Apr 152011

Herewith an excerpt from Juan José Saer‘s novel The Sixty-Five Years of Washington translated by Steve Dolph and recently published by Open Letter Books.  Two friends walk stroll an Argentine city, relishing tales of a wild party neither of them attended (one cannot escape the allegorical parallel with Latin American colonial self-deprecation). They reminisce about the past, expose their anxieties, jump proleptically into a future filled with repressive violence. (See Richard Farrell’s review here.) In this flashback scene, the main character, Angel Leto, has gone away to the countryside with his mother. Leto is returning home on a Sunday evening to discover his father’s body. In their absence, Leto’s father has committed suicide.


from The Sixty-Five Years of Washington

By Juan José Saer

Translated by Steve Dolph

They’ve left behind the wide, residential section of the street and are now walking down a narrow, treeless sidewalk where more and more frequently the windows and doors of businesses sit open. Bringing the stem of the unlit pipe to his lips, the Mathematician distractedly starts stroking them with the tip, its bowl hidden in his closed hand. He doesn’t say anything now. Above his eyebrows, on his smooth forehead, his skin wrinkles a little, into horizontal furrows, and be–tween the two little blonde brushes appear two oblique fissures, forming a vertex at the bridge of his nose. Leto, meanwhile, remembers: Isabel, the past year, Lopecito, the wake, the closed casket, etc.—and five days before all that, that is, before the wake, Lopecito, etc. no?—as we were, or rather I, yours truly, no?, was saying: green wheat, already so tall, from the bus window. He has left Rosario Norte an hour before, with his mother. They’re on their way to Andino, to his maternal grandparents’ house, to spend the weekend. It’s a Friday in late spring. They left Rosario at 1:00. When they leave behind the San Lorenzo industrial complex, the land fills with tall green wheat, fields of flax, and, sometimes, yellow sunflowers right up to the shoulders of the road. Every once in a while they pass a farmhouse, with its windmill and eucalyptus, which interrupts, as they say, the fields, the same way stations divide the scant towns in two like a river or a railroad would in other places in the world. A parallel dirt path separates, in the country, the geometrical grains from the road—and on that path, every once in a while, a solitary carriage travels, hardworking and unreal, which the bus, as slow as it is, leaves behind with ease. He, helpful and enthusiastic, went along to the station. That man who, ever since Leto has had use of his reason, has always been silent, distant, shut away with his unsuspected chimeras in his radio workshop, for the last month or so seems to have broken the bell jar that separated him from the outside world, and has come with them, seeming euphoric, close, warm, and open. Leto observes him at a distance, incredulous. At first the change was so sudden that, in his skepticism, he was sure it was some kind of joke, or a tactical transformation, but his persistence and his conviction to the role were so intense that Leto’s initial incredulity was replaced with doubt—is he? would he?—all that, no?, telling himself at the same time, but from then on without concrete ideas or words and almost without realizing it, though not only his mind but also his whole body are for some reason saturated with those senses that more and more resemble the shudder or the silent beating or the contraction of nerves, temples, veins, muscles, telling himself, he would say, but in that way, no?, that if it was a comedy the intended audience was Leto himself, because for Isabel, Lopecito, and the rest, who were convinced in advance, no persuasion was necessary—he, Leto no?—the only one who suspected that the man had something up his sleeve, that the man had realized—and decided I was the last obstacle to demolish before his magical circle could finally close, the straggler he had to force in before sealing, hermetically, from the inside, the capsule, and launching it into the interstellar space of his own delirium, Leto thinks, this time with clear and well-formed thoughts, walking, next to the Mathematician, always to the south, on the shady sidewalk, where, more and more frequently, the windows and doors of businesses are open. On a bright, warm, and calm November afternoon, the bus drives past rectangles of blue flax, of yellow sunflowers and green wheat, leaving behind, slow and regular, the repetitive uprights of the telegraph poles, while Leto, sitting next to the window, candidly observes Isabel who, in the seat ahead of him, calmly and serenely flips through the latest issue of Ms & Mrs. The comedy that Leto, after several weeks, has convinced himself is real, produces a tranquilizing and at the same time euphoric effect in Isabel, inasmuch as her old phantasms of marital bliss, upward mobility, sexual satisfaction, economic stability, familial harmony, religious tranquility, and physical well-being have seemed, in recent weeks, to have found their long-awaited substantiation, de–spite the resistance of a hostile world. Isabel’s attention, detached from the intense perfection of the land, is fixed on the page—a weight-loss plan? the horoscope? an interesting recipe? the opinions of a movie star? sentimental correspondence? Leto doesn’t wonder anymore, feeling nonetheless, indifferently, definitively perhaps, the abyss that separates them. The magazine, elevated almost to her chest, lets him see the belly which, under a modest skirt, ends at the vertex that the crossing muscles form with the pubis—he was in there, for nine months, and then funneled out, fell into the world. What should he feel? First of all, the ubiquitous mother, the amazing plain, fascinates him just then more than his own; the vast world, so indifferent, nevertheless seems more familiar than the one he was raised in at home. His coldness isn’t quite hatred—still, the censure he himself ignores, buried for a long time, feeling now that it’s too late to want them to have been different, makes him see his own feelings as though they were controlled remotely by others, an older and distinct species—not hatred, no, but instead a sort of quiet and curious outrage that makes him observe them constantly to see how far they’ll go, with the wild hope that, after so much time, with laughter and a shift in pose, they will finally say: Okay, that’s enough, show’s over, time to start being our real selves. He, the kind and helpful man, has gone with them to the bus station, in Rosario Norte, has given the impression, for the last month, of being something else, not his real self, but still very different—his concentrated detachment has become lightheartedness; his distracted indifference, friendly attention; his limp and depressive inertia regarding his family and work, enthusiasm and projects. The day before, he came out of the workshop with his eyes tired from connecting so many thin cables and adjusting so many tiny screws, and while he helped Isabel get dinner ready and set the table, he told Leto that next week, when they came back home, they would go fishing together; they would cross the river on a canoe with Lopecito and camp on the island for a couple of days. He even rang up Lopecito who, of course, sounded excited. And in Rosario Norte, just as they were getting on the bus, he, that man, reminded him: on Wednesday, at the latest, because Lopecito was busy Monday and Tuesday, they would row to the island. In fact, Leto has to put effort into showing that he finds the outing as attractive as Lopecito and his father seem to, but the slightly irked, wary curiosity these altered people inspire allows him to give himself over, to persist, with the same affected detachment one would use to observe the behavior of a colony of laboratory mushrooms, in acting out the different scenes of the comedy, hoping to finally unravel the heart of the plot and its characters. Many years later he will understand, from the overwhelming evidence, that the so-called human soul never had, or will ever have, what they call substance or essence, that what they call character, style, personality, are nothing but senseless replications, and that their own subject—the body where they manifest—is the one most starved of their nature, that what others call life is a series of a posteriori recognitions of the places where a blind, in–comprehensible, ceaseless drift deposits, in spite of themselves, the eminent individuals who, after having been dragged through it, begin to elaborate systems that pretend to explain it; but for now, having just turned twenty, he still believes that problems have solutions, situations outcomes, individuals personality, and actions logic. Leto observes, with some pleasure, the countryside through the window. Every ten or fifteen kilometers the bus stops at a station for a few minutes to drop off or pick up bags of mail, travelers, the ticket taker, the shopkeepers returning from their restocking trips to Rosario, the packets of newspapers and magazines, the passengers going from one town to another, few compared to those coming from Rosario, as though contact among those towns were prohibited and it was only possible for them to connect by way of the abstract and distant city, those towns on the plains, squared off like the country, regularly and strictly consisting of two rows of houses, most of unplastered brick, four blocks long, one on each side of the highway and separated—each row of houses, no?—from the bus station by a wire fence, a windmill, and a wide dirt street—and on the ends of the four blocks, two lateral streets that close the quadrilateral and rise slightly at the shoulder, towns that are, to put it one way, like a miserly concession from the plains to roughen, at brief and regular intervals, its simplistic, monotonous geometry. To Leto those towns are childhood—that is, in his case, the coming and going by train or by bus, the vacations, in winter or summer, at his grandparents’ house, his grandfather’s general store with its big, dark shelves, the colored fabrics, patterned with flowers, stripes, polka dots, blocks, or with little black and white flowers, stacked on top of each other and lined up diagonally in the cases, the carefully situated yellow bags of sod, the logo and the letters of the brand repeated on several rows, the pyramids of identical cans of preserves, piled up at the back of the store, the bins of caramels, the rows of cigarette packs organized by brand, the ones with blonde tobacco on the left side of the case, with black tobacco in the middle, toscanos, toscanitos, matches, loose tobacco, and rolling paper on the right, the big bins of sugar, of lentils, of garbanzos, of noodles, the rows of dried cod, stiff and covered with rock salt, the harvesting bags smelling of leather and oil, the bottles of wine, by type, by brand, by size, the glass cases with toiletries, the cooler, the scales, the wood countertop, smooth, dark, and weathered, the calendars and the cardboard advertisements with pictures of movie stars, of soccer teams, funny or artistic drawings, the shoeboxes, the kerosene cans and cooking alcohol in the storeroom, next to rows of detergent, flour, salt, oil, and above all, the boxes of Quaker Oats with the drawing of a man holding a smaller box of Quaker Oats with a smaller man holding an even smaller box of Quaker Oats with an even smaller man holding, no?, an even smaller, no?, to infinity, no?, like . . . no?, childhood, we were saying, or rather yours truly was saying, or rather, that is to say, no?, childhood: internal construction and external wandering, convalescence of nothing, corporeal truth versus social fiction, hope of pleasure versus generalized deception, just like that thing on Sundays, the pursuit, torture, and murder of grasshoppers and frogs between the trees in the back yard, the terrifying nights under the crucifix hanging on the headboard with dried olive branches from the last Palm Sunday, the white nightgowns of his aunts, cousins, grandmother, his uncles drinking cold beer under the trees, the afternoon, the whistles of the express passing through town and filling it with fear, the childhood Leto is already starting to tell himself, without words or concepts—not even with images or representations, no?—Isn’t what I had expected. It’s still not what I think it should be like. This can’t be all there is.

