Nice bit of news. Unexpected good news is always the best. A Pushcart Prize nomination for my novel excerpt in The Brooklyn Rail last April. I’m delighted that TBR nominated me. Almost as good as winning the prize. They publish exceptional fiction consistently and courageously. I am always proud to appear there.
A lovely bit of news and another example of the magic that used to happen around the magazine: Darrel J. McLeod, a Cree writer from Sooke, British Columbia, in October won the Governor-General’s Award for Nonfiction for his autobiographical book Mamaskatch, A Cree Coming of Age. First off, we need to congratulate Darrel, whom I got to know three years ago. He’s a warm, unassuming, humble man with a story burning in his heart.
As it happens, we published Darrel’s first short story in Numéro Cinq in the October, 2015, issue. After the GG announcement, I was reading about Mamaskatch and something clicked. The same names were appearing in both texts. And I remembered that Darrel had told me all the characters and events in the story were based on his family. So I dug around a bit more and found this graceful credit line in an interview Darrel did for the Vancouver Authors Festival in September.
I concluded the story “Hail Mary Full of Grace” at a week-long workshop with Shaena Lambert in the summer of 2014 – you were there Jen, and you were so incredibly helpful. I was thrilled with the final version of the story, and submitted it to Douglas Glover for publication in Numéro Cinq. After helping me to find a better ending, he published it, but I knew I wanted to include it in my memoir as well.” Q&A with Darrel J. McLeod
Shaena Lambert, in fact, brought Darrel to me and the magazine. She had quickly recognized his talent and thought of us. And that’s the story, a circuitous story, a wonderful story, of how Numéro Cinq came to publish the first short story by a Cree writer in Canada and that short story became part of a Governor-General’s Award winning nonfiction book.
The story is called “Hail Mary, Full of Grace” and you can click on the title here and read the entire piece. Or you can buy Darrel’s book and read that. Or you can read both.
Here is the publisher’s description of the book:
Growing up in the tiny village of Smith, Alberta, Darrel J. McLeod was surrounded by his Cree family’s history. In shifting and unpredictable stories, his mother, Bertha, shared narratives of their culture, their family and the cruelty that she and her sisters endured in residential school. McLeod was comforted by her presence and that of his many siblings and cousins, the smells of moose stew and wild peppermint tea, and his deep love of the landscape. Bertha taught him to be fiercely proud of his heritage and to listen to the birds that would return to watch over and guide him at key junctures of his life.
However, in a spiral of events, Darrel’s mother turned wild and unstable, and their home life became chaotic. Sweet and innocent by nature, Darrel struggled to maintain his grades and pursue an interest in music while changing homes many times, witnessing violence, caring for his younger siblings and suffering abuse at the hands of his surrogate father. Meanwhile, his sibling’s gender transition provoked Darrel to deeply question his own sexual identity.
The fractured narrative of Mamaskatch mirrors Bertha’s attempts to reckon with the trauma and abuse she faced in her own life, and captures an intensely moving portrait of a family of strong personalities, deep ties and the shared history that both binds and haunts them.
Beautifully written, honest and thought-provoking, Mamaskatch―named for the Cree word used as a response to dreams shared―is ultimately an uplifting account of overcoming personal and societal obstacles. In spite of the traumas of Darrel’s childhood, deep and mysterious forces handed down by his mother helped him survive and thrive: her love and strength stayed with him to build the foundation of what would come to be a very fulfilling and adventurous life.
Here is the ending of Darrel’s sad and yet triumphant story of Bertha’s escape from the residential school:
Bertha, Margaret and their aunts managed to make it home late in the evening the day they escaped from St. Bernard’s. Their sister Agnes wasn’t with them. She had been convinced that it was just a matter of time before the police would round them up. As they were walking she reminded her sisters and aunts what happened to students who left and were taken back. Convinced she would die if she went back, she continued walking to the junction of the highway to Edmonton and hitchhiked as far as she could go – to land’s end – the Pacific Ocean.
For weeks Bertha slept in her mother’s bed. Her mother even had to take her into the bushes or outhouse to pee. Margaret was more independent but she didn’t go far on her own either. Whenever a policeman or stranger in a uniform or suit showed up – the girls would hide and not come out until they were called by name. Bertha’s mother registered the two sisters for regular school in Slave Lake. They attended for one year – but the daily trip by dogsled became too much. Bertha taught herself and Margaret to read, write and do arithmetic.
Word spread quickly about the escape. A rumor circulated that the nuns were scared of Bertha’s teen-aged aunts and had them expelled. And there had been so many deaths at the school that local police stopped responding to the church’s requests to arrest and return children.
With the exception of Bertha, the girls married young and raised healthy families. Margaret had eighteen children. Agnes married a fisherman on the coast, worked her whole life in a cannery, and raised one son who became a prominent surgeon.
For some reason, perhaps a series of tragic deaths of her most beloved in rapid succession – compounded with childhood separation from her mother and untold abuse at the hands of nuns and priests, Bertha fell apart in her early thirties – became a chronic alcoholic and abandoned her seven children.
It’s been more than a year since the magazine ceased publishing, a year of losses. It always surprised me how invested I became in the lives and passions of my writers and editors. Okla Elliott died in March 2017. Paul Pines in June 2018. Ann Ireland in August 2018. And just last month, David Helwig. I miss them all, their force of personality, their fierce will to create, and their affection, their decency as human beings. We are diminished by their absence.
In February, my mother Jean died in her own bed, on the farm she loved. Many of you have been kind enough to follow her career here on these pages, Jean reciting Walter Scott, Jean and her chickens, Jean and the farm. She liked that. At her burial, a native woman emerged from the small group of mourners, unannounced, and drummed and sang around the grave. For her memorial event in August, I put together a slide show of Jean’s life. The texts are a mix of my commentary, dates and context, but also diary excerpts, letters and interviews. Above all, it’s a woman’s life. She lived 96 eventful years. She was smart, feisty, energetic, and indomitable. She championed the weak and hurt, believed in chem trails, loved trees so much she would embrace them in the woods. She got along better with women than with men, but she had three sons. She drove me to Toronto as a kid to see Picasso and Van Gogh exhibits. She would always stop at the library in Brantford or Simcoe when she went shopping and bring back a wicker basket full of books. She could be as annoying as hell, God bless her. I miss talking to her.
The music in the background is the Welsh lullaby Suo Gân. This is the version arranged by John Williams and sung my James Rainbird for the movie Empire of the Sun. You can interrupt the music at any time by clicking the pause button.
Perhaps the best way of viewing the slide show is to click on the first image below so that you go into full screen mode, then click on the arrows to advance the slides at your own pace. To view images of the farm, the chickens, etc. click on “The Farm” button on the left.
In the mid-1990s I hosted a weekly literary radio interview show at WAMC-Albany (New York). One memorable morning over the studio phone, I interviewed Gordon Lish, whom I knew because he had published stories of mine inThe Quarterly as well as my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. (1993) at Knopf. The interview now appears in Conversations With Gordon Lish, edited by the estimable Cambridge (UK) critic David Winters and Jason Lucarelli, who was once a student of mine and contributing editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine. The book was published earlier this year by University Press of Mississippi in their wonderful “Conversations” series. The cover photo above is, of course, by NC contributor bill hayward.
Here is the publisher’s book description:
Known as “Captain Fiction,” Gordon Lish (b. 1934) is among the most influential–and controversial–figures in modern American letters. As an editor at Esquire (1969-1977), Alfred A. Knopf (1977-1995), and The Quarterly (1987-1995) and as a teacher both in and outside the university system, he has worked closely with many of the most pioneering writers of recent times, including Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Sam Lipsyte, and Ben Marcus. A prolific author of stories and novels, Lish has also won a cult following for his own fiction, earning comparisons with Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett.
Conversations with Gordon Lish collects all of Lish’s major interviews, covering the entire span of his extraordinary career. Ranging from 1965 to 2015, these interviews document his pivotal role in the period’s defining developments: the impact of the Californian counterculture, the rise and decline of so-called literary “minimalism,” dramatic transformations in book and magazine publishing, and the ongoing growth of creative writing instruction. Over time, Lish–a self-described “dynamic conversationalist”– forges an evolving conversation not only with his interviewers, but with the central trends of twentieth-century literary history.
