Nov 152015


Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist,
and nothing about his world is meant to be. — Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel and Grau, July 2o15
176 pages, $24.00


Ihave been pulled over by police twice, and during neither occasion was I afraid for my own safety. This minute fact of naïve privilege alone marks me as a person who thinks he or she is white—boilerplate borrowed by Ta-Nehisi Coates to describe those who plunder, or at least pursue the Dream, or at the very least do not have to waste costly energy on worrying about the physical sanctity of their body because of its skin color.

The celebrated Atlantic National Correspondent’s recent book Between the World and Me is an epistolary pseudo-memoir that strikes chords faster than they have time to reverberate. It is pamphlet-like in size and scope, poetic and lyrical at times, while delivering a series of theses to his teenage son Samori on how to grow into consciousness as an American black man.

Coates is wary of and disgusted by me, as well as anyone who thinks s/he is white, and also anyone who thinks slavery is merely an unfortunate legacy of a country’s rich history. Of those who are aware that the history of the United States is steeped in bloody injustice, many will write this fact off as analogous to any other empire’s national narrative. Ironically given the mythology, Coates makes the case that America really is exceptional—in how dependent was its nation-building on the backs of black bodies. Where Coates’ mesmerizing treatise strikes deepest is in his reminder that still today we live the legacy of slavery, that we build financial centers on unmarked black graves. Coates would no doubt agree that even the public embrace of his pseudo-memoir carries strands of paternalism. But he wrote this book anyway, no doubt aware of how it would be received. History rolls on—or pretends to; even as I write this I am exploiting Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Rather obviously, many reviewers have focused on Coates’ assertions that racism still exists today. When not in the crosshairs of police officers’ guns, young black men serve as cogs in the prison industrial complex[1] But to stop there is to have read superficially in both senses of the word. Coates delivers here a powerful book about race, but also a treatment of the universal challenges of growing up and raising a child.

His polemical memoir, brief but expansive, consists of three parts, embedding miniature essays within anecdotal scenes. Part I is the most didactic, offering at least four major arguments:

Thesis 1: “Your life is so very different from my own. The grandness of the world, the real world, the whole world, is a known thing for you.”

A very real generation gap exists between today’s young African-Americans and their forebears—Coates’ son can almost, occasionally, forget for a second his racial identity. His grandparents and parents could not:

“When I was about your age, each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not. […] I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things. […] I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.”

Thesis 2: “You still believe the injustice was Michael Brown. You have not yet grappled with your own myths and narratives and discovered the plunder everywhere around us.”

The generation gap is connected to the fact racism has become even more insidious, and schools are complicit in this. The schools vilify Malcolm X and praise nonviolent Freedom Riders, white folks whose consciences comfort those who feel the score has been settled.

One of the highlights of Between the World and Me is the provocative treatment of the U.S. public education system. It is impossible for a teacher or administrator to read Coates’ account and not feel something—ashamed, indignant, inspired, depressed.

One question I ask my students is which they think came first, race or racism. Sadly, much of the struggle for consciousness Coates describes is lost or nearly lost before children have reached the age at which they can distinguish between history and propaganda. “Race is the child of racism, not the father,” he states. This should no longer be controversial, yet it will ring hollow to so many who believe racism a mere wrong turn in the road of racial history.

All good educators should likely acknowledge the force of Coates’ incisive assessments of weak schools, and the powerlessness of earnest teachers: “It does not matter that the ‘intentions’ of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Learn to play defense—ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body. […] The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”

Part of the problem, Coates explains, is of course social—teaching French to a 7th grader is pointless if that student is worried about hunger. But Coates’ educators never bothered to present school as an intellectual experience, making it instead another test the like of which he encountered in the streets:

“Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later […] I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance. I loved a few of my teachers. But I cannot say that I truly believed any of them. […] Why—for us and only us—is the other side of free will and free spirits an assault upon our bodies? This is not a hyperbolic concern. When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”

Thesis 3: Privilege reeks no matter the color—the growth of the black middle class engenders a risk of poor blacks being forgotten. Samori’s generation must fight harder than ever to combat the mythologizing of slavery as a necessary evil in America’s history:

“The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. […] You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

Thesis 4: This third argument segues fluidly into a somewhat existentialist, somewhat Marxist section that employs universal language of exploitation, alienation, and struggle.

“What matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable. […] Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”

Despite the obvious connection between Coates’ language and Jean-Paul Sartre and Karl Marx, his primary influences are the thoughts and poetry of Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, W.E.B Dubois—who knew a thing or two about consciousness. And these writers come through not only in the politics but in the style of this book. Coates’ writing has a searing, poetic quality:

“I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. ‘Slavery’ is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved.”

The dangerous streets, Howard University and its eye-opening library, the immense cauldron of New York City, the attack on the Twin Towers, and a visit to Paris all feature in Coates’ evolving education. In France, Coates momentarily believes himself rid of his American burden. Of course, though, he realizes his experience of injustice is replicated elsewhere, across the globe. This last he connects to how the Dreamers’ plunder has contributed to global warming—which could not be more salient in a letter to the next generation.

And we never forget that this brief but broad book is also a letter to a son. Particularly touching are Coates’ descriptions of the women who furthered his self-education. He writes of a young Howard undergrad: “I grew up in a house drawn between love and fear. There was no room for softness. But this girl with the long dreads revealed something else—that love could be soft and understanding; that, soft or hard, love was an act of heroism.”

Part 2 and Part 3 flesh out the ideas and imagery of Part 1. Focusing more on police violence and the deadly shooting of Prince Jones, Coates connects the legacy of slavery to today’s dysfunctional body politic, one in which white and black bodies are not equal except in some (not all!) legal texts. Samori witnesses the horrific acquittal of Michael Brown’s killer, just as his father did the killer of Jones.

Coates’ deft image patterning helps structure the letter beyond his life’s chronology. Plunder and the Dream are the two most prominent. Plunder appears a dozen times, loaded with references to slavery and to capitalism. The Dream appears as a confluence of the classic “American Dream” and the dream/illusion/fantasy of those who “think they are white” (originally Baldwin’s phrase). Coates describes white suburbia, which some readers will confuse as purely an image of whiteness—it is actually an image of wealth, which rests on the backs of whiteness and blackness: “I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.” Coates uses the image of a “galaxy” to illustrate the distance, the chasm between the Dreamers and himself. With the shooting of Prince Jones he ties in the plunder, the Dream, and the policies that keep ghettos and the legacy of slavery alive even today:

There were children born into these same caged neighborhoods on the Westside, these ghettos, each of which was as planned as any subdivision. They are an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are, all again, plundered of our dignity, of our families, of our wealth, and of our lives. And there is no difference between the killing of Prince Jones and and the murders attending these killing fields because both are rooted in the assumed inhumanity of black people. A legacy of plunder, a network of laws and traditions, a heritage, a Dream, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in North Lawndale with frightening regularity. “Black-on-black crime” is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.


Earlier I bemoaned those whose reading of this as a “race relations” book is superficial. But the scariest thing about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ masterful Between the World and Me is the patronizing response from some reviewers, a frankly frightening response—that Coates is too mad, too unforgiving, and that he is somehow in the wrong when he paints all whites, all cops, all Dreamers, with the same brush. For crying out loud, the whole point of the book is that many cops, many Dreamers, continue to this day, subconsciously or not, to paint black bodies with the same brush.

These responses veer dangerously close to the implication that the reviewers see Coates as an “angry black man” whom the establishment will patronizingly compliment for his articulateness. Others write that Coates does not sufficiently acknowledge how far the country has come. They scold him for not proposing policy solutions. The book is full of and is itself a solution—a rejection of gerrymandering, of stop and frisk, of stereotyping disenfranchised black youth as somehow more dangerous than a white man with a gun. These reviewers reek of liberal white guilt being challenged. Deeply embedded in their critique is either a lack of understanding about how history works; an ignorance about how U.S. policies continue to ghettoize, threaten, and rob undereducated people of color; or a lack of self-awareness and racial consciousness.

By the end of the letter, Samori has changed slightly, from Coates’ son to his brother—from pupil to fellow combatant. Those who misunderstand or underestimate this powerful book should reread passages like the one in which the author redefines the struggle:

“We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.”


“Do not speak to me of martyrdom,
of men who die to be remembered
on some parish day.
I don’t believe in dying
though, I too shall die.
And violets like castanets
will echo me.
—Sonia Sanchez, quoted in Coates’ epigraph to Part 1

In a rare move, Random House pushed up the book’s publication from September to July after the June 17 shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, SC, allegedly by a young white idiot. I could not take my mind off the Charleston massacre even as we learned of the carnage meted out on Paris’ nighttime revelers this Friday, allegedly by young non-white idiots.

I was born in Suresnes, France and work at a French-American school. I have friends and family in Paris—my uncle works not too far from the Stade de France. Colleagues and students at the school I work for are mourning. As the profile pictures of my Internet friends turned blue, white, and red, I thought of Coates, Charleston, and Paris, and felt ashamed of such symbolism. The Internet giant’s employee who dreamed that one up will probably cash in a wonderful bonus. The plunderers’ flag flies on.

Of course I weep for France, but that is separate and private. What I weep for publicly is the blatant exploitation of ignorance, sentimentality, and/or privilege. Trying to make sense of human violence and suffering is probably pointless, but as I went to bed Friday night, I looked to Coates’ book and wondered what colors would have adorned the flag of those massacred in Charleston. There are no colors, no flags, to protect the world from itself.

—Tom Faure


Tom Take 4

Tom Faure received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Waxwing Literary JournalZocalo Public Square, and Splash of Red. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The U.S has the highest incarceration rate in the world 716 per 100,000 in 2013 [via Wikipedia]; in 2009 there were 2.1 million male inmates in the U.S. and 60% were black [via Wikipedia].
Nov 132015
Harper Lee

Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Sometimes, iconoclasts are far more valuable than the creaking icons they destroy. Harper Lee has done well to disillusion her readers—. — Jeremy Brunger


Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee
288 pages ($27.99)
ISBN: 978-0062409850


Early on in Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise, now grown into worldly womanhood since her juvenile escapades as Scout in Maycomb County, Alabama, is being chastised by her aunt Alexandra over her potential marriage partner and childhood sweetheart, Henry Lincoln. Alexandra, earlier glimpsed in the Pulitzer-winning To Kill a Mockingbird as the family bitch, says “We Finches do not marry the children of rednecked white trash, which is exactly what Henry’s parents were when they were born and were all their lives…You can’t call them anything better. The only reason Henry’s like he is now is because your father took him in hand when he was a boy, and because the war came along and paid for his education. Fine a boy as he is, the trash won’t wash out of him.” Atticus, Jean Louise’s lawyer father, is now crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, though he remains as spry as ever. Her brother, Jem, is dead of a bleeding heart. The most absurd thing in the world is always its people. Jean Louise is an image of the Southern version of The New Woman, several decades displaced from the Northeast’s Jazz Age cultural eruptions. Jean Louise prefers to reference Freud and the married men who take on psychiatrists’ couches instead of taking up mistresses, rather than referencing the Bible. The novel opens with an image of modernization: the black residents of Maycomb County finally have television antennae. But, alas, Maycombians are people who have never experienced the narcissistic injury of Charles Darwin’s biology, who think the “white trash” epithet was a meaningful term replete with the gravity undue to it, who reckon not the deep time of geology but the all-too-ephemeral time of family lineage. Time has caught up with Alabama’s most famous residents, who rank with Jesus, Harry Potter, and Karl Marx as the most recognized figures in the literature of the West.

The central tension in Harper Lee’s novel is the meshing of old with new, of experience with memory, of reality with romance. It isn’t badly written, either. The prose does not read like a first draft; but if it did, that fact would only solidify Lee’s reputation as a master writer of the Southern region. Images from old Southern culture—now largely displaced by standardized Hollywood and New York boilerplate, as with the rest of the country’s bygone eccentricities—constantly appear in the dialogue: the Israel of the prophets is as alive as ever, as is the concept of sin (though Jean Louise takes it in stride). The sum of human misery is measured in theology, not metrics. Shakespeare is coincident with the law. The metaphysical age has not yet dispersed into the Federal Materialism. Life has not yet succumbed to the utter cheapness of our twenty-first century, though its depth is built on the facade of social grace of people who have nothing better to do. One wonders, with a raised eyebrow, whether our time is better than their time; and no viable answer of worth can possibly be forthcoming. The clean churches of Maycomb strike most of us as strangely as the soothsaying, snake-handling pits of the Pentecost, as do the quiet rages of its people, who could probably name the Founding Fathers but not Jefferson’s slaves. Perhaps the exception to this time warp is Dr. Finch, Jean Louise’s uncle, who feels more at home in the Victorian era than in Maycomb’s. Because of his wide, nigh-insane learning—he is a racist of the books, while his brother is a racist of the heart—he defies the silly and sheer localness of the town’s prejudices and predilections toward the temporal and the mundane.

But Go Set a Watchman is not merely a novel of time and place. It is a time-paradoxical bildungsroman six decades in the making. Although it was written before Mockingbird, it is the proper sequel to that classic, since tragedy—and this is a tragic novel, for even the Finch family’s house formerly belonged to a “a renowned lady poisoner”—is the necessary consequence of human life, something which only fools manage to escape. Decay happens, as does disillusionment. No family is truly happy, because whatever binds families together is made of the stuff of pathology and myth, not mythology and pathos, though once synthesized they come to much the same thing. Lee writes with the slow verve of a woman who grew up in the same South she writes about, where the Christian doctrine of degradation pervades nearly everything. Now a New York woman, eminently modern, she comes back to Alabama to find that her roots are dirtier than she suspected, though she finds them more real than life in the big city. Having exchanged the soul of Israel for the soul of Athens, she finds the mire of Southern heritage burdensome: she cannot interact with her backwards family with the easy grace others manage (not that the tomboy Mr. Peck knew ever did), with the sole exception of her father Atticus, whose benevolent patriarchy remains intact. There is no music in Harper Lee’s novel, though its music is implied.