Ultimately, as they say, and to say it a second time, though it’s always the Same, no?, every thing. He even rang up the man he calls his best friend, Lopecito, to suggest going fishing on the island the following week. And Leto, on the bus, is willing to let himself be carried along, with a somewhat uneasy sense of calm, through those warm and beautiful spring days, to the following Wednesday, on the island near Rosario. That anticipation saturates the entire weekend: arriving in the town, crossing the streets and the bus station, passing the windmill, arriving at his grandparents’ house, the dinner, the evening walk through the town, the croaking of the frogs, the intermittent song of the crickets that has always attended, and no doubt preceded, the human night, the intermittent, phosphorescent glow of the fireflies, the smell of the paradise trees, the family gathering on Saturday with the relatives who have been arriving from nearby towns in cars or on the bus, the organized abundance, formed by identical objects repeated over and over in the store, the night spent under the crucifix, the mass, the cookout at noon on Sunday, the women’s flower-patterned dresses, the walk around the station with the cousins, and more than anything else, the perfect hour on the plains, the afternoon, and also, every once in a while, in little outbursts to someone in the family, Isabel’s foolish declarations of her marital bliss, her upward mobility, her sexual satisfaction, her economic stability, her familial harmony, her religious tranquility, her physical well-being, which he lets run on like background noise whose fictitiousness intrigues him less than its obstinate and emphatic repetition. That insistence betrays her uncertainty, the same way that, on Sunday night when the bus arrives at Rosario Norte, the thing she murmurs, slightly distracted, Hopefully he hasn’t made anything for dinner because I could pop after everything we ate in Andino, could be translated, Leto thinks, into a way of saying the opposite, because the fact of him waiting with a warm dinner would help dispel the uncertainty that’s working on her and which is of such a curious nature—when it manifests itself externally, it always appears to be the opposite.