This book will be essential reading not only for students and fans of contemporary fiction, but for writers too: included are several interviews in which Lish discusses his legendary writing classes. Indeed, these pieces themselves amount to a masterclass in Lishian literary language–each is a work of art in its own right.
I can’t resist this. Cynthia Sample alerted me to the fact that you can pre-order my new book of essays already! (Book not out till next July.) I checked Amazon, just to see, and was, as often happens, charmed by what I saw. There’s my book. Though that’s not the actual cover. This is standard for new books. Publishers put up a placeholder till the real book cover is available. And the subtitle appears different on the cover mockup and in the book description. I probably caused that confusion myself, since have always gone back and forth between the two. (I welcome your input.)
But best of all is the little “#1 New Release” flag followed by the words “in Erotica Fiction Writing Reference.”
No doubt this will do my public image no end of good and make me popular in the B&D crowd. Just to check, I searched the book title only and this is what came up.
The irony is, of course, as many of you know, that the title essay of the book — “The Erotics of Restraint” — is a long text on Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park.
But let me not deter anyone from buying the book on mistaken (or any other) grounds.
Delighted and charmed also by the arrival of my author’s copy of Experimental Literature: A Collection of Statements, edited my Warren Motte and Jeffrey R. Di Leo. In it, you will find my essay “The Literature of Extinction.” The book is a special revised and expanded edition of American Book Review 37.5 (July/August 2016), where my essay originally appeared. It’s published by JEF Books, which is the book publishing wing of The Journal of Experimental Fiction.
I take particular pleasure in this publication in part because it cemented a friendship with Warren Motte, whom I met when I asked him to contribute to Numéro Cinq. Here is Warren.
Almost equally of importance is the fact that so many Numéro Cinq editors and contributors contributed to this book. Let me count the names: Douglas Glover (moi), Rikki Ducornet, Julie Larios, Michael Martone, Warren Motte (himself), Lance Olsen, and Eleni Sikelianos, This is a tribute to the sharpness of our cutting edge, the heft and depth of our community. I am pretty proud of this.
Here is the publisher’s description:
Literary Nonfiction. Essays. In EXPERIMENTAL LITERATURE: A COLLECTION OF STATEMENTS thirty-four writers and critics reflect upon how literature puts itself to the test in an effort to make itself new. Those reflections assume very different shapes, and each approaches the question from a different angle. There are formalist readings here, and historicist readings; some contributors consider the politics of literature, others focus upon aesthetics; some statements deal with national traditions or periods, others are more synchronist. There are pieces on French theater, the Russian avant-garde, and performance in West Africa. There are meditations on poetry as a daily practice, on experiment as a way of knowing, on the restlessness of liminal spaces, and on the incommensurate dimensions of dream and reality. Each contribution is fueled by the notion that literature works best when it is willing to interrogate its own premises. Both individually and collectively, these analyses display an extraordinary mobility, one that does justice to the dynamism of experimental literature itself. Each essay engages its readers actively and thoughtfully, inviting us to participate in a conversation about literature’s horizon of possibility, about what literature is and can be. Robert Coover, arguably the most distinguished living American experimentalist, contributes an afterword to this volume.
I am delighted and charmed to (drum roll) be able to say that I just received my author’s copies of Ingrid Ruthig‘s wonderful collection of essays David Helwig: Essays on his Works. I have mentioned this before on the blog, in the pre-order stage. Forgive me for repeating myself. It’s a lovely book. I mention in my essay an earlier essay by the late Tom Marshall, and Ingrid managed to snag the rights that essay and include it in the book. And so many Numéro Cinq alums had their hands in it, including Mark Sampson, rob mclennan and George Fetherling. And, of course, Ingrid herself published in the magazine (poetry and art). The book is published by Guernica Editions.
My essay “The Arsonist’s Revenge” on David Helwig‘s novella The Stand-in was commissioned by Ingrid especially for the book. I had a lovely time writing it. Helwig is a master of the novella form, also a master poet, novelist, memoirist — you name it. David is an old, old friend (inimitable) and also multiple contributor to the magazine. Not only that, but (have I mentioned this?) the book is stunningly good. Coincidentally (or not), the estimable and inimitable publishing house Biblioasis re-issued a splendid new edition of The Stand-in. You can buy a copy on the Biblioasis site or Indigo or Amazon.
My essay “The Arsonist’s Revenge” on David Helwig‘s novella The Stand-in will shortly appear in David Helwig: Essays on his Works edited by the inimitable Ingrid Ruthig (pub date is September 1 2018, but you can pre-order on Amazon.com or Indigo). Ingrid is a protean artist, contributing both poems and text/art to our pages (follow the links). In fact, she’s a prime example of how many people who found their way here actually became friends.
Ingrid subsequently, in her role as editor, invited me to write the essay for the book, which I was happy to do because David Helwig is an old, old friend (also inimitable) and also multiple contributor to the magazine. Not only that, but the book is stunningly good. Coincidentally (or not), the estimable and inimitable publishing house Biblioasis re-issued a splendid new edition of The Stand-in. You can buy a copy on the Biblioasis site or Indigo.
So, oddly enough, the magazine lives on (actually we still get upward of 600 views per day) in its influences and friendships.
From the essay:
It’s a dramatic monologue, three lectures delivered extemporaneously by an unnamed retired humanities professor, a last minute replacement for the famous Denman Tarrington who has mysteriously succumbed the week before on the green-tiled floor of a hotel bathroom in New York. Our narrator has gone over the edge, abandoned circumspection and control; he has the podium, his ancient rival is dead (he and Tarrington were, for years, colleagues at the hosting institution), he will joyfully and maliciously set the record straight. Tarrington goes up in flames, demonstrated to be a plagiarist (he wrote his essays off the narrator’s ideas), a wife-beater, a compulsive and boastful seducer (the narrator’s wife ended up running away with him), and a flawed badminton player.
Buy the book to read the rest.
I am a bit slow on this one. An excerpt from my Davy Crockett novel Doom was published in the April issue of The Brooklyn Rail. Something here relating to a childhood obsession with Walt Disney’s version of the story and Fess Parker and raccoon hats.
A little research demonstrated that Davy probably never wore a coon skin hat, that this popular image derived from a stage actor who became immensely popular doing a broad caricature of Crockett’s public backwoods persona.
The backwoods persona hooked into a kernel of truth. Crockett was a hardscrabble farmer, living mostly in poverty, hunting for meat. But when he turned politician, he leaned on his street cred, drawling out homespun stories, telling jokes on his opponents, dolling out chewing tobacco and horns of liquor to constituents.
The real David Crockett perhaps looked more like this.
He became a member of the House of Representatives from Tennessee, a Washington personality, a campaigner for what were called squatters rights, a popular speaker, and a legend in his own time. At one point, he was nominated to run for president, though not much came of this. But what really interested me, aside from not being what he seemed to be, was that Crockett wrote a book, his memoirs, which was intended as one of the first campaign biographies but was actually a very readable, if somewhat untrustworthy, account of growing up in rural America after the Revolution. Some critics see it as an early precursor of the kind of folksy humour Mark Twain made famous. There is also some doubt about how much of the book Crockett actually wrote (he had some help). But he published other books as well, collections of articles and speeches, mostly intended as potboilers.
All this interested me. In one of his letters from Texas, he confided that he wanted to write one more book, a sentiment with which many of us can identify. This was on his way to the Alamo, and we all know what happened there (though current research says we have all that wrong as well).
Here’s a taste of what is in The Brooklyn Rail, from an early chapter.
Yr Informant indites:
When the Orchestra blared out Crockett’s March, Hackett, the Actor, tramped upon the Boards in Moccasins, leather Chaps, buckskin Fringes a foot long dangling from his Shirt, & a shiny Rifle cast in the Crook of one Arm. On his Head was a Varmint curled in a peculiar Manner so that the Tail hung over one Temple.
This was at the Washington Theater.