To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning…

So writes Eliot of St. Augustine, in The Wasteland, as he depicts the ancient trip from countryside to city center, which has so long underwritten the young person’s mental revolution. Augustine, too, came to the city from a backwater; but, unlike Jean Louise, he came to regret his praise of novelty and reverted to the intensity of his native religion. Jean Louise did no such thing. Of course, Atticus, like all of our parents, proved not to be the man she thought he was when she was growing up. He is just a country lawyer who at one time thought the human spirit was universally benign and who came to think so no longer. The Southern progressive family man, who defended the honor of Tom Robinson—to no avail, as Tom was shot to death—turns out to regret the integration of the black and white communities. At one point Jean Louise sees a “carload of Negroes” careening around a bend, and Henry Lincoln—the replacement of the father in her Oedipal series—remarks that they assert themselves because they finally have enough money to buy used cars and thus constitute a public menace. Of course, Jean Louise and Henry later go skinny-dipping in the heart of God’s country. Elsewhere, Lee references the repressed and the “Young Turk faction” of Maycomb’s Methodist church choir, no doubt slyly winking to a contemporary and left-wing audience. In other times and other parts of the country, the New Lights would have been received more gently; but not in the South, where social and official politics remained savage for far too long, despite such internal contradictions as liberal tendencies. When even the anti-dogmatic liberals are racists of the brightest stripes, one wonders how human society prospers.

The religious overtones of the Southern culture of Jean Louise’s childhood come out in full force with the concept of revival. Lee writes, during a flashback to Jean Louise’s days with Jem and Dill, that “revival time was a time of war: war on sin, Coca-Cola, picture shows, hunting on Sunday; war on the increasing tendency of young women to paint themselves and smoke in public; war on drinking whiskey—in this connection at least fifty children per summer went to the altar and swore they would not drink, smoke, or curse until they were twenty-one; war on something so nebulous Jean Louise never could figure out what it was, except there was nothing to swear concerning it; and war among the town’s ladies over who could set the best table for the evangelist.” This is small-town religion, divided among “Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian” congregations, not unlike today’s right-wing support for spiritual warfare. So goes a passage about a church briefing:

From the time of Jean Louise’s earliest ecclesiastical recollection, Maycomb had sung the Doxology in one way and in one way only: Praise—God—from—whom—all—blessings—flow.

Coca-Cola—metonymic for the psychotic churning of pan-regional capitalism—was on par with the demons as sex was, and perhaps more destructive, since the churches could condone the one under certain conditions. Atheism was not the exercise in humanism it is today; it was the locus of “disrespectful quarters,” presumably the whores, drunks, and tax-cheats of the town, who did not uphold the civic mythology of little Maycomb. Lee inserts a sly reference to the counting of angels on pinheads in this scene, painting the Baptist Reverend Moorehead as a pedant more concerned with philologic accuracy than a social message: “the wages of sin is death or the wages of sin are death?” This bores the children, of course, because Christianity was not concocted for disputation, but for the veiled utility of social control; its worth could never be boiled down to the job security of argumentative pastors from the northern parts of Georgia or from below the line of Dixie. It does not matter that medieval theologians never actually worried about angels on pinheads, since the wages of sin themselves proved ethereal. Success, as it has always been, was a result of accident, connection, and talent, not a matter of human goodness. Corruption was already rampant even in the decent households of Maycomb. Judgment, vicious classism and racism, and God-bothering were already the chief specters haunting these parts. Jem and Jean Louise are one-parent children (Dill, the doppleganger of Truman Capote and later an Army ensign, is a no-parent child)—the fact of which makes even Atticus shed a tear, a fact with which we are now quite familiar—whose religion pales in comparison to their need for security. Much as how Tom Robinson, a Christian man par excellence, would die at the hands of no-account racists, the deliverance unto justice would be grounded not in God’s law but in man’s. Transcendence could never be doctrinal for these provincial people, since the doctrines were no more than a long game of scofflaw.

At one point, Jean Louise finds one of her father’s books, The Black Plague, which he brought home from a Maycomb County Citizens’ Council. She compares it to the literary taste of the Nazi Goebbels and expresses the deepest shame that her father would read such a thing. Of course, her father was steeped in the law classics of the ancient world—Tacitus, the literary founder of national racism, would not be out of place in his library, nor would rationalists like Socrates and Cicero. The Black Plague is nihilism masquerading as systematic reason in a world that still believes in racial essentialism.  Dr. Sussman’s The Myth of Race, a study of the history of scientific racism published by his Harvard anthropology department, is a good contemporary foil to such pseudoscience as The Black Plague. Nevertheless, Harper Lee is—contra criticism—only being realistic in describing Atticus as a scientific racist, as such ideas then permeated Western culture, from the centers of science to the most time-warped counties like Maycomb. Even the progressives believed in racial segregation as a means of progress, since inferior races could not but help themselves from being determined by genetic and social death; the paternalism, and the patriarchy, of the work is but a literary expression of what posed then as the scientific mind. People would be hard put to think of macroeconomics instead of personal failing, and what could be more personal than the color of one’s skin? Jean Louise was not raised in chaos like so many in the impoverished South, then and now, but the thinking that produced her milieu was. After all, people still named their children after General Lee or President Lincoln. Citizens’ councils are for people with nothing better to do than to conceive of themselves as citizens in the polity; Atticus, an old man, is exemplary of the type; Henry Lincoln is only following suit. These are the people who would go on to buy into suburbia and white flight, for the lack of understanding of macroeconomic trends. These are the people who could not recognize evil where it stood, if it stood gasping in whiteface in the homes of the agricultural middle class.

The same people are now denying of senility, with their own families raiding their accrued fortunes, rather than the oft-despised tax officials, in the modern day. Jean Louise “wished she had paid more attention” to those citizens’ councils, “but only one glance down a column of [New York] print was enough to tell her a familiar story: same people who were the Invisible Empire, who hated Catholics; ignorant, fear-ridden, red-faced, boorish, law-abiding, one-hundred percent red-blooded Anglo-Saxons, her fellow Americans—trash.” In short, the Klan lived in Maycomb, whether it opted for the white hood or the white, pressed suit. Jean Louise, upon learning of this development, falls into a mental spiral and runs to the same courthouse where Atticus had defended Tom Robinson. Such a scene is beyond reality, of course; it reeks of a winking author in search of emotional profits, though it is one of few such graspings in the novel. In reality, Jean Louise would have nodded at such a development and thought it normal; she never would have doubted that her father found more meaning in paranoia than in justice. One is more apt to think of parentage as a form of preternatural death, as a spectroscope of what is to come. In the courthouse, Jean Louise reminisces on William Willoughby, a judge “bleeding slowly to death in the midst of abundance, for his life’s blood was poverty.” The dialectic of misery and the law has perhaps never been put plainer. Harper Lee ends the chapter with a wanton admission of the theme of childhood loss, but such loss would have been plain to Jean Louise by such a point in her life. To have even gone to New York from Alabama suggests the thing in the first place: she was trying to escape the clutches of her youth for the full vigor of modernity the Big City represented. Such a narrative is daily recounted by the women of the South who dare to get away from the scarred and bony hands of history, even if they do tend to return to its storied pages. Rarely do they do so innocently.


Harper Lee writes of Jean Louise’s father that “Atticus Finch’s secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex: where most men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss, no fanfare, and no soul-searching. His private character was his public character. His code was simple New Testament ethic, its reward were the respect and devotion of all who knew him.” He was no prophet of damnation (the Old Testament is today lived out by the Christian Fundamentalists and by certain of the Marxist ideologues who wish above all for earthly vengeance); he was a simple country man, a lawyer by practice if also by accident, who lived a human life how most human beings do: because he had to and to the best of his ability. What some might call baggage and others flaws, he lived with as his fallen nature as a man. He had fallen in love with a woman fifteen years his junior—with no regard for the streak of unhealth or white trashiness—and produced children by her. She died of her heart, as her son Jem would later die by his. The viscera of the scene belies its sentimental content, since people really do die by heart defects all the time; it is one of human health’s ticking clocks that rings especially loud in the South’s Tobacco Belt. As if Jorge Luis Borges had increased the population of the world instead of its copyrights, “Atticus killed several birds with one stone when he read to his children, and would probably have caused a child psychologist considerable dismay: he read to Jem and Jean Louise whatever he happened to be reading, and the children grew up possessed of an obscure erudition. They cut their back teeth on military history, Bills to Be Enacted into Laws, True Detective Mysteries, The Code of Alabama, the Bible, and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.” They were literary children no matter their aspirations. To be raised in deep thought is to be raised to think deeply. Such is the situation of brooding progressives. Jem of the Mockingbird era achieves adolescence and begins “slicking back his hair with water and dating girls,” no longer having time for his younger sister, though his heart beats on the clock.

All Jean Louise has for company is her father—perhaps the loneliest man in Maycomb County and brother to the most learned, Dr. Finch—an Alabaman Freud—who teaches her the value of thinking of herself as a sexual being, rather than as a permanent child. Her father had sent her to a women’s college, but such an entity was misfit for her: it could only teach her the surface of manners, not the depth of human being. “What would Atticus do?” In one of the strongest passages of the novel, Harper Lee recounts of Jean Louise’s thinking that “All she knew was that she felt sorry for the people her age who railed against their parents for not giving them this and cheating them out of that. She felt sorry for middle-aged matrons who after much analysis discovered that the seat of their discomfort was in their seats; she felt sorry for persons who called their fathers My Old Man, denoting that they were raffish, probably boozy, ineffectual creatures who had disappointed their children dreadfully and unforgivably somewhere along the line.” What better, and bitter, few sentences to describe the Southern condition than these last? How many people were born Southern in place but not of soul, who wanted to experience the newer things of the world and yet refused to, who grew used to hating life too young, who blamed their accident of birth, rather than the agency of their conscience? It is not destiny that snares and damns some people. It is peace. Knowing that the people she grew up around were little better than that which they condemned—there is at one point a reference to mother-daughter incest and the intrusion of the welfare state—convinces Jean Louise that whatever moral superstructure she thought governed the little world of her childhood was but a figment of convenience.

The human being is born for conflict. It is in our very biology, already prepared for death at birth. Give us a gathering, and we are prepared to witness an execution: we smile not for pleasure but to flash our shortened incisors. “Had she insight,” Harper Lee writes of Jean Louise, “could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind.” But color blindness is a fiction, even in fiction, when it comes to the old South. Young people were taught by elders to reflect on race, to reflect on history and the desert of damning of subaltern people. Women were warned that to consummate sex with black men was to enter among the devils; men were warned that to make friends with black men was to ruin their sexual readiness for marriage and to ready themselves for the taint of alcoholism. To sight blackness was to sight the color of criminals, of American outlaws, before a time when Americans accepted “outlaw” as a vision of deliverance from illegitimate constriction. In this, Harper Lee is disingenuous, though her prose style is immense. She once represented the future of American race relations in the realm of art—though Richard Wright did it better with Native Son and with more obvious courage, two decades before Mockingbird; to repent from such a forward view for her supposed color blindness suggests Harper Lee is mistaken in her characterization of Jean Louise’s own progressivity. No Southerner of that era was really color-blind, as few are now, not least the author or her fanbase at the time of Mockingbird or her imagined characters in our time of Watchman. Perhaps she can be forgiven this sleight of hand, since she is an author of fiction, but it certainly does not strike the reader as realistic. Griffin’s experiment in color blindness, Black Like Me, was not written as medicine for citizens of the North. Jean Louise, no matter her later education in the anti-Fascist canon, would have grown up a racist in Maycomb, no matter how liberal her bent. As she says to Henry Lincoln at one point of flirtation, “I just don’t want my world disturbed without some warning.” Who ever did? Like many resentful children of the white middle class, Jean Louise feels her birthright is sold from under her—her birthright to a just world, in which all things balance—but such a balance proves for her as false as it ever did for the trash of the county or its racial minorities. In the real world, one must believe to the point of delusion to believe that all is just; the gifted know the world is an incremental mountain of wrongs upon wrongs. Even the young men who read Harper Lee’s original novel or watched Gregory Peck’s classical intonations of the Ciceronian type became lawyers who largely gassed themselves to death in the garages they had mortgaged on hope.

Later, Jean Louise meets Zeebo, one of whose sons is facing charges for murder, and his lawyers. Atticus has consulted with him for legal work numerous times—in cases of bastardy, the text implies—but he has since given up the ghost because of all the racialized trouble inflaming the South. Atticus believes the NAACP to be a troublemaking entity rather than an entity of law and order. Jean Louise, to her credit, thinks of it as a saving force in Southern life and jurisprudence. Frank, Zeebo’s son and her family’s servant Calpurnia’s descendant, is “on a waiting list for the Tuskegee Institute,” a message doubtlessly included for Harper Lee’s knowledge of Tuskegee’s infamous experiments with syphilis. Jean Louise does not even know how old Calpurnia is, and neither does Calpurnia. Barefooted Helen, Zeebo’s wife, remarks that he has “done got old,” as though a great fatalism pervaded the lives of the poor in Maycomb County. Entangled family lives of the sort with which we are now familiar existed then, as they do now; recognition of them was another matter entirely. Harper Lee’s conscious nodding toward such shifts in culture gives the reader too much cognizance where there should be plot. But, just as her first novel was one of social message, so is this one, and sometimes plot gets in the way of message. After all, our world has its plots and will always have them, but, when the messages dwindle, those plots might very well be entertained for the worse. The Blues was invented by such people, who knew America for what it was and what it largely remains.

