Dec 102013

American author Jonathan Littell gives a


The Fata Morgana Books
Jonathan Littell
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Two Lines Press
208 pp., $10.46

A Fata Morgana is a mirage visible just above the horizon line. The name is a hybrid term, with the Latin word for “fairy” combined with a reference to Morgan le Fay, the sinister witch from the legends of King Arthur. It makes sense: These optical illusions could easily be mistaken for sorcery, as light refraction distorts the image of a ship or an island from just beyond the horizon line, piling doubles and doppelgangers on top of each other, stretching or compressing them until they become almost unrecognizable.

Fata Morgana is also the name of the French publisher who brought out the original edition of Jonathan Littell’s new book of novellas, called in English The Fata Morgana Books, apparently as gesture of respect to the house that first issued them. If so, the coincidence is as surreal and bizarre as the stories in this strange short book, which rise like the faux castles and continents that baffled sailors in the Straits of Messina four hundred years ago, shimmering inexplicably at the far edge of the visible world.

Those who come to these tales expecting the standard protocols of narrative fiction, perhaps having just finished The Kindly Ones (Les Bienveillantes), Littell’s perverse epic Nazi confessional masterpiece (and winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2006), will find themselves adapting to a very different type of fiction. If as Umberto Eco suggests, any text molds its “model reader,” recalibrating the expectations of the audience from the first sentences, then Littell makes you over into a sensual voyeur of cryptic often displaced, deferred or interrupted erotic events unfolding among lovely but anonymous people who for all their couplings remain distant and alone.

“Études,” the first of the four novellas that make up the book, is itself written in four parts, or études, and describes the sporadic romance between the writer and B., his girlfriend. In the section called “A summer Sunday,” they are stuck with a group of friends in a city emptied by the war raging nearby. The writer longs for B., contemplates kissing her, but fails to act, “crucified by desire and fear.” Later he chides himself for obsessing over the incident: “You should learn to grow yourself a skin before you play at scraping it with a razor of such poor quality.”

In “The Wait,” the writer returns to Paris, the only named city in all of the interlocking stories, and waits – for a government posting, for word from the writer, for his life to begin. He entertains himself with a brief homosexual fling and then subsides into a waking coma of impatience and dissatisfaction.

As “Between Planes,” the third étude, begins, the war is back on center stage, disrupting civilian life without ever coming into focus. We read about “rioters” passing by in “commandeered trucks, waving green branches and chanting slogans against the new authorities,” whoever they may be. The narrator has a new girlfriend, C. who is traveling between an alphabet soup of anonymous cities, G____, K____ and M____ on various military transport planes, somehow never quite available for a meeting.

On one occasion the writer scores a job moving freight from the city, allowing him a layover with C. But a set of Kafka-esque bureaucratic entanglements, never described in detail, leave him standing on the tarmac, refused boarding privileges, clutching a yellow flower his hand. The situation is muddled, but the image lingers in the mind. The relationship with C. stutters forward, with shared insomnia and occasional revelations (she has a child, for instance, whom she had never mentioned and whom we never see). The writer never gets a clear view of her and neither does the reader; only the writer’s emotions remain clear. He is “distraught” at her aloof demeanor, “Mad with suffering,” but always “something very strong prevented me from pushing, from provoking her to a rejection that would at least have the merit of being clear.”

Littell salts these elusive events with striking images that shine brightly for a moment, revealing their emotional truth, car headlights glinting off the reflectors that mark a sharp curve on a dark road.

I was sitting in the lobby of the office where she was with the administrator when a little black and white bird flew in. It began walking around with disjointed but calm little steps, surprised at the closed door. Then it turned on a little moth that was sleeping there and attacked it with its beak. The moth struggled, but in vain and the bird swallowed it in a cloud of scales, a fine white dust of torn-off wings forming a luminous halo around its head.

This moment seems to define the power relationships in the entire story, both political and personal. At the end we are left with one more rejection and another cancelled flight.

The fourth étude, “Fait Accompli,” the most impressive text in the entire collection, features a leap into third person and an attempt at pure emotional abstraction. We have two characters – unnamed, of course, undescribed, virtually undifferentiated – thinking about the process of thinking about each other. Are these two people the characters from the earlier études? It must be, but it’s hard to be sure, because we have plunged from a satellite view of their actions to a close-up so extreme that we’re studying the pores on their faces, unable to see the larger features. This works because of the repetition of certain phrases, the obsessive recycling of language that perfectly captures to futile spin of the mind coping with jealousy and rejection. The narrative is abstract the way ballet is abstract. It’s a a dance of despair. The reader provides the music:

For him then, two questions, that is question 1 the other or not the other, and question 2 her or not her, To these two questions four solutions, that is solution 1 him without her without the other, solution 2 him with her without the other, solution 3 him without her with the other, solution 4 him with her with the other. Now for him at this stage with the other out of the question and hence out of the question solutions 3 and 4, remain numbers I and 2, without the other or without her, hence why not with, it wasn’t so bad, and it would be almost like before, except that in the meantime there would have been that. But here precisely is the problem, since for him with the other out of the question, for her without the other out of the question, of this he is certain, even without asking her I mean. So if for her, without the other out of the question, then out of the question solutions 1 and 2, remain thus numbers 3 and 4, already out of the question. So start again.

And he does.

The lover imagines various scenes with various settings – a Moscow subway station, a park at night, a restaurant, scenes with them walking or sitting, talking or silent or just exchanging letters, the phrases recurring — “the cage the locked window the key thrown in the pond”;  “eating your cake and having it too” — the options divided by the chanted “or else.” Or else, or else, or else, with no solution, no conclusion, just an unfiltered, eventually unpunctuated down-spiral of despair with an unnerving intimation of violence: “Love in the garbage can, blood everywhere,” and the sudden possibility that all the time he has talking about not another lover but a child, not a three-way affair but a family, not a break up but an abortion. So the story becomes not simply the wild gyrating thoughts of a lover trapped by circumstance, but a plea for mercy. One can only hope that the woman will take his advice have the child, live happily ever, eat her cake and have it too.

But the chances are slim.

The remaining novellas feel connected, and Littell clarifies their subject, theme and purpose early in the first one, “Story about Nothing”:

…I didn’t really know if I was driving, or if, stretched out in this vast heat on the sheetless rectangle of my mattress, I was dreaming that I was driving, or even if I was having this sleeping-driver dream in the midst of driving, my hands inert on the black leather hoop of the steering wheel. Sleeping, I said to myself: one should write about this and nothing else, not about people, not about me, not about absence or about presence, not about life or about death, not about things seen or heard, not about love, not about time. Already it had taken shape.

We watch while it happens. The narrative devolves into reverie. The narrator drives to the beach, swims far out to sea, hears a woman’s voice calling him back – but from the dream of swimming not the swim itself; but the woman is only another dream, one more fata morgana mirage piling up on the horizon line.

He visits a friend’s house and the first thing he sees is a mirror, which will become the defining image for the remainder of this story and the final texts in the collection, “In Quarters” and “An Old Story.” Mirrors proliferate, cracked mirrors that evoke vaginas, black mirrors that threaten to swallow the narrator, mirrors on every wall and above every bed, reflecting every sexual act. And the sexual acts proliferate, to the edge of pornography, ever more perverse, from simple adultery to cross-dressing and three-ways and orgies.

At one point, the narrator is the only male at a lesbian pool party, though he’s dressed as a woman and many of the other woman seem to be hermaphrodites. Consciousness refracted through this hormonal haze creates its own stacked mirages: at one point he watches a porn film under a mirror that watches him watching the actors and seems to watch us watching all of them. You reel, amused, appalled, dizzy, from one surreal incident to the next. The narrator attends bull fights, nibbles lime sorbet beside swimming pools, enjoys affairs with interchangeable lovers, and somehow in the rush of action and memory, images or insights glint:

I had never received anything from her, either good or bad, she had never granted me any rights or down me any wrongs; what she had given me she had given freely, just as she had taken it back from me, and there was nothing to say to that, even though I was burning from head to foot in a fire of ice that left no ash. At the same time, I couldn’t have cared less about her.

Who is she? It doesn’t matter. The dream is moving on, in this case into the next novella, “In Quarters,” which amplifies and deepens the dream imagery, with an even more delicate filament of reality holding the scenes together. The story starts and ends in a large communal house with the narrator surrounded by busy adults and swarms of children, none of whom seem to notice him. One of the children, a blond boy who keeps turning up, may or may not be the narrator’s biological child.

Eventually he leaves this exclusionary idyll and returns to his own apartment, shadowed by mysterious men in black overcoats, a sinister surveillance that contrasts sharply with the way he moves through the big house like a ghost. He meets a woman at his apartment, they have sex, examine brutal war photographs, and before we can discern what their actual relationship might be, he’s on a train. It arrives at the destination and we watch the dreamer wandering around the town, looking for his friends, amid a tense atmosphere of unspecified political unrest.

Soldiers, overheard ominously talking about some faction “going too far” and “provoking” us, recall the early sections of the first novella “Études,” — the characters enjoying an eerie holiday atmosphere of a town cut off by war. And everywhere, shapes float on other shapes, pools against lawns, coverlets on beds, even the Rothko like squares in a painting that seems to watch the author as he moves around the room, evoking mirrors. Then the narrator finds some handwritten pages, a story in his own hand, which he doesn’t recognize, though it describes the events that began this narrative: wandering unseen through the densely populated mansion. “In any case it has nothing to do with me.”

The reflections and mirages continue to pile up. Eventually he returns to the mansion to find that the blond boy who might be his son has fallen ill. He sits by the boy’s bedside. “He raised his hand and placed it over my own, it was light as a cat’s paw, dry and burning.”

Everyone else still ignores the narrator — except the doctor, who eventually pays a house call. When he walks the doctor to his car in the street outside the mansion, the men in black close in, presumably to arrest him. For what crime? We can only hope he’ll awaken before he finds out.

And then we come to “An Old Story,” the final novella, which begins and ends with a man breaking the surface of a swimming pool from below, stroking up into the recycled air of the health club, or mansion basement, or prison exercise area, or … well, in fact the location of the pool doesn’t really matter. It’s too deeply buried in the unconscious mind of the narrator to need a geographical tag. By now it’s a familiar spot anyway, filled with strangers, surrounded by mirrors, the gateway to another cycle of dreams.

In this case the circular nature of the sequences become explicit. The narrator dons a track suit and starts jogging along a circular corridor, opening various doors, going inside for a surreal experience, then leaving and jogging on. In the first room he seems to be married, with a son much like the one in the previous story. There are problems with the electrical service, another theme that will recur through all the following vignettes, along with the plaintive excuse that the narrator called the electrician twice to have all the wiring overhauled. There are paintings that seem to observe the action and mirrors that reflect them, and a sense of menace and war in the background, and sex, always plenty of sex. In this case the child catches the narrator and the woman in the act. He runs off and the woman goes to find him. Night has turned to day, and the narrator steps outside into a lovely garden, feeling “a strong morning heat that clung to the skin.” Once again, a crystalline, perfectly observed image anchors the floating world for us.

Soon the narrator is running along the corridor again. Soon he finds another room, with another bed and another woman and another set of mirrors, the bed like all of them covered in “a heavy golden cloth, embroidered with long green grass” that evokes the chaise lounge on the lush lawn of a previous story. Here windows facing into the night (it’s night again) take on the looking-glass chores. And the sex grows funkier, with the woman using a dildo on the narrator in a prolonged scene rescued from the prurient and the salacious by the eerie detachment of the narrator himself.

He wakes up into another dream, another room, another bed with the same coverlet, and another woman, Here again the exotic raunch, escalates, with the narrator cross dressing and finding himself attending the lesbian pool party mentioned earlier. The pool itself functions as another mirror. And it goes on: he becomes by turns a child slave, the murderer victor in a conflict with a gay male prostitute, a voyeur, a sex-starved  scavenger roams a surreal gay bathhouse, once again caught by the child in an even more compromising position and finally the leader of some barbaric Medieval army engaged in a war vague enough to echo the peripheral battles that began the collection. The woman in this story he rapes and murders, as the increasing  perversity of these linked dreams starts to spiral out of control.

Then, when it seems like nothing more could possibly happen, the narrator is emerging from the water, breaking the surface of the pool, back where he started, at the beginning of the novella, and seemingly cued up to begin again, launched into a sequence of dreams perpetually eating its own tail, a nightmare of recurrence from which he can never wake up.

Littell’s message remains constant in these shifting tableaux: life may be largely meaningless, but is nevertheless redeemed by isolated moments of pure beauty We are hopelessly self-conscious, yet tragically incapable of real self-awareness, doomed to repeat both our pleasures and our mistakes until we learn to distinguish between them.

It’s a gorgeous tour through a world of human excess and futility, exhilarating and exhausting, a world, yes, ruled by repetition, doubling and displacement, a world in which the mind cannot escape the mind. After a couple of hundred pages squinting at the fabulous fata morganas of a refracted continent, I longed to make landfall and feel the actual sand between my toes. But I suspect that was at least part of Littell’s intent. Like many deep water ocean voyages, this one had passages of fear and boredom, but also exalted spikes of strangeness and beauty you could never encounter closer to shore.

                                                                                                                                                                             —Steven Axelrod


Steven Axelrod

Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the Writers Guild of America (west), though he hasn’t worked in Hollywood for several years. Poisoned Pen Press will be kicking off his Henry Kennis Nantucket mystery series in January, with Nantucket Sawbuck. The second installment, Nantucket Five-Spot, is scheduled for 2015. He’s also publishing his dark noir thriller Heat of the Moment next year with Gutter Books. Two excerpts from that novel have appeared in the most recent issues of “BigPulp” and “PulpModern” magazines. Steven’s work can be also be found on line at TheGoodmenProject and A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island where he writes novels and paints houses, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers. His web site is here.

Dec 092013


“There is only one possible law of style: write to the maximum of intensity and incantation.” That’s Hubert Aquin, from his 1968 novel Trou de Mémoire (Blackout in the English translation). It’s the only rule you need for writing and for life. And the novel itself is astonishing for its combination of obsession and rupture.

I wrote an essay about Aquin, “Difficulty and Revolution,” which is in my essay book Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, but you can also read it online in Dalkey Archive’s magazine Context.

And here is a Jacques Godbout documentary about Aquin; Godbout, an eminent novelist and filmmaker, published two of my books in French in his capacity as editor of éditions du Boréal in Montreal (Les Pas de L’ourse and Seize sortes de désir)


Two Episodes from the Life of Hubert Aquin by Jacques Godbout, National Film Board of Canadaé

Dec 082013



Click to View: Jeu d’échecs avec Marcel Duchamp (1963)


Much talk of Marcel Duchamp on NC lately. Read Stephen May’s essay “Beauty & the Brothel of Illustration: An Impractical Guide to Making Art” and Paul Forte’s essay in this issue “Visual Thinking and Cognitive Exploration.” I thought it would be helpful to see the man himself, hear his words and follow his life. This is a remarkably sumptuous filmed interview that tracks Duchamp artist through his life and influences (among other things, he rather hilariously recommends getting married).


Dec 082013

Lowe in Studio

There is a line in Rilke’s “The Spanish Trilogy” — “…to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing” — that rings down through this amazing interview, NC Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel with visual artist Lynda Lowe, an interview about art, making art, and the art of collaboration. All art is, yes, about making Things. We forget that sometimes. Expressing ourselves, making a point, sending a message, selling a line, finding a market, all take a back seat to the thingness of the Thing, its sudden and utter presence, sui generis and unique. Whether it’s a poem or a painting or some combination thereof (or a novel or a figure in a block of stone…).


01 Installation Object of the Object

01 Installation view of The Object of the Object, for the Poetic Dialogue, 13”H x 20’W x 4”D, 2008
Collaboration with poet Nance Van Winckel

NVW: I thought we’d begin with a few questions about our collaboration for the Poetic Dialogue Project, a group exhibit of poets and artists who were paired to combine poetry and visual art. Since we both live in Washington, we were paired together. I remember coming to your lovely studio near Tacoma and seeing all the cool “tools” you’d collected and thinking about a poem I’d written called “Left to Our Own Devices,” which was also about tools, tiny clock-repair tools.

I sensed we were both interested in objects and, as we went on to discuss, “thingness” or “objecthood.” We called our collaborative project The Object of the Object. I particularly love the piece of yours with those calipers in it. I would suppose that as an artist you must have developed a close kinship with the “tools of your trade.” Can you describe a bit what our collaboration WAS (the series, sizes, etc.) and also talk a little about the subject of “things” and its appeal to you as a visual artist?

05 Object of the Object panel 15

Panel 15, The Object of the Object, 12” x 12” water and oil media, wax on panel 2008

Lynda Lowe: The Poetic Dialogue’s intent was to have a visual artist and a poet collaborate in the creation of a new work for a traveling exhibition. It was on my mind to not just make an illustration for your poems or for you to write something in reaction to a painting, but to integrate these forms as much as possible. Since we didn’t know each other before beginning the collaboration, we spent time sniffing out the turf where we might find something common and fertile. We passed back and forth word lists, favorite readings, images, and poems to see where we might begin.

Through Rilke’s poetry we discussed the interiority of the object, its thingness: “to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing.”

Things contain narrative, perhaps even a kind of sentient presence. Humans make stories from, and meaning out of, even the most random collection of them. The idea seemed a good starting place as it shows up in your poetry and also in my imagery. Thus began “The Object of the Object.”

02 Object of the Object panel 1

Panel 1, The Object of the Object, 12” x 12” water and oil media, wax on panel 2008

Our work had to grow organically between us and achieve a balance that honored both word and image. I started with a group of paintings on 12” square panels that were deliberately left unfinished and sent images to you. You sent poetry in progress. We had to meander about with some directionless hiking for a while. An “aha!” moment for me was reading the last line in your poem “Coxswain”: “in us are the woods.”

Beautiful! Imagery began to coalesce for me. Our circumvolution continued. I remember we discussed the creation of a codex form where a viewer-reader would have to physically walk the expanse of a series of panels, thereby engaging time and memory through repeated imagery and text. The final product was a twenty-foot span of eighteen panels that were seated on a shallow shelf, leaning against the supporting wall.

NVW: During our collaboration, I recall you also brought up another term that’s near and dear to my heart: wabi-sabi. I think you rightly sensed my simpatico with this idea as you so well described it in our email exchange back then, ” the worn beauty of age and the graceful disorder of nature.” I know your work is influenced by Eastern philosophies in general and perhaps by the concept of wabi-sabi in particular. In our collaboration, how did these ideas influence the process and/or product?

Lynda Lowe: We both pay attention to that earned patina: your marmot playground of rusting factory equipment and my hundreds of old wall photos taken on travels. The layers of wear, weather, the mark of a passerby build such beautiful surfaces that speak of narrative use and history. Nature has these cycles of age and re-growth too of course. Being a gardener you can’t miss it. Imperfection and disorder is an undeniable part of the landscape on every level. When I’m developing a painting, vestiges of many additions and subtractions layer the work and this is never quite predictable. It lends a wabi-sabi quality to it.

Object of Object (panel 4)

Panel 4, The Object of the Object, 12” x 12” water and oil media, wax on panel 2008

NVW: I know you’re a great lover of T.S. Eliot and in particular his Four Quartets. You’ve used passages of his poetry in your work before, as well as lines from other poets, myself included. Can you explain a little about how you think text—and perhaps specifically poetry—may best share the visual field with your incredibly textured and expansive imagery?

Lynda Lowe: Text and imagery are in some basic way, information. They comprise part of a larger perceptual field. I’m very interested in how we construct meaning from a personal blend of reason, intuition, memory, and spirit. In the combining of elements such as poetry, diagrams, equations, realism, intuitive mark, and abstract color field, I’m creating a matrix that suggests these are all part of a unitive whole.

Object of the Object (panel 6)

Panel 6, The Object of the Object, 12” x 12” water and oil media, wax on panel 2008

NVW: I was happy to reconnect with you recently in Tacoma at the Museum of Glass and the opening for your wonderful show, a series of 108 ceramic vessels called The Patra Passage. Again, I realized we had another mutual interest, Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift. I recall reading this book in the mid-1980’s and being very moved. It helped me to feel a better acceptance and even joy about my own life-choice: to make poems. Hyde speaks about art as a kind of gift the artist gives to her world. The gift is meant to be shared. This making and giving concern important aspects of community and shared values.

Hyde’s messages came to me at a time when I really need to hear exactly that. The promises of financial reward, publishing contracts and such sorts of “recompense” had begun to feel far off and unreachable to me, but I still loved and valued poetry and I wanted to continue with this art front and center in my life. Can you talk about your vessels which you gave away, and which the recipients (myself included) will again give away, and so on—and how, as an artist, you think about this interconnectedness of art-making and art-giving? And how The Patra Passage, in particular, was inspired? Here’s the wonderful video about that project:

Lynda Lowe: After a rough couple of years and I felt I was looking at life through the other end of the telescope. What do I consider valuable when viewing things in reverse, not ahead? I’d been incubating ideas for the Patra Passage for over a decade. The image of a bowl repeatedly shows up in my paintings as a symbol for the fluid act of giving and receiving. Interconnectedness is of great interest to me.

I knew where I wanted to take the idea, but the project required a total change in media and a large commitment of time without income. Lewis Hyde’s writing was and is indeed a true gift and encouragement. Also hugely significant is the privilege of many wonderful supporters and participants – you being one of them! The Passage seeks collaboration and connection. The website more fully describes the project. I wholeheartedly invite interaction from all visitors to the site:

Patra vessels on bench

The Patra Passage, detail of some of the 108 vessels, 2013

Patra vessel

The Patra Passage, Patra vessel, 5” x 5” x 5” 2013

Patra  vessel

The Patra Passage, Patra vessel, 2013

NVW: What’s your next project?

Lynda Lowe: I’m in that transitional phase now after the launch of the Patra Passage where it’s back to the meandering path without a destination in mind. For the moment I’m playing again with my old friend T. S. Eliot and The Four Quartets. I don’t think I could ever mine that out. There are several exhibitions ahead, including the return of the Patra vessels at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. And soon I’ll be working collaboratively with poet Joseph Heithaus on another project. I’m grateful to be doing something I love and that challenges me.


