Sep 012014


In the slider at the top of the page this month — a selection of work by Sydney Lea. Syd has been a Contributing Editor on Numéro Cinq for nigh on three, maybe four years. I am too old to keep count. He has written essays, poems, reviews, and scripts for cartoons and shepherded other wonderful writers to these pages, notably Fleda Brown and Diana Whitney, not to mention the cartoonist James Kochalka. We have toured together, taught together and I’ve interviewed him (you know, when I had that legendary radio show), and he’s a friend. His contribution to the magazine in terms of work is tremendous but it does not equal what he has given us in terms of spirit and friendship.

His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (some of the essays appeared first on NC), has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock) and A Hundred Himalayas (U. of Michigan), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

He is also the best shot on the masthead.


Aug 302014

Heaney painting

As Heaney says, echoing Auden and Yeats: though poetry is “unlimited” in its capacity for “pure concentration,” “no lyric has ever stopped a tank.”  Nor, in “Exposure,” can “meagre sparks” outweigh the comet’s million tons of light. —Patrick J. Keane

Today is the first anniversary of Seamus Heaney’s death, a time to remember him. From the Numéro Cinq Archives. Read the entire essay at “Second Thoughts” in Seamus Heaney’s North: From “Antaeus” to “Hercules and Antaeus” to “Exposure” — Patrick J. Keane » Numéro Cinq.

Aug 292014


Here’s a review I wrote nearly 20 years ago, published in the Chicago Tribune at the time. Efforts at Truth deserves to be remembered and reread, as does its author. God loves the outliers and eccentrics, his hopeful monsters, too.


Efforts at Truth: an autobiography
By Nicholas Mosley
Dalkey Archive Press 1995

Nicholas Mosley is a rare beast — a reactionary revolutionist, what they call in Canada a Red Tory. He is an English lord, son of an infamous fascist anti-semite, a one-time Church of England apologist, and a writer for decades of highly regarded experimental novels in which he explores the ideas of consciousness and responsibility as a way of critiquing what he sees as the victim ethic of liberal modernity.

At first glance, he looks post-modern or avant garde, but he is not. He is just the opposite — pre-modern, if you will, the voice of an older tradition. Mosley is the champion of an heroic Christianity which reflates the Kierkegaardian ideas of paradox and the romance of risk. Not for him the Christian Coalition brand of weak religiosity with its emphasis on being saved — God’s version of Social Security.

Mosley places humans in the center of a mystery, with a duty to spend their lives paying attention, learning, experimenting — their reward being not safety but the chance of discerning a pattern. “To discover what is hidden,” he writes, “you have to go on a journey; what uproar, indeed, before you arrive at what is there!”

The author of thirteen novels and numerous works of non-fiction, family memoirs and screenplays, Mosley is best known in this country for his novel HOPEFUL MONSTERS which won the 1990 Whitbread Award in Britain and capped a brilliant sequence of books collectively called CATASTROPHE PRACTICE begun in the 1970s.

In CATASTROPHE PRACTICE, the same six characters weave through a series of stories dealing with contemporary issues of love, marriage and the upheavals of history. The books are difficult and unfashionably didactic — demonstrations of the paradoxical questing Mosley posits at the center of existence. But they are also immensely interesting, dense with a sardonic self-honesty, humane and accepting.

Now Mosley has written EFFORTS AT TRUTH, a magnificently idiosyncratic autobiography, in which, with characteristic tenacity, intelligence and decency, he tries to picture the patterns that have informed his own life and work.

Sir Oswald Mosley, the author’s father, was the dashing, charismatic, philandering leader of the Black Shirts, British Fascist sympathizers during World War II. Faced with the paradox of loving his father and hating his ideas, Mosley quickly learned to walk a tightrope between admiration and criticism. While his father languished in a British prison, Nicholas Mosley was in the army fighting Hitler. And amidst the fighting, he found time to exchange loving, deeply intelligent letters with his father.

This ability to hold contradictions suspended in thought, to walk psychic tightropes (Keat’s called it Negative Capability), with minefields on either side, is one-half of the Nicholas Mosley equation.

The other half has to do with the Bible, the Church of England and old-fashioned goodness. Mosley’s dissatisfaction with the traditional novel form stems from a commitment to a literal Christianity, the kind that explores earnestly what is meant by goodness, God and grace in worldly and up-to-date terms. Mosley is no born-again tub-thumper — he is the sort of Christian writer who can write, in his inimitably droll fashion, “For the experience of making patterns the word ‘God’ is useful, but not imperative.”

According to Mosley, modern novels portray characters as victims, with no room for assigning or accepting responsibility for actions. “The literary world seemed to have been taken over by a vast army of contemporary fashion in which freedom was denied and ideas of dignity and redemption mocked.” He set out to write books which, in his words, related the inner (thought) to the outer (actions).

This was no easy task. A new form had to be invented. Mosley’s prose style has a functional awkwardness built in (Mosley himself has always stuttered — he speculates upon the relationship between trying to see the world clearly and his inability to speak). He mixes together letters from lovers, wives and friends, excerpts from his essays and biographies, and passages that are formal pastiches from his novels.

One of Mosley’s favorite devices is the rhetorical question, which gives the narrative a questing quality, an open-endedness. Frequently, his syntax stretches for a kind hypothetical uncertainty — “And at the center of the paradox, should it not indeed be something about sponteneity that is learned?” Sentences like this read strangely at first, till the reader begins to see them as tied perfectly to the author’s project: the careful dissection of thought and action in an effort to reveal some central pattern whose nature may be inexpressible in ordinary expository terms.

Mosley’s rhetoric, like that of Jacques Derrida or Ludwig Wittgenstein, has the quality of seeming to teeter at the very edge of language. Those questions, the sudden twists of self-doubt, the leaps of understanding, the conditional hypotheses — have the effect of drawing the reader’s attention to something that is not quite being said or understood.

EFFORTS AT TRUTH weaves back and forth between Mosley’s life and the life of his books, showing how the one influenced the other. The discovery that, in his earlier books, he has repeated the self-sacrificial hero motif, leads him to shake off a post-combat depression and locate an unexamined yen for the Church of England. (What, after all, is Jesus but a self-sacrificial hero?)

He befriends a monk, suspends his novel-writing and takes over an Anglican magazine called PRISM from which pulpit he blasts the church for moral complacency. This wild turn into Anglicanism happens just as the Angry Young Men, writers like John Osbourne and Kingsly Amis, are storming the bastions of English letters and is an example of Mosley’s sturdy inability to stay with the crowd. Modishness is a vice to which he seems singularly, and sometimes comically, immune.

Meanwhile, Mosley has married, had children, and become willful philandering skunk like his father. At one point, father and son meet accidentally while chasing women in the same London dive. But Mosley’s monk-friend takes him aside and gently suggests there is something wrong in his family dynamic, especially in regard to children.

Till then Mosely has taken forgranted the upper class English notion that children should be raised by someone else. Author and wife energetically fire their nanny and begin to teach themselves how to take care of children, how to love them. Later on, he even figures out about the philandering mess — but not before his willfulness has ruined his first marriage.

Mosley has a fling with screen-writing when two of his novels sell to the movies. He suffers a terrible car accident from which it takes him a year to recover. He goes into analysis and marries a fellow analysand, both of them embarking on this venture in the charmingly naive belief that they have achieved wisdom enough to assure a problem-free marriage. “Here were Verity and I intending to be model spouses and parents in some psychoanalytically re-cycled Garden of Eden. Oh dear!”

Mosley is unsparing of himself, exploring his own smokescreens and cruelties, detailing the awful consequences of his infidelities. One woman has a nervous breakdown, another an abortion. In a letter, his first wife writes: “We are beastly when we are together, but I like you when you’re away very much.” One gets the impression of a creative volcano, an immensely intelligent and self-willed personality, guaranteed to give a rough ride to whoever comes within reach.

EFFORTS AT TRUTH does not set out to be a popular autobiography. There is no name-dropping, little inter-twining of current events (surprising for an author who, in HOPEFUL LOSERS, wrote a masterful historical novel). Mosley sticks with his work and his family, knowing that within this narrow ambit most of the great mysteries of life are played out.

All this is told with infectious brio. Despite the in-built difficulty of the argument, EFFORTS AT TRUTH radiates a cheerfulness, a curiosity about life that is fundamentally healthy and humane. Mosely marks his sins but does not compound them by wallowing in guilt; he does not present himself as a victim of his own faults.

EFFORTS AT TRUTH is an antidote for those who feel the current debates between the right and the left, the Moral Majority and the advocates of a social safety net, have bogged down in stale rhetoric and endlessly circling arguments. It is a brilliant work of literary artistry and an act of faith — a message of mysterious complexity that goes straight to the heart of existence.

—Douglas Glover


Aug 292014

Mike Barnes

In a hut at the tip of Sognefjord, a room with bunk beds. Playing cards at a table with three other travellers, a man and two women. At dawn the mail boat will take us up the fjord to the sea. My friends have headed south, to Paris. I am to meet them there in a week. They were reluctant to let me go, after Oslo. I’m all right now, better, I need to get my confidence back, etc. Really it was the instinct to crawl away. I don’t want witnesses for what will happen next. —from Ideas of Reference

From the Numéro Cinq Archives. Read the complete text at Ideas of Reference: Novella — Mike Barnes » Numéro Cinq.

Aug 282014

William S. Burroughs

Old Man Burroughs didn’t say a word directly to me until he’d laid out his case to my parents. He then looked directly into me. “You should know,” he said, “that I’m quite proficient with a handgun.”

From the NC Archives, 2010, our first year of publication. Read the rest of the essay at Burroughs & Son: Memoir — John Proctor » Numéro Cinq.

Aug 272014

7-Who Me- Pornithology seriesBy artist Michael Oatman from his Pornithology series.


Fernando SdrigottiFernando Sdrigotti

Breathless. I dunno. Another issue. Where do they come from? Have I mentioned before that we do in a month what most magazines do in a quarter, in six months. Reviews, art, fiction, poetry, essays, translations, writers from around the world. And you get it for free! Stop me before I hyperventilate, before I start to foam at the mouth, before my eyes roll up….well, just stop me.

Amazing issue this month topped by a tremendously wise and poignant essay by the London-based Argentinian expatriate Fernando Sdrigotti who meditates upon the new world of shifting identity. We are all playing musical countries these days; essentialism is out the window; and we have to learn to read ourselves and the world afresh every time the sun comes up.

“When I moved to London, ejected from my country by an economic crisis (and not by a dictatorship), an entire literature to which I had previously related became nonsensical. Until then I had a very clear impression of who I was and how to read myself—or so I thought. My biography was clear: Argentinean, middle-class, of European descent like many of my fellow-countrymen, one more book among others, easy to read. Changing my surroundings to an alien place involved a process of becoming unfamiliar, of becoming illegible to myself and others.” —Fernando Sdrigotti


This month the spotlight is on legibility, language and speed, as in “Speed is Witchy!” a provocative essay by the great Austrian novelist Robert Musil, translated by Genese Grill and published here in English for the first time. There are two new Musil essays in fact.

“Language no longer ambles along like it did in the days of our ancestors.” —Robert Musil

TreePad LiteMavis Gallant & Karen Mulhallen

And then, and then! (Remember to breathe.) We have a special gift for our readers, a three-part riff on the late great short story writer Mavis Gallant who started out in Montreal but spent most of her life in Paris and wrote, naturally, for The New Yorker, became, in fact, the quintessential New Yorker writer. We have two never-before-published interviews, one with Gallant herself and one with Richard Landon, the venerable Toronto librarian and archivist who worked extensively with Gallant after she donated her papers to the University of Toronto, both interviews conducted by the poet-scholar-magazine editor Karen Mulhallen. This is an amazing coup for the magazine, a snapshot of a great writer at the peak of her career.

Also a sweet little memoir of lunch with Gallant in Paris by the indefatigable Robert  Day as part of his on-again, off-again Close Encounters of a Literary Kind series.

Michael OatmanMichael Oatman

THEN! Spectacular art by Michael Oatman.

DSCF0087 Leon Rooke, 2014 bwLeon Rooke

AND! A brand new story by the spectacularly speedy Leon Rooke, a writer who takes age as license to turn on the afterburners. The photo of Leon was donated to NC by the great First Nations writer Tom King (bonus).

Cuba Feb 2012 052Glenn Sorestad in Cuba

Also poems by the Canadian prairie poet (on visiting Cuba! yes, one of the best author photos on NC in ages) Glenn Sorestad.

AuthorJowita2014Jowita Bydlowska

Also more fiction. A grim, telegraphic (as in stripped down and fast), intensely intimate married couple story, excerpted from a novel by Jowita Bydlowska, the Polish-born Canadian writer, author of last year’s brilliant, scandalous success Drunk Mom.

And, yes, of course, September is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Marne (many readers wrote to tell me). And to mark the occasion we have a piece of fiction by Garry Craig Powell, “The Apotheosis of Cathedrals,” narrated by Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet, playboy, war hero, who  was there.

josephine-jacobsen-448Josephine Jacobsen

More. There’s more. Julie Larios brilliantly reminds us of the charms of the poet Josephine Jacobsen who wrote such things as this:

One, then the other, says what it has to say,
pours its treble tricks clearer
into clear air, goes; one, and the other.
In the palms’ dishevelment, the random day,
over the green hot grass, fellow to fellow:
the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.


NC newcomer Lucy M. May contributes a startling essay (with photos) on dance, but not the kind of dance you’re used to. This is Oulipian dance, dance as still photography, dance without motion,  frozen dance.

sarah micSarah Clancy

And Gerry Beirne does Irish slam poetry a turn with a piece on Sarah Clancy, with words and sound files so you get the complete experience.

WInterbach by Leanne StanderIngrid Winterbach

Also, finally, but perhaps not finally, you never know with NC, work keeps coming, some I can’t wait to publish, it just happens (did I mention breathless?) — Ben Woodard reviews South African novelist Ingrid Winterbach’s The Elusive Moth and R. W. Gray contributes another NC at the Movies (though I don’t know what it is yet, seat-of-the-pants operation that we are — you can bet it will be edgy, beautiful, surprising and, probably, weird).

Just a word: We have a lot of new readers and sometimes they are mystified by the NC roll-out. We are not like other magazines. Aside from having monthly issues, we eschew the old print model. Each issue contains 16-18 items. And we publish one item each day through the first 16-18 days of the month. We don’t dump the whole issue in one day because we’ve found that after a brief feeding frenzy readers tend not to look past the last one or two items. Great bits of writing and art get lost in the shuffle. So we publish one piece per day. Every piece gets its day in the sun, full-on, top of the page.

Not only that (because we take care of our writers and artists at NC), we have a beautifully logical and accessible archive system. Each published piece stays on the FRONT PAGE for three months (see the Recent Issues) section. Then the issues go into the archives. All our issues can be accessed as issues (divided into volumes—years) in the Back Issues section of the magazine. Plus each piece is placed in the appropriate genre Contents page (which you can access by the navigation buttons down the right hand side of the page).

Nothing ever disappears at NC. At the most, it’ll take you four-five mouse clicks to find even our earliest publications.



Aug 262014

“After serving tea (Valerie Eliot told us) she had gently led Pound, now 83 and feeble, to a table she’d prepared near a window. On the table lay THE MANUSCRIPT. Mrs. Eliot rejoined Olga Rudge, and the women retreated to a neutral corner, leaving Pound alone with pages he had not laid eyes on since 1922. Looking at them, the old man must have been overwhelmed by memories of that time, and of what had followed….”

From the NC Archives. Click here to read the whole amazing essay.

Aug 252014

“The bird lists away; it steers a faltering course before wind halts its progress altogether. It hangs motionless there, fighting the wind. Why will the creature not turn, let the current sweep it away? Matters are not as they should be. Must every breath be an ordeal? The bird’s wings close, wind releases its grip, the bird plummets. This it recognizes, this it knows. It has been here before: this is mere acrobatics, a question of instinct, something in the bones. Time to soar. But all at once the bird is swooping past him. It flits back into the familiar black hole.”

From the Numéro Cinq Archives. Read the story at  Son of Light: Short Story — Leon Rooke.

Aug 242014


“…every poem is a failed translation.”

From the NC Archives: Translations from the Odes of Horace, from Issue 9, our first year of publication. Click here to read Steven Heighton’s introduction and the poems.



Aug 242014

“Up there we drive green channels riven in the clouds, ride stormscud and kerosene colours in the sky, then we ease our wavering selves down, down to this outer borough, down to rumpled family rooms and black yawning garages, down to the spanking new suburb unboxed in the onion fields.”

From the NC Archives. Click here to read the rest of the story.