It is little wonder that scholars often remark the one true musical form of America is the Blues. Where most Americans are chattel—and always have been—in service, if not in name, music can transcend the divisions which law cements. If there is proof of God, it comes to man in music, for such proof carries little weight otherwise. From Billie Holiday to Langston Hughes, tragedy built upon tragedy has informed the country’s artistic conscience. Holiday died a drug addict, a Jewish sympathizer, and a rape victim, and gave us some of our most beloved songs. Her tastes were thoroughly American, as ecstatic as the High Church beatifics of the pitching Presbyterians of her era, recording lung-work for the Divine (compare both, and bother God as to whose art was higher, the quietest of sinners or the loudest of the pious). Of this treasure alone did one gain Southern merit. Hughes—a gay man permanently at odds with civil society—was a fellow traveler with Marx and Lenin, who announced African-American entry into the disunited worlds of labor strife and irreligion. Harper Lee, a woman of great learning in literature and law, no doubt intended for such connotations to appear in her novel. To mention Tuskegee is to mention social revolution without mentioning it. She mentions Coca-Cola about as often as James Baldwin did, which is to say Coca-Cola capitalism had more power over people than their own consciences. The sprawl of modernity had its victims, and it had its products: Jean Louise became one of them. Calpurnia—a practical slave, like many motherly black women of the era—has more dignity than the white trash of Maycomb. “Had the earth stopped turning, had the trees frozen, had the sea given up its dead, Jean Louise would not have noticed.” I confess my own family, during the 1960s, long before I was born, had such a woman in domestic thrall, her name now forgotten to anything but state funeral registries. My grandfather earned six-figures working for a motor company and thought a black servant an appropriate form of surplus. Calpurnia is not just a relic of Harper Lee’s imagination; she is a reflection of the real life of the era’s white middle class who, it turns out, died deaths just as miserable as anyone else’s, despite their grandstanding pretensions. Heart attacks kill even the weary who thought they had behaved in strictest measure with the Dispensations. Écrasez l’infame.

Calpurnia does not hate the Finch family for having the power to do good and failing in that power, at least according to how Harper Lee paints it. But one can only wonder how deeply bitterness can reside before it begins to present symptomatic good manners. The British socialist Bertrand Russell once wrote that barbarians have the best manners. I have known men of Southern breeding who, once they clear six-figures for the first time in their family history, denounce the rest of humanity as trash because the stamp of their lowly origins might show through. Their horse teeth show through nevertheless. Human dignity is born of suffering, not of breeding, nor of pretense: the dignified often have no other proof that they are human in an inhuman world. Calpurnia is the novel’s figure of Christ, who bears her cross in peace. Perhaps such symbols should be spurned. The region is worried about race war, Jean Louise learns. Had there been a race war, justice might have learned to spurn symbols and to quash its prejudices. This is an era where one learned Santa’s Little Helpers were really exploited proletarians from far, far away and from nearby, who—from fear of being thought shiftless—engaged in shift work. What slave to racism ever gained from politeness, even in the gain of dignity?


The issue of marriage comes up, and Harper Lee’s treatment of the problem leads the enlightened reader to think she is a Marxist feminist of the respectable variety. She depicts the “Perennial Hopefuls” of the not-yet-married quadrant as people who do not conform to Maycomb’s small-minded conception of human union. Who can blame her? The wives Jean Louise knows are more concerned about the husband’s bottom line (and their own) keeping up with the Joneses’—just as ignorant of everything worthwhile as the rest of the county and just as miserable, except for the reasons behind the civic charade. These women marry because manners demand it. They are repressed beyond the line of ill health. They marry because they have nothing else to do and know no other manner by which to feed themselves. They count themselves the courtiers of Maycomb’s rituals: do how they do, or do no other. But Jean Louise, fresh from a civilization so diverse it hurts with it, cannot help but look upon these country dunces as but figures in a time warp. Even the women who took time getting married, and so took on the “strays,” find little comfort in her worldview, though these last most mirror her own standing. These are people who think of Mobile, Alabama, as a center of culture. It is little wonder Harper Lee degrades them so, as with the light of time they should be degraded. Even the “Amanuensis Club,” a no-lipped venue for the lonely bookish to come together, is based upon the legal practices of slave sympathizers who thought black letters equal in essence to white letters, but for their reading public.

Compared to New York, the small hometown and its social ripples must seem like former centuries demanding countenance in the newer. Small people—who can easily be good people, but who choose not to be good people—often choose to be small people who do active evil. Goodness is a product of leveling borders and of sharing minds, not of damning some and profiting from others. These women of Jean Louise’s acquaintance, so tiny in the universe it did not even recognize them, probably went to sleep at night knowing they counted for nothing of more gravity than their husband’s ejaculations. Their flesh counterparts thought the era eternal—their culture, their references, their values, their children and grandchildren—and aged as Harper Lee did. They died with as much history in their graves as the people they abhorred and with the barbs they heard hissing at them as they were lowered at their wakes. Many mortals mourned them, but many more will mourn Harper Lee.

When one differentiates between ignorant Southern gentlemen and ignorant Southern strays, one can little hope for value between such similar poles, for the mainstay of one culture is the straying of another. “All that is solid melts into air,” as Harper Lee no doubt recognized some several decades between the publication of Mockingbird and that of Watchman. What is so intense to some isolated people is so silly to others who are more learned in the ways of the world. The small women of Maycomb may not be devils in cheap dresses—their limitations are their own, as all of our limitations are—but some, like Jean Louise, dare to break such absurd codes. Inevitably, those who break them return to a world so alien they know not where they come from or to where they return. An estranged world is a world as cold as a married one, to which any aging spouse of 2015 might admit. The values of old are always the evils of today; if this function is not one of biology, it is one of culture. Anyone bored in Maycomb might have desired a “good nigger trial,” because why watch shooting stars upon the hills generously arranged by God? God was absent from the get-go. The women who cried over a wedding of selfsame Janes and sob-story Joes would not have cried over a funeral of niggers, and on such shiftless sands the South of Harper Lee ought to be damned entirely. The only Job she ever knew was a black woman named Calpurnia. Human suffering was so commonplace these innocents could only paint it on the palette of folk knowledge, for thereby alone could they displace it. Barbarians do have the most elaborate of manners, having nothing else: even Atticus, whom time has caught in its clutch, aspires to his grave soon enough.

Atticus engages in a deep conversation with Jean Louise concerning the Constitution and states’ rights—one a reasonable defense of the body politic, the other the tiredest of rhetoric. Having never read Schopenhauer on the immaturity of the Christian religion, Atticus declares the black people of the South remain ever yet in their childhood. Paternalism is one thing when it comes to minorities, but it is another thing entirely when it comes to the Federal government: Dr. Finch, his brother, tells Jean Louise that the source of conflict over civil rights is the intrusion of government into local affairs. Of course, the Federal government produces problems and is an example of injustice in itself. But such injustice pales in comparison to the normal prejudices of Maycomb and every county like it. Backward people announcing the backwardness of their neighbors ought to elicit the laughter of Jean Louise, now that she has received a New York education. It only serves to enrage her: she curses at her father for the contradiction of his intellect and his sentiment, since his logic, once cast iron, has become unapologetically repellent. The machine of selection has come home to roost with Maycomb’s most famous lawyer. Although its local color is childish in the eyes of the rest of the country, its own peculiarities become coincident with the will of God. Such places have always fostered such delusions. These are the same people, Atticus included, who would now moan about states’ rights on the issue of gay marriage. Having little of worth in their lives except the rote repetition of biological sustenance, Maycombians would construct a grand narrative outlining why their lives were undermined by the activity of Big Government and its formal sponsoring of deviance. One could as soon imagine the humbly clad denizens and wage slaves of Maycomb reciting “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” were they around today. These are people who retire after having spent their lives in boring work, around boring people, and having boring children. Then they die even more boring deaths. They are the salt of the earth, which has been sold from underneath them, for their lack of empathy—a concept relatively newer than brimstone—with people just as damned as themselves. Their lack of empathy need only issue from the Hell that is other people.

The novel’s ending is the weakest part of Harper Lee’s efforts. It is not only weak, it is unconvincing. Jean Louise makes up with her family—her “spleen and vapors” disappear—after realizing that she has to disengage herself from Atticus, because she alone can develop her conscience. But racism is not so gentle a family trouble as that. It ruptures families, and it does so permanently. The bitterness and cynicism it implies do not exist in a vacuum: racism speaks to a way of thinking so absolute and sociopathic that one can either live with it in bad faith or one cannot. The sheer ease with which the Finch family discusses racial segregation and Anglo-Saxon history ought to surprise readers from without the American South and liberals within. The theory of social control behind such ideas is Draconian and deadly; that they historically pervade the social fabric so thoroughly—and still do, on the lower frequencies—speaks to the nightmarish culture that fostered them. Ask an elder about the good old days and hear the frank reply “What was so good about the good old days?” Like the Baadher-Meinhoff complex, the liberals of Jean Louise’s generation knew the epistemology they inherited was so rank it had to be discarded, not synthesized. Though her uncle cautions her that there is no such thing as collective consciousness, she finds more truth in Jung than in Moses.

Laws produced by corrupt people are themselves corrupt, inevitably. Walter Benjamin once wrote about “The Destructive Character” who, rather than reform, prefers the destruction of codes that do not conform with moral reality. Sometimes, iconoclasts are far more valuable than the creaking icons they destroy. Harper Lee has done well to disillusion her readers—many of them now in old age, who in their youths went on to battle injustice with either law practice or drugged bohemia—because illusion can only ever serve the interests of power. Law is that which prevents terrorism, but it does disfigure people. Liberals would do well to note that novels can change this world no more than the canons of law can, that most people are born serfs and shall die serfs, and that hope without the fatalism born of misery is but the sigh of wishful prophets. Were there justice in the human species, it would not take decades to accrue, but instants to occur. However, Harper Lee has written a good novel—one deserving of note, certainly, and, above that, study. The Mockingbird novel that purported to change the consciousness of middle class Southerners did just that; its published hindquarters, long in the issue and overmuch controversial in coming to daylight, will, too.

— Jeremy Brunger



Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at

Nov 112015


What surprises the most is where other writers might conclude their stories, Joy Williams pushes forward, downplaying a major event in a character’s life for a more nuanced, indirect, mysterious insight to rest her uncompromising ending upon. She has summed up the short form this way: “A story’s nature is to locate itself in that moment, that incident, where the past and the future of the participants are perceived.” —Jason DeYoung


Joy Williams
The Visiting Privilege
Knopf, 2015
490 pages, $30.00


“Life is an eccentric privilege” is a misunderstood comment in Joy Williams’ story “The Wedding,” but it might do as the pithiest of credos for Williams’ fiction. Life is an eccentric privilege…and then you die, because her stories never let you forget that because we have life, we also have death. It might be the clearest meaning her fiction imparts.

Bleak, nervy, unsentimental, hilariously at times, The Visiting Privilege combines three of Joy Williams’ previous short story collections with thirteen new stories, for a total of forty-six tales. The hangover from mainlining these stories over the last few weeks reveals an overwhelming array of narrative talismans, inimitable plot strategies, and philosophical undercurrents, the latter of which Joy Williams delights in undercutting, exposing our dumb, fragile humanness. “There are philosophers who maintain we are not our thoughts and that we should disassociate ourselves from them at every opportunity. But without this thought, I would have no experience or the world and even less knowledge of my heart,” the narrator says in “Dangerous,” one of the new stories.

Joy Williams has been up for just about every award an American writer can get but has brought few of them home. Her first novel, State of Grace, went toe-to-toe with Gravity’s Rainbow for the National Book Award; her most recent novel, The Quick and the Dead, was nominated for a Pulitzer. I bring this up not to shame Joy, but to urge those who haven’t read her work to do so. She’s worth it. Strange and dark, her stories and novels make their foundation in realism, but then you never know quite where they will lead to. Most stay firmly planned in the “manifest world,” while others drift off toward the uncanny. What surprises the most is where other writers might conclude their stories, Joy Williams pushes forward, downplaying perhaps a major event in a character’s life for a more nuanced, indirect, mysterious insight to rest her uncompromising ending upon. She has summed up the short form this way: “A story’s nature is to locate itself in that moment, that incident, where the past and the future of the participants are perceived.”

The Visiting Privilege is a hefty retrospective of Joy Williams’ short fiction. Just about all of the stories from her previous collections—Taking Care (1982), Escapes (1990), and Honored Guest (2004)—are included. Some stories have been edited out, some rearranged from their original order. All told, it’s nearly fifty years worth of fiction. Dipping into the collection will get you if not a masterpiece, a guaranteed peach of a short story. But viewed as a whole, The Visiting Privilege tells a kind of narrative on its own, that of Joy Williams’ development as a published writer.

The collection opens with “Taking Care,” a story she as said was her first “good” story, one that Rust Hill, her future husband, would accept for his literary journal Audience. Many of the narrative fetishes and tics that will follow Joy Williams are present here. The focus is on the one character most stuck in his current situation—a minister/father. He is worried about his wife who is dying and his daughter who is truant—gone to Mexico to have the nervous breakdown she’d seen for herself in the “stars.” Clearly the daughter is having the more dramatic and busier life, but Williams chooses not to follow her. The protagonist is held duty-bound to his community and church, he is responsible for the “care” of his grandbaby and wife. It’s a story about the human family, with the specter of death always in the background. Like all Williams’ stories, it also honors the inscrutability of existence, as she describes the old mother’s illness: “Her blood moves as mysteriously as the constellations.”

The prose of the early stories is tightly wound, often with the simplicity of subject-verb-object as its underlying foundation. Take for instance these few sentences from “The Lover,” a story about a young woman trying anything to keep a rather disinterested man from leaving her:

The girl becomes a lover to a man she met at a dinner party. He calls her up in the morning. He drives over to her apartment. He drives a white convertible that all rusted out along the rocker panels. He asks her to go sailing. They drop the child off a nursery school on the way to the pier. She is two years old now, almost three.

This humble pattern pulls the story along with lines that so aptly describe the human heart that they’re often hard to move past: “The girl thinks about the man constantly but without much exactitude.” These early stories frequently derive their structure from thematic or temporal iterations instead of a single conflict, effectively building an uncommon density in short story form.