The Path to the Path, 24” x 56” water and oil media, wax on panel, 2008 (T.S. Eliot quote used in this painting, title credit to Nance)


Falling and Flying 2

Falling and Flying II, 48” x 48”, water and oil media, wax on panel. 2012 (Rilke quote used in this painting)

Oaxaca Wall

Oaxaca Wall, 38” X 32”, water and oil media, wax on panel. 2012

—Nance Van Winckel & Lynda Lowe


After completing an MFA at Indiana University, Lynda Lowe taught fifteen years at Wheaton College and Northern Illinois University.  In 1998 she left her academic position and began painting full-time. Soon after, a move to the Pacific Northwest brought fresh opportunities and the construction of a studio on the Puget Sound in Washington state where she currently resides.

Lowe’s overall imagery combines sections of color field, realism, text, and diagramatic figures. She employs fragments of poetry, handwritten scientific observations, and mathematical formula and layers them alongside highly rendered recognizable images to suggest that the construction of meaning is shaped from many different frames of reference. Archetypal symbols are deliberately integrated into her art, pointing out that the human experience is intrinsically connected the sentient world. Her surrounding environment and her travels abroad also profoundly impact her work.

A recent project, the Patra Passage. centers on the gifting of 108 hand-built ceramic bowls which are re-gifted at least three times throughout one year. After they return, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, will host an exhibition February – May, 2015.

Lynda Lowe’s paintings have been widely exhibited nationally in galleries and museums. She has been the recipient of two Artist Fellowship awards from the Illinois Arts Council, a distinguished resident of the Ragdale Foundation, a finalist of the Neddy Award, and represented by the following galleries:

  • Gail Severn Gallery, Sun Valley, ID
  • Arden Gallery in Boston, MA
  • Forre Fine Art in Aspen and Vail, Colorado and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
  • Abmeyer+Wood, in Seattle, Washington

More of Lynda Lowe’s work can be viewed on and

Nance Van Winckel

Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review. She is also the author of four collections of linked short stories and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Boneland, her newest book of fiction, is just out with U. of Oklahoma Press. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography appear in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Kenyon Review Online. Click this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.

Dec 072013

Heading home after the first semester as Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick. I’ve been living at Mark Anthony Jarman‘s house just across the street from the Saint John River in Fredericton, about a 10-minute walk from the campus, also a 10-minute drive from the university’s research woodlot where I walk the dog often. R. W. Gray lives just down the third-floor hall from me. Both Mark and Rob have new books of stories coming out. According to legend, the house is built on property once owned by Benedict Arnold. Photos by dg, maj & ch.


DSCF6934From the back

DSCF7031Up to the third floor where dg lives

DSCF7028Third floor sunlight, R. W. Gray’s door on left

DSCF7030Second floor landing looking out on Waterloo Row and the river

More dawg (Lucy) 087The house dawg

DSCF7032Second floor hallway

DSCF7037Living room and TV room beyond, new pellet stove at far right

Lucy & ClarissaLucy and Clarissa

Lucy and FifiLucy and Fifi

DSCF6893MAJ and Clarissa

DSCF6880Lu in the university woodlot


Clarissa and LucyLu and Clarissa’s shoes

Dec 062013

William Olsen

William Olsen is a dear friend and former colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a publisher, editor and poet, a major force, diffident and yet such a presence. In this new poem, he pens what he calls “among other things, some sort of response to and loving argument with a favorite poem, Coleridge’s “Frost At Midnight.” The Coleridge poem situates itself as an address to the poet’s son, sleeping in his cradle. It’s night; it’s cold. Frost outside. Everyone is asleep except the poet. The world is so still the stillness seems to flutter with presence that disturbs meditation, the presence of the Stranger, which is a kind of Coleridgean encapsulation of a neo-Platonic deity behind or beneath the phenomena of existence. The poet bemoans his own childhood (much to complain of there) cooped up in the city grime and tells his son he’s lucky; he’ll grow up in sight of “…lakes and shores / And mountain crags…” that are the “eternal language” of God.

Olsen’s poem plays with Coleridge’s poem starting with a brilliantly suspended first sentence that takes seven stanzas to come to an end as the poet takes us deeper and deeper beneath the surface of things, past regret and mother’s tears and “funereal vacuities” (more than a hint of humor here) to something that, in the end, is not Coleridge’s Stranger nor his God, rather something the poet cannot name or even choose to name. Note the line “wherever it is leaves must fall” and its echo farther down “The leaf falls to earth…”

The leaf falls to earth and keeps
falling and cups the frost,
then decomposes beyond the deeps,
to teach us how to be lost.

And the word “teach” here echoes the Coleridge poem that also is about teaching: God “Great universal Teacher!” But Olsen is much less credulous or sanguine than Coleridge. He cannot say why things are nor who speaks through the delicate traceries of frost and the decomposing leaves that teach.


Far down below black, lowest regret,
deeper than death, and deeper yet,
down where my mother weeps to me
to leave tomorrow’s sorrows be,

far below sadness and tenderness,
where more is less and less is less,
below the sky or the sky-blue lake
brimming over like the hull of a shipwreck,

below where the crows crow and the cows sleep,
below the bluestem and the apples the cows crap,
below the prettiest sunset,
below even the bluest white-

bright-last-sunlight upon even bluer waves
gleaming their overly-precious granite graves,
below funereal vacuities,
extravagant superfluities,

far below the lovers’ quarrels,
or their story’s broody morals,
in its own good timely time, time has gone back home.
Time and time again, homeless time—

all the time in the world, homeless,
homeless space of universe,
all the time that time might pass
inside a shiny timeless hearse——

far down below idling hopes,
below the learned astronomer’s telescopes,
wherever it is leaves must fall
is neither my life nor my choice to call.


Upon a few gnarled stunted vines
fall’s first frost fairly shines,
mist rising up from fields while new minted frost
mummifies a shingle-sided house.

Here is a glittery homelessness
better acquainted with earth than with us.
All we are is less substantial,
all our fears, less substantial.

Dawn is ready and the heart is able.
Fear could not be less substantial.
I’ve had it with odes to dejection,
which is never more than the fear of rejection.


Here’s what frost isn’t—insubstantial,
querulous, of itself too full,
a mood of ferried buried
waves and the threadbare eroded

dunes we sightseers climb up and down to ruin.
Torment never spread itself this thin.
Incandescent, heartless, so like tin—
gull-gray gulls shriek atonal tunes.

The light of frost is the understudy of day,
this lake, once, as hard as rock:
icebergs—like ships, they broke
to floes which, farther down on their luck

drowned, to nothing—invisibly.
This frost is anything but free.
It looks like the moonlight got good and lost.
It got busted, sprung, and lost.

Frost has a cryological conscience:
the afterworld is cold chance.
Lunatical . . . white as a grin.
It shines unapproachably, like sunlight shines on tin,

whitening fields between cars and houses.
Plow-slashed furrows freeze
over smooth to its silver sky.
Forgive this intricate analysis

but it looks so stunned and incredulous.
It is spotty, like a roof of a vacant crystal palace,
Instantaneously tenuous,
it scribes the window glass.


It is so distinct from rain.
It shuns asphalt as too human.
The lustrous is
incipient in us.

Its deposition of glory
is inexplicably ordinary.
What a tenacious
underside of heaven it is—

it won’t be pushed around or salted or plowed like snow.
It won’t be tracked on and no weatherman will see it lift.
It is profligate thrift.
Its past is vaporous.

Beauty never spread itself so thin—
incandescent, the heartless night
turned inside out—
pasture field light.


The great lovers once frantic to touch
in darkness no dawn or frost can reach—
my mother gone in the blink of an eye,
my father going by and by,

all mothers, all sisters, all fathers, all sons,
all brothers and keepers, everyone’s
truest, best, lost influences,
nameless lovingkindnesses. . . .

it is all and none of this.


It seems irretrievably early.
Time is awake, only barely,
infinitesimal hates,
infinitesimal fights.

Tight, fibrous and delicate,
around the fine white plow bared roots,
its extremely minute white
threads appeared overnight.

It prompts us and then reproves us.
Its intricate paralysis
crystallizes . . . miraculous.
Preposterous.  Analogous.


The leaf falls to earth and keeps
falling and cups the frost,
then decomposes beyond the deeps,
to teach us how to be lost.


So night may be said to be over,
over, and over at no real cost,
each dawn the stars take cover.
Stop fretting about the frost.

Frost clung to the shadow places
and as always already was there
before anyone could take a step.
In the sky, stars stayed on

while you were asleep.


While you were asleep
everyone was asleep;
if we sleep, if we die,
stars hang in the sky.

Between our houses
is its heartlessness,
but whatever grass
is, the frost blesses

whoever sees this,
whoever would mean
that frost be seen
not heard in this:

now fields steam and
its steam mists to sky.
Under us is only sand
and who can say why,

or whose voice this is.

—William Olsen

William Olsen is author of five collections of poetry, including Sand Theory (Northwestern, 2011). He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA and Breadloaf.  He is co-editor of Planet on the Table: Writers on the Reading Life (Sarabande) and, most recently, Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry (New Issues). He teaches in the MFA and Ph.D program at Western Michigan University and edits New Issues Press. His home is in Kalamazoo.
Dec 062013

dg and Lucy at Lawrencetown Beach in Nova Scotia

The Fiddlehead is one of the grand old Canadian institutions, a literary magazine that first published in 1945, that published me regularly back in the days when I was a young strip of a writer just starting out (in those days the fiction was edited by Kent Thompson and  Roger Ploude). Now Ross Leckie is the editor; his office in the English Department at the University of New Brunswick is just down that hall from mine. Mark Anthony Jarman and Gerard Beirne are the fiction editors; the summer fiction issue has become a major publishing event of the year under their inspired leadership.


Introducing the Judges for The Fiddlehead’s 23rd Annual Literary Contest

The Fiddlehead‘s annual literary contest is now closed, and we’re pleased to announce this year’s fabulous judges.

Fiction Judge
Douglas Glover
Douglas Glover’s newest book, a collection of short stories called Savage Love, appeared in the fall of 2013. He has won the Governor General’s Award for his novel Elle as well as the Rogers Writers’ Trust Timothy Findley Award for his body of work. He edited Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. He teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is the current Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick. He edits the international online arts magazine Numéro Cinq.

via The Fiddlehead Blog: Introducing the Judges for The Fiddlehead’s 23rd Annual Literary Contest.

Dec 052013



Irmgard Keun
Translated by Geoff Wilkes
Melville House Books
Paperback; 229 pages; $16.00 US/CAN

In the spring of 2011, Melville House published as part of their Neversink Library a compact but tremendously potent little novel by German author Irmgard Keun called After Midnight. First published in 1937 as Nacht Mitternacht, After Midnight is Keun’s third novel, written in exile after the Nazis banned her books and effectively prevented her from further publishing. A tale of censorship and acquiescence, of nationalistic fervor and vile human pettiness, of disappeared persons, of vengeful murders and polite suicides, After Midnight contemplates above all the moral obligations of a writer in times of government oppression and blind patriotism.

Keun secreted herself back into Germany in 1940, protected by rumors of her demise, and lived long enough to see her novels receive renewed critical attention in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her life is easily romanticized (defying the Nazis, wandering in exile, staging her own suicide), but Keun’s time away was no holiday. As an aging writer explains to the protagonist during the party scene that is After Midnight’s climax, “You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden on others. For the roofs you see are not built for you… And the language you hear is not spoken for you.”

Now Meville House has released Keun’s debut novel, the 1931 bestselling Gilgi, ein von uns. Translated by Geoff Wilkes (and conspicuously missing the “one of us” subtitle), this is the first time Gilgi has been fully published in English. The eponymous Gisela – she prefers the name Gilgi because “the two i’s are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s” – inhabits a seemingly free Germany, a Cologne that is worlds away from the party demonstrations and concentration camps spoke of in After Midnight. Still, a painful recession is bankrupting whole companies and ruining personal fortunes, the Weimar government is clamping down on individual freedoms, and all the while gangs of communists and Nazis are beating each other up in the streets. Keun shows complete awareness that something terrible was about to happen, even if Gilgi, not much interested in politics, doesn’t seem to care.

What does interest Gilgi is ambition. Aged only twenty years at the novel’s outset, Gilgi works as a typist by day, studies in a rented room by night, and only ever allows herself some fun when she feels she’s earned it. Any activity she deems unproductive or unenjoyable is simply “a pointless waste of time, and completely incompatible with Gilgi’s character and her conscience.” She is quite sure, furthermore, that all her successes are a direct result of such diligent work; that the unemployed and the poor, “these people who don’t work, ambling so idiotically, frivolously, dozily through their lives,” simply aren’t trying hard enough.

Gilgi’s work ethic, her independence, and even her boyish-but-alluring body are all indicative of Gilgi’s life as a New Woman, a concept popularized by Henry James but prevalent in German society in the wake of the First World War. The German New Woman of the Weimar era was – according to popular magazines of the time like Die Dame and Uhu – intelligent and athletic, sociable and sexually liberated, while still being beautiful and refined.

Gilgi’s (perceived) firm grip on her life’s trajectory begins to fall away on the morning of her 21st birthday, when her mother informs her she was adopted as a baby from a poor seamstress named Frau Täschler. Täschler, a “faceless” old woman whose poverty Gilgi finds repulsive, reveals that Gilgi is in truth the daughter of the enormously wealthy Frau Kreil, though the birth was hidden away to avoid a scandal. But before Gilgi can dissolve into an absurd melodrama of confused identity and lineage, the protagonist is distracted by that most unrelentingly force of destruction: love.

Enter Martin Bruck, world-traveling writer and romantic adventurer; a man of forty-three years who scorns money and finds steady employment far too quotidian for his taste. Gilgi of course falls desperately for Martin, in a fit of passion that rips her away from her work, from her ambitions, and ultimately from her once-firm sense of self. Gilgi’s lover, alternately worshipful and condescending, wastes no time in imposing upon her his image of an ideal woman.

While she’s no stranger to flirtation or male attention, Gilgi learns for the first time what an absolute chore it is to care deeply for another human being. “The hours of happiness come at a high price. The bill is presented promptly,” she muses. “Pay it! With what? With fear and twinges of pain. No, I don’t think the price is too high, I just find the currency strange.” Gilgi wants her love to fit into a rational economic system, a scheme she can control or at least plan for, but finds sorely that one cannot make a budget of one’s desires.

Martin comes across as a bit of a type, the Writer, what with his penchant for swapping drunken stories with old sailors, dreaming up romantic narratives for backstreet curio shops, and punctuating long periods of inactivity with furious, flittering frenzies of writing. (Gilgi, desperate to justify the relationship to herself, lies to friends about the frequency of these frenzies, “then she believes it, because she wants to believe it.”) Keun is expert at charting of his and Gilgi’s relationship – as the currents of euphoria flow alongside terror and anxiety and self-doubt.

In fact, many of Gilgi’s supporting cast bear resemblance to common character tropes. From the beautiful and carefree artist Olga, to the brooding and sexually frustrated off-brand Raskolnikov named Pit, to Gilgi’s three mothers (working-class, bourgeois, and wealthy), Keun’s characters feel oddly familiar. But this is precisely the point. Just as Gilgi is a (fictional) living product of New Woman ideals, so the other characters may be seen as reproductions of tropes from other serialized popular novels. The connection is explicit: all the characters, most evidently the three mothers, read the very magazines they’re being pulled from. “My beautiful love shouldn’t turn into a kind of Strindberg play,” opines Gilgi, and Keun here knows exactly what sort of joke she’s making.

Of course it’s nothing new to have fictional characters read and reference fiction. Any believable facsimile of the world will include its own references to novels and films, and the rather fun irony here is that nothing is more life-like than a human being comparing her life to a work of fiction. But Keun’s efforts are particularly pointed. When Gilgi finally meets the true mother, locked away behind her wealth in labyrinth of chambers and antechambers, she is described dismissively as a “title character in a mediocre magazine serial.” Gilgi insists that Frau Kreil explain herself, “so that you become a living being for me.” Kreil, shocked into silence by the meeting, says nothing. So Gilgi constructs Kreil’s narrative herself, and a “magazine-lady” she remains.

Gilgi herself is a remarkably complex protagonist, occasionally naïve but also fiendishly clever, particularly in her understanding what it means to be a young woman in a male-dominated society: “the shape of Gilgi’s little breasts is clearly visible under her blue-gray velvet dress, convincing Herr Reuter that Gilgi is ‘the’ woman who understands him.” Even when she is overtaken by desire for Martin, she never ceases being cognizant of what love is costing her: “What I see in the mirror is what someone else has made out of me.” Martin rarely allows Gilgi to have her say, casting doubt as to whether Martin can really see her as “a living being.”

The novel is told in a fluid third person, but so close is the narrator to Gilgi’s thoughts that “she” and “I” are used almost interchangeably. Certain of her thoughts and actions are described from without, others as if Gilgi herself were the narrator (a version of free indirect discourse), and – increasingly so as she becomes more disconnected from her firm concept of self – the action is described even with the universal “you.” Some of Gilgi’s most profound revelations about what fierce desire can bring upon a human animal (“…and deep down you sense the purpose of pain and inevitable loss…”) are directed as much at the reader as they are at Gilgi herself.

Keun brilliantly depicts every change in Gilgi’s constantly evolving understanding of her love for Martin; the narratives by which she justifies her actions, the cynical resignations to self-loathing. Gilgi can casually joke to a friend in one moment that she has “been stung by a wild hormone,” and spend a sleepless, tormented night waiting for Martin to come home in the next. Keun here hints at something her protagonist slowly begins to suspect. Gilgi, though she believes as we all do that she is a cohesive, self-motivated individual with a consistent identity, may actually be something far more fragmented.

Beneath her athletic figure and her daily routines, Gilgi is an absolute mess of warring desires. “There are two layers in me,” she realizes, “and the upper one, it dictates – everyday words, everyday actions-little girl, little machine girl, little clockwork girl- the lower layer underneath it-always wanting, always searching, always longing…” She asks, finally, “WhatamIreally?” This, then, is the real horror of love: not that it weakens our resolve or compels us to compromise our individual interests and ideals, but that it forces us to reconsider the commonplace notion that we are firm, consistent entities. The concept of a singular Gilgi, a young woman who is the same from day to day, or even from moment to moment, is revealed to be an illusion.

All the while, Gilgi undergoes a second curious transformation, one that parallels her growing dependence on Martin. She begins to stray from a Randian self-importance and acquires a slightly more liberal, sympathetic view of her fellow man. Having lost a concrete knowledge of her origins, Gilgi considers that her successes stem as much from her bourgeois upbringing as they do from sheer hard work. As a result of the hemorrhaging economy (and of love-induced slothfulness), Gilgi also comes face to face with real poverty. The poor continue to repulse her, but it’s more out of a subconscious understanding of belonging to poverty than a feeling of being above it. And finally, the protagonist’s weakening selfhood makes her more likely to experience her life not as Gilgi, but as a universal you. It’s worth noting that while the socialist Pit is arguably more interested in the welfare of the common man, Gilgi makes the firm distinction between “people” as an abstract intellectual concept and “human beings,” real knowable entities with thoughts, feelings, desires, and pains.

Crisis strikes, and Gilgi is shocked into abandoning Martin and reasserting her independence. On a train platform waiting to depart for Berlin, Gilgi assures Pit that she will inevitably prevail. “There’s a whole heap of people I can beat,” she says, “because my will is stronger and more durable.” And yet she’s also learned humility, “because you belong in the overall structure, you’re not created to stand outside it.” This final conflict – between a human sense of belonging to the crowd while simultaneously feeling that she alone stands above and apart – perhaps confirms more than anything that Gilgi really is ein von uns.

—Adam Segal



Adam Segal is a writer and culinary professional in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Iowa some time ago, and has since interned for Graywolf Press and contributed extensively to Whole Beast Rag magazine, among myriad other adventures.

Dec 042013

Butane Anvil

Savage Love Cover

Butane Anvil, aka Amber Homeniuk, is a friend from Norfolk County where I grew up. She’s also a chicken-owner and expert who advises my mother on her flock. She likes to dress up and take pictures. She also writes poems — see a selection we published on NC. Re. insomnia — it seems to be going around these days.

I dunno. I love that name, Butane Anvil. I wish I had thought of it.


An exceptional read this fall was Savage Love by highly esteemed Canadian author and my friend Douglas Glover. In contrast to the aforementioned extremely terrible yet effectively soporific vampire novels, the stories in Savage Love more easily encourage a deliciously unsettling insomnia as they tend to stick to the ribs, or in many cases between them, being keen-edged with interpersonal horror, levity, and relentless skewering.

via Butane Anvil: And Its Heart So Savage.

Dec 042013



The first book I reviewed for Numéro Cinq was Joseph McElroy’s Night Soul & Other Stories. It was a book that shook me like few other have. Its sentences were often long, articulated in a style that was erudite and meticulous. But length and erudition wasn’t all, these sentences frequently seemed to syntactically dislocate, or bloom formally and then mutate colloquially, or grow fractal-like with a multitude of subordinate structures resisting simplicity to achieve a kind of nonhierarchical fiction.

The complexity and range of these stories were beguiling, like a new experience, displacing what I thought fiction could do. At the time I knew very little about Joseph McElroy’s fiction, and in my naiveté I compared the stories in Night Soul to wooly, homemade machines; I compared them to a radio slipping between stations. But here’s how novelist Kathryn Kramer says it: “[A]s you wend your way through some of McElroy’s sentences, you find, not so much yourself, as yourself in the process—yourself not lost through diffusion but enlarged through connections.”[1]

While reading for that review I stumbled upon this from Joseph McElroy in which he writes: “What can happen? my stories ask, as I ask of my life and yours. Not only what did happen.” This in many ways helped me to read and appreciate McElroy’s fiction more, understanding that his imagination didn’t stop at the aesthetical, but pushed beyond.  “The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne,” a story from Night Soul & Other Stories, is available on Numéro Cinq to get a little of the flavor of what I’m talking about.