The man is not at the station, It’s good he didn’t come, murmurs Isabel, after scrutinizing the walkway and the entrance. It’s good he didn’t come because anyway we don’t have suitcases and the train leaves us a block away. Leto, who after so many years has become an expert in the art of pretending he hasn’t heard anything, or of responding, almost inaudibly, with vague monosyllables, to every irrational, or, as he refers to them privately, false bottom argument laid out by Isabel, turns the conversation to fresh eggs, their bouquet of flowers, the greasy chorizos just made at the farm stand and plied on them in the town.

Slowly they leave the train, walking away from the palm trees lining the avenue to enter the dark, tree-lined block that separates them from their house. Isabel isn’t, Leto thinks, in any hurry to get there, as if through some physical inertia her body, contrary to her reason, were trying to express things more truthfully. Twice in a single block she stops for several minutes to talk with neighbors who, sitting in folding chairs on the sidewalk near their front doors, or leaning out a window, have come out to enjoy the cool night, while Leto, keeping a polite distance, with the basket of eggs and chorizo in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other hand, asks himself if she isn’t trying to gain time so that he, who she supposes innocent of machinations and exempted from her intuition, will overtake her and get home first—and all of this in spite of the fact that, to the outside world, they are just a mother and son, a silent twenty-year-old young man, coming back, respectable, straightforward, and a little tired, from a weekend in the country, neighborhood people, apparently the husband is an electrician who works on televisions and doesn’t mix much with the neighbors, the boy studies accounting, and she’s still pretty even though she’s around forty, the men more or less silent and withdrawn, while she sometimes maybe has the habit of talking too much, like she can’t stop, or she’s trying to hide, to cover up, with words, deep dark fissures which her words, despite her intentions, open at their multiple, secret edges. But she doesn’t give up. Leto waits, patiently, or a little callously, rather, at every stop, and when they get to the house, which is dark, silent, and lifeless, and he slides the key in the lock, and turns it, he feels again, coming through the door, the trail of the snake, the indefinite but distinct presence of the scorpion, whose signs, weakened in the previous weeks, have returned, unequivocal and palpable. When he turns on the light, this presence draws him, sucks him, slowly, toward the bedroom, and when he sees the man sprawled on the floor, his skull shattered by the gunshot, the revolver still in his hand, the floor, walls, and furniture splattered with blood, with chunks of brain, hair, bone shards, he says to himself, calmly and coldly, So that’s what this was. Specifically, this meaning the days, the nights, the time, the body, the world, the thick beating life, how the man, in his little electrical workshop, had dismantled them, detaching and separating them into separate pieces, colored cables, copper wires, gold screws, spreading them over the table to inspect them one at a time, neutral and merciless, limiting himself to reaching what he no doubt considered objective conclusions, and later, during uniform and meticulous hours, putting everything back together according to the indisputable logic of his delirium. To achieve his goals he had to construct the comedy, setting a stage, the visible universe, and making all of his so-called loved ones take part, modifying the plot sometimes to convince the most reticent, as had been happening for the previous weeks with Leto, whose mistrust had forced him to make appearances outside his “workshop,” transforming his personality slightly and preparing, with Lopecito’s unconditional support, when he swallowed whole the supposed week of fishing on the island, for Leto, his reticence becoming hope, to fall, on his return from the country Sunday night, from an even higher rung. Put briefly, and by the man himself, no doubt to himself, and no doubt without words as well, more or less like this: When I say dance, everyone dances. No excuses.

Two or three days later the autopsy reveals that he shot himself on Friday at around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, meaning that he said goodbye with a grin at the station, reminding him before he left that on Wednesday they would cross to the island with Lopecito, then, still grinning, boarded the train back to their neighborhood, walked the block between the train stop and the house at a calm and regular pace, and no doubt without losing his grin entered the house, crossed the hallway, shut himself in the bedroom, and without hesitating or losing the fixed, vindictive grin, blew his brains out.

—I call that an insolent suicide, said César Rey, a few months later, at the bar Montecarlo, in the city, while they watched the sun, through the window, rising into a cold autumn dawn. And Rey can speak with authority because the day before, in fact, he had gotten a hotel room, intending to slit his wrists, but at the decisive moment he had suddenly changed his mind, and after leaving the hotel, he had run into Leto at the arcade’s bar, where they proceeded to go on a bender.

—The insolent suicide, says Leto, shaking his head. Isabel and Lo–pecito were left stupefied by the event—in the director’s absence they no longer knew exactly what role they played in the comedy—but Leto himself thinks he has known how to conserve enough cold blood to keep him from the path of the gunshot, though the suspicion of having been the primary target for the last few weeks could be, without his realizing it, proof of the opposite.

The insolent suicide, he thinks, discreetly watching the Mathematician, whose eyebrows indicate a laborious reflection that Leto cannot know, and is not interested in knowing, but which is more or less the following: Where does instinct come from? Does it belong to the individual or the species? Is there continuity between individuals? Does the latter individual take over the instinct from the point where the former left it or does he reconstruct, from zero, the whole process from the start? Is it substance, energy, reflex? What is our idea of instinct? How was it first formed? By whom? Where? As opposed to what? What, in a living thing, isn’t instinct? And then, forgetting Noca, Noca’s horse, instinct, the images he has built up thanks to Botón’s story on the ferry, the previous Saturday, on the upper deck, images of Washington’s birthday at Basso’s ranch, which he didn’t attend but will remember for the rest of his life, the other questions, always stirring, underground, and sometimes rising to the surface, suddenly, that follow us, form us, lead us, allow us to be, the old questions first brought up in the African dawn, heard in Babylon and asked again in Thebes, in Asia Minor, on the banks of the Yellow River, which sparkled in the Scandinavian snows, the solilo–quy in Arabia, in New Guinea, in Königsberg, in Mato Grosso, and in Tenochtitlán, questions whose response is exaltation, is death, suffering, insanity, and which stir in every blink, every heartbeat, every premonition—who planted the seed of the world? what are the internal and the external? what are birth and death? is there a single object or many? what is the I? what is the general and the particular? what is repetition? what am I doing here?—that is to say, no?—the Mathematician, or someone else, somewhere else or at some other time, again, though there is only one, only one, which is always the same Place, and always, as we were saying, once and for all, the same Time.