As the collection progresses, the prose loosens, and becomes more and more chatty. ‘Off-plot’ sequences become more daring. The horror intensifies. Insidious and scalding stories like “The Little Winter” and “Rot” speak to the outlandishness of life. In one a girl asks to be kidnapped by her mother’s ailing friend and succeeds; in the latter, a young woman recognizes her future will remain in stasis after her much older husband rebuilds a rusty Ford Thunderbird in their living room. He calls it a work of art.

In “Cats and Dogs,” a story appearing for the first time in this collection, Joy Williams offers up this blistering (and hilarious) paragraph, which is a good example of her more recent longer, looser style of writing:

She had no admirers at present. Since leaving her parents’ home at eighteen she’d experience two brief marriages—one to a Ritalin-addicted drywaller, the next to a gaunt, gabby autodidact, brilliant and quite unhinged, who drank a pound of coffee a day, fiddled with engines and read medieval history. After their parting, he flew in a small plane he had built to Arizona and found employment as a guide in a newly discovered living cave. Daily, he berated the tourists by telling them that every breath they took was robbing the cave of its life, even though each of them had gone through three air locks and was forbidden to touch anything or take photographs. People didn’t mind hearing they were well-meaning bearers of destruction, apparently. According to him, he was the most popular guide there. She was amazed to learn that people liked him. She certainly hadn’t.

It’s hard to think of another writer who could venture as far afield as she does in this paragraph, most of which has little bearing on the actual plot.

Typical protagonists in these stories are wayward girls, or older women, both invariably made strange by life and circumstances. Often the women are cranky drinkers, some are attenders to community groups or patients; the children are spoiled, hyper-intelligent with imagination to spare. They are pretty much all looking for a way out of their current condition. Williams’ male characters don’t fair much better. They come in the form of secretive adolescents, older husbands, abusive fathers, aloof lovers, and enablers. One of the more interesting threads in these stories is how many yardmen there are—“The Yard Boy,” “The Other Week,” “Another Season,” “In the Park.” The progression of their depiction is somehow telling in itself, from the erotic, to the threatening, to the stoic, to emotionally lost. They are always shown as slightly simple men but with a profound touch for nature and plants.

The stories of gardeners and nature-lovers are important also because they make a common theme in Joy Williams’ stories and nonfiction. In 2001, she published a book of essays called Ill Nature, most of which she had written for Esquire the years before. They are harsh, deliberately incendiary essays on the environment with titles like “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp,” “The Case Against Babies,” “Sharks and Suicide,” and “Audubon,” with its indictment that “though his name has become synonymous with wildlife preservation, [Audubon] was in no manner at any time concern with conservation. He killed tirelessly for sport and amusement.”

In The Paris Review interview Joy Williams gave a few years ago, she said this about avant-garde writing: “real avant-garde writing today would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders. Nobody seems to be taking this on in the literary covens.” Although the tone of her environmentalism in her fiction isn’t as strident as it is in her nonfiction, it’s an essential part of it—she has taken our world’s “destruction” on. It generally appears in the form of denial. Characters want to deny or tame nature, such as in “Another Season,” in which the main character is given a small stipends and a truck to drive around a resort island to clean up all the dead animals—to make it “appear as though death on the minor plane” didn’t exist. In “Charity” its enchantment is spoiled by over-labeling: “The road led past the toilet and ramadas through a portion of landscapes where every form of plant life was explained with signs.”

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Williams is wise enough, however, not to sermonize. The drama of her characters is still her foremost concern. In a little essay called “Why I Write,” Joy Williams says: “The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct or advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb.” And that’s The Visiting Privilege. Williams’ eye is on the spiritual and there’s an ever-present willingness to go ‘wild’ in these stories. While reading, I kept wondering when is she was going to pull back, when would she reveal it’s all fantasy or a dream. She never does. And because she doesn’t withhold, when she writes, “we’re all alone in a meaningless world,” I believe her and don’t discount it as posturing nonsense.

But here’s something small and anticlimactic: I’m unconvinced a review can do right by all these stories. There are simply too many, too much variety, too much change and range. A review of a book this formidable can only provide insufficient glimpses and peeks at the ineffable within its covers. So, I offer my personal response to this collection as a testament to its importance: At home, I have a shelf of novels and short story collections I consider vital—they are books that provide me not with clarity, but with a kind of fundamental thinking about the murkiness of human motivations, desires. I return to these often. On that shelf are books by Mavis Gallant, J. M. Coetzee, Clarice Lispector, Melville, Kowabata, others. Recently, I made space on it. The Visiting Privilege is in there now.

 Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.


Nov 072015

Samuel Archibald, via Ottawa Citizen

What you’ll find on these pages is not the anxiety of influence; it is the delirium of influence, the intoxication of influence, a willingness to let a life of reading speak through you as you try to say something about the place you come from. —Mark Sampson


Samuel Archibald (translated from the French by Donald Winkler)
213 pages, Paperback $19.95 CAD
ISBN: 978-1-77196-042-7


TO BEGIN, YOU NEED TO KNOW what Samuel Archibald’s Arvida is not. From what you might gather after a quick glance at the back cover copy, this book – which has been shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize – could be a quirky little album of short stories centred around thinly fictionalized characters in the real-life industrial town in Quebec from which the book takes its title. You may surmise that, as per the model for such a collection, these characters’ exploits intersect through the collection in predictably unpredictable ways, and accompanied by a familiar, nonthreatening theme humming just below the surface – something about how small-town life can be at once suffocating and impossible to let go of. We have, after all, seen and read and honoured many short story collections that have done exactly that.


Archibald – and, by extension, his English translator, Donald Winkler – would already deserve a wheelbarrow’s worth of kudos for this book’s nervy, expertly rendered sentences, its polished prose. But what separates Arvida from its peers, what casts it in a blinding hue of originality, and what probably attracted the attention of the Giller jury in the first place, is the fact that Archibald so thoroughly subverts many of our expectations about what this kind of short story collection can do, or should do, or dares to do. Arvida is not a series of interlocking tales forming a larger narrative arc; it is not a gently designed pointillism of stories painting a bigger picture. You need to know what this book is – which is a cacophonous display of multiple styles and approaches, a flawless showcase of different tonalities and modalities, and, most of all, a book unafraid to wear its founding inspirations on its sleeve. What you’ll find on these pages is not the anxiety of influence; it is the delirium of influence, the intoxication of influence, a willingness to let a life of reading speak through you as you try to say something about the place you come from.

Take, at random, the story “In the Midst of the Spiders.” Hemingway is all over this piece, what with its terse sentences, brief core interaction, and sharp sliver of realism. Archibald’s unnamed narrator (presumably from Arvida) is hanging out in an airport, given the unpleasant task by his employer to confront a fellow worker, a travelling salesman named Michel, and fire him. Michel is at the height of vulnerability – “[f]ifty-two years old, a sick wife, and three daughters in university” – and does not take his termination well. It’s a brutal conversation these men have, with one delivering a ruthless and disinterested execution upon the other. But Archibald, in a very Hemingwayesque way, counterbalances this with the narrator’s more gentle memory of the fragile spiders creeping around his home garden, saying, “he took them in his bare hands and dropped them delicately onto the leaves.” It is a gentle, beautiful juxtaposition to run against what happens in that airport lounge.

You will find an equal amount of realism in the story “América,” a tale about a band of misfits from Arvida attempting to smuggle a woman from Costa Rica into the United States via the Windsor-Detroit border. Their plan is sound but the men’s vices soon undo them, and they are stopped by edgy border security (the tale is set in the summer of 2002) and thwarted. This piece is reminiscent of the another Giller-nominated Biblioasis title, Alexander MacLeod’s 2010 story collection Light Lifting. In “América,” you will find the same obsessive drive in the narrative, an unrelenting focus on a singular task, and characters who try to escape their desires but cannot.

Yes, realism plays a role in both Arvida the book and Arvida the town, a small community built in the early 20th century around an aluminum factory. In the story, “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness – Arvida II,” Archibald establishes both the parameters of the town’s landscape and the tabula rasa from which it sprung:

The sinuous and labyrinthine designs of the town’s streets, the proximity of the bosses’ houses to those of the foremen and workers, the big parks at each corner, and the flanking of the houses of worship by two schools and a skating rink, everything in Arvida attested to the fact that this model town was the little utopia of a billionaire philanthropist, built from scratch right in the middle of nowhere.

But it is this sense of both a real place and a nowhere place that allows Archibald to unleash his prismatic imagination and take an unfettered approach to capturing his hometown in fiction. Realism slips away in a number of these piece. The tradition of ghost stories, for example, looms large at a number of points. In the story “Antigonish” two men from Arvida take a road trip to Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail, and one falls conveniently asleep while the other discovers a ghost-like figure haunting the side of the road. Magical realism appears in the story “Cryptozoology,” a tale about the men of Arvida trying to track down a mythical creature haunting the forest beyond the town; it is also about how these men come to process mythology itself.

Proust is also here. He plays a big role, as you would expect, in the story “My Father and Proust – Arvida I.” The schism in this tale is between abundance and paucity (“My father no longer lacks for anything, but he misses the taste food had when there was not enough of it”), and the story is about how change – including, perhaps, a shift in one’s economic fortunes – can bring with it both progress and depraved behaviour. In this piece, Archibald allows us to contrast the expansiveness of Proust’s oeuvre with the scantness, the precision, of a short story.

So diverse are the narrative tactics in Arvida that Archibald even allows himself to include a story set on the other side of the world and, seemingly, unrelated to the goings-on in the town of Arvida. The piece “Jigai” takes place in early 20th century imperial Japan, and involves two women – Misaka and Reiko – who kindle a relationship based on lesbianism and, shockingly, horrific mutilations. These women maim each other as a kind of protest against the oppressive, patriarchal, misogynist culture that permeated so many aspect of imperial Japan. This oppression is relayed through an incantatory phrase repeated throughout the story, “I came from the ends of the earth with pebbles in my pockets.” It is an apt maxim, as the carrying of stones (or pebbles) in a woman’s pockets is a metaphor for her oppression – particularly her sexual oppression – in East Asian culture.

With the air of a genuine Japanese folk tale, “Jigai” pivots when the women of the village, instead of being horrified by these disfigurations, begin to mimic them as their own protest against the men in their lives:

The repugnant mutilations that Misaka and Reiko inflicted on flesh became a fashion, an uncontainable compulsion, an enchantment, and there was no way to break the spell, not in reasoning with the wives, or in crying after them, or in trying to shake them out of their torpor, or by beating them.

Readers should prepare themselves for some extremely graphic imagery in this story, but they should also prepare themselves to ask how “Jigai” – so strange, so elliptical, so distant from the Quebecois sensibility found in other pieces leading up to it – fits into the bigger project of Arvida. There is a hint, perhaps, that the story alludes to some unspeakable violence decades and thousands of miles away, and with his groundwork in unfettered storytelling already laid, Archibald, somehow, makes it all work.

Naturally, I don’t want to give the impression that this book is all creepy ghost stories and bodily violations. Arvida has also, in several places, some extremely funny scenes, reminiscent of Kingsley Amis and, perhaps, P.G. Wodehouse. The story “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness” tells a light-hearted tale of retired NHL players (including the Quebec icon Maurice “Rocket” Richard) coming to Arvida to play a local team. The story, replete with David Foster Wallace-like footnotes, (another obvious influence on Archibald), is full of brassy dialogue and laugh-out-loud moments.

Speaking of humour, there is also the story “The Last-Born,” a piece about, among other things, masculine loyalties and screwing up one’s life, that comes with this paragraph of unalloyed comic genius:

That night, Raisin took part of Martial’s five hundred dollars and went to buy a lot of beer at the corner. He walked as far as the baseball field … sat on the players’ bench, and downed, one by one, the twenty-four bottles in the case. Zigzagging home, he looked like a domestic bull to which one had administered a powerful sedative. At the steps of the Blackburn, his cat, which had again run off, was rolled into a ball in front of the door. Raisin grabbed the cat by the skin of its neck, kicked open the door, and heaved it inside. In the air, the terrorized animal, which was not a cat but a skunk, emptied its sphincters full force, showering Raisin and the walls with a foul liquid, part ammonia and part excrement.

I only wish I could say I’ve never been that drunk.

Of course, the best story in this collection, the real crown jewel, is a decidedly darker tale called “Home Bound.” In it, an alcoholic man becomes obsessed with a dilapidated house, which he buys and then moves into with his wife and daughter. It becomes apparent that the house – with its hidden rooms and sinister crannies and nooks – may very well be haunted. The house soon drives a wedge between the man and his wife. The influence here is over-the-top obvious: if you don’t spot Stephen King’s The Shining on virtually every page, you should probably resign your reading life right now. But what makes “Home Bound” such a gem – beyond its impeccably crafted characters and spot-on atmosphere – is the way Archibald can work in the King (not the mention the Shirley Jackson) influences without making the story come off as derivative of them. There is a pristine originality in the prose and positioning of this piece, one that transcends its clear-cut antecedents. Unlike The Shining, “Home Bound” hinges on a very human reversal, a fatherly betrayal involving a cliff, a trusting daughter, and a dead dog.

To say that Arvida skewers our expectations of a “linked” short story collection would, of course, be a gross understatement. So pungent are the stylistic shifts and contrasts in this book, that the less-generous reader may feel a bit baffled by them. But the reason this book has been such a success – 25,000 copies and counting sold in its original French; its nod from the Giller for the English translation – is because it breaks new ground in that very genre.

Indeed, it may be fair to say that we’ll never look at a linked short story collection quite the same way again.

—Mark Sampson


Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.