Aug 232014

Adam Westra


“…the idea that other people to some extent live on inside us (that we are able, to a certain extent, to reproduce foreign “strange loops” in our brains) can come off as merely bizarre in the imaginary “Twinwirld”, but suddenly becomes, not just more plausible, but deeply insightful, even poetic, in Hofstadter’s passionate and earnest wrestling with the sudden loss of his wife Carol.”

From the NC Archives. Good grief, there is so much good stuff in the Back Issues. Have you looked lately? Click here and read the rest.


Aug 232014

Translator, David Helwig


“I kissed her for the last time, shook her hand, and we separated—forever. The train was already moving. I sat in the neighbouring compartment—it was empty—and until the first village I sat there and cried.”

From the NC Archives, 2010. Chekhov’s “About Love” in a brand new translation. Click here and read the story.


Aug 162014


Photo: Luke Macgregor / Reuters

Over at BuzzFeed Books, I talked to 18 story writers about their decisions to shift focus and write novels. Some of the folks on the list are NC favorites like Lydia Davis, Jess Row, and Ondjaki, but I also chatted up Charles Baxter, Roxane Gay, Stephen Graham Jones, Maya Lang, Vanessa Blakeslee, Courtney Maum, Lindsay Hunter, Rebecca Makkai, Laura van den Berg, Bret Anthony Johnston, Jennine Capó Crucet, Julia Elliot, Amelia Gray, Ted Thompson, and Kevin Wilson. Everyone brought something different to the table. No two authors had the same answers to my inquiries. In all, it was a pretty fascinating article to put together.

Here’s a snippet from my intro:

It happens all the time: A writer publishes a wonderful collection of short stories and then moves into the heady world of the novel. But why did he or she decide to go long? Was there pressure to take on a novel? Did the new story dictate a higher word count? Did the writer simply feel inspired to shift focus?

Read the rest over at BuzzFeed Books.

— Benjamin Woodard

Aug 132014

Sleepless in ___________, wherever. Instead of more productive pursuits (I can list 986 without breaking a sweat) I am watching old Robin Williams videos, remembering the energy he used to throw off, looking for it and not finding it much in his later work, stand up, interviews, movie clips. Even his first TV gig, Mork and Mindy, isn’t as good as I remember. Williams tamed, surrounded by energy-less pools of inert acting.

Then I found these videos wherein he is mostly by himself or with an audience (also one with Johnny Carson, fairly inert himself). In one, he looks at the audience and mimics someone saying, “What the heck is he doing now?” Then Williams says something like, “Too fast? Come on, catch up!” (You watch it. I probably didn’t get the words right, except for the “Catch up.”)

Not enough artists have the nerve to tell the audience to catch up. Would there were more.

Haunting how many suicide jokes he made in passing.


YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image





Aug 102014


Everyone, this is to let you know that I’m appearing at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, in Sechelt BC, August 17. Sechelt is on the spectacular west coast of BC, just up from Vancouver. If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop by. (Some of you in the Antipodes can catch rides on the NC company jet; also buses will be chartered from Major Cities in N America.)

I will read from my novel Lucky, winner of the Mother Tongue Search for the Great BC Novel Contest (also nominated for an Ethel Wilson Fiction Award). The novel is set in both the Middle East and Canada. The story follows Anika Lund, a war photographer, as she searches for the infamous terrorist, Zayid, igniting a series of terrifying events.

I’ll also discuss, elaborate and explain a range of writerly topics from research techniques to story structure, character development, and the inevitable question that everyone asks – was I there?

Also on the menu is Bill Gaston, a Numéro Cinq contributor and novelist reading from his latest work of fiction, The World, an Ethel Wilson Fiction Award winner.

Praise for Lucky includes this gem: “Kathryn Para’s astonishing novel — astonishing in its scope and depth, astonishing as a first novel — is the winner of Mother Tongue Publishing’s 2nd “Search for the Great BC Novel…Para’s depictions of the war scenes in Lucky are stunning, her understanding of the political forces at play, astute; these sections ring with a profound authenticity. Yet it’s the heartbreaking, personal account of Ani that is so enlightening…” M.A.C. Farrant, author of  The World Afloat and My Turquoise Years.

Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts—Sunday, August 17, 2:3o p.m.