Joseph McElroy is the author of nine published novels, including Cannonball (2013), Actress in the House (2003), Letter Left to Me (1988) Lookout Cartridge (1974), and the twentieth-century classic, Women & Men (1987). He has also written a book of essays and three plays. Dzanc Books will be reissuing several of McElroy’s books in the coming year, including the aforementioned collection of essays, Exponential, in e-book form, and his second novel, Ancient History: A Paraphase, in paperback.  He is the recipient of the Award in Literature from American Academy of Arts and Letters and a fellowship from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and D. H. Lawrence Foundation and twice from the National Endowment for the Arts. Now in his early 80s, he doesn’t seem to have lost any steam for writing remarkable prose. Cannonball, his most recent novel, has the robustness in style and execution that characterizes his work without a hint of looking back, but with an enthusiastic pressing forward.

Over the last few weeks, Joseph McElroy was gracious enough to take some questions.  We talked on three topics: his unique writing style, Cannonball, and his upcoming books. As you’ll discover, Cannonball is about many things: conspiracies, competitive diving, bogus religious texts, the United States’ most recent war in Iraq, and more.  So, in the way of offering some guidance through the interview, I’ll just mention a few facts. Zach is the novel’s narrator.  At the beginning, Zach is a teenager, and he befriends Umo, a 300-plus pound (possibly illegal) immigrant after seeing Umo dive so elegantly at a community pool.  Zach’s father is the coach of a local swimming club and he has ambitions of coaching a swimmer to the Olympics. Zach brings Umo to see his father, thinking that Umo is the one who’ll help his father. The Chaplin who is mentioned below becomes important mid-way through the novel after Zach has enlisted in the army, receiving a somewhat mysterious offer to be a photography specialist despite his lack of talent as a photographer.  Zach meets the Chaplain twice: once during training and a second time after an explosion at a palace in Iraq. Zach discovers the wounded Chaplain holding what appears to be ancient Scrolls “purporting to be a first-hand first-century live interview with a Jesus” in a water system running underneath the palace. Zach takes from the Chaplain a scrap of the Scrolls, which is later used to prove their inauthenticity.

I’ll leave it that and let Cannonball’s author speak.

—Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung (JD):  Your style of writing has often been described as difficult, challenging, demanding. Your sentences are often mysterious, long, and multifaceted; they are often wonderfully exuberant with words, too.  You seem to be interested in pushing the English language to “do more.”

Joseph McElroy (JM): I’m only using it for myself, to get at whatever it is I think I’ve found or I’m up to. It’s a great language, the Germanic and the Latinate and Shakespeare’s new words and Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange—the novel and its glossary. American English, too, no matter what people say, the variety of vocabularies overlapping and migrating like people who happen to come to you at a big moment or even who deny you something. When I was teaching at Hopkins in 1975 I wrote down a bunch of short statements about the sentence and said them aloud in class, however gnomic they might have sounded, and felt badly afterward but was told that what I said was OK. I have added to that list, maybe there are forty of those statements. Maybe I’ll publish it and be paid for it someday.

I think about the sentence as drawn between a need to get somewhere and end and then not to end if it can find its continuing shape in what comes next. Thurber on Henry James wanting to say everything at once. Proust both thinking summarily of a whole narrative of things all in one sentence with particulars and wonderful generalized coups of insights, the last sentence of “Swann in Love where he concludes with a longing, almost corny, but shattering climax, that Odette wasn’t even his type—his genre (in the French); James Joyce a great composer of syntactical fragments and of long sentences—in Ulysses xvii, especially on water, where the seriousness, the comprehensive well-informedness implied humorously and lovingly by Joyce in Leopold’s science and municipal technology become also the ongoingness of the sentences, the  “prose” as well as Leopold’s happiness to be giving this young guy Stephen some hospitality in the middle of the night boiling water for tea. Sentences are like home for me, even a wilderness, yes, to seek what I have perhaps found. Eudora Welty, Donne  (his sentences in the poems), poor Cheever recalling DeQuincey in Bullet Park, Jane Austen (the mind of all those fine ironies all at once in her sentences), Nabokov in Pale Fire (even granting a truth in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s charge that the expatriate never achieved maturity), Henry Adams in The Education, the nursing mother whales we look down and see suspended in the watery vault “eyeing us” in Melville’s close to miraculous Grand Armada chapter—sentences so many of our younger memoirists running off at the mouth would do well to have heard and given some thought to— Intricate the passage and the sentence are my unit, pretty much, and can be sometimes several thoughts enfolding one another, passing through one another like neutrons or my reciprocal fortunate memories—and is Melville not a thinker?

JD: But how do you see your style?  Do you see it as those things, as I mentioned?

JM: A rhythm of amazement and precision, risk maybe sometimes like Faulkner’s in Absalom or As I Lay Dying, his best—blunt elusiveness like Beckett’s?  Beckett maybe in The Letter Left to Me.

JD: Could you talk a little about the evolution of your style, how you developed it, influences, philosophy?

JM: Philosophy? Read it all, Barthelme advised. Haphazard. Dos Passos and the collage of informational forms in the USA trilogy made a huge impression. Japanese legends of warriors, black armor. Great Expectations, the great sources in a kid’s helpless snobberies, the first novel I ever took apart and analyzed, I mean a teacher in second year high school told me to—I mean I saw that this story was a thing made and could be studied as to how it worked. Technique, structure. I can’t think where my style came from at the moment. Science reading. The fear of not gathering what I wanted into a sentence. Don’t trust the writer answering this personal question. Sentences, though.

JD: Well, how do you think about sentences?  How do you know when they’re done and what are you looking for?

JM: I thought I had to curb my syntaxes when I was ten or eleven years old and writing stories. It wasn’t till I was in college that it occurred to me that the structures of my sentences might be truer than… —I wonder if the highly inflected Latin I had four years of in school in an amiable way suggested to me that I might find truthful structures in English while positioning parts of a sentence as if I were working with declensions, dative, ablative, accusative, a nominative toward the end, say, of the sentence. I have only a little graduate school German, whatever I kid myself I get in facing-text renderings of Rilke—so I never thought about holding the verb off till the end.           


JD: Cannonball is your ninth published novel. What are some of the discoveries you made while writing (these could be technical or emotional or something else) or what surprised you the most about writing Cannonball?  This question is inspired by those wonderful three sentences in your essay “Socrates on the Beach”: “Writing is thinking. Getting somewhere. Even into ignorance.”

JM: Sounds like you want to take readers away from the book itself, but no, not you, Jason.  “Ignorance” I mean here is an achievement, right? Limits crashed into for now, a dark space you fall into. But limits which if you live in them are like the next question, which is even, Why the need of questioning?

Cannonball takes the mess afflicting its characters to a new stage and is clear about it.  Some of it is learning how things began. Why the huge, in fact corpulent Asian probably “illegal” teenager who can dive so astonishingly well came into Zach’s life to begin with. It’s all there. How things happen. Something’s at stake for the reader. This is my most uneasy-feeling or darkest book. More than Lookout Cartridge. My only really dark book, upshot after upshot, though with a young voice that itself isn’t dark.

Stanley Elkin, in the days of carbon paper—was it that early?—said somewhere more or less that your American novelist makes his POV hero six or seven years younger than himself; this is what is known as Carbon 14 dating, Stanley explains. My hero, and at the end of it all he is something of a hero, is six decades younger than I and I’ve been happy to hear from some young readers (they’re all younger now) that Zach is convincing. He’s a remarkable witness, for all he doesn’t quite know. You have to look at what happens. People sometimes they come to you at the right time asking you for what is needed. What does William James say about this in the Varieties of Religious Experience: What actually happens. It’s right there. What do we learn from the Chaplain? What are we to make of it? And what of him is saved by Zach—one of the best surprises in the story. Somewhere between Catch 22 and The Red Badge of Courage, I’ve heard said of Cannonball. That doesn’t come too close. Closer to Crane if I have to compare. But Crane? Hemingway admired The Red Badge—who said: You make it up out of what you know—though he didn’t know much about women and men together.

“Surprised,” you said? I was surprised how the closeness between brother and sister developed. What it has to do with the war and diving. I let the characters be. That means make the scenes speak. Brother and sister in the car toward the end, things changing between them slightly – one of the best things I have done. Each new book asks the reader to read what it says. Many readers would rather talk about something else. The father is seen by one reviewer as an absence. But we know a lot about him. Maybe for some readers each scene the father’s in might seem to leave out some dumb confessional explanation by him of himself some reader thinks is needed. It’s not. The son Zach doesn’t know him too well, perhaps.  Zach tells what he knows. The father seems to find fault with the son. But not only.  What the main character Zach sees gives us even richly these extraordinary limitations of the father character.  He recedes but not into indefiniteness. Proust would have given us a wonderful analysis of the man. I might have in another novel. Proust the greatest novelist of the twentieth century, so much closer to me than these other names I hear myself placed with and am so unlike.  Doesn’t mean I write like him. In this novel, did father sacrifice son to get what he wanted? The father probably doesn’t see it that way. Attentive reader grasps the question. By the time of his enlistment Zach makes his own choice.  But he’s invited to enlist, remember, and if you read, you can find how he came to be invited. The reader might try accepting the characters as given. All the information’s provided—a lot, and often I would say American information.  The chaplain, what happens to him and before he recedes, all that he leaves us with. Lazarus. Zach’s half-unknowing influence on events. Government thinks one character is alive but isn’t, another dead but isn’t.


JD: I’m interested in the idea that you wrote Cannonball out of your “anger about the Iraq war,” as you mentioned in another interview.  Were your emotions purged or lessened by writing the novel? Or is the point of writing with these strong emotions meant to be a transference of sorts of your emotions onto the reader? And if that’s so, do you agree that writing is a “hostile act,” as Joan Didion called it so many years ago?

JM: Transferred into the story, I would say. Story stands between the reader and the writer: there it is, for the reader to take or leave, and not for the writer to explain, much less explain where it came from. Writer probably does not entirely know. I say the Scrolls, one source. An American curse, mouthing some Christianity lipservice to justify any damn thing we do as a nation. So from archaeology and weapons of mass destruction and confirming all our self-promotions comes an ancient transcript torn and fragile and part-lost derived from what we know and what we do purporting to be a first-hand first-century live interview with a Jesus not at odds with American success myths. Lawrence meant something else when he said “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” But the cruelty in a whole segment  of our politics (right wing? the word “wing” is misleading) is hard to believe. [2]

I guess the Scrolls are near the source of Cannonball. But springboard diving another point of departure definitely.  Perhaps never quite been done like this before in a novel.  Even the calculus of it at the very end connects it to the war and the brother and sister and the Hearings about Competition.

For me there are no individual beginnings for a novel—several points of departure, impulses, subjects scattered out there, that I let myself be at sea with or in orbit around or they in orbit half out of reach around me and gradually the subjects gather their relations. The diving accident, as the reader will understand, draws so many of the book’s elements together; but so does the brother-sister relation; and friendship; and the Scrolls, and so on.

JD: What about “hostile act”?

JM:  What exactly, and who, am I, as you put it, agreeing with? Anger could be out of control. Anger could be a clarifying force. Writing is fighting, I think Nietzsche said. Only as it’s trying to think something through. It’s meditation, too. I have it both ways. There are the sentences and there are the people.


JD: One of the more interesting facets of your style is the confluence of simultaneous events for instance early in Cannonball, Zach, the narrator, is shooting onto film one of Umo’s dives, while at the same time Zach is being told about a question Corona’s wife has asked E, Zach’s sister; but also there is a “breaker fluke,” and the power flashes, and on to that an “old woman” “materialize[s]” to speak.  This is all captured in an 18-line sentence.

JM: (An 18-word sentence would have been better.) It’s an embrace a love a prayer but to whom(?), so many parts of one in-motion act—vision like a dive you might want to see all the parts of but at the same time as William James in that late book refutes Zeno’s infinitely dividing up the space traversed so supposedly you never get there?

Everything at once may make hash of causality. It’s also the way we can feel—not overwhelmed so much as in touch with a lot suddenly, our decision-making all but dissolved or some aesthetic thrill at the changing core of things if there is one. A reader might note that a character close to Zach is interested in what happens right before an event; another what comes right after. A nose for how things happened. Something to do with photography, too—what seems to take Zach to the War, Army’s employing him for that. Reader might follow why. Zach’s not a pro. Really not much of a photographer. Though maybe that makes the photography more interesting. It’s not photography that takes him back to the War the second time.

JD: In a lot of Cannonball, sports and war and religion are all mixed up, and it is in many ways a political novel.  Do you believe that sports are (or can be) a replacement or placeholder for war?

JM: Sure. Who doesn’t? Conflict coming at you unavoidable—doesn’t mean that knife-fighting is the ultimate moral test as Cormac McCarthy, a great landscape writer, would have us believe, who dismisses Henry James. You have to decide how far the always interesting pressures of a competitive sport can take you. Character-building as coach says, whose own character may have been stunted by it; it lives in fantasy—but imagination, finding new combinations and possibilities is our social and ethical genius if we would seek it in ourselves. Diving, soccer, karate—art? Maybe, or some texture or task like how to live. Football takes brains, all those playbooks, but the allegiances and simple-mindedness and insane fandom, God.  Preoccupation with sports makes us trivial but it’s dramatic, too. Degrees of difficulty in competitive diving measure beauty too. Never apart from the behavior of the water.  Yeats, the “fascination of what’s difficult” —Orwell, the overcoming of something difficult in writing, hence a density. Someone says “difficult” —of art—but “difficult” is never spelled out, it’s conveniently left indefinite, it’s never voiced as a word that refers to a clear idea or standard, though it pretends to in readers’ mouths. What are we willing to look for in other people?  Intricacies of courage.


JD: Ancient History being re-released just a few months after your most recent novel, why Ancient History: A Paraphase and not, say, Hind’s Kidnap? Or is the latter forthcoming?

JM: Partly an accident of publishing; Hind’s Kidnap is coming out as an e-book, and I hope for a print reprint.  A young writer friend of mine thinks Ancient History (1971) has a lot to say to young people now, so we pushed for a print reprint.  Jonathan Lethem wrote an intro.  What publishers choose to bring back, it’s all something of a lottery.

JD: I’ve read that your next project is a nonfiction book on water.

JM: It’s been in progress nine years. Almost done. I don’t think there’s anything like it. One small side of it visible in an essay that appeared recently in New England Review, “Wetland Reflections,” about a made wetland in lower Bronx River. I’m interested in what water is to us.

JD: Any other new work?

JM: Sceenplay. Children’s book. Libretto.  A novel called Voir Dire begun in 1991.  600-some pages so far. An excerpt published a few years ago. And another novel at last getting finished was the first effort I ever made to understand what I was doing—being made to move by outside forces yet somehow within their restrictions making my world move—sorry about that word “world” —and what awaited (though not necessarily me). You sign up for what you think the job is and it turns out to be something entirely different. More to it, you know, than that. It gives me the chills how that novel is still clear in my mind. I started it around 1948, do you believe me? Been sort of writing it since I was 18. It’s getting done by Spring.

—Joseph McElroy and Jason DeYoung


Joseph McElroy is the author of nine novels including A Smuggler’s Bible, Lookout Cartridge, Actress in the House, and Women & Men.  He has also published a book of short stories—Night Soul & Other Stories—and a collection of essays—Exponential.  He received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and D. H. Lawrence Foundations, twice from Ingram Merrill and twice from the National Endowment for the Arts.  He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930.

Jason DeYoungJason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction has appeared or forthcoming in REAL: Regarding Art and Letters, New Orleans Review, The Los Angeles ReviewNuméro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Kramer, Kathryn, “Dr. McElroy, Homeopath: What One Goes to Him For,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Spring 1990. Vol. X, No. 1. Page 80
  2. The full D. H. Lawrence quotation from Studies in Classic American Literature: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
Dec 032013

Louise Manifold & Kevin Barry

Today Numéro Cinq begins a new special feature tagged Uimhir a Cúig, which means Number Five in Irish, wherein you will find some of the best in contemporary Irish literature and culture exhibited. To launch Uimhir a Cúig, we have a video by the amazing and uncanny Galway artist Louise Manifold with text and voiceover from the massively celebrated Kevin Barry, winner of last year’s Dublin IMPAC International Literary Award for his novel The City of Bohane as well as the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize. Barry is a wonderful read. He is especially good on the rhythm and nuance of Irish idiom (his stories set in pubs are wonderful, put you in mind of Flann O’Brien) and comedy in a dark time. Cotard’s Delusion happens to be a real pathology in which the sufferer believes he is dead.


This is a piece I wrote to go with a video and audio installation for an artist called Louise Manifold in Galway based on Cotard’s Delusion — a rare mental state in which you wake up one morning and believe yourself to be dead. It was apparently Cotard’s that inspired Beckett’s The Calmative. Louise filmed the interior of a derelict old cinema in New Jersey — as good a locale to define a state of living death as any!

—Kevin Barry



My wife is distraught and has refused to accept the facts of the situation. I suppose her reaction is common to the bereaved. She cannot accept that the old realities are done with now. That I have no heat in my bones to lend her now. She rants like a mad woman – she refuses to accept the pure state of my absence; she will not accept that I am no longer here. I can only hope that time will do its patient work on her now – as they insist it will –  and that she can find something or someone to live for again; she is not an old woman yet.

It is Saturday I can tell even by the feel of the streets and somehow by the way the light falls – there is a species of winter light that holds the particular resonance of Saturday – and it is late morning, and the people are about and lost in the make-busy routines of their lives, as though any of it matters, and I move among them and sometimes, even still, I draw passing nods from the acquaintances of my old life, but I do not return their smiles and gestures – how could I? – and their faces fall into frown and puzzlement then, and I sense the way a chill of cold certainty passes through them. Word will have got around of my demise, and they will know it is a spirit they have seen, or sensed, or a cipher, or a ghost, for I could be nothing else now and no other, for I have passed on, and I throw no shadow in the white winter sun.

But I can taste the world still even though I am no longer a part of it. Still there is the waft of coffee from the cafes but it stirs nothing in me. Still from the tannoys of the shops I can hear sentimental pop music – old love songs I would have held her to, in discos, in 1978 – but it stirs nothing in me. Still I can recognise the beauties of the planet – they are all about on this fine bright Saturday –but they stir nothing in me.

I could not name for you the precise moment of my death. I suspect, of course, there was a significance about the moment when the tendrils of smoke came from my nostrils. It was a sweetish, greenish-black smoke, as from the burning of a seasoned ash wood. Perhaps something left me at that moment – another might call it a soul – and it was perhaps then that I become merely this husk; I became something to be carried on the breeze off the river, on the wind off the bay.

I can witness the moments of my old life still but only as a stranger. I am puzzled by my actions. By the decisions I made and the paths that I took. What a fool I was. What a happy poor fool I was. What a happy and arrogant and deluded poor fool I was.

I walk straight ahead with my shoulders thrown back and the head held high and the people walk straight at me but they swerve at the last moment though they cannot see me but somehow they must sense me – I was once of the tribe, and my scent is about the streets still. These are the streets of our lives and our Saturdays, as though we are a confluence at the centre of the universe – what arrogant poor fools – and I walk on, as always I walked on, and as ever I am drawn to the water.

The occult places are where the rivers enter the sea and I walk now by the mesmerizing roar of the black water, and I am drawn along the same old pathway again – tang of sea – and I walk into the saltwind and into the light; I am there and I am not there; I have become water, wind, light.

— Kevin Barry


Kevin Barry is the author of the story collections Dark Lies The Island and There Are Little Kingdoms and the novel City of Bohane. He has won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House and many other journals. He also writes plays and screenplays. He lives in County Sligo, Ireland.


Born in Co. Galway Ireland, Louise Manifold studied at Central St Martins College London and the Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology, Ireland. She has exhibited extensively throughout Ireland, and internationally in group exhibitions at ISCP, New York. Proximal Distances Chicago, Supermarket Art Fair, Stockholm, Red House Arts Centre Syracuse New York, Candid arts centre, London. 411 Galleries Shanghai, China and the Botin Foundation, Spain. Louise has been the recipient of numerous awards from Galway City Council, Galway County Council, The Arts Council of Ireland and Culture Ireland,  In 2009 she was one of the four artists short-listed nominated for Allied Irish Bank Art prize. Louise is currently based in Galway and is on the board of directors of Galway Arts Centre, and  Artspace studios Galway, Ireland.




Dec 032013

Last packet of the semester done, last writer-in-residence student conference done, reference letters written, residency lecture almost done, dog snoring beside me on the bed, snow all around outside the window, a couple of belts of good old Auchtentoshan Scotch under the hood, and the man feels, well, he feels like this.






Dec 022013

Here’s a teaser to David Winters’ terrific interview with Christine Schutt at Quarterly Conversation. We’ve been reading about her on NC as part of our focus on Gordon Lish and his influence on contemporary fiction. This interview a  wonderful addition to the ongoing discussion.



CS: “’Reality,’ of course, is man’s most powerful illusion; but while he attends to this world, it must outbalance the total enigma of being in it at all.” So says Erik H. Erikson, but reality does not for me “outbalance” the bewildering experience of being in the world. Add the scrim of memory and incessant excursions into the past, and the most I can do to construct a world is to stitch together sensations of it. I do not want an impenetrable style but prize compression and music. I abhor quotidian easy speak, psychobabble, brands, news and slogans—a “writner’s prose” as Gordon Lish once described it. Mine calls for close, hard readers of fiction. This year in reviews of Prosperous Friends, I was bumped up from being a writer’s writer to being a writer’s writer’s writer; either way, it cautions challenging prose ahead. A lot is left unsaid and must be inferred simply because I want to avoid the dulling effect of belated language.

via The Christine Schutt Interview | Quarterly Conversation.