Oct 142015

Chasing Dragons
What I liked, reading Chasing Dragons at first, was the anticipation, the call to adventure that is in the author’s own answer to the call to adventure. —Douglas Glover

Bill Hayward 1Bill Hayward

Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs
Bill Hayward
Glitterati Incorporated
240 pages, hardcover
346 original four-color photographs
$60; ISBN 978-0-9891704-9-9


AT THE AGE OF SIX, Bill Hayward was already blessed with magic and metaphor. He was born into an itinerant family, lived in or visited 17 states before he was in grade school. His older sister Janet, sitting with him in the back seat of the family’s 1940 Chevy, used to encourage him on long rides with stories of magic and adventure. Janet was Bill Hayward’s muse, his Yoda, the one who taught him to think there might be wisps of dragon smoke beyond the next hill. She made the world wondrous, which is something like religion, only under a different name.

Hayward has been hunting the dragon smoke ever since, hence the title of his magnificent new book Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs; only now he also associates it intellectually with the dragon smoke of Chinese legend, dragon smoke equated with the imagination itself, with the ability to travel between worlds, which in Hayward’s universe becomes the ability to travel between and beyond forms, to hybridize, to traffic in aesthetic accident and unconscious inspiration, to transcend the torrent of conventional commercial dreck that is our contemporary fate.

Hayward is a photographer, also a writer, a filmmaker, and painter. He is a very good photographer, one of those A-list commercial photographers who shoot for glossy magazines in New York and are on call to do author photos for major publishers, the epitome of class. But at a certain point he rebelled against the conventional (even the very best conventional), the photograph that is already recognizably good as a photograph (“…at some point I realized that dragon smoke was somehow missing from the horizon…”), and as he says himself, went into the darkroom (this was when they still had darkrooms) fierce with experiment.

I commenced “bushwhacking” in the darkroom (this is way before digital) and experimenting with print, paint, paper and scissors and following real “brush strokes” of accident—disrupting what I knew of visual technique and tradition.

The result was wave after wave of startling, mysterious images. Like many great artists, Hayward seems to work in obsessional spurts, mulling over the same gestural form or experimental technique in image after image, but altering, nudging, scaling, colorizing, destroying.

Chasing Dragons is organized into five so-called acts, the acts subdivided into subtitled sections, each with an obsessional focus (some are called projects). For example, there are 17 collaborative bedrooms (“17 Bedrooms, A Spaghetti Western”), 17 black and white images of collaborator Joanne Baldinger standing in front of or even within a black on white painting of a room, door to a room, or windows looking out of a room. There are pages of paintings of a single torso with an arm bent at right angles, placed across the belly like an reversed L, sad, clownish faces, zombie figures. Or the floating, falling nudes suspended as if in a luminous vitreous humour of the “Broken Odalisque” series. Or the amazing set of photographs called “Consider the Flesh”: grainy images, nudes prancing/posing before a backdrop, camera pulled back to reveal backdrop against the studio wall, and lamps of various sorts held or disposed behind or in front of the subject, casting a mysterious glow.

I mention only a few of the sequences; this is a thick, beautiful book.

The repetitions inscribe motion from frame to frame, almost as in one of those old flip books, motion being one of the major fracturing devices Hayward uses, both inside and outside the image, his subjects caught over and over in ecstatic gesture, stillness infused with movement (gesture is a word Hayward uses frequently), so that the image sequences are a dance, not repetitious, but mysteriously rhythmic (like tides or the motions of sex) in their insistence on a particular motif (gesture, again), situation or subject, motifs that take on the numinous quality of dream signs.

One of Hayward’s most easily grasped innovations (invention) is the result of a rebellion against the conventional studio portrait: subject in front of camera, subject become object for the photographer, become something frozen, captured, pinned to the board. Hayward’s brilliant inversion, analogous to breaking down the fourth wall in the theatre, was to engage the subject as a collaborator in the photograph. Instead of sitting the subject in front of a backdrop, he set up a continuous roll of white paper, gave the subject (of the photo) a bucket of black paint and a brush and told him or her to make a backdrop for themselves, a scene, a place to pose, a place in which to act or even act out.

The result was/is an ongoing series of brilliant, witty, mischievous, punning, self-revelatory (in the sense of self-discovery) collaborative portraits. Many appeared in Hayward’s 2001 book Bad Behavior, and there are a few of those in Chasing Dragons, but he has extended the project into what he calls The Human Bible, traveling the country with his paper rolls and paint (near the end of the book there is a gorgeous photograph of Hayward clad in black, walking a dusty railway track somewhere in the west, with a paper roll over his shoulder).

Hayward seems to function along three basic vectors or principles, at least this seems to be the case when he talks about what he is doing. The first is the one already dealt with, the iconoclasm, the adventurous breaker of form, on a quest to find the rigid structure, the accepted mode, in what he is doing and break it. Little things, to begin with, like the incorporation of accident or imperfection, a studied black and white landscape with a road disappearing into distant hills and a purple crayon streak in the top corner. Which seems to lead to drawing and painting on photographs, to incorporating photos into paintings and then paintings that remind you of the photographs. Iconoclasm, breaking the image, the holy image, making it more holy in so doing. There is much more of this, pages of faces, strangely symmetrical as if the one side mirrors the other (not the way normal faces work), streaked, over-exposed, magnified, colorized, staring.

The second vector is a restless search for the feminine, a self-conscious desire to rebalance a universe that has tilted wildly toward the patriarchal. One source for this is Robert Graves book The White Goddess, which Hayward absorbed at just the right moment. But beyond that, and not to psychologize, it does seem as if his sister Janet, six years older and a leader of adventures, gave Hayward the perfect template for the White Goddess before he actually met her in a book. Chasing Dragons is full of female images, many nudes, many combining the ecstasies of dance gesture (there are naked men, too, but not nearly so many). Women lead Hayward, they are his psychopomps, his oneiric guides into the realm of abandonment, experiment, and revolt. Of this is he enthusiastically conscious, inserting throughout Chasing Dragons quotations and snippets from his favorites: Mary Ruefle, Clarice Lispector, Emily Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf.

And, finally, the third principle, the unresolved struggle, something Hayward recognizes within himself, the tension between the discipline of art (call it professionalism, craftsmanship, guild knowledge) and the free spirit of play, the foregoing of knowledge, the abandonment of certainty necessary to create the kind of art Hayward wants to create. There’s a great interview (with Geoff Gehman in Psychology Tomorrow) where Hayward catches himself in the contradiction. “I’m telling people they can do anything while at the same time my head is saying: You’ve got to know what you’re doing. I just tell myself to follow the gesture rather than the idea.”

The self-irony is all: the moment that catches a whisper of Hayward’s depth.

What I liked, reading Chasing Dragons at first, was the anticipation, the call to adventure that is in the author’s own answer to the call to adventure.

Throughout this read, I call out the shout and song of artists who have had, and who continue to have,  a significant influence on the gaze of my heart and eye…My compositions are foremost a transcription of my response to their call.

Painters I have known are rarely good at talking about their own art (Hayward is an exception in a high degree) because their art is in the manipulation of media with brush or pencil or camera. They think non-verbally, through their fingers and hands more than eye and mind. And no matter what they plan or expect there are always minute accidents of material at the finger tip. One of the beauties of Chasing Dragons (hunting the dragon smoke of the imagination) is (going back to the patterning, grouping, repetitiveness of the images) that you can see Hayward, the artist, thinking without words, thinking with the images themselves, making and remaking, with slight variation, the same gesture, scene, idea. The effect is mesmerizing; rarely do you get to see so many materializations of the same artistic thought.

As I say, Chasing Dragons is organized into acts. The first act contains the beautiful conventional studio portraits. The second act, the rebellion, is the crisis of risk, experiment, adventure. The third act enters the territory of collaborative art (the human other becomes the next frontier to be transgressed). The fourth is all dance and gesture. And the fifth is devoted to images from Hayward’s film Asphalt, Muscle & Bone. The first act establishes the credentials of mastery, but the second, third, fourth and fifth acts are where you will dwell, entranced by the incantatory and playful density of artistic thought and variation, flipping back and forth between the pages, one section at a time.

Reading this book underscores the difference between an art book and a gallery show. A gallery show will always be an abstraction (contradictory, yes, because, of course, there are particular works on show), representative of the total work; whereas in a book, while you only have images of images, you get a far better idea of the totality of the artistic output and the motions of the artist’s thought processes as they develop over time.

The book’s text, the word-memoir, is terse, elliptical, carved out of the silence of the page, but also beautifully written, as you might expect; everything Hayward touches, even the accidents, or apparent accidents, have an air of being self-consciously finished; the man possesses an epic cool that is reflected in the work. And for all its terseness, the text seems to tell you everything you need to know: the family road trips and the Delphic Janet (some lovely snaps of the two of them as kids), the dragons, the first camera, and (the same day in 1956) Hayward’s first exposure to photographic/cinematic art (Janet took him to see Fellini’s La Strada), the iconic moments that led him to yesterday and whatever comes tomorrow, after the book.

One section especially, the “Mise-en-Scène,” is heavily patterned, recursive like a Bach fugue, words and phrases repeating, accumulating nuance and incantation — Janet, dragons (morph into drag’n sticks juxtaposed with an image of a weathered stick in the shape of a dragon), beads, fire ants, smoke, and the phrase reportless places, a phrase from Emily Dickinson (and after the section ends, there is a postscript that is the Emily Dickinson poem where the phrase comes from). This “Mise-en-Scène” is like a poem itself or is a poem, but also seems influenced by Gordon Lish (who does a walk-on guest appearance in Chasing Dragons with a three-line preface) and his creative concept of consecution, moving forward in a composition by picking up elements already introduced, so the pattern is forward, back and bring forward, and back and bring forward. And those fire ants become the image of the artist: “obsessive, certain, incessant; their immortal process of building in mud and blood.”

That phrase — “obsessive, certain, incessant” — is the DNA of the book or Bill Hayward himself. In spirit, it is stamped on every page. It is the essence of the artist.

But dragon smoke has other meanings, all connected with trans-words, transcendence, transgression, changing states of consciousness. Chasing the dragon is/was slang for getting high, for seeking other worlds or dream in the arms of Nepenthe, forgetfulness, escape, illusion, Death.

I do not think this reference escapes Bill Hayward. Life is the attainment of form; the dissolution of form is a kind of death; that’s a paradox, of course, because rigidity of form also seems like a kind of death. So that art must always be this dance between breaking and making, breaking and making.

The fire ants are re-animating anonymous relics of lives already lived, ceremony of the persistent creative process, mud and blood, life and death, death and life.

—Douglas Glover

14 Chasing Dragons by Bill HaywardBob Dylan


17 Chasing Dragons by Bill HaywardFragment A (from the film Asphalt, Muscle & Bone)

09 Chasing Dragons by Bill HaywardBroken Odalisque

BH2Al Pacile (from The Human Bible)

11 Chasing Dragons by Bill HaywardDragon Smoke Behind Tree

Images from Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs by Bill Hayward, © 2015, published by Glitterati Incorporated



Oct 122015



Nobody Grew but the Business: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis
Joseph Tabbi
Northwestern University Press
Cloth, 272 pp., $35.00
ISBN: 9780810131422

William Gaddis: Expanded Edition
Steven Moore
Paper, 241 pp., $29.95
ISBN: 9781628926446


The usual starting point for a reviewer of anything by or about William Gaddis (1922-1998) is to say, in woeful tones, that he is neglected, more heard about than read, apparently forbidding, and other remarks that would rest on the negative side of a ledger book. It is perhaps more positive to say what stands out, for this reader: people who haven’t read Gaddis don’t know what they’ve been missing. Fans of low and high humour, of pastiche, of ventriloquism, and those who favour long novels that take the time to explore some of the most insidious systems around us, as well as historical matters—faith, business, the law, authenticity, the American Civil War, and religious fundamentalism—told with a definite emphasis on style and structure, if they have not yet picked up one of his books, will be delighted when they do.

Yet Gaddis is still subject to what Jack Green, an early metacritic, raged against in the 1960s in a small publication called newspaper, where he illustrated, using extended examples, how The Recognitions (1955) had been traduced by its first reviewers, many of whom never read more than the blurb and some sample pages. Dalkey Archive published Green’s remarks under the title Fire the Bastards! (1992; introduced by Steven Moore), and on the first page he declares that “one critic made 7 boners.” Carrying on this tradition, Jonathon Sturgeon made an assertion in July that since the Los Angeles Review of Books had its Occupy Gaddis movement in 2012

there hasn’t been much aside from the stray essay or scholarly scrap — until this year. Prompted, presumably, by the double anniversaries of The Recognitions and J R, Northwestern University Press has just published Joseph Tabbi’s Nobody Grew But the Business [sic], a welcome, sophisticated, and humanizing biography of Gaddis that takes its name from an early version of J R.

There are a handful of William Gaddis specialists in the world. One of them, Stephen Burn (also a respected David Foster Wallace critic), in a quotation on the back of the expanded edition of Moore’s critical study of Gaddis’ works—suitably updated and released in February of this year, a handful of months ahead of Tabbi’s biography—states that its author “invented Gaddis Studies when he published his comprehensive guide to The Recognitions” (in 1982; now available online). Anyone writing after that, and after his original Twayne edition of William Gaddis (1989), owes much to Moore’s analysis of the three novels available to that time: The Recognitions, J R (1975), and Carpenter’s Gothic (1985). Tabbi has also done important work in this field by copyediting (along with Moore), and providing the afterword to, Gaddis’ final fiction, Agapē Agape and editing his only collection of non-fiction, The Rush for Second Place (both from 2002). Further, with Rone Shavers he co-edited a collection of papers titled Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System (2007). (In 2009 another set of essays by various people came out: William Gaddis, “The Last of Something”: Critical Essays.) In 2013 Moore resumed his labours by editing The Letters of William Gaddis.

