now so I think her response to the film would maybe also be visual. Then of course I would have to move to something like 3D animation so I could respond to her in turn. Maybe it carries on into infinity.

MVS: At the end, one of the young men delivers a voice-over in a different voice. It’s reflective, more a narrator’s voice, and we’re listening in on his internal monologue. I’m assuming it comes from that poem? Why the switch? Why is that moment prior to the end self-reflective? It’s like he’s talking to himself, looking in the mirror. What’s your relationship to that pause? You’ve left us there for a reason, so I want to know your reason.

RWG: I’m not sure. I think on the one hand I wanted a direct intimacy between Zack and the audience there. He speaks in the second person. He implicates the audience. I think, too, he is pointing out to the audience that they are already implicated. They now have all these memories, they are now in this last moment carrying all these other places in time, all these other moments of love. What follows is a bit of a quick montage of memory fragments, because I couldn’t bring myself to end the film as Zack leaves the truck in the rain.

As I was saying before, Zack’s side of the film is more nostalgic from the start. And, truly, he wins. The film is nostalgic. I don’t think anyone would argue that the moral of the story is that Luc’s version of reality—being more present, in the moment, nostalgia-free—is the way to live. It’s built to offer you a chance for your own nostalgia.

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MVS: The film implicates the audience, opens itself to a dialectic.

RWG: Exactly. I wanted this film to be a series of significant yet nothing moments and in between the gaps I hoped the audience would bring their own archives, their own nostalgia. From the start I kept thinking about Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. He says something like, and here I am butchering it, that we carry this lover’s archive with us. It’s why when a friend tells us about their heartbreak we tell them about ours. One broken heart reads another. I bring you mine, you bring me yours. We go get new loves. From a poem to a film to a painting to infinity. Our longing can be this place where we commune.


 

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Michael V. Smith is a writer, filmmaker, comic, drag queen, and an associate professor at UBC Okanagan. His most recent book is My Body Is Yours, a memoir detailing his emancipation from masculinity.


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Sep 222012
 

Christy Clothier is a former student, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and a US Navy veteran with a story to tell. But her story isn’t just about the Navy; it’s also about the abusive family that nurtured her in its truly malign embrace, also about her courage to transcend her past and grow into the writer she is today and will yet become. NC has already published a segment from her memoir dealing with her arrival at a naval base in California where she worked as an air traffic controller. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been turned into a play called The Controller. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor.

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There are no pictures to show what happened, so I will create the images myself. At age twelve I stood before the princess mirror on my bedroom wall and leaned so close to my reflection that the contours of my cheeks, forehead and chin blurred into the flatness of a photo, an image I wanted to scratch away. I cut my face with cuticle trimmers, safety pins, razors—pain slid red down my cheeks like raindrops on a window pane. If I had paused, I might have seen my face bloody and bruised—and I could have backed away. But I didn’t want to. Once my appearance was distorted I had the confirmation I longed for: that I deserved it, “that pain is weakness leaving the body,” something I re-learned in boot camp. And I believed it. Because long before I donned the olive green military clothes of conflict, I had already trained my body to bear witness to what my mind had to erase.

An inappropriate poke. Oh, come on, Christy, it was just a joke! your parents say. Get over it. Your stomach’s wound tight, but they tell you it’s okay—ha ha—no reason to get upset. You hug them goodnight. Your adopted-stepfather’s hands rest lightly on your back. Sleep tight! You can tuck yourself in, you mother knows. No need to tell Daddy that Mommy made you watch her masturbate that afternoon while he took Jacob and Bret Jr. fishing. What he knows won’t matter: you’re not really his kid. He ignores the bruises — your mother’ll let him add his own, if he wants — “I don’t get involved in Domestic Disputes!” his favorite line whenever your mother bites her children. “Don’t worry, tomorrow’s the first day of the rest of your life,” she says, sending the words after you down the hall as you walk to your bedroom. She’s teaching you to forget.

The next morning starts with Jacob and Bret Jr.’s teasing. They point to the “artwork” your mother bought at a craft fair. A plywood plaque featuring a doghouse with a carpenter nail in the center of it. Alongside the doghouse sit five miniature dogs, each wearing a collar. It’s meant to be funny, only your mother took it seriously and scribbled everyone’s name on the “This is Cute” piece of crap. Someone has placed “Christy” on the nail.

You hang on a wall covered with history: your father’s family crest next to a gold crucifix (a gift from Aunt Linda — you’re only Catholic when she visits). The doghouse and Christ hang next to the military awards given to every male member of the family. And there’s a picture of you and your New Father. He’s stiff in his officer’s dress whites; you’re green in your Girl Scout uniform. Together you stand composed with badges and pins.

You catch your mother’s reflection in the picture frame’s glass. She’s been watching you. Hi, sweetie! She turns you around to get her morning hug. She’s hungry again. She presses your breasts into hers, pinches your nipples. Just showing you love, she says: a mother’s touch. She hasn’t brushed her teeth yet. Instead, she sucks on a cinnamon jaw breaker. The sour-sweet makes you want to vomit. But instead you pour French vanilla creamer into her coffee and spread cream cheese thick on her bagel. The rest of the family takes its assigned seats in the living room. Your father’s in his recliner. His fingertips turning black with newspaper ink. He reads a version of what he already knew yesterday before watching it again later on the news. Jacob and Bret Jr. watch your mother’s morning programs. They laugh anytime she does, nod their heads whenever she argues with the infomercial hosts. Your brothers sit on their hands, knowing your mother’s unjustified indignation is only the start of her daily rage. They won’t look at you, yet you know they are grateful that you take your mother’s blows; they know once you’re old enough to leave the house, they are next. They watch you to see how you survive.

You leave the kitchen. You don’t eat. In this family, meals are issued by rank, and Jacob and you remain the lowest. First your father, then your mother and their biological son get to eat. Then Jacob and you may have whatever is left over, so long as no one is saving it for later. When there is no surplus food, and neither Jacob nor you had enough of your own money to cobble a dinner from snacks at the gas station, you ask your mother what you should eat, already knowing her answer: Fend for yourself! You should feel lucky, your father reminds you, I put a roof over your head.

But you are hungry, so you climb the staircase to your room. You already know how to feed off the girl in the mirror your mother gave you—a gift from her father once she’d turned thirteen. Your skin buckles under your fingernails as you rip off your face. Your reflection changes into swollen, gouged, scared cheeks, chin, forehead and neck, and you’re sated. You walk to your window, curl one foot behind the other, and imagine a life under blue skies streaked white just beyond the orange poppies dotting Southern California’s hills. Past palm trees interspersed with silver dollar saplings on manicured lawns. Past older kids riding their bikes and skateboards along the wide streets that flow like an alluvial fan toward Santee Lakes. I’ll live like Karana, you decide, the main character in the book you know by heart.

Yet I do remember the day that I decided I would never live in the village again. The Island of the Blue Dolphins was my home; I had no other.

I joined the Navy just after I turned twenty, but I’d been heading for Naval Air Station San Clemente Island long before I knew it existed. By age twelve, I’d read The Island Of The Blue Dolphins often enough for the librarian to throw up her hands and give me the book. I never realized the fictionalized setting I’d imagined every night actually existed 75 miles off the coast of California. I followed jet exhaust like em dashes to a place so near to where I had dreamed that I didn’t know I’d been sleepwalking, unable to wake from my own fairy tale.

Now, at 35, a part of me still believes there is such a physical place, somewhere west where I can run and find peace. That same part of me still longs to rest on San Clemente’s porous volcanic rocks and watch the Pacific’s waves filter through them. I let myself go there whenever I need the familiar feeling of being trapped and free to reclaim what was promised and what was lost.

***

Is there anything more seductive than the illusion of safety? Senior Chief Petty Officer Ibsen directed Navy boot-camp Division 265 to march left, left, your left-right-left. A double-wide mass of eighty women—heads erect, shoulders squared, arms strong, hands fisted with knuckles pointed down and thumbs aligned with pant seams—march along the greasy-hot Chicago asphalt. I stared at the back of the recruit marching in front of me; her brushed cotton jacket provided no reflection, so I couldn’t see myself. I lowered my Navy ball cap further down my face and repeated Ibsen’s words to myself like a spell preventing me from thinking about anything else in case one thought led to another and reminded me of everything I knew, which I was certain would break me. I let the sound of boots carry me along in a wave of feet and fists that pounded the pavement until Ibsen commanded, “Division Halt.”