It were Uncanny to see the Legend from the Box, me & not me.
As if there weren’t already enough Versions of me wandering the Earth.
There was no use saying I didn’t wear a buckskin Shirt or that the Fringes would catch in the Laurels on a bear Hunt or that Hackett was Taller & Straighter & Leaner than yours truly.
He bowed & I bowed. It was like looking through the Mirror. I had the Feeling as the Audience bayed & Applauded that there was some mean public Joy in the Juxtaposition of the Real & the Theatrical, only I was not sure which was which.
I knew who I was when I pissed in the Pot & put on my broadcloth Coat & tied my Tie & brushed my broad-brimmed Beaver ere Tom Doggett came to Fetch me at the boarding House.
But I had entered a treacherous Place in which it did not matter what I thought was real. People were sure James Hackett’s Colonel was the authentic One.
To most Folks who had seen the play or just heard about it, he was the Identical Colonel.
This is some new Dispensation in the Order of Things. I cannot Fathom it completely. Christians quote me back what I Said in the Play & if I don’t talk the way Hackett makes me talk they Turn away disappointed. So I find I must Bend myself toward the Unreal to seem Real.
I believe I was somewhat responsible for promoting Myself on the Stump & liked the Acclaim & Intrigue.
But it has got Away from me.
I am living Legend but the Legend precedes me.
He bows & I bow.
Did you ever see the devil,
With his pitchfork and ladle?
I am all of a Sweat because I envy Him.
Except for that peculiar Hat.
Which now the Constituents expect me to wear, which I do, God Help Me, imitating an Actor imitating me.
DG has been observing radio silence the last few months. He was supposed to be relaxing, basking in the after-glow of his retirement from magazine publishing. But then many bad things happened, not the least of which was the death of Lucy, the NC Blue Dog. Friends and readers who followed the magazine and the Out & Back blog knew her well. She was DG’s constant companion and photographic model.
In March, when the karmic tsunami of bad things began to ebb, DG found a new dog. His name is Pancho. DG was thinking of Pancho Villa, the great Mexican bandit revolutionary, but probably Willie Nelson’s “Pancho and Lefty” was in the back of his mind.
Sulphur Mountain from dg’s bedroom window, Banff Centre
The past week and a half I’ve been at the Banff Centre, surrounded by hysterically looming, steroidal mountains, teaching nonfiction in the Emerging Writers Intensive program along with Elizabeth Philips (poetry), Jennifer Haigh (short fiction) and Rachel Cusk (first novel chapters). Here is a picture of us all. Cascade Mountain on the left and Tunnel Mountain on the right behind us.
The mountains totally intimidated me as did the signs all over campus indicating that bears were plentiful and dangerous and that the elk were rutting and that I should avoid male elk especially (I had some serious fears in this regard), although, as it turned out, we saw no bears or elk (no doubt they were off rutting in private instead of parading their lubricity in the streets).
An enterprising person in my workshop early discovered the Park Distillery downtown, which soon became a regular meeting spot for intense literary discussion, manuscript critiques, and philosophical debate. We had so many philosophical debates there that my class gave me a bottle of the Park Distillery’s homemade gin (best with Fentiman’s botanically brewed tonic water) as a bon voyage present.
Some of us were going to walk up Sulphur Mountain one afternoon after workshop, but the weather turned indifferent and we strolled along a branch of the Bow River on the Hoodoo Trail instead (I should be clear: a group of intrepid students did go to the top of Sulphur that day and lived).
Mostly the scenery defeated me as a photographer, and it’s all been photographed to death anyway (you could see the mountains blushing with embarrassment).
But the people in my workshop were extraordinarily lovely — engaged, passionate, animated. We held workshops in the Max Bell building with my diagrams tacked up around the room like a frieze (occasionally a deer would look in the window to see what was what). But for individual manuscript sessions we met in the McLab café looking toward Mount Norquay in the distance.
And at night I’d go to bed listening to the train whistles (after all, that’s the reason the town is there in the first place — the trains). I make jokes, but I think I was ready for this trip.
The estimable Montreal literary magazine Matrix (a print magazine, Issue #109). has just published the first four chapters of After Grace, a novel I’ve been working on, one of many such. After Grace is an entertainment set in Ragged Point, Alabama. If you follow these sorts of things, Ragged Point is a fictional place on the Gulf Coast wherein several of my stories have arisen: “Story Carved in Stone” in A Guide to Animal Behaviour and “Sixteen Categories of Desire” and “The Left Ladies Club” in 16 Categories of Desire. Since Ragged Point doesn’t exist — and in any case, I have never been to Alabama — it’s a kind of relaxing place to visit. Anything can happen.
If you want to read the text, you’ll have to buy the magazine. But here’s taste:
Moses and the Burning Bush
Barley Tinkle was teaching Bible Stories for Little People in the basement of the Ragged Point Newest Separated Baptist Church of the Twelve Mercies, a cinder block one-storey with a half-basement out by the sewage lagoon a mile past the brick and wrought-iron entrance to the Mermaid Marina and Country Club on the bayou. Upstairs Pastor Gilboom was leading the congregation in singing “In the Firefight of Life, the Lord’s got your Back” accompanied by his wife Tabitha and her vibrating electric organ. Pastor Gilboom was a veteran of the War in Kuwait, where he had heroically driven a refrigerated food services truck for four months before he sprained his back hefting pallets of frozen TV dinners and had to be evacuated State-side. He had written the hymn all on his own, pecking out the melody on his grandson’s 10-key plastic piano. He said, “I had no idea I had a musical gift till I tried. The Lord, who made man and woman out of mud, sent the spirit to me.”
Barley was aware that the eleven parishioners made a pathetic show next to the Assyrian Baptist Church across the street, which was all black people except for his neighbour Geeda Rainbolt, who had a half-black son named Adam and no husband, also two Vietnamese shrimp fishermen and their families, an extended family of Guatemalan immigrants, a Kurdish Christian orthopedic surgeon (unlicensed, as yet, in the US of A) named Hamid, and a token unrelated white woman named Vida Delgrove, who was a defiant person and sat at the back on principle when she was home from college in the summer and at Christmas, though she had once or twice been asked to leave. The Assyrians had an overflow congregation of 127 adults and when they belted out a hymn you could hear it in Bayou La Batre. Not only that but the Church of the Twelve Mercies didn’t actually own its own house of worship but rented it from the Assyrians who had previously occupied it before moving into the spiffy, glass-fronted modern building with the curved, upswept peak that made it look like a ski chalet with a paved parking lot and palmetto hedge overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
Five small people sat cross-legged on the lawn-green fire carpet in a semi-circle before Barley who assumed the seat of authority, a purple polka-dotted bean bag chair that would not support his back. Overhead a dull yellow bar light buzzed. Everything smelled of mildew. There was only one half-window that looked out at the parking pad and the rear fender of Pastor Gilboom’s RAM Rebel (with the Southern cross vanity plates). Every time someone flushed the toilet in the bathroom upstairs it sounded like Niagara Falls coming through the walls. There was a shiny new Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner in the corner with a BUSTED sign taped to the handle, a Casio keyboard with MISSING POWER SUPPLY sign leaning against the wall, a rolled up map of the Bible Lands he had bought in a flea market, a stack of sprung-backed hymn books left by the Assyrians, and a matte black gun locker that contained Pastor Gilboom’s automatic weapons collection.
Around the walls Barley had taped up a dozen crayon drawings of Jesus in the Manger that he had collected from the children before Christmas, pictures detailing the well known and beloved story of Jesus, his mother Mary, his father Joseph and the four dogs, a pony, a budgie, two hamsters, and a kitten that had attended the birth. One showed Baby Jesus with an Xbox controller. Iris Tullahome, who was thirteen, had said, as she handed over her Cubist portrait of a dismembered Saviour and his mother’s three breasts and Joseph’s copious tears, “I feel sorry for Joseph because his wife was having another man’s child.”
Iris Tullahome was the largest of the small people, all of whom seemed faintly demonic to Barley, who had no children of his own, nor a wife (except for that one time), let alone a girlfriend. This was not for want of trying as he had profiles up on six dating websites: “Christian gentleman, 32, blond hair, blue eyes, divorced, a few extra pounds, traditional family values, non-drinker, disease free (hookworm cured), non-smoker, not a fan of beaches or air travel, nervous stomach, part-time student at the American New Light Fellowship Online College of Pastorology (license conferred upon completion of the course), prefers easy listening music, does not drive, needs inhaler occasionally, open-minded but inexperienced, interested in LTR and Civil War re-enactments (watching only), seeks like-minded white female with car.”
“Are you a homosexual?” Iris once asked. Another time: “Are you sexually interested in children or animals?” The other children looked up to Iris Tullahome. She was the pack leader and the highlight of their weekly Sunday school class. Whenever she raised her hand to speak or ask a question, Barley could see the glint of anticipation flit from eye to eye. “Personally, I am doubtful of men who wear pastel yellow cardigan sweaters and LL Bean stretch dress khakis.” At the moment she said this, Iris was dressed in a neon green belly shirt, a denim mini-skirt hemmed above mid-thigh, blue tights, pink knee socks with the word PINK in white, and Uggs because it was winter. She noticed Barley’s eye tracking the letters on the sides if her legs. She said, “Do you know what PINK stands for, Mr. Tinkle?” And the way she said the word, with about eighteen syllables and a certain arching of her prematurely plucked eyebrows, made him blush crimson and lose what was left of his train of thought.
The lesson for the day was Moses and the burning bush, chosen carefully with Iris Tullahome in mind (Rahab the Harlot was out, as was any reference to the rape of Dinah, Onan, David and Bathsheba, Mary Magdalene, Lot and his daughters, Jephtha and his daughter, the emerods in Kings, or the “hill of foreskins” on the banks of the Jordan in the book of Judges – all of which topics had been raised by Iris in the past; evidently she was an avid Bible reader), except that as soon as he said the words burning bush the demonic congregation began to titter inanely.
Iris Tullahome held up her pink phone, pressed the screen, and said, “We are not alone, Mr. T. I am streaming you. What was that about somebody’s burning bush?”
“Not that kind of bush,” said Barley. “Iris, tell me you’re not—.”
“What kind of bush did you think I meant, Mr. T.?” asked Iris Tullahome. “Golly.” She pushed the phone towards him.
Iris Tullahome gave Barley fits when she started in like this. He couldn’t imagine a motive for twisting his words so maliciously the more so since Iris had a quiet, Christian sister, older by four years, named Lorelei Tullahome, who prayed upstairs with the adults, was a straight A student, a member of the swim team (breast stroke), and had applied to Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, early decision. With Lorelei he could have intelligent conversations about intelligent design, fetal rights, what books should be banned from the school library that weren’t already banned and why African-American people were mostly poor and behind (except for the ones they had in Ragged Point who seemed, unaccountably, above average). But Iris disagreed or misconstrued everything he said. He felt sorry for her because she would not come to Jesus if she went on like this and she would miss the blessings of heaven, the pleasures of the communion of angels, the chance to talk to illustrious dead like Pastor Weldon Taber of the Second Alabama Circuit and the saintly Sister Euphemia Applegate, Barley’s ninth grade choir director, both of whom he had sought out for one-on-one discussions of Christ’s mission on earth and the difficulties of self-pollution before they passed. She had also been seen standing outside Rance’s Men’s Wear on Water Street of late in the company of LaTrobe Washington, a local basketball prospect and rap singer (also rumoured to be a drug dealer, though Barley could not believe that there were any illegal drugs sold to the children of Ragged Point).
Barley hadn’t given the lesson yet, but Iris raised her hand again. She had thick black hair, thick eyebrows, extremely red lips and long dangly earrings. She said, “Is it true that in the Bible Moses wife is a Negro?”
“We call them African-Americans, Iris.”
“Moses’ wife was an African-American?” She held out her phone.
“It doesn’t say that. But some authorities think she was from Ethiopia and the people there are Africans.”
“So it’s true. Moses, God’s right hand guy, had a African wife. How could God let that happen?”
“Well, it’s not clear–”
“And is it true that, as a favour to Moses, God gave his wife leprosy to turn her white?”
“It’s seems – well, maybe – something like that.”
The four other demons were gaping in stunned amazement and adoration at their beloved leader’s audacity and superior Bible knowledge, also in astonishment that there were such things in the Bible (although after Iris’s interventions and digressions on Rahab the Harlot, the rape of Dinah, the emerods, etc., nothing should have surprised them).
“That would be kinda hard on Mrs. Moses, wouldn’t it?” said Iris. “I mean when her skin melted and her nose fell off and her fingers rotted down to nubbins and she died. Is this the sign of a God who thinks ahead?”
Barley was staring out the half-window, struggling with his heart. I am having convulsive heart failure, he thought, knowing full well that there was no such thing. Between the tires of Pastor Gilboom’s pickup, he could see a rectangle of the front entrance and parking lot of the Assyrian Church across the road and an endless cavalcade of African-American legs and feet debouching from their morning service. They were happy legs, couples touching thighs as they walked, families holding hands with little ones half-suspended between their elders, legs leaning together for a handshake or a hug, legs in pressed pants or billowy dresses. His neighbour Geeda Rainbolt’s lean white legs were easily recognizable beneath the chaste navy skirt he had seen her wearing when she left for church. Her legs flashed in the sunlight, next to Adam’s chubby knees. The sun was shining on that side of the street but not in the dismal cave where Barley stood with Iris Tullahome and her phone and the Mother of God with three breasts. Surely, Christ dwelt with the black people these days. Surely, he preferred their company to Barley’s who felt, especially when a female talked back to him, unutterably bereft and alone. Profile: Christian gentleman, 32, blond hair, blue eyes, divorced, a few extra pounds, seeks Saviour, LTR preferred but will consider all offers.
He felt a hand tugging at his sleeve.
“Mr. T.” Iris Tullahome said, “I got a text from Daddy. He wants to see you A-SAP.”
Audible has just (September 13) released the audiobook version of my novel Elle. This audio version is narrated by the replendent Severn Thompson who adapted the novel for the stage last year. Click the image above to go to Amazon and hear a sample of the novel.
Editor-in-chief prepares to leave the building.
Now is the moment for reflection, gratitude, and farewells. Not that I am going away or anyone else connected with the magazine for that matter. It’s just that we won’t appear again in quite this form. (And I am going to sell the white horse, which has started to attract attention.)
The magazine started with a group of friends feeling outsiderish and piratical, and it has persisted in that light, though the names have gradually changed over time. There are 40 people on the masthead today; the list of artists and writers who have appeared in the magazine could fill a small town; and then there are our readers, most of whom we will never know, though some, in keeping with our policy, have become writers for the magazine and friends.
The fact that we got so big and lasted so long (on fumes) is miraculous.
It would be invidious to single out individuals, but there are some who by their intelligence and loyalty have altered my thin view of the human race. And others whose sheer bloody-minded willingness to throw their support behind an upstart magazine and persist have taught me something about the nature of friendship and the value of art. I will never forget the decency, kindness and camaraderie that have characterized NC’s inner workings. You are an astonishing tribe. I am eternally grateful.
My sons grew to adults under the sign of Numéro Cinq (while my dog — the blue dog of NC fame — grew ancient and incontinent). It was ever a topic of dinner table conversation (Mission Control has always been in the bedroom, where my laptop lives). Jonah designed the logo. Jacob still reads with the analytic eye he learned writing reviews for the magazine.
Now the feeling around here is distinctly autumnal, and I am a bit anxious about what I am going to do with myself when I don’t have to get up in the morning and attend to the magazine chores.
As for the site, it will remain live as a monument to us all. All your work, the archives, the special features and anthologies, will be available. Possibly, I will post in the NC Blog now and then on matters relating to the magazine. I’ve been using the “Out & Back” blog category as my personal blog; I might have to sort that out (or not).
There are going to be loose ends. Story of my life.
A few issues back I mentioned a speech from Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander that seemed to capture the feeling. It’s very early in the film. Oscar Ekdahl is making his annual speech to the cast after the Christmas pageant in the little family-owned theatre.
Dear friends, dear fellow workers, dear family! For twenty-two years I have stood here and made a speech. I am not really any good at this sort of thing. My only talent, if you can call it a talent in my case, is that I love this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse. And I’m fond of the people who work in this little world. Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds for a moment in reflecting the big world, so that we understand it better. Or is it perhaps that we give the people who come here the chance of forgetting for a while, forgetting for a while the harsh world outside. Our theatre is a small room of orderliness, routine, conscientiousness, and love. I don’t know why I am so awfully moved today of all days. I feel so comically solemn. I can’t explain how I feel. I had better be brief.
(He shakes his head, raises his glass, and looks at the people gathered around him.)
Okay, the scoop. Aidos, a short film by our senior editor R. W. Gray, marks Douglas Glover’s first credited film work (at 3:44). (It is not, however, his first onscreen appearance since he had an uncredited role as an extra in Michael Douglas’s 1979 movie Running; check out the start of the marathon. In terms of an acting career, this early success led nowhere — it is a galling fact of dg’s life that many things have led nowhere, though he remains optimistic.)
R. W. Gray has edited NC at the Movies for years, decades even, it seems. In between times, he’s been writing (his story collection Entropic last year won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award) and making films.
He shot Aidos in the winter-spring of 2014 when he and I were both rooming in Mark Jarman’s house in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Some of the scenes were filmed in Mark’s house or nearby (you can see the old railway bridge through the stained glass window in one scene and the cathedral in the background of another).
The film has traveled the world (Tel Aviv, Romania, Lithuania, and all over the U.S. and Canada) and was programmed in twelve festivals. And now that it has finished its festival run, Rob has posted Aidos on Vimeo where we can all see it.
Aidos is, on the surface, about love and mourning. A young gay man has died, the voice over narration tells is that 21 people avowed their love for him before the end. What follows is 21 different actors saying “I love you” with the sound muted, just the faces, eyes, expressions.
When Rob filmed my bit, he told me nothing of the film’s structure or point. Actually, he told me nothing (I got no contract, no star in my door, we are still in litigation about the star on the door thing). He just wanted to film me saying the words “I love you.” This took a long time because he wanted a spiritual depth, a vulnerability, one is not used to performing in public. One, moi, I am so bloody shy. He coached me. He told me to visualize someone I loved and address that person. I thought of my sons. In my bit, I am thinking of my boys. That in the film this thought is translated into a completely different meaning is a revelation to me, a revelation about the nature of acting, which included, yes, an object lesson in the difference between acting and pretending — I was not pretending, though I was summoning up an image to cue myself. I am still mulling over this experience. I think I learned some, though I am not sure what.
That quality of vulnerability is what Rob was after in the film, I think. The word “aidos” bursts with complex implication, which you must think about as you watch the film. It’s a Greek word that means, as a quality, a mix of reverence, modesty, and shame and is meant to be one of those aspects of personality that restrain us from doing evil.
Here it is personified in Hesiod, where she appears as a goddess, a companion to Nemesis.
And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.
The shame aspect is interesting because it involves the consciousness of being visible to others, of being seen, not just as a projection but as an emotional, thus vulnerable, self. The words “I love you,” so easily spoken in private, expose this inner self to ridicule (which, in itself, is an element of acting).
So re-watch Rob’s film and pay special attention to the interior contortions embodied in the faces of the actors (and, of course, they are mostly men, so the shyness/modesty quotient is very high — ah, we are a limping gender!): the effort to be real.
Still in my retrospective mood, a mood which prompts me to sift through the archives for little pops of delight, moments of inspiration and, yes, perfect communication. Every once in a while, I would get an email that was a shining thing unto itself. A side effect of being a writer is that sometimes, in a languid moment, you just cannot stop yourself from committing random acts of beauty. When the stars aligned, we published the email. NC has always been able to react instantaneously and intuitively when the opportunity arose. Laura Michele Diener and Jean Marie Saporito were former students of mine when they wrote these pieces. Annie Bleecker was a student at the time, and the two pieces linked here were her cover letters to me.
All five texts went into the magazine pretty much unedited, exuberant bolts of fresh, lovely writing.
I’ve been rereading Jules Laforgue’s Moral Tales, translated by William Jay Smith. In his introduction, Smith wrote: “Laforgue attempted in his Moral Tales to break down all the barriers, to attain the effect of spontaneity, that ‘unwritten’ quality that we associate with his name.” It is precisely this effect of spontaneity, the “unwritten” quality, that is the chief charm of these texts.
The legendary Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity is launching an Emerging Writers Intensive program this coming October, and I’ve hired on to teach the CNF side of things. It’s a one-week gig, October 2 – 9, and if you want to sign up, you have until July 5 to do so.
On the personal side, I have been to this place before. Once especially. I was maybe 10 or 11, on a family trip, car camping. We had just been to Jasper, where my rambunctious brothers and I chased bear cubs in the woods (now I perceive how eminently stupid this was). We drove into the Banff Centre and walked around and I was bored until my mother led us into a ballet rehearsal studio. I had never seen anything like it in my life (I was raised on a farm). An instructor was teaching young male dancers how to lift young female dancers (you know, just older than me, fairy-tale beings, I could almost see their gossamer wings). The memory still electrifies my imagination (where, yes, I remain twelve forever).
Now that I think of it, I feel a memoir coming on — “My Life in Ballet.”
And here is the faculty:
Herewith, my introduction to Donald Breckenridge’s extraordinary new novel And Then just out with Black Sparrow, the venerable experimental/indie press now an imprint of David R. Godine in Boston. The introduction is included in the book and is reprinted here by agreement with Breckenridge and Black Sparrow/Godine. This isn’t a review; it’s an elucidation of the genius of form.
“We walk about, amid the destinies of our world-existence, encompassed by dim but ever present Memories of a Destiny more vast — very distant in the bygone time, and infinitely awful.” Poe, Eureka
Donald Breckenridge is a pointillist, constructing scene after scene with precise details of dialogue and gesture, each tiny in itself, possibly mundane, but accumulating astonishing power and bleak complexity. His language is matter of fact, the unsentimental plain style used subtly and flexibly. The only apparent artfulness is in the unconventional punctuation and, sometimes, the way the dialogue breaks up the narrative sentences. His settings are Carverish, bleak and constrained; his characters are the stubborn, alienated authors of their own melancholy fates; they persist in a panoply of failed habits and attitudes, gestures of a wounded self they refuse to give up because it is their own, a refusal that is by turns defiant, sordid, heroic, grotesque, and tragic.
But this novel’s triumph is in its rich architecture, its surprising splicing of genre and quotation, its skillfully fractured chronology, and the deft juxtaposition of alternating story lines. The result of this combinatorial panache is to create an arena of systemic implication, in which the sum is greater than the parts. Nothing here is what you expect; in fact, some of this text is nearly indescribable in terms of genre and form. What do you call a piece of fiction that is a narrative transcription of a real movie that is itself a fiction? Answer: Don’t even try. It’s a logical wormhole. It will turn your brain inside-out like a sock.
I will elucidate: And Then is, like most novels, a story about a character. Let’s say a nondescript loser robs a mom and pop store in some out of the way town and gives the money to his girlfriend so she can escape the mean and derelict provincial life she is destined for. She heads to New York with the cash, finds an apartment share, and has a love affair with a photographer, but the police (somewhere) are after her, and she falls among bad companions under the sign of hard drugs, who love her for her money. When that stake runs out, so does her string, and she disappears, probably dead, floating in the river.
But Breckenridge, the symphonic composer, takes this narrative theme, his melody, and works magic upon it by adding a half-dozen further elements.
1) A second, parallel plot involving a young male student who, a dozen years later, agrees to cat sit for one of his professors away on sabbatical. In the apartment he discovers the photograph of a beautiful woman, his professor’s mysterious former lover and/or roommate, a woman who simply disappeared. The student obsesses on the woman in the photograph; he becomes a sleuth, collecting stray bits of information about her. He finally tracks down the photographer who took the picture. But no one knows what became of her.