Bloomsbury clearly believe in the award-winning Moore. They published his conversation-changing works The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 (2010) and The Novel: An Alternative History: 1600-1800 (2013), works that upset many conservative critics with significant buy-in to out-of-date and never-quite-sensible paradigms on the origins of the novel. Now they have re-published his Twayne book with additional analysis of Gaddis’ last major novel, A Frolic of His Own (1994), and Agapē Agape. When added to the Letters and Mark Taylor’s Rewiring the Real (2013)—a theological examination, in part, of “the nexus of religion, literature, and technology” (5) as “illuminate[d]” through Gaddis’ first novel and works by Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo—these two publications, pace Sturgeon, mark something of a resurgence of interest in Gaddis. The emphasis in this review will be on Tabbi’s biography, but Moore’s work must be kept in mind too.

Tabbi places a clear statement of purpose in his introduction: “This book will be a literary life and intellectual history, in that I recount the growth of a major writer’s art over the course of a lifetime in the context of social and cultural transformations” (Tabbi’s emphasis). Anyone reading this work soon will realize that while there is much new information about Gaddis’ life, there are major and minor gaps, such as how he fit in at The New Yorker (where he worked as a fact-checker for a little over a year); what his life was like on a more intimate level as he moved from Harvard to Costa Rica and back to New York; whether or not Duke University had a parapsychology laboratory, which Tabbi opts for believing existed without determining; more about Gaddis’ mother and how she regarded his work; and the family history of his two wives, Patricia Black (with whom Gaddis had his children, Sarah and Matthew) and Judith Thompson. There are far more second-hand reports on their feelings about an often-absent husband (whether travelling or writing in a study) than there is direct testimony. The last companion, Muriel Oxenberg Murphy, “daughter of a Russian-Jewish founder of a pickled herring fortune” with whom Gaddis lived, for sixteen years, in higher society than he had experienced before they broke up after his diagnosis “with a terminal illness,” left a book of sorts, Excerpts from the Unpublished Files of Muriel Oxenberg Murphy. She remembers her time with Gaddis, says Tabbi, “as one long alcoholic haze…” But the voices of women are mostly silent in this book, with the exception of his daughter and one or two others.

In charting the development of the first two novels in particular, Tabbi shuffles the chronology of events so that we get, as promised, “intellectual history” rather than a straightforward account. In a brief review, George Hunka, once a student of Gaddis, says “…Tabbi’s biography shies deliberately away from a warts-and-all approach to a close reading of Gaddis’s experience only as it applies to the writing… Tabbi finds more promising an examination of Gaddis’s exploration of womanhood as reflected in his readings of Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, two books that profoundly influenced The Recognitions but also found their way into the rest of Gaddis’s novels as well. That said, Tabbi’s treatment of Gaddis’s family life as husband and father is properly circumspect, even touching.”

That is fine in criticism, but it means that it will be a task for a future biographer to establish the missing facts, bring in the unheard histories and voices, and provide a fuller picture of the life of Gaddis. The issues here, then, are: does Tabbi’s book do what it wants, and is that sufficient in assisting newcomers and those familiar with Gaddis to come away with greater insight into the author and his works?



Tabbi’s book has 12 chapters that attempt to cover a mass of personal and societal change, while also stopping to explore the themes that reappeared in Gaddis works. For those expecting a chronological approach the book will be, at times, ungainly as it reaches forward and backward to draw threads together.

The first two chapters focus on Gaddis’ early life. His father, William Thomas Gaddis, Sr., left his wife and son when “Billy” (not called Jr. beyond a young age) was three and had little to do with the family after that. What shaped this child, in part, were this loss of a father figure—Tabbi provides plentiful examples of characters in the books who are either abandoned or leave their loved ones—and the example of his mother, Edith Charles Way, whose “work ethic, derived in part from her Quaker grandfather’s teaching, musical, and writing career,” instilled in her son the importance of knowing subjects inside out. Tabbi is very good at showing how the influence of his maternal grandfather, Samuel, and Samuel’s brothers, Ernest and Jan, were positive models in the fields of education and music. “The growth of a family, and a business dedicated as much to measurable, material progress as to personal creative development, remained the ideal to which Gaddis held himself, and his country.” Capturing the sprawl and richness of his subject’s literary career, Gaddis’ “novels are filled with life—and not least the author’s own life and the lives, words, and recounted experiences of people he knew and family members he knew about, going back to America’s founding in apostasy, migration, speculation, noise, and sheer recklessness.” In that one cascade of causes and origin myths reside the nation’s growth, and an announcement of many themes and features found in his fiction.

Childhood events of Gaddis’ life and the atmosphere he grew up in—which, between the ages of five and thirteen, included attendance at the Congregationalist Merricourt Boarding School and Home Camp—added to the absence of a father, brought in an element of loneliness. It could be imagined that life at school away from his mother would be hard, but the picture painted here of this boy’s life, and what he did with his classmates as part of their education, is worth quoting for what it says about the future man: “The church, or the downtown movie house, meant moving through the town, not sitting at home or being transported in a parent’s car to a self-contained entertainment or caregiving facility. And imagine the sense of belonging, of at-homeness in the larger world when, on a class excursion to the city, the boy could attend The Little Minister at Radio City and see his ‘Uncle Jan play too.’” This is the America Gaddis knew, and as he grew older he would witness it largely disappear. Now, as Tabbi makes clear through the use of contemporary news stories, “a child left alone even briefly [at a train station, as Gaddis was, to make his way home from school] could be cause for state intervention.”

While the years passed Gaddis carried with him solid memories from Edith’s side of the family, but without a paternal figure to serve as a model a void opened up, and something had to fill it. (The Recognitions is filled with fathers who disappoint their sons. This carries on in the figures of Jack Gibbs and Thomas Eigen of J R and Judge Crease of A Frolic of His Own, covering a span of forty-years. In Tabbi’s book, and in the Letters, readers will see how Gaddis softly instructed his children.) “The psychic scars of his formative years,” concludes Tabbi, “certainly contributed to his adult demeanor and his motivations as an imaginative writer”; he was, Tabbi goes on to say, a “would-be aristocrat” with an air of “studied superiority.” Throughout those early years—including a mysterious childhood illness that could have killed him but which, as mysteriously, went away—Gaddis had his mother’s family’s attention, and more importantly his mother’s love, as a support, as he did, indeed, for the rest of her life.

Having set the psychological stage Tabbi moves on, from chapters three through five, to concentrate on the path that would lead to The Recognitions, an almost 1,000-page novel that is a seminal work in the advancement of post-modernism in the United States, and a book that, in Moore’s view, “weighs an entire civilization… and finds it wanting.” Both scholars re-emphasize points made in earlier Gaddis criticism—for example, that the erudition behind The Recognitions came, in part, from a small list of books mined for archaic elements—and they also underline how the apparently encyclopedic knowledge of counterfeiting, Christian imagery and the veneration of saints, and mythical patterns that would be familiar to readers of The Golden Bough and The White Goddess was not a façade. Gaddis absorbed that material—he met “Graves in Majorca in 1950”—along with the works of Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, and made it his own. When those sources and ideas were combined with his mother’s family history, his interactions with Greenwich Village society in the late 1940s and early 1950s—where he mingled with William Burroughs, and inspired characters in the fiction of Jack Kerouac and Chandler Brossard—and his travels in the Western United States, Central America, and Europe, the result was an astonishing first work, the one that Tabbi (and Moore) sets aside a good amount of space to describe and explain. The creation of this novel established a pattern evident for the rest of Gaddis’ writing life: study in the pursuit of presenting believable worlds, precision of concept, and a relentlessness when it came to following where the material would lead him.

After elaborating on the genesis of its many layers—the career of painter-forger Wyatt Gwyon whose habitats are the murky milieu of the Village and the shady back alleys of the art world; the habits, occupations, and manias present in the people in his life; and the struggle old and new faiths waged with the modern world of disbelief (science and modernism)—Tabbi offers this interpretation of the novel’s importance:

What Gaddis’s early work gave to his and subsequent generations [e.g., David Markson and, later, Mary Caponegro and David Foster Wallace], which they would not yet have found in universities or in bookstores, what could only be seen by someone of Gaddis’s background to be degraded by emerging mass media, was something entirely unforeseen and (for several decades) uniquely American. Through his apolitical insistence on craft and care in the face of mass production and private dissembling, and through his powerful influence on the “very small audience” of aspiring writers whom he actually reached…, Gaddis may have anticipated something else altogether, without intending it or even appreciating it after the fact. Neither postmodernism nor a regenerated modernism in literature, what Gaddis best realized were all the outlines and many of the practices of the oncoming discipline of creative writing in America.

This is one of the many stimulating new takes—open to argument and further investigation—offered in Nobody Grew but the Business. Chapter ten, “Portrait of the Artist as Writing Professor: Carpenter’s Gothic,” follows along from that thought through a fascinating examination of Gaddis as a creative writing teacher in “the same classrooms that shaped the generation of Wallace and [Jonathan] Franzen and Ben Marcus, whose emergence there may have rendered them skeptical, and largely uncomprehending, of the previous generation’s attempts to resist incorporation,” and on the “Program Era (circa 1984 to our current first-person present),” where making a living writing fiction and making a living by being a fiction writer are two very different things. (Gaddis belongs to the first camp, though that was perilous living at times.)

That concern over being subsidized and owned by, to use a familiar term, The Man is elaborated in chapters six through nine which deal largely with the work experiences Gaddis had after the utter critical and commercial failure of his first book. He spent much time as a corporate writer for, as chapter seven puts it, “IBM, Ford, Pfizer,” including involvement with the insertion of televisions in the school system. That twenty-year pause allowed him to absorb the language and attitudes behind business practices and accrue material on communication theory that, married to an obsession with the mechanization of the arts through the invention of the player piano, informed his second novel, J R, perhaps his most brilliant and hilarious work. It features an amoral eleven-year-old boy, J R Vansant, who, through the manipulation of penny stocks and the adults at his school, becomes a business mogul. Among other things, the novel is an indictment of a capitalist system that had replaced the social and cultural connections Gaddis knew from his childhood, where progress and creativity were aligned, with companies buying, selling, and leveraging solely out a desire for profit. As Lee Konstantinou wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books in October 2012:

I’d suggest that what J R documents is the way that America is hollowing out the foundation necessary to even read a book like it, an America that teaches its children via closed-circuit television, an America that thinks democracy means owning a share of profit-maximizing publicly traded corporations. This is what it means to say that J R is about the conditions underlying the impossibility of its own reception. If there were a welcoming mass public for books like this, a public able to appreciate its beautiful difficulty and astonishing imagination, we wouldn’t live in the sort of world so in need of savage satirical critique in the first place.

(He also suggested, as Tabbi states in chapter nine, “The Imagination of the State,” that Mitt Romney is who J R “might have grown up to be…” [143])

With the movement of Gaddis from an outlier to a National Book Award winner for J R—or, alternately, now a writer who, in Moore’s view, is “anchored in America’s literary traditions” that include Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain—his position in the literary world should have been secured, but his second wife decamped a few years later and he was in debt from advances for a novel that had taken many years to write and, despite the award, did not sell well. Later access to grants, and a move into teaching at universities, eased certain financial worries, and introduced Gaddis to younger writers and those who wanted to be. He figured that a much shorter novel would be more accessible (and classroom-friendly), and chose a simple setting—a type of house called carpenters gothic (no apostrophe)—and a plot that revolved around an abused wife, Liz, who takes on an older lover while her husband and brother, and almost everyone else, runs scams and schemes, from simple thievery to control over mineral interests to, again in Moore’s words, “the apocalypse.” Carpenter’s Gothic is confined to that one house, a permeable structure that is unable to withstand the flood of bad news constantly arriving via radio, telephone, and in correspondence from other parts of the United States and Africa. There are deaths and the imminent promise of Armageddon in this close-packed novel. “He had scaled back knowingly… for commercial reasons not for loss of power,” (155) judges Tabbi in chapter nine, who provides valuable context in that and the next chapter, including a brief depiction of his life as a teacher and how it may have shaped this new work.

Tabbi’s biography closes strongly. Chapter eleven deals with the 1994 National Book Award-winning A Frolic of His Own—a truly biting satire on the law and the legal profession, personal identity, the absent father who has dismissed his two children, and a (usually futile) search for what is real amidst court documents, plagiarism, a play, and the ceaseless sound and (usually bloody or violent) imagery from the natural world coming from a television—a work that had its genesis in a gift from an admiring bibliophile and attorney of “the entire 81-volume American Jurisprudence…” A monumental work of its own, Frolic is as “encyclopedic” as The Recognitions and J R, and bitterer than anything else Gaddis had written. In it, explains Moore, “Gaddis marshals all his arguments to make his case against America as a failed culture…” Tabbi makes the same point, but uses the unequal relationship of Gaddis and Murphy, who circulated among “the empowered and the influential,” to good effect, particularly when he illustrates that despite a change in social status Gaddis refused to “let up on his critique of what his own country had become.”

The final chapter discusses the novella Agapē Agape. In his New Yorker days Gaddis had attempted to write a history of the player piano. Nothing had come of it beyond an early, short non-fiction piece that did get published, and a few quotations from the work placed in the mouth of Jack Gibbs, a character in J R. Nearing the end of his life, and after being introduced to the monologues of the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), Gaddis fashioned the mass of notes into a soliloquy on the diminishment of people and their replacement by, at first, the automated loom, then tabulating machines, piano rolls, punch cards, and the modern computer. The unnamed old man is beset with health problems similar to his own. (Moore, who regards this as Gaddis’ “least impressive, least satisfying work,” argues that there’s little that “distinguishes the narrator from Gaddis himself, and it’s naïve to pretend otherwise…”) Tabbi, like Moore, draws in many of the literary inspirations and favourites of Gaddis, explaining how they feature in this final work in a monologue that is, at the same time, a dialogue with the ideas of Walter Benjamin and Plato, among others. He is especially acute on the matter of an old friend of Gaddis, Martin Dworkin, a kind of mentor-cum-inquisitor, whose presence is more, it appears, in Gaddis’ thinking about this novella (and earlier works) than in the final version. The old man’s thoughts wander, but he consistently returns to the plane of music, in Tabbi’s words “a separate place where one experiences emotions and sensations that are less easily defined.” Equal in consistency, Tabbi himself returns to a major point he has sustained over the course of this literary biography, that in this novella, as earlier, Gaddis, for the final time, spoke about “the materials, systems, and specialized languages of corporate America.”



