Apr 062012

Catman in Boxer’s Blow is a 1993 Z list action film by Hong Kong based director Godfrey Ho. Throughout his career, Ho created over a hundred films, the bulk of which were released between 1980 and 1990. His films, including the Catman series, have gained cult status by being viewed as some of the most unintentionally funny films ever made.

Also known also as U.S. Catman 2, the description of the film states that it is the story of Sam, a top “U.S. Agent,” who is scratched by a radioactive cat and gains superhuman abilities. His powers, including laser vision and chain-splitting strength, allow him to fight the evil Reverend Cheever, a priest driven mad, who plots to destroy the world using nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, none of context or back story is mentioned in the movie.

The plot of the actual film instead focuses on Bobby, a man chosen to go undercover in the Holy Cheever gang to make money for a group of arms dealers? Somehow? Catman doesn’t try to bore you with details, and there’s no point asking why a man is suddenly handed a gun and a task, or who most of the characters are, or why they are fighting each other. Catman only wants you to enjoy the fighting.

And there is plenty of fighting.

From the moment Bobby joins the Cheever gang, men are brutally beating each other, shooting at each other, and falling into things, like garbage cans that appear out of nowhere. Being a member of a ruthless, arms dealing, kung fu gang takes its toll on its members. In this scene, one member consumes a whole handful of worms for some reason. Due to intimidation? Some truth or dare game happening off screen?

Poor Bobby vomits as he is forced to watch this, while he is repeatedly beaten on the head. And this becomes perhaps the most relatable scene in the film as we know how Bobby feels. Know all too well.

The character Catman does make a brief appearance in the film. In fact, if we were to cut the film down to only the Catman scenes, the running time might be about eleven minutes long. Though his screen time is meager, Catman makes colourful use of it. Catman and his friend Gus (whose favorite things in life are spaghetti, meatballs, and open-hand slapping women in the face) spend a lot of time leaning on things, swearing, and not dying after being shot thirty times. Otherwise they are but supporting characters in a movie about bar brawls.

Catman feels like two stories clumsily patched together, as though the producer felt the film would be only be marketable to their desired audience if at least some of the characters were American. In the English dub version of the film, the Americans all speak English, but are dubbed over anyway. The person in charge of the dubbing did not bother to line up the lip movement with the dialogue, nor did they bother using the same script most of the time. Perhaps a postmodern reflection on translation and transnational cinema? Maybe. Comical? Certainly.

Catman is a wholly confusing, disturbing, and wonderful film. From its endlessly quotable one-liners (“no great shakes, I’ll take care of him”), to its terrible lighting, from the painful dubbing to the impossibly complicated plot, Catman is an hour and a half of pure, tragic fun.

–M. MacKay

Megan MacKay is a journalist, writer, and stand up comedian living in New Brunswick. She is not a strong swimmer.

Apr 062012

Over the past four decades, Gladys Swan has published six collections of short stories and two novels, Carnival for the Gods (Vintage Contemporaries Series), and Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices, nominated by LSU Press for the Pen/Faulkner Award.  Her short fiction appears in a variety of anthologies and in such literary magazines as the Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Shenandoah, and the Ohio Review.  She is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including Prairie Schooner’s Lawrence Foundation Prize for Fiction, and a Tate Prize for Poetry from the Sewanee Review.  In addition to receiving multiple fellowships for residencies and retreats in both the visual arts and in writing, she was awarded one of the first Open Fellowships from the Lilly Endowment, for a study of Inuit art and mythology. Swan’s The Tiger’s Eye—A Collection of New and Selected Stories was published by Servinghouse Books in the fall of 2011.

To view a selection of Gladys Swan’s paintings published earlier on NC, click here. Read her wonderful short story “The Orange Bird” (from The Tiger’s Eye), click here.


Joyce J. Townsend: What prompted the publication of your latest short story collection at this point in time?

Gladys Swan:  The Tiger’s Eye is a milestone of sorts, representing forty years of work in the short story.  It serves as a retrospective, a chance to look back and see where I’ve come in this particular genre.  I hadn’t read most of the stories for years, so it was interesting to see what has held my attention, what motifs have recurred, what I’ve discovered along the path.

JJT: How were you drawn to the writing life?

Swan: I suppose at heart it’s a matter of temperament and thereby a kind of fate.  I was propelled early on by an impulse I didn’t really understand.  A need, I think, to define my experience somehow, to discover a way of looking at the world, to find some kind of orientation in a place where I was a stranger.  Then it became a fascination with what the imagination could know, a satisfaction in doing the work no matter what, after a long struggle, “a lonely impulse of delight,” to borrow a line from Yeats.

JJT: What moved you from creative writing to the visual arts?  Or did it happen the other way around?

Swan: I was drawn to the visual arts as a child.  I remember trying to paint a horse and being terribly frustrated when it didn’t come out right.  When I got to high school, I took a painting class sponsored by New Mexico Western College.  Dorothy McCrae, a wonderful artist and teacher, oversaw the class and came in at various times to work with the student instructor.  She put me in touch with my imagination.  I didn’t realize how much I owed Dorothy until later.

Although I was also trying to write, and felt great excitement about literature, I took another painting class when I attended New Mexico Western College, and I continued to sketch and paint a little as I went along.  As it began to appear that I was never going to get published, I started working in ceramics—making bowls was better than collecting typescript.  A pivotal moment for me came when I was awarded a Lilly Endowment Open Fellowship for a project in art and mythology.  I went up to Purdue and took every art course I could manage, and then I put all that aside when, all of a sudden, my writing began being published.  But I couldn’t stay away: I had spent so much time over the years in art museums that finally I couldn’t stand it any longer—I had to paint.

After I began teaching creative writing at the University of Missouri, I took art classes there.  I’ve had some fine teachers along the way, people I still spend time with, to whom I owe a great deal for their support and inspiration, among them Woody Johnson from New Mexico Western College, and Curt Stocking with whom I studied figure-drawing at Purdue.  Here in Missouri, Frank Stack, Brooke Cameron, Ben Cameron, and William Berry have been influential, and Robert Friedman and Bede Clark in ceramics.

JJT:  In what ways do you see the two creative processes affecting each other?

Swan: The visual arts engage the senses in a different way, perhaps closer to the way the mind works when rational thinking is not imposed on it.  You have a flow of images.  Art works with those images—words and definitions come later.  The process is non-linear.  Its language is color, line and mass, pattern and rhythm, light and dark.  It offers me a great refreshment to get out of words, and I love playing with color.  Attention to the act of seeing makes me observe the world more closely, its lights and shadows, its tones and variations, its people, their expressions and gestures.  Art offers a new and continuing opportunity for discovery.  I believe that is reflected in my writing.

JJT: Do you find similar patterns between writing and the visual arts emerging for you?

Swan: Patterns there are, and more.  I believe that it is very beneficial for an artist to work in another medium, whether it be music or dance, drama or painting.  There is no direct equation, but one art form influences the other in interesting and subtle ways.  You learn things about form and pattern, rhythm and emphasis.  You get another take on how you see the world.  Also, when you are learning to work in a different medium, you recognize similarities in the creative process, what stages you have to go through before you reach any kind of mastery.

JJT: When you first started out as an artist and writer, whose work most influenced you?

Swan: Strong influences shaping my mind and imagination came from the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and the works of Homer and the Greek playwrights.  I discovered Jung when his books were first translated: Psychology and Alchemy and Symbols of Transformation.  They introduced me to the idea that there was another kind of thinking beyond that of the rational mind, and it was one to be equally valued, with treasures to be gained from it: enrichment from unconscious sources, the potentials for human growth and realization, as well as insight into the dark side of human behavior.  Joseph Campbell was especially helpful in locating the patterns and stages of human experience, the truths embodied in mythology.  It was helpful to return to origins.  Those insights were certainly underscored by Dante, that great psychologist, and the work of Dostoyevski, Conrad and Hawthorne, among others.  All the writers mentioned gave me a sense of the heights literature can reach.

Probably the writer who influenced me most when I was starting to write short stories was Katherine Anne Porter.  Her stories were gems.  She set me on the path.

There were a good many artists who inspired me in the visual arts, particularly the Impressionists and early Modernists.  Curiously, as my writing has moved more in the direction of the fantastic, my painting has gone more in the direction of the abstract.  Klee, Kandinsky, Diebenkorn, and Joan Mitchell have been very important to me lately.  In watercolor, John Marin, Charles Burchfield, Georgia O’Keefe, and Keith Crown have influenced me strongly.  Keith Crown is an artist who deserves to be better known.

JJT:  What has been the best advice you received along the way and, conversely, what was the worst?

Swan: I think the best advice came from Thoreau: “Live in the direction of your dreams.”   Maybe the worst advice was embodied in the question an agent asked me with great irritation after she’d read the first fifty pages of Carnival for the Gods, “Can’t you just write a good commercial novel?”  From Frank Stack, a well-known underground cartoonist and fine painter, came the statement: “Only you can empower yourself as an artist.”  From him, I also learned not to destroy work—always a temptation—until you’ve let it sit around for a while.  That way, you have some distance and can make a better judgment about it.

JJT:  You’ve written essays, translations, poetry, prose, and various other forms.  Do you have a favored format or genre?

Swan: I thought I would live and die a short story writer since I played in that form for so many years.  But as I have made other rewarding ventures, I would say that I’m wedded to whatever form I happen to be engaged with at the moment.  Each allows a certain kind of emphasis and way to explore.  I am guided by an old aesthetic principle: vision dictates form.  The materials themselves make the suggestions emerge in the way they require.  You have to keep listening.  The novel allows a broader reach, and I appreciate its scope: with the chance to develop more characters, to give more time to social and political issues.  With poetry, I love the focus on image, the chance to engage all the resources of language, to link them to narrative and song.  The essay is rather a late development for me, and I find a satisfaction in exploring a subject through a process of thought.  I could say that the short story is my first love, since I keep coming back to it, but I enjoy the excitement of playing with form.  There’s an unfinished play still lying in the drawer . . ..  And the visual arts—that’s a whole other territory.

JJT: In retrospect, what emerges as major recurring themes in your short fiction throughout your career?

Swan: I think a major preoccupation has been the effort to determine what is meant by “experience.”  Flannery O’Connor once said something to the effect that the greatest tragedy is not to have experience.  What I think she meant is that there is considerable difference between event and experience.  At first I thought that experience meant that something of great magnitude had to occur.  Then I discovered that some people have extraordinary things happen to them, but essentially nothing much changes except the addition of a few anecdotes.  “We had the experience, but we missed the meaning,” as Eliot notes.

I believe that experience brings about a different perspective, a way of seeing and, for better or worse, a different way of being in the world.  It can awaken new potentialities for growth or bring about a shattering of illusions.  The subject of experience is complex and takes one into deep mysteries.

JJT:  What effect does change of locale have on your writing in terms of both story content and the act of writing?

Swan:  Any change of local is like traveling to a foreign country.  Some offer strong contrasts in language and people, landscape, and way of life.  So whether I’m in Maine or Missouri, New Mexico or France, there is a great deal to take in.  Locale has certainly had a great effect on the content of both my novels and my short stories.  I left New Mexico at a young age, but in a strong sense, I’ve never left.  It has been the primary territory for my imagination although other work is set in places where I’ve spent long and short periods of time.  I’ve written half a dozen stories set in Maine, where I have lived for nearly forty summers, taking in the whole ambience of the place, its landscape, the coastal region, Down East, as opposed to the central and western parts, etc.  And in Europe where I’ve spent a lot of time—Paris, Florence, Yugoslavia, Greece, Spain—I’ve found stories I need to tell.  One of my as-yet unpublished novels has sections set in Copenhagen, Venice, and Prague.  In some ways, I’ve gone the route of both James and Hawthorne in considering how the consciousness of an American is influenced from abroad.  Certain stories seem to arise from the landscape, and I am in many ways influenced by what is around me for content and for the act of writing.  A quiet place near a window that looks out on water and/or woods does very nicely.  For a number of summers the landscape in Maine was so compelling I could barely concentrate on anything else.  I just wanted to follow the light on water and in the trees—to dream.

JJT: In looking over your work, what discoveries have you made about yourself as a writer?

Swan: My first novel, Carnival for the Gods, was a complete surprise to me.  A writer friend once told me I should try writing comedy, and I just laughed.  I had no thought of moving toward the fantastic.  I thought I was a realist, of a serious disposition at that.  Then I ended up writing a comic fantasy about a small circus/carnival and the adventures they have in a mythical territory: the Seven Cities of Cibola, supposedly with roof tops of gold, such as the Spaniards were looking for when they came north to New Mexico.  They didn’t find it, but I did, inventing the cities as I went along—my first discovery that I wasn’t a realist.  I had to wrestle with the half-hatched insight that my supposed “real bent” was heading in a direction I hadn’t banked on.

JJT: You mentioned being surprised at how the circus has become a preoccupation of yours.

Swan: At first I was fascinated by carnivals, and I wanted to write about one.  I thought I’d like to travel with a carnival, but at the time it was not possible.  I was whining to a friend about this state of affairs, and she said,  “Why don’t you invent one?”  So I did—the result was Carnival for the Gods, a combination circus and carnival.  I thought I was finished with that particular world, but ten years later I found myself making notes for a series of other novels, based on characters from the first.  They were born of reading and imagination, but by the time I got to the fourth of the series, I had a strong desire to see a circus firsthand.  I called up David and Laura Balding, the producers of the Circus Flora in St. Louis, told them what I wanted to do and asked if I could be on hand. They invited me to meet with them.  I didn’t want to be just a spectator, so they gave me something to do.  I ended up pulling the back curtain for all their performances in St. Louis that season, thereby seeing what went on backstage.  Later they invited me to do the same during their season in Phoenix, so I went out there as well.

It was a wonderful experience.  I spent time meeting and talking to various performers—the Flying Walendas, the Cossack riders, the clowns, the expert juggler they had, Flora-the-elephant’s handler, and others.  Being with that group of dedicated artists was a real education.  I learned things I could never have learned otherwise and gained an appreciation for them beyond what I already had.  In the Arizona performance, I was given a small part: wearing a cloak and monster face, I had to run into the ring with two other performers, all of us carrying various signs which we waved in front of the crowd. Mine said,  “Don’t talk to the animals.”

I thought I had finished the sequence with the fourth novel, Down to Earth, but another character, Amazing Grace, had to have her story told as well.  I’m in the midst of that novel now—Dancing with Snakes.

The whole experience was so important to me that it affected more than the novels I’ve been working on.  I wrote a long poem entitled, “The Dream of Circus,” and gave a copy to the performers.  “The Dream of Circus” was published in the Sewanee Review and awarded their Tate Prize for Poetry.

JJT: Have your short stories followed the same trajectory into fantasy?

Swan: My short fiction pretty much kept its feet on the ground until I came to The Tiger’s Eye, inspired when I heard about a man who held conversations with a tiger in England’s Bristol Zoo.  Recent stories have moved more and more in unexpected directions.  My work has as its basis actual events, which take off from there towards other dimensions.

Perhaps I have simply fulfilled a certain suggestion in my work that I recorded a number of years ago: “My stories seem to be a kind of dreaming awake.  Impressions float along the surface of consciousness in a coherent but diffuse manner—the thinking is associative, digressive, imagistic.  The event becomes a cluster of impressions that work the same way an image or symbol does in a poem.  The cumulative effect of these images is a meaning that is hinted at but not stated.  There is change, usually the coming of awareness.  I suppose that my stories are the reflection of a singularly untidy mind—there is an order in my work, arising from diffuseness, not imposed on it.”

I think that probably characterizes a good deal of what I’ve done and why perhaps, under the influence of Yeats and Stevens, Bachelard, Toni Morrison, Garcia Marquez and others, I’ve been exploring what kind of knowledge can be apprehended through the imagination.

JJT: How would you challenge writing students to better their craft?

Swan:  Mainly to read and learn from really good work, and to explore the tradition to reach a sense of where they came from.  Though it’s important to read one’s contemporaries, I think it’s a mistake to spend all one’s time with them.  A lot of books speak only to a particular moment and then become dated.  Of course if your aim is simply to produce a best seller, that’s another matter and takes some study of what seems to be important to the culture at a given time.

JJT: What moods, thoughts, and impressions do you hope your stories leave with readers?

Swan: A writer creates a world, whether it’s Bernard Malamud’s Lower Ease Side or Flannery O’Conner’s Georgia, and the reader is being invited to enter it, meet the inhabitants, enter their experience with its predicaments and opportunities.  All good writers speak to a dimension of our experience and illuminate it in some way.  Malamud and O’Connor explore the implications of a certain religious identity; Philip Roth goes to great depths in presenting characters entwined in the political and social realities at certain moments of our history.  We have Nadine Gordimer’s South Africa, and so forth.  All of them give us a sense of the triumphs and deficiencies of the human condition.

I hope that my fiction does the same, that it touches some aspect of a reader’s experience and leaves the reader with a sense of recognition and aesthetic satisfaction, a feeling of having been somewhere and that the trip was worth it.  I’d like to leave behind a sense that there’s a language different from the Newspeak that we meet on a daily basis, that there is a sensual and emotional depth to our experience, a dreaming self that is worthy of our attention.  That within us are ways of valuing our experience that the culture doesn’t emphasize.

JJT: Do you prefer working in certain environments, surrounded by talisman-type objects, say, or wearing certain clothing?

Swan: I like to work alone in a quiet place.  Except on one occasion, I’ve not gone in for talismans or particular behavior, but that one occasion was quite extraordinary.  I was in Prague, in 1988, right when everyone was celebrating the election of Vazclav Havel.   Except for foreign tourists, the square had been deserted before.  Now there were crowds on Wencelas Square, and music everywhere, of all kinds.  I went on an excursion with a woman who wanted to show me her village, which she hadn’t been back to for years.  I didn’t know this when we started off through the fields, but finally it was clear that we were lost; she didn’t know the way.  After walking a stretch, we finally came to an abandoned quarry, with translucent stones of various colors in the ground—black, green transparent, pink, blue.  It was a great discovery.  We went around like a couple of kids gathering them up.  I took home a bagful.

I was working on a novel that had to do with an American woman who comes to an understanding of the suffering of Europeans during the Hitler-Stalin era, and each morning I’d make an arrangement of the stones, working with them until the pattern satisfied me.  Only then could I begin work on the book.  Sometimes, I left the stones where they were for several days, but then I’d have to make another arrangement.  I did this until the book was finished.  Then I put them away, and that was that.

JJT:  How do you usually edit your work?

Swan:  I write draft after draft and after it’s fine-tuned, I may send it to a friend to read.  Then I consider any suggestions and go back to it.

JJT: You’ve said that except for a six-week class in creative writing, you learned the craft through practice, and by reading.  What would be your advice to someone who is considering an MFA-type program?

Swan: There are many good programs, with some excellent writers and teachers, so I think it’s a matter of defining your priorities and going after the program that best provides for you.  Do you need financial support, for instance, and how much?  Do you want to spend a winter navel-deep in snow, or do you have a liking for mountains or the desert?  These things figure in along with everything else.  What happens to the graduates of a particular program?  Can they earn a living?  I think you learn as much from your colleagues as you do from your instructors.  Finally, whether you’re in a program or doing the job on your own, you have to educate yourself.  I didn’t come through any formal training program and I didn’t know any writers.  If the choice had been open, I’d have done things differently.  On my own, I was a very slow learner, and perhaps a degree might have saved me from some mistakes, might have let me make better use of my time.  Sometimes, though, I think I might have been unteachable.

JJT:  What’s next for you?  Are there as-yet-unexplored aspects of your work that you have a yen to discover?

Swan:  My major work has been the sequence of five novels, beginning with Carnival for the Gods.  I hope to complete the final one this summer.  I might like to do a series of poems with paintings or even music.  I have a strong yearning to do something with music, but I’m not sure I can get everything into one lifetime.

JJT: Where does the bulk of your work stand in relation to contemporary culture and politics?

Swan: For the most part I haven’t taken a political stance, except in Ceremony of Innocence, a novel that is yet to be published, although one section of it appeared in the Beloit Fiction Journal and another section in The Literary Review.   Ceremony of Innocence is an attempt to explore the fragmentation of personality that occurs under despotism.  But I do consider my work strongly political in that a writer can’t avoid revealing the values she stands for and which, because they affect the individual, affect the society, the polis.  There is a strong connection to the natural world implicit in my work.  I see nature as the basis for all value.  A feeling that there is an underlying order that needs our respect if we’re not to be destroyed.  I think a value system has to grow out of the recognition that we are a part of nature and deeply connected to all life.  We’re doing terrible things at the moment, beginning with our food, the chemicals we use, the willingness to sacrifice the landscape and the purity of air and water to mining interests and oil production, as well as to untrammeled development.  I deplore the waste embodied in our endless consumerism, our worship of money—the triumph of the Ayn Rand philosophy.  At what price are we producing a generation of technical experts and financial wizards?  What kind of mental and spiritual life are we creating with our devouring need to be entertained by sit-coms, reality shows, sports heroes, rock stars, and the like—so many passive entertainments?  Although we have great energy and tremendous human potential, these are the things I find deeply troubling.  I feel that life is the great miracle, terribly precious, and I’m strongly in favor of what will foster it.  I hope that is revealed in my work.

Joyce J. Townsend holds a Master’s in Social Services Administration from Case Western Reserve University. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals and newspapers.  In 2009 she received a fellowship from the Elizabeth George Foundation for a novel. A chronicle of her family’s involvement in the alternative school movement of the 1960s and 70s appears in Three Rs and the Other F Word—FREEDOM! (Excerpts appear on WebdelSol.)  She narrates for The National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and is a regular reviewer for the Library Journal.

Apr 052012

The best novels are like dreams. They come out of the silence of the page like a dream. They structure themselves like dreams, that is, there are clear ways in which the structure of dreams parallels the structure of novels. Like dreams, novels use image patterning as a device for suggesting meaning: image repetition, association, juxtaposition, and splintering (Viktor Shklovsky’s term for the branching pattern created by a repeating image and its associated or split-off elements which also repeat). Like dreams, novels are available to interpretation; the best novels have a central luminous mystery at their core which tempts generations upon generations of critics and readers to find new structures and meanings beyond the surface of the words. And like dreams, novels are built around (and this is explicable in only the vaguest of terms) the recurrence or insistence of desire which, in order to generate plot, must be resisted; the locus or arena of desire and resistance appears again and again with obsessive regularity in novels, an obsessive regularity which, in real life, would seem eccentric if not pathological. In novels, character is perversion, and the novel returns again and again to the animating desire which it must resist to the bitter end or even beyond the end of the words on the page.

—from “Novels and Dreams,” an essay by Douglas Glover in Attack of the Copula Spiders

The Greeks called their novels tales of suffering for love. If they weren’t about suffering for love, they wouldn’t be tales. A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it. There are no stories about people who start out happy and contented, remain happy and contented throughout, and end up happy and contented. Imagine the phrase “tales of not-suffering for love” or “tales of having fun for love” or “tales of finding pleasure for love.” The difference between pornography and literature is that in pornography everyone has orgasms all the time. There is no gap between desire and consummation. In literature there is always an element of frustration, displacement, delay and incompleteness (even if someone does eventually manage to have an orgasm). Don Quixote is the quintessential novel because it’s about a man in love with a woman who doesn’t exist. At the outset, Cervantes invents the limiting case.

—from The Enamoured Knight

Repetition, as I have said, is also a pattern. But it is a pattern of a different order, perhaps the pattern of patterns. To me, it is the heart of the mystery of art, of novel-writing. Without it, the novel becomes a strung-out plot summary. I have tried to think out why repetition is appealing, why it is aesthetically pleasing as a pure thing. I think there are two reasons, or sorts of reasons. The first is essentially conservative–repetition is allied to memory, to coherence and verisimilitude. The second is biological or procreative or sexual. Repetition creates rhythm which on a biological level is pleasurable in itself, the beating of our hearts, the combers rolling up on a beach, the motion of love. This is the sort of thing Lyotard is talking about when he writes about “intensities” or patterns of intensities in his book Économie Libidinal, or what the Spaniard Madariaga meant when he talked about the “waves of energy” in Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Seville.

—from “The Novel as a Poem” in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son


Here is the performance version of “How to Write a Novel,” the first essay in my new book Attack of the Copula Spiders. I place it here for instructional purposes, also so that I can include it in our growing trove of craft and structure advice The Numéro Cinq Literary Craft Book, which you all should consult from time to time. I gave this talk as part of the Craftwork series at The Center for Fiction in New York, March 14, 2o12.

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It’s important to note that “How to Write a Novel” is a fairly stripped down version of the years of thought I have given to writing novels (and stories and essays and, yes, even poems). If you want to get the whole picture to this point, you should read also “The Novel as a Poem” in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son. That book also contains essays on novels by Leonard Cohen, Christa Wolf, Hubert Aquin, and Margaret Atwood, plus an essay on point of view and my pride and joy “Gertrude, or the Postmodern Novel.”

Then you would need to read my book on Cervantes The Enamoured Knight. The first section of the book, “Recovering the Text: Technical and Analytical,” provides a re-reading of Don Quixote and preps you for the sections to follow.  The second section, “Don Quixote and Novel Form,” gives a history of the development of novel form, sorts out the rather confusing array of definitions offered by theorists, and then discusses a set of primary structures: plot, subplot, character grouping and gradation, and novel memory devices (which I have not really touched on elsewhere). The third section, “Night Thoughts of an Insomniac Reader, or Thematic Meditations,” demonstrates how the form itself predisposes the novel to a thematic “basket” of ubiquitous themes which appear in writers as diverse as Joseph Conrad, Cervantes, Jane Austen, and Alice Munro (to name four that come into the discussion).

Finally, in Attack of the Copula Spiders you’ll find not only “How to Write a Novel” (the complete text with sundry examples) but also analyses of novels by Juan Rulfo, Thomas Bernhard, Leon Rooke, and Cees Nooteboom as well as an essay on endings and a meditation on novels and history.

Unfortunately, foresight has been lacking. I haven’t managed to collect all of this material in one place (and that’s mostly because I have been sorting out these ideas for years, decades, often previewing them as lectures at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing program). But here now you have a basic sense of where to find it all.


Apr 042012

Robert Vivian


Someone once said to Robert Vivian that real writers write novels, not essays, fighting words that in part inspired this wonderfully personal essay on essays by my indefatigable and otherwise gentle friend and colleague (at Vermont College of Fine Arts) who herein describes his own turn to the essay many years ago in a London cemetery when he was 22. Robert Vivian is a Nebraska native (now living in Michigan where he teaches at Alma College), and a former baseball player (sorry, I DO have to keep mentioning this because it is fascinating—Nebraska and baseball: some echo of the American epic in those words). He is a prolific writer of superb meditative essays and a fine novelist, also a playwright and poet. Of the second novel in his The Tall Grass Trilogy, I wrote: “Robert Vivian’s Lamb Bright Saviors is a brave and profoundly moving novel of faith and forgiveness. A closely-observed novel of voices, it speaks the tongues of America’s impoverished underbelly and reveals, amid the squalor, mystery, goodness and salvation.” He is the author of The Tall Grass Trilogy (The Mover Of Bones, Lamb Bright Saviors, and Another Burning Kingdom) and the essay collections Cold Snap As Yearning and The Least Cricket Of Evening. His next novel, Water And Abandon, will be out this fall. Earlier on these pages, I published is “Thoughts on the Meditative Essay.”



Out beyond ideas of right and wrong doing, there is a field.
I will meet you there.    
— Rumi

Many years ago I turned to essay writing in a most fundamental and organic way, like some human kind of turning plant whose leaves and petals reached out for the miraculous nourishment of photosynthesis, even though I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time. I was 22 and abroad in London for the first time away from my native state of Nebraska, volunteering at Highgate Cemetery to clean headstones under the guidance of a wise and proper old English lady named Edith. One of my American professors there required that we keep an extensive journal of our time abroad, and so I was doing my part to meet this requirement when a subtle but ultimately life-altering thing happened that I only realize fully now with the benefit of hindsight: I found that having to write about what I saw, thought, felt and experienced or observed without apology or reservation on this first trip out of America was oddly satisfying and absorbing, so much so that I began to care about this kind of writing in a way I never had before; that is, I wanted and was even grateful to do these assignments, and when my professor handed these writings back, I saw that he had responded mostly favorably to them. He liked the way I tried to describe the cemetery and kindly, old Edith and how they registered in my awareness, and no one had ever really communicated such sentiments about my writing ability before this time.

Among the snowdrops and the damp, chilly air of Highgate Cemetery and London, I was reborn, but again I didn’t quite realize it then, for it was the first time someone had ever taken my humble observations about the world at all seriously. About a year before the trip to London I was not what you would call a promising or hardly stellar student, but I had—cliché of cliché’s—been gob smacked one day sitting in a course on the Romantic poets taught by a rather glamorous and beautiful professor and had fallen in love with poetry or with her, and it scarcely mattered which it was. That spark had led to the visit to London and my deepening desire to become a writer as I tried to write poems and prose about what I was observing in England as a wide-eyed visitor. Both professors did me an incalculable service as a human being and incipient writer, and I will forever be grateful to them for catalyzing in me a love of language along with the frame-work to practice at it—in the case of extensive journal-writing—as I tried to make sense out of the English way of life around me. After London I stopped writing essays but turned to writing poetry and then to plays, and it would be several years before I went back to essays as a reprieve from the oftentimes bleak and incomprehensible plays I had hung my hat on at the time.