I and the other five-foot-tall recruit wearing a traffic-cone colored road-guard vest over her dungarees ran ahead of our division to “post” in the middle of the intersection. I rushed past the eighteen-year-old, with her short, dark bob; she could have been either the one sitting behind me at indoc crying over having to exchange her blue jeans and sandals for military-issue sweat pants and sneakers or the slender one who sat beside me quietly asking herself, What am I doing here? A month into boot camp, the only thing differentiating any of us was the last names sewn onto the fronts of our shirts, the backs of our pants. My long, dark braid tucked under my standard-issue ball cap, my dog tags bearing the surname of the man my mother forced me to marry at sixteen smacking against my chest under a white cotton tee, I ran into the street.

We had arrived a group of strangers. We filed out of Greyhound buses into a warehouse (it seemed) full of men’s portraits hung under multi-colored flags. I was sure, for some reason, that I was already in trouble. Screaming men in uniform demanded we identify ourselves by last name and social security number. That’s all I was: a name and a number I’d only recently memorized. My past no longer mattered. Only the fear of messing up, of saying the wrong thing in front of people who could tell me what to do, defined the present moment. I recited my most recent name before shouting out the number assigned to me at birth, and it sounded like it came from someone else.

The first few weeks of boot camp flashed by in a series of consecutive movements, as if each time I opened my eyes I was somewhere else on base, less and less myself, a new world widening to me like an eye after a blink. I relinquished all civilian possessions: my clothes, my wallet, the few dollars I’d brought in case of something (I don’t remember), blue jeans, tee shirt, tennis shoes, clothes I wore to do laundry or yard work in, clothes I was ready to be rid of. I was ordered to redress in a blue sweat suit with gold lettering spelling Navy down each leg and to tie on New Balance running shoes. Having shivered in the cold, seemingly unheated, cinder block building, I felt the new outfit as a relief. We shuffled into another room where barbers took their thick shears to many girls’ long ponytails. I’d been told by my recruiter that I’d entered boot camp during a trial phase when they weren’t forcing women to chop off their hair. But no one else had been told, and the Recruit Division Commanders in charge weren’t saying anything. I kept quiet and moved to the back of the room. At my height, it was fairly easy to disappear into the crowd. After one of the men with a pair of scissors in his hands asked, “Anybody else?” and no one stepped up to his chair, a man I’d never see again ushered us into a classroom where I waited to be assigned to a division.

The only vivid memory I have of the weeks that followed that first night, aside from getting “dropped” to do push ups, showing my teeth, getting my sight tested, having flu shots fired into my left arm by a gun, and penicillin so thick it was termed “The Peanut-Butter Shot” stung into my right buttock was the day we went to the military tailors. For two weeks, maybe even longer, my new division, Division 265, had marched and slept in those same sweat clothes, and I hadn’t even noticed. I never paid attention to what we were doing or when, though it was scheduled on a chalk board near the front door. I took comfort in the routine of waking, eating, walking, sleeping—getting yelled at; each day passed into the next.

That morning we marched past the other barracks holding thousands of recruits, past the large parking lot in front of the brick building we’d been dropped off at our first night. The streets were lined with trees and interspersed with grass islands dotted with park benches. It was like every military installation I’d visited as a child or any suburb I grew up in. I marched along, happy with my internal cadence of numb familiarity, happy with being ordered exactly how and where to walk. The tailors consisted of twenty seaman and petty officers—all women—working in a warehouse filled with identical uniforms folded in cardboard boxes stacked on metal shelves up to the ceiling. I stood alongside seventy-nine other women like auctioned cattle in line after line, as the tailors pinched, poked and pinned our uniforms to fit us perfectly. We received summer dress whites and a winter pea coat. We were issued combat boots, black wool socks, white cotton undershirts. We were fitted for bell-bottom dungaree pants and denim chambray button-ups. The women I knew only by their rank were so delicate with me, making sure not to stab me with a needle, that I began to feel like a doll, and I thought it was a trick—they’d poke me, once I relaxed, I was sure. I looked straight through their faces to the white cinder block wall behind them until my vision blurred and I found myself in a familiar haze.

“You have a beautiful daughter, don’t you?” your mother breathes to your New Dad. She yanks you into place and instructs you to stand “Front and Center.”

You look away from your parent’s four knees facing you as they sit on the couch leering over you in your pageant dress. You are a trinket, required to look and play the part before being shelved away to the bedrooms and backyards of your multiple childhood homes. Your mind floats. You make your way up the wall like a balloon knocking itself against the ceiling, having nowhere else to go.

 Since modeling school at the age of ten, I had been trained to stand and receive all the clothes I would need for my Girl Scout banquets, my pageant photos, my enlistment. I stood at attention, locking my knees in front of the tailors circling me, checking proportions and measurements, until someone finally had to ask me to move.

Within a month into boot camp, I sleep walked right out the front door. Before the overhead florescent lights woke eighty recruits from their racks with a 4:30 alarm, I was getting dressed in my uniform and heading toward the galley. My fellow recruits informed me that they had to keep putting me back to sleep. I might have thought they were joking accept that I woke up wearing my dungaree pants and combat boots. Apparently I so relished regulation that I began dressing even before the RDCs arrived and told us to. Or maybe I was just hungry.

Still, when the day came for the hundred-meter jump, I didn’t want to participate. By the time I realized my hesitance I was already standing on the diving platform. The arches of my feet cupped the cement ledge so that it would only take the flex of a shin muscle. The slightest pressure down toward the big toe and I would drop twenty feet (or was it 100?) from the high dive platform into the Olympic pool below. The RDCs urged me on, but they wouldn’t push me. Like the other pass/fail tests in boot camp, jumping off the high dive would have to be my idea. I could back down the two dozen steps I’d just climbed to the platform, but I’d be punished, made to do push-ups until I acquiesced or sent to CID (the Navy’s remedial training that made everyday boot-camp activities like jumping into a pool seem preferable).

I looked down. Under the glassy water divers waited for me, a pedestrian already committed to stepping into the street. Like patient drivers, they waved me on as though motioning from behind a windshield I was about to crash into. Go ahead — their movements exaggerated by the water — we’ll wait for you to pass, ignore the “Don’t Walk” sign warning the light change. By then I’d learned my stark black uniforms were to be called Navy dress blues, my ball cap was a cover, the beds were racks, the cinder block building a ship, and I was an airman recruit. There was no going back. I let myself fall.

I heard the bubbles form overhead as I rushed toward the bottom of the pool. My initial fear over jumping changed with the weightlessness that suddenly surrounded me. Underwater, I couldn’t feel my skin. Everything I had seen before the jump now blurred into abstract forms. I brought my arms together above me and pushed myself even deeper toward the bottom. I wanted to breathe in the pool’s silver-blue anonymity that refracted everything around me for as long as I could. Above water, my RDC Senior Chief Ibsen flapped his arms, urging me to surface. The divers began to advance. If they helped me, I would fail for not having risen on my own. I tilted my head back and rose to the top, expelling any last breath before breathing in new air.

“Keep going!” Ibsen coached, hopping with each syllable as though his own excitement could propel me. “You have to get to the end to pass.” He pointed to the 100-yard-swim marker, which I needed to reach in order to advance to the next month-and-a-half of training, make it to graduation day, through air traffic control school and then complete my six-year enlistment before I could spend the 30,000 dollars promised for college. Behind me, other recruits waited until I was clear before they jumped.

It didn’t seem like that big of a drop once I looked back at the platform from the water. I am doing this for myself, I thought. I stretched my arms out and swam a slow languorous swim, enjoying every last moment before I reached the other side. Looking back, I realize that more than wanting to stay in the comfort of a familiar medium, I, having jumped from one world, wanted to remain in a moment of sheer freedom before pulling myself out of the pool and into another.