By the end of Nobody Grew but the Business the questions posed above of Tabbi’s book can be answered. George Hunka doubts that “either Tabbi’s biography or Stephen Moore’s recently updated monograph on the novelist will gain Gaddis any new adherents…,” but he does think that the biography “provides an excellent inroad for the newcomer or supplementary reading for the enthusiast — the best we’re likely to get for a long time.” His reasoning is solid, for rarely does an academic study like Moore’s propel readers into bookstores, but I do hope that Tabbi’s approach, complete with its silences and virtues—such as the emphasis on family, music, social context and corporatism—will rouse others to buy this book, and then devise their own portrait of this remarkable author, perhaps through further exploration of his archives at Washington University in St. Louis.

The last word on William Gaddis goes to Joseph Tabbi. “Who can it be, if not the 99 percent, whose talk makes up the bulk of his written work? In channeling his critique and his world vision through us, through voices we recognize as our own and the voices of those near us, Gaddis offers an alternative to markets and corporate systems that operate without recognition. This is what makes him the novelist for our time.”

— Jeff Bursey


Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.


Oct 112015


Houellebecq layers ambiguity with verisimilitude to create a beguilingly credible story that engenders as many questions as answers. Here is a brave new world, not of the distant future, of clones and docile populations controlled by pharmaceuticals, but one which may lurk no further away than tomorrow’s headlines. —Frank Richardson


Michel Houellebecq
Translated by Lorin Stein
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015
Hardback $25.00, 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0374271572


Michel Houellebecq is the bestselling, prize-winning author of novels, books of non-fiction, and numerous essays and works of poetry. His novels include Whatever, Platform, The Elementary Particles (winner of the 2002 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award), The Possibility of an Island, and The Map and the Territory, for which he won the 2010 Prix Goncourt. Submission, his sixth novel, translated from the French by Lorin Stein, will be available in October from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Books edited by Mr. Stein, the editor in chief for The Paris Review, have received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award; in 2013 he was nominated for the Best Translated Book Award for his translation of Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait.

Houellebecq, now fifty-nine and living in France, has been called a provocateur, prophet, misogynist, reactionary, racist, and genius. Each of his novels arrives with its own storm of controversy, and each time we hear the stories and the labels. It was the same for Submission. On the release date, January 7th of this year, two Muslim gunmen shot and killed twelve people in the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo; among the victims, Houellebecq’s friend, economist Bernard Mari. Ironically, that day’s issue of Charlie Hebdo featured a caricature of Houellebecq stating he would celebrate Ramadan in 2022—an allusion to the date in which his new fiction is set, a story about the ascendency of a Muslim political party. Contrary to what may have been assumed, the novel postulates a peaceful, democratically elected Muslim party which brings economic and social stability to a future France.

Submission shares many of the elements Houellebecq’s fiction is famous for, including depressed protagonists with dysfunctional lives, utopian societies, religion, and sex. François, the protagonist, examines his life during the course of a political upheaval in France, and his search for belonging, for love, and for spiritual fulfillment parallels France’s search for a new national identity. The question is, will either find what they are looking for? Can Islam provide the spiritual and philosophical needs to support a stable France, a state failed by laicism and liberal individualism? Is conversion to Islam the right choice for François? These are the surface questions the novel proposes. Houellebecq layers ambiguity with verisimilitude to create a beguilingly credible story that engenders as many questions as answers. Here is a brave new world, not of the distant future, of clones and docile populations controlled by pharmaceuticals, but one which may lurk no further away than tomorrow’s headlines.


Against the Grain

The novel opens with François, the protagonist and narrator, speaking to us from some point in his future. He tells us: “only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting, or repugnant” (6-7). Houellebecq then proceeds, in this 250-page novel to do just that, put us in touch with a human spirit.

The story takes place during a pivotal year in François’s life, beginning in April 2022, in which France, its economy falling apart, is facing a general election unlike any in its history: a Muslim political party is expected to win. François’s tone is jaded, disillusioned; he suspects the best part of his life is past. He describes himself as an atheist who is as political as a “bath towel” and “almost completely lacking in spiritual fiber.” He lives alone in a dreary apartment in the heart of Paris’s Chinatown, surviving on frozen dinners, alcohol, and cigarettes.

For fifteen years François has been teaching undergraduate courses in nineteenth century literature at the Sorbonne, and the forty-three-year-old has no ethical qualms about dating students twenty years younger than him. Despite disdaining marriage (which he reserves for those in “physical decline”) and contemporary sexual mores, the only thing François values, besides literature, is sex. His life is vacant, and the only desire he has, even if he never states it explicitly, is happiness, and the only happiness he can conceive of, sadly, is sexual gratification—well, if he’s honest, this could be improved on if the woman were also a good cook. Nevertheless, François does aspire to more in his life, as we discover whenever his meditations segue into reflections on nineteenth-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans.

HuysmanJoris-Karl Huysmans

Given that many of Houellebecq’s characters are lonely isolationists, it is not surprising that he made François a scholar of J. K. Huysmans. Like Huysmans’s protagonist in À rebours (Against the Grain or Against Nature), François is estranged from society, his job, his family, and his own love life. François’s life also parallels that of Huysmans’s—Huysmans, who struggled with his faith in God and who after much agonizing, took monastic vows; Huysmans, who found the grace Houellebecq feels denied, and thus denies François. François considers Huysmans his only friend, and his reflections on Huysmans’s spiritual journey and return to Catholicism comprise a subplot that lies at the heart of Submission. Indeed, this is one of the novel’s greatest strengths, showing us how a character as apathetic and anhedonic as François can still rise above pessimism and reach for something more spiritually rewarding than the material world and pleasures of the flesh.

against the grainArthur Zaidenberg illustration from Against the Grain


The parallel plot of Submission, the ascendency of a Muslim political party to the French government is the novel’s central conceit. In the general election, the Muslim Brotherhood (a fictional political party), led by the charismatic Mohammed Ben Abbes, comes in second behind the National Front. But in France’s multiparty system, this doesn’t mean defeat, it only means they need to make the right alliances. Ben Abbes is characterized as a political genius, a benevolent Napoleon who knows how to cater to the populace in everything from choosing a running mate to grasping that “elections would no longer be about the economy, but about values” (123). Houellebecq opposes real politicians and parties with fictional counterparts seamlessly.

After the general election, the Muslim Brotherhood forms an alliance with the Socialists to prevent the National Front from winning the presidential runoff. François watches the process on television, mostly with indifference, but when the university closes and riots break out in Paris, he packs up his car and heads south.

François spends a month in the town of Rocamadour where he visits the Chapel of Our Lady every day. While contemplating the famous Black Madonna, he thinks about Huysmans’s conversion, and he seems to have moments of sincere spiritual awakening. He speaks of the famous statue with a tone of respect, if not reverence:

This was not the baby Jesus; this was already the king of the world. His serenity and the impression he gave of spiritual power—of intangible energy—were almost terrifying. . . . What this severe statue expressed was not attachment to a homeland, to a country; not some celebration of the soldier’s manly courage; not even a child’s desire for his mother. It was something mysterious, priestly, and royal…. (134, 137)

Finally, though, he discounts his experience, blaming hypoglycemia, and when he departs for Paris he feels “fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body” (137). This passage parallels what Huysmans wrote in En route; from the epigraph Houellebecq chose for Submission:

I am haunted by Catholicism, intoxicated by its atmosphere of incense and wax. I hover on its outskirts, moved to tears by its prayers, touched to the very marrow by its psalms and chants. . . . And yet . . . as soon as I leave [the chapel] I become unmoved and dry. (3)

Houellebecq will give Huysmans’s emotion to François; he too will feel his heart “hardened and smoked dry by dissipation”; he too will feel “good for nothing.”


Brave New World

Meanwhile, under Ben Abbes’s new government crime and unemployment rates plummet, families are subsidized (so long as women stay at home with the children), and secondary and higher education are one hundred percent privatized (funded by the vast wealth of the “petromonarchs”). Abbes institutes economic policies designed to favor family-centric small businesses. He has seen the future and it is in demographics. The argument is straightforward: liberal individualism, having rejected the family as the ultimate social structure, is doomed to extinction by a low birthrate. French society is being reconfigured according to a utopian philosophy based on family (and future voters). This vision of the future isn’t as exotic as one built on clones or a pharmaceutically controlled populace, no, the future Houellebecq postulates is much more believable than the one Huxley depicted in Brave New World. And that is one sign of effective satire: the unthinkable becomes credible.

brave new worldFinn Dean, Folio edition of Brave New World

When François returns to Paris, women are wearing loose-fitting smocks that no longer expose their legs, his local market no longer has a kosher section, and the university is now the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne. François discovers he has been fired, but with the golden parachute of a full pension. His colleague Steve, who has converted to Islam per the school’s new policy, now receives three times a full pension salary along with a subsidized, “attractive” apartment; furthermore, he is pursuing his second wife under the new polygamy statutes. Consistently inconsistent, François is excited by the prospect of multiple wives.

Ben Abbes continues building his empire, drawing into the EU Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco (with more planned). Although Houellebecq’s exposition detailing the political evolution of Europe and France is so pitch-perfect you might think you were reading about current events, one missing element is any voice of dissent. For example, no one seems to have a problem with how women’s roles are defined. The two strongest women characters, Marie-François and Myriam, barely comment.


The Choice

When a second pilgrimage fails, this time to Ligugé Abbey where his hero Huysmans took monastic vows, François is approached and offered the prestigious job of editing a Pléiade edition of Huysmans’s work. Although the offer is genuine, it is also a ploy to arrange a meeting between François and the politically savvy new president of the university, Robert Rediger.

François’s encounter with Rediger will prove pivotal and begins with his meeting the forty-something Rediger’s new fifteen-year-old wife in the foyer. Rediger’s first wife—“a plump woman, perhaps forty years old”—will serve them canapés and an “excellent Meursault” (a wonderful pun on Camus’s famous antihero). From the first, Rediger is described by his smile: “a lovely smile, very open, almost childlike, and extremely disarming,” a “luminous, innocent” smile. While guzzling the expensive wine, François listens to Rediger’s offer—he wants François back at the university even though it means converting to Islam.

Rediger discounts atheism using a fairly weak intelligent design argument for a “watchmaker” God i.e. that something as large and complex as the universe couldn’t possibly have come into existence on its own. François, having consumed an entire bottle of wine in short order, doesn’t argue with the ingratiating, eloquent Rediger. The encounter is reminiscent of the debate between Mustafa Mond and the Savage in Brave New World, with Rediger as Mond, and François as an (in this case) intoxicated Savage. Rediger has Mond’s self-assurance and makes his pitch for happiness through submission. He reminds François that it was in his maison particulière that Anne Desclos wrote Story of O, a novel that sums up his anti-individualism philosophy on submission. Whether it is a woman’s submission to a man, or a man’s submission to God, for Rediger “the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission” (209). Here is the crux philosophical question the novel asks, is happiness contingent on submission of will?

A month or so later François attends a reception for a newly rehired former colleague, the sixty-year-old Loiseleur. Initially rendered speechless when the awkward, disheveled Loiseleur announces he is married, François manages ask “To a woman?” to which Loiseleur replies yes, “they found me one . . . A student in her second year” (230). And so, standing there before the slack-jawed François is evidence that he too can expect a new wife—as needed—for the next twenty years if he will convert to Islam and accept Rediger’s offer. On cue, the astute Rediger approaches François who asks bluntly about the kind of wives he might expect, and Rediger flashes his brilliant smile.


A Dark Comedy

Houellebecq’s theory of style with respect to prose is utilitarian, and his sentences are straightforward. The tone is conversational, confessional. Houellebecq has written that he has other priorities when writing novels, namely, his characters, and in Submission he has given us a complex, if somewhat familiar protagonist.

Submission is a chimera. It is a quest story, political fiction, philosophical investigation, and dark comedy. Houellebecq is a master of the somber joke, for example: “While I was waiting to die, I still had the Journal of Nineteenth-Century Studies” (39); “It’s hard to understand other people, to know what’s hidden in their hearts, and without the assistance of alcohol it might never be done at all” (129-130); and “I knew next to nothing about the southwest, really, only that it was a region where they ate duck confit, and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war” (101). Beyond the one-liner, the novel is a sardonic satire in the Juvenalian tradition of Swift, Huxley, Vonnegut, Céline, and Houellebecq’s contemporary Benoît Duteurtre. Houellebecq’s satire is effective both in exposing our fear of loneliness and asking what sacrifices we are willing to make for a stable society.

In an interview for The Paris Review, Houellebecq said his novel is not a satire, but that it is about “the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment,” and that he chose an academic setting because of the Huysmans subplot. Nevertheless, the characters are, finally, satirized through the choices they make. For example, it isn’t only that Steve converted to Islam so he can collect a fat paycheck, subsidized housing, and young wives, but he agreed to teach Rimbaud converted to Islam as if it were fact and not speculation. It is more than ironic that the system that is the salvation of the state’s problems undermines the integrity of its educators—it is satirical.

guliverGulliver in the land of Lilliput

Historian Simon Schama said that the purpose of art is to “crash into our lazy routines,” and through François, Houellebecq has certainly created a character that will crash into our complacency. When asked why he wrote Submission, Houellebecq replied that one reason was his atheism seemed “unsustainable” after the deaths he has been faced with. He said:

The clearest point of connection with my other books is the idea that religion, of some kind, is necessary. That idea is there in many of my books. In this one, too, only now it’s an existing religion.