—Juan José Saer; translated by Steve Dolph

Apr 152011

Elegant Uncertainty

A review of Juan Jose Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington

By Richard Farrell

The Sixty-Five Years of Washington
By Juan José Saer
Translated by Steve Dolph
Open Letter Books

To be clear: the soul, as they call it, is not translucent, it seems, but murky.
—Juan José Saer

WHEN IS THE LAST TIME you went on a good walk with a friend? Cell phones off, eyes fixed on the path in front, minds alert and the conversation buzzing?  A good walk opens the ears and the heart to storytelling, creating a sacred space in between two individuals as they make their way.  Juan José Saer invites us on such a walk in The Sixty-Five Years of Washington.  But, reader be warned: this is no ordinary stroll and this is no ordinary novel.

The Sixty-Five Years of Washington follows Angel Leto and “the Mathematician” as they walk through the city center of Santa Fe, Argentina. “Suppose it’s October,” the narrator begins, “October or November, let’s say, in 1960 or 1961, October, maybe the fourteenth or sixteenth, or the twenty-second or twenty-third—the twenty-third of October in 1961 let’s say—what’s the difference.”  This uncertain narrator interrupts frequently and becomes a third protagonist in the novel as he narrates the journey, conversation and thoughts of the characters and supplies ongoing, humorous commentary.  The conversation quickly turns to the sixty-fifth birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega, a party which neither man attended.  Washington is an elusive character; we don’t know much about him.  He writes lectures on the Colastine Indians (“Location, Lineage, Langauge & Logic”); he was arrested once, and avoided prison by going to a mental hospital; he throws wild birthday parties for his younger friends. The Mathematician heard his version of the party a week earlier from one of the attendees, Botón, as the two men rode a ferry.  Leto hears his version from the Mathematician.  The reader, of course, hears all of these accounts from the narrator. The party attracted les enfants terribles of Argentina, young artists, poets and political activists ready to disrobe, fight and snort coke into the wee hours of the morning. You want to be at this party, but, like Leto and the Mathematician, you can’t attend, so you must be willing to accept a re-telling (hyphenated emphasis intended throughout) of the event as the men stroll through the city.

This device of re-telling is crucial. By not going directly at the events the way a traditional narrative might, Saer creates distance between the characters in the novel and the dramatic action.  This recursive structure forces us to question the very idea of what happened at this party, and, on a deeper level, what is happening in the novel. Saer challenges the notions of verisimilitude and truth.  And with this technique, the re-telling of the events at the party mimics our reading of the novel itself (of any novel, really), by recreating a version of reality through the description of events not directly experienced by the characters or the reader.  Saer seems to be jack-hammering at the foundations of storytelling.

Continue reading »

Apr 142011

Johannah Rodgers is a brilliantly witty, protean experimental author/artist and culture critic. Please take the time to visit her web site (click on her name) and marvel at some of the work on display there. See especially her little book 10 Things You Need To Know About Writing, her drawings of places, her word drawings, and her provocative and idiosyncratic “Highly Subjective Recommended Reading Lists.” Rodgers is the author of the book, sentences, a collection of short stories, essays, and drawings, published by Red Dust, the chapbooks, “The Coop Articles: Dispatches from the Park Slope Food Coop 2004-2007” and “necessary fictions,” published by Sona Books, and numerous short stories, essays, and reviews, which have appeared in Fence, Bookforum, Fiction, CHAIN Arts, Tantalum, Pierogi Press, and The Brooklyn Rail, where she is a contributing editor.  She lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches writing and literature courses at The City University of New York, where she is an Assistant Professor in English at The New York City College of Technology.

The excerpt here published is from her futuristic, hypertext novel DNA.



from DNA

By Johannah Rodgers

“For does not society modify Man, according to the conditions in which he lives and acts, into men as manifold as the species in Zoology?”

– Honore de Balzac, Introduction to the Comedie Humaine

February __, 2075

I have identified four individuals in a ten block radius with whom I share the same genetic code.  I will begin profiling each based on the information  collected to date, as well as through direct observation to determine which are the best candidates for complete identity theft.

February __, 2075

I can’t say that I completely dislike myself, but there are times when I wonder whether I shouldn’t be something more than I am.  These moments then lead me to speculate that it is not what I’ve done, but who I am that is the problem.  And, based on the statistical overview of those in my common gene pool, i.e., all of those individuals conceived from sperm A51326 and egg C84327, I am, in all five categories of comparison—total net worth, happiness index, number of children, square feet of living space, professional recognition—clearly well below average.  Why this would be when we share 99.9 percent of the same biochemistry can only be attributed to non-biological factors.  In other words, “nurture” issues, i.e., how we were raised, which has led to some slight differential in the various choices that each one of us has made over time, resulting in, ultimately, who we are now.  What all of this means is that it is purely for reasons of chance that I am who I am today, as opposed to, someone else, i.e., one of those who are, to borrow from the clinic-approved language, my “code partners.”

Continue reading »

Apr 122011

Here’s the first in a series of science essays from NC’s resident scientist (also painter, author, musician, mountain woman), Simon Fraser University gene biologist Lynne Quarmby, who promises to lead us into that fierce nexus of mystery, art, literature, beauty and science. Lynne has already contributed aphorisms, a “What it’s like living here” piece and paintings to the pages of NC. It seems only fitting that she now extend our reach into the laboratory, into the cell and atom. Lynne wrote her own short intro to the series. DG could do no better.


It’s amazing all
this motion going
on and
water can lie still
in glasses and the gas
can in the
garage doesn’t rattle.

—AR Ammons

Have you ever watched a sunset and reminded yourself that you are standing on a ball that is spinning and that you are flying backwards away from the sun? It totally changes the experience. Try flying into a “sunrise”-– that’s really wild. On the evolutionary timescale, it has been the blink of an eye since Copernicus realized — and Galileo observed — that we have day and night because we live on a spinning world that orbits the Sun. We’re still trying to get used to the idea.

Our direct sensory experience of the world evolved with us; in our hearts the world is what our sensory organs tell us it is. Our senses are superbly effective for helping us function in the everyday world—that’s why we’re still here—so it’s understandable that when science reveals something counter-intuitive or paradoxical, we have difficulty integrating the new ideas into our worldview. But if we can recognize and acknowledge that our direct biological senses, as wonderful as they are, give us only a tightly pinched and cloudy view of the world, then we open ourselves to unimagined beauty.

From where I view the spinning world—as a cell biologist—I see our experience of the world expanding so much that what it means to be human is changing as profoundly as it did when Copernicus and Galileo bumped Earth out of the centre of the Universe. Our intellectual peripheral vision has picked up on the shift, but as usual, our spirits and souls are lagging behind, as though they fear that there isn’t a place for them. —LQ

Stem Cells and the Fountain of Youth

By Lynne Quarmby


I hope I die before I get old
—Pete Townshend (from “My Generation”)

In some societies the aged are venerated, in none are they envied. The inevitable decay of our bodies and minds is something we prefer not to contemplate. There is nothing appealing about decreased mobility, loss of muscle and bone mass, reduced immune function, decreasing liver, kidney and brain function, decline in ability to respond to stress and an increasing susceptibility to stroke, heart attack, diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders. A dollop of increased wisdom seems meager compensation.

Everyday we are witness to the inevitability of decay; our buildings and roads crumble, landscapes erode and holes appear in our socks. It is something we know more deeply as we grow older: if we manage to dodge the proverbial bus, our bodies will decay until one day we die. The idea of reversing this decay goes entirely against our experiential knowledge of the world. Yet time and again the tools of science reveal that the world is not as it seems. We are learning that ageing is not simply the inevitable decay we’ve assumed it to be.

Our bodies are not static structures. The cells lining our intestine turn over approximately every five days. Similarly, our skin cells last on average two weeks, our blood cells a few months and the cells in our liver turn over approximately once/year. The average age of our muscles is estimated at 15 years. Cells of the heart are longer lived, but they too turn over. There is a large variation in the lifetime of our brain cells: Olfactory neurons are short-lived, but the neurons of our visual and cerebral cortices may be the ones we were born with. The average age of the cells in an adult has been estimated to be something like 10 years.

Old cells die and new ones are born. The dying cells are those that have done specialized service (filtering urine, absorbing glucose, detoxifying drugs, secreting milk, engulfing bacteria, detecting odors, and so on). At the end of their life span cells undergo a process known as apoptosis, or programmed cell death, and housekeeping cells clear the debris away. New cells go through a program of specialization (known as differentiation) and assume the duties of the old cells.

The new cells are born from adult stem cells that reside in special niches in every tissue. Stem cells can divide indefinitely and with each division one of the daughters replaces the stem cell and the other becomes a progenitor for the differentiated cells of the tissue. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to produce any cell in the body – that is how we develop from sacs of cells – but so far as we know, adult stem cells are restricted in the variety of cells they can produce.

About five years ago scientists discovered that adding extra copies of a specific set of genes could convert differentiated adult cells (from your skin, for example) back into pluripotent stem cells – called iPSCs for induced Pluripotent Stem Cells. These cells earned the name “pluripotent” because their daughters can be enticed (by various combinations of hormones) to become any of a wide variety of differentiated cell types. iPSCs were big news medically because they suggested the possibility of grow-your-own replacements for diseased or damaged tissues. The original iPSCs caused cancer (in mice) and while it isn’t clear yet whether we will be able to overcome all of the problems that are hindering the use of iPSCs in tissue regeneration, these cells have already become hugely valuable for research. Ageing is one of the research areas that is benefitting from iPSCs.

Continue reading »

Apr 112011

Joe David Bellamy is the legendary founding editor of the magazine Fiction International, at one time champion of all that was new and bold in American writing. He is also a former president of both the AWP and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, and he served as Director of the Literature Program of the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1990s. A prolific author in his own right, Bellamy won the Editors’ Book Award for his novel Suzi Sinzinnati, and his collection of short fiction, Atomic Love, was an AWP Award Series Selection. His other books includeAtomic Love, Literary Luxuries, and The New Fiction. His essays, fiction and poetry have been published in: The Atlantic, The Nation, Harper’s, Narrative, Paris Review, Saturday Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and some seventy others. It’s a pleasure and privilege to present here the opening chapters of his just published family memoir Kindred Spirits.



Beulah Pearl Bellamy


The Most Beautiful Woman in the World

After the death of my mother made me an orphan in middle age—my father had died twenty-four years earlier—I developed a sudden interest in genealogy that was close to an obsession. I realized, fairly quickly, that this obsession was probably a certain form of bereavement, but that did not lessen its intensity. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with the feeling that my mother’s life and the immediate past of my whole extended family was in danger of being lost forever, as the far past was already lost. I was perhaps the first person in my lineage, a lineage that was undoubtedly ancient—as ancient as everyone else who is alive today—with the opportunity to discover whatever past was there, and I felt I had to take a stand about it. In spite of all the usual distractions, I was simply going to do it. I felt it as an important responsibility.

I was not interested in genealogy in order to prove that I was somebody, the legitimate heir to the English throne perhaps, or a descendant of the Pilgrims. The fact is I had come from a rather large extended family, and now—with the death of my mother—most of them were gone. I remembered them all vividly, mostly with affection, but no doubt I was feeling lonely. I had had children of my own, a daughter and a son, but they were out of the nest starting their own families now, living far away. I wanted to reclaim the sense of having a family once again.

Who were we anyway? We were, I supposed, an ordinary middle class family from the American Midwest, a family of white people, vaguely English (or Irish, I thought) with a little bit of German and Swiss from my mother’s side. We were basically standard whitebread Americans, just plain folks, people somehow without ethnicity or real history, yet people who had been lucky and privileged enough that, in the latter part of the twentieth century, we had been taught to feel a little bit guilty about being so white and so bland, so lacking in any specific cultural identity, as if we had reached whatever middling level of economic security we had attained through almost no effort at all, simply because we were white and ordinary.

In a tangible sense, I didn’t know who we were. I felt we needed to identify ourselves more clearly and fully, find out where we came from, when and under what circumstances we arrived in the places we called home, and pass this information on to future generations of descendants. This information was perishable, after all—some of it had surely perished already. It would be ignorant and careless of me not to do what I could to find out what was left and make it permanent, if possible—put it on a CD or bury it somewhere deep in the bowels of the Library of Congress—so that it might survive. Of course, I wouldn’t have minded if my ancestors all turned out to be decent and accomplished. But if there were horse thieves or worse, I wanted to know that too. I was determined to be ruthless—I wanted to know the truth, even if it might be unpleasant.

The last time I saw my mother, about two months before she died suddenly from a heart attack in 1998, we had spent an afternoon going through boxes of old photographs from her attic, many of which she had inherited from her own mother. She had pictures of herself as a child that I had never seen before—she was an adorable little girl—and as a ravishingly beautiful young woman, or so she seemed to me. At one point, marveling at the pictures, I blurted out something about her having been “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and I felt at the time that I probably should not have said it in spite of the fact that she seemed pleased and I felt it was true. It seemed a little silly and self-indulgent saying something like that to this sweet, wizened 79-year-old woman with age-spots on her forehead who was hardly a beauty of any kind at the time. What immoderately well-loved son does not believe his mother is beautiful? Still, after she died, I was more grateful that I had made that one rash statement than anything else I may have said that day.

She showed me pictures that afternoon that amazed me. For the first time in my life, I saw a photograph of my great grandmother, Hannah Siple, my mother’s mother’s mother. She was so far away in time; she had died long before I was born, and her life had been tragically sad. But I felt so close to her at that moment. Her life had made my life possible. I was certain we would have been close friends, if only because she resembled my mother so completely. I don’t quite know how to express this, but I wanted to speak to Hannah Siple. I wanted to be able to tell her that her misery had not been entirely in vain, that life she had set in motion had gone on and was going on still. That photograph of Hannah Siple was a revelation for me and led to a search for many other photographs—as many as I could find of all my missing family members.

Why did it take me so long to learn about Hannah Siple’s life and to come to a point in my own life that I could focus on her and come to include her in my idea of the family I had inherited? My family, like so many others, seemed to accept the tacit conviction that there was no way to know, finally, who our ancestors were. If our immediate relatives could not tell us about them, we assumed we would never know. When they did try to tell us what little they remembered, perhaps we were too young and preoccupied to listen.

Perhaps our ancestors had been so engaged in simply living their lives, of hacking their way through the wilderness, they forgot their history—or they never knew it—or they died before they could pass it on. It takes only one lost generation to engender oblivion. Perhaps because so many of them were living on the very edge of civilization, without the resources of civilization—including, in some cases, literacy itself—and perhaps suffering too from a kind of permanent homesickness, having left behind their own extended families—they let it slide away. Americans are, after all, the offspring of banished peoples—revolutionaries, renegades, rebels, and rabble-rousers—nonconformists, adventurers, indentured servants, slaves, religious fanatics, the offspring of murdered martyrs, and opportunists—the dispossessed from every corner of the world. Certainly my ancestors were exactly that sort of people—people, in some cases, who might have wanted to forget their pasts.

Or—as in the case of Rolla and Harriet, my mother’s parents—each inherited lovely, thick family histories, Rolla Zutavern for his mother’s family, the Spaldings, Harriet for her father’s family, the Kagys. There is evidence that they did read these genealogies. But perhaps, for them, the contents of these volumes seemed a little abstract and musty, something very far away. And the family histories they did inherit, though valuable, were hardly perfect. The Kagy genealogy listed my grandmother (the owner of the book when I discovered it) as dying when she was nine days old! Actually, she lived to be 89. The Spalding genealogy listed Mercy Mary Adams as if she were just any little Adams hausfrau who happened to marry a Spalding, and it said nothing about her incredible lineage (more about that to come)—because her lineage was not known to the collator (or to anyone else in the family).

Perhaps there are any number of plausible excuses for the muddle we had gotten into as a people apparently without a knowable past. But now all that has changed.

What I didn’t know at the time was that my sudden interest in genealogy coincided with a revolution, and that revolution is even bigger than the popular phenomenon that struck in the late seventies with Alex Haley’s Roots. Twenty years after Roots, family history hit the internet. All over the world, websites were launching, and they still are. The Mormons, with their enormous repository of genealogical data kept safe inside the Granite Mountain Vault in Utah—nuclear-bomb-proof and climate-controlled—were about to go on-line. Then they did!

Suddenly, through the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) at familysearch.org, it was possible to access information on more than a billion-and-a-half of the seven to eight billion humans who ever lived on the planet and who left names or records behind. Suddenly there was the U.S. Genweb Project, which made it possible to access a great many county birth/death/marriage/ probate/land and court records from almost any county in the U.S. in the comfort of your home via the internet. Suddenly there was Ancestry.com for census information and for archived family histories on-line. Suddenly the vast record holdings of the New England Historic Genealogical Society were available on the internet.

Suddenly it was possible to join a user group on-line where everyone involved was a cousin you never knew you had and the avowed purpose was to discover more about your common ancestors. Suddenly everyone and his uncle had a family history site on the web that listed the several trees within that family—with regular updates as new information was discovered and recorded. According to several sources, genealogy is now the second most popular subject area on the internet after pornography!—and if you try to access the LDS site on a Sunday afternoon, you will find out just how true this is. You can almost feel their huge servers straining under the torrent of hits.

