Jun 282012
 

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Elizabeth Babyn is a Saskatoon artist currently showing her mixed media installation, Sacred Connections, at loop Gallery in Toronto. The show features a “Unity Quilt,” constructed from Japanese Washi paper, paint on textile, and a collection of writings and images Elizabeth has collected from spritual texts, strangers and people she knows. She has stitched these together to express the underlying unity of all religions and philosophies, whether personal or institutional.

Elizabeth describes her inspiration for the “Unity Quilt”: “My ideas developed because I was working with the Fibonacci Number Sequences and Sacred Geometry within nature. The more I worked with them, the more evident it became that everything is connected. The same images occur in DNA and in natural objects. I wanted to find a way to express that [connection]…My original idea for the quilt was to weave scriptures from different religions together, but I decided to add other voices, to incorporate everyone’s voice, to give everyone an equal voice.”

“My previous show was entitled, Illumination. It started with a visit to Italy where I went into these beautiful cathedrals. When you go into a cathedral, temple or mosque, they all have the same meditative feeling. Investigating architecture, I found out that, from the earliest days, they used Sacred Geometry to build many of these structures.”

“I’d used Gin Washi paper before in the Washi show [in Toronto] in 2008, when I was dealing with the subject of forgiveness…I loved the way that material behaved and knew I wanted to work with stitches again. The stitches were a wonderful metaphor for healing, and unifying the quilt. When you’re stitching, you’re creating pathways…symbolic of journeys.”

“I started randomly putting [cut-out] words onto the blocks [of Washi paper], like those fridge-poetry magnets, then I started using complete thoughts, but deliberately shuffling them…one sentence goes into another, becoming a metaphor for mediating, and causing a distortion of the text, which is what has happened throughout antiquity with spiritual writings like the Bible, which has been edited a lot. Look, even today, at all of the different interpretations.”

It was Elizabeth’s dog who gave her permission to cut text from a favourite book on forgiveness. She came home one day to find the book, along with some household objects, in shreds. When she pushed the dog away, he slid across the floor, grinning, making her laugh, and transforming her anger into understanding.

As with Yoko Ono‘s “Wish Trees,” the public will have an opportunity to write their own guiding principles or truths, which Elizabeth will later add to the “Unity Quilt.” She says,  “The quilt is unfinished…I intend to have three paths symbolizing our individual journeys, the many ways to get to where we need to be. We often feel separate but as the paths start moving onto the wall, they…[connect] to the quilt.”

—Kim Aubrey

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Unity Quilt

Uni.

Fibonacci 1a (acrylic on canvas)

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Fibonacci 2b (acrylic on canvas)

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Fibonacci Sequences 1 (mixed media collage)

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Fibonacci Sequences 2 (mixed media collage)

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Sacred Connections 1 (mixed media collage)

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Sacred Connections 3 (mixed media collage)

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Sacred Connections 6 (mixed media collage)

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Sorting the quilt

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Organizing the Quilt

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Atonement (Gin Washi collage)

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Elizabeth Babyn obtained her BFA in Drawing and Painting at the Ontario College of Art and Design. She and her husband relocated from Caledon, Ontario, to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in the early spring of 2011. Babyn has participated in group and solo shows in Ferrara, Italy, Toronto and the surrounding ares, with galleries that include Propeller, Spin, loop, SGI, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. She has been a member of loop Gallery since 2003.

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Jun 272012
 

Photo by Dani Werner

It is my great pleasure to introduce Mary François Rockcastle and her fiction to the pages of Numéro Cinq. I met Mary in an airport shuttle, both of us homebound to Minneapolis after the AWP conference in Chicago. Whereas I was completely exhausted and could have passed among the living dead, Mary seemed energetic, friendly and grounded. Chatting with her in Midway terminal was a perfect anodyne for post-AWP fatigue. Later, when I met with Mary in St. Paul to discuss her most recent novel, In Caddis Wood, I wasn’t surprised to learn that she has extended this same amount of energy throughout the renaissance of the Twin Cities’ burgeoning literary community. Indeed, Mary is a pioneer and champion of Minnesota literature: Mary and her colleagues launched Minnesota’s first MFA in Creative Writing program at Hamline University; she founded Hamline’s literary journal, Water Stone Review and remains its executive editor. Mary is the founding dean of Hamline’s Graduate Liberal Studies program as well as its Director of Creative Writing Programs.

But this list of career accomplishments (which is not all-inclusive) is to say nothing of the fact that Mary also writes books. Earlier in her writing career, Mary created a writing refuge in Minneapolis’s Loft Literary Center to make time to write after hours. Her ensuing dedication resulted in two novels—Rainy Lake and In Caddis Wood—both published by Graywolf Press and both nominated for a Minnesota Book Award in 1995 and 2012 respectively. The longer gestation period novels is not surprising. In Caddis Wood is a product of tireless research—a thoughtful study in botany, architecture, medicine and poetry. In Caddis Wood ultimately pays tribute to the midwestern landscapes of urban Minneapolis and the woods of Wisconsin––a place that becomes a fully-formed character in its own complexity and reveals a fragile symbiosis between humans and nature in the novel’s thematic undercurrent. The narrative oscillates between the two distinct points of view and voices of Hallie and Carl, whose storytelling reflects on their long marriage, weaving seamlessly between memory and the present day as they encounter Carl’s quickly-degrading health. In Caddis Wood has received praises from Publisher’s Weekly and the Star Tribune, which hailed Mary Rockcastle’s “remarkable accomplishment to find in [these] everyday occurrences a story of great moment.”

In chapter twelve excerpted below, Carl suffers from advanced stages of Shy Drager Syndrome, finding himself in a semi-lucid state that blurs memory with present day, the living with the dead. The chapter is a convergence of characters: Cory and Bea are Carl and Hallie’s daughters, Joe and Marnie are their neighbors. Among the dead are Tim, Cory’s former partner, and Alice, the former proprietress of Carl and Hallie’s cabin home.

— Mary Stein

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HE CAN hardly speak now, only manages to scribble a few words.  Hallie is good at interpreting his broken sentences and sprawled lines.  He is a book, its pages laid out in front of her, written in a language only she can understand.  She resists the gradual wasting away of his body, insisting on his daily exercises, pouring lotion on his peeling skin, feeding him as if he is a growing child and not a dying man.

Each morning she rolls the hospital bed onto the porch and as close to the window as possible, raising it so he’s in a sitting position and can see out.  She cracks the window open a few inches.  The drama in his head is as vivid as anything he sees on the television or DVD player.  Sounds enter the constantly evolving film in his imagination: part real, part memory, part what happens when the different tracks collide and merge.  He doesn’t know how much is caused by the illness, the cells in his brain ossifying like the rest of his body.  After years of intense industry, his mind and body filling and using each moment, he has become friends with slowness.  He is acutely aware of his surroundings, of each tiny change in his body and in the world he can see and hear.

He hears the pop, pop, bang of frozen trees.  Swelling fibres of wood bursting and cracking.  The rustle of cattails beside the stream, the ruffed grouse striking the white pine’s brittle branches, Hallie making coffee in the kitchen.  He can hear his mother and father talking softly, thinking he’s asleep—one of their happier moments, making plans for Sunday at the beach.  He’s in and out of the arcing waves, waits eagerly for the white froth to rise over his shoulder before he dives forward, bodysurfing the wave in to shore.  Gritty sand against his stomach.

Soft clacking and crunching beneath the pines, snapping brush, skitters across frozen snow.  Loud echo of a snapping branch, which clatters to the ground.  Bittersweet berries flash scarlet on the bank and Bea in her red hat and Cory in her blue are rolling a head for the snowman.  Tim’s curly hair is uncovered.  They wind Lucas’ woolen scarf around the snowman’s neck, put one of Carl’s fishing hats on the head.  Cory throws a snowball and they tumble over each other in the snow.

Sometimes he hears Alice’s voice, which is impossible since she was dead by the time they bought the summer cabin.  But he knows it’s her.  She and Hallie were right about the garden.  All his grand schemes—flowers and shrubs and soil carted in, fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, fences, screens.  Nature laughing at him.  Now, when spring comes, the meadow will bloom with native prairie grasses and wildflowers.  Shrubbery planted along the edge of the house and meadow will provide food and cover for grouse, birds, the red fox family, woodchucks, and other animals.  Hallie, with Joe’s help, has kept up the vegetable garden, though he suspects she’ll let it go once he’s gone.