The subtle intelligence of Submission rests in the tension between the surface satire and the undercurrent of sincere self-examination, the quest for an authentic spiritual experience. François’s choice is symbolized in the contrasting worlds of Rediger and Huysmans—on one side: mansions and multiple wives; on the other: the monastery, self-deprivation, and the arduous task of facing doubt while seeking a greater hope—to have heaven on earth now, or wait, patiently, on God.

—Frank Richardson



Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.


Oct 062015


What is surprising in The Good Story is Coetzee’s near preoccupation with some form of absolute truth. He seeks from Kurtz an understanding of the point of therapy, asking whether truth is the only way to “heal” a patient or would some “empowering fiction” make the patient feel good enough to carry on in the world. —Jason DeYoung


the good story

J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-Face with Time
David Attwell
Viking, 2015
248 pages, $27.95

The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy
J. M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz
Viking, 2015
198 pages, $27.95


In Doubling the Point (1994), novelist J. M. Coetzee boldly tells interviewer David Attwell that “all writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it.” Coetzee continues by saying that when you tell the story of your life, you do so “from a reservoir of memories,” selecting those bits of narrative that get to a plausible truth. For Coetzee there’s little difference between autobiography and fiction. Both forms press forward to achieve what he calls a “higher truth” by choosing facts that support an “evolving purpose.” More recently, in his current book, The Good Story (2015), he’ll take it a step further by saying when two people tell each other in conversation their life stories, it is little more than an exchange of fictions that occurs.

It’s easy to say that autobiography and its attendant issues have played large roles in J. M. Coetzee’s career, and it’s autobiography that links the two books up for review. In J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, writer David Attwell gives each of the novels a biographical reading, addressing the authorship that underlines them, “its creative process and sources, its oddities and victories.” In The Good Story, J. M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, a clinical psychologist at the University of Leicester, hold a long-distance dialogue on the nature of truth in fiction and in clinical settings, and whether anything we write or speak can be true.


J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing

David Attwell is to J. M. Coetzee what Boswell was to Johnson, if a man as private and reclusive as Coetzee could have such a person in this life. Attwell is a well-known Coetzee scholar and the author of several other books on the novelist’s work, the best known perhaps is Doubling the Point, a collection of early interviews with Coetzee—before the latter won two Booker Prizes and received the Nobel Prize for Literature (2003). The interviews cover each of Coetzee’s first five books—Duskland (1974), In the Heart of the Country (1977), Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Life and Time of Michael K (1983), and Foe (1986). Interspersed between these interviews are some of Coetzee’s early literary essays and social critiques. David Attwell has called Doubling the Point an intellectual autobiography of Coetzee. In his new book, J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, Attwell sets out to write a critical biography of the novelist.

To draw a distinction between his biography and the one John Kannemeyer published in 2012, Attwell points out that Kannemeyer’s attention was trained on Coetzee’s life rather than the work. It looks more into the genealogical background of its subject—his childhood, education, dealings with publishers, and censors—and pays cursory attention to the manuscripts. For the Kannemeyer biography, Attwell has high praise, remarking that Coetzee sat for interviews and provided Kannemeyer access to papers he has long kept private. Whether it was intentional or not, these two biographies go hand-in-glove. J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing is primarily David Attwell’s interpretation of Coetzee’s life as read through the novelist’s notebooks and early manuscripts, which have been made available to the public in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

The thrust of Attwell’s biography is that at the core of each of J. M. Coetzee’s novels (and the nonfiction works, too) is an autobiographical element, and he makes very good cases for events in Coetzee’s life and how they play into his novels. Where he shines in this vein is in the essay on Age of Iron, where he draws comparisons between Coeztee’s mother, Vera, and the strong heroines in the novels; and on The Master of Petersburg, a novel Coetzee wrote after the death of his son. Attwell skillfully unravels the emotional undercurrents in the latter novel, which he calls an “autobiographical historical fiction,” and insists that it be read in light of the grief it was written in:

As a follower of Bakhtin, and the author of a riskily personal novel, is Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg a personal document, in a sense? The answer to that question would seem to be that Coetzee pushes himself as far as any author could be expected to go, by writing a novel in which the umbilical cord simply cannot be cut. There is some protection in the creation of a fictional surrogate, but not enough to contain the emotional spillage.

Attwell picDavid Attwell

There are standard biographical features in Attwell’s book. He points to large events in Coeztee’s life, general familial relationships, South African politics. But for the most part, Attwell stays out of Coetzee’s more personal life (perhaps as a courteous to a man whom he knows to be reclusive, or not to overlap with Kannemeyer). Instead, Attwell’s biography is comprised of a loose gathering of essays that critique and dramatize Coetzee’s authorial career, at times with startling insight. And where this book really carries its value is in Attwell’s descriptions of the development of Coetzee’s thought and practice.

Starting with Duskland, Coetzee’s first published book, Attwell holds that the “basis of [Coetzee’s] entry into fiction was anti-rationalism, and a revolt against what he saw as realism’s unadventurous epistemology.” Some of the obvious characteristics and structural choices present in nearly all of J. M. Coetzee’s novels are based on his “impatient with the task of creating a credible world, instead of a book that [is] open to experience.” Attwell does a good job of highlighting the techniques Coetzee applies to “circumvent dull forms of verisimilitude,” one of the more interesting being Coetzee’s exploration of modern myth. This technique presents itself in several forms, but primarily in his use of other, older novels as a kind of “jumping off” place. Foe is a re-write of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Roxanna; The Master of Petersburg comes from Dostoevsky’s Demons; and Life and Time of Michael K from Heinrich Von Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhaas.” In recounting “The Burning Book,” a novel Coetzee abandoned between Duskland and In the Heart of the Country because he could find coherent focus, Attwell draws from the novelist’s notebook these lines: “There must be a myth behind [the work]….When I think of a story with the kind of shape that Ulysses or Molloy have, I sense possibilities, which are given by the shape of the wanderings, tests and perils.”

Finding the proper myth wasn’t easy, as the notebooks for Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K show. It is hard to fathom the original versions of these novels. For instance, Waiting for the Barbarians was a dark love story between two lovers, who make a temporary home in former prison cell, with a theme that focused on “sexual restlessness”; Michael K‘s origins lie more in a middle-class, scholarly character instead of the hapless outlaw he becomes. It was the torture and death of Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist, which gave Waiting for the Barbarians its focus on paranoia in its fictional empire. For Michael K it was Coetzee’s intense reach of the imagination to put himself in the role of the oppressed as opposed to his intractable role (due to his race) as oppressor to find his Michael Kohlhaas rebel.

In a letter to Paul Auster, J. M. Coetzee writes:

“One can think of a life in art….in two or perhaps three stages. In the first you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second you labor away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to the third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere.”

From the beginning, J. M. Coetzee hasn’t been interested in standard novel-craft. As Attwell points out in many of the novels there is debates about reading and the writer’s authority. The novels are intentionally self-conscious. But starting perhaps with Elizabeth Costello (particularly its opening and closing stories) and the more recent novels, Coetzee has moved away from the “simple urge to represent” and into “second-order questions.” Examples of these are “What am I doing when I represent?” and “What is the difference between living in the real world and living in a world of representation?” These “secondary-order questions” have lead Coetzee into some fascinating metafictional territory, notably in Slow Man, in which Elizabeth Costello makes a surprise appearance, forcing the protagonist to question the nature of his reality; and in The Childhood of Jesus, a novel set in an invented milieu with character whose pasts have been wiped away. It’s a novel that constantly twists and torques the essence of realism.

J. M. Coetzee and The Life of Writing ends by asking where Coetzee might go next with his “secondary-order questions.” Attwell is inconclusive, but The Good Story might hold some clues. Although it isn’t a new novel, The Good Story does explore some of these “secondary-order questions,” but in a unique way to Coetzee’s body of work. It does so in his own voice and with outside help.


The Good Story

The Good Story is an exchange of emails between J. M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, a clinical psychologist at the University of Leicester. It’s premised on the idea that something can be gained by a therapist exploring her practice in the company of an outsider who is also interested in narrative structures and the “outer limits of experience.”

The book is guided in part by Coetzee’s opening question to Kurtz. He asks, “What are the qualities of a good (a plausible, even a compelling) story? When I tell other people the story of my life—and more importantly when I tell myself the story of my life—should I try to make it into a well-formed artifact…or should I be neutral, objective, striving to tell a kind of truth that would meet the criteria of the courtroom?” From this point the two have a lively and absorbing debate on the nature of truth and fiction.

What is surprising in The Good Story is Coetzee’s near preoccupation with some form of absolute truth. He seeks from Kurtz an understanding of the point of therapy, asking whether truth is the only way to “heal” a patient or would some “empowering fiction” make the patient feel good enough to carry on in the world. He is skeptical of the stories we tell about ourselves. What is being left out of autobiography, he asks, noting that what is left out is only irrelevant to the present interpretation of our past, but not the complete portrait of who we are. “Doesn’t what we leaving out add up to everything in the universe minus our small part?”

akArabella Kurtz

With the weight of clinical experience, Kurtz offers persuasive responses to Coetzee’s formidable questions. She acknowledges that gaps and inconsistencies interest her, but the stories her patients tell are all she has to work with. “Truth in psychotherapy is in its essence dynamic because it derives from the perspective of a living being whose external and internal characteristics change, even in small ways, over time.” She states very clearly that she has to work with subjective and intersubjective truths. Belief is the platform from which she works, belief that her patients have come to her in good faith to tell her the “truth as [it] was experienced,” but with the caveat that often the patients don’t have the insight to understand the circumstances which caused them to suffer.

To which Coetzee yields a little ground, invoking Quixote: “If you concede that my beliefs transform me for the better, why are you trying to destroy my beliefs?”

The first half of The Good Story is dominated by this exploration of truth, for which there are many, and Coetzee has to know this. Still the intellectual exercise is compelling and neither side comes out as the winner, if that’s the right word. In the second half of the book the two correspondences are a touch looser, particularly Coetzee as he reveals more about himself as a child and a writer. He seems to have a dark and distrustful view of memory, wondering since his own mother seems to have implanted memories into his mind (“Don’t you remember such ‘n such?”) ought we be able to “install” better memories. This is part and parcel to his belief that we create fictions about ourselves.

In the second half we also have deeper discussions of Freud, which Kurtz demonstrates a more thorough understanding of—“There is a crucial distinction to be made between repression that acts to protect the psyche…and repression that functions to obstruct development.” The two also get into the moral aspects of the works of Dostoyevsky, Hawthorne, and Sebald, speak at length on the theories of Melanie Klein, Hannah Segal and others, before arriving at a rather long discussion on group narrative.

One of the reasons Coetzee is perhaps so keen to skepticism in regards to personal and group narrative is the colonial history for which he is a part of in South Africa. He takes a long view of the racism in South African history, stating that it was just a part of life, and those living in that time weren’t all active racists. But, as he says to Kurtz, “by the standards of today—of today’s Zeitgeist—our ancestors may seem morally defective.” This strain of the conversations slowly moves toward the concept of gangs, in which Coetzee is particularly interested because he believes there’s something to learn from their raison d être. Without an enemy, a gang is inconceivable, and sometimes the enemy is complete fantasy. He floats the idea that “we need the fictions of others about us in order to form our fictions of ourselves.”

The Good Story is a remarkable addition to Coetzee collection of books, if for no other reason than we have so much of his own voice. Coetzee, as David Attwell’s book attests to, can be elusive, and his novels are often no help because they are dialogical in narrative, often without a true voice to grasp ahold to. But this dynamic energy of thought is often what makes his novels so griping. What makes a good story in the end for Coetzee is the revelation of lies. As he writes: “It is hard, perhaps impossible, to make a novel that is recognizably a novel out of the life of someone who is from the beginning to end comfortably sustain by fiction.” But alas, it might just be an exchange—one story for a better one.

—Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.


Sep 142015


“If there is an overarching drive that threads the collection together, it’s Couto’s commitment to recognize history’s numerous flaws, and to use this history to embrace a diverse future, full of “hybridities” of both self and cultural environs.” — Benjamin Woodard


Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw
305 pages ($22.95)
ISBN 978-1-771960076


Mozambican writer and environmental biologist Mia Couto has published over 25 books of poetry and prose in his career. This work has been translated into 20 languages, and the man himself has walked away with both the Camões Prize—a sort of lifetime achievement award for writers working in Portuguese—and the 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

All of this is to say that Couto is one of Mozambique’s most beloved and respected writers. And yet, despite these achievements (which also include a finalist spot for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize), the author remains a relative unknown in the United States, where I’m writing this review. In fact, I’d wager a rather large sum that most Americans would be hard pressed to locate Couto’s homeland on a map of Africa. This dig is not meant to sound elitist, or cold, but rather to explain the priorities—for better or worse—of my country, a place that prides itself on the idea of worldly dominance while simultaneously knowing very little about the lands outside its borders.

Such literary and geographical ignorance is, of course, a shame for a number of reasons. First, Mia Couto is a fine writer who deserves a wide North American audience (he’s already a proven bestseller in Africa, Europe, and South America). Second, Couto’s latest collection of essays and provocations, Pensativities, would certainly speak to the unversed American, for the concept of world identity often takes center stage in the author’s text. As Couto points out in “Languages We Don’t Know We Know”:

“Never before has our world had at its disposal so many means of communication, yet our solitude has never been so extreme. Never before have we had so many highways, and yet never before have we visited each other so little.”

Expertly translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, these writings span roughly a decade of Couto’s nonfiction work, and are plucked from three previously published books: Pensatempos: Textos de opiniãoE se Obama fosse africano? e outras interinvenções, and Pensagerio frequente. If there is an overarching drive that threads the collection together, it’s Couto’s commitment to recognize history’s numerous flaws, and to use this history to embrace a diverse future, full of “hybridities” of both self and cultural environs. For instance, in his opening essay, “The Frontier of Culture,” Couto confronts cultural illiteracy head-on, linking the issue to the lack of preparation Mozambican students receive in school. