Dec 162011
 

 

The Irish writer John Banville once said, “Under the artist’s humid scrutiny the object grows warm, it stirs and shies, giving off the blush of verisimilitude; the flash of his relentless gaze strikes and the little monsters rise and walk, their bandages unfurling.”  Brad Watson’s characters come to life thusly, little monsters dreaming through Gulf Coast towns, lazing on the beach, jumping off garage roofs, walking into the path of shotguns, being abducted by aliens or seduced by palm-reading, poolside gypsies. His stories are inhabited by flawed, fascinating and fully realized characters. They come to life in places so heartbreaking and familiar, so thoughtfully imagined, that to read a Brad Watson story is to leave yourself, which is the point, after all.

Watson was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1955. He now lives in Wyoming and teaches writing and literature at the University of Wyoming. A self-described ‘misanthrope’, Watson was anything but misanthropic over the course of several email exchanges and a phone interview. Warm, affable, funny and blunt, Watson’s personality is a mirror of his writing. What’s most admirable about his stories are their willingness to stare life down, in all of its infinite complexity and messiness. His characters survive, even transcend, the darkest moments of being, and though the journey is often dark, it is also tender, funny and real. They are abundantly human stories,  yet dreamy, wispy things in their rendering.

 Watson has written two collections of short stories. His first, The Last Days of the Dog Men, won the Sue Kaufmann Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,  was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize in Fiction and the St. Francis College Literary Award.  Two of his stories, “Visitation” and “Alamo Plaza,” were selected as PEN/O’Henry Award winners and included in the 2010 and 2011 PEN /O’Henry anthologies respectively. His novel, The Heaven of Mercury, was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award.

I reach him in his office in Laramie. It is late afternoon, and he has just finished making copies of his students’ theses. Watson speaks softly, with just a hint of a Mississippi drawl, more noticeable in the slow cadence of his words than by any twang in his speech. He asks if can call me back because his son has phoned with a homework problem. His son is a senior in high school and lives in Alabama. Watson apologizes (unnecessarily) for the interruption. We talk for the better part of an hour. At times, I lose track of the fact that I’m trying to takes notes on what he’s saying because I find the conversation so interesting.

—Richard Farrell

 

Making the Little Monsters Walk: An Interview with Brad Watson

 By Richard Farrell

 

Richard Farrell (RF): I’d like to start with a question The Paris Review once asked of Arthur Koestler: What do you dislike most of all?

Brad Watson (BW): (laughing) Rules. Rules and the people who follow rules, who are obsessed with keeping them and enforcing them. Assholes who get uptight and yell at you if you cross the street the wrong way. That kind of bullshit. But you can apply it across the board.

RF: You’ve travelled around a lot.  You’ve grew up in Mississippi and you lived and worked in Alabama, Florida, in Los Angeles and Boston. You’ve lived in Wyoming for the last 6 years. And one of the things that struck me about your writing is how deeply important a sense of place is to your work. I wonder if your sensibility about place in your writing evolved out of so much movement in your personal life.

BW: In a sense, yes. My life and imagination are deeply rooted in Mississippi and Alabama, so my stories still seem to arise from that and there. But being away also intensifies that imaginative connection and even frees it up, somewhat. You’re able to be there in your head, unaffected by the present circumstances of actually being there. So in a way it’s more purely imagined.

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Dec 162011
 

Brad Watson’s novella, “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,” is like a recursive dream.  You’re never certain about where one dream ends and where reality (or the next dream) begins.  At first glance, it appears to be a simple love story about Will and Olivia, two high school kids living in Mississippi. When Olivia becomes pregnant, they marry, rent a small apartment near a mental hospital and suffer through an oppressive, breezeless summer. Their ambitious love-making disturbs the landlady; their families object to the arrangement; they survive on leftovers and beer. One night, Will wakes and finds a strange couple sitting in his living room. They are familiar yet unnervingly strange. “‘We’re what you might call aliens,’ the woman said.” After this, things change in the story, in dramatic, funny, hopeful and heartbreaking ways.

Watson has re-written the contemporary love story. He challenges the basic assumptions of dreaming and waking states, questioning the idea of destiny and meaning. Part fantasy, part social commentary, part meta-fiction, part Southern Gothic, part autobiography, Watson’s novella bends conventional boundaries in weird and wild ways.  “Young people don’t just drive around, bored, drinking beer and crashing into trees and other vehicles, slashing and flailing away at one another in parking lots and vacant lots out of rage or boredom,” thinks the narrator near the end of Aliens.  Watson makes you wistful for those times.