Dec 022013

Louis Armand at Jazz Republic 23.5.13


ouis Armand’s fiction saunters through the darkest underbelly of society, illuminating the forgotten and the discarded. His recent novel Breakfast at Midnight (2012) reads like a twisted, brilliantly savage acid noir: amid a decaying Prague, rechristened Kafkaville, a quasi-mystery unfurls through the addled mind of a nameless fugitive, a man looking to solve a murder and piece together his own history. Canicule, released this past April, finds purchase through the lens of cinema: a man commits suicide, forcing his friends—failing screenwriter Hess and terrorist-sympathizer Wolf—to reenter each other’s orbit. A narrative revealed in snippets—“I’m not able to put the pieces back together, because I don’t understand them,” Hess confesses. “They’re pieces of an alien life, a completely alien life.”—the novel’s elasticity feels like an experimental film, spliced together on a dusty Steenbeck. Constantly moving forward and backward in time, Armand refuses to coddle his audience, and the result is a tale full of irony, repetition, and alcohol-fueled remorse.

Now comes Cairo. Set for publication in January (Equus Press), the following excerpt fuses themes and beats from Armand’s earlier novels: a murder, followed by a mystery left for men out of their element to decipher. Cinema bubbles throughout, as well, as Armand’s characters employ film tropes to handle their increasingly odd situation. And yet, while these ideas resurface, Cairo’s aura is nothing like that of Breakfast and Canicule, for while those settled on a far more serious plain, Cairo is downright playful. What makes this excerpt so very interesting is that it showcases Armand’s gift for language, both in his wickedly funny character exchanges and in the way he describes locations: senses are explored, filling us in on not only the tangible space, but also its sonic properties, its perfume, truly creating in three dimensions the underbelly of the underbelly.

Benjamin Woodard

louis armand_cairo_front cover



he East Ham Mortuary off Barking Road was a squat cube of dark brick with a set of blue doors at the entrance. Nicky Cohn was waiting under a yellow CCTV sign, collar up, cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth, somehow still alight in the drizzle, when Joblard wheeled up riding the clutch. A naked fluorescent blinked over the doorway, lending the journalist’s features a decidedly funereal cast. The light glistened on the wet chrome of the BSA’s petrol tank, catching the steam as it hissed up from the single cylinder. Then it didn’t. Then it did.

“You’re looking bright and chirpy,” Nicky Cohn said as Joblard yanked off his helmet, face a blur behind frozen breath. “Not half bloody cold.”

“Nice night for it alright,” Joblard said, “though I’d rather be in the back lounge getting intimate with a pint. You been in yet?”

“Nah, just got here. Thought I’d have a fag before trying to blague my way past the Homicide and Serious Crime boys. I recognised two of them when I peeked in through the door. They can be right cunts when it suits them.”

Joblard stuffed his gloves inside his bellstaf jacket, helmet under one arm.

“That’s good, I could fancy a couple of cunts on a night like this.”

“Not like these you wouldn’t. Speaking of which, what’s your Spielberg up to these days?”

“You on the square brother?”


“Freemasons. Grand Lodge. He’s got some notion about poking a camera into the holy of holies. Ladies of the Illuminati.”

“The what?”

“Yeah, I reckon our mate Johnny Fluoride might’ve been getting him some of the more candid stuff. Kind of spank-and-tell exposé of the secret handshake brigade.”

“Tell me about it after,” Nicky Cohn said, tossing the unsmoked half of his cigarette on the ground. “I’m freezing my balls off out here.”

Behind the blue doors was a corridor and an office with a little window where Nicky Cohn showed his press credentials and signed in. Joblard took in the atmosphere. A couple of plods eyeballed him from where they were sitting beside a pair of swing-doors, like they were on stakeout duty waiting for a corpse to show up and trying to outguess each other about whose it might be. Joblard grinned at them. It was a rule he had with cops: you never break eye contact and always smile, drives the fuckers nuts. Nicky finished with the forms and they waited for a technician in a blue smock to come and give them the grand tour. He was a tall and skinny, with a straggly goatee and hair down past his collar and acne on his neck. Student-type. Taking full advantage of the opportunities society had on offer.

“This way gentlemen,” he said, taking a chit from the receptionist behind the window. “My name’s Zack and I’m your guide for this evening. The main attraction’s just through here and on the left.”

They ran the gauntlet of the two Homicide boys, busy giving Joblard the business with their cop stares, tongues working the backs of their teeth, but not making any more than a show of it.

Joblard jerked his thumb back at the swing-doors, behind them now as their guide steered them left along an underlit tunnel of half-tone green:

“What’s with the local entertainment, Zack?”

“One of our residents has attracted special attention.”

“Zack,” Nicky said, “I have a confession to make. That’s who we’re here to see.”

The technician stopped and scrutinised the chit he was holding.

Joblard, trying to get a look at it over the technician’s shoulder, found himself with an unobstructed view of a dandruff condition on the verge of spiralling out of control. Greenish flakes of dead scalp layered the back and shoulders of Zack-the-mortuary-technician’s smock, sifting down between greasy cords of black hair. Joblard edged back to maintain a safe interpersonal distance. Dandruff always made him think of leprosy. It was an association he’d had ever since childhood and the smell of antidandruff shampoo in the change rooms. Afraid he’d catch the stuff. At least they’d had the decency to wash. Some people, he thought, ogling the back of the technician’s head, lack the very basics of self-respect.

“You’re not here to see 856?”


“We’re supposed to report anyone who wants to visit the new guy.”

Nicky slipped a freshly minted portrait of Queen Liz into the pocket of the technician’s smock.

“Put this towards your scholarship fund, Zack. No-one ever need know. You just got the numbers mixed up, that’s all.”

Zack glanced at the bill, which in the light of the corridor was the brown of a freshly minted turd.

“She looks kind of lonely, don’t you think? Got another one of those to keep her company?”

Nicky slipped the technician another royal likeness. The kid grinned.

“Right through here then, gents,” Zack said, leading the way.

Once when he’d been KO’d in the ring by the southpaw Mickey “the Hammer” Mulligan, Joblard had woken up on the floor staring at a light thinking he’d died already and was stretch out on one of those mortuary slabs they have in movies and any minute some geezer in a white labcoat was going to come in and poke a scalpel in his brain and pronounce the cause of death. Telling himself how “Hammer” wasn’t a name Mulligan earned in the ring but operating a protection racket off Brick Lane. But the room Zack the technician ushered them into wasn’t like anything in a film, more like a wholesaler’s stockroom. The far wall was lined with time-warped refrigerator doors you’d expect to find racks of frozen meat behind. Sides of beef, lamb, pork. A whole raffle bonanza.

The technician went straight to the third door down and yanked it open. Behind it there were three more doors, square, one above another, old paint a dozen hues of off-white cracked and flaking. Johnny Fluoride had taken up residence behind the door third from the bottom. Like those Japanese coffin hotels. Zack trundled out the slab. Joblard shivered. Johnny Fluoride’s body, sans head, was wrapped in semi-opaque plastic. The swim hadn’t done him any kindnesses. Even with the plastic on he looked terrible, like he’d been force-fed through the proverbial wringer. But whatever took his head off, that sure as hell hadn’t beaten around the bush.


The corpse, Joblard duly noted, had bare feet. Eventually, he supposed, the Coroner’s Office would release a report. He wondered what they’d make of the fact Johnny here had gone swimming without his boots on. Getting a head start, so to speak. The violent crime boys hadn’t made a positive ID yet. Their floater had washed up not only sans head but sans anything in his pockets. According to Nicky’s mate at the yard, Johnny Fluoride’s body had still been zipped into his army surplus when they found him. Which was how he knew it was Johnny Fluoride. The anorak had somehow kept him afloat, otherwise he mightn’t’ve turned up at all till next week, if ever.

Still, Joblard supposed, it’d only be a matter of time now before the Homicide boys rang the old widow’s doorbell over in Greenwich and got themselves an earful. And then from Greenwich to Canvey, which was all they’d need to put him on the spot. A knock on the door in the middle of the night. But at that moment, all Joblard could really think of was how the fuck…?

The three of them stared at the body for a while in silence. Nicky flicked at the chipped paint on the freezer door. The room seemed to Joblard to’ve grown noticeably colder. Nicky pulled a splinter of old paint from under a fingernail and held it up to the light.

“You know,” he said, breaking the silence, “they reckon lead paint’s accountable for half the violent crime on the planet. God’s truth. But just try telling that to the Homicide boys. And the people responsible for the stuff? Why, only the honest-living folk at Innospec, up on the Manchester Ship Canal, flogging tetraethyl lead wherever it hasn’t been banned yet. Fun places like Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea. The fact it’s illegal to sell in good old Blighty doesn’t mean they can’t manufacture and export the stuff. Now if it was anthrax…”

“Somehow I don’t think it was lead paint did that,” Joblard said, pointing at the mess where Johnny Fluoride’s head formerly resided.

“The interesting thing,” the technician said, fingering the tag affixed to the big toe of Johnny Fluoride’s right foot, “is they found river water in your man’s stomach, but not in the lungs. Whoever blew his head off gave him a soaking first. Must’ve had something they wanted. That’s my guess. Held his head under till he talked. Then pop. No further use. Seen it before. The Albanian they found in a suitcase last year? He’d swallowed half a gallon of Thames water too, and not from any tap. Except they used a saw on him instead of a canon. Never found the head, either. Your mate involved in any funny business, then?”

“Nah,” Nicky said. “He ran nostalgia tours for old pub-rock fans. Didn’t know shit from clay. Probably a case of mistaken identity.” Turning to Joblard: “What do you reckon?”

“Yeah, mistaken identity,” Joblard echoed. “Poor sod.”

“Did he have a name?”

“Mmm,” Nicky said. “Can’t remember.” To Joblard: “D’you remember his name?”

“Frank maybe? Don’t rightly think he ever told us.”

“Too bad,” Zack said. “Too bad.”

A wedge of lemon floated in the glass of water Nicky Cohn was holding up to the light, eyeballing the citrus bits drifting around in it. He’d watched the waitress closely while she filled the glass straight from the tap.

“That stuff comes direct from the river, you realise?” Joblard said, trying on the tone of voice of someone attempting to be helpful. “If you’re lucky, there might even be a couple of particles of Johnny Fluoride in there. Not to mention all the other crap they dump in the Thames. London’s Pride.”

Nicky Cohn snorted and set his glass down in front of him. The bar they’d retreated to from the East Ham Mortuary was slowly filling up for the evening with what looked like a regular crowd. Joblard counted at least a dozen different types of Adidas tracksuit. The only beer they had on tap wasn’t beer at all but some foreign crap called Carlsberg, so he’d settled for a cup of tea. The publican had given him one of those looks. The de rigeur TV in the corner was running the day’s Ashes highlights. Depressing viewing. They’d’ve done better switching to one of the disaster channels. BSkyB or whatever. Rapping out the small print on why the world was going to shit. Global warming conspiracy nuts. The latest candidate for World War Three.

On cue the box cut from the cricket roundup to the news desk. Some joker in a flash suit talking to himself in a studio with lots of high-tech graphics making up the décor. Lip-syncing to a soundtrack that’d been swapped for the usual pub banter in competition with some sort of Kylie Monogue remix. Text scrolled across the bottom of the screen. Then cut to footage of what looked very much like riots on Wall Street. Archive material on the Twin Towers going down. Joblard registered crowd shots and helicopters. Something brewing on the other side of the pond, he thought. Nicky Cohn was still eyeing his glass in a manner you might describe at pensive.

“Gone to a better place, if you believe that stuff,” Joblard offered, thinking condolences of some sort might be in order. Though exactly what Nicky’s connection with Johnny Fluoride was, he didn’t know. Nicky looked up from his glass at the bulge Joblard’s gloves made inside his jacket.

“Your tea’s getting cold.”

“Don’t really fancy it anyhow.”

“My mum used to say cold tea’s good for piles.”

“That right?”

“She made my old man drink the stuff till the day he died. Sure enough, never did get piles. Fucked his liver good and proper though.”


“Used to slip rum in the tea to make the stuff drinkable, when the old girl wasn’t watching. She’d keep a pot cooling on the windowsill for all occasions. Earle Grey. By the time he finished his third cup of an evening, the poor bugger could hardly stand up. Which the old girl attributed to the tea’s potent medicinal effect.”

Joblard sniffed his cup then set it back down on its saucer.

“Just regular tea, this. Probably doesn’t work.”

Nicky squinted up at him.

“They put out a call for witnesses. A couple of those lugs might want to have a talk with you. Canvey jetty. How many people saw you together?”

“Just the barman. And maybe this scarecrow character with some sort of skin disease on his face.”

“Mmm. Barman’ll probably just mind his own business, unless they make a point on it. Who’s the scarecrow?”

“Dunno. Followed me, though.”

“Followed you?”

“Yeah, him and a dwarf. They both followed me when I went over to Johnny Fluoride’s gaff. After the shithead decided to take a swim. That’s the bit I can’t figure out.”


“Former associate of our headless friend, I do believe. Seems Johnny accidentally snapped a pic of him and he didn’t like it. Kind of, in flagrante delicto, as they say.”

“You’re not making much sense, old chum. Care to fill in the blanks?”

Joblard, against his better judgement, took a sip of the tea. Grimaced. Resisted the urge to spit it back out.


“Like I said.”

Joblard wiped his mouth on his sleeve, pushed the cup and saucer aside, then folded his arms.

“Bludhorn paid Johhny Fluoride to take some candids. Some geezer getting his jollies being tickled with a riding crop. High class stuff. In the middle of which, this dwarf turns up, blows the geezer’s head off. On film.”


“One hundred percent.”

“So Johnny was tied up with Bludhorn, too, eh? And that’s why you were out on Canvey? Because of these pictures?”

“Except I never knew anything about what was in the pictures till after.”

“And I suppose Bludhorn has them safely under lock and key?”

“Curious are you?”

“Curious, old chum, is hardly the word.”

“Doesn’t look like you’re the only one.”

“You think whoever nixed Johnny might be after the pictures?”

“Stands to reason, doesn’t it? Besides, I spotted scarecrow and his mate hanging around Bludhorn’s club in Soho.”

“Maybe we should give the old bugger a call.”


“Got anything better to do for the next five minutes?”

Joblard creased his brow like someone trying hard to think, glanced sidelong at his teacup, then fished his mobile out of his inside pocket. Nicky Cohn looked at him in disgust.

“Knowing how you hate these things…”

“You’re begging for cancer of the brain, you realise that?”

Joblard grinned, fingered the keypad, stared at the screen. The background noise covered the dial tone, but a little icon on the screen indicated that the phone at the other end, Bludhorn’s, was ringing. Joblard had counted to five when the icon was replaced by a message saying his call had been interrupted and please try again later.

“Not answering?”


“Mmm. You know, this could be one hell of a story.”

“Could be. Could also just be a coincidence.”

“Come off it. Why the heck’d anyone go to the trouble of saving a clown like Johnny Fluoride from drowning just to blow his head off?”

“Beats me. Maybe he washed up all by himself, emptied his own pockets, then blew his head off just for the hell of it. Or maybe he got sucked into another dimension. Dr Who stuff. And his head’s still on the other side, mashed into the vortex. One thing I do know, he was scared shitless of somebody. Said they were out to get him. Thought it was because he saw something he wasn’t supposed to see and they found out about it. Or maybe they wanted to send a message further up the line. Join the dots, you know, so whoever arranged to take the pictures in the first place’d get the connection. So they’d know not to fuck with it. Masonic conspiracy stuff, maybe.”

“Is that what Mr Undertaker says?”

“Bludhorn knows who the geezer is but he’s not saying. In the pictures you can’t really make out his face. There’s just this geezer tied to a chair getting whipped. Stiff upper-lip type. Then there’s a flash. Next thing the dwarf appears out of nowhere and the geezer’s head’s vanished. Just like that.”

“Too bad.”

“Hey, did you hear about that coke-dealer, blew some kid’s head off in Wapping last night?”

“Twelve gauge? Yeah. Sodomised the corpse. Made a real mess of himself afterwards, too. Think there might be a connection?”

“You never know.”

“Nah. It’s too crazy. The lunatic shot himself in the head.”

“What if it only looked that way and someone else shot him in the head?”


“It’s a possibility.”

“Shit. That’d make four. Four headless fucking corpses in one day. One of whom we don’t know anything about. It’s too much.”

“Don’t forget the tart with the whip. If she copped the same treatment, that’d make five.”

“Five? I don’t buy it.”

“Why not ask your mate to scan the register. See if anyone else’s checked into a morgue lately without their head attached.”

“Bodies could’ve ended up anywhere. In a bleedin’ meat factory, for all we know. Fed into a mincer. Bzzzz. Like they keep finding horse DNA in beef paddies. What if it was human DNA instead? Soylent Green stuff. Kid munching on quarter-pounder spits out a couple of fingernails. Not the sort of thing they’d want to see on the six o’clock news. Imagine it. Wozzie the Cannibal Clown! Bad for business.”

“I’ll stick to being vegetarian.”

“You could do far worse, chum. Say, what’re the chances you can actually find this dwarf character?”

“Dunno. All look the fucking same to me. I was figuring they’d probably show up again by themselves. Unfinished business. You know Bludhorn’s got a thing about midgets?”



“It’s all about size. Midgets. Small.”

“I know what a fucking midget is.”

“Same reason they go for the oriental girls, you know. Little hands.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Nothing, chum. Over your head.”

“There’s a freak running around blowing people’s heads off and you’re on about some slanty tart’s manicure?”

“A dwarf. Blowing people’s head’s off. Apparently connected in some way to your Mr Undertaker. Capische?”

“What’s that mean, then?”

“What’s what mean?”


“Don’t you watch films?”

“Not those sort of fucking films I don’t. You want to have a conversation with fucking subtitles, go to fucking Poland.”

“Maybe the dwarf’s fucking Polish, you ever consider that?”

Joblard blinked, looked thoughtful, creased his brow. Nicky Cohn shook his head, muttering to himself. He sniffed at his glass of water, took a sip.

“Oh, and I forgot to mention,” Joblard said, “they were driving a smartcar.”

Nicky Cohn peered over the rim of his glass, set it carefully on the table, picking a sliver of lemon seed from is lip.


“You know,” Joblard said, “one of those poxy little jobs, like a golf buggy with an M.O.T.…”

Nicky Cohn made a sucking sound with his teeth, poking his tongue up under his lip.

“I’ll tell you something, chum,” Nicky Cohn said, straightening his mouth out. “If I hadn’t just seen Johnny Fluoride’s headless corpse with my own eyes, I’d swear you’re flaming nuts.”

Back during what used to be called The Troubles, old Uncle Hugo, ex-Sandhurst, had the good fortune to spend a tour of duty behind eight inches of plate glass in a pillbox in the fair city of Armagh. He’d been standing there one day watching the drizzle slowly mutating from bad to worse when some Fenian fucker, parked on a hillside a mile away, took a pot-shot at him with an elephant gun. He’d seen the shell embed itself three-quarters the way through the glass, big as his thumb. When he told the story afterwards, he’d always joke that if there’d been a tailwind, the bullet would’ve caught him right between the eyes. And taken his whole bleeding head off.

Joblard had been thinking of Uncle Hugo’s story while he watched the helicopters circle the Shard. It looked like the flattened head of an enormous glass prawn, sticking up above the Canada Square towers. Some Mujahadin types had tried to blow it up a week ago and now they had half the RAF up there every night at tax-payers expense, searchlights criss-crossing the rooftops. Every wisearse on the South Bank was probably laying bets on how long it’d be before some trigger-happy Afghan vet in a chopper went bezerk and did the job himself, like the one that smacked into the crane over in Vauxhall. Maybe blame it this time on a meteorite.

What killed Uncle Hugo in the end was a brain tumour. “Size of an elephant’s egg,” he’d say, while the nurse prepared his bed-bath. “Elephants don’t lay eggs, Captain Banks,” the nurse would tell him. “This one did.” And that, as they say, was the end of the matter. Joblard remembered the picture the doctor showed his mum. You could see the skull and what he supposed was brain tissue with a void right in the middle of it. Like that Fenian bullet had a bad karmic vibe that’d lodged in his uncle’s head and grown there for forty years into a knot of dead cell tissue, invading whole swathes of cortex till his motor neurons finally packed it in.

Joblard had tried calling Bludhorn once more after leaving Nicky Cohn, but the proverbial Undertaker still wasn’t picking up. Piss-taker, more like, Joblard thought. If things keep the way they’ve been going. He decided to swing by the Hindu’s hole-in-the-wall for a bucket of soy Vindaloo, papadums and sweet mango. Then back to the Fridge. Upstairs one of the regular parties was in full-swing, sub-sonic bass shaking the windows in their frames. He killed the engine and wheeled around to the service lift, chained the BSA to the grill and hung a tarp over it. The basement lights weren’t on, so he figured Bird Girl probably wasn’t back yet. Decided to go in quietly anyhow, in case she was there asleep. Though how anyone could sleep with that Moby shit playing, he didn’t know.

The basement wasn’t exactly luxurious, but it was big. A single room, about ten yards wide, ran the length of the building, a kitchenette with garret windows at the back. It’d been used once upon a time for storage. Upstairs was where the meat processing had gone on. Some of the residents practiced a type of voodoo to ward of bad spirits, appease the bovine gods. Joblard wasn’t interested in animal karma. The place stank of rat bait. Every other morning he took a bag of dead rats out to the trash. He burned incense. Told Bird Girl there must be some sort of rat disease going around. Had to be careful what he left the bait around in, though, in case one of the resident freaks from upstairs got to scrounging munchies on a comedown.

Joblard left the takeaway by the door, tiptoeing through the basement obstacle course in his boots and trying not to bang his head on any fixtures. The sound of snoring was audible despite the thumping bass. Joblard peered into the bed – a king-size mattress on trestles high enough for a dwarf to camp under. On account of the rats. The bed, though, was empty. The snoring came from the other side of it. Joblard made out something moon-like wrapped in an overcoat, lying on the couch. It didn’t look like Bird Girl. He went over and flipped on the lights. Ol’ Pasty, with his head back, felt hat tipped forward, mouth open, was snoring like a bullfrog. His coat was gathered at the neck in the ball of a skinny fist, blotchy like his face. His other hand was wrapped around the butt of a service issue .45.