He hears other voices, too.  They began as a whisper, more than the sounds and music nature made.  He listened hard, thought his mind was playing tricks or that the disease had entered his brain and was causing auditory synapses to misfire.  The whisper grew and multiplied, became a chorus, until one day the sounds held meaning for him.  Anima antiqua, Alice wrote in her notebook, the spirit that’s lived in a place for a long time.  He hears it beneath the snow, the frozen ground.  He hears it in the creaking branches, inside the whispering stream.

we are out we are inside the house     we were here before     we have our own lives hidden in the dark     we nest inside the walls, beneath the floor     we shudder and pop     tap tap tap     we’re hungry     we sleep     we dig our roots deep we die     we return we listen we love in our own way     we remember     we are born in the dark we reach up toward the light

His mind is a camera, memories sharp as photographs.  The house on that first visit: dull brown linoleum, dusty books, gray husks on sills.  In the closet hung Henry’s parkas, flannel shirts, Alice’s hand-knit sweaters.  Beneath them boots, bathinette, Swedish linens.  Photographs: Alice’s mother against the Baltic Sea, Alice at age twelve—white middy blouse and knickers.  Henry in his waders, Will in his Marine’s uniform.  Hallie peers through the cloudy kitchen window.  When she removes her hat, her hair tumbles like a rain of sugar maple leaves.  He blinks and they are inside the tent and she is tweezing ticks off his body.  In the light of the kerosene lantern against the walls of the tent, she takes off her blouse.  He gazes at her graceful neck, the swing of her hair, her perfect breasts.

Hallie steps up behind him and wraps her arms around him, careful not to hurt him.  For a moment he’s unsure where he is, whether they are here on this porch on a winter morning or there, inside the tent, the house silent in the dark.  The birdfeeder spins and he remembers.

When he was a young man, he thought the body was everything.  He looked at women, even after he was married, and lusted after their bodies.  At night he’d wake and roll toward Hallie and just the feel of her skin or the smell of her hair made him harden with desire.  He’d press against her, helpless to stop it, even though he knew she was sleeping and didn’t want it.  Sometimes his drive was so great he woke her and she turned to him and let him come inside.  Years later he felt the coldness in her back, her anger and his hurt and the loneliness in each of them.  Then she fell in love with someone else, though he didn’t know it, only that he needed to go after her, make her believe in him again.

Now, when he can no longer string sounds into words, when his body is useless, when all sexual desire and function are gone, he reads her love for him in her eyes, feels it in the touch of her hands, the sound of her voice as she reads to him.  He is surprised at how busy she keeps herself, how cheerful she is most days—humming or singing as she cooks or does housework, silent only when she reads or writes or works at the computer.  Was she always this busy and happy in her daily life?  Did the darkness descend only when he was present?  She does not hover or interrupt his reverie.  After years of simple meals, when she was teaching full time and writing, she enjoys cooking again.  He loves the smells, warmth emanating from the kitchen.  She wraps up what’s left over and takes it to Joe and Marnie’s, freezes it for Cordelia, who visits regularly, gives it to Father O’Neil, the priest from St. Luke’s Church in Spooner who comes once a week to give him Communion.

He hears a cupboard in the kitchen opening and closing, a pot against the stove.  Soon the room fills with the smell of onions, beef, and vegetables.  When the girls were little, he moved their high chairs side by side, pinned bibs around their necks as he fed them creamed carrots from a jar.  Their orange faces stare back at him from the window pane.  Cordelia chortles and spits carrots back at him.  Bea blows hers into bubbles that dribble onto the tray.  They laugh as he swipes at their faces with the washcloth.

Hallie pulls up a chair and a small table where she sets a steaming bowl of soup, plate of bread, and two cotton towels.  One she lays across his upper chest and the other she hangs over her shoulder.  She blows on the surface of the soup.  He sees the tiny puckers in her lower lip, the downy hair on her skin.  When she spills, she lifts the towel from her shoulder and deftly wipes his mouth and chin.

After, she puts on a stack of CDs and bundles up to go out.  Each day she walks to the county road, five miles there and back.  Unless it’s below zero, and then she goes only as far as the red gate.  “Need anything?” she calls.  Seeing by his face that he’s all right, she waves and shuts the door.  He hears the crunch of her boots on the path.  A wing flickers to his left and a rare chickadee lands on the feeder.  tap tap tap     cheer-up cheerily cheer-up cheerily, what-cheer cheer what-cheer cheer

The house shifts and groans.  Beneath the floor the pine snake sleeps in an S-shaped coil.  Eggs lie dormant in the sill between panes of glass.  A red squirrel plucks a berry from the hedge and emits a chipping plaint.  In her closet Alice’s hand-knit sweater slips off a hanger and falls noiselessly to the floor.

A woman appears in the yard, dressed in a brown overcoat.  She glides lightly across the snow and disappears into the trees that line the slope above the swamp garden.  He watches in his mind’s eye as she wends her way along the path.  she knows our voice     many voices not one     she listens    come home Henry come home     she hears the rustling wind     burbling bubbling rising and falling song     trills chirps whistles metallic chips of birds     she slides the pouch with Henry’s ashes inside the wall     some of us die before our time     we do not choose     we feel what is lost but it is not grief     we are in we are out of time

The phone rings and clicks and Cordelia’s voice pierces the quiet.  “Hi, Dad.  I e-mailed you the latest models.  The committee liked your triangulated grid and the wrapped walkways.  They were especially excited about the idea of drawing water up through the piles and distributing it through the landscape trays.  Tell me what you think of the models.  I’ll be out by dinnertime on Friday.  Love you, Dad.”

Cordelia is walking toward the house, something held in her cupped hands:  eggshells crushed by the bird’s weight.  Yellowed leaves falling in the spring, acid in the stream, fish filled with toxins.  He blinks and she is gone.  A movement of white and then another and within minutes the air is filled with snowflakes that blanket the brown grass and melt into the metal-covered stream.  He tries to focus on one flake at a time but they are falling too fast and blur into a confetti of white.  At his grandfather’s window, he knelt as the snow fell on frozen fields.   On Christmas Eve, at their home in Minneapolis, he stood on the back deck, meticulously scarring the new-fallen snow.  The next morning Beatrice and Cordelia knelt at the dining room window peering out at the perfect line of reindeer tracks.  What do you mean there’s no Santa.  How the heck did those reindeer tracks get there?  Tell me that.  Years later Cordelia found the hand-made metal instrument in the garage, the long extender bar, forked ends mimicking the tracks of deer.

He had to wait until the ground had thawed enough to bury his mother.  The local cemetery let him keep her in their vault, which was generous since neither she nor his grandfather was buried in that cemetery.  The orchard was sacred ground for both of them.  Carl dropped two red roses into the newly dug grave, the only black in a blanket of white.

The snow continues to fall and he hopes that Hallie will turn around and come back.  Just the kind of weather they would have snowshoed or hiked in once.  In Oslo, he and Sverre Bergström strolled at midnight through the snow, brainstorming ideas for the town hall.  In the white he sees a figure.  As the form moves closer, he recognizes his father’s telltale walk.  He wills his hand to move, but the limb lies useless on the sheet.  Where have you been?  Tommy is dressed in the same brown corduroy slacks, navy blue sweater, blue Oxford cloth shirt.  His hair and shoulders are flecked with snow.

Tommy stops a few feet from the window and they gaze at one another.  Carl has so much he wants to tell him.  I hear things: human voices, living and dead, sounds of the non-human world.  I hear the creak and groan of the earth, sighs and whistling breaths of hibernating creatures, rasp of roots and silt sifting in the stream.  I hear Cordelia and Beatrice at play.  I hear my mother, your wife, weeping in the bedroom.  I hear music and don’t know who is playing—Beatrice or her.  I hear Frank Rossi calling me from the street, the click of our sticks against the ball, the El rumbling past my window.

When Hallie wakes him, he blinks at the darkened meadow, the untouched surface of the snow.  She lights the lamps and washes his face and hands.  She moves into the kitchen where he hears her preparations for dinner.  Once the casserole is in the oven, she pulls her reading chair close to him, picks up Rilke’s Book of the Hours, and reads:

Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves. 

He sees the shadowy trees, tips of wind-burned reeds.  Hallie’s voice rises and falls like the tumbling stream.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you. 

He wants to tell her what it is like to be alive like this.  She hides her sadness but he sees the imprint on her face when she returns from her walks.  They await Bea’s next phone call, Cory’s visits, the next chapter of the book she’s reading to him, the way the woods change with each passing day.  She feeds him, washes him, catheterizes him every few hours.  It is just the two of them—her voice rising and falling, her hands tending him, her heat beside him.

 ––– Mary François Rockcastle

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Mary François Rockcastle is the author of Rainy Lake. She is the director of The Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University, and the founding and executive editor of Water~Stone Review. She lives in Minneapolis.

 

 

Jun 262012
 

John Nazarenko

John Nazarenko was my son Jonah’s music teacher for, oh, so many years — I’ll always remember those drives out to John’s rambling house that seemed to hug pecariously the shore of Fish Creek a couple of miles from where it emerged from Saratoga Lake, heading toward the Hudson, open fields and flood plain on the opposite shore, the long driveway pocked with icy fissures and potholes in the winter. I was always a little surprised he didn’t float away in the spring floods. John was/is artist in residence in the Music Department at Skidmore College (also on the jazz piano faculty at Williams College), but he has spent an immense amount of time nurturing local kids, teaching them their chops, producing their band CDs (including two for Jonah). I used to enjoy stopping sometimes in his studio (console like a space station bridge, banks of speakers and hard drives) and talking about his personal music projects.