After passing the last crucial boot camp test, I knew I only had to make it through each day, which got easier and easier as I learned what to expect. Other than attending shipboard classes I paid no attention to (knowing I was going to air traffic control school, it seemed irrelevant, even to the RDCs who didn’t make me or a few others headed to nuclear engineering school participate in the man-overboard practice drills) I lost myself in the daily marches, concentrating solely on the footsteps ahead and behind me. I felt invisible in a group that, after six weeks, seemed unstoppable, no longer even needing a cadence to follow. We marched perfectly to the drum of each other’s feet pulsing down the streets; we’d been broken down and rebuilt, always carrying with us the fear of getting in trouble, for me of being left behind.

Eventually our RDCs decided they could Division 265 to discipline itself through the night. That gave them the opportunity to sleep at home with their families. But then one night two male RDCs from another division stormed into our barracks, flashed the overhead lights on and demanded we answer the question “What are you doing in my Navy?” They insisted that women only joined the Navy to find a husband, and, to punish us, they interrupted our sleep: a 4-hour respite separating our twenty-hour days. Being female recruits, we were not allowed to strip down to our skivvies for bed; hence, we were already dressed for the occasion.

These men singled out Jaime, one of my shipmates. Jaime was a single mother struggling to raise her child in an inner city. She was strong. She would have to be because the RDCs forced her to stay in push-up position until her hips gave out. Weeks before, another girl had been cycled—exercised—to the point of a heart attack. When she slumped against the metal beds and asked for help, two RDCs taunted her until the ambulance crew arrived and confirmed her near-fatal condition. After that scandal, the prospect of another girl from the same division hospitalized for abuse was too much, so the two men who had burst into our barracks that night were reprimanded and no longer allowed near our racks at night.

I’d come to trust my division’s RDCs, especially Ibsen who tried to be gentle and almost never yelled, because they protected us from other RDCs like the two men who broke in on us. I didn’t think about the fact that we were the lucky few. Those other RDCs led other divisions where they were able to do whatever they wanted (in loco parentis).

I happily followed Senior Chief Ibsen from our barracks to medical, the drill hall or the galley. Two-by-two we’d file through red-and-blue painted bars along with the thousands of other sailors also headed toward the aluminum serving counters. En masse we moved toward other uniformed recruits doling out breakfast in equal portions onto identical plastic trays, ending the transaction by singing the only authorized communication between any of us: “Thank you, Shipmate.”

We weren’t allowed to look around at anyone else, but my short stature allowed me to watch the crowd without getting caught. Most recruits were nondescript. Newbies, called “Rickis,” naturally stood out: lanky men with long hair and unshaven cheeks; girls with streaking mascara and loose ponytails. They never glanced at us, and I didn’t much look at them; it was as though we didn’t recognize each other.

But there was another group that always stood out, those who had made it past the initial first week or two and showed up in the same blue sweat outfits my division had received. I watched them lovingly, remembering my own initiation. Freshly cowed, these new recruits knew to keep their heads down, their eyes glazed, and stare at nothing.

But then one day, across from me dressed in his “Smurfs,” stood my eighteen-year-old brother, Jacob. Both of us forgot our training and rushed to one another.

“Hey Christy!” he said. It was the first time I’d been called my name in over a month. “The food’s pretty good here, huh?” He smiled.

Actually, the food was disgusting. Disguised with the heady aroma of scrambled eggs, sausage links and sweet pastries, under heat lamps warmed the worst breakfast I’d ever tasted. Powdered eggs overcooked into a Play-Doh texture. Pancakes floated in mock syrup that had the consistency of olive oil, which did nothing to mask the metallic taste of excessive baking soda.

But I knew what my brother really meant. When we were children, strangers mistook us for twins, partly because of our similar features, but mostly because our mannerisms, tastes and experiences were identical. We both had our mother’s large hazel eyes, kept the same timing when telling jokes, and Jacob had been forced to join the military before he was a senior in high school, around the same age I had been when I was forced to marry Jerrod, 16. Like me, Jacob also grew up with a mother who sexualized everything, with an adopted stepfather that would lock the pantry, angry over having to feed a teenaged boy who was not his biological son, or would shove him into corners and slap him, goading Jacob to “Go ahead, hit me!” Years later, Jacob would earn a graduate degree in criminal justice and work as a prison case manager, doing everything he could to help ex-cons rehabilitate. But that day, he was my baby brother, his thick chestnut hair recently shaved off by boot-camp barbers, replaced with the red track marks of industrial clippers.

Without thinking, we gave each other a quick hug. The RDCs rushed toward us, screaming for Jacob and I to “Break!” They were as infuriated as they were stunned.

“What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” one asked.

“This is my brother,” I said, pointing to Jacob. He had our adopted surname on his uniform while I wore my estranged husband’s on mine.

“Do you mean your bro, like you guys are cool with each other?” the RDC asked.

“No, my brother-brother.”

“Look at them. They look exactly alike.”

Jacob nodded, confirming our relationship.

“Okay,” the first RDC said, “but you can’t talk to each other.”

Hours later, my division marched home amid the smell of over-saturated maple leaves holding the hot, moist air. We climbed the three flights to take our communal showers, stow our uniforms in the tiny metal footlockers, and dress in our Navy T-shirts and blue nylon shorts for bedtime when Ibsen, Sampson and Claude stormed the room with an urgency beyond what we’d ever seen before.

“Get dressed. You have five minutes,” Ibsen commanded.

We raced to prepare while spinning through the possibilities of what had gone wrong and who had done it.

Then the base lights began to shut off as Ibsen shepherded us to the ground floor, where we braced ourselves against what turned out to be the Lindenhurst tornado shrieking through northeastern Illinois.

I sat at a window and watched clouds. Some recruits buried their heads in their knees. A few cried. Others dug out paper and pens they’d kept hidden and wrote letters openly, realizing that the RDCs didn’t care. Ibsen, Sampson and Claude, separated from their own homes and families, watched over us, projecting their own worries out the windows by staring so hard at the storm outside it was like they were trying to control the weather themselves.

I told jokes. I relished being watched over during an emergency. I didn’t care if the RDCs ordered me to drop and “do twenty,” fifty, seventy, or more elaborate routines. We could get “cycled” by performing sets of exercises until our bodies collapsed, such as eight-count body-builders. We would stand tall then fall to our hands and feet on the tile, bring our feet up to our hands on the ground, and then push our feet back before jumping back into a stand—and that was one. We repeated the routine, up and down, to the count of eight seconds.

Often Sampson would order us to close the industrial windows lining the walls, shutting in Chicago’s summer air. Claude instructed us to “get into Battle Gear.” We stood in front of our racks, pulled our wool socks over the bottom of our dungaree pants, buttoned our long sleeve shirts to our necks. Then we were ordered to run in place for as long as it took for our body heat to saturate the room so that condensation would drip off the ceiling and back onto our faces, all the while the RDCs shouted, “Make it rain, make it rain!”

As far as I was concerned the RDCs could yell at me until their voices gave out and they needed to call for back up, because they never touched us. In boot camp, hitting was illegal. Unlike my parents, the RDCs would never stand by and watch while one or the other slammed my butt with a half-inch-thick piece of plywood fashioned into a fraternity paddle with the words “Board of Education.”  The RDCs could only make us hurt ourselves, something I was good at. With each pushup I performed, Petty Officer Sampson would kneel beside me and yell, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” I believed her because with exercise I became stronger.

But then graduation day arrived like a disaster. I stood in a blinding sea of dress-white uniforms (several divisions including mine), which reflected the sun sharply into my eyes. I fought tears throughout the ceremony, pretending I was trying to avoid the sun in my eyes. The day I graduated was perfect southern California weather, but after growing accustomed to Chicago, I preferred the rain.

Friends and family filled stadium bleachers to watch us parade, listen to speeches, wave miniature American flags. My relatives did not come. While everyone else embraced, I walked home to the barracks unclaimed. I walked past empty racks to the fire escape landing outside, where I had my first solitary moment in over two months. I took my waist-long hair out of its clip, unwound the long tight braid and let it fall loose over my shoulders, down my back and into the wind. Standing three stories above a prison-like cement courtyard on an iron ledge, I could have told myself anything, but I felt at peace for the first time in my life, having had consistent food, clothing and shelter, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. I left the fire escape for the bathroom. I didn’t bother turning on the lights: I didn’t need to see what I had to do having, suddenly, become aware I was once again alone. I stood in front of the mirror, thought about how my mother forced me to marry my boyfriend, Jerrod, when I was sixteen, and dug my fingernails into my face.