I mention all this as a prelude to the subject of creative nonfiction today as I wish to give you all some slight idea of how I ended up as a practitioner of the form, or as one of the characters in Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story” says, “Sometimes you have to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” I would usually resort to writing essays as a reprieve from other forms only to turn to them more often and with greater and deeper dearness that continues to this day. Annie Dillard once wrote that “Essays can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it,” and I heartily agree: writing those first essays back in London, I sought to make sense of what I was seeing and experiencing, and how a woman like Edith could touch me so profoundly and forever by her dignity and kindness as reflected in her deeply wrinkled face whose every line and furrow bespoke years of living and suffering along with a quiet, ineffable joy. I was pretty naïve and open then, though I still believe that writing essays comes primarily out of a sense of asking and wondering about people and things and speculating on their meaning and significance, including the life that was given to me to live. I wanted to bring up all the aforementioned as an apology of sorts (or maybe species of bemusement is a better way to put it) for my lack of an utter staunch or definitive stand for what creative nonfiction is or purports to be or any pleading stance on this contested form or why it is so often bedeviled as a genre and quite controversial, more so, perhaps, than any other literary genre.

We know—etymologically speaking—that poets make poems, that fiction writers invent narratives, that playwrights work on plays and drama, and that essayists try or attempt to articulate through crafted language to arrive at some truth or observation about their own experiences. We know this because the deep history and definitions of these words tell us so. And yet—for good and solid reasons—many people are a little troubled or even put off at the very label of creative nonfiction: How can one be creative with something that is supposed to be factual and true? And why is nonfiction the only genre defined as much by what it isn’t than by what it is? Imagine for a moment genres like non-poetry, non-drama: How could such hypothetical genres hold their heads up or defend their integrity, let alone be taken seriously?

But if you if feel and believe, as I do, that writing about what a person actually sees, feels, and experiences as a human being in this world is relevant, important, sometimes even revelatory as a way to make sense of oneself and others and that this is inherently worth doing, like James Baldwin does in “Stranger in the Village,” chronicling his time in a remote Swiss village writing his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain and reflecting on the fact that he was the first person of color to ever visit this remote place, or E.B. White in “Once More To The Lake” and his meditation on his own mortality vis-à-vis observing his son’s visit to the lake and the memory of his dead father that hovers over him with a haunting sense of déjà vu and his very own doppelganger, or what Joan Didion does in The Year Of Magical Thinking, articulating and somehow trying to come to terms with her profound grief in the face of her husband’s death and daughter’s life-threatening illness along with countless other moving examples of nonfiction then maybe, just maybe we need not be so unduly troubled by the controversies surrounding CNF and writers like John D’Agata and his books About A Mountain and The Lifespan Of A Fact or James Frey and his A Million Little Pieces or even Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood who admitted in the writing of this book that he was “seeking truth but not necessarily accuracy.” All of the writers I mentioned write essays or kinds of creative nonfiction (or did), and regardless of one’s opinion on the merit of their work or stated credos, they all to a person pay keen attention to the style and impact of their prose just as much as any writer does in any genre, and it is this same artistic emphasis that makes creative nonfiction literary.

Not everyone agrees on this, and to my mind, this is okay: as Yeats instructs us, the most important arguments we ever have are with ourselves. But I remember a good friend in graduate school, a mentor of sorts and one of the most profoundly read people I’ve ever met, tell me one day with great passion and even vehemence, “Bob, real writers write novels, not essays”—a seething pronouncement he leveled at me when I mentioned to him how much I was enjoying teaching Annie Dillard’s Teaching A Stone To Talk. His comment didn’t offend me very much, because the more I read of Dillard in this particular book and the more I tried to teach it, the more I found myself trying to write essays like her, and I found the whole process absorbing and rewarding, joyful even, despite my friend’s scathing disavowal. But the bugaboos surrounding creative nonfiction are not so easily dispatched, especially considering the fact that Justin Beiber has written a memoir: because there will always be writers who do not think facts are sacrosanct in nonfiction, who believe facts can be manipulated like so much clay for a desired effect. John D’Agata, for example, uses 34 for the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas in one of his essays when he knew the actual number to be 31, claiming that 34 is somehow more interesting and artistically pleasing than 31: I don’t quite see or understand his aesthetic argument here, but I do see how this kind of conscious manipulation might offend, anger, or disappoint readers and thus further stain and besmirch the genre of creative nonfiction and call into question its status as a serious art form.

In writing essays myself, by the way, I try to be as factually accurate as possible because I don’t see that very much can be gained by consciously manipulating them; I don’t view them as obstacles or enemies but just another element that can be every bit as mysterious as the imagination and sometimes even more so. I have no beef with the fact that there are 31 strip clubs in Las Vegas anymore than I care overmuch that I had a Subway sandwich for lunch and not lobster bisque. I’m much more interested—infinitely so—in how or why it is that the essays of James Baldwin, for example, an African-American writer who grew up in Harlem, could speak so personally and movingly to me as a young white man growing up Omaha as if in the act of reading his work we had somehow swapped souls. When I read “Notes Of A Native Son”back in Omaha shortly before leaving for England (one year, it seemed, and one class turned me forever in the direction of literature) I knew what he was writing about expressed a deep and troubling truth about living in America, that the color of one’s skin then and now profoundly influences how one is viewed, but I also came to know through Baldwin that despite the outer circumstances and backgrounds that we were somehow also spiritual brothers in a way and that he had so much to teach me about myself and others even as he was writing about his own experiences.

Somehow it was the intimacy of Baldwin reflecting on his own life and daring to be so honest about it that instilled in me a sense of great dignity and nobility of spirit, which I think are the hallmarks of what the best essays and forms of creative nonfiction can confer every bit as powerfully as any poem, novel, or play. I feel very strongly about this because I’ve worked and published in all the genres and I’ve taught and studied all of them also, and I’m quietly but firmly convinced that the “I” in a serious essay or memoir is not a character or simulacrum of the author but her or his truest self or essence, a claim I understand is not always true in some cases, though those same some examples may prove the rule, not the exception. The essay as a form has been around at least 300 years or so in the Essais of Michel de Montaigne, and some contend the form is even older than that: only the acronym creative nonfiction is new or recent, along with perhaps some of its subgenres like immersion essay, though even this is debatable. So in many crucial ways the controversies surrounding the form do not in any way detract from the deep currents of its tradition, which feels almost scandalous to admit out loud.

For me, the best essays function as places of intimate encounter as we get to know the “I,” the writer at a very deep level even as we come to a better understanding of ourselves. Come with me now to a passage from Thomas Merton’s beautiful book When The Trees Say Nothing: “Again, sense of the importance, the urgency of seeing, fully aware, experiencing what is here… Clear realization that I must begin with these first elements. That it is absurd to inquire after my function in the world, or whether I have one, as long as I am not first of all alive and awake. And if that, and no more, is my job (for it is certainly every man’s job), then I am grateful for it. The vanity of all false missions, when no one is sent. All the universal outcry of people who have not been told to cry out, but who are driven to this noise by their fear, their lack of what is right in front of their noses.” I love this passage, and return to it often; it comes from first person nonfiction prose, and Merton did not even intend to publish the musings in this book. This is one man, one person alive and awake in the world, commenting on his deepest convictions and felt truths in order to make sense of something for himself, and, by extension, to reveal these truths for others like myself, even if he did not intend to accomplish this. This is the unique and personal power of nonfiction prose, for Merton is utterly vulnerable and authentic here on the page for anyone who would read and absorb these words.

That is why my evolving metaphor for the personal essay is an open field where reader and writer encounter each other; like Rumi instructs in his poem, there is a world beyond good and bad doings, and it’s possible to meet someone there. This is what the best of creative nonfiction has to teach or by way of invitation, to meet the “I” of nonfiction prose in the field of an essay only to realize, if the work is real and true, that you are always meeting yourself in the guise of another, and that this same paradoxical encounter is one of the hopeful human lights of this world.