Watson has written two collections of short stories. His first, The Last Days of the Dog Men, won the Sue Kaufmann Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,  was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize in Fiction and the St. Francis College Literary Award.  Two of his stories, “Visitation” and “Alamo Plaza,” were selected as PEN/O’Henry Award winners and included in the 2010 and 2011 PEN /O’Henry anthologies respectively. His novel, The Heaven of Mercury, was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award.

Read an interview with Brad Watson here at Numéro Cinq.

—Richard Farrell

 

From “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives”

By Brad Watson

 

 

In the moment after the couple from the asylum had left us that previous night, when I had begun to construct our little paradise in my mind, Olivia had awakened, dressed quietly, crept from the house, down the steps from the rickety deck, and walked away.

As she walked, and as dawn seeped into the cooled August air, the landscape began to change until she knew she was no longer in our little hometown.  It was as if she didn’t know where she was, or where she wanted to be, and the landscape continually reshaped itself with the beautiful, disorienting whorl of a kaleidoscope turned by an invisible hand.

She put her own hand to her belly as she walked.  It was flat and soft.  Well, that was gone.  That had ceased to exist.  That was not a problem anymore.

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Dec 152011
 

“Why don’t clouds float along the ground?” one of the young girls in Jane Campion’s short film “The Water Diary” asks. The film itself meditates on things as unreachable as these: the clouds, a child’s comprehension of all these adult mistakes, and any solution to the environmental disaster these people are enduring.

Campion’s contribution to the United Nations’ 8 film project tackles the seventh goal of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Goals: “ensure environmental sustainability.” Numero Cinq already presented the fifth film, Jan Kounen’s “”The Story of Panshin Beka” (you can see it and the intro here). The film shares a quirkiness with the Jane Campion’s “Passionless Moments” short films which Numero Cinq also presented (you can see them here).

The film places the central issue in the hands and imaginations of children. The child whose diary narrates the film has a perspective limited by her innocence but unlimited by her imagination. She cannot see where the horses have gone at first, her friend calls the central issue “global warning,” and she imagines impossible worlds where there are clouds on the ground and dancing mattresses. So where the adult response to the catastrophe in the film is to have dreams of rain and commit awful sacrifices, the children are able to each take their own small steps and imagine a possible solution.

What fuels the children and this story is the way the children seem to understand sacrifice and pain better than the adults. The horses provide the most visceral and material metaphor for the price these children are paying for their parents’ poor environmental choices. The narrative sees no solution in this sacrifice though, just further adult missteps. As one child warns, “If they think we’re going to look after them when they’re older, they can just forget about it.”

Campion uses extreme long shots to emphasize the landscape and its relationship to the small children in it. The children often appear in the lower corners of the frame or to the side, as in the last shot of the girl playing the viola. Though the children are perhaps diminished, what Campion emphasizes through these shots is how connected these children are to their environment and that small gestures, even single tears in a glass of water, can cause change.

Campion leaves the ending ambiguous. On the one hand what we imagine comes next depends on our own cynicism or imagination. On the other, the point of this story is not the rain, but the spirit, drive and sacrifice to cause change in the world – to fix what has been broken.

–RWGray

Dec 142011
 

Sprezzatura is a Renaissance term/style: nonchalant, natural, apparently careless though, in fact, the opposite—a pose in a sense, an attitude, a rhetorical stance.

Alan Michael Parker is a poet-novelist, that is, he began his career as a poet, has published five volumes of poetry, an impressive and expanding opus. The last book Elephants & Butterflies is, as it should be, perhaps his best, confident, urban, urbane, knowing, acerbic, witty, quick, cutting and surprising. Parker has a way of talking about God and TV dreck in the same moment. He has made sprezzatura his own.

Dear God who made me act
in whose gaze I am rerun
now I lay me down

Alan is an old friend and colleague from dg’s stint as the McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College in North Carolina. He had the good taste to marry a Canadian, the painter Felicia van Bork. He is a prolific poet and a novelist, a poet-novelist, a wry, energetic presence with a gift for teaching and satire.

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Sprezzatura with Two Rabbits

By Alan Michael Parker

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Talking to the two rabbits in the herb garden, I could be Gerald Stern,
the way he talks to everything, my god,
and really Gerald Stern is always singing to everything,
and everything is singing back.