“I love you this much!” Jerrod squeezes your hand, but you don’t see it bloom purple-red. You don’t find the metaphor in the gift he mailed to you from the time he was in Army boot-camp only a few months before visiting from D.C. — the Army-brown chow-hall napkin with the words “You Are Mine!” penned in black Sharpee. You don’t know that he will consume you until you have nothing left but feet and knees and hands with which to crawl. You tack the napkin above your bed like a banner, a warning to your mother. Only he can touch you now! You shift the square into a diamond and wish on it like a star.

You are sixteen sitting next to your nineteen-year-old boyfriend who has visited from Fort Meyers in D.C. You have not learned to wipe your mouth, because nothing spills out for you to clean up after. In a Mexican restaurant, you pick tortilla chips out of a plastic wicker basket while your mother feeds your boyfriend of nine months from across the table.

She talks money, housing — but Jerrod hears family; he doesn’t really have one, either. She must get rid of you. He loves you. Your hands have done her housework for years, but now they are old enough to replace hers. Jerrod promises to take care of you.

Get away from your parents as fast as possible, your high-school guidance counselor warns you. She’s met them, knows that with the easy stroke of a cheap pen your mother abandons you to a man she’d eaten with twice.

At the Idaho State County Clerks Office, your mother’s signature is scratched across the  photocopied permission slip. You don’t know if there is a notary public. No one questions your mother’s intent. In the orphan’s court they assume you’re pregnant. Only your mother and Jerrod know you’re not.

Hand-in-hand, you stand with Jerrod inside a gingerbread cottage at the end of a trail your mother laid out. You want to be pushed into the oven. But he won’t let you, not yet, only later when children aren’t a possibility. He loves the sixteen-year-old with the huge green-brown eyes looking up to him with all the love she needed to give to feel real. Three years later when she breaks, he won’t recognize his “Baby Doll.”

So you suspend disbelief until you can no longer recognize the man who held you by the hand and repeated, “I Do.”

Once my face was covered with blood, I stood back and wondered how a mother could do such a thing to her own flesh and blood. I walked past Sampson on my way to my rack. She said nothing. I’d already graduated, and she was no longer responsible for me.

The next morning Greyhound buses idled to transport a dozen divisions to various technical schools around the country. I couldn’t walk straight while carrying my gym bag full of the civilian clothes I surrendered upon arrival along with everything else I had been issued. Ibsen turned back toward the end of the line of sailors streaming into buses and noticed my hesitant wobbling. I dropped my gym bag on the sidewalk. Ibsen walked to me, picked up my bag and helped me to the bus.

Hundreds of sailors watched out of bus windows as I sobbed like a child in Sampson’s arms. I gripped her like a buoy, hoping to remain within the cold cinderblock walls where I knew what to expect. I wanted the structured organization, every moment of my day scheduled in the hyper-strict atmosphere where felt safe. I wanted Ibsen to take my luggage back to the barracks so that we could continue to be Division 265, and I’d have a family. Sampson rocked me for a few moments before Ibsen took my hands.

“Christy,”  —he knew my first name — “you’ll be fine.” He swung my hands in his and said, “I felt the same way.”

I boarded the bus with the men and women I had lived among for nearly three months, and, for a moment, we all headed in the same direction. I was the only one from my graduating class to be attending Air Traffic Control School. Once my bus dropped me off at Chicago O’Hare, I walked alone to my gate. I felt awkward in my dress whites. I was too nervous to eat. But by the time my plane landed in Pensacola, I was ready to swallow anything they put in front of me.

—Christy Clothier

————–

Christy L. Clothier graduated with a double MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her recently completed memoir, Trail of Breadcrumbs: Why I Joined and Left the US Navy, follows a fairy-tale structure of a young girl wholly rejected by her “mother,” who believes she’ll find safety in the military, a world populated by men. Another chapter, the one dealing with her near-rape by a Navy Seal, has been published elsewhere and turned into a play. Christy served in the US Navy from 1997-2003 as an air traffic control tower supervisor. She writes short stories, research articles and essays that connect childhood abuse with military service and trauma. Christy’s writing has appeared in Inquiry and Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, from which her essay “The Controller” was adapted for the play Coming in Hot. She teaches English to international war refugees in Colorado and lives with her dog, Jauss, named after a famous author.

Mar 262011
 

Character grouping and gradation is one of the more arcane and least understood (never mind being taught) aspects of novel composition. For me, the primary source on this is E. K. Brown‘s essay “Phrase, Character, Incident” in his book Rhythm in the Novel. Brown was a Canadian academic and critic with a bent toward formalism, but he died rather young, before he could make as large an impact as he might have. His book is out of print, and it shouldn’t be. See my book The Enamoured Knight (pp. 128-131) for a succinct outline of the structure. “By character grouping I mean the composition of characters based on shared traits; these traits are varied, diminished or intensified from one character to another, that is, they are graded. Another way of saying this is to remember how Madariaga thought  of Sancho as the same as  Quixote only transposed into a different key.”

Vanessa Blakeslee is a former student of mine, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts. She does a fine job here of analyzing character grouping and gradation in the structure of three contemporary novels. Vanessa’s fiction and poetry have appeared recently in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, New York Quarterly, The Bellingham Review, Southern Poetry Review, among others. She has received grants and fellowships from Yaddo, Ragdale, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, and the United Arts of Central Florida. She directs Maitland Poets & Writers, a community organization which focuses on expanding the literary arts throughout Central Florida.

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Shades and Mirrors: Character Gradation as a Demand of Resonance in the Novel

By Vanessa Blakeslee

 

In my early twenties, I embarked on my first attempt at writing a novel. Loosely based on events passed down in family history, the work sprawled across several generations of Italian-American women as they struggled to overcome the trials of love and death. Key word to note: “sprawled.” As an inexperienced writer of long fiction, I sensed that what my characters suffered from most (outside of the sick husbands and dying babies on the page) were composition flaws. Workshop feedback repeatedly struck the same chord: often my female characters seemed like the same person. I gave each of the daughters distinguishing characteristics, one a love for music, the other for business and career, yet somehow these differences failed to establish sufficient motivation for subplot, unity and resonance to develop. To make matters worse, the large cast of secondary characters was comprised of relatives who seemed to pop in and out of the story at random. After much teeth-gritting, I stowed the several hundred page draft away. I simply lacked the craft technique to approach fixing the mess.

Not until I was a student in the MFA in Writing at Vermont College did my interest in the novel’s architecture resurface. One of my teachers, Douglas Glover, pointed me to an essay by Yeats, “The Emotion of Multitude.” He also suggested a somewhat hard-to-find but indispensable gem of a book, E.K. Brown’s Rhythm in the Novel, and a concept Brown refers to as “character gradation.”[1] According to Brown, graded characters share traits, attitudes or experiences with other characters to varying degrees, thereby composing structural parallels in a narrative. Such structural parallels lead to the creation of the echo effect in a novel; without the parallels and repetition in place, the narrative turns to sprawl. I found a used copy of the book online and ordered a contemporary novel Glover recommended for the study of subplots, Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. I added to my list Glover’s own study of Don Quixote, The Enamoured Knight. The following semester my advisor Xu Xi suggested novels by V. S. Naipaul and Muriel Spark might make worthwhile subplot-studies as well. Books piled high, I began with Brown. Almost immediately my long forgotten novel draft came to mind as I hunted after the question: how does the relationship between structural parallels and the desired echo effect of resonance in a novel work exactly?

Resonance derived from an echo effect has been well-explored territory for other writers. W. B. Yeats called the effect of subplotting “the emotion of multitude” in his essay on King Lear:

The Shakespearian drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the subplot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight…Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children, and the mind goes on imagining shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world. In Hamlet, one hardly notices, so subtly is the web woven, that the murder of Hamlet’s father and the sorrow of Hamlet are shadowed in the lives of Fortinbras and Ophelia and Laertes, whose father, too, have been killed.[2]

“Mirroring” may be a better term for how a subplot relates to the main plot, for in a mirror people and objects reflect but can appear slightly sharper. Notice that in order to achieve “the emotion of multitude” Shakespeare uses other family members or two different family groups along plot/subplot lines who then may interact and observe one another and achieve the mirroring effect. And it is this mirroring within the plot-subplot relationship that creates the echo effect because subplot allows for multiple sets of characters who share situations and traits to interact with the main plot, adding sub-stories while keeping the long narrative from sprawling.