Aug 092014


Extraordinary Carlos Schwabe illustrations for Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal.” See many more images posted at the sepia path. Read the poems in French and English translations here.


J’aime le souvenir de ces époques nues

J’aime le souvenir de ces époques nues,
Dont Phoebus se plaisait à dorer les statues.
Alors l’homme et la femme en leur agilité
Jouissaient sans mensonge et sans anxiété,
Et, le ciel amoureux leur caressant l’échine,
Exerçaient la santé de leur noble machine.
Cybèle alors, fertile en produits généreux,
Ne trouvait point ses fils un poids trop onéreux,
Mais, louve au coeur gonflé de tendresses communes
Abreuvait l’univers à ses tétines brunes.
L’homme, élégant, robuste et fort, avait le droit
D’être fier des beautés qui le nommaient leur roi;
Fruits purs de tout outrage et vierges de gerçures,
Dont la chair lisse et ferme appelait les morsures!

Le Poète aujourd’hui, quand il veut concevoir
Ces natives grandeurs, aux lieux où se font voir
La nudité de l’homme et celle de la femme,
Sent un froid ténébreux envelopper son âme
Devant ce noir tableau plein d’épouvantement.
Ô monstruosités pleurant leur vêtement!
Ô ridicules troncs! torses dignes des masques!
Ô pauvres corps tordus, maigres, ventrus ou flasques,
Que le dieu de l’Utile, implacable et serein,
Enfants, emmaillota dans ses langes d’airain!
Et vous, femmes, hélas! pâles comme des cierges,
Que ronge et que nourrit la débauche, et vous, vierges,
Du vice maternel traînant l’hérédité
Et toutes les hideurs de la fécondité!

Nous avons, il est vrai, nations corrompues,
Aux peuples anciens des beautés inconnues:
Des visages rongés par les chancres du coeur,
Et comme qui dirait des beautés de langueur;
Mais ces inventions de nos muses tardives
N’empêcheront jamais les races maladives
De rendre à la jeunesse un hommage profond,
— À la sainte jeunesse, à l’air simple, au doux front,
À l’oeil limpide et clair ainsi qu’une eau courante,
Et qui va répandant sur tout, insouciante
Comme l’azur du ciel, les oiseaux et les fleurs,
Ses parfums, ses chansons et ses douces chaleurs!

Charles Baudelaire




Aug 082014


Not to be too confusing, but this is a review of Butterfly Stories, written eons ago in the time before time (1993 to be precise) for Boston Globe Books. It came up in conversation just now, and I looked to see if I still had a copy. It was on a disc of old files in my safety deposit box. Go figure. I liked what I wrote. So here you go.


Butterfly Stories
A Novel
By William T. Vollmann
Grove/Atlantic Press
200 pp.; $22


William T. Vollmann is a certified literary phenomenon. In his early thirties, he already has seven books to his credit, including two installments of a multi-volume fictional history of the North American continent. His journalism appears in high profile glossies like Esquire magazine. The Review of Contemporary Fiction recently hailed him as a writer destined to “eventually achieve historical importance.” He even runs his own publishing house, specializing in limited art editions of his work selling for thousands of dollars.

Vollmann’s latest novel Butterfly Stories — not part of the projected continental magnum opus — harks back to the author’s earlier and continuing obsession with prostitution. In The Rainbow Stories (1989), for example, Vollmann wrote about hookers and hangers-on in San Francisco’s slums. The Review of Contemporary Fiction spread features photographs of the author with assorted prostitutes — in one the author has his hand up the skirt of a black prostitute identified as an AIDS victim. His self-published The Convict Bird sports a bookmark made with a lock of a prostitute’s hair.

This time Vollmann, or Vollmann’s fictional alter-ego — identified as “the journalist” — ranges through Thailand and Cambodia with a photographer accomplice, flitting like a butterfly from one prostitute to another, tubes of K-Y jelly in one hand and packages of (mostly unused) condoms in the other.

The journalist catches an amazing array of sexually transmitted diseases. He worries about Pol Pot and the terrible things some of his whore-lovers and their families have suffered. He falls in love with a Cambodian hooker named Vanna who vanishes. Then he returns to the United States so haunted by Vanna’s disappearance that he divorces his wife and devotes himself to tracking down the missing prostitute. He also discovers that he has won the STD lottery and is carrying the HIV virus.