—Robert Vivian


ROBERT VIVIAN’s first book, Cold Snap As Yearning, won the Society of Midland Authors Award in Nonfiction and the Nebraska Center for the Book in 2002. His first novel, The Mover Of Bones, was published in 2006 and is Part I of The Tall Grass Trilogy. Part II, Lamb Bright Saviors, was recently published–and Part III, Another Burning Kingdom, will be published in 2011. His next collection of essays, The Least Cricket Of Evening, will also be published in 2011. His most recent novel, Water And Abandon, will be published in 2012; and he’s just completed another novel, The Long Fall To Dirt Heaven. He also writes plays, over twenty of which have been produced in NYC. Many of his monologues have been published in Best Men’s Stage Monologues and Best Women’s Stage Monologues. His most recent foray into playwriting was an adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts that premiered at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo in 2006. His stories, poems, and essays have been published in Harper’s, Georgia Review, Ecotone, Numéro Cinq, Creative Non!fiction, Glimmer Train, and dozens of others. He is Associate Professor of English at Alma College in Michigan and a member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Apr 032012

Marilyn McCabe herein presents trenchant meditations on the mysterious and heart-rending duality (good and evil) of the human soul (think: Proust/Idi Amin). Marilyn is an old friend, a poet, translator, singer, and cross-country skier from Saratoga Springs. She is pretty much a regular contributor to these pages. See especially her translations of Rilke, Éluard, Silvestre, and Apollinaire (the last three put to music—sung in this instance by the uber-talented Ms. McCabe). These poems come from Marilyn’s brand new book Perpetual Motion, just out with The Word Works (2012).





There’s a baby
in the crisped litter
of a roadside wood today, made pale
and lovely by an October snow.
Then even the skin is brittle.

It’s never the big thing
but the fine and permeative that destroys
often beautifully. How are we a thing that hates
and is so hard to hate?

There’s a boy
tucks a note into the pocket
of a coat he’s sending a stranger, saying
“Have a good winter. Please write back.”

A branch breaks, a lamp flickers,
the dog digs at a flash of something
paler than snow. A boy uncrinkles a note.
What happens next?



In the zoo’s amphibious tanks’ blueglow curved
half hidden things dark dim dark dim

Kierkegaard said that we are two
selves divided, one divine, one sullied
by its reflection in the group;

I look up no one I recognize I am
eight years old and my group has disappeared

to try to see the self in others
is despair, but despair is the beginning
of the shadowed path toward God.

Run to the open doors run through the bucking storm
where’s my group I cry no one no self to find myself

And who are we without each other,
sweat smelling, shuffling,
God so far away and flickering?
dark dim dark dim dark


Wasp Nest   
after Vallejo

Professor of nesting, teach us to adhere,
to mongrel, to creep in purpose, to suspend
with aplomb and be the center of desirous flying,
the center of love.

Rector of eaves, teach us to look down backwards
at the angry citizens always wanting entry, to refuse
the attentions of sky by hiding well
and shouldering the cloak of architecture.

Technician of wonder, teach us to travel by mud,
to house in humility, hum
without sound. We make you from our bodies
but you are more than we will ever be.
You build us to build you to build us to build you
in buildings you may outlast.

Professor of such little beauty.
Rector of refusal.
Technician of this short time.

—Marilyn McCabe


Marilyn McCabe’s book of poetry Perpetual Motion was chosen by judge Gray Jacobik to be published as part of the Hilary Tham Capital Collection by The Word Works in 2012, and her chapbook Rugged Means of Grace was published by Finishing Line Press, 2011. She is a regular contributor of poetry book reviews for Connotation Press, and her poetry has appeared in print and online in such magazines as Nimrod, Painted Bride Quarterly, Numéro Cinq, and the Cortland Review.

Apr 022012

Bill Gaston

Herewith a hilariously good story (the hilarity darkly edged with care) about bad writing (the 57-year-old manager of a hockey rink trying to write the perfect bad sentence for a fictional version of the real annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest) from Bill Gaston who has, yes, contributed already to Numéro Cinq and has laboured mightly in the fields of fiction yea these many years–during the ten years I edited the annual Best Canadian Stories, I included Bill Gaston stories three times. Bill is a prolific author of novels, plays, stories and nonfiction. His seventh novel, The World, will come out this fall with Hamish Hamilton. He writes about the human comedy with gentle irony, grace, poignance, and an earthy sense of humour.



His sister’s phone call interrupted him composing his next bad sentence:

               Her thighs pulled apart with the sound of

Raymond let Elizabeth talk. When she was done he dropped his phone from a height and with a noise that made him check for broken plastic. He couldn’t take it anymore. Leaning back in his chair he balanced on the two rear legs and on the verge of toppling, a position he found comfortable. He had learned not to hear the muffled booming of pucks in the six rinks outside his office’s glass door, but he heard them now. Moaning low and long, he built it nearly to a shout. As always, he was damned if he said something and damned if he didn’t. After a week’s research, his sister, who was only 53, was convinced not only of having Alzheimer’s, but a particularly swift kind that attacked the young. His sincerely-intentioned comment–that if she had Alzheimer’s she couldn’t have done such excellent research on Alzheimer’s–caused her to announce, “You just abandoned me,” and hang up.

He didn’t know what to do. It hurt to think about. Because he loved her, he supposed.

Raymond let his chair fall forward. He picked up his pencil. She’d be crying now. The one up side to these more explosive conversations was that she likely wouldn’t call him for a week. Unless…she forgot. No, he mustn’t make light of this. She did display more memory loss of late, more than just the name-forgetting kind, and both their parents had gone daffy before they died. Her condition was probably real, but her panic was unbearable. Today asking him, all a-fever, if she should check her iron levels again, because they can point to arterial blockage and oxygen depletion in—her voice was shaking and what’s he supposed to say?

Raymond never panicked. It dismayed him that his older sister could be so different in this way. They were only two years apart. They had the same curly ginger hair, the same swelling cheekbones with unfortunate small eyes. They were both high-strung and made impractical life decisions. Their tastes were so similar that it didn’t surprise him, for instance, to learn Elizabeth disliked Chilean wine and had taken to Spanish and that her reasons were exactly his.

Shaking his head minutely, in the kind of spasm that did mean to abandon his sister for a week, Raymond leaned over his foolscap to read his latest. This was the best time of year, these spring weeks leading up to the deadline. He finished reading it, hesitating on a breath to pencil-tap it with approval. Fixing a few circled bits as he went, he committed this to his computer screen:

Her thighs pulling apart with the sound of a low-grade adhesive, Jungle Jones eyed his next conquest, tried and failed again to grunt like one of his idols, a Silverback, rose to his feet and leapt to the liana vine, from which he fell because he was tired, from all the conquesting.

It wasn’t his best but it was a keeper he’d enter in the Romance category, under one of his pseudonyms. Marvin Gets. Westley Winns. Thomas Smother. It was Thomas Smother who won a Dishonorable Mention two years ago in the Detective category. Raymond had that one committed to memory:

As they lay waiting in the alley, involuntarily spooning, for the thugs to run past, his overcoat could not cushion him from the press of her Luger, which made his own gun feel like nothing but a Mauser in his belt—because that’s all he had, a lousy Mauser—so he was glad his back was to her. 

He could recall the spreading glow in his stomach when notified. He remembered how surprised he’d been that this one had won, it was nowhere near the best of the thirty or so he’d submitted that year–and the contest itself dissuaded the use of the dash.