To better pinpoint how my sprawling multi-generational novel went wrong, I took a close look at the three novels mentioned above: The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. The former two titles use family dynamics in the character gradation and subplotting to achieve resonance while the latter uses a group of schoolgirls, but the gradation works the same way.

In these novels, the characters involved in the subplots that are closely related to the main set of characters (often as other family members) contain an element of gradation. Subplot characters often mirror larger characters acting on the main plot, but can be less ardently subjected to their desires. The author may give the subplot characters the same or a similar core trait as their counterparts but “shade” its intensity, which helps push the subplot characters toward an outcome which differs from that of the main plot. As the characters of the main plot and subplot(s) interact with one another, this gradation becomes a key factor in the development of thematic complexity and resonance.

I prefer to think of the concept as “shading” and borrow from the world of visual art, perhaps because I tend to picture the novel as a grand scene akin to Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette, Montmartre with characters inhabiting the foreground, the center and the background. If we take a close look at these novels and trace the textual paths and tie-ins, we can better understand why the writers make the compositional choices that they do for their characters.

To accurately trace how a writer accomplishes character gradation or shading in a narrative and because the subplot characters are so closely related to the main plot characters, it’s important to find exactly where the subplot cuts into the main plot and out again, the points where the plot weaving occurs. Only then will the writer’s techniques of “character doubling and splitting” stand out clearly. In The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover explains how Cervantes uses character doubling and splitting in Don Quixote:

Note how clear it is that such structures (subplots, groups of characters, and develop through a simple doubling or splitting process. Characters in novels replicate by cell division. They split off a semblance of themselves with various characteristics shaded differently, either exaggerated or diminished. Thus the curate and the barber are a pair, though one is clearly more educated and more officially significant. The two of them spawn a younger, more energetic version of themselves in the person of Sampson Carrasco. Don Quixote spawns Sancho, an illiterate, tubbier, plain-speaking version of himself… [3]

Character gradation and “shading” ranges from a more complex system of parallel structures in lengthier works, such as in Don Quixote, above, or A House for Mr. Biswas which I will examine later. For a more basic plot-subplot-lesser plot structure using shaded family members, Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist makes an excellent example.

The main plot of Tyler’s novel is Macon Leary’s relationship with the dog trainer, Muriel. On the heels of a separation with his wife, Sarah, every step Macon takes is in the direction of reclusive self-preservation, seeking and keeping his creature comforts. Macon’s sister, Rose, has similar neuroses about tidiness but also a desire for romance and so embarks on a relationship with Julian. So the Rose-Julian subplot mirrors the main love plot between Macon and Muriel. Both Macon and Rose share similar traits and attitudes—obsession with household order and wariness of strangers—but Rose’s homebody tendencies are even more pronounced than Macon’s. At the end of the novel, Rose is still somewhat stuck, having returned to her marriage but repeating the same caretaking routine, while Macon has broken free. Julian, the complete opposite of Macon and a cheerful, ready adapter must take on Leary family behaviors to compensate for Rose’s failure to leave the Leary brothers, Porter and Charles. A lesser plot also develops between Macon and the brothers, who are so stuck in their “Leary” family ways that they are incapable of change. As Macon and Rose find themselves in similar romantic situations, their differences place them more at odds with one another as each character’s plotline moves forward; so, too, does Macon run into more conflict with his stagnant Leary brothers as he heads in the opposite direction, and his attitude shifts from security toward spontaneity.

Tyler plants the seeds of variation in the first scenes depicting Macon and his family by comparing and contrasting characters with one another. Often one brief stroke containing a distinguishing feature is enough to shade a character and set him apart from the others in a particular way. A writer may shade an entire set of characters with an overarching common trait in a line or two. One of the first lines introducing Rose links all four Leary siblings together. “Rose had a kitchen that was so completely alphabetized, you’d find the allspice next to the ant poison. She was a fine one to talk about the Leary men.”[4] The scene gives a brief introduction to what Macon’s family is like on the whole, just enough for the reader to understand that they all share a defining trait: obsession with planning and dutiful order.

Tyler develops Macon’s character with her frequent use of doubling. Macon and his boss, Julian get described and contrasted together. The contrast in their traits creates opposition and places the characters on different plot trajectories and also functions as a continual reminder of Macon’s distinguishing characteristics and worldview: “Julian was younger than Macon and brasher, breezier, not a serious man.”[5] So the reader recognizes the two as opposites; Macon looks down on whimsy and boldness. The development of Macon’s character using doubling and contrast sets Julian on a criss-cross pattern with Macon’s main plot. As Macon moves away from his passive, worried nature to explore the world, Julian forgoes his breezy life of singlehood for home cooked meals and board games with the Leary family. This pattern is a direct effect of character shading and doubling.

With the Macon’s sister Rose, the most noticeable difference that plays an integral part in her plot with Julian is her devotion to soap operas. “While she watched, she talked aloud to the characters….’Just you wait. Ha!’—not at all her usual style of speech. A commercial broke in, but Rose stayed transfixed where she was.”[6] The phrase “her usual style of speech” refers to the Leary’s penchant for proper grammar demonstrated throughout the narrative; here Rose abandons this group attitude. Her yearning for romance sets her apart from her brothers and motivates her decision to marry Julian. Another difference which plays a factor in Rose’s subplot is that she gets lost outside of the Leary neighborhood. All the Leary siblings share this tendency—of the four, Macon is the most able to locate his surroundings, Rose the least. This intensity of shading leads Rose to a different outcome from that of Macon; getting lost in her new neighborhood is one of the reasons Rose moves back in with her brothers after her marriage. So shading plays a major role in pushing the subplot forward.

As the plots progress, we can trace the steps of the characters to the shading of their core traits and attitudes and observe how the structural parallels result in resonance.

The Rose/Julian subplot unfolds alongside the Macon/Muriel main plot, but the characters go about achieving their desires in different ways based on their shaded traits. Muriel pursues Macon but he gives in only when pressed, whereas Rose freely reciprocates Julian’s interest. This contrast develops as the subplot cuts in to mirror the main plot. When Muriel asks Macon to a movie or dinner, he backs away. This is completely opposite Rose’s speech and action in the Thanksgiving dinner scene:

‘You want to drive him off! You three wasted your chances and now you want me to waste mine, but I won’t do it. I can see what’s what. Just listen to any song on the radio; look at any soap opera. Love is what it’s all about. On soap operas everything revolves around love. A new person comes to town and right away the question is, who’s he going to love? Who’s going to love him back? Who’ll lose her mind with jealousy? Who’s going to ruin her life? And you want to make me miss it!’[7]

So Macon runs away from love while Rose runs toward it. Meaning arises out of juxtaposition and repetition with variation as this plot/subplot pattern reappears in the knitting scene. While Macon’s doubts and overprotective habits cause him to reject Julian’s different manners, Rose’s romantic streak trumps her be-wary-of-strangers upbringing to fall in love with Julian (and it’s worth noting that Julian and Muriel share similarities: stylish clothing, boldness and a positive outlook on life that drives opposition and conflict as they interact with the Learys). Rose’s disapproval of Muriel creates a parallel to Macon’s contempt for Julian, although her reasons differ: Muriel speaks sloppy English, she’s disorganized and erratic. Yet the core trait from which the disapproval stems is the same—don’t trust others. This theme emerges from the parallel structure and shading.

In the end, Macon chooses a life with Muriel because the Leary traits Tyler gives to Macon do not contain the same severity of shading as the rest of his siblings; he has changed and become more like Julian. And Rose, while she does not change, is able to return to her marriage and achieve companionship as a result of the one striking feature which separates her from the brothers—her desire for romance as a result of her devoted soap opera-watching. Her transformation is not as successful as Macon’s, but her situation has changed by her opening up to find love outside Leary walls.