By the time the scarecrow got his eyes open, Joblard already had an elasticated ocky strap round his wrists and was in the process of cocooning the bastard with an industrial roll of kitchen wrap. Ol’ Pasty’s eyes bugged. They bugged even more when Joblard shoved the .45 in his mouth and asked him very politely to sit still. Wearing about fifty feet of kitchen wrap, the scarecrow looked like a sick grub. He squirmed when Joblard pulled the gun out of his mouth. It made Joblard think of his first day in school.

“You’re not going to piss on my couch, are you?”

Scarecrow shook his head. His grey felt hat had tipped to one side, revealing a serious case of eczema. It gave Joblard the creeps.

“Where’s your mate?”

Scarecrow just looked at him.

“You’re not fucking Polish, are you? Rozumiesz anglielskiego, ty głupi pizdy?

Scarecrow glared.

“Suit yourself.”

Joblard tore off a strip of kitchen wrap and somehow got it around the scarecrow’s head without making contact with the eczema.

“Since you’ve got nothing to say,” Joblard pocketed the gun. “Any trouble breathing, just remember to holler.”

Joblard went to the kitchenette and grabbed a six-pack of Guinness from the fridge, then back to collect his vindaloo. He pulled up an armchair by the door and killed the lights, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. Maybe, after he’d enjoyed a decent meal, he’d get the jumper leads out and see how the scarecrow responded to a little encouragement. Maybe the fucker was mute, hehe. That’d be a laugh. Better him than me.

Outside, the same Moby track was still echoing in the stairwell. There was the sound of the DLR rattling by. The usual peace and quiet. Joblard grinned to himself, spooned some rice into his curry, popped a can of stout and settled back, munching on a papadum, to see what the remainder of the evening might bring.

Nicky Cohn was standing in the middle of the room, toeing an orange-and-brown paisley rug Bird Girl had said blended with the couch. Joblard couldn’t help thinking she was right. He spooned some instant into two give-away Wozzie Burger coffee mugs and snapped off the kettle. Poured. Doused the mix with soy milk.


Nicky Cohn pulled a face like the very idea appalled him.

“Nice place you’ve got here. Pity about the stiff.”

Joblard brought over the coffee and stood beside Nicky Cohn. They both sipped their coffee, surveying the couch. The scarecrow’s brains had made a complete mess of it. But there was no denying it had a certain affinity with the rug. Little fractalised blobules of red, black and grey floating in a type of Rorschach amber that continued half-way up the wall, punctured by bone shard. Bits of the scarecrow’s brains were even stuck to the ceiling. Joblard thought he recognised a patch of eczematous scalp glued to the lightshade – a paper globe that’d once been white, but now looked like a sepia pock-marked moon. Sea of Tranquillity and all that.

At some point in the night Joblard had dozed off under a dusting of papadum crumbs and pilau rice. What woke him was a sound like rats trying to burrow out through the walls. He’d been dreaming of a boat, somewhere on a river. A sort of funeral barque. Egyptian. Head of a jackal at stern. Anorexis, or whatever it was called. Dog god. With a gold sarcophagus in the middle of it. Like Bludhorn’s museum. Naked midgets at the oars. Ol’ Pasty there, too, beating a big drum. A sail with billowing Rosicrucian eye. And Joblard himself, trapped inside the sarcophagus, gasping for breath, tangled in mummy wrappings, trying desperately to escape.

He spilled what was left of the vindaloo grabbing for the .45 wedged in his Bellstafs, lucky the safety catch was still on. At first he thought the scarecrow had gotten away. The place was quiet. The party upstairs must’ve ended. And then he saw it, a faint mock of paracelene from the back windows glinting on the kitchen wrap, casting a long shadow up the wall. Only it was no shadow…

“What d’you know,” Nicky Cohn slurped his coffee. “Looks like your pal must’ve wore falsies.”


“Unless those are yours?”

He poked his mug towards a splotch on the back of the couch. Joblard squinted at it. A pair of dentures was embedded in the muck. They seemed to grin back at him.


“Think someone’s trying to finger you, old chum?”

Joblard pulled out the scarecrow’s gun. Sniffed at it. Nicky Cohn glanced at him with a vague look of apprehension.

“Hasn’t been fired. Beside,” he held the gun out for Nicky Cohn to inspect, “no .45 on Earth could’ve done that.”

 Nicky Cohn demurred.

“Still, doesn’t exactly look good, does it?”

Joblard stuffed the gun back in his pants.

“What’re we going to do?”

Nicky Cohn held out his empty mug, Wozzie-the-Clown smirking sideways from it.

“I’ll take another one of these, if you’re offering.”

It’d been just after four o’clock when Joblard called Nicky Cohn. Figured he slept in his office. Got the answering machine. Shouted something incomprehensible at it. Rang again. Third go, the answering machine cut-out mid-message and the real-life Nicky Cohn came on.

“D’you know what time it is?”

“Of course I know what fucking time it is!”

“This better be good, old chum.”

“What if I told you there’s a headless fucking corpse sitting on my couch?”

He’d made it there in fifteen minutes. The sort of thing possible in London only around four a.m.

“You weren’t kidding,” Nicky Cohn said, when he saw the scarecrow. “There’s a corpse with no head sitting on your couch. What’s he wrapped in plastic for?”

Joblard spieled it out while Nicky Cohn clicked his tongue, shook his head, toed the rug. Sniffed.

“Rat bait,” Joblard explained.

His visitor appraised the room without moving from the spot, keeping an eye out for stray rodents.

“Nice place…”

Handing Nicky Cohn a fresh mug of coffee, Joblard pondered the situation. Nicky was right. If the cops got hold of this, they’d be all over him. Wouldn’t matter what he said. Wasn’t a single alibi he could think of that’d hold water. So to speak.

“In the films,” Nicky Cohn offered, warming is hands around his coffee, “they always search the body first, get rid of any I.D., then put it – the body, that is – in a bin liner and dump it somewhere. Got any of those housewife gloves? You know, for washing dishes and stuff?”

“What about his mate?”

And that’s when Joblard knew he’d have to find the dwarf. But even then, none of it made any sense. He’d spent half-an-hour scrubbing the wall and ceiling, scooping bits of brain matter off the floor, then bundling the stiff into a couple of bright yellow bin-liners – the ones they sold cheep at the local Sainsbury’s. The couch was a goner. He tried getting the stains out with diluted bleach. It only made matters worse. Nicky Cohn sat over by the door and watched, throwing in the odd suggestion from time-to-time. Like why not just toss the carpet over the back of the couch and be done with it?

The only thing Joblard had been able to find on the scarecrow was a roll of tenners and a pawnshop ticket. Castle Square, Brighton. He could dump the stiff and get down there on the bike before the place opened. See what he could find out. But the first thing was where to do the dumping. He’d never been all that conscientious about recycling. And riding about with a couple of bright yellow bin-liners on the back of a vintage BSA wasn’t exactly low-key. But then, nothing he ever did was. He figured the best thing to do was drop the lot into the canal, over by Tequila Warf. It was only a block away. Nicky Cohn didn’t like the idea quite so much. It wasn’t the headless corpse that bothered him. It was being a possible accessory that gave him the heebie-jeebies.

“Don’t tell me you’re suffering from a case of journalistic ethics?”

“Do I work for the Sun?

“Thought you type were all the same.”

“Listen, chum, some of us have a future to think about.”

“What about the poor fucker with his head blown off. You reckon he didn’t have a future to think about?”

“Not sure I get your point, chum.”

“Nicky. There’s a headless stiff on my couch. If we don’t get it out of here, I’m screwed. You think I popped Johnny Fluoride? There were witnesses.”

“I just want to be able to write the story without calling down any heat. My mate at the Yard already smells a rat. Like where I got the tip-off on the floater. This could end up ruining my expense account.”

“Shut up and give me a hand, will you.”

Joblard bundled the disposal job in Bird Girl’s rug and left the stain on the couch to look after itself. Between the two of them they got the rug out into the yard, along the alley behind the Rajasthan Café. Nicky Cohn huffed and puffed at the back while Joblard shouldered most of the weight up front.

“For a skinny bastard, he sure weighs a bloody tonne.”

Once they’d made it across the parking lot off Brunton Place, it was easy going. Trees lined the canal, shrouding it in shadow. Bits of concrete rubble lay piled hither and yon. Bricks. Steel piping. Coiled wire. A body-disposal paradise. Across the water, a billboard stood up from the wharf, facing the Commercial Road Bridge, as if the plan was to get your average out-bound commuter worked up for the homeward run, and the missus-and-three-veg. Miss Big Tits in the Wonder Bra ad. Hello Pikers! Some local vigilantes had sprayed out the offending bits, adding WHORE across Miss Big Tits’s face. The marketing geniuses had really picked their demographic. It wasn’t called the East End for nothing. Any further east, you’d be in fucking Cairo.

“I heard somewhere,” Joblard said, hoisting the weighted bin-liners across the tow-path to the edge of the canal, “that if you cut the guts open, a body won’t float. On account of the gas. When it decomposes.”

“Not much good when it’s wrapped in a plastic bag, is it?”

“Shit. He’ll blow up like a fucking balloon.”

“Forget it. Your man ever floats, he’ll wash up in the locks. Maybe get pulled down to the river. Means they’ll have company for Johnny boy. Give the fuzz something to think about.”

“Shame about the rug.”

It made less of a splash than either of them expected, swallowed by the dark water. Joblard tossed the gun in after it. There were lights coming on over at the wharf. The six o’clock shift. Time to get a move-on. It was going to be another long day.

— Louis Armand


Louis Armand is the author of seven collections of poetry and five novels, most recently Breakfast at Midnight (2012) and Canicule (2013), both from Equus (London). His screenplay, Clair Obscur, received honourable mention at the 2009 Alpe Adria Trieste International Film Festival. He is an editor of VLAK magazine and has worked as a subtitles technician at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. He lives in Prague.

Dec 012013


Just so you know, the Saint John Free Public Library event last night was a blast (too bad for all of you who missed the chartered buses out of Boston, New York and Toronto). When I arrived at the door a couple of hours early to check things out, there was a SOLD OUT ribbon across the poster. I was told they could have sold an extra 50 tickets. I have never been party to a SOLD OUT event in my life.

There was food and wine and beer. The beer was a special one-of-a-kind whiskey pale ale invented by Big Tide Brewing Company brewmeister Wendy Papadopoulos for the occasion — it was called Three Pages to the Wind (I am certain now that this is the reason for the SOLD OUT sign). I naturally started out the evening resolutely insisting that I could not drink because I was going to have to drive back to Fredericton through the moose-haunted dark highways of New Brunswick after. But then someone said the magic words “whiskey pale ale” once too often and I am afraid I succumbed.

Then the Saint John String Quartet started to play and I discovered the truly zen experience of sitting in a library with books all around and a glass of whiskey pale ale in my hand and four lovely people playing stringed instruments for me (I dunno, everyone else seemed to be talking). They played for 45 minutes which, you know, required a second whiskey pale ale and then Wendy Papadopoulos got up and gave an entertaining talk on how she came to invent Three Pages to the Wind (which was, really, so entertaining — the woman is a genius — that I could have listened to it again as there was still beer left).

And THEN I was called up to read from Savage Love, which, was a little frightening because there were three steps up to the lectern and I wasn’t sure by then that I could navigate them. I was told after that I performed creditably and several nice people bought books to make me feel better. Later there was some helpful confusion (no doubt due to the prevalence of whiskey pale ale); I was given clear instructions on how to navigate (I have used the word “navigate” twice — the whole idea of navigation had become problematic for me at this stage) out of the city though somehow I got lost driving out of the parking garage and took ages to find my way back onto the moose-infested highway (I think I was using some sort of echolocation technique at the end).

Of all my reading experiences lately this was the best — what I remember of it. And the words “whiskey pale ale” are forever burned into my brain.


Dec 012013

Paul Forte 2013

Paul Forte is a fascinating artist and thinker. “Visual Thinking and Cognitive Exploration” is a major essay on the theory and practice of Conceptual art, also a short history of the tradition, also a lesson on how to appreciate art, and also a Cook’s tour of Forte’s own amazing art (dwell on the images, meditate upon them). Steeped in the history of art and philosophy, Forte sorts out definitions and vectors of influence, does not lean on jargon but explains it, and is above all infectiously passionate about his subject. Note also that the essay is dedicated to the late Arthur C. Danto, a hugely influential philosopher (whom I have myself read assiduously now and then over the years), Forte’s friend and mentor.


For Arthur C. Danto 1924 – 2013

The international Conceptual art movement that swept the art world in the late 1960’s emphasized the primacy of the artist’s thoughts or ideas in the art making process and forever changed how many artists think about and make art.  Reaching its peak in the late 1970’s, the movement was eventually overshadowed by the resurgence of more traditional art forms, but not before sowing the radical seeds of a new consciousness, at least where art is concerned.  Almost a decade after Conceptual art passed from the scene something interesting happened: in the mid 1980’s the movement seemed to resurface in what was touted as a revival called “Neo-Conceptualism” (also referred to as “Neo-Geo”). While roundly dismissed by Conceptual purists at the time as lacking in critical value, Neo-Conceptualism nevertheless signaled a significant turn for contemporary art.

In hindsight it appears that Conceptual art began evolving in the late 1970’s, and Neo-Conceptualism was one outcome of this evolutionary process.  The curious thing about this supposed revival was its acquiescence to the importance, indeed necessity of perception for expressing or communicating ideas along with the return to more conventional materials and methods of art making.  While an implicit acceptance of the centrality of material form in art didn’t necessarily negate or displace the predominance of the idea, it did give material form equal weight or footing, rendering the most controversial theory of the 1960’s, “de-materialization,” highly problematic.  Even so, much of the work that resulted from this supposedly renewed Conceptualism seemed sensationalist and facile.  In this sense the purists were right, and yet the reintroduction of perceptual concerns while adhering to the basic principle of Conceptual art concerning the primacy of ideas was highly significant.  Thus the stage was set to usher in a post-Conceptual era: art, or at least, Conceptual art, seemed to be evolving in a cognitive direction.  “Visual Thinking and Cognitive Exploration” attempts to make sense of this far reaching development and hopefully contribute something to our understanding of aesthetic experience.


Desert Parcel (book fragments)

Desert Parcel (book fragments)
Paul Forte, 2013
Collage on canvass made from the fragments of an illustrated volume titled: Picturesque Palestine, Egypt and the Sinai, published in the late 19th century
39 3/4 x 54 3/4 inches


“Artists today are an especially serious group of what one ought properly to think of as visual thinkers.”[1]Arthur Danto

Arthur Danto’s observation about artists, expressed in a review of the Whitney Biennial over a decade ago, seems prescient given the ubiquity of art made along ostensibly conceptual lines today.  Writing for savvy readers of The Nation in 2000, Danto was concerned about what he saw as an erosion of aesthetics for the sake of imparting moral meanings. He was not objecting to art that raised social awareness, only work that might do so at the expense of aesthetic value, as he understood it.  There are many competing concepts of aesthetic value, making the subject contentious to say the least.  And yet, the notion of visual thinking seems generic enough to have some bearing on a host of ways in which art might be valued.  I believe that Danto felt that by focusing on contemporary art as a form of visual thought we might renew the discussion of aesthetic value and perhaps rediscover just what it was about the experience of art that we find so engaging.  Danto’s basic point about artists as visual thinkers remains sound and was never at odds with the possibility of art being used as a vehicle for moral posturing.  His concern over the advancement of moral agendas through art at the expense of aesthetics carries little weight today, because most artists, critics, curators, and others understand that there was never an issue between aesthetics and socially committed art, although a fundamental change in attitudes about the use of aesthetics has taken place, something that Danto may not have anticipated: the aesthetic practices of many contemporary artists have become, for lack of a better term, conceptualized.  In other words, aesthetic properties such as line, form, and color, for example, are often not explored for their own sake as it were but are used as indices or signifiers, elements of visual thought perhaps best understood in terms of the artist’s intentions.  This outcome is one legacy of Conceptual art, that radical re-visioning of art begun by Duchamp and championed by Danto.  There is no little irony in the fact that the undermining of aesthetic attitudes that troubled Danto should come as a result of this legacy.

1 Headstone (Laying NO to Rest)

Headstone (Laying NO to Rest)
Paul Forte 2005
Black Slate, 42 x 22 x 2 ½ inches
Collection Yale University Art Gallery


Arthur Danto’s view of artists as visual thinkers prods us to re-examine our aesthetic experiences in light of what they can tell us about cognition. Danto’s perspective, shared by a number of his contemporaries, is important because in supposing that many contemporary artists are basically engaged in visual thinking, he suggests a fundamental reevaluation of art.  This reevaluation can be summed up in terms of the potential that art has for deepening our understanding of cognition or cognitive processes.  Certainly such understanding is as important as the moral or intellectual purpose of one’s artwork, if, indeed, that is the intention of the work.  In fact, it could be argued that it takes precedence over any moral or intellectual purpose, however lofty or urgent, because art that explores how we know and understand, however implicitly, can at the very least reveal new and engaging ways of communicating ideas.  Palpable realizations about knowing and understanding are not simply byproducts of one’s social or political messages, rather, they are the very things that make these messages effective, enduring, or even possible in the first place.  If we consider the potential of art in light of this basic value, surely its “moral or intellectual purpose,” whatever it is, will be preserved by virtue of the deeper ways the work has changed our hearts and minds.

7 Ringing silence

Ringing Silence
Paul Forte 2012
Alarm bell, map and biology text in found box
13 ½ x 16 ¾ x 12 ½ inches


The idea of artists as visual thinkers gained currency in the 1960’s and 70’s through the advocacy of visual thinking by the psychologist, Rudolph Arnheim.  But visual thinking, according to Arnheim, is hardly limited to the activities of artists.  It is a capacity that we all share, artists and lay people alike, and may be the only form of thought capable of engendering productive understanding on a broad scale.  “Visual thinking is the ability of the mind to unite observing and reasoning in every field of learning.  Whether people spend their days on using the physical forces of their bodies as garage mechanics or surgeons or dancers or whether they labor quietly at their desks as mathematicians or poets, the principal instrument on which their minds rely will always be the same.”[2]  That instrument, of course, is the eye.  The practice of one’s discipline forms the connection between observing and reasoning, something that results in the give and take or back and forth of one’s art or activity.  One does, observes and evaluates the results, and then proceeds to adjust the doing as is necessary.  The work of either artist or garage mechanic involves a dynamic interaction between doing or making and observing.

8 Facade Compendium Wall

Façade (Compendium Wall)
Paul Forte 2013
Encyclopedia covers (1893) on wood
42 x 52 ½ x 1¼ inches


But art making, certainly for the creative artist, requires open observation and careful reasoning.  The mind is always implicated in what and how we see, so the challenge for the creative artist involves sustaining an imaginative approach to both observing and reasoning without succumbing to solipsism or sophistry.  An imaginative mind combined with a critical eye seems to be the key.

2 Compact Record of Discarded Thoughts

Compact Record of Discarded Thoughts
Paul Forte 2005
Wadded paper (artist’s writings), glue, varnish
12 x 12 x 12 inches


Our knowledge of self and world is in constant flux; there is an ongoing interrelation or interaction between what we know and what and how we see.  Visual thinking in this regard seems more fundamental than abstract thought; thought seemingly divorced from qualitative features of perceptual states that determine what something is like, or to employ a philosophical term: its qualia. The artwork of artists exploring the interrelations between the phenomenal properties of their materials and ideas is often provocative and unusual, calling for a more demanding set of interpretive skills; skills beyond at least aesthetic judgment that puts great store in absolute distinctions between perceptual and conceptual concerns.  When this dichotomy is guiding appraisal of the artwork it is often misunderstood and subsequently misjudged.  For example, critics, curators, and the art viewing public often overlook or underestimate the cognitive value of contemporary art seemingly indebted to some tradition or another, assuming that such work is primarily concerned with furthering that tradition and little else. If, on the other hand, such art is presumed to simulate a tradition and have a conceptual intention, then it is usually viewed as a matter of either pastiche or parody.  The presumption in the first case is that the work is primarily the result of formal concerns, to some extent or another, in the second, that the work is either a matter of critique or gamesmanship, and essentially conceptual.  It appears that much like the apparent opposition between aesthetics and socially engaged art, absolute distinctions between the formal and the conceptual, eye and mind, are overstated if not illusory.

9 Book of Maladies

Book of Maladies
Paul Forte 2013
Sealed book, crystals and mixed media on painted base
16 x 22 x 3 inches


While visual thinking is commonplace, it is nonetheless a mainstay of creativity.  For artist and audience alike, artwork that engages visual perception and thought on an equal footing can imbue aesthetic experience with clarity, depth, and passion.  Artwork that delivers in this way may even lead to a new attitude toward aesthetics in general.  In my view, such engaging artwork precedes or makes the new attitude possible.  Thus Danto points the way when says that contemporary artists “portray themselves as engaged in conceptual exploration, calling boundaries into question, seeking to bring to consciousness the way we think about many things.”[3]  This is all well and good, and yet, it seems that artwork that both results from visual thinking and requires it in order to be properly understood or appreciated will implicitly call into question the limits and efficacy of conceptual exploration.  This is a reasonable assumption supported by a diverse yet coherent body of contemporary art practices, regardless of how those practices might be characterized (i.e., as “conceptual or conceptually oriented”).  It is my contention that the primary factor underlying these practices is not conceptual exploration, but rather, cognitive exploration.

3 Small World

Small World
Paul Forte 2008
Magnetized globe with metal objects on wood stand
20 x 12 ½ x 12 ½ inches


Many artists, critics, and curators continue to use the terms “conceptual” and “cognitive” interchangeably.  One reason for this indiscriminant usage may be related to the orthodox understanding of cognition as a domain consisting of “logical reasoning, awareness, and judgment, and the rational structuring of sensation and perception.”[4] This understanding relies on or is in keeping with presumptions concerning mental processing and the formation of ideas. But cognition is essentially a matter of knowing and understanding, which certainly involves thought and ideas, but thought and ideas, in daily experience as well as in the art making process, are never fully independent of sensory input or emotive aspects, at least indirectly.  A fuller understanding of cognitive processes entails apperception and the emergence of new consciousness.  Consciousness of the integration of thought, sensation and feeling merits mentioning because it has bearing on understanding the basic distinction between the cognitive and the conceptual. Consider for a moment the fact that a good many of our ideas and concepts are first expressed metaphorically, expressions that were originally based on some manner of sensory experience. Consider also the deep relationship between thought and emotions. Feeling may be ultimately inseparable from thought, however subtle the thoughts or manifest the feelings.  Think about the feelings that often accompany ideas that give rise to strong religious or political convictions.  The person holding such convictions may not be aware of his or her feelings, but others often are. There is even a question as to whether the “rational structuring of sensation and perception” is possible in any definitive sense because it seems that sensation and perception are never entirely free of unconscious factors.  Briefly put, knowing and understanding are intertwined processes that involve more than just thought and ideas.