So it’s a pleasure now to be able to present on Numéro Cinq John Nazarenko in performance. John is a big man with a drooping mustache, and, to me, the dark, churning rhythms of Greg Allman’s 1969 hit “Whipping Post” seem to fit the personality. But the light, lovely lilting melodic line of “Behind Blue Eyes” (Pete Townsend, 1971) is a complete and delightful surprise, a beautiful reinterpretation of the somewhat droning, despairing original — oh, what you can do with a piano (to me, always the instrument of clarity). The two together are gorgeous, classics of rock translated into jazz. Both performances are from John Nazarenko’s 2011 CD Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

As an instructive comparison, I placed youtube videos of the originals at the very bottom of the post. It’s fascinating to hear the variations, also the similarity in the differences, and the pull of two quite disparate musical traditions.

 dg

 

Whipping Post

Behind Blue Eyes

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John Nazarenko is an Artist-In-Residence at Skidmore College Music Department and is an Artist Associate in Jazz Piano at Williams College. He teaches jazz piano, jazz ensembles, and electronic music. He performs in concerts and clubs and has released several CDs. He has written two textbooks in jazz studies: Jazz Piano: Technique and Improvisation and Jazz Standards, a book and CD set. Additionally, he is an audio producer and studio owner and has produced broadcasts for NPR and CDs in jazz, classical, folk and rock music.

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YouTube Preview Image

YouTube Preview Image

Jun 252012
 

“My Lives Among the Stars” is an excerpt from Lawrence Sutin’s novel-in-progress, a loving and whimsical look at the salad days of Hollywood in the form of the garrulous and comically self-important reminiscences of one Matheson Maysin, a lifelong Hollywood extra, as dictated to a paid hack, Reg Ahem, who is expected to produce a book from their nightly talks.  In the following section, Matheson waxes nostalgic about his inconsequential (but not to him) role in the real 1934 Frederic March/Constance Bennett comedy The Affairs of Cellini. Fay Wray played Angela in the movie, and off the set, according to Matheson, took his youthful virginity. I love this line “… I was there to stay and the best way to do that is to get so lost that you couldn’t possibly find your way out, which I never did.” And the rhythms and sentiments of this: “Then she kissed me on the forehead to say that is enough, is it not, be happy boy and I was.”

Lawrence Sutin is an old friend and colleague from Vermont College of Fine Arts where he is a renowned and gifted lecturer (oh, the miles I have driven without noticing the time go by, listening to Larry talk about writing on car radio).

dg

 

So I appeared in my first movie, Reg.  There is nothing else like that in your life, not even losing your virginity, and I’ll soon get to how I lost mine.  The movie was The Affairs of Cellini, and by the time it was released in August 1934 I had been in twelve more films in uncredited or extra roles of some sort.  But The Affairs of Cellini was the perfect entrance for me into Hollywood.  Have you seen it, Reg?  You haven’t.  You had better fucking well find a copy and watch it.  You watch especially hard for the final scene in the court of the Duke of Florence when Benvenuto Cellini, do you know who he was, Reg?   You had better fucking Google him before you try to write up my goddamn debut.  The great Cellini creates a stir by openly flirting with the married Duchess.  Look over the left shoulder of the cape of Frederic March just as he’s giving Constance Bennett one of those I-know-you-want-me looks, especially while he’s in tights and doublet and codpiece and blouse and puffy cap, he’s the type to make costumes look nicely tight, he’s pretending to drink wine from a goblet, it’s colored water, and he thinks he looks like he believes that he’s at a Renaissance banquet and that makes him an actor in the long trail of twentieth-century celluloid that spanned the world but kept its beating heart in Hollywood, he’s drinking to the long life of the provider of his wine, the soon-to-be cuckolded Duke played by Frank Morgan, who later nabbed the title role in a little pitchah (as we used to like to say it in the thirties) called The Wizard of Oz.  But it was for his identical dithering performance as the Duke in The Affairs of Cellini that Frank was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.  No one on the set would have said they had seen that coming.  There was a whole lot more to look at than Frank Morgan.  For me there sure was.

It was the Depression and the theory was that what the people wanted was opulence, to indulge their eyes on the riches and beauties they could not smell or eat or wear or so much as touch.  The theory makes sense to me because the first time I walked on the set that was sure what I wanted to see.  But what struck me, beyond the glamour, was how organized it all was.  The director was Gregory La Cava, a name no one much knows these days which doesn’t much matter to La Cava because he’s dead.  While he was alive and in his prime he knew how to keep things moving on budget on time on a set, which kept him working.  La Cava and I never talked, I was pushed into place for the crowd scenes by his dutiful assistants, but I watched him and he was pulling the strings of his stars, March and Bennett, at least while they were on camera, and as for the crew, he was the walking-talking brain that directed their movements.  La Cava was no great director, but he knew that directing depends upon power, perhaps even more so than upon artistry.   You must make people obey you.  I would find that tiresome.  I like to charm people, I did charm people, but the charm of charm for me was that I won their consent, not their obedience.

Don’t obey me, Reg, fuck don’t bother ever to see the film.  Just believe me when I say that the costumes of even the extras were fluffed and finely stitched and convincingly something like what audience members who can’t spell or pronounce “Renaissance” imagine that period was like.  It’s what I imagine it was like and why shouldn’t I, I was there, like I told you, I was acting, when I was bowing or sipping or clapping or conveying surprise by pretending to gasp I believed that I was there, I lost myself in it.  You may say that being an extra is little enough to lose yourself in, and if you said that, I mean the reader, I know you wouldn’t, Reg, you’ve been around the business yourself, but if some reader thought it whom I shall never meet, I would say in response, first, that extras give long days of their lives laboring on sets, being costumed and made-up, learning their movements and gestures, preparing themselves to be ready when the call of “Action” breaks the pre-scene silence, ready for the sake of their careers each and every take, because if a star like March or Bennett screws up La Cava pats them on the shoulder, tells them a joke, gives them an easy little tip like pretend you are breathing into his or her ear from afar, which would contribute nothing to their performance but would distract them from dwelling on their mistake.  Neither March nor Bennett did their best work in that film. March merely struck vigorous poses, Bennett draped herself in gowns and slid through scenes with her swept blonde hair and bedazzling almost succeeding in distracting from her bored monotone delivery even of passionate lines.  Yet La Cava found no real fault with either of them ever.  But if one of the extras walked in or out of the camera out of sync or raised their goblet before the toast had been finished, then the whole take was ruined and La Cava made sure he got his casting director to explain to him how that extra had ever been allowed on the set.  So I lost myself in it, reader, out of necessity and because I was there to stay and the best way to do that is to get so lost that you couldn’t possibly find your way out, which I never did.

My virginity.  Fay Raye.  The greatest assonantal Hollywood name.    She played the secondary female role in the film, a beautiful peasant too simple of heart to fall deeply for the conniving Cellini.  Fay Raye, you, Reg, know as the blonde beauty who killed the beast as the final line in King Kong has it.  Fay was wearing a blonde wig for that role.  In our film together she was back to her natural brunette hair.  I thought she looked wonderful in either color.  Her eyebrows were her most striking feature to me—they far outspanned her eyes, which were all the more lovely under those delicate and protective angel wings.  Her nose was turned up just a bit, but she could look down it if the part called for hauteur.  Her lips, they were delicate and sweet and that was why she was most often the good girl in her films.  When I met her on the set she was at first kind to me in passing, no more.  I was eleven years younger and a nothing extra, I wouldn’t have dared to talk to her, but she started talking to me.   She said that she could see that I loved being on a movie set just like she did, and that I should continue to love it no matter how many cynics I met, and I could believe her because, and her voice became sad for the only time that I heard it become sad during the shooting, she wasn’t sure how many more movies she would get to make, Constance Bennett was the star of this one, she, Fay, was the second, the third choice for so many parts, soon she would be the last and she hadn’t even hit thirty.  But then she went back to smiling at me, admiring my courtly costume and joking about her own peasant dress and then she wondered, no longer joking, if I would help her rehearse her lines for a scene to come with Frederic March.  In her dressing room.  It was a love scene, March was declaring his passion to her and Fay was too pure to say yes just yet.  It was the exact opposite of the situation between us, which was that Fay wanted to enjoy herself on the movie set in all the ways that one could and I was not yet aware that such things were done.  Speaking March’s lines I began to feel them and once I began to feel them Fay dropped the pretence of practicing her lines and smiled in such away that I felt her lips kiss me before they touched me which they did oh so quickly afterwards.  I will not give any more details, Reg.  Just this.  We both loved being on a movie set, we both understood that anything can happen in the movies, Fay had been held in the massive hand of King Kong atop the Empire State Building, we knew too that the movies are not just what is shown on the screen but everything that goes into the making of them while they last, which in some senses is not very long, a few weeks and the cast and crew wander off to different sets, different studios, return to their marriages as Fay would.  But in some senses it is forever, people who see movies and people who make movies both believe that movies will last forever somehow, transmuted from technology to technology, recolored, redimensioned, but still movies. Fay whispered to me on the final day of shooting that her scenes with March would always be for me no matter what else became of our lives.  Then she kissed me on the forehead to say that is enough, is it not, be happy boy and I was.

— Excerpt from the novel My Lives Among Stars, by Lawrence Sutin, Copyright 2012

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Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West.  In addition, his erasure books can be seen at Lawrencesutin.com.  He teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

of the reminiscences of one Matheson Maysin, a lifelong Hollywood extra

Jun 222012
 

Occasionally, in the structure of a larger film there will appear a scene or sequence that can stand on its own, discretely, as its own short film. Here I would include the opening scene to Neil LaBute’s Your Friends & Neighbors, the seduction / meeting scene in Julio Medem’s Sex and Lucia, the “Hotel Chevalier” short shot alongside Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (a separate film but theatres often screened it with the feature and it contains events referred to throughout the film), and this short set of scenes spanning the story of a goldfish on a freeway in the middle of Miranda July’s first feature film Me and You and Everyone We Know.

Structurally each of these shorts can be viewed discretely from their feature films and some, as in the case of July’s goldfish story, may even seem like an aside, though I think it still adds something tangentially to the larger film it belongs in. Some like “Hotel Chevalier” are subplots. Others like the opening to Your Friends & Neighbors and Medem’s seduction scene are building blocks of the main plot but could still exist as separate entities. Despite these differences, what they do have in common is that they provide enough narrative cohesion and catharsis to exist on their own if they had to. Or if you wanted to see them that way.

The goldfish sequence is tonally and stylistically similar to the rest of the film it appears in but is also similar to “Are You the Favourite Person of Anybody?” which was previously featured in Numero Cinq at the Movies. In July’s worlds we find absurdist realities where what happens is probable, realistic, but told in an overdrawn way, here particularly evident in the dialogue between Christine (Miranda July) and Michael (Hector Elias).

There are also strong similarities between this oversaturated reality and the style of Jane Campion’s short films (which were also featured in Numero Cinq at the Movies) which is no surprise as July commonly cites Campion as one of her inspirations and influences.

Though the goldfish short fits within the feature it is a part of, viewed on its own it offers a different experience. It is then a short film about loss, about condensed meaningful moments, and connection between strangers witnessing those moments. This isn’t at odds with the feature film it belongs to, but is in hues and tenor more melancholy than the rest of the film.

There are two things which tonally shift this shared sad experience, though, and keep it from plummeting into melodrama: 1) the couple in the vehicle that is the goldfish’s penultimate landing place are oblivious to the goldfish’s last moments, even though, as Michael notes, “at least we are all together in this.”

2) It’s about the death of a goldfish, possible the world’s most disposable pet. Truly, for the goldfish, these last moments hurtling down the freeway in his little bag of water might be a much more euphoric way to die than the neglect and probable toilet bowl funeral ending that would have awaited him at the little girl’s home. Regardless, the accidental death that connects these strangers is light on tragedy as a result.

All told this mixes into something sublime: a little accident, a little collision between strangers, a little loss, all finding something meaningful and significant that is more than a little beyond words.

None of this is intended to disparage the larger work, July’s absurd and lovely first feature Me and You and Everyone We Know. It’s just there’s a pleasure within the pleasure. And this might be worth tasting on its own.

–R. W. Gray

Jun 212012
 

Neighbors, Cape Town

 

Last Easter I traveled with my two sons to visit the fourth member of our nuclear family—my husband, their father—who has been assigned responsibility for his company’s Jo’burg office. It was our first trip. On the plane—a night flight—we wondered as we flew south over the sleeping continent. What unexpected things would we find in a place where constellations are unfamiliar, the seasons switched, foods like springbok and biltong grace menus, man-eating sharks cruise bays, penguins waddle along beaches and townships still teem and thrive?

This is a first answer.

–Natalia Sarkissian

 

Soweto, Johannesburg

 

Below Table Mountain, Cape Town

 

Near Regina Mundi, Johannesburg

 

Art on the Green, Cape Town

 

Art in Soweto, Johannesburg

 

Hill, Cape Town

 

Near the Abandoned Gold Mines, Johannesburg

 

Safari, Gauteng Province

 

Penguin Safari, Western Cape

 

Guarded Compound, Johannesburg

 

Houses of Landudno Beach, Cape Peninsula

 

Girl, Pretoria

 

Girls, Soweto

 

Ladies at the Zoo, Pretoria

 

Girl, Landudno Beach

 

Family, Landudno

 

Monument to the 1976 Uprising, Soweto

 

Mandela's Prison, Robben Island, Cape Town

 

Apartheid Museum, Gold Rush City

 

Pretoria

 

Cape Point

 

Near Sandton, Gauteng Province

 

Cape of Good Hope

 

–Natalia Sarkissian

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Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been a contributing editor at Numéro Cinq since 2010. Currently finishing her first novel and working on a book of interlinked short stories, Natalia divides her time between Italy, Egypt, the United States, and now, South Africa.

Jun 202012
 

Print or pixel? W(h)ither literature? Twitterature? Earlier this month Jennifer Egan wrote/posted/tweeted a new short story, a Twitter story, called “Black Box” at The New Yorker. This coincided with NC’s publication of selections from Tweet rebelle by Jean-Yves Fréchette, who is the co-founder of the Institute for Comparative Twitterature. And the coincidental connexity prompted Bruce Stone to the following provocative meditation on the story, the medium, change, tradition, nostalgia and literature. Artists are always colonizing the new technologies, but when is the result art and when it is gimmick? Or is there a difference? Bruce Stone has previously contributed fiction and nonfiction to these pages. See his amazing essay on Viktor Shklovsky here. (The author photo above is by David Shankbone, courtesy of Wikipedia.)

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1) “Resist the impulse to ask where you are going.” @NYerFiction 27 May

Late last month, Twitter played host (or midwife) to still another literary labor: Jennifer Egan’s new story, “Black Box,” arrived in the world incrementally, as a sequence of tweets posted over ten days from May 24 to June 2—a project sponsored by The New Yorker. The story is a futuristic spy thriller, of sorts, in which ordinary citizens serve their country by becoming cyborgs and seducing high-profile terrorists to capture data, but the piece was conceived expressly for the Twitter platform, composed not in paragraphs but in tweetable units of fewer than 140 characters. The story then appeared, perhaps redundantly, in print, emparceled in the June 4 Science Fiction issue of the magazine—the preferred interface for those few of us, we antediluvians, who, given a choice, still favor actual over virtual reading.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the story has left an unusually prominent Web trail, garnering more buzz than typically accompanies the publication of a short story. After all, why not? The Net, among its myriad services—friend, lover, confessor, taskmaster, teacher, torturer, retail outlet—has proven to be a superb bully pulpit, exquisitely calibrated to feather its own nest (let’s not use the word hegemony), and understandably quick to celebrate any further evidence of its utopian, garden-of-earthly-delights potential. Even so, it’s hard not to read this self-serving ripple effect—the publicity engine of the blogosphere—as a kind of challenge, if not an affront, to the very notion of “print literature,” which by comparison seems so twentieth-century. To put this more bluntly, Egan’s story would draw less attention had it not itself been a kind of cyborg, a blend of long-form narrative and short-burst twexting: the medium is the main story here, and this strikes me as an instance of the cart preceding the tired old horse, an ass-backward state of affairs, perhaps, but typical of the Digital Age itself.

Let me say right away that I wholeheartedly support the idea of exploring the artistic potential of digital media. Indeed, I would like nothing better than to see vast swaths of the self-aggrandizing, attention-splintering Twittersphere glutted and radiant with stories like Egan’s, or the Tweet rebelle of Jean-Yves Fréchette (who appeared in NC’s June 4 issue; see also Gilles Pellerin’s Twitter stories in the March 5 issue). But I’m not yet convinced that such multimedia experiments necessarily constitute an aesthetic revolution. Three centuries (at least) of world literature have anticipated, if not preempted, much of what the new media makes available, both formally and philosophically. And I’m not even convinced that such experiments present the most interesting frontier in artistic innovation. Any writer worthy of the title will have to attend to the alien and beautiful language habits fomented by the Web, but adopting the new media itself for distribution is a trickier proposition. I can’t help but feel that there’s a kind of literal-mindedness driving this brand of genre and platform hybridization: it’s an interesting idea that fizzles, I find, upon execution.

The fault might be mine, I suppose: it might be misguided to measure digital-age works by old-school standards—of artistry, of compositional density—that date back at least to Shakespeare. Perhaps digital-media works properly belong to a new category of performance art, and should be assessed by those terms, with that still-evolving vocabulary. But frequently, the Net is cited as the inevitable successor to the outmoded book, as if the two technologies can’t peacefully coexist but must rather fight to the death in some mediational bloodsport concocted by Darwin, Freud and Adam Smith over lunch. As such, it seems that readers and browsers are required to chalk out the battle lines and take sides. More’s the pity.

As stunt, Egan’s work affords an opportunity to reflect on these broad concerns: the future of fiction and the technological state of the art. But it’s as story, perhaps, in the print-lit sense, that Egan’s work speaks most powerfully and palpably to these very same tensions, the vexed core of the media wars: tensions between the old and new; the technological and the organic; the self and the other; the word, the body and the data processor. Perhaps what’s most surprising about Egan’s story is not its qualified success as a long-form narrative, but rather that it does finally take a side and pitch battle: the tale’s cool, lyrical irony reveals a deep skepticism for the very technological apparatus that it presumes to embrace and exploit.

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2) “Imagining yourself as a dot of light on a screen is oddly reassuring.” @NYerFiction  28 May

Egan’s is a skilled hand, clearly, and the story’s tweet-sized utterances are often lovely—abstract distillations of sensory experiences, the narrator’s observations whittled down to pith and poetry, as in this description of a rocky shoreline: “Spurs and gashes of stone narrate a violence that the earth itself has long forgotten.” Or this little gem: “The universe will seem to hang beneath you in its milky glittering mystery.” As a rule, these communiqués tend toward the procedural style of a user-manual, the plot expressed as a compilation of “Field Instructions” for future spies; the tactic yields a stylishly mannered narrative voice, a tone of calculated objectivity (friable, paper-thin), which still manages to convey nuanced psychological insights, especially regarding the pathology of dangerous men: “The fact that a man has ignored and then insulted you does not mean that he won’t want to fuck you.”

Perhaps the most striking feature of Egan’s story is its handling of dialogue. Instead of the aesthetically stale give-and-take of literary “realism,” the Twitter constraints inspire Egan to strip dialogue from its conversational context and embed the characters’ speech—framed as it were—in larger grammatical units. For example, “’Where did you learn to swim like that?,’ uttered lazily, while supine, with two fingers in your hair, indicates curiosity.” Keenly self-aware, the text kindly lays bare the device, describing its own narrational method: “Always filter your observations and experience through the lens of their didactic value.” In this way, the tone of the story effectively parts company with its sensational content, a move that weirdly neutralizes and amplifies the coarse drama and suspense in the plot. The net result is a loose second-person narration, a voice that charts the unsettling, dizzying, poignant middle ground between “me” and “you.” This is the true novelty of Egan’s tale, a formal innovation that is part and parcel of the story’s thematic concerns.

Despite the fractured format, Egan’s story, read on The New Yorker’s page, feels thoroughly cohesive and complete. She manages to sketch a climactic arc in the plot, manages to texture the chronology with bits of backstory and memory, manages even to evoke a sense of sympathy and sorrow for the protagonist. These facts alone suggest the persistence of some old-school notions of narrative in the piece, which indeed run a bit deeper, evident in the story’s generic frames of reference. While the tenor of the action belongs to the futuristic genre of science fiction, the plot retains traces of an atavistic impulse, drawing on an older storytelling realm: the ancient fairy tale (Look for the template of Beauty and the Beast and you’ll find it, altered but abiding). This merging of genres, too, is a clear sign of Egan’s circumspection, her wary participation in this cyberposh landscape of maximized technological reproducibility.

The story’s title is itself an indicator of this skepticism. The “black box” refers at once to the story’s form—the text boxes typical of tweets (more “box” than “black”), preserved also, in larger bundles, in The New Yorker’s print formatting—and to its content in that the protagonist herself functions like the data recorders on airplanes: “Your physical person is our Black Box; without it, we have no record of what has happened on your mission.” This sentence is to be taken literally, the heroine’s “person” hosting an array of bionic upgrades (voice recorder, camera, homing beacon, car alarm). And in the service of the country, she anonymously sacrifices life and limb, submits twice to something that might be called voluntary rape (or patriotic prostitution, if you prefer); she takes a bullet, and even suffers the displacement of cherished personal memories to accommodate the “Data Surge,” the paydirt-striking culmination of her mission. Later, she will be downloaded like a flash drive to retrieve this information (she has a port between her toes), but on this point, readers remain forever in the dark: we never learn the content of this data, never discover the specifics of the terrorist plot that the protagonist is infiltrating. This is a telling omission: absent a clear objective, the heroine’s s sacrifice appears to be a fool’s errand, reflecting a naïve commitment to a dubious cause. In the literal dehumanization and pointless martyrdom of its protagonist, Egan’s story seems decidedly critical of this speculative future.

Elsewhere, Egan renders this negative verdict explicitly, in a series of self-reflexive tweets that link the plight of her protagonist to the project of the Information Age: “In the new heroism, the goal is to renounce the American fixation with being seen and recognized. … In the new heroism, the goal is to transcend individual life, with its pains and loves, in favor of the dazzling collective.” This brand of heroism is not just self-effacing, but self-extinguishing: it’s impossible not to read these lines as a comment on the work of Wikipedians, with their do-it-for-free humility and fractious-fanboy know-it-all-ism. When Egan writes, “Technology has afforded ordinary people a chance to glow in the cosmos of human achievement,” she nods at the democratizing promise of the new age, but the irony here is withering, the sentiment steeped in hypocrisy: her story everywhere reveals that promise to be empty, dystopian, hostile to the very notion of the individual human life.

This critique of the new world order feels a bit dated, reflective, yes, of those Wikipedia debates circa 2006, but also harking back to the nightmare visions of Bradbury, Orwell, Rand and Zamyatin. The Web gives us cause to fear the hive-mind, certainly, but over time, it has proven to be an equally adept at engendering narcissism. Et in Hyperspace ego, to bend an old phrase: while the Net breeds anonymity and erodes personality, it steadily nourishes the hedonistic I. Which is to say, wherever we go, we can’t escape the burden of our humanity. That Egan’s story seems to flatten out the paradox isn’t much of a complaint, aesthetically; her adoption of the Twitter platform does add another ratchet twist to the irony, which begins to leaven, artfully, the social commentary. But to my mind, the message speaks louder than the medium here, and in any case, bracketing the technological pessimism in “Black Box” is worthwhile because it affords an opportunity to test the merit of that vision and to correct for its artistic distortions. My sense is that, in and of itself, the Net likely can’t and won’t dictate the shape of the future, whether utopian or dystopian. Whatever problems we have, it might aggravate some and resolve others, but mainly its function will be one of paraphrase; it conscientiously preserves the paradoxes that define us, translates into an electronic idiom the ongoing crisis of who we are.

It would be pleasant and agreeable to end here, with the perhaps predictable conclusion that the Web is less friend or foe than mirror, unlikely to accelerate the devolution of our species. But regrettably, market forces are at play, and whether we like it or not, they force another alarmist question: if the Web doesn’t have designs on our bodies, does it pose a legitimate threat to our books?

In the first pages of On Literature (2002), a book commissioned by Routledge (if I’m not mistaken), J. Hillis Miller makes exactly this prediction: that digital media spell the end of print, leaving literature as a cultural practice to survive in new modes. It’s hard to know how seriously to take this kind of forecast, hard to tell if Chicken Little is a sage or vice versa. Harvard’s Robert Darnton, in The Case for Books (2009), suggests that new technologies might well help to sustain the print industry (at one point, he envisions a book press that works like an ATM). My intuition tells me that reports of the demise of print might be exaggerated, but then again, the forces of consumer capitalism, after years of cascading systemic failures, are capable of anything: the ridiculous can very quickly become commonplace in these times (do the math for yourselves here). So yes, I think we should ask with some urgency what Egan’s experiment tells us about the technological future of long-form fiction, and the viability of online platforms for its distribution. Essentially, we find ourselves hectored by a consumer’s choice, which is always a mug’s game: in what way do we choose to make a story like Egan’s profitable? As an art object on Twitter? In The New Yorker’s print edition, or can this relic be safely phased out to make way for the magazine’s online edition? How will you read Egan’s story, if you choose to read it at all, and what’s at stake in the choice? On these practical points, the lessons of “Black Box” are equivocal.

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3. “A single lighted structure stands out strongly on a deserted coastline.” @NYerFiction 28 May

Obviously, Egan isn’t the first writer to attempt a multimedia stunt like “Black Box.” (The fad for cell-phone novels in Japan comes to mind.) A bit further back, in 2006, Walter Kirn also tested the publication possibilities of the Web with his novel The Unbinding, which he wrote and released on Slate in something approximating real time. Throughout the distribution process (the uploading of fresh installments), Kirn invited and in some cases integrated reader’s suggestions with regard to plot and character. Like Egan’s story, Kirn’s not-very-good novel was subsequently bound and sold in print, which itself suggests that the Web isn’t entirely amenable to long-form narratives, at least not in a self-sufficient or profit-maximizing way. In this light, the Web seems like an elaborate, ever-streaming publicity arm of the beleaguered print industry.

The blogroll on Egan’s story also suggests that the Twitter release was in some ways anticlimactic. One writer attempts to celebrate the interactivity afforded by Twitter, yet the respondent tweets that he cites are 1) trivial and 2) limited to the story’s overture movement, as if no one had stuck around for the end (or perhaps felt bullied into silence by Egan’s skill). Another notes the difficulty of sustaining her attention while being inundated with unrelated tweets. (Why do I envision these as farts in a bathtub, rising toward noxious articulation?—Perhaps because I have a five-year-old son.) A third writer, the most inspired, adopts Egan’s own method and renders his commentary in tweet-sized increments: even so, he measures the story by print-lit standards and complains, perhaps rightly, of its tendency toward abstraction.

Clearly, Egan’s experiment points up some of the virtues of unplugged writing and reading, but it also suggests—eerily—that, between books and the Web, there’s really no choice to be made at all. Her story triggers some pause-giving thoughts about the very practice of literary reading.

In times of crisis—to submit, for example, to the sexual appetites of her target—Egan’s protagonist practices the “Dissociation Technique,” the willing of an out of body transit, a moment of Zen-like detachment that insulates her from the cruel facts of suffering and violation. The technique reads like an exercise in auto-hypnosis: “Close your eyes and slowly count backward from ten.” Such passages are poignant and powerful enough in context, but they become even more resonant when we consider that the entire narrational method of the piece—its equivocal second-person perspective, this compilation of impersonal Field Instructions—is another kind of dissociative technique, likewise dampening and deflecting the immediacy and intimacy of human experience. In this regard, Egan’s narration captures the distanciation that is typically associated with virtual reality—that anesthetic world of Facebook friendships, Twitter feeds and Web-chat intimacies, odorless simulacrum of experience. If you’re a Net skeptic, the lives that we record and in some fashion live online likewise entail a kind of existential dissociation, and from these anxieties, Egan forges a literary style.

At this point, deconstructionists would gently remind us of the self-alienating effect of language itself—which black-boxes in all of us in advance, no technology required: the longing for cohesion, integrity, organic wholeness, is nothing but a pipe dream anyway. Point taken. But rather than traverse that bridge too far, I’m seizing on a different question: what are we to do with the fact that Egan’s Dissociation Technique, and its correspondent vision of a monstrously vitiated human condition, evokes, just as pointedly, the very act of reading? The induction of this hypnotic experience of alterity, this election to abandon the body and live at a little distance from oneself: what is this if not a description of the phenomenology of reading? In Egan’s story, the same maneuver that signals the dehumanizing bent of technological progress turns out to typify the cozy practice of reading fiction. The critique, it seems, cuts both ways, reading figured as maybe just another platform for objectification (along with everything else, the heroine does read blithely on the beach). In this light, Egan’s story cautions us from leaping too rashly or separating too neatly between media technologies.

It might be disappointing that, on this fundamental matter—the defense of literature, even print literature, as such—Egan’s text balks, just peers impassively down the barrel of self-erasure. Her stunt begs the question—can Twitter (the Web’s metonym) harbor literary fiction (wholeness, of a sort)? The story’s answer: literary fiction has already been harboring Twitter (disintegration). From a practical perspective (not an artistic one), it might be reassuring if Egan were to confirm our suspicions: that the Net is our black box now, a record of everything that catches the value of nothing, a triumph and a travesty of human individuality and agency, a tool that everyone can applaud (where else is it possible to dilate in this fashion on a recently published short story?), but an interface that only a mother could love. Against this Hydra-headed, Medusa-haired marvel, the homely book would appear to offer a silver bullet, supply a ready antidote. Maybe this dichotomy would be too easy. By Egan’s pen (keyboard? iPhone?), it wouldn’t be true. Instead, her story quietly suggests that literature isn’t necessarily innocent in our undoing: there’s no safe haven, no welcoming pre-digital past to return to.

It’s a bleak vision, maybe, but for book lovers, all’s not necessarily lost. That the story is so rich in style and theme itself testifies, for anyone who needs it, to the enduring value of long-form fiction and perhaps speaks, as well, to the value of its immersive reception in print (the heroine does, after all, read blithely on the beach). Maybe in the long view, Egan’s experiment gives cause for optimism, suggesting that there is hope yet for a future in which the relation between print and Net is dialectical, rather than murderous: a future in which we can still choose to read, not browse, literary works that merit study, compel rereading, works that aspire to a cultural condition of object permanence.

Some have worried that a Net-brokered future might preclude the very production of such works: that the Web and its platforms are coercive, warping human cognition, and that the Digital Age promises to engender, at worst, an intellectual anorexia or, at best, an art of collaboration, a cult of ephemerality. There is a poignant beauty in the latter vision: it reminds me of those Buddhists who construct elaborate mandalas of colored sand, investing hours of painstaking labor solely to bid the elements to wipe away every trace of the composition. There’s a beauty here, yes, where Wikipedians link arms with the Dalai Lama. But literary texts confront the problem of mortality from the other angle, not conceding and courting oblivion, but contesting time and giving transience the finger. (I think of Quentin Compson, in colloquy with his dad who is lecturing him on the transitory nature of his feelings: his stream-of-consciousness refrain, “and i temporary,” begs both question mark and exclamation point.) There’s a beauty here too, and because the Web seems ever more likely to exacerbate, rather than eradicate, the pursuit of singular immortality, the material forces of production and the market forces of human need might well conspire to ensure print literature’s survival. It’s likely that digital media will assimilate most disposable communications and profit from them to their algorithmic content, but it’s possible too that the urge to write and read—under these slower, comparatively tactile print-media conditions—is hardwired into us. Just as tweets aren’t likely to replace tombstones, or porn to obviate sex, books might well prove necessary for us, ineradicable.

Ultimately, I like to think that “Black Box,” as both stunt and story, comes down on this side of the debate; it reminds readers of the power and purpose of literature as we’ve known it, while pointing skeptically to what might become of it and us—perhaps not the most scintillating work of art, but an enjoyable and edifying experiment, on the whole. I like to think that, between the print past and a digital future, Egan’s story confronts us with a choice to be made in the present, one that allows for a thousand compromises and equivocations, but remains important nonetheless. Then again, it’s hard to be sure. As her protagonist reminds herself, and instructs us, to cling to her/our pre-cybernetic persona, she notes, “You will reflect on the fact that you had stopped being that person even before leaving.” It’s hard not to sense something irrevocable here, as if the die has already been cast, the heroine’s irrecoverable self perhaps a teasing analogue of the printed book. The question seems to linger: is “Black Box” a cautionary tale or memento mori? Time, and taste, will tell.

— Bruce Stone

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Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on DG’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing here: http://straylightmag.com/?p=1781. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.

Jun 182012
 

 

I was a substitute teacher for two years. If that wasn’t enough of a reason for me to be treated for serial masochism, consider this: I was a substitute teacher at three schools, and two of them were the elementary school and the high school that I attended as a student. The third, situated in a slightly better-off nook of the rural fringe (at least until Hurricane Irene) where I live in upstate New York, had been my high school’s perennial rival. My old school district still employed teachers with whom I’d taken classes as a child; now we were colleagues. Nobody at the Other School cared for me much.

Henry Barthes, played by Adrien Brody in Tony Kaye’s Detachment, reflects the characteristics I tried to embody during my stint as a sub — namely, a genuine empathy for students and a desire to put time and care into teaching them something that would stick. Barthes, despite working a job in which everything is temporary — school, class, relationships with coworkers, bonds with students — takes his duties seriously and delivers lessons (which seem to be completely of his own invention, not from any curriculum I might recognize) with vigor. When Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks), a fellow teacher, asks why he doesn’t become a real teacher, Barthes responds, “I teach every day. What do you mean?”

Detachment is an engrossing, occasionally heavy-handed (mainly when it slaps us with quotes from Albert Camus and Edgar Allen Poe), character-driven story that follows Barthes through three weeks of personal and professional trials. He has begun subbing at an urban school with a decaying administration, exhausted teachers, and students who threaten him within five minutes of his first class. He frequently visits his grandfather (Louis Zorich), who lives in a care facility, his memory and life-force slowly fading. He also meets Erica (Sami Gayle), a sixteen-year-old prostitute who roams the bus route near Barthes’ small apartment. After witnessing her physical abuse at the hands of a repulsive customer, Barthes decides to let her stay with him for a while. The ephemeral nature of everything in Barthes’ life is immediately evident: these are all temporary situations. Eventually, he will have to move on to a new school. His grandfather will die. Erica will have to move out. His reasons for embracing this lack of commitment, whether consciously or unconsciously, are explored through intermittent flashbacks, which slowly unravel the fact that Barthes’ mother killed herself when he was young, and he never knew his father.

What initially enthralled me about this film is that it takes an old trope — the Man With No Name — and applies it to two characters, then forces them to spend time together. Barthes is stoic and ashen for nearly the entire film, maintaining “I have no feelings you can hurt” and that “I’m a non-person. You can see me, but I’m hollow.” Erica comes out of nowhere, materializing on the bus as Barthes cries in his seat. According to the formula, familiar to us from the old Westerns like Shane, the Man (or Woman) With No Name appears abruptly “just passing through;” (s)he gets involved in other people’s business, solves a core problem or provides the necessary tools with which to solve it, then disappears, never to be seen again. This is the myth Barthes wants to claim for himself. He says he has no feelings yet he’s vulnerable, prone to quick anger and deep sadness at matters over which he has no control. His job allows him to show up, have an impact, then vanish. Just as he begins displaying emotion, Erica appears. Erica becomes the catalyst for Barthes’ change; they form a classic Travis-Iris Alliance and the better sides of both begin to shine through the grime of the workday.

The film features an ensemble which includes Christina Hendricks (sadly underused), James Caan, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Bryan Cranston, Blythe Danner, and Tim Blake Nelson. The teachers often appear in group scenes in which they get to kvetch about the school; these scenes, along with Barthes’ disconnected testimonials, out the film’s agenda in regard to the education system in America (and screenwriter Carl Lund’s feelings are, to say the least, not optimistic). Memorable exchanges include a harrowing scene in which Liu’s character, the school guidance counselor, finally snaps into a histrionic (yet genuine) polemic concerning the hopelessness of the students at her school — this is directed at a student, who begins to absorb the lesson, but then responds with “Fuck you” and walks out. Caan’s character, a substitute for the former dean (another temporary situation) shows students pictures of gonorrhea-infected genitals. Nelson’s character, yet another unhappy teacher, spends his breaks standing on the school’s playing field, staring at the sky. Barthes finally notices.

Barthes: You alright?

Mr Wiatt: What, you see me? You see me standing here?

Barthes: Yeah, I see you.

Mr Wiatt: Oh god. So relentless. Thank you. Thank you!

Unfortunately, we see most of these supporting characters only fleetingly with Barthes. The most developed relationship is a hackneyed attempt at romance between Barthes and Ms. Madison.

In spite of his apparent apathy, Barthes puts care into his lessons when he could just be a glorified babysitter, and we can see in his face that he wants to leave these students with something. Consider this speech from his first week teaching the new students.

“How are you to imagine anything if the images are always provided for you?” He goes on to explain doublethink: “Deliberately believing lies while knowing they are false. Examples of this in everyday life: I need to be pretty to be happy. I need surgery to be pretty. I need to be thin, famous, fashionable. Our young men today are being told that women are whores, bitches, things to be screwed, beaten, shit on, shamed. This is a marketing holocaust! Twenty-four hours a day, for the rest of our lives, the powers that be are hard at work, dumbing us to death. So to defend ourselves and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read, to stimulate our own imaginations, to cultivate our own consciousness, our own belief systems. We all need these skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds.”

How many of these students will learn to read, to cultivate their minds, to think independently? In this situation the moviegoer is just another temporary visitor witnessing a story that is clearly the middle of a story. If evolution begets resolution, then the end is well on its way, because there is a good amount of evolution on the part of Barthes once things begin to change (he confronts his feelings about his mother, finishes his three weeks at the new school, and makes two very substantial decisions about Erica).

In the final shots, Barthes reads aloud the opening of “The Fall of the House of Usher” as the school empties around him (nailing the parallel between the Usher house and family and the school). Has he let go? Will he become a real teacher? Explore a new career altogether? Has he left his fixation on the transient behind him after his experiences over the last three weeks? What’s the next step with Erica (there’s a conclusion to this story in the film, but even so there must be another step at which we can only guess)? I like that Detachment seeks to tell a human story (and tackle large social issues), dropping questions in the audience’s lap without making pretentious and unavailing stabs at final answers.

Detachment (2012); written by Carl Lund; directed by Tony Kaye; starring Adrien Brody, Sami Gayle, Christina Hendricks, and James Caan.

—Richard Hartshorn

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Richard HartshornRichard Hartshorn is a writer of contemporary literary fiction and the recipient of the 2011 Richard Bausch Short Story Prize.  His work has appeared in several publications including Our Stories, The Dirty Napkin, and Hawaii Women’s Journal.  He lives in New York State. He is one of the original NC contributors — see his online “diary” of the making of Wings Over Arda, a feature-length movie production of a text by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Jun 172012
 

Here’s a dark, laconic, mesmerizing story of alcohol and infidelity in the expatriate demimonde of Seoul. A kind of free-floating rage drives the story; music on the juke box insists; motifs (music, a lover’s infidelity, smoking, the Seoul sewage system — yes!) recur with a maddening rhythm, the whole thing driving toward a climactic violence. Sybil Baker writes the darker side of betrayal, writes about vengeance and ugliness (on the inside). It’s a gorgeous, tough-minded story. Sybil is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, edits fiction for Drunken Boat, and is also the author of a new novel — Into This World (Engine Books, 2012). This story originally appeared in print in Prime Mincer, Summer, 2011.

dg

  —-

I was at this bar with Neal trying to remember songs. He sat across from me, just like Steve had those first few months here in Seoul. Outside, the street was gradually darkening. I stared at a blank square of paper on the table and brought the tip of the pen to my lips, hoping that something would to come to me.

The last time I’d been here was six months ago. Steve and I had been sitting in this same booth next to the same window that looked out at the same man tending the fire. That was when I told him I knew about the Korean girl. What was her name, I asked him. Steve said, it didn’t matter, her name. That it was a mistake. That we never should have moved here together. He never should have invited me. And I said, who do you think you are, the fucking president of the country? I don’t need your invitation. I can live wherever the fuck I want. I can go back to Atlanta or move to LA or New Orleans. But guess what, I’d told him, I’m not going to make your life that easy. I’m not going anywhere. And then I poured a full mug of beer from our pitcher and drank it slowly, just to prove it.

Now I took a drink of beer for music inspiration. I wrote down “The Logical Song,” by Super Tramp. Barry Manilow, “Copacabana.” Olivia Newton John, “Have You Never Been Mellow?”

“Where do you come up with those?” Neal lit a cigarette, abandoning his own blank slip of paper. He was British and didn’t get the sad beauty of those songs.

“Steve,” I said. “He was good with that stuff.” I closed my eyes to remember. Then I wrote down a few more songs and creased the paper in half.

“No more Steve. Remember?” Neal blew smoke at the window even though it was closed.

“You asked.” I scooted out of the bench and walked across the bar to give the bartender my requests. Behind him, three shelves of albums were stacked like books, old faded things with fraying spines. I tried to make eye contact with the bartender, a cute guy with shaggy hair and a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, but he acted busy with the computer. I reached over the counter and put the list in front of him. He smoothed it on the counter and nodded.

Back at our table, Neal had refilled my glass.

“You Brits are so well-mannered,” I said. I batted my eyes at him and turned up the dial on my Southern accent.

“And all you Southern girls are so charming.” He offered me a cigarette but I shook my head. Too early.

Except for the bartender, the only other people there were two young women at the booth behind Neal. Under the bar’s dim lights their hair looked like velvet. The girl whose back was to me wore a fitted turtleneck and butterfly clips in her hair while the other had bangs cut straight across and fistfuls of bracelets on her bare arms. In between sips from their bottled beers, the girls chatted rapidly. Their cell phones were displayed on the wooden table, and every few minutes they pounced on the phones to scrutinize new text messages. Between the cell phones was a white pack of cigarettes decorated with pink butterflies. The two girls inhaled the ultra slim cigarettes at the same time and occasionally waved them dramatically in the air when they wanted to emphasize a point. They reminded me of the girl Steve had left me for.

“Such poseurs,” I said. “Acting like they’re Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Neal didn’t bother turning around. “When I first got here I saw a man slap a woman for smoking in the street,” he said.

“Why?” I asked, although I thought I knew the answer. Ugly. That’s what my mother called women who smoked. Ugly.

Neal tapped his cigarette in the ashtray. “Women weren’t supposed to smoke in public.”

“Remember what you told me about Zen masters?” I said. “How they would strike people meditating with a stick to help them become enlightened? Maybe that’s what he was doing.”

Neal smiled his sexy half smile. “Maybe.” “Riders in the Storm” was playing. “This place is brilliant,” he said. “Why didn’t you show it to me before?”

“You mean like in the whole month we’ve been together?”

Neal shrugged and sang along with Jim Morrison. I looked out the steamed window onto the street. People were coming into the restaurant below, their scarves wrapped around their necks, arms hanging on each other. I felt a pang of hunger and picked a few of the squid-flavored chips out of the basket.

“The other thing that drives me crazy is the bathroom,” I said after I’d chewed my squid ring. “They have this little metal ledge above the roll of toilet paper and a wet folded tissue for women to put their cigarettes out in. I mean they encourage it, smoking in the toilet, just to keep the image of the pure Korean girl. What a joke. After a few drinks they’re running back to the bathroom to sneak a smoke. Pisses me off because I usually have to go really bad, and these women are taking their time puffing away in the stall. Just so they can pretend to be innocent.”

“You’ll see an end to it soon enough,” Neal said. “You Americans started this whole nonsmoking farce.”

“That’s just the beginning,” I said “In Seattle we have strip clubs where you can’t drink.”

“And no trans fat for your chips in New York,” Neal said. “Pardon, French fries.”

“Fried taters.”

“Damn Southerner.”

“Fucking Brit.” I grabbed his hand and smiled stupidly at him.

The Doors had ended, and Neil Young’s “Expecting to Fly,” scratched from the LP player. The song was warped and faded; in other words, perfect.

Four Western guys walked in, taking a table near the skinny cigarette girls but away from the windows. They wore baseball caps that hid most of their buzz cuts, pressed shirts and jeans with bright running shoes. U.S. military, enlisted.  This bar was about thirty minutes away from the closest base, making it easier to dodge the military’s midnight curfew. And here, in a bar like this, they could meet pretty girls.

“Do you know that Alaska has the highest ratio of men to women in the States?” I said.  “Women there have their pick.” I tucked a strand of hair behind my ears, which were large for my face and stuck out. I kept my hair long to hide my them, but sometimes I forgot or didn’t care, and I’d expose my elephant ears to the world. “They sell T-shirts in Anchorage that say ‘Baby when you leave here you’ll be ugly again.’” I paused, waiting until Neal smirked to show he got the joke. “If it weren’t so damn cold there I’d go to Alaska someday, just to see what it feels like to be those military guys at that table,” I said.

“Who cares about them anyway?” Neal closed his eyes. He was handsome in that slightly pale British thespian way. “They’re just generating negative energy, and if you think about them you’ll do the same.”

“Sounds like more of that Buddhist stuff,” I said.

Neal opened his eyes and straightened his back so that he suddenly seemed much taller. “As a matter of fact yes. It’s really helping me.”

“How’s that?” I leaned toward him, hoping that he would meet me across the table and kiss me.

“Well, I’m learning to detach from daily annoyances,” he said. “I’m learning that violence does not solve problems. I’m learning that your irrational, emotional outbursts have nothing to do with me.” He pronounced the words clearly and distinctly, like he was reading a diagnosis from a textbook.

I traced the edge of the ashtray with my index finger. Still too early in the evening to throw it at him. “Well excuse me for feeling,” I said. I slid out of the bench and stomped to the bathroom. On the way, I stopped by the bar and scribbled a hasty request and slipped in a folded five-thousand won note with it to make sure it was played.

The women’s bathroom opened to a bare sink and a single stall door, which was locked. A thin wisp of smoke trailed up to the ceiling above the stall. The toilet flushed and the turtleneck girl emerged. She was wearing tight black pencil pants and spiky heels. She ignored me as she left the room, not even washing her hands. In the stall, a lipstick-ringed cigarette butt in the metal tray glowed its dying embers.

Next to the toilet, the trashcan was empty except for a few wadded tissues. By the end of the night it would be overflowing. Toilet paper clogged the ancient city pipes, so it was forbidden to flush it. While I peed, I perused the graffiti and found my contribution: “Jasmine & Steve TLA” scrawled in the middle of a big heart. I took out the pen in my pocket and tried to scribble over Steve’s name, but the tip wouldn’t write on the concrete wall. So I spat on it.

When I emerged from the bathroom, the turtleneck girl and her friend had transported their cell phones, cigarettes, and bottle beers to the table with the military guys. I sat back down and refused to look at Neal, who was singing, “And so Sally can wait, she knows it’s too late as we’re walking by, her soul slides away, but don’t look back in anger.” Oasis. His request, no doubt.

Outside the city was too bright for stars. On the street below people were walking arm-in-arm, bundled in groups of threes and fours, steaming the air with their laughter. A man on the side of the street was busy bringing the large hot coals from the fire he’d been tending into the bulgogi restaurant. Finally I faced Neal.

“See that girl with the bangs and the bracelets?” I asked.

Neal twisted his head.

“Don’t be too obvious. They were sitting behind us, but they’re with those military guys now.”

“And?”

“I think that’s the girl Steve left me for,” I said.

“So?”

“Well, it pisses me off.”

“Maybe it’s not her,” he said.

“It is.” But I wasn’t sure. I had only seen Steve with the girl once when I’d stumbled upon them one night in another bar down the street from this one. I’d seen bangs, though, and bracelets, before I ran out.

I drained my beer, thinking that there never seemed to be enough in my glass. My request came on then, the one I’d slipped the bill for: “Both Sides Now.” I sang, “It’s love’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know love at all.” Neal just shook his head, wrote something on a piece of paper and went up to the bar. He sat back down across from me, his eyes narrowed. When his song came on, he gave a satisfied smile.

“American Woman, stay away from me, American Woman, mama let me be,” he bellowed out of key. I laughed and joined in, singing even louder than him. When the song was over, I moved to Neal’s side of the table and kissed his neck. He filled my glass, leaving an inch of foam at the top. I felt his knee rub mine, and I wanted to go back to his place and have sex right then.

The bar was getting more crowded. A few tables of Koreans, college-age, thin with glasses were air-guitaring to Bon Jovi. The girls with them were dressed up in heels and held tiny purses in the crook of their arms. They looked like they’d much rather be somewhere not so dark and dingy, a place that served colored cocktails. They were biding their time.

All the tables were full now, which meant the time for me and my song requests was over. We were having territory problems. Cigarettes were borrowed. Neal’s lighter was appropriated. Beers were poured, empty glasses abandoned on our table. More and more people were hovering over our table. Prime real estate.

“Love Shack” was on and the small clearing that passed for the dance floor was packed with revelers grinding under the newly installed strobe lights. The two girls had disappeared, and the Westerner’s table had been taken over by a group of Korean salary men, their ties loosened, their drinking furious. Four Korean girls sat where the original two had, behind Neal. I danced near them so I could watch them. They were scheming. After the song was over, I scooted in next to Neal and waited.

One of the military guys I recognized from earlier, dark skinned, Hispanic probably, shoulders twice the width of Neal’s, sat himself and his beer down  across from us and ground his cigarette out in our ashtray.

“Excuse me, this seat is taken,” Neal said.

“I don’t see anyone here,” the guy said.

“This is our table. Someone is sitting here.”

“Who?” The man turned around dramatically and surveyed the bar. While he wasn’t looking, Neal flicked the ash of his cigarette into the guy’s beer. “I don’t see anyone sitting in this chair except me,” the man said.

“He’s in the loo.” Neal blew smoke in the guy’s direction.

“You’re a very rude guy.” The military man shook his head and took a long swig of his beer. He smiled at me, all fake polite. “What about you? Do you mind if I sit here?” The man’s ears looked like they belonged to an elf.

“Why are you here?” I asked. “It’s twelve thirty. Past military curfew.”

He looked around, shrugged.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“I’m Ron from New Mexico. There’s nothing there.”

“Ron from New Mexico, how can you justify those wars?” I leaned forward and touched the gold cross he wore on a chain around his neck. “How, Ron, how?”

Ron’s smile disappeared. He looked at the table. “I’m not a bad guy,” he said. Then he stood and left.

“Well done,” Neal said, giving my thigh a squeeze.

It wasn’t over, though. I watched Ron watching me from the other end of the bar. He towered over the Koreans. He lit his cigarette with a Zippo, then began chatting with some nearby girls.

Neal’s back was to me as he was busy lighting the slim delicate cigarettes of the girls behind us. He spoke to them in semi-fluent Korean. The bar had long stopped playing our songs. I had to go to the bathroom again. I held on to the table for support as I stood. Neal didn’t even see me go.

The bathroom door was locked. I sighed and leaned against the wall. The door in the men’s bathroom was open slightly, and no one was waiting so I walked in. Ron from New Mexico was zipping his pants at the urinal.

I backed away slowly into the hall. When he came out he brushed my shoulder. “Can I have a cigarette?” I asked.

Wordlessly he tapped out one of his Marlboro Reds and placed it between my lips. Then he lit it with his Zippo. The girl’s bathroom door was open now. Once inside, I locked the stall door and peed, tossed my used toilet paper into the now overflowing trashcan. After I flushed, I stayed in the stall and smoked next to the tiny window that looked out into the alley. The ashtray was stuffed with half-smoked cigarettes, so I flushed my butt down the toilet. When I came out Ron was still there.

I fell into him. He smelled like one of the boys in my high school I dated a long time ago. “So,” I whispered into his ear. “How dangerous is North Korea? Really?”

He had his hand on the back of my neck so that his lips grazed my earlobe. “I don’t know. I just do what they tell me. I’m not a bad guy. Really.”

“Me neither. Not really,” I said.

We were kissing then, the Marlboro Red fresh on my tongue and the scruff of his military haircut rough on my cheek.

Then there was a hand on my shoulder pulling us apart. Neal’s eyes looked red and tired. His free hand gripped his half-full mug of beer. He dropped his hand from my shoulder, shook his head, and turned away. Then, he spun around and tossed his beer on Ron’s chest. I grabbed for Neal, but my hands came up with air.

Before I ran out the bar, I bummed another Marlboro Red from Ron. After he lit it, he told me to disappear. It was that time of night. Halfway down the stairs, I slipped and tumbled to the bottom. People on the street, drunk themselves, stepped over me, delicately. The fire man walked past, carrying hot coals in his tongs for the groups of people in the restaurant. I stood up, shaking, and brought the cigarette, miraculously still lit and in my hand, to my lips.

Neal appeared from around the corner then, his body coiled tight. He walked straight up to me and slapped me, knocking my cigarette out of my mouth into a puddle on the street. And even though I knew Neal was gone for good, I called his name as he disappeared into the drunken crowds, then Ron’s name, then Steve’s, then all the names I could remember, one after the other, words from a song I still didn’t know.

— Sybil Baker

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Sybil Baker’s latest novel Into This World was recently published by Engine Books. She is also the author of The Life Plan, a comic novel, and a linked short story collection, Talismans. Her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous publications including The Writer’s Chronicle, Prairie Schooner, Glimmer Train, and The Nervous Breakdown. She spent twelve years teaching in South Korea before returning to the States in 2007. She is an Assistant Professor of English (Creative Writing) at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she serves as the Assistant Director of the Meacham Writers’ Workshop. She is currently on the visiting faculty of the low-residency MFA program at City University of Hong Kong and the Yale Writers’ Conference. Her MFA is from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she is the Fiction Editor at Drunken Boat. You can read more about her at www.sybilbaker.com.