He copied his sentence to the body of a new email and popped Send, nostalgic for the days it was done by letter. One entry per envelope. Stamps did get expensive but everything about good old mail—the labour of addressing, the folding of paper and taste of glue, the frisky walk in all kinds of weather to the mail box, not to mention the primal sliding a letter through a spring-loaded slot—suited the contest’s archaic soul. Apparently there was a torrent of complaints when it changed.

This year Raymond’s goal was one hundred entries. He was at fifty-seven. He no longer cared much if he won. The goal was the path.


As on-site manager of ArenaSix, Raymond was content enough with his job, it being understood that work was work and one would rather be elsewhere. He kept the ice surfaces near to booked and between sessions resurfaced, the two Zambonis in repair, the monthly schedules publicized, the bar/restaurant staffed with nubiles (as Nabokov had called them), and the hockey parents away from the throats of the parents of figure skaters (though the skaters’ parents, especially mothers, tended as a species to be the fiercest, and blind to compromise). And though his job also oversaw the losing battle to keep beer out of the changing rooms during men’s late-night hockey, it was, as jobs went, not torture.

Though on occasion he had to fire someone. This morning it was Mr Fernandez, one of his two maintenance men. Through his damnable glass door Raymond had been eyeing Mr Fernandez perched out there on the bench, waiting in the cold. No-one should have to wait in the cold on a bench like that one, wooden and skate-mauled, let alone someone about to be fired. Raymond was further disappointed that the man hadn’t had the good graces to come alone. As always, he’d brought Paytro (likely the name was Pedro, but it always sounded just like “Paytro”), as if he didn’t know his son was the heart of the problem. Paytro had Down Syndrome, was perhaps in his adolescence, and he never stopped fidgeting, especially a grand rolling of one hand around the axis of his wrist. The boy held his twirling hand out from his body in a way that suggested ritual, and because each roll made the faintest click, Raymond knew it nauseated the patrons of this place just as it nauseated him. Despite two warnings, Mr Fernandez insisted, intermittently at first and then always, on bringing Paytro with him to work.

Raymond re-read the sentence on his screen. He popped it black.

He stood, stretched, then opened the door to Mr Fernandez, who, predictably, ushered wrist-rolling Paytro in first.

The whole affair was predictably uncomfortable. Mr Fernandez nodded when asked if he knew why he was being called in, and then he demanded that Raymond explain things to his son.

“I would like to hear you say to Paytro why we are not wanted any more,” is how the glowering maintenance man put it.

Why explain what Fernandez already knew, that the problem was the “we”? Fernandez had proved an excellent painter, cleaner and, most of all, fixer. In the shop he’d used a grinding machine to shape a piece of scrap metal that somehow fixed the number two Zamboni. The problem was solely the “we.” Paytro was never not with him. More and more, Fernandez gave him jobs to do. Sometimes, the father simply stood watching the son sweep or rake or polish.

“Your son gets in the way of you doing the job you were hired to—”

“Say this to Paytro. Look at him when you say it.”

Now Fernandez was only being cruel. Fine.

“Paytro, I’ve asked your father to come to work alone, and he refuses. I’ve asked him formally, twice. We call them warnings. He ignores—”

“Tell Paytro why you want me to work alone.”

“Fine.” Raymond swung his gaze back to the son. The boy watched him back. He was hard to read. It was hard to know what he understood. “Your father is a good worker, a highly skilled worker, and that is what we pay—”

It came out shouted, sloppy, but with equal emphasis on each word: “I’m a good worker too.”

“Yes, but—”

He’s teaching me.”

What struck Raymond most was the boy’s utter lack of accent, seeing that his father’s was so thick. Paytro had hidden his twirl-hand in his windbreaker and it humped around in there, shushing the nylon. Raymond recalled times he’d spied on Fernandez as he supervised Paytro scrubbing solvent on puck marks or, outside, sweeping the leaf-blower in scythe-like arcs. Fernandez would interrupt and take over his son’s slow job, demonstrating proper pace, then hand back the gear. Raymond suspected that the father-son team was productive enough to justify Fernandez’s salary. It was that he’d been told to come alone and he’d blatantly ignored the order. A boss could not just ignore being ignored. In a hierarchy, insurrection demanded—no, created–consequences. It was nothing but natural, and Raymond must let nature take its course.

He spoke clearly and met Paytro’s eye.

“You are a good worker. I am glad he is teaching you. But, as manager, I have to end your father’s employment here. The reason? I told him to come to work alone, and he didn’t obey me. I told him twice. Then I told him three times.”

Looking at Fernandez, he once again explained that insurance didn’t cover his son who, if hurt, could sue both of them. Surprising himself, Raymond added that, once fired, Fernandez could apply again for his job. Finally, he said he could supply him a good reference letter if he wanted, but Fernandez was already shaking his head in automatic disbelief and leaving, guiding Paytro out the door ahead of him.

But first Fernandez stopped, turned to face Raymond, ponderously held his eye to say, in his heavy accent, “Look at youself,” then left.

Raymond respected Fernandez enough to do this, so he sat down. The instructive silence grew louder with the man gone. He sat with this task for several minutes, then flipped open his laptop. It was likely the start of an entry for Romance:

“An unexamined life,” she said, naked of irony as well as clothing,


He saved it and closed his machine. Raymond had learned that when he memorized an opening fragment and then went about his day, some part of his brain kept working behind the scenes and came up with good bad ideas.

Down an employee, he had to scrape and flood three ice surfaces himself. It was a chore he found more meditative than anything else, though skaters did complain, especially the old-timer hockey players who, though hardly speedsters anymore, demanded the most pristine surface, like they were fairies of the pond, not chuggers. But he couldn’t quite find the knack, or settings, and he left grooves. He wished he could have accelerated hiring a new man, but you couldn’t very well advertise before firing, could you?

          “An unexamined life,” she said, naked of irony as well as clothing,

Riding high on the Zamboni, he let phrases simmer as he drove an oddly rectangular oval, old mauled snow disappearing under the front bumper while a strip of shining water followed. He tried to work up more:

as they rode together on the Zamboni, its engine beneath their bare, cold bottoms droning deeply but blindly, like a massive phallus asleep but prowling in its dream

Bad-on-purpose was anything but easy. It had to be knowing. It had to be subtle in its build to looniness. (He mentally crossed out the massive-phallus-asleep line, which was somehow both too cheap and too poetic.) Its clauses had to invert and sometimes buckle and then flow horribly on. Its clichés had to be the right ones. Puns were discouraged unless they stretched pun-logic to snapping. The best entries tended to rise in limp-frenzy and end not on a punchline but a downbeat, like tobacco spittle after a hillbilly whoop–which was how it might indeed be described in Bulwer-Lytton language. It was a near-impossible contest to win, with its thousands upon thousands of entries. This despite no cash reward at all. Detective, Western, SciFi, Romance, Historical, Fantasy—all categories had their aficionados, their style-mavens. Sometimes Raymond knew the entrants before reading their names.

Cruising rink number three he came upon another bit. After parking and shutting down (he simply left the snow to sit and melt in the Zamboni’s back bin instead of dumping it outside; Bernie was on in an hour and he’d do that chore, grumbling and swearing), he hurried back upstairs to type:

“An unexamined life,” she said, naked of both irony and clothing, as they rode atop the Zamboni, its engine beneath their bare, cold bottoms droning deeply but blindly in its work, which when you thought of it was nothing but eating snow at the front and spewing water out the back, “is

Is what. Nothing more came. He opened a new file. He was hungry, and it was almost time to go, but he had a palpable sense of time running out. It was getting down to the wire. He stood hovering over the keyboard, shifting foot to foot on his office’s weird rubber floor, stepping in and out of two pools of water under his shoes. It wasn’t just taking a good idea one bad step too far. It was rhythm, too, it was building a good sentence with a tin-ear clunk to sabotage it.