Why are the family parallels so significant here, namely those involving Rose and Macon? For one, isolated neuroses would likely not supply any particular insight to Macon’s character. Without the mirror of his family, the deeper picture of Macon is blurry: what’s the context in which his personality and desires are rooted? Because Macon’s desire is the offspring of his traits and quirks, his shading causes the main plot to take the one-step-forward-two-steps-back shape that it does. Now his personality foibles could be illustrated through further sub-stories and subplots about his work, his relationship with Julian, or a neighbor, perhaps—but then the theme changes entirely. The novel would cease to be about the insular nature of family. So the structural parallels directly inform the greater purpose of the work. The larger meaning of Tyler’s novel is about the individual’s wandering away from home and into the world to find out who he really is; hence, Macon and Rose are “the accidental tourists.” That tension of the self torn between family and the outside demands the structural parallel of the character shading among family members. Otherwise, titling the work “The Accidental Tourist” wouldn’t fit the purpose—or the purpose of the title would have to mean something else.

And because longer narratives must deal with scope in a way that short stories do not, structural cohesion is vital to achieve scope (and avoid sprawl). The structural parallels mirrored in the Macon/Muriel plot and Rose/Julian subplot can be traced back to the spawning and shading of characters and the groups to which the varying traits belong: the “stuffy” Leary group: Macon, Rose, Porter and Charles, spawned from the grandparents at odds with the “fun” group spawned from their mother, Alicia: Muriel, Julian, and to lesser degree, Sarah. So the character gradation and shading cause repetition with variation between the outcomes of the main plot and subplot; the mirroring of the plotlines creates the structural cohesion necessary to build scope and unique thematic complexity. The Accidental Tourist is much more than Macon falling in love with his dog trainer; the effect of Tyler’s mirroring is that the main story along with the sub-stories woven together resonates with mysteriousness and meaning. By venturing beyond home, Macon Leary finds his true self.

V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas is also about family, and the 564 page novel is rife with parallel structures on a much grander scale than Tyler’s. The protagonist, Mr. Biswas, wants a house of his own and a life away from his in-laws, the Tulsis, and this Tulsi opposition reaches across the extended family with the techniques of character shading and sub-grouping. The Tulsi brothers-in-law are all different versions of Mr. Biswas. This distinct shading allows for each brother-in-law to share similar circumstance with Mr. Biswas (brothers-in-law living under Tulsi rule) but each has a different trajectory and outcome. Because the traits shared by Mr. Biswas and his spawned doubles vary in intensity, the shading and character grouping spurs conflict and pushes the narrative action forward. Mr. Biswas spawns another double in his son, Anand and a subplot is born from their common desire for reading and learning. In Part Two of the novel, the main plot and subplot come together with the Biswas/Tuttle/Govind family rivalry. In the tradition of the upstairs/downstairs novel, Anand and his cousin Vidiadhar have a competitive little plot that mirrors the conflict going on between their fathers. The greater breadth in narrative scope increases the demand for structural cohesion; this provides more opportunity for subtle difference in character shading. Naipaul’s novel achieves reverberating wholeness as a result.

I counted over a dozen spawned character doubles that could be isolated to make this argument, but for purpose of this essay, have chosen to cite and analyze the primary one, the shaded versions of Mr. Biswas.

One variation of Mr. Biswas occurs with Govind, Chinta’s “eager, loyal” husband. The mirror between Govind’s subplot and the main plot of Mr. Biswas develops to a greater extent from the stark differences between the two men; they share little beyond the common in-law situation. “Mr. Biswas thought of Govind as a fellow sufferer, but one who had surrendered to the Tulsis and been degraded. He had forgotten his own reputation as a buffoon and troublemaker, however, and found Govind wary of his approaches.”[8] Good-looking but non-intellectual Govind does manual plantation work, gets nervous and allows Seth to control him, then behaves obnoxiously when Seth exits. He is a variation of Mr. Biswas shaded with intimidation and cowardice, a darker, Jekyll-and-Hyde portrayal. Because of their opposite attitudes in facing the same situation, the lesser Govind plot takes on a contrasting trajectory and cuts into the main plot at the Shorthills house where he becomes “increasingly surly.”

The episode at Shorthills house is also the point in the narrative in which W.C. Tuttle and his family appear. Tuttle is yet another shaded version of Biswas who picks up some pious traits from the now deceased brother-in-law Hari and also the scheming Govind; he prays regularly and reads but Biswas labels Tuttle’s books “trash.” Yet Tuttle resembles Mr. Biswas more than any of the other brothers-in-law, such as when both men order bookshelves to be made at the same time, because both men actively pursue their desires. Tuttle’s desire to acquire a house of his own is identical to that of Biswas but not as urgent. Tuttle does not possess the same degree of obsession about his desire as his main plot counterpart; he is “Biswas Lite” if you will. So the main plot and the Tuttle subplot do not share the same outcome, although Tuttle comes closer than any of the other brothers-in-law to escape from the Tulsis.

The more alternate outcomes achieved as a result of the various Biswas doubles and subplots, the more echoes are created and the greater the resonance of the novel. Naipaul weaves all three plots together, adding more mirrors to the main plot of Mr. Biswas. In places, Naipaul describes all three men together and contrasts arise from this triple juxtaposition. The effect is a “piling on” of differences, opposition, a spike in dramatic tension:

…he (Biswas) continued to plunder, enjoying the feeling that in the midst of chaos he was calmly going about his own devilish plans. Then the news of the ravages of W.C. Tuttle and Govind was whispered through the house. W. C. Tuttle had been selling whole cedar trees. Govind had been selling lorry loads of oranges and papaws and avocado pears and limes and grapefruit and cocoa and tonka beans. Mr. Biswas felt exceedingly foolish next morning when he dropped half a dozen oranges into his bag.[9]

The difference in shading among Biswas and his two counterparts, Tuttle and Govind is revealed with the technique of side-by-side description of each man’s action in the same situation. The juxtaposition illustrates that Biswas does not share the same acute ability to deceive (though he thought he did). Govind and Tuttle are more aggressive than Biswas in their actions and conflict arises from the different shades in character. Tuttle and Govind race ahead while Biswas remains stuck, still sticking his oranges into his bag to peddle in town.

But the technique of describing characters together to heighten the different shades works in the same way to heighten focus on their sameness as in this paragraph juxtaposing only Tuttle and Biswas. Govind has been left out which in itself increases the “sameness” in the shading of the other two.

And when it was learned that some of the widows’ sons had killed a sheep, roasted it in the woods and eaten it, W. C. Tuttle expressed his outrage at this un-Hindu act, refused to eat any more from the common kitchen and made his wife

cook separately. One of his sons reported that W. C. Tuttle’s Brahmin mouth had burst into sores the day the sheep was eaten. Mr. Biswas, though unable to produce W. C. Tuttle’s spectacular symptoms, made Shama cook separately as well.[10]

This comparison helps to place the “sameness” of Tuttle and Mr. Biswas in a special light. In this paragraph, the main plot of Mr. Biswas and subplot of Tuttle come together in the description of the two men. The repetition of their situation, their desires and anti-Tulsi attitudes (with the slight variation in the mouth sore incident) continues to build unity and resonance through parallel structure.

How are these precise structural parallels important in A House for Mr. Biswas, and to what extent are they important to novels in general? Again the matter of meaning and scope requires a closer look. Like Tyler’s novel, Naipaul’s concerns family. Through the duplication of parallels the problems involve not just a single family, but numerous families. But the scope of “the family problem” and the nature of the situation itself, independence from domineering relations and individual freedom, are different than Tyler’s. And here the thematic meaning does not only apply to severalfamilies but to an entire society of Trinidad as a result of the more extensive network of shades and mirrors. Perhaps because the novel revolves so definitely about a specific place, an island set apart from the rest of the world, this determines the need for a wider scope in order for the particular meaning to emerge—that the Biswas/Tulsi struggle is not isolated to their dynamic, but is representative of vast numbers of other Trinidadian families. So the complex web of character gradation and different plot outcomes are crucial to form this wider scope and achieve this exact theme. Without the shortcomings of his doubled counterparts and their contrary outcomes, Mr. Biswas’s independence from in-law rule would not have the meaning it does—that of a rare triumph.

Thus, scope curtails sprawl. The longer the narrative, the more critical the demands; the shades and mirrors must achieve a structural cohesion that will capture great scope and theme in lieu of sprawl.