Butterfly Stories is a startling amalgam of self-destructive behavior, seedy detail (so much as to raise the issue of puerility, though perhaps this is a reaction the author intends), arcane philosophizing, and over-ripe prose that works by virtue of its very strangeness. Butterfly Stories reads like a cross between Henry Miller, Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs and something written by a kid with a green mohawk, EAT MOMMY tattoos, and nails in his ears. Or it reads like one of those postmodern art installations — chaotic, temporary, challenging in its bad taste, and riddled with scattershot culture-bashing.

“The journalist never tried the photographer’s condoms,” writes Vollmann, “because he didn’t even use his own as much as (to be honest) he should have; but the photographer, who tried both, decided that the journalist had really made the right decision from a standpoint of friction and hence sensation; so that is the real moral of this story, and those who don’t want anything but morals need read no further.” [p.26]

This is interesting, this is new, this is weird. No doubt about it. This is the death of modernity with a vengeance. And what we are left with, Vollmann seems to say, is not Nietszche’s Superman or existentialism’s romantic loner but a kind of Judeo-Christian moral sludge. This moral sludge, with its self-absorbed pop spirituality, neo-racism, platitudinous liberalism, and open acceptance of violence as a form of human interaction, is the dominant philosophical system in America today.

The argument of Butterfly Stories is rigorously logical. Pol Pot persecutes prostitutes (Vanna wears the scars of her persecution on her back). America persecutes prostitutes. Therefore, America and Pol Pot are identically tyrannical, fascist, and genocidal. This simple syllogism turns all our cultural assumptions upside-down, and wanting to catch AIDS from a Thai prostitute named Oy or Toy becomes an acceptable ethical choice. The homely little HIV virus becomes the Holy Grail of an inverted universe of values. (It is important to note that these prostitutes are not real characters. Nor is this book titillating or even informative about prostitution. Prostitutes are simply Vollmann’s shorthand metaphor for the mudsill, bottom-level victims of society.)

In this new universe, words like “love” begin a strange migration. Thai chambermaids say, “I wuff you.” Having sex with a sick partner without a condom is love. A prostitute allowing a john to kiss her on the mouth is love. Trying to get an erection, despite debilitating illness and lack of interest, so you won’t hurt a prostitute’s feelings is love. Buying a prostitute drink after drink so you won’t have to sleep with her and be unfaithful to another is love. And, conversely (since, in the world of moral sludge, consistency is a fascist value), being unfaithful, sleeping with another prostitute, though regretting it, is love.

Butterfly Stories ends up being a parody of the traditional romance novel in which the knight errant-journalist falls chastely in love (love is just wanting to hold a prostitute without having sex) with an unreachable, ideal woman who becomes the goal of his adventures. Vanna disappears only to become Western man’s traditional absent love object (the fantasy wife as opposed to the real wife at home doing the laundry). The fact that she may just be hiding out from a tiresome john is heavily ironic, even comic.

The joke, finally, is on the journalist-hero who wanders through Butterfly Stories sick and sick at heart, toiling in the coils of romantic calf-love, and spreading disease in the name of sexual adventure. He doesn’t even have a name. He is Graham Greene’s ugly American and he is Everyman. He is the new hero, the epitome of moral sludge, a walking, talking, self-incriminating critique of the Western world.

Vollmann goes farther than any American writer in expressing his national self-disgust. He consigns his readers to a region of despair where even the hope of hope is lost, where even the consolation of some fragmentary beauty is denied. Butterfly Stories is one long, intricate and disturbing epitaph on a dying civilization.

—Douglas Glover


Aug 062014


Good God! The mind reels. The last living witness of the Lincoln assassination brought on a TV game show (after falling down his hotel stairs) and for his trouble he gets a tin of pipe tobacco. Normally, he would have gotten a carton of Winstons (the show’s sponsor), but the dear man didn’t smoke cigarettes (probably how he got to be 96). The clash of myth, history and inane Americana is about as much as I can bear for one evening.

Yes, the dear, dear man. During the assassination and aftermath, he most worried about John Wilkes Booth whom he’d witnessed falling out of the theater box.

Now I’ll have to break out the Talisker, set up a feeding tube.

Watch the video below and remember you saw it here on NC.



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