After ten minutes he had this:

Her heart’s desire ran in two directions, the main one leading to her husband, the other to Jungle Jones, but her lust ran in even more directions, so many that the word “direction” lost all meaning, like when you said it over and over, say, a hundred or, in her case, four hundred and sixty-three times.


Raymond had no idea who the hell Jungle Jones was, what he looked like, or what readers—if there were any–made of the name. It just sounded right. It was funny in that slightly gut-churning way.

He pressed Send. Submitting entries he knew wouldn’t win felt a bit like throwing letters at a closed mailbox. Or—like pissing at a tree protected by glass! He typed is like pissing on a tree protected behind glass to the end of An unexamined life. He read it a couple of times. Then deleted it. It was too abstract, however astute it might be philosophically.

He was closing his laptop, anticipating his nicer screen at home, when the phone rang. Elizabeth’s bouts of solitary depression did usually last a while, plus she did tend to respect his request not to call him at work, so he was surprised it was her a second time this afternoon. Her tone of saying hello told him she was beyond instructing, so he kept censure from his voice when he told her how nice it was to hear from her again today. She ignored him, interrupted him in fact, and what she said sat him up straight.

“Raymond. I want to kill myself, sooner rather than later, and I want your help.”

“My help, to…”

“To do it, yes.”

He could picture the musty brown couch she was probably sitting on, its fabric one that reminded him of haunted theatres, and it made him sadder than her words had. He asked her to repeat herself, and she did so, word for word, including his name with the period after it, as if to make sure he knew he could not escape.

After the call, Raymond sat for a while. He neither moved nor intended to. Pucks boomed meaningless pronouncements outside his door. He promised himself he would not feel guilt when he opened his laptop. When he did, he typed this:

Jungle Jane wasn’t given to cheap sentiment, but she wondered, fingering the noose around her neck, test-rocking the rickety chair beneath her feet, thinking disturbedly of the empty pill bottles scattered like Hansel’s bread crusts along the sidewalk all the way to her house, if he would still respect her tomorrow.


With the deadline creeping ever closer, over the next weeks Raymond finished thirty-nine more sentences, taking him to ninety-six. Five he considered exceptional, with a solid chance at a prize or a mention. He’d been coming to work distracted. He wrestled awkward phrases in his dreams and a good dangling modifier could wake him. One Saturday night he stayed up till dawn and one weeknight he slept in and was an hour late for work, two things that had never happened before. He stopped taking Elizabeth’s calls and she did try to kill herself, half-heartedly and without his help, displaying both her indecision and impatience in this as in all things. Since taking up residence in the psych ward she seemed more stoically content than she had in years. She was proud to have improved at Sudoku and she thought her memory disease was getting better but Raymond could tell it wasn’t and suspected it was just the structured regimen of hospital life, though of course he said nothing. He lost half of the pinky finger of his left hand while trying to adjust the height ratchet of the scraper under the number two Zamboni, and now it hurt like the devil to type, but almost a ghost pain, because his pinky never had touched keys in the first place and it certainly didn’t now. Several times he saw Paytro out on the main street near the arena complex, quite alone, walking steadily as if pulled by the propeller of his rotating hand. Mr Fernandez didn’t reapply for his job, though Raymond continued to wish he had, because MacLean, the new fellow he’d hired, scared him with a latent insubordination so severe he thought it could some day become violent. Maybe it was MacLean’s prison tattoos on the knuckles of his hand, “JESUS” or not, the “J” almost unrecognizable there on the thumb. The man made good ice, but could barely bring himself to nod when Raymond wished him good morning or have a nice weekend. So Raymond stopped saying these things.

And, God knows why but tonight, the night of the deadline and with four more entries to make one hundred, he went on the date he’d found excuses to put off for months and months. It was his first date in easily a dozen years, more like fifteen and perhaps closer to twenty. It had also been that long since he’d had sex. It was in the back of his mind that, Yes, he was probably giving it one last chance. Not just romance, but everything, anything. Her name was Leslie and she lived on the same floor; theirs had been an elevator relationship since she moved in. She was shy to the point of being monosyllabic. He suspected correctly that it would make her even more nervous, but because he never went out himself he took her to an absurdly high-end seafood place that had recently opened, called only small “s,” a simple unlit woodblock affixed to the cement wall. (Apparently the famous chef’s previous restaurant had been called only “sea.”) He could tell one part of her wanted to make some kind of racy joke out of ordering the raw oysters appetizer but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead she ate them non-theatrically and as if embarrassed. He picked one up with his injured hand, the bandage only recently off, knowing it would look ugly, and he positioned it near his ear and knit his brow for a few seconds, them simply put it back into its open shell, on its bed of ice. In a kind of answer to her own non-delivered joke, he had decided not to say, “Listening for pearls,” and instead made a promise with himself that if she was sensitive enough to know exactly what he’d just done, and what his joke had been, he would ask her to marry him. But she pretended not to have seen him do it. The food was very good, in some sense desperately good, and they spoke respectfully about each different dish, and how good the merlot was. That and careful politics, from which he could gather that she was the more liberal. He knew he could have sex if he wanted, but he didn’t. Nor did he want to analyze why.

After he stumbled over her name while saying goodnight to her outside their elevator like always, he got home, turned on his computer and read items from his favorite news sources. Headlines abounded concerning what some were calling “the most perfect storm,” wherein reports of final, irrefutable proof that ocean levels would indeed rise, combined with several countries colluding to default on their debt, appeared to be nudging global markets past anarchy toward total collapse. Next, he read local weather forecasts. Any dramatic change in temperatures meant he needed to adjust settings at work, for ice conditions. The next week appeared stable.

Raymond opened his files, found the sentence and typed:

“An unexamined life,” she said, cold naked ironic bum blah blah blah, “is like keeping your wings tucked, is like staying in the nest, is like staying in the egg, is like never being born.”

Thus completing that problem sentence. Which, for reasons too obvious to think about, he didn’t send.

Midnight was the deadline. He did reach ninety-nine, typing three more in a final flurry, sitting there at his laptop, sweating, good clothes still on and pinching at the throat and crotch, sentences that had been percolating throughout dinner. These he wrote without strategizing much, sentences a habit and certainly a pattern now, and after fixing a punctuation error he considered them finished. He simply pressed Send, three final times. He deemed them neither good nor bad, because you couldn’t tell anymore, you truly couldn’t. Especially in recent years, when even irony was used ironically, when bland-on-purpose square-danced with cool. Not that these were that.

In the restaurant so fancy it had no name at all, never blinking at him once she slowly slurped several slippery bivalves in an attempt to seduce him, which eventually would have worked, had she not had to pay a visit to the little girls’ room, where she sauntered to, to vomit. 

“Well if it’s grizzly bears you’re after,” Jungle Jane lisped at him from the dank, musky cavity of her cabin window, batting her one eyelash as she did, because one of her eyes lacked a lid, having been sliced off sometime during the squirrel-roast, “why don’t you just head round to my backyard and shoot one?”

It was the final climatic enormity whose name no one dared breathe, the news of which struck terror in the hearts of all men, and animals too, and sometimes even fish, who, though they generally lived under water, and lacked ears, could pick up on the hubbub and general nervousness of all the humans and animals stomping around in terror up there, especially on the beach.

—Bill Gaston


Bill Gaston’s seventh novel, The World, appears this fall. Previous novels include The Good Body, The Order of Good Cheer, and Sointula, which earned a “Discover Great New Writers” bump from Barnes and Noble. Recent collections are Gargoyles, and Mount Appetite. He lives on Vancouver Island.