The subplots of the three men weave in and out throughout the narrative. Biswas, Tuttle and Govind all move their families to the city. Tuttle and Govind argue over the parking spaces of their cars, and this quarrel is echoed through their wives. The differences in the shaded qualities shared by the three brothers-in-law make room for opposition. Similar gradation and shading groups like characters together against the opposite pole. Here the alignment of Govind and Tuttle is against Biswas:

There was money in the island. It showed in the suits of Govind, who drove the Americans in his taxi; in the possessions of W. C. Tuttle, who hired out his lorry to them; in the new cars, the new buildings. And from this money, despite Marcus Aurelius….Mr. Biswas found himself barred.[11]

But these poles keep changing and shifting. The subplots of Govind and Tuttle take on twisting patterns in their relation to the main plot. The twists, the variations, correspond to the lessening or heightening of certain common traits, almost as if the novelist is playing with the volume using a dial. The focus depends on the juxtaposition and whether or not the characters get compared or contrasted together. Contrast sets the poles further apart and comparison brings them together to unite against an opposite pole. Because these alignments are not fixed and they “change sides” as the power struggle moves along in the novel, the character shading and gradation plays a considerable role in the plot. The reversal of fortune necessary for drama is born through the shifting poles.

Tuttle’s subplot only cuts into the Govind/Biswas subplot that ensues about school briefly; otherwise, his family all but disappears from the narrative. But Tuttle’s subplot roars back toward the novel’s conclusion with the announcement that he has bought a house. Here Tuttle’s shading and subplot push the main plot toward reversal of fortune because Tuttle’s action rekindles his counterpart, Biswas, to search for a house of his own. Tuttle’s escape from the Tulsis is through a far more underhanded action than any Biswas would attempt: Tuttle throws poor people out of a house by persuading local government that the house is unsafe. Since Biswas does not share Tuttle’s tendency toward piracy, Biswas goes about his desire through different means and is somewhat taken in by the seller. Yet the Biswas family wins. The Tuttle’s “nervous little chuckles” during the visit reveals their unhappiness about their own home. Tuttle, a more contemptuous, scheming version of Biswas, ends up achieving the same goal but with a less satisfying result.

So the Tuttle subplot has multiple purposes. It informs the action of the main plot by helping to set up the major reversal of fortune in the novel. It creates repetition with variation by means of its different outcome. And together, this less ethical trajectory of Tuttle next to the better circumstances of Biswas in the end helps generate the greater meaning of the work—freedom from tyranny.

Govind’s subplot takes a different trajectory and does not mirror the main plot about the house. Instead, Govind’s subplot weaves together with the subplot of the Biswas son, Anand, who is a more educated, stronger spawn of his father and shares a love for reading and learning. The competition between the fathers is mirrored in the school competition between their sons. Unlike the path of Tuttle’s subplot, here a multigenerational parallel structure develops to build unity and resonance through repetition and reversal of fortune.

The Anand subplot reveals a version of Mr. Biswas that is very different from the split-off duplications-with-variation in his other spawns, the brothers-in-law. Anand and Mr. Biswas share nearly identical characteristics but have one large key difference: Anand is not obsessed with obtaining a house. So his subplot is an offshoot of the core traits he and his father share, the desire to better oneself through education. As Mr. Biswas pursues his self-education by writing tabloid journalism, Anand pursues writing and learning by taking the higher road of academia in his subplot. The two mirror one another but the variation in Anand’s fulfillment of his desire will lead to a drastically different outcome. At the conclusion of the book he has left Trinidad to study in England.

Not all character doubles contain enough shading in their composition to enable subplots to emerge. Lesser doubles appear that are just brief repetitions of their greater counterparts, only with distinct twists. So the mirroring continues throughout the entire spectrum of characters. Anand spawns lesser versions of himself in the worried Chinese schoolboy (a more fraught version) and the first place Negro boy who possesses a superior knowledge of the female body (a more advanced, worldly Anand). Biswas has lesser counterparts in the co-workers he drinks with at the cafe: “three men, none over forty, who considered their careers closed and rested their ambitions on the achievements of their children.”[12] These lesser doubles are important in creating that particular effect Yeats’ called, “the emotion of multitude.” Without the shading and the doubling of characters, the mirroring of subplots and inset stories and subsequent varied outcomes, a novel like A House for Mr. Biswas would not achieve the sweeping greatness that it does by seeming to be about an entire island struggling with similar problems. With parallel structure character links to character, so the inner workings of a novel forge a network of support beams on which the unity and resonance depend.

So compared to Tyler’s novel, Naipaul’s has greater scope. Does greater scope equal greater meaning? Not necessarily. The Accidental Tourist takes on a certain scope in order to achieve particular meaning; next to A House for Mr. Biswas the scope is more limited but the story is still rich with resonance. Each novel mandates its own demands of form and content, and each arrives at a very different kind of whole. Because of the natural dynamics of families to interact within close proximity to one another a novelist can play more with the dial in the wide range of scope available. The more character shades and mirrors, the greater the scope; less and the scope takes on a more narrow, concentrated focus. Either way, in a family novel the plot trajectories that emerge from the gradation are more likely to take an organic progression with more subtle differences in shading. The technique slips by largely unnoticed by the reader.

But not all novels revolve around family groups. One novel that uses character shading in a non-family dynamic is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Like with Naipaul’s protagonist Mr. Biswas, the subplot characters are shaded versions of Miss Brodie with more or less exaggerated traits. Gradation, shading, doubling and mirroring devices can work with different types of tightly-knit groups who interact within close proximity to one another for an extended period of time. Spark’s use of shading and mirroring with students at an all-girls’ school in a cascade-style illustrates the range of variation in the subplot structure, but the results of this approach to the character shading technique are distinctly different from the novels of Tyler and Naipaul. While the cascade-style gradation bears correlation to scope, this composition develops less organically in order to bring the family-that-is-not-a-family into conflict. The steepness of the cascade, the narrow scope (the novel has only six chapters), gives the technique a self-consciousness not found in the other two novels.

The main plot of the book is Miss Jean Brodie’s struggle to persevere with her unorthodox teaching style against an administration that would like to get rid of her. Miss Brodie carries out her plot by cultivating her six favorite students into her confidantes—“the Brodie set”—Sandy, Rose, Jenny, Eunice, Mary, and Monica. Each of the girls turns into her own unique double of Miss Brodie in a more or less pronounced way. The special attributes, in some cases bestowed upon and then groomed by Miss Brodie herself, create subplots and lesser sub-stories that mirror Miss Brodie’s desire but with variation. Miss Brodie has a love plot with the art teacher, Mr. Lloyd, and Sandy’s subplot mirrors her teacher’s. The Sandy subplot eventually joins together with the main plot of the school’s headmistress against Miss Brodie. There are lesser subplots—Jenny, Rose, the Joyce Emily episode—but Sandy’s is the most developed. Spark uses doubling to compare and contrast the six girls to one another, Miss Brodie and her peers at the school, and repeats each Brodie girl’s trademark characteristics whenever she appears. The Panama hats and the portraits painted by the art teacher of the six devoted pupils reinforce the replication of Miss Brodie and her cascade of mini-Brodies.

The members of the Brodie set take on various shades of interest in love and sex, and this shading determines each girl’s interaction in the Miss Brodie love plot. Sandy is the Brodie girl who has the most interest in love and sex. Her friend Jenny shares this desire at first: “Jenny and Sandy wondered if Mr. Lloyd and Miss Brodie had gone further that day in the art room, and had been swept away by passion.”[13] Sandy and Jenny write a fictitious tale of Miss Brodie and her lovers. But eventually Jenny’s interest in sex wanes while Sandy’s increases. The outcome of Jenny’s love subplot occurs years later with a moment of reawakening. Sandy’s shading changes; she picks up the interest in romance shrugged off by Jenny. Sandy and Rose start to visit the Lloyd’s together, and Sandy becomes more like Rose as a result: “Rose modeled for Teddy Lloyd and Sandy occasionally joined her…”[14]

The cutting in of lesser plots and outcomes that mirror Miss Brodie’s main plot are like sign posts to the reader that character shading is being used in some way to construct opposition. Shading and doubling transcend mere description by setting up conflict on the sentence-level out of which grow the larger, more pivotal plot events. The dramatic force is heightened, and the significance of this in a longer work such as a novel is that all the characters, not just Miss Brodie, drive the conflict. When we find the place where a lesser plot cuts in, we can trace the steps backward to the distinctive brushstroke Spark gives each girl. Miss Brodie’s encouragement of Rose to have an affair with Lloyd fails because Rose does not have an interest in sex—in fact, of all the Brodie girls, she cares about sex the least.

She was the least of all the Brodie set to be excited by Miss Brodie’s love affairs, or by anyone else’s sex. And it was always to be the same. Later, when she was famous for sex, her magnificently appealing qualities lay in the fact that she had no curiosity about sex at all, she never reflected upon it.[15]

So Rose is the most opposed to Miss Brodie’s love plot desire. Instead Sandy takes up as Lloyd’s mistress because she occupies the opposite end of the “Brodie girl” cascade and has the most fervent interest in sex. The conflict grows out of all three different shadings of a common quality—sexual appetite—and Miss Brodie’s desire is denied fulfillment by Sandy’s action. The love plots collide.

But why does Spark use the more drastic cascade arrangement of character shading and grouping, and why does the cascade call more attention to itself in the text than the ways novelists use gradation in the two family novels?

The answer lies in purpose and scope. Spark intends her novel to center on the relationship of an eccentric and passionate schoolteacher and her “loyal pupils,” but the challenge of this set-up is how to construct the trajectories of plot and subplot so that they keep “mirroring” one another. In a novel about family, this is much easier because family members by nature must keep up interaction. This is why the gradation in a family novel tends to develop more subtly. But in order for the plot/subplot mirroring to both build scope with multiple entangled threads as well as launch each of the girls toward a very different outcome from Miss Brodie and one another, the shaded traits must be distinct and unmistakable.

Scope plays an important role to the cascade. The situation of Miss Brodie and her students is contained within the realms of school and does not spill over to any of the girls’ families (at the most, it dips into the Lloyds). By keeping a narrow scope, the plot and dramatic tension is focused on the nature of school and creating one’s own identity eventually apart from that institution. With a narrower scope, there is much less room for subtle variations and “lesser doubles” than in a novel like A House for Mr. Biswas. The scope is so narrow, in fact, that it makes the opposite demand of the gradation technique. The narrow scope tends to demand a sharper, instantly recognizable portrayal of each girl. In conjunction with the content, the school situation as opposed to family, the resulting gradation is even more pronounced and forms a “cascade.” As with the shades and mirrors in the other two novels, the effect of the “cascade gradation” is the scaffolding of structural cohesion out of which the deeper meaning emerges.

Because of the narrow scope and the demands for such instantly recognizable character composition, Spark’s novel stands apart from those of Tyler and Naipaul in that the text is very aware of the character shading and gradation going on. This exaggerated type of character shading pops out with the portraits and the Panama hats, i.e., every time Lloyd paints a Brodie girl, the portrait resembles Miss Brodie. The observant Sandy quips: “We’d look like one big Miss Brodie, I suppose,” after Teddy Lloyd proposes a group portrait.”[16] Spark repeats the resemblance of the portraits to Miss Brodie in every scene that the paintings appear, “a different Jean Brodie under the forms of Rose, Sandy, Jenny, Mary, Monica and Eunice.”[17] So the paintings repeat the doubling technique, along with the plot and subplot actions of the Brodie members.

Each girl’s trademark attribute appears nearly every time Spark mentions the character, and she plants these constant reminders everywhere. She brings the Brodie set together and sets them at odds simultaneously, by describing them one after the other and juxtaposing the contrasts among the characters. The nearly exact duplication of her technique in diction, syntax, and grammar makes it a great deal more obvious, as in the different way each girl wears her Panama hat. “The five girls…wore their hats each with a definite difference,” Spark writes, with “subtle variants.”[18]

Finally Sandy’s subplot leads to her abandonment of romance for religion, and she undergoes a “transfiguration” to become a nun. While Sandy undergoes a drastic change, Miss Brodie is rooted in the past, “her prime,” and wastes away a few years after her dismissal from the school. The two opposite reversals of fortune between the plot/subplot outcomes add complexity and resonance to the novel’s theme. This effect is heightened with the multiple outcomes of the other Brodie girls, adding possibilities to compound the mirror effect.

This complexity is significant in all novels, even ones with a narrower scope, because novels demand it for meaning and resonance. In a short story, great meaning can arise out of a more simple structure leading up to the “epiphany” or “reversal” at the end; there’s not as much room for extended repetition with variation, nor is there the same degree of demand for it in order for the story gain meaning. But in order to reach its resounding wholeness, a novel, because it is so much longer, must have repetition with variation. And what is the significance of the complexity here? The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is at heart about girls growing up to be individuals, about independence and finding one’s prime—and also not imposing one’s identity onto another. Miss Brodie finds her prime and then overextends herself; thus, the title encapsulates the novel’s meaning which has grown out of the multiple “mirrors.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the shortest of the three novels analyzed here, and sprawl is not so much of an issue as resonance—making the story gain scope and depth, the echoing. Is the cascade inevitable to enable the work to gain its meaning, because a shorter narrative by nature has confining demands? The self-awareness of the cascade technique reveals that Spark is well-attuned to her purpose because without the cascade, her novel would risk losing the “ripple effect” to gain breadth and thematic resonance. Otherwise, Miss Brodie’s plot might just as well be rendered in a long short story. But in novel form, Miss Brodie’s story resounds as poignantly as that of Mr. Biswas. The novelist must be aware of the correlation between the character gradation and the scope of the novel because the degree to which she manipulates the technique directly links to the meaning. She must ask herself how pronounced the shading and doubling should be in the work, and how that will inevitably affect the scope and resonance. She must keep in mind that novelists must deal with scope in a way short story writers do not, and that structural parallels determine scope and defer sprawl.

Shading is hardly fixed; the traits can be more or less intensified like the colors mixed on a palette. The novelist’s shading and blending of a common set of traits in a character group is done consciously through the techniques of doubling, juxtaposition, and repetition. Only through these means can structural parallels emerge organically from the vast subject matter the novelist has at hand. From this hall of mirrors the “emotion of multitudes” is born and the narrative churns with thematic complexity and Je ne sais quoi.

Whether the novelist is working with a family novel or different closely-bound group, the various iterations of the character shading technique are vital for the novel to come together as a whole. The gradation may develop more organically, such as with the multigenerational approach, or take on the shape of a more self-conscious cascade. Great meaning is achieved either way.

But novelists must recognize the purpose in their work.

Understanding how character shading and mirroring together develop a novel’s demand for unity and meaning does diminish—if not eliminates—some of the “I don’t know what” a writer faces in the task of a putting together a long narrative, like the cast I juggled with my floundering multi-generational novel draft. Understanding how the novels of others work, opening them up and tracing all the connections between the systems of Character, Plot, and Scope will help us approach our own. Then after pouring over the innards of a handful of novels, remember to keep it simple: Structural Parallels (shading, mirroring, Brown’s “repetition with variation”) + Scope = Thematic Complexity, Meaning and Resonance.

—Vanessa Blakeslee

Notes

1. E. K. Brown,  Rhythm in the Novel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978).

2. “The Emotion of Multitude” (1903). W. B. Yeats. Essays and Introductions. NY: Macmillan Co., 1966. 215-216.

3. Douglas Glover,  The Enamoured Knight (Illinois: Dalky Archive Press, 2004),  135.

4. Anne Tyler,  The Accidental Tourist,  (New York, Random House, 2002),  12.

5. Ibid. ,  41.

6. Ibid. ,  159.

7. Ibid. , 64.

8. V. S. Naipaul,  A House for Mr. Biswas,  (New York: Random House, 2001), 101.

9. Ibid. ,  391-92.

10. Ibid. , 404.

11. Ibid. , 421.

12. Ibid. , 467.

13. Muriel Spark,  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,  (New York: HarperCollins, 1999),

56.

14. Ibid. , 126.

15. Ibid. , 58.

16. Ibid. ,  109.

17. Ibid. ,  118.

18. Ibid. ,  1.

Bibliography

Brown, E.K. Rhythm in the Novel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.

Glover, Douglas. The Enamoured Knight. Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2004.

Naipaul, V.S.  A House for Mr. Biswas. New York: Random House, 2001.

Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

“The Emotion of Multitude” (1903). W. B. Yeats. Essays and Introductions. NY: Macmillan Co., 1966. 215-216.

Tyler, Anne. The Accidental Tourist. New York, Random House, 2002.

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