I tell the rabbit on the left her name is Plato,
and the rabbit on the right she’ll have to wait for a name
because so many names are just a necessarily lesser quality
of an original thing. I call both rabbits “she.”

I describe to the rabbits Gerald Stern’s childhood in Pittsburgh,
his Greek roses and his Borscht Belt beauty and his poem about Auden;
predictably, the rabbits don’t seem to care about my story,
jittery and motionless in their agitation, while the stiller I have to stand

to keep my audience, the more some muscle in my left arm
starts to twitch like a bad rhyme,
or like a captive princess kicking over the table
in a fable when the witch wants rabbit stew.

But since I killed so many rabbits in a poem in 1996
with a shotgun—my best weapon then, before I learned to
write about my family—I feel too guilty in advance
to kill and skin and cook and eat

a rabbit named Plato or her pal.
Writing poems makes me hungry for what I can’t have, sometimes,
which I think Plato probably knew about poetry, but I need to Google it.
FGI, I tell myself all the time, Fucking Google It.

But now one of the rabbits is named Plato and the other’s Gerald Stern,
a combo I’m surprised by, although I suspect that
this poem suspected so all along, and named both rabbits
“she” only as a ruse. Hop away, hop, hop,

hop away free, you bunnies: go back to the greatness
of the garden, your fur dusted with sage and thyme, your lives
opening into a warren filled by the mind of God,
with carrot tops, twenty-seven brothers and sisters, and endless sex;

free of the human need to name, or our crude ambitions
to see whatever light we hope to see,
and hop up and down as we shout the light! the light!
before we’re gobbled up by mystery.

—Alan Michael Parker

Dec 132011
 

Kazushi Hosaka ©Yomiuri Shimbun
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The In-Between Generation

A Review of Kazushi Hosaka’s Novel Plainsong

By Brianna Berbenuik

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Plainsong
Kazushi Hosaka
Translated by Paul Warham
Dalkey Archive Press
176 pages; $17.95

Kazuchi Hosaka’s first novel Plainsong is full of characters who read like Japanese versions of Bret Easton Ellis’s narcissistic, directionless young Americans.

They seem trapped in limbo, on an aimless pursuit while an older generation overtakes them. They suffer from what you might call premature nostalgia, a Quixotic expectation, an empty yearning for something that doesn’t exist for their generation but was ever-present for generations before.

Hosaka’s characters are like ghosts; they are never quite fully fleshed out and remain incomplete – an eerie transience, in a sense trapped in the plight of their generation. None of the characters is particularly rebellious, though perhaps the more eccentric ones, like the jobless and outwardly childish Akira, think of themselves as rebels.  They are, after all, an “in between” generation.

Hosaka was born 1956 within the same decade as two better-known Japanese authors: Haruki Murakami (IQ84 and Kafka on the Shore) and Ryu Murakami (Almost Transparent Blue and Coin Locker Babies). Haruki Murakami established himself as a literary giant with a distinctive style often aligned with magic realism (in Plainsong the nameless protagonist mentions that he once wrote an article about Haruki Murakami); Ryu Murakami writes about sex, drugs and the disenfranchised youth of Japan; Kazushi Hosaka, in contrast, has taken on the subtle and quiet themes of everyday people, exploring relationships with a delicacy and sensitivity that gives his writing a “naked” feel without being too revealing.

Hosaka’s prose is sparse and minimalist. His slender novel is a meandering journey, almost dream-like despite the plain, everyday details.  The action takes place in 1986 (when Hosaka would have been thirty). The nameless narrator’s girlfriend has just left him; he suddenly finds himself accumulating a steady stream of strange house guests.  The novel allows you to watch the characters through the eyes of the narrator, but does not allow you intimate access to their thoughts or feelings.  They are passing acquaintances; simple, transient people entering and exiting the reader’s field of view in the course of the novel.  At the end, they are easy to let go.  Like a passing satellite view – you’re there, then you’re gone and over different terrain.

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Dec 122011
 

Xu Xi (Photo by W. McGuire)

 

XU XI is the current (2009-2012) Faculty Chair of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program, an old friend, and colleague. This short story “Lady Day” is XU XI channeling Charles Dickens, at least to the extent that she originally wrote it for serial publication in the Hong Kong magazine Muse, much as Dickens did with his novels (serial publication, not in Hong Kong–in London–oh, the horror of dangling modifiers!). XU XI used to live in Plattsburgh, NY, and oscillate back and forth to New York. Often she would stop in Saratoga Springs, and she and dg would have coffee at a restaurant called  Scallions. There is less of that now, regrettably, since XU XI spends much more of her time in her native Hong Kong where she also teaches writing. DG misses those visits. But it is some consolation to be able to publish this lovely story, which, besides being in the magazine, also appears in XU XI’s brand new collection Access Thirteen Tales (Signal 8 Press, 2011). See early reviews of the book here http://www.susanbkason.com/2011/11/14/book-of-the-week-access/ and here at The Hindu.

XU XI is a Chinese-Indonesian Hong Kong native and the author of nine books of fiction and essays, including the novel Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010), shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.  In 2010 she was named Writer-in-Residence at the Department of English, City University of Hong Kong, where she established and directs the first international low-residency MFA in creative writing that focuses on Asia and writing of Asia. “Lady Day” was serialized in a three-part bilingual (Chinese/English) publication in Muse, Hong Kong, Issue 11, 2007 & Issues 12 & 13, 2008. 

dg
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Lady Day

by XU XI

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It’s the stiff collar—tightly buttoned, covering the entire neck—that draws the eye to the lips. Makeup, high heels, and the walk are second nature; thighs—firm, barely, silkily there—flash through the fitting cheongsam’s side slits. Their glances, discreet or longing, slide up the leg, over the hip, away from the front and round back to where my black hair falls, like some endangered feline’s tail, long enough to sit on. I pass as easily here in Amsterdam as in New York, with less complications.

Medical complications are something else. Outwardly, nothing’s changed, not yet. But inwardly, I feel different, and know that the onset about which I’ve been warned has probably begun. There are things inside you can’t deny, and the best physicians and all the money in the world won’t yield the desired return.

Right now, though, I’ll live these nights, playacting a little longer. Tonight’s the “dynamic duo.” Double jeopardy, double the return. It’s their third transaction this week, the last night of their little “business trip” to the continent. They’re having the time of their life. Those boys obviously like my wares.

What I miss, what I’ll never get back, is the rush of control, the game of being her. Running the whole show on my terms. Many returned. Repeat business; Bernard taught me well.

Waan yuen, as Daddy might have said. Party’s over. No one to blame, not even Hewitt.

But most of all, I’ve missed daylight.

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Dec 122011
 

Herewith an excerpt from Plainsong, a novel by Kazushi Hosaka, translated from the Japanese by Paul Warham and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press. Plainsong was heralded by the Japan Times as a “laid-back celebration of the empty and the ordinary” that “reads like a Jean-Luc Godard movie scripted by Samuel Beckett with added jokes by Richard Brautigan and Charles Bukowski.” NC’s reviewer, Brianna Berbenuik, writes: “Hosaka’s characters are like ghosts; they are never quite fully fleshed out and remain incomplete – an eerie transience, in a sense trapped in the plight of their generation. None of the characters is particularly rebellious, though perhaps the more eccentric ones, like the jobless and outwardly childish Akira, think of themselves as rebels.  They are, after all, an ‘in between’ generation.”

dg

Excerpt from Plainsong

By Kazushi Hosaka

Translated by Paul Warham

 

All of this made me feel like talking things over with Yumiko again. I called her after lunch the next day from a phone booth near Ebisu station. She picked up on the third ring.

“Hello, stranger. I’m just breast-feeding at the moment, actually.” I had to laugh—this seemed an odd way to start a conversation over the phone with someone who didn’t call more than once in a blue moon. But maybe she talked about this kind of thing with everybody.

“Don’t be silly—you’re not just anybody. But come to think of it, I wouldn’t want to work with anyone unless I felt comfortable talking to them about this kind of thing, so maybe it comes to the same thing. Maybe I do talk about it with just about everyone—everyone I know, anyway.” I had another question, though: how long was it normal to breast-feed a child for?

“I don’t know. I mean, my kid has been eating normal food for ages now. But I decided to keep on breast-feeding till he’s five.”

“Wow.”

“Didn’t I mention it before?” Yumiko asked, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. “I think it’s good to provide a child with a strong maternal presence for as long as possible. Don’t they say it helps give a child a more optimistic outlook on life?”

“Who says so?”

“Ah, maybe I just made it up. Anyway, that’s what I think.”

I couldn’t imagine any child of hers being troubled by a pessimistic or gloomy outlook.

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