These two plots, the young woman plot and the student plot, leapfrog each other in the text, fragmented and uncanny. At a certain point the young woman, apparently waking from a drug stupor (only she is dead), finds her way back to the apartment, ascending the stairs just as the young student is descending. At the climactic moment, he feels her ghost passing through him.
2) An epigraph from Ionesco’s Present Past Past Present, an important influence for Breckenridge who takes epigraphs for all his novels from this text. The passage presents a character unfree, chained down, but conscious that he has the key to freedom, which he hardly ever uses.
3) An overture, or introductory passage, that consists of a prose transcription/narrative summary of Jean Rouch’s film Gare du Nord (1995, one of six short films by leading New Wave directors under the title Paris Vu Par). The film splits into two parts. The first follows a young married couple quarreling over the dissolution of their relationship; they are fed up with each other, disappointed in their mistakes, tired of their lives. In the second half of the film, the wife meets a handsome, brooding fellow who offers transcendence, offers her the chance to run away to a life of adventure. But she’s too bourgeois, timid, and polite to take him up. His response is to climb the bars of a railway bridge and jump to his death.
But what is going on? A novel disguised as a summary of a film? A quotation, as it were? A meta-commentary, or a work of art based on a work of art or in dialogue with a work of art? And the story itself is iconic, presenting the enormous ennui of modern life in the pressure cooker of a young marriage. But then the young man in the suit offers liberation. Is he a con, is he the devil, is he an angel? And the girl can’t contemplate running away from the life that is grinding her down. She hurries back into the trap. She doesn’t trust freedom — well, who would trust a man you had just met, who talks crazily about adventure, who looks too good in that suit? What is she going to do now? The message loop Breckenridge creates is convoluted and mysterious and yet firmly within a novel-writing tradition starting with Cervantes who, after all, wrote a great novel about a man trying to imitate another book.
4 & 5) The last quarter of the novel text is actually Donald Breckenridge’s brutal, sad memoir of his father dying: stark and beautiful and full of our common humanity; pity, love, kindness, stubbornness, squalor and valor. Here again there are two narratives: one works back and forth over the story of a life, two lives, father and son, and the father’s declining days; the other, more mysterious, follows Breckenridge to a diner, the subway, the train station. We get detailed accounts of conversations with the diner owner. We oscillate between donuts and staph infections, but by the genius of construction and understatement, horror and hopelessness accumulate. The word “love” isn’t thrown around, but the son patiently bandaging and dabbing medication on those awful sores tells you more than words. You are fascinated and cannot turn away.
Curiously, embedded in the memoir we find a scene in which Breckenridge tells his father about the suicide of a woman who lived in an apartment above him and how, he is sure, that one day he encountered her ghost in the stairwell. (The reader himself encounters a frisson of combinatorial delight.)
6) But even more curiously, embedded in the memoir we find also a few paragraphs in italics quoted from Théophile Gautier’s romantic horror story “The Tourist” (originally published as “Arria Marcella: A Souvenir of Pompeii” in 1852), a ghost story of sorts, in which a young traveler becomes obsessed with a woman’s figure preserved in the ash of Pompeii only to find himself translated that night to ancient Pompeii where he falls in love with the very woman. The story has the air of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” or Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” The young traveler, sent back to his own time without the ghostly lover, never falls in love again, never fully engages with life.
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And Then is beautiful, artful, an elaborated system of repetitions, motifs and juxtaposed narratives. Without wishing to be reductive, one can say that the three ghost stories relate to the theme of co-presence of temporal periods signaled in the Ionesco quotation, the way the past haunts existence. And they are balanced with three stories of characters who cannot change their behavior when change is the only way to redeem themselves (the young Parisian woman who cannot leave her job and marriage, the girl who runs away to New York with her stash, and Breckenridge’s father who cannot get himself the treatment that would save his life). And these in turn are refracted in three observer stories: the Brooklyn student who falls in love with photo of a missing woman, the youthful traveler in Gautier’s horror story, and Breckenridge watching his father die.
And Then is a contemporary ghost story, full of horror and unremitting melancholy, heir to the romantics, to Gautier and to Poe (yet also, stubbornly unsentimental in affect, reminiscent of the Nouveau Roman), a vastly literate work, engaged in its own conversation with the bookish past. Everything here is doubled and redoubled, echoed, mirrored, and reflected, and the dead do not die. The dead turn into ghosts or memories or words on the page, all of which are the same perhaps, at least in a book. And the effect in this novel is to create a mysterious intimation of a larger reference, a world beyond the book, a teeming yet insensible world that is yet no consolation.
I know that many of you envy the life of an internationally obscure writer, but I beg to remind you that sometimes there can be hazardous materials involved. Consequently, today I am modeling some DIY hazmat gear for the budget-minded author. Handy for wearing while reading reviews of your own work. This is not, as some of you might have waggishly opined, an erotic fetish costume, nor am I re-enacting a scene from an early Woody Allen movie. But I am on the farm in Ontario, and there is heroic work to be done. (I think I mentioned to some of you that I got the septic tank cleaned out two days ago — this has nothing to do with that!)
I also went to the grocery store, always a stirring experience, especially at sunset when the dear old Foodland parking lot is bathed in splendour.
Then I went to the woods to hunt for ramps. They are up, but we have so much ramp pesto from last year that it seems a shame to raid the beds again this year. And I forgot to take pictures of them. Anyone who wants to correct my identifications here can leave a comment.
Modern agriculture: You plant rye as a cover crop in the fall. It pops up in the spring. Then you spray a defoliant to kill the rye, disc up the land, and plant something new (the guys were out with the tractors today discing up this field). I took the picture a couple of days ago.
But then there is this.
M. is reading a biography of Allen Ginsberg (Dharma Lion by Michael Schumacher), which got us talking about Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. We started watching videos to bring the people to life and see the connections, the tracks between. These threads of personal connection and influence, genre and tradition, are compelling. One startling thread, as I watched this stuff, was the still rich theme of America as a vast open space, the frontier, and the colonization of that space by driving over it (ah, America). Nary a mention of the natives.
This is Kerouac reading from On the Road on the Steve Allen Show. The sound track and clips from this film show up in almost all the other Kerouac videos.
And here is the famous 1968 interview with William F. Buckley. Kerouac is drunk. He died a year later.
And here’s Ginsberg’s gloss on that appearance. Incidentally, this is Ginsberg at his personable best. Amiable and loyal.
And here is some casual footage shot in 1959 in New York with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Lucien Carr and his family. There’s a fascinating story dating back to 1944 and before. William Burroughs’ friend David Kammerer, as I understand it, had a crush on Carr when Carr was twelve and in a Boy Scout troop Kammerer led. Kammerer essentially became a stalker. And in 1944 Carr stabbed him to death in Riverside Park and dumped the body in the river. Then he went to see Burroughs and tell him, and Burroughs said to go to the police, which he did. Carr did some time. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested as accessories after the fact.
All handsome young people, even Ginsberg who looks raffish and brooding.
Time frame: Kerouac wrote an early draft of On the Road in the late 1940s. It was published in 1957.
And here’s a short documentary about Neal Cassady and Kerouac, beginning with an old Ginsberg interviewing Cassady in a bookstore.
And here’s a documentary about Cassady and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Cassady enlisted as the driver of the bus (obviously a bit hair-raising). This was 1964, a second chance at becoming a myth for Cassady, who wanted to be a writer but couldn’t. Fascinating how he became a figure of the imagination for two cultural movements, the Beats and the 60s Hippie movement. This video contains clips of a slightly demonic Hunter Thompson commenting on Cassady’s crystal meth addiction.
As a side note, Gordon Lish was teaching at a school in Burlingame, California, in the early 60s and publishing the experimental magazine Genesis West. Cassady and Kesey, among others, used to come around the the Lish house.
I like this connection because, of course, Lish was my editor for The Life and Times of Captain N. (1993) and my story “Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm’s Mills (Now Oakland, Ontario), November 6, 1814”, which appeared in The Quarterly, No. 13, in 1990. I started sending work to Lish as far back as the early 1980s when I was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop. And, of course, through Lish, we arrive at the 80s, 90s and 2000s, a whole new generation of North American experimental prose. 
Here is Lish on those early relationships from an interview in the Paris Review:
How did you meet Ken Kesey?
Through his old wrestling coach, or English teacher, at Oregon, Philip Temko. We wrestled, Ken and I, out in front of a shack he had on Perry Lane, hard by Stanford, where he was a Stegner Fellow. Frances and I had a little bungalow on Concord Way in Burlingame and fell in with Ken through Temko and my search for Allan Temko, a writer I wanted to attract to the Chrysalis Review, a lit mag I was mounting at the time. So first I meet Kesey in San Jose at a romp Philip Temko was throwing. Met Neal there that night, too. Later on Kesey and I wrestled. He slaughtered me. This seemed to promote a friendship. Too, he was working on Cuckoo’s Nest, so there was the bughouse connection. Indeed, I was incarcerated twice—for two weeks in Florida and, later, for eight months up in White Plains. I could spend forever telling you tales about Kesey and Cassady. At the time I fell all over myself in devotion to Kesey’s writing. Yeah, I loved Kesey and his work. I loved the shit out of him, an utterly alive fellow, as was Cassady. But Cassady was gentle and dear and sensitive and kind. Kesey was anything but. He could be a pretty trying fellow and we became increasingly less palsy. There were all the kids he collected around his place in La Honda, that claque, and by the time Tom Wolfe turned up on the scene, I was plenty absent from it. Went up to Victoria, Canada, then to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, then on to New York. I wouldn’t go along on either of the bus trips. Didn’t want to surrender myself to that prankstering bit, had Frances, the children, and a job I was going, presently, not to have. Ken kept saying, Come on, come on, come on, if you want to be my friend, come on, but I wouldn’t go. Yes, we had remarkable times. He died too young. I miss him all the time. Can’t say I didn’t love Ken, but with Neal the affection was far less troubled. No, no trouble at all.
After this, we decided to explore tangentially. We found a couple of documentaries about Black Mountain College (1933-1957), a John Dewey inspired college near Asheville heavily infiltrated by ex-Bauhaus artists and teachers escaping Hitler’s Germany. The connection for me was Charles Olson, whose what we would now call hybrid essays (I am beginning to shudder at the phrase) on history and projective verse also struck me at a vulnerable time, i.e. influenced me (I just checked my copy of the Selected Essays, bought in 1981 in Iowa City).
In this one there are some clips of Ed Sanders, who also appears in the Kerouac-William F. Buckley interview above, with an interesting bit of background in Ginsberg’s commentary following. Sanders is another of those trans-generational characters.
Then we thought to check out Goddard College (it was a night of tangents, all of which made sense at the time), the venerable experimental arts college in Vermont. It turns out that parallel to Black Mountain, the modern incarnation of Goddard was founded by another John Dewey acolyte with a similar vision of the interpenetration of the humanities and arts as an exercise in soul creation and emancipation. Of course, the personal connection here is that Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I have taught on and off for a decade and a half, is an offshoot of Goddard, its egalitarian, counter-culture ethos very much an echo of Dewey and the days of vital experiment. At least these are the things that have always drawn me to the place.
I am writing this at the NC Bunker outside of Plainfield. Goddard College is just three miles down the hill on the other side of the village. Vermont College of Fine Arts is in Montpelier, about ten miles away.
But then we veered back to Charles Olson and started watching this documentary. It’s in six parts. You can just keep watching. Lovely to watch him lumbering about and to hear the legends of his marathon teaching sessions at Black Mountain. Also lovely to see this clips of Robin Blaser talking about him. As it happens, I interviewed Blaser in the early 90s when I had my radio show (another connection/influence — by the time I interviewed him he had long since taken up residence in British Columbia where he helped anchor the powerful Canadian wing of Black Mountain poetry).
This brings me back to the beginning, my note about the theme of America as place, as space, as mythic and local at once. You can hear it in Kerouac and you can hear it in Olson, especially the snippets from his book Call me Ishmael. I’m Canadian and I live here and now, with all its concomitant ironies and subversions, and these naive affirmations of love and ownership for the land, the sense of identity and language embedded in the land, America, make me edgy. They ring hollow, whereas as once they helped propel the careers of these authors, as rebellious and as experimental as they seemed. Perhaps it is this naive affirmation that so many Americans miss nowadays.
- There is a comical connection between Numéro Cinq and Burroughs who once threatened to shoot John Proctor (a boy at the time). John was one of the first group of writers on the masthead and he wrote a knowing little essay about the incident.↵
- We have a serious commitment to all things Lishian at Numéro Cinq: two strong essays on Lish and his school by Jason Lucarelli here and here, photos of Lish by Bill Hayward, and essays, reviews and interviews on/with Lish protégés — Victoria Redel here, here and here; Diane Williams, Greg Mulcahy here and here, and Gary Lutz. I’ll stop — there are more.↵
- Not coincidentally, our Contributing Editor Natalie Helberg won the Robin Blaser Award for Poetry a couple of years ago. There is, in fact, a strong, shared aesthetic at the back of the magazine.↵
My short story “Money” (first published in The Brooklyn Rail) just came out in the new 2016 edition (yes, seems a bit late) of Best Canadian Stories. Nice company, including Leon Rooke, Cynthia Flood and Elise Levine (we have a review of her new novel coming in the current issue).
Here’s a taste of the story. You can read it online at TBR, or get a copy of the book.
Drebel started when he was fourteen organizing a grocery shopping service for the elderly in his neighborhood. He charged a flat rate per bag, accepted gratuities, and handled the cash exchange between the grocery store and the old people. Once he gained a customer’s trust, he would skim a percentage off the change, especially when the old man or woman couldn’t see that well. He would smile winningly while counting out the money; the old folks loved having a young person to socialize with. Seeing themselves reflected in his eyes, they thought they were smart, plucky oldtimers. Later, he was able to arrange a small quid pro quo from the supermarket manager’s petty cash to steer his customers away from competitors. He never bought bulk or generic. When an elderly party insisted on cheaper brands, Drebel would shrug and say the store was out. He watched for customers whose memory was failing and preyed on them, lifting a hundred dollar bill from the open purse or pocketing an expensive watch from the sideboard. Once he swiped a handful of silver cutlery from a drawer, sweeping it into his courier bag and clanking out the door. But he had trouble fencing the forks and spoons, and he was really only interested in the cash. He couldn’t help becoming fond of the old woman who said she would put him in her will, though he knew she wouldn’t. He didn’t take any offer of warmth or affection personally. He knew the old people were wrapped tight in their narrow lives, narrower and narrower as they grew older. They could be just as devious and mean as the next person. Drebel noticed how the codgers took a perverse pride in trying to shortchange him, arguing over the receipts, shaving the tip. “Here’s another quarter, son. Oh, drat. I thought I had another quarter. Next time?” He didn’t care. All he wanted was his cut, the skim.
Read the rest at The Brooklyn Rail.
Here’s a nice little note about my novel Elle by Eugene Mirabelli. Read the teaser below and click on the link to read the rest. This is a lesson in synchronicity. I was just talking to Michael Carson (a writer soon to appear on these pages) about Curzio Malaparte. I am rereading Kaputt, and Michael was extemporizing about La Pelle. And then Eugene shows up with a reference to La Pelle here.
Other aspects of this novel that set it apart are its fascinating surreal passages. Very few novels depicting historical events are also, in part, surrealist fictions. I recall a novel by Curzio Malaparte, La Pelle, that came out shortly after the second world war, a novel in which the real horrors of the war joined easily and smoothly with surreal passages. Douglas Glover makes similar moves in Elle, transitioning from the factual terrors of being marooned on a small island in a merciless Canadian winter to Marguerite’s hallucinations to the presence of a real magical bear – or maybe it’s a real bear.
By the way, the surrealism in Douglas Glover’s novel isn’t just another name for authorial invention. In an earlier brilliant and underappreciated novel, The Life and Times of Captain N., published back in 1993, the author presents a horrific vision of battles in Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution, but the nightmarish visions in that book are nailed to the commonplace world of human violence in realist fashion. In both novels, Glover mangles and distorts the facts to get at the truth.
Jonah told me to watch this Ted Talk video. We’ve both been troubled by the decline of civil discourse and the growing intransigence when it comes to allowing the other to have a voice. Megan’s talk is not about what’s wrong with the Westboro Baptist Church but about what kinds of dialogue (on Twitter, my fav) that made her begin to question herself and find avenues for change. It’s a simple but engaging message about some old values — seeing the other as a person, showing grace, courtesy and even humour, keeping cool, and, above all, engaging instead of dismissing or shutting the other down. Something to keep in mind these days when all the net media and cable news seem to do, right or left, is call out the stupidities of the enemy.
Here’s yet another news item out of Winnipeg where Elle, the play, is currently enjoying a three-week run (through to March 12).
The latest play at the Prairie Theatre Exchange is required viewing for anyone who wants to catch up on Canadian history usually shrouded in shadows. Elle is a touring production from Toronto-based Theatre Passe Muraille.
Severn Thompson stars as the titular character and Jonathan Fisher features in a supporting role. Thompson adapted the play from Douglas Glover’s 2003 novel of the same name.
“I discovered (the story) from a book in my grandmother’s bookshelf. It had won the Governor General’s prize, but I had somehow missed that in 2003,” Thompson said in an interview Tuesday.
“When I finally read it, it just was illuminating to me of a time in history that I thought was fairly – hmm, I don’t want to be rude – but fairly dull from my memory of early school days,” she said, laughing.
I have a new essay out in The Brooklyn Rail this morning, the upshot of an epic obsession, which has riddled my writing style with semicolons and taught me the value of plot triangles. Much gratitude to Wayne Hankey for his marvelous essay “Conversion: Ontological & Secular from Plato to Tom Jones (NC, July, 2014),” which introduced me to the word “kenotic” in regard to Fanny Price, to Laura Michele Diener, who taught me the meaning of “apophatic,” and to Jacob Glover for talking me through the ins and outs of absolutist ethics. You see, it was very much a Numéro Cinq co-production, though the obsession was all mine.
Here’s the closing section. Read the rest at The Brooklyn Rail.
What is truly paradoxical in Mansfield Park is the way it reaches beyond its satire on the marriage customs of Regency England, beyond the conventions of the romantic comedy, and beyond even its theological torque to tell a very modern story about the construction of a self. Much like Wolf’s Christa T., Fanny forges her self not in any positive way but in resisting imperatives, the forms imposed on her by her society and the gaze of the individuals around her. She is not simply a passive character; she is symbolic, fused with theme. I don’t want to, I can’t act, I won’t do that—Fanny Price’s refrain. She defines what action is by not acting. She defines morality by refusing to act.
The climax of Fanny’s non-plot is the sequence of scenes after the ball when she steadfastly persists in refusing to marry Henry Crawford. The fact that she cannot tell anyone that she loves Edmund, least of all Edmund himself, who is obstinately smitten with Mary, makes her appear irrationally stubborn. She remains cagey about her distrust of Henry. She can’t tell Sir Thomas about it at all; she confides in Mary (discreetly) and Edmund (explicitly), but Mary passes Henry’s flirtations off as harmless, and Edmund, too, minimizes Henry’s faults and suggests that time will prove his constancy (weasel words).
Above all, Fanny cannot escape their watchful, measuring eyes. Fanny is alternately cajoled, coerced, bludgeoned, and sent into exile, but she remains true to her principles. She is the poor, underclass cousin who has never stood up for herself before; but in these chapters she asserts herself against every authority, including the wishes of the man she loves. She even makes a speech (unique for Fanny) in which she enunciates what might be called the novel’s quintessential moral (in a novel full of moral discrimination).
“I should have thought,” said Fanny, after a pause of recollection and exertion, “that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by someone of her sex, at least, let him be ever so agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself. (292)
This speech reads like a feminist call to arms; those sentiments certainly existed. It asserts Fanny’s right of self-determination, and in the context of the novel, this radical selfhood stands against the ubiquitous dogma of property, propriety, income, estates, inheritance, class, and rank. By extension, it claims for any individual the right of refusal in the face of what the world offers. The basis of self is apophatic: the ability to say, I am not that, and I am not that either. What the world offers is contingent, mired in circumstance, calculation, and history, rated by pre-existing discourses (habits, traditions, forms). The soul proceeds by denial. Its struggle is less a matter of knowing itself as essence than of knowing when it is not itself. Sorting and discarding the trivia of life is the existential duty of the modern.
That Fanny (and the novel) can’t quite live up to this transcendent declaration is a sign of the tension that exists between Austen’s inspiration, the time in which she wrote, and her preferred genre, the romantic comedy. Fanny must marry Edmund Bertram despite the fact that as Edmund himself concedes, she is “too good for him.” Even the narrator is only dimly celebratory about the upshot.
With so much true merit and true love, and no want of fortune and friends, the happiness of the married cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be.
This passage is sometimes construed as Austen’s ironic commentary on the romance genre or the institution of marriage. But we must wait another 150 years for a manifest critique of that ending in the form of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman in which the author offers readers the possibility, among others, that the disgraced, impoverished, abandoned female lead might continue to exist on her own and even prosper. When her lover finally appears after a gap of years, she remains cool, aloof – inviolable; she has her own life and no need of rescuing by a man.
First review from the Winnipeg run, and it’s good. Go Severn!
What makes it work as well as it does is that Thompson puts the narrative inside her heroine’s head. She comes to this new country with a completely inadequate dictionary of Indian words written by Cartier himself. By the time she meets a real native, an Inuit hunter named Itslk (Jonathan Fisher), she achieves equilibrium with him because he understands the woman’s new lexicon of dreams and visions as well as he happens to understand French.
The upshot of the play an be glibly summarized: You don’t inhabit the land; the land inhabits you.
But that would diminish the richness of the work, and especially of the character, brought to vivid life by Thompson’s performance, alternately comic, tragic, and bracingly primal.
Read the rest: Fight for survival in 1542 – Winnipeg Free Press
Here’s an interview with Severn Thompson, the actress and playwright who adapted Elle for the stage and who has made the role her own. This is in the venerable prairie newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press. The play opens tonight at the Prairie Theatre Exchange and runs till March 12.
“She was somewhat rude and she had this impulsiveness. She had strong appetites, including sexual appetites, which get her into trouble,” Thompson says. “And like me, she resorts to humour when things get bad. That was one of her coping mechanisms and I just really appreciated that.
“She was shaped by the 16th-century aristocratic culture that she came from, but definitely lived on the fringes of it,” Thompson says. “She was a misfit.
“She had no interest in being a wife or a nun and those were the two options really available to her,” Thompson says. “In this account, she volunteered to go on this journey to see a new world. I don’t think she had plans to live there for the rest of her life. She wanted to have an adventure and see something she wasn’t familiar with.”She had no idea what she was getting herself into.”
Elle, the play, opens in Winnipeg at the Prairie Theatre Exchange tomorrow (February 23) night. I am told that tonight’s preview performance is sold out (upwards of 300 seats). Go Winnipeg!
This is the Theatre Passe Muraille production on tour. With Severn Thompson as Elle (she adapted the play from my novel) and Jonathan Fisher.
Some very nice poster art to go with the play.
I don’t know Lincoln Kaye, but anybody who calls me a “CanLit superstar” is okay in my books and will no doubt find a special spot waiting for him in Heaven. The reviews coming out of Vancouver have been great, but this might be the best (and not just because he calls me a “CanLit superstar”). Here’s a quote. Follow the link below to read the rest.
And it’s as “Elle,” an unnameable, unimaginable “she”-bear, that she impossibly manifests in a Paris cemetery to maul to death the perfidious uncle decades after that ill-starred outbound Canadian voyage.
In Thompson’s commanding stage presence, all these “Elle” avatars nest within each other like Matryoshka dolls. Her body language and her stream-of-consciousness narrative slide fluidly backward and forward along the story-line, just like the text of CanLit superstar Douglas Glover’s novel from which Thompson herself adapted the script.