4 Artist's breath

Artist’s Breath
Paul Forte 2008
Sealed bottle on brass stand
13 x 4 ½ inches


The late philosopher, Nelson Goodman, made a lasting contribution to our understanding by clarifying the distinction between the cognitive and the conceptual, as well as prodding us to reconsider the nature of aesthetic experience.  “In contending that aesthetic experience is cognitive, I am emphatically not identifying it with the conceptual, the discursive, the linguistic.  Under ‘cognitive’ I include all aspects of knowing and understanding, from perceptual discrimination through pattern recognition and emotive insight to logical inference.”[5] Thus it seems clear that the cognitive encompasses the conceptual, not the other way around.  That memory, knowledge, and imagination, as mental capacities, to some extent all determine what and how we see is beyond dispute.  But the point is to see anew.  Cognitively effective art can have an impact on our lives because it enables us to, in Goodman’s words, “See what we did not see before, and see in a new way.”[6] I think that Goodman’s main point here is that such art can be instrumental in developing visual acuity, thus enriching our daily experience.  I believe that some of this artwork can do even more.  Cognitive discoveries, finding new ways of seeing things, are, ultimately, discoveries about cognition itself. The new experiences that art can provide lay the groundwork for how we come to understand ourselves and the world and how we eventually conceptualize that understanding.

6 Nest egg

Nest Egg
Paul Forte 2010
Bird’s nest, glass globe, photo and map in found box
10 ½ x 13 x 7 inches


“In metaphor, symbols moonlight.” [7]—Nelson Goodman

There is a mode of reference that has bearing on the notion of visual thinking.  This is metaphor; something that occurs primarily in verbal form, but is not limited to the realm of letters.[8] I accept the supposition that metaphor is an essential component of language, in both its literary and everyday usage.  Metaphor animates language in complex and subtle ways.  It makes words breath, adds color and interest, and generally makes reading pleasurable.  But it is more than an ornamental or humanizing gesture.  In instances where, for example, denotative language falls short or is nonexistent as a means of describing a particular phenomenon, metaphor serves an invaluable function. Thus, in science, for example, metaphor has an indispensable role in the advancement of knowledge.  Catherine Elgin comments on the value of metaphor in this regard.  She maintains that while it is true that scientists, unlike artists, “strive for literal, univocal, determinant symbols,”[9] it is wrong to assume that metaphor and other indirect forms of reference are alien to science.  Elgin states her case eloquently: “Inasmuch as metaphor is a device for drawing new lines and for redeploying conceptual resources that have proven effective elsewhere, it is an immensely valuable tool at the cutting edge of inquiry.  Where there is no literal vocabulary that marks the divisions that scientists want to recognize, they resort to speaking metaphorically of strings or black holes or central processing units.  But as inquiry progresses, the talk becomes increasingly less metaphorical.”[10] I think that visual metaphor has an equivalent value for the visual arts.  The practice of appropriating images and or objects from everyday life for metaphorical ends could be considered analogous to a redeployment of conceptual resources as it occurs in the theoretical language of science.  Just as it is wrong to assume that metaphor plays no essential role in the advancement of knowledge through science, it is equally wrong to assume that visual metaphor in art is not essential to our understanding of aesthetic experience. Indeed, it may be essential to our even having an aesthetic experience.  If aesthetic experience is cognitive, as Nelson Goodman contends, then visual metaphor in art is also a very valuable tool at the cutting edge of inquiry.  That metaphor in general connects disciplines or domains, at least in principle, indicates more than versatility.  Given its reach, it may be an instrument that combines thought, imagination, sensation, and feeling in ways that lead to new knowledge.

5 History lesson

History Lesson
Paul Forte 2009
Collage and mixed media on board
32 x 40 inches


10 Beckett's Notes

Beckett’s Notes
Book covers, postcard, map and compass on board in artist’s frame
26 ½ x 30 ½ x 1½ inches


Of course not everyone agrees that art is a form of inquiry.  Those who balk at the idea that art can teach us something fall into two general categories: those who cannot take it seriously, and those who resist its seriousness.  Art is as serious as science, and just as the results of scientific inquiry need not threaten our well being, understanding and accepting the seriousness of art need not undermine the spirit of art.  Some people maintain that they love art and that it is possible to enjoy it for no other reason than the pleasure that it affords.  Some people take it seriously for the moral instruction or social message that it conveys.  Whether we treasure art as a way of refining our sensibilities or as a tool for consciousness raising, in either case we gain immeasurably when we can better understand why we consider a particular work of art pleasurable, important, or both.  The point is that understanding the artwork from a cognitive perspective can both deepen our pleasure in the work and or our respect for its moral or social message.  Moreover, artwork with the primary purpose of exploring cognition through visual metaphor can be both pleasurable and socially relevant.  Just as the metaphorical language of science can broaden our understanding of the world, the metaphorical images and objects of art can deepen our understanding of ourselves.  As understanding grows, the metaphorical language used to express the theoretical advances of science gives way to more literal or denotative forms of expression.  Something similar may be happening as the investigation of cognition through art progresses, although it is the nature of the visual metaphor that is changing, not the underlying metaphorical orientation through which the exploration advances.

— Paul Forte

Author’s note: Arthur Danto was a wonderful philosopher and critic as well as accomplished print maker. I am very fortunate to have known Arthur, a mentor of sorts, and someone who genuinely cared about art and never shrank from offering his support and encouragement to those artists that he deemed worthy of attention. He gave a talk at the Yale University Art Gallery on my “Headstone” in 2005. It was a great evening and Arthur was in fine form. He will be greatly missed.

Arthur & Paul

Arthur & Paul


Paul Forte’s career as an artist began in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970’s.  The Bay Area in those days was a crucible for social, political and cultural change, and Forte managed to play a small but vital part.  Like many artists at the time, he was interested in the experimental possibilities of art and, like many others, believed that the changing nature of art still had the capacity to enable new visions, new voices.  Art and politics were always an uneasy combination for the artist, although he understood perfectly well that how art is received, or enabled is largely contingent upon politics and economics, perhaps especially in a capitalist society, which tends to marginalize those artists who cannot or will not meet the demands of the market.  This realization led to an interest in Conceptual art, and to one of its principle mediums: the “artist’s book,” of which he self-published a number of works in small editions.  Throughout the 1970’s Forte’s work explored the subjective and aesthetic dimensions of conceptual approaches to art making through a variety of media that would later become the basis for what the artist calls a cognitive approach to art making.

A resident of Rhode Island since 1987, Paul Forte has exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, California  (1975,1983); A Space Gallery, Toronto, Canada (1978); 80 Langton Street Gallery, San Francisco, California (1981); The Center for the Visual Arts, Oakland, California (1986); The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut (1991); the Kim Foster Gallery, New York City (1998); and Francis Naumann Fine Art, New York City (2007 & 2008).  Forte’s work is included in the Sol Lewitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut; the Museum of Modern Art, New York City (artist’s books); and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, among others. Forte has lectured on his work at Hera Gallery in Wakefield, Rhode Island; The University of Rhode Island; The Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University (Honors Program); Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; The California College of the Arts in Oakland, California; and the University of California at Berkeley.  Paul Forte is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Fellowship (1978), and a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Fellowship (1990).

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Arthur C. Danto, “Art of the Free and Brave.”  The Nation, May 8, 2000, p. 45.
  2. Rudolph Arnheim, The Split and The Structure.   Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996, p. 119.
  3. Arthur C. Danto, op. cit., p. 47.
  4. Herbert Kohl, From Archetype to Zeitgeist.  Little, Brown and Company, Boston Toronto London, 1992, p. 179.
  5. Nelson Goodman, Of Mind and Other Matters.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984, p. 84.
  6. Nelson Goodman, ibid., p. 85.
  7. Nelson Goodman, Ibid., p. 77.
  8. Whether or not verbal metaphor is related to visual thinking is an open question, one involving an understanding of how mental images are the bases of associations underlying most verbal metaphors.  If most verbal metaphors are the result of making associations based upon mental imagery, does that make such metaphors inherently a matter of visual thinking?  It seems self-evident that visual metaphor is a matter or form of visual thinking.
  9. Catherine Elgin, “Reorienting Aesthetics, Reconceiving Cognition.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 3 2000, p. 223.
  10. Catherine Elgin, Ibid., p. 223.
Nov 292013

Savage Love Cover

A collection of stories contemplating the vastly different types of love. Don’t expect soppy sentimentality: These wildly creative tales reflect the ferocity of love, how the unexpected, forbidden, illicit and illegal play out on our psyches, how love begins and what is left when it abandons us.

via Chatelaine Book Club: Best books of 2013 by Books Editor Laurie Grassi.

Nov 272013

Helberg reviewer pic

Natalie Helberg is joining the Numéro Cinq masthead as a contributor. Wonderful to have her (along with the two other recent new hires, Gerard Beirne and Adam Segal). Natalie’s first contribution to the magazine was the deliciously smart review of Adrián Bravi novel The Combover in the current (November) issue.

It’s worth adding that not only does Natalie join the masthead, she joins the extended NC community of editors and contributors, a cadre, so to speak, of alert, intelligent, creative, bookish, adventurous individuals who, despite living at the far corners of the continent (and beyond) manage to commit to the magazine, form friendships, foster an esprit de corps and, often, be very funny communicating with one another. It’s a little world, highly entertaining and inspiring.


Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph.


Nov 262013

Books of the Year

Savage Love Cover

Okay, for sheer outrageous panache (“the Gordian Knit, the Holy Trinity…” and me) this might be one of the best sound bites so far. Re. my obscurity: Luckily, I am not alone in the world. My dog still recognizes me. Although, okay, she is not much of a reader. Her favourite character in literature is Spot.


Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover. Over the course of a career spanning three and a half decades, Glover has produced some of the most stylish, adventurous fiction this country has ever seen, and yet he seems to be continually passed over for recognition (a 2003 Governor General’s Literary Award for his historical novel Elle notwithstanding). The reason for this oversight is frankly inexplicable, outside of a general nervousness when confronted with technically brilliant fiction.

Read the rest at Quill & Quire » Savage Love by Douglas Glover (Goose Lane Editions).

Nov 262013

Savage Love CoverI particularly like “not for the squeamish.” There should be a Surgeon General’s Warning label on my books. “The book may be injurious if taken in large doses. Keep out the reach of children and small furry animals. May cause irreparable psychic harm if you don’t have a sense of humour.”


Glover is a frank and bold writer. His stories are not for the squeamish and can be difficult to read at times but if a reader wants an honest understanding into the dark elements of the human psyche, he is the perfect writer.

via Review: Savage Love by Douglas Glover. (2013) Goose Lane Editions

Nov 252013


“Oh yes!…The sweet summons of God to man. That’s when He calls you up to His arms. And it’s the most beautiful thing, a rebirth, a new life. But, just the same I’m in no rush to find out.”
― Oscar Hijuelos, Mr. Ives’ Christmas

Oscar Hijuelos, an old friend, died in October. I knew Oscar mostly through his visits to Yaddo, just down the road from where I live, and through mutual friends. He and Steve Stern and I had some uproarious times, not to be forgotten. I also interviewed him for the radio show I used to produce in Albany — this was in 1995 when he published the novel Mr. Ives’ Christmas. He was a generous, gentle man, also very funny, and a passionate, brilliant writer, best remembered nowadays for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Plays Songs of Love.

Philip Graham knew Oscar much better than I did. And he has written a very personal and poignant elegy that you should all read. Then you should all go out and buy Oscar’s books and read them.

Thanks, Philip, for this.


Of all the photos taken of him, the image above captures best, I think, the man who was my friend for thirty-eight years. Oscar Hijuelos and I met in graduate school at City College in 1975, two young writers in Frederick Tuten’s fiction workshop. Oscar was shy, even deferential to the other writers in the workshop, but when he first read his work to us in class, his head bowed over the pages on the desk, his voice low, everyone recognized his enormous talent.

We became friends, visiting each other often in his apartment on the Upper West Side or the house I was renting with old college friends north of the city. We read each other’s manuscripts (and continued to do so over the years), discovered that we were born within two days (and only a few miles) of each other, and we talked about our life-or-death love of literature, drank and joked and ate at any Cuban-Chinese restaurant we came upon in New York. To say Oscar had a good sense of humor is not quite right—he had a great sense of amusement, about everything in the world (and he also had a great curious appetite for everything in the world), and when I hear Oscar’s voice in my mind (and I listen to him a lot these days), I can hear his restrained chuckle, or the casual bemusement in the very tone of his speaking. That slight, gentle smile in the photo says it all.

Read the rest at Philip Graham » Blog Archive » My Mambo King.

Nov 252013


Filmmaker and author Julie Trimingham’s new book, her debut novel, Mockingbird was recently released from MP Publishing.


You might remember Julie from my Numéro Cinq at the Movies post on her gorgeous triptych of films Beauty Crowds Me.

Aritha Van Herk describes the book as

teeming with yearning, with the indescribable smells and tastes of Cuban ardor. This tale of passion and its smudged fate, its undeniable allure, intensifies with each improvised move, so that readers have to gasp for breath, yet cannot help but follow this impossible seduction, and the center of gravity that shapes the beauty known as longing.”

You can see a trailer for the book here:

Congratulations, Julie.

— R . W. Gray




Nov 232013


Gerard Beirne is joining NC as Contributing Editor. Gerry is going to curate a new special feature called Uimhir a Cúig, which is Irish for Number 5. Uimhir a Cúig will showcase the finest in Irish literature and culture; from now on there will be a little corner of NC that is Irish. The first item, in the December issue, will be a gorgeous hybrid piece: text by last year’s winner of the Dublin IMPAC International Literary Award, Kevin Barry, and the Galway video and installation artist, Louise Manifold.



Gerard Beirne is an Irish author who moved to Canada in 1999. He is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and continues to live in Fredericton where he is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead. He has published three novels, including The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) which was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express (England). His poetry collections include Digging My Own Grave (Dedalus Press) which was runner-up in The Patrick Kavanagh Award. His personal website is here.

Nov 192013


In Ryan McGinley’s short film “Varud,” a young woman dressed for backyard summer play with a t-shirt as a dress and a gold lame wig skips through New York, altering the city as she goes. The film’s simple repetition and its dream-like collision between youthful exuberance and the mundane design of the city is perfectly captured in the slow skipping of the young woman down yellow meridian lines, among the gentle yellow taxis of New York traffic. It is both sublime and common, unspeakable beauty with a cheap wig, t-shirt dress, and bare feet.

varud taxis

The simplicity of the film makes the experience a more poetic than narrative experience. McGinley in his own words describes his intent:

“this piece is my poem to new york city. i wanted to bring a childhood innocence to the streets, through a character whose own light and wonder effects (sic) the world around her.  i’m always interested in an atmosphere where dreams and reality mingle on equal terms.”

As the film unfolds, small details gather around the wonder: the orangey gold wig, as cheap as it might be, sheds bits of sunlight; pedestrians turn and watch her go by; she traverses even more extreme concrete and empty spaces like the highway off-ramp.


If McGinley had stopped there, with just the intervention of the young woman skipping through the city, that might have been what this film was about: a simple, sepia-with-joy filter to see the city through anew. But this city, McGinley’s city, is altered, ruptured. As the film progresses the city starts to seize up mid breath as though the young woman’s skipping, her strange combination of joy, youthfulness and alarming play, stop time. These pauses, these cessations, we can read as moments of reflection where the city’s denizens pause to glimpse some wonder among the asphalt, the crowds, the day-to-day.

Yet these are not simple pauses. They do not end. The only pause that ends is the final one where the girl fades into the sepia long light of the end of the day, and, ever so slowly, the frozen pedestrians find their stride once more.

sunset valtari

Until this final moment of the film, the people she has passed have all remained frozen, caught, as though she has put the kingdom to sleep. And though there is a beauty in that, in this reflection, there is also something ominous and a little apocalyptic in it. As each street falls to silent pause, after pause, the film’s images recall the horror of other film cities left in stillness, like at the start of 28 Days Later and in the psychological twists of Vanilla Sky.


28 days later

She leaves the city, as these other films do, not resembling itself, lacking its bustle, fury, and perpetual motion. It is the end of things, heralded by an innocent in a sparkly wig. Could there be a more grace-ful way to go?

What does it mean that the skipping girl not only stops time but does so repeatedly? There is something here of Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion: “an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things.’ Each repetition, each frozen moment she creates has her skipping past what might have been momentary encounters with wonder and towards an absence of time, and the philosophers will tell us that without time there is no being. Block after block she freezes the city. But this is what we expect from wonder. Beauty that potentially annihilates the self.


The music, with its indecipherable lyrics and at times choir-like arrangement, encourages a heightened emotional engagement. The film is # 6 in Sigur Ros’s The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment, one of the sixteen films that were made with the support of the Icelandic band. The sixteen were chosen from almost 800 entries.  The press information for the project notes that

“valtari was sigur ros’s last album as a four-piece. An elegiac work; they didn’t feel much like talking about it, and so, instead asked a bunch [of] talented directors to make whatever they felt like making to go with music. These 16 films are the result. Sad, funny, beautiful, and, occasionally, plain bewildering, they represent just some of the available emotional responses to this most contemplative of sigur ros (sic) album.”

Sigur Ros’s atmospheric music inspires each of the directors to move to more poetic and less narrative pieces (though the Valtari film already analyzed by Nicholas Humphries for Numero Cinq at the Movies, Dash Shaw’s “Seraph,”  is significantly more narrative). This poetic atmosphere of the music and the overall project makes it possible for “Varud’s” repetitions and slow, unfolding, and makes it possible for us to submit to its unspeakable and breathless wonder.

— R.W. Gray

Nov 182013

Do we forget that Chaucer learned his chops reading the French and the French were writing what? Little poems about ass-kissing, cuckolds and powerful women! Wait a second!

It’s late. I’m tired. I have to take the dog for a walk. It’s dark. If you get the pun in the title and connect it to the poem, you win two NC bonus points toward the Grand Prize. If you can write an essay in which you reveal the christological allegory in the subtext of the poem, you get three NC bonus points.


“Young man, my name will never be concealed;
But such a name was never found;
None of my family bears it but me.
I am called Bèrenger of the Long Arse,
Who puts all cowards to shame.”

via Guèrin (early 13th cent.), Bèrenger of the Long Arse; fabliau (French, tr. into Modern English); distant analogue of MilT..

Nov 182013


I just discovered the post and this site through the good offices of Judith Stout on Twitter (@judithstout1). The blogger is Genese Grill, author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities: Possibility as Reality, and the site is full of fascinating items. And this is just a taste of what Grill has to say about Musil and stupidity; she has written a full length paper which you can read here in the journal Studia Austriaca.


While looking for images of Death I discovered that not only is stupidity often a woman, but death (which is not a feminine noun in German) often is too. In this image (Totentanz by Karl Ritter, 1922) she may merely be death’s lure, if not herself the one condemned to die. Well, woman, at least, is effective, rousing to life, to frustration, to anger, challenging passive man to sin, to madness, leading him to distraction, destruction, eventually to death.

Read the rest at Robert Musil: “Attempts to Find Another Human Being”: Stupidity, Being Towards Death, Art (on Dostoevsky’s Idiot).

Nov 172013


Hmmmmmm. My kind of event. I hope I get past the beer tasting to my reading. It’ll be touch and go. It could be a wild reading. I’ll have to get someone to point me toward the audience (but who knows what condition the audience will be in?). So far I have not yet been asked to sit in with the String Quartet, but I expect an invitation at any moment. I don’t know what Beethoven is going to do, read from his new book? I hear he brings his own stein to these events and gets morose and quiet near the end and needs a cab ride home.

Actually, it will be fun to return to Saint John, scene of many youthful hijinks (I taught philosophy at the university campus there when I was 22 and then worked at the city daily, the Evening Times-Globe).


I used to haunt the great old Andrew Carnegie public library when I lived in Saint John, not the same building as I am going to read in unfortunately. But there is a ultra-brief sex scene snippet in my story “The Obituary Writer” that takes place in the stacks. You might want to look it up; it’s in my book A Guide to Animal Behaviour. Perfectly tasteful and not auto-biographical, I might add, as are all the scenes in my books. All I did at the library was read. That story, “The Obituary Writer,” is set in Saint John; the city becomes a character in the story in a sense. And also, of course, the name Numéro Cinq comes from that story.




Saint John Free Public Library, 1 Market Square, Saturday November 30

7:00 pm. An after-hours event. Words and music in celebration of the Library’s 130th anniversary. The Saint John String Quartet will be playing, Governor General Award winning author Douglas Glover (and Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick) is booked to do a reading from his new story collection Savage Love, and Big Tide is set to cater and supply a specially crafted beer. Tickets: $10 and include one drink and snacks. There will also be a silent auction. Tickets are available at Central, West, and East Branches of the SJFPL.

Nov 162013

Self Portrait as a Dead Man, 2011, oil on board, 16 x 13.5 in., collection of the artistSelf Portrait as a Dead Man, 2011, oil on board, 16 x 13.5 in., collection of the artist.

I am always alert to what artists have to say about their work. They are thoughtful, patient people who spend a lot of time by themselves working with their hands (something that always promotes a kind of detachment — you think with your hands and the rest is a kind of meditation). I first met Stephen May 25 years ago when I was writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick the first time. Stephen, despite the title of the painting above, is manifestly not dead (see the photo below), but still alive, painting and asseverating. When Stephen writes, he writes with passion and a style that rises here and there to the aphoristic; when he paints, his work shimmers with a kind of classic beauty. Herewith a sample of both, painting and text — the measure of the man and artist.