With the help of the access to multiple worlds of knowledge made possible by the internet and the computer, genealogy might become the human equivalent of the genome project or constructing the first replica of the DNA molecule. Instead of looking at the two or three immediate generations of a family or a person—only those living or those whom the living remember—what if we could stand back at some greater distance from the teeming, then lost, lives within a family and examine ten generations or twenty generations or thirty generations? Not just one line of twenty or thirty generations but multiple lines or every single line—the whole picture. What giant patterns might emerge? What genetic tendencies might become clearer? If one could accomplish such a study within one’s own family, what better path to greater self-knowledge could one possibly find? What better way to understand one’s own inclinations and aptitudes?

What I am here to report is that such a thing is now possible, and I have done it—with unexpected results. It is a humbling experience to uncover and then to understand and to come to terms with the hundreds, the thousands, whose lives preceded one’s own. I started out by wondering how I could have made the choices I did that defined my modest life in my peculiar field, given that my immediate ancestors seemed so unlikely—and so unlike me. I ended up seeing exactly why I had made so many of the decisions that defined my life. I wish I had known sooner just where I came from. It might have made the choices easier.

Of course, it is one thing to find out and prove the names of one’s ancestors, and quite another to learn something worth knowing about the lives they lived. The names themselves seem valuable to me, and I still want to find more of them; but the names have little interest to anyone not in the immediate family, and sometimes not even to them. But the lives—if they can be learned—can be revelations. To discover the lives, if possible, became my goal; and what an enormous effort it took.

It’s true—one of the pleasures of genealogy is in solving mysteries—in finding where all the bodies are buried—and another is the purely clerical enjoyment in the working out of a gigantic crossword puzzle, filling in all the little boxes. But these are boxes that count for all time once you get them right, and the satisfaction of resurrecting some long forgotten soul, whose life was absolutely necessary to your own, and restoring them to their rightful place in the historical record, is gratifying.

Of course, some of what one finds out there is not all it seems—even the Mormon researchers are fallible. Their belief in the importance of the family and the sheer grandeur of their vision is admirable, and the work they have done to preserve records is an incalculable service to humankind. But their genealogy program is, after all, an arm of their missionary effort. Each church member is admonished to seek out his ancestors in order to perform various religious rites that will assure all can meet again in the Celestial Kingdom. Such motives coupled with the fact that even the uneducated among them must perform the same rituals may not be the best prescription for accuracy. Some observers are simply suspicious of any motivation that is not purely scientific.

Genealogical research is like any other research—its quality depends upon the experience, intelligence, care, and unbiased attitude of the researchers.

There are other good reasons why, up until now, genealogy has had a dubious reputation—somewhere between pseudo-science and fanaticism. In the early part of the 20th century in America many fraudulent genealogies were prepared for the nouveau riche who wished to prove they were descended from European aristocracy. If you could afford to pay a “genealogist,” you could receive impressive “proof” of such descent, and the Mormons had nothing at all to do with it. Unfortunately, some of these fictitious trees are still in circulation, and their presence, like bad science, mucks up the whole and sullies the reputation of the enterprise

Also, there is the age-old problem of paternal descent. Even if one finds good evidence from the record that so-in-so’s parents were Mr. and Mrs. So-in-So, how could anyone ever know with certainty it was true? You could be relatively certain that the child’s mother was actually the correct mother—if the record said so. But what about the father? Certainly you could never know that part with scientific exactitude. Therefore, why bother? Genealogy seemed to its detractors nothing more than an excuse for self-deception, wishful thinking, or self-aggrandizement. But now we have DNA testing! A father’s link to the next generation can be proven scientifically.

Even with the immense resources the internet makes possible—and the many breakthroughs and leads it may generate—there comes a time when there are no new sites to find, no one with good information you haven’t already talked to, and every new FamilyTreeMaker CD is just another dead end. You are in terra incognita, and that is when you are on your own and you have to start doing the original research yourself—traveling long days to distant courthouses and libraries, filling out National Archives forms and waiting for weeks for some tiny tidbit, making dopey phone calls to bewildered elderly cousins residing in nursing homes. And that is when you find out just how full of holes, lies, and not-so-inspired suppositions everything else you have found up until then may have been. It turns out there is an incredible lot of junk on the internet too—and sometimes in people’s recollections.

Nevertheless, in a few short years of working in the new world of information access and internet genealogy—plus taking my research to several remote courthouses in Virginia, to the LDS Library in Salt Lake City and the Daughters of the American Revolution Library in Washington, DC, to family reunions, to Jamestown, to Plymouth Rock, to the New York Public Library, to FamilyTreeDNA.com, to ancient houses and graveyards, including the site of the oldest brick house in America—I can now say with absolute surety: I know more than I ever thought I would know about my family and its history. In fact, I know more about my family than any member of my family has ever known before in the history of the world—and more than all but a handful of contemporaries have ever known about any family. I’ve located over 2000 direct ancestors and tens of thousands of others, and I know their names and, for some, I know about their lives.

This book is a family saga, and the saga of many, many families. It is not just about finding one’s great grandmother. It’s also about finding her great grandmother, and hers, and hers, and hers—back into time farther than you could have imagined—and grandfathers and great great great grandfathers too—with a degree of accuracy never before achieved. The acquisition and salvage of these lost generations is now attainable.


A Magical Relationship

My parents near the time of their elopement in 1938

Sometimes the barest genealogical details seem to suggest a story. I started to appreciate that when I first came across my relation to the Bulkeley family in 16th-century England.

Frances Bulkeley, born in 1568, had died in 1610 at age 42, and her sister Sarah Bulkeley, born in 1580, had died a year later at age 31. Yet both had lived long enough, according to the record, to bear children who outlived them, who carried on and bore children of their own. I immediately started to wonder what might have caused these sisters to die so young; perhaps they had died in childbirth or from the plague. I imagined that Sarah, the younger sister, who was my father’s ancestor, must have been devastated when Frances died and probably had no inkling that she would be dead herself within a year.

I imagined the sisters as very close—I imagined that Frances, who was twelve years older than Sarah, had been like a mother to her; and I imagined Sarah grieving for her, in particular, for that reason, grieving more than the others and grieving for a longer time.

I felt lucky to have scraped by myself, because if Sarah had not married Mr. Oliver St. John in 1597 and given birth to a son in London in 1604, I would not be here today to tell about it. I felt astonished to realize that I had had ancestors who were contemporaries of Shakespeare. But, of course, everyone who is alive today had ancestors who were contemporaries of Shakespeare. Of course they did.

The day I discovered the Bulkeley sisters was a red letter day at the LDS site. The line I was following went all the way back to 1300 with incredibly detailed documentation. The Bulkeley sisters were descendants of William De Bulkeley, born after 1300, and Maude Davenport, daughter of Sir John Davenport and Margery Brereton. Sir John Davenport and Lady Margery sounded like the kind of people I wouldn’t mind claiming as members of my family, even if they did live seven hundred years ago.

In 1938, my father, a direct descendant of Sir John Davenport and, later, of Sarah Bulkeley, turned down a humped back country road near Bloomville, Ohio. He was a lonely, divorced 30-year-old vacuum cleaner salesman from the Ohio River town of Portsmouth, a branch manager with a new car and a rakish reddish mustache. He turned in the driveway at my grandmother’s farm and knocked on the door. While he was attempting to sell my grandmother an Airway vacuum cleaner, he noticed my mother’s picture in a gilt frame on top of the piano and he said, without hesitation, that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

My grandmother informed him that the woman was not a woman at all but only her eldest daughter Beulah, who was not yet twenty years old. My father replied that her daughter had the loveliest eyes he had ever seen on a human face, including any movie star she would care to name. She might not realize it yet, he said, but her daughter was indeed a woman. Half an hour later, my grandmother bought the vacuum cleaner.

My father was an affable, persuasive man who was not above flattery, but he seldom lied about his true feelings. A few weeks later he stopped by unexpectedly at the Zutavern farm—to see how the vacuum cleaner was performing, he said. My 19-year-old mother, who had returned from college in the meantime, was on the phone when he walked into the room, accepting a blind date. After she hung up, he said spontaneously: “It’s really too bad you accepted that date because I was going to ask you out myself.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said. “I can break it.” There was a kind of instant recognition between them that the attraction they felt for each other was serious.

After they had been out a few times, my father tried to coax my mother to return with him to his hotel room. But she wouldn’t go. My father said it was very discouraging to him that she didn’t trust him. My mother said: “Oh, I trust you, Jim, but my mother always told me that I should never do anything that might have the appearance of evil.” (I never heard her say anything even faintly like this again.) Two weeks later, they eloped!

My parents were deeply, romantically, in love their whole lives together; and they stayed in love for the better part of four decades—until my father died—and, of course she never stopped loving him after he was gone. They held hands in public like teenagers, even in their sixties.

Now here comes the scary part of the story. One day while I was working on my mother’s Spalding line, I found that Benjamin Spalding, her gggggg grandfather had married a woman named Olive Farwell, born in 1647 in Concord, Massachusetts. Olive’s father was Henry Farwell, an Englishman, and her mother was named Olive Welby, born in 1604 in England. Olive Welby was the daughter of Richard Welby and Frances Bulkeley.

When I hit upon the name Frances Bulkeley, it didn’t register at first. I had been plowing through hundreds of names, and I remembered that I had seen the name Bulkeley, a possible precursor of “Buckley,” before. But it had been a while since I had been working on my father’s line, and I was not sure where I had seen it.

The truth came to me in the middle of the night, and I got out of bed to compare the genealogical lines on my various print-outs. The connection caused the hair to stand up on my arms and on the back of my neck as if a chilly wind had blown in through an open window. My father was a direct descendant of Sarah Bulkeley, who died in 1611. My mother was a direct descendant of her sister Frances Bulkeley, who died in 1610, and who, I imagined, had been so deeply mourned by her younger sister Sarah.

In other words, roughly 400 years earlier, two daughters of Rev. Edward Bulkeley and Olive Irby, Frances (1568-1610) and Sarah (1580-1611), married, gave birth, and died in England. Their respective descendants were born, grew up, moved from place to place, married into several different families, had children, and died. Roughly 375 years after their births, my father (Sarah’s gggggggggg grandson) married my mother (Frances’ ggggggggg granddaughter). Need I add that, during their lifetimes, my parents had absolutely no idea about this connection, though, had they known, I think it would have delighted them.

If it is true that—in some respects—we are born to fulfill the unrealized dreams of our ancestors, then was there something of Sarah’s longing to be reunited with her departed sister Frances in my father’s love of my mother? and something of Frances’ almost maternal love for Sarah in her love for him? Who can say?

—Joe David Bellamy

Praise for Kindred Spirits


“It’s easy to understand the temptations of genealogy, the apparent promise of being able to locate oneself in space and time, acquiring, if one is lucky, a bona fide sliver of something like divine perspective. What’s remarkable about Kindred Spirits is Joe David Bellamy’s ability to make a private quest into a work of fascination and suspense for his readers.”

—Kathryn Harrison, New York Times Bestselling author

“Kindred Spirits is a wise, wild ride, written with wit and energy and charm, and packed with stories that read like fiction. By the last page you’ll have read a surprising history of America, and you’ll have a new notion of just how eerily connected we all are.”

—Josephine  Humphreys, author of Nowhere Else on Earth

“I really enjoyed this book! Joe David Bellamy’s Kindred Spirits is so engaging, charmingly inclusive, and skillfully and tenderly spooned out, there is real comfort here in the universal message that many of us may quite possibly be at least cousins.

An exceptional and compelling new breed of memoir, history lesson, genealogy tutorial, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, personal meditation, and fireside seat-gripper, Kindred Spirits is rich with stunners and head-spinners that both entertain and leave the reader pondering the nature of chance and destiny that inform all of our origin tales. It will be hard to read this and not decide you are related to Joe David Bellamy.”

—Steve Amick, author of The Lake, the River & the Other Lake and Nothing But a Smile