Stephen May

This is about how inadequate logic, reason, passion, intelligence and imagination are in art. It’s about how reasonable it is to accept that. It’s about how misleading and misguided the word creativity is. This essay is not meant as a spiritual work, but it necessarily enters territory that sounds spiritual.

I want to make good paintings. Sometimes when I’m painting something good happens. I remember not the first time it happened, but the first time I realized what was happening. The words that came into my head were, “Oh, all I have to do is tell the truth!” or “Oh, all I have to do is put down what I see!” (It was a long time ago).

In the late 1800’s a critic named Albert Aurier reviewed an international exhibition of contemporary art in Brussels that included the work of Van Gogh. He singled out Van Gogh as a leader and praised his work in terms of its form, the way he used colour. Van Gogh wrote letters to friends in response. In one of them he wrote, “Aurier’s article would encourage me if I dared to let myself go, and venture even further, dropping reality and making a kind of music of tones with colour, like some Monticellis. But it is so dear to me, this truth, trying to make it true, after all I think, I think, that I would still rather be a shoemaker than a musician in colours.”

Van Gogh loved truth. He is not famous because he cut off his ear. He is famous because his paintings are good. His paintings are good because of his relationship with truth.

What is truth anyway?

I’ve painted good paintings and bad paintings, which is to say beautiful paintings and banal paintings. I’ve reflected on both experiences. I want to understand what it was that seemed right with me when the paintings were beautiful and what seemed wrong with me when they were banal. My experience has brought me to an understanding of the way my art relates to my life and how what is good in art, what is meant by good art, relates to what is good in life in general.

Beauty is just a word. There are many claims on it. Something is happening, though, in the art of Bach, Tolstoy, or Manet, for example, that is unpredictable and mysteriously complex. I use the word beauty to serve that phenomenon.

Artists sometimes say beauty is truth, and people sometimes say God is truth or truth is God. I tend to say those things now. When John Keats and Emily Dickinson equated beauty with truth, and when Gandhi and Simone Weil said truth is God, I don’t think they were using the words as a slogan for an intellectual position. I believe the words occurred to them the same way they occurred to me. And they occurred to me as a revelation but only after many experiences of the difference between true and false, beauty and banality. It is reasonable to be skeptical about the expression beauty is truth, but, ironically, skepticism led me to the expression.

Simone Weil describes prayer as paying attention. I thought I stopped praying when I was a teenager, but now I think perhaps I’ve continued to pray all along.

Painting is an act. Painting is living. The problems of painting — the problem of whether to paint or not, how to paint, what to paint — are the same problems we all face in just being human. They are the problems we have figuring out what to do with our lives, figuring out what’s possible. A person acts, and we find out what’s possible.

L & A's Garden with Neighbour's House, 2010, oil on board, 24 x 24 in, private collection.

L & A’s Garden with Neighbour’s House, 2010, oil on board, 24 x 24 in, private collection.

Shakespeare wrote plays.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

So Shakespeare is possible. How did he do that? We want some explanation for his power and the continued effect it has on us. The only thing we can see and hear is the form, so we look for the secret there. Did Shakespeare have a secret formula? Did Bach and Beethoven? Did Manet and Monet? Did Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

What allows some people to leave us better off than we would have been without them? Those who do that sort of work are, invariably, un-secretive, and the infinite variety of the forms their actions (art) take suggests that there is something very un-formulaic at the root of their work. The root of whatever it takes to do something good outside the art world might be the same as within it.

Our ego lives behind our eyes and the world pumps it up to blind us. Our bitter disillusionment (those lines of Macbeth’s) steals upon us concealed behind the blind of illusions created for us, within our ego, behind our eyes.

A beautiful painting is never simple. It’s never just some canvas with colours on it, never just the image, what it may or may not symbolize, never just an artist’s diary or an artist’s taste and opinions, and never just a reflection of the artist’s culture either. We all tend to be distracted by the specifics of our lives, our passions, etc. Socrates is supposed to have said the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothingAnd Einstein once said there are only two ways to look at the world. Either nothing is a miracle or everything is a miracle.

I need to use the word truth. Like the word God, it is a metaphor. I don’t think you can say God without imagining something like lord or father, something understandable. But if you use metaphor it moves mystery in the direction of non-mystery, and you undermine the significance, you undermine the psychic weight of mystery. You undermine the useful purpose of the word.

The thing about being human that makes me need to use the word truth is the hardest thing to put into words and the thing that if I could put it into words, might be the best use I could ever make of words. I am. I know I am because I experience. I know something else exists because I experience it. It’s a circular knowledge. There is no proving anything about myself, no proving anything about what I experience. One defines the other. There is no going outside that circle to see what’s outside it or to look back and see what that I really is, or what experience really is. It’s not even worth saying I know I experience as I can’t define either of the words I or experience other than in terms of the other. All our acts are acts of faith. Lived experience is normally so consistent it allows for a deep faith in nature and science, but as the Buddhists say, all is illusion.

I could ignore Socrates’ or Buddhist wisdom. I could ignore Keats’ revelation (my own) and call what happens within that circle knowledge. But it would be the first selfish act, the first subjective act that sanctions all subsequent selfish acts. It would be the end of wisdom. It would be the end of loving truth. It would be the end of true love. It would be the beginning of cowboys-and-indians. It would be the beginning of the presumption of knowledge and the sanctioning of all acts of relative good. It would be the end of goodness and love. It would be the end of beautiful action. It would be the end of beauty in my life. I wouldn’t paint anymore, or at least I hope I wouldn’t.

Truth is beauty is God. But I can only say that in the sense that I accept that all three words reflect an understanding that we really don’t know anything, that reason is limited. Beauty is mystical. It can’t be made un-mystical by social science or neuroscience (and yet it accepts those sciences). It accepts everything without judgment or fear or contempt. It isn’t fragile so requires no soldiers to protect it, nor rites to keep it holy.

We’re simply invited to fall on our knees. All our assorted lives and deaths lose all their gravity, they melt into air. We’re released from grasping, striving and collecting. Our fists are opened. We accept the ants on the kitchen counter, the dandelions in the lawn, our own nature, too. Poetry begins where separation between what’s solid and what’s mysterious melts away.

In Grace and Gravity, Simone Weil gives us an apt analogy. She describes a space normally filled up with our self, a space filled up with logic, reason, passion, intelligence and imagination. It’s only if we can remove our self from that space that there will be room for beauty or truth or God to arrive (she used the word grace). When we fill up the space again, there’s no longer any room for beauty. Reason and passion etc. are all manifestations of self love and they leave no room for beauty.

The mystical root of beauty and wisdom is in loving truth. Buddhist wisdom, Christian wisdom, and the wisdom of great art begin there. To love truth means knowing you know nothing. It means only accepting and accepting and accepting. It means being without agenda or prejudice. It means being without pride.

Egocentric taste is what is in the eye of the beholder. That’s not what I mean by beauty. I am not strictly speaking a religious man, but there’s no separation for me now between art and religion, painting and prayer, beauty and truth/God. If you consider aesthetics as philosophy of art, then for me aesthetics and ethics have merged.

View through the Studio Window, 2013, oil on canvas, 36 x 54 in., collection of the artist

View through the Studio Window, 2013, oil on canvas, 36 x 54 in., collection of the artist

I don’t know

A beautiful painting is not a representation of something you think is beautiful. If you see an image of an attractive and healthy young man or woman, or a sympathetic portrait of a beloved personality, a saint for instance, or an image of some idyllic setting, a place you’d like to be in, you have to be extremely wary. All of us involved in art have to make ourselves aware of the seductive power of imagery. What goes for art often fails to be more than expressions of taste or pandering to taste. Art very often fails to be more than seduction or manipulation.

You see, hear and taste, you feel beauty. How much do we miss though? Two people might be smiling at you, while one wishes you well and the other wishes you ill. Those smiles might look the same but they are different. It is a dangerous misconception that beauty is what something looks like. Beauty is what something is. Ugly, distorted, or plain things reveal themselves to be golden. Glittery things disappoint.

My struggle to come to terms with experience is the same as anyone else’s. We’re raised on illusions and comforted by them.  My moments of disillusionment were unpleasant and life changing. We’re all taught by experience (or should be) the danger of mistaking illusion for truth. Some people wear blinkers their whole lives, loving escapism. Some people get cynical and don intellectual armour. Some love truth.

An old commandment, “Thou shalt make no graven image”, doesn’t make much sense to us at first glance. But if we make images of God from imagination, in words or pictures, and then love those images, it is really ourselves that we love. We create God in our image. We get what we want. We enter the brothel of illustration.

This isn’t new, nor will it ever grow old. It is in establishing whatever relationship is possible with truth that we begin to be beautiful, that our actions begin to be beautiful and the results of our actions, the traces we leave in our wake begin to be beautiful. Without that relationship all form is normal, banal. Within that relationship any form is beautiful.

In the pursuits of science, philosophy, theology, art, and in our everyday lives, truth is beautiful. Artists are prone to getting distracted from this no less than others. When I was young I liked art class best. When it came time to choose a career all I wanted was to play for a living, as opposed to work, so I chose art. It wasn’t too long though before I realized the only worthwhile thing an artist can do is love truth. I believe it’s the same for any career. I wonder what it does to a person’s soul if his career is ugly (spin doctors, etc.). In loving truth, the apparent incompatibility between our pursuits, between science and religion for instance, disappears.

I’m not suggesting we forsake intelligence, but beauty is not a strictly intellectual pursuit. You don’t need to be Plato to be beautiful. Being smart can just as easily get in the way. Maybe you need to be smart to realize that or to be able to put it into words (maybe it’s stupid to try to put it into words). A beautiful intellectual argument would be one free of rhetoric in the sense of persuasion. The rhetoric of persuasion is banal. That banality is an invitation for realities much worse than simply banal. We are attracted to intelligence for its own sake, to rhetoric and sophistry. But is leaves no room for love of truth. The rhetoric of persuasion is dangerous. It’s a truly ugly idea that if you’re better at persuasion than anyone else in the room, you win and truth is yours. Intelligence is for safe guarding ourselves against cleverness, distinguishing the difference between truth and rhetoric.

View from Jenn's House, 2007, oil on board, 28 x 31 in., private collection

View from Jenn’s House, 2007, oil on board, 28 x 31 in., private collection

Elements of art

We can’t talk about art without talking about form. Art always takes a form, but the form that art takes isn’t what matters in art. The derogatory term academic art is reserved for art where form matters too much. It matters too much if you’re searching for new forms just as much as if you’re trying to conserve old forms. There is something more crucial than innovation. The painters Manet and Picasso are famous for breaking old forms and inventing new ones. That’s the orthodox story of western art. Really though they are famous because they are good, just like Van Gogh. Rembrandt was no breaker of form. All four of them are good in that they take form out of the precinct of words. Those who find refuge in form, the progressive and conservative alike never escape history, never escape their own time. Oscar Wilde asks us to be kind to fashion because it dies so young. I can’t muster much sympathy.

Manet’s contemporaries were offended by his lack of respect for what they considered to be the serious concerns of art. Things don’t change much. We get so caught up in our moment. Manet’s early paintings were designed as signposts, as if to say, “If you want to understand what I’m doing, just look at Velazquez (for example).” Manet’s painting, far from merely being a precursor to the triumphant art that followed, actually makes most subsequent painting look like window dressing and doodles, just as it made most of the painting of his contemporaries look like huge bags of brownish wind.

Sometimes when a person associates himself with the word realism it is meant to reveal their desire to dismantle false hierarchies. It is meant to express a willingness to accept all that is seen even though it may undermine the romantic/idealist notion that we are individually or collectively somehow the figurative center of the universe. It is meant as an acceptance of the fact that we are not the purpose or goal of existence. There have been many painters willing to put us in our place but none who have done it with such gentle humour, intelligence and kind sympathy as Manet.

Manet understood as well as anyone the potential of looking at something and painting a picture of it. He was reported to have said that a painter can say all he needs to say with fruit or flowers or even clouds. We can be moved generation after generation by paintings of nothing in particular, a glass of water, an empty field…by music without words. Manet’s perfect advice to artists: “If it’s there, it’s there. If not, start over.”

Chardin painted a picture of a brioche. He said you use colours but you paint with feeling. There’s a long list of great painters who looked at things and painted pictures of them, a long list of great paintings done that way. If sophistication prevents anyone from doing it today, there’s something wrong with sophistication. Van Gogh stuck candles to his hat so that he could see what he was doing when he painted outside at night. The French artist Marcel Duchamp called that stupid painting. The question of futility is empty. We are and so we do things. We can draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa or we can paint The Night Café, one or the other. The sublime and the ridiculous are Siamese twins. It’s a bit of good fortune if you don’t mind looking ridiculous.

We can’t talk about art without talking about media. There are practical advantages and disadvantages with respect to each medium, degrees of suppleness, degrees of ease of dissemination, etc. Ultimately though, we are the message. It is ourselves who are being delivered. We must tend to ourselves first. Our instinctual egoism is embodied in any new form and delivered by any new medium as naturally as in and by the old ones. That the delivery is increasingly more efficient is no great comfort.

A new medium is not necessarily a better medium. As a medium or technology becomes more complex, McLuhan’s observation that “the medium is the message” becomes truer. Love and empathy disappear within the complexity. We need to be careful that the increasingly complex media we adopt don’t cause this we that’s being delivered to become we-the-machine.

Painting most likely persists as a medium because of its infinite suppleness. It always bends to the force of the person who paints and makes it impossible for that person to hide. Anything that is good about them is plain to see. It’s almost as simple and obvious as singing or dancing. Less machine means less machine. It’s for those who love a person.

Hummel Figurine, 2011, oil on canvas, 56 x 57 in., private collection

Hummel Figurine, 2011, oil on canvas, 56 x 57 in., private collection

We can’t talk about art without talking about content (or substance). The word content is an acceptable word to stand for what matters in art. Whenever something gets formed (by humans or otherwise) all the causes, the obvious and the mysterious, of its being formed are contained within it. Content might be a word that denotes the limits of our understanding of what is there in the form, the limits of our ability to read it, to perceive it, as in, content is what I see, or content is what I know. Content might also be a word to denote all that is contained in form, independent of our ability to perceive it. When we form something we could define content as what we meant by forming it, or we could define content as what we are, as the force that determines the form. We don’t know what we are. We say intellectual content without knowing exactly what a thought is, what consciousness is.

If it’s true that the universe is in a grain of sand, that the content of a grain of sand is the universe, what then distinguishes a beautiful man-made form from a plain or ugly one, or nature from art? If content is what matters, what is the content in Bach’s form that distinguishes it from all other form in his time or before or since? What constitutes its value to us, if all sound, every sound, any sound holds truth in it? I would say that art is a human affair. A communion occurs. The origins of Bach’s music are mysterious. Bach willingly collects us within this mystery. It’s a kindness, a generosity on his part. When the sun shines, or the rain falls, or the volcano erupts, we can’t be sure it’s a kindness. A grain of sand isn’t kind.

We seek knowledge. We seem to be offered it but beauty takes it away again. We are stripped of the urge to be assertive. Maybe the beautiful thing about beauty is that no one knows how to do it, that no one ever has or ever will. We only know little pieces of a puzzle that keeps expanding in unimaginable dimensions beyond our potential and when we look again at that piece of the puzzle we thought we knew, that we so carefully and assuredly put in its place, it’s no longer what we knew it to be. I don’t know why Bach is so good. I don’t know how he so consistently avoids failing when it’s so easy to fail. I borrowed a Maria Callas CD from the library of her first recording when she was in her early twenties. The person who wrote the commentary for the CD ended with, “Listen to it on your knees.” It’s of crucial significance when one of us fails to fail.

There is a potential for art beyond metaphor. It would be better if people would understand that the value of art comes not from the nature of it being about something crucial and important, but from the nature of it actually being something crucial and important. Its value is not as illustration or documentation or story or metaphor, but as the embodiment of what is valuable. Imagery and symbols come naturally to painting which makes it particularly susceptible to this perceived limitation. 20th century painters abandoned the image to declare an understood kinship to music’s intrinsic abstract qualities. The same is true in modern dance and literature when they abandoned plot. There are no formal safeguards against failing to be beautiful, no formulas, but one understands the motivation.

I’m beginning to get angry at images. They seem to have an innate tyranny to mislead. When you see, when you feel with your eyes it happens in colour patches, in light and dark shapes. We respond to it in all the ways we respond to it ever since we’ve been human, by backing away, by approaching, in fear, in wonderment. But culture turns images into symbols that have meaning. The tyranny of the image is that it distractw one from realizing that the paintings aren’t symbols first, they are art first. They are embodiments of the painter, hopefully embodiments of feeling. For every painter who feels as Rembrandt feels, there are 100,000 painters whose symbols are the same as Rembrandt’s. For every painter who feels as Tom Thomson feels (in his plein-air sketches), there are 100000 painters whose symbols are the same as Thomson’s. This is the tyranny of the image.

Vegetable Garden and Phlox, 2010, oil on board, 26 x 26 in., private collection

Vegetable Garden and Phlox, 2010, oil on board, 26 x 26 in., private collection

Critical thinking

My best paintings were done by putting dark paint where it looked darkish, light paint where it looked lightish, like some glorified, faulty camera with two eyes instead of one and self-awareness instead of none. Cézanne said of Monet that he was “only an eyeyet what an eye!” I love Monet’s late paintings of the Japanese footbridge, when his eyes were ruined by cataracts and the operations to fix them.

I want so much to trust somebody. All I have is my eyes, ears and time to find out who I can trust, to discriminate between who might care and who might be looking out for themselves first. I think much of what is admired in the world is admired for being great examples of people overpowering other people. It’s taken it as a license to do the same. Hell is other people.

I’m searching for something and am compelled to walk away when it doesn’t appear to be present. If I can separate the good from the not so good, the difference between them becomes much clearer. The success of this phenomenon might be why there are long line-ups to get into the Musée D’Orsay every day.

There is an idea in vogue right now of artist as critical thinker. There is a relationship between art and philosophy, but they aren’t identical. Matisse said if you decide to be a painter you must cut out your tongue, you give up the right to express yourself by any means other than painting. He didn’t cut out his tongue though, and his art didn’t suffer. It’s good to hear it from the horse’s mouth. It would be even better if the horse could be as articulate as the horse experts. One tries.

Marcel Duchamp was a competent painter with interesting ideas. He stopped painting. He eventually ended his involvement with the art world altogether. He probably noticed the difference. Faithless action is impossible for a sincere person to sustain. Dadaism as it is manifested in his art—great art by function of its influence on later artists—reflects a strange cynicism with respect to the possibility of a person doing anything beautiful. Goodness saves each one of us at every turn. Disillusionment is with ideology. To abandon the cynicism that accompanies disillusionment means abandoning ideology. Icons are ideas. Marcel Duchamp has become an icon of iconoclasm. He’s his own mistake. When you destroy something, unless you arrange otherwise, the vacuum will be filled up again with normal things.

You can’t make anti-art. If you make it, it’s art. If you persist after realizing that, then you kind of need to accept that you’re the type of person who likes a joke at another’s expense. Duchamp kept attempting to present an art without value, anti-art, suggesting that the value we place on art is false. Every time he made something though, he realized he failed. The thing became art. By having been done, it inevitably participated in the phenomenon that is art and was valued as such. He realized that the only way this wouldn’t happen was if a thing remained un-done, un-made, that the idea remained unrealized. An unrealized idea, though, isn’t anti-art, but rather the absence of art.

The term conceptual art is a classic oxymoron. Conceptualism was still born. Art-as-idea has evolved from an absurdity to a concept of art reduced once again to illustration and documentation. Research, the collection of facts, has replaced perception, replaced feeling. Duchamp’s cynical act of pointing at a urinal and calling it art has spawned the current fashion of pointing. The art in this situation is not what is pointed at but rather the act of pointing and the implicit declaration. It is more vapid than the more traditional and self-centered pointing at yourself, drawing attention to yourself when you have nothing to offer, no beautiful intentions.

Duchamp was the first artist to gain a history book kind of success because he had nothing good to offer. The root of his powerful influence on today’s art world lies in the hope he gives to so many artists with ambitions for a similar kind of success, who, despite reasonable intelligence, like Duchamp have nothing good to offer. It is a telling fact to consider that some of the greatest paintings ever made were painted by Monet with his coke-bottle glasses in his garden in Giverny years after Duchamp pointed at a urinal. The history of what matters is more like a pulse than a march.

It’s in the nature of institutions to be conservative. Institutions must hold on to the ideas of themselves to exist. As we are in the era of art-as-idea, there is institutionalized sanctioning of cleverness within the contemporary art world that looks suspiciously like the 19th century Academy. It’s what happens when ideas replace feeling. There is a work of conceptual art that consist of a panel that has the words on it (in French) “Art is useless. Go home.” Without beauty, without feeling this is more or less true.

All artists, great and small, make things that aren’t beautiful. Sometimes some of them make things that are. A thing shouldn’t be held sacred just because Leonardo painted it or Mozart composed it. We’re allowed to walk away from art, even great art, if we find we can’t trust it.

Making beautiful things is beyond me. If it was just a matter of sincerity or intelligence or skill the world would be full of beautiful art. If it happens for me I’m never sure where it came from, or why it happened. It has many of the characteristics of accident. I realize I’m not controlling things. Simone Weil talks about waiting for God. All I can do is wait and hope for the beautiful thing to happen.

There was hope the industrial and technological revolutions would give us the opportunity to become our best selves but we sit in cars at drive-thrus and in chairs staring at screens and allow the means to become the end, the medium to become the message. We never seem to be up to our dreams, our utopias. We always imagine things that need us to be better than we are: Camelot, Star Trek, socialism, democracy. Occasionally a person saves us though, for a while, by disappearing, by being disinterested, by being selfless.

Watermelon Rinds in a Bowl, 2012, oil on board, 19.75 x 20 in., collection of the artist

Watermelon Rinds in a Bowl, 2012, oil on board, 19.75 x 20 in., collection of the artist

I have my moments

William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, man would see everything as it is, infinite.”

As the best musicians listen, so the best painters look.

I’ve been trying to figure out the word tactile with an artist friend of mine. It’s one of those words, like beauty, used to denote something crucial in art but difficult to define. My daughter is a performance artist, a dancer. She uses the word presence in a way that I think might stand for a manifestation of the same crucial quality of art. When you stand in front of a painting, often you read the image as a few symbols and that’s all that’s there. You run into the end of the art quickly and moving up close to it or remaining with it for hours is fruitless. If a work is tactile, if a work has presence, you are rewarded by any kind of closeness.

When artists look, when that word means something, they can’t avoid seeing themselves there, present in their art action. Our undeniable and mysterious presence is inseparable from our experience (what we’re seeing when we’re painting) and our action (painting). It is one thing and it is the connection. As E.M. Forster said, “Only connect.” The eternal and universal miracle of realness is what connects us. When I paint a picture, if I’m looking, I am the man in the cave scratching on the wall. I see myself living and already being gone.

When I started out as a painter I emulated my heroes in a superficial way. Eventually I realized their paintings all had something in common that couldn’t be attributed to style or technique. The mechanics of painting never change much. We all use our hands and eyes and some painting supplies. Most artists are happy to share their methods. My method is pretty simple. I put green or red where I see green or red, dark or light where I see dark or light and make lots of corrections as I go. The results are predictably ordinary much of the time. The alchemy that occasionally happens has something to do with looking and feeling. Occasionally an image results that wasn’t imagined. A painting becomes that mysterious truth that is infinitely close and at an infinite distance.

Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso, and Lucien Freud all lived in the era of the photograph. The unimagined image is, as are we, embedded in a miracle.

What it feels like when I’m painting is that I’ve gotten into a very small boat by myself and pushed off land out into a vast ocean where there are no fixed points to navigate by and everything’s constantly changing. I’m searching for an island in the middle of that ocean where there’s a spring with regenerative waters. It is only by being quiet that I can see and feel the subtle signs, the quality of the air and light, the push of the currents on the boat in order to sense where the island lies. The clumsiness of a large boat and the distraction of ideas would blind me. I wouldn’t be able to find the island.

I very often fail to find it anyways and return with nothing more than a documentation of facts I encountered on the way (stupid paintings). I can’t take anyone with me and I can only bring a small amount of water back. The only proof that island exists is the water I taste and bring back for others to taste. The water does what it does for those it works on. My responsibility is just to get into the boat and push off away from land and try to be quiet.

But for the water on that island I’d have no reason to get into the boat. I get to taste it too. All I know is how I am different as a result. Once you’ve made a good painting, a beautiful painting you’re driven to do it again. All arguments against beauty carry no weight against experience of it.

My most recent good painting happened this way. I was fearless, which isn’t normal. Usually I’m lucky if I become fearless along the way. Maybe I was fearless because I began by destroying a painting I’d been struggling with for years. I scraped and sanded something mediocre. I had no clue what the new painting would end up being. I didn’t think much about composition, the kinds of marks that I’d make, or the image that would result. I set the easel up facing a window I’ve painted countless times, something handy, and then the painting just sort of fell on to the canvas. I was in a wonderfully submissive state of acceptance of everything. I felt weightless. The ultimate form the painting would take wasn’t my concern. It felt like everything that I did, or might do, would be OK. There were no weighty decisions that were mine to make.

The Oxford dictionary defines grace as (in Christian belief) the unmerited favour of God; a divine saving and strengthening influence. It defines nirvana as perfect bliss and release from karma, attained by the extinction of individuality.

I don’t like to talk about technique. I feel like it would be misleading to talk about technique after realizing that I can make something beautiful with just a fat charcoal stick on a plain piece of paper. Though inferior tools and materials and clumsy and inefficient technique can frustrate an attempt, ultimately we can’t be saved by what colours we have on our palette or what brushes we use.

I have a number of techniques in my bag of tricks, all of them impatient. There are many painting techniques I don’t know, the patient and careful ones. Sometimes I find myself hopping from one technique to another in a short space of time during one painting session. I do that, not because I’m searching for the right one for that particular situation but because I’m trying to trigger the escape from technique. Things aren’t going well. I’m mired in knowledge and I want to get out.

In my bag of tricks there’s only one that matters. It’s not a secret and it’s supremely simple. Stop looking for your voice. Stop trying to distinguish yourself. Give up.

View from Everetts, 2011, oil on board, 12.75 x 21 in. private collection

View from Everetts, 2011, oil on board, 12.75 x 21 in., private collection

It’s simple

There is no substitute for feeling in art. Logic, reason, passion, intelligence, imagination, skill, maybe even what we call talent, are all realities of self. There is no beauty without their surrender. Feeling may not be all that’s required to be an artist, but it’s all that required to be beautiful. If you want art to be worth something, you need to know that it’s only beauty that saves the world, grace our reconciliation with gravity, love our relief from futility.

There’s a relationship between creation and destruction and a point at which the two seem to become one. Or perhaps neither exists except as different perspectives on change. In the fearless state of art, things are constantly being “created” and “destroyed,” constantly changing. Sometimes very good art will be perceived as irreverent and destructive, punk. It wasn’t their intention, but Manet and Van Gogh probably seemed like punks at the time. We trust them now. How do you distinguish between the good people and bad people when both ignore the laws? The question can make a conservative soul feel uncomfortable, mistrustful, angry and at sea. Beauty is found in realizing that we’ve never been anywhere other than at sea.

Great creators realize they are merely instruments. We place them on a pedestals and aspire to be there ourselves. Leonard Cohen once said something to the effect that he didn’t write his songs but he’s really glad we think he did. What’s rare is the understanding that none of us are creators. There are countless artists with Rembrandt’s or Manet’s skill but the skill is almost always wasted on inventions and opinion, on presumptions of knowledge. We’re all guilty of such waste. Rembrandt often was. Rubens was especially.

Their ability to find detachment for short periods of time doesn’t make saints of my painting heroes. Humans are clever, aggressive, territorial animals and are driven for the most part by biochemistry and overpowering social and survival instincts. Selfless detachment is difficult to maintain in the everyday world. I feel like I get to take little vacations from myself. Tolstoy said, “The one thing necessary, in life as in art, is to tell the truth.” In life, though we’re all aware of the risks of telling the truth.

The art history books are filled with art that flatters our species, magnificent follies, conceits of the intellect and imagination…pyramids and urinals, but there is no better reason for making art than being able to do for people what beauty does for people. On a number of occasions I’ve ended up weeping at the experience of beauty. I ask myself why I’m crying. It seems to be from some deep and unexpected sense of relief. I feel delivered from banality, from the sense that no-one cares, or from the sense that people’s concerns are exclusively worldly. It ends some kind of loneliness. It is redemption from narrowness and subjectivity.

Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice is a cautionary tale about confusing two types of beauty. At the end of the story he points us in the right direction. Attractiveness-type beauty leaves one with an ache to possess the object, the form. Truth-type beauty is only ever joyful. Whoever owns the object or form is irrelevant as beauty is not the form itself but what is manifested in it. In the experience of beauty, it is yours. It takes possession of you, it breaks your armour, and you expand into it. You participate in the artist’s expansiveness. It is unrestrictedly generous.

I want to do this, I want to make beautiful paintings, but I realize you can’t get there from here. You can’t try and make one. Striving to be great doesn’t help. You just need to do your job and hope for the best. Sometimes, strangely enough in telling yourself you’re going to make a bad work on purpose you can trick yourself into avoiding pretentiousness. The best thing an artist can be is nothing in particular; the best thing an artist can do is disappear. What’s left is infinite.

There’s a category in the thesaurus: artlessness. Under it you find ingenuousness, simpleness, naivety, innocence, unguardedness, unpretentiousness, sincerity, trustfullness, openness… reminds me of that lovely Shaker song.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Prospero the usurped Duke/magician has, in his daughter, one gift to bestow. This gift is “plain and holy innocence”. Prospero’s one great fear is that this gift won’t be received with respect. It is a gift that when respected “will outstrip all praise”, a gift that if held at an impossible distance by disrespect will issue nothing but “barren hate, sour-eyed disdain and discord”. Plain and holy innocence is the sine qua non of good art. With The Tempest Shakespeare passes the torch, and includes instructions.

Though we often reject critics and scholars as popes of culture, they often do what they do out of love and they’ve likely seen things we haven’t yet. But to love something does not necessarily mean you have insight into what makes it possible. Northrop Frye seemed to think that what enabled great art and made it special and valuable was what he called imagination. He also confessed to being unable to write a work of fiction.

I think most people assume that a work of art is a product of imagination, that Bach and Shakespeare had great imaginations. This idea implies that the work of art is generated within. Imagination is but a useful tool. But there’s a force to which it must surrender. It can provide situations but must surrender those situations to the infinite which the imagination can never be. Imagination gives us pictures of where we want to be, mythological gardens, things to strive for. We’re never up to our progressive ideas, our dreams. Everywhere we go, there we are. Without beauty life is nasty, brutish and probably too long.

I’ve condemned imagination’s role in the search for beauty. Perhaps others have a broader understanding of the word. Perhaps I should use the word fancy. Yet the root of imagination is the word image. It’s what our minds are limited to. Cézanne said, “I should like to astonish Paris with an apple.” As with Chardin’s and Manet’s, his paintings of apples continue to be astonishing. It doesn’t take much imagination to put an apple in front of you and paint a picture if it. Simone Weill wrote in Gravity and Grace, “The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.”

We need to acknowledge that our understanding is limited, yet our condition is a consciousness of limitlessness. In loving truth we have to accept paradox. If you acknowledge that agenda, prejudice, preconception and conceit are facts of life and therefore facts of art and then decide that your conceit is an art without agenda, prejudice, preconception and conceit, that’s quite the paradox…sophisticated innocence. No wonder it’s so normal to fail.

Apples in Glass Bowl, 2008,  oil on canvas, 43 x 56 in., private collection

Apples in Glass Bowl, 2008, oil on canvas, 43 x 56 in., private collection

All you need is love

We’re proud of artists like Picasso. Some are even proud of people like Napoleon, all that strutting and fretting we do. The history of humans is the history of the failure of ideas. In studying history we hear the haunting refrain “never again,” “never again,” “never again.” The critical stance we adopt with respect to what we perceive as wrong is born of the conceit that we know better, the same conceit that gets us in to trouble in the first place.

The ambition to be beautiful is really an anti-ambition. It is the ambition to de-create the self, using Simone Weil’s expression.

In his play Antigone, Sophocles warns us to beware of hubris and to always hold the gods in awe. John Keats tells us in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” all we need to know on earth is that beauty is truth. The hardest thing an artist can do, the hardest thing a person can do, is act without self-interest. Once you have come to know that beauty is truth, you realize that any step away from beauty is the greatest danger we face. Perhaps this is what Dostoevsky meant when he said that beauty saves the world.

The last lines of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch describe the selfless character Dorothea:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

The absence of beauty in a person is the root of callous indifference. The presence of beauty is the proof of love. The presence of it in what we’ve done is the great value of art.

Nobody can be good all the time, but if I can be good while I’m painting, at least that’s something, a few shining moments.

 —Stephen May


Stephen May’s canvases have been collected by prestigious corporate and private collectors for over three decades and are included in the public collections of the Canada Council Art Bank, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the New Brunswick Museum, the New Brunswick Art Bank, the University of New Brunswick, l’Université de Moncton, the New Brunswick Department of Supply and Services and the Department of External Affairs. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery presented a solo exhibition of May’s work entitled Embodiments in 2006 and the following year he won the Miller Brittain Award for Excellence in Visual Art. May graduated from the fine arts program of Mount Allison University in 1983.  He lives in Fredericton.

Nov 152013


The Combover pic 

The Combover
Adrián N. Bravi, translated by Richard Dixon
Frisch & Co.
137 pages, (eBook) $7.49
ISBN 978-0-9891267-4-8

Adrián Bravi insists you look over your shoulder and squint until your eyes bleed. His most recent novel, The Combover, originally published in Italian as Il riporto (2011), is a swamp—its narrative at once as rich, as eldritch, as pedestrian and unspectacular—whose subtle, insidious suck will have you half-metabolized before you recognize it for what it is. Its gutters, its digressions, are quick, bright black, flaring, and, like a mix of flies and charading fireflies clustering over a corpse, if not easily missed, then perhaps too easily dis-missed: They are the crux of this work’s mesmerism, mechanism and generosity.

In The Combover, a compromised hairdo is enough to catalyze damnation. The work is ironic, hyperbolic, and asymptotic in its reach for the absurd. In fact, several of Bravi’s protagonists have a knack for fixating on minutiae, for blowing what most would consider inconsequential out of proportion, for getting hung up, in fact, emotionally strung up, on bagatelles. In La Pelusa (2007), a librarian’s unremitting perseveration on the dust that accosts his library lays the ground—or the patina—for all-out psychic chaos; in Restituiscimi il cappotto (2004), a would-be suicide begrudgingly defers his departure because someone—how audacious?—has borrowed his coat, thereby spoiling everything. Arduino Gherarducci, The Combover’s bitter, neurotic anti-hero, exhibits a logic that is sometimes equally difficult to sympathize with and understand.

In the character of Arduino, Bravi mobilizes a psychic world premised on complicated forms of hostility, dissatisfaction, loneliness, and pent-up rage, a world which, for all that, remains fixed on hair: on ‘lack of hair’ and ‘styles of lacking hair’ as moral categories, and on the fact that Arduino’s preferred style of lacking hair, a comb-over, has been skewed: One of Arduino’s side-burned-yet-serious students approaches him inexplicably one day during a lecture (Arduino is an expert on bibliographic data-exchange formats), and, with a gesture exuding both grace and necessity, exposes his pate. A prank? Or perhaps—as Arduino thinks, toting about Spinoza’s Ethics, pursuing his own half-baked, deliriously caustic line of reasoning—this student came into being for the exclusive purpose of bringing him to shame. The text leaves the imagined impetus for the act as ambiguous and incomprehensible as Arduino’s response to it: fugue. He quits civilization. Intending to make it to Lapland, he finds himself instead in northern Italy, dwelling in a cave.

Though he believes he is removing himself from a world of potential hair-rufflers, Arduino is in fact only exchanging one set of hair rufflers for another, for the wilderness, with its winds, rains and branches, is itself an antagonist, and, beyond this, its woods are teeming with ‘the sick and infirm’: a band of elderly and other aspiring convalescents who flock to the anchorite Arduino, much to his snowballing chagrin and horror. They bring jams and lasagna, tribute in the form of munitions; they perform, as Arduino cowers, cornered, a paradoxical form of apotheosis, executing ritual violations (stroking his head from back to front) so as to better exploit his comb-over, which, is (treacherously, he thinks) curative.

Arduino’s exploitation reaches nearly corporate extremes: he is buffeted about like an inadvertent pop-sensation: The old, cloyingly virtuous, formerly ailing Giuseppina takes it upon herself to manage his client-base and make his schedule, all the while in the vexing, metaphysical thick of Bravi’s wilderness, home of the red roe-buck, entwined snakes, locus of apparitions, staged evasions and disembodiments, Arduino cedes to the idea that he might learn to live “without getting too fucked up about [his] hair and those [data] formats.” That or else, spurred by his burgeoning hatred for the sick and infirm, might end up adding circles to a Dante-esque hell.

There are many caves in this story: wells imbued with spectral, melancholy voices, empty, naked centers, glabrous, or glabrating heads. It is clear that, within Arduino’s male-centric reality, baldness is a state laden with significance: it is a wound, a void: “every man in the world has a bald patch hidden within him”; it is, like the more explicit skull, a memento mori: bald men “reconstruct on [their] scalps the landscape which all men, sooner or later, will see snatched from them.” Arduino casts his combover with an additional moral valence as well: it is a way of being honest, a way of emphasizing by concealing baldness and thus implies that he is far more virtuous than the deplorable ‘shorn head,’ Costantino Toldini, who, by shaving his scalp conceals the fact of what it lacks naturally. Arduino’s comb-over is, additionally, a way of situating himself with respect to his paternal line, a homage to his deceased father (his best friend and the subsequent hub the novel’s nostalgic lucubrations), and a defiant, even proud recapitulation of his father’s suffering: he, too, was tormented because bald.

The father’s suffering is only alluded to, and, like Arduino’s suffering, which, in the game of show versus tell, is stated more than textured, lends itself to allegorical reading. Perhaps because of the seemingly trifling nature of its purported source (baldness), and because of the strange mesh Bravi has managed to confect with the text, using strands of humour which are variously light, ironic, wicked and dark, it becomes possible to reconfigure baldness and whatever social ridicule is directed towards it as viable stand-ins for deeper sources of anxiety, or for alienation itself. The various meanings with which Arduino invests baldness and comb-overs put him at odds with the social world: The text’s ‘barber’, its ‘janitor,’ its ‘barroom habitué,’ each of these characters is simply a version of the Joe Schmo who would insist, over and against Arduino, that he would look good shaved.

These characters place him in the same position as any person consciously practicing a ‘style’ (construed broadly) against the norms of the day: Arduino sees the outside world as “a constant series of traps”; he feels that he has spent a lifetime locked in a fight against those who would invalidate his enterprise, a lifetime like his father, sheltering his comb-over, dueling with metaphorical winds. These winds, in turn: the barber, the janitor, even Arduino’s wife, encounter him with blank bemusement: they cannot digest him. Arduino has clearly, though, to some extent internalized the social pressures that afflict him: he feels real shame when his comb-over is lifted, despite the fact that he is proud it emphasizes his baldness by concealing it, and despite the fact that a lifted comb-over would presumably be even more effective in accomplishing this emphasis.

Arduino’s obsession with his hair floats on the rest of his conscious experience like a cataract, shifting around, sometimes allowing a reality beyond what we are given access to (despite the fact that the work is written in the first person) to come into sight, though more often occluding it. His seizures, his nightmares, his depressed wife, his marital troubles, a lingering memory of a father warped by filial brutality (by Arduino’s brother, the bully), these are never dwelt on as extensively as the comb-over issue, unless they are auxiliary to it; instead they pepper his ruminations as a series of asides. As a result, the book has a kind of writhing unconscious, a peripheral vision that sees in colour as Arduino’s mind strays to his past (distant and recent), often alighting on its most violent or lugubrious details:

We lived in a first floor apartment close to the main square in Recanati. Below it was a take-away shop that gave out a terrible stink of grilled meat. The owner was a man who smoked a cigar that he always kept in one corner of his mouth. He roasted pork by the shovelful, and as time passed, he began to develop pig-like features, as if the spirit of the pig had left its body just as he was putting its flesh on the grill and had gone and attached itself to the first bastard it happened to come across…I couldn’t open the window without breathing in a stink of putrefaction.

These digressions lend an emotional depth to the novel that would otherwise be lacking. If Arduino’s physical and other outbursts at times seem mysterious, or seem insufficiently motivated, it is at least possible to suspect that there are valid causes for his rage strewn about the novel’s obstructed depths. After a seemingly benign phone call devolves into a cruel attack on his wife—really just a misdirected attack on his mother-in-law, who has, apparently outrageously, borrowed a book—Arduino states: “I don’t know what she said in reply. Once I’d put the phone down I felt much relieved. There was not much else I could say. If she couldn’t understand, it was hardly her fault.”

The cataract hovering over the text as Arduino streamlines his vision toward matters of hair places a reader of his overreactions in essentially the same position as his wife. For some readers at least, desire (wanting to know the ‘why’ of an outburst) and pleasure (wanting an answer to exist, but not wanting it: in truth wanting only the sense of textual depth that is its insinuated existence) might issue from the confusion.

Arduino’s escape from civilization, combined with his repeated insistence that one cause leads to another, that his student could have done nothing other than humiliate him, and that escaping civilization is his only viable response to humiliation, makes The Combover a variation on themes in Bravi’s earlier work, namely ‘displacement’ and ‘determinism’ as nested concerns. ‘Displacement’—specifically in the form of expatriation—has a privileged place in Bravi’s imaginary, perhaps because the native Argentinian has opted to base himself in Italy, and perhaps because he is one of those writers who chooses to move, always with incomplete comfort, between linguistic bases as well (he works in Spanish and Italian). ‘Determinism,’ in his work, lurks forever behind the will, a nag that assumes various narrative forms in order to better harass it:

In Río Sauce, Bravi’s protagonist abandons his birthplace because it is besieged by flood-waters, an act that is both impelled and willed: the fact of the flood impels it, but some of his relatives remain behind, carrying on with their lives as much as possible (the need to leave, then, was never absolute). In The Combover, alternately, as Arduino makes his way north, he becomes increasingly callous, in spite of several moments that smack of redemption, that nearly insinuate he has a choice in the matter of his own becoming.

Redemption, in this book, is a tease. Cruelty is reality, and Arduino’s trajectory—the line that connects early Arduino, the hostile, but merely petulant melancholic, to Arduino, the crazed assaulter of later pages (oh yes, the mother-in-law gets it, but only because Arduino would like to prove himself a healer)—seems, perhaps because it is too baffling, too absurd to admit of alternative explanations, fated, inexorable.

It is difficult to put your finger on just what The Combover is. The work has one foot in what is not quite the banal and another in what is not quite the metaphysical. Some of its tropes seem drawn from a twisted fairy-tale, as when Arduino severs his pigtail-like comb-over with a hunting knife. It is funny. It is not slapstick. It seems to vacillate between darkness and a lightness which some readers might equate with superficiality and which still other readers might simply insist is aesthetically valid entertainment (‘Why should it all be grim and heartbreaking?’).

Bravi’s book is quizzical in the best sense of the word; its intrigue as a novel lies in its un-decidability: it is both light and grim. Its sheer neuroticism and darkness are sometimes masked by its humour, but if they are behind trees on your first read, they will surely trail you out of it, loop back, snarl, and stalk you brazenly in the second.

—Natalie Helberg


 Helberg reviewer pic

Natalie Helberg is from Edmonton, Alberta. Some of her experimental work has appeared on and in Canadian Literature. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph. She is working on a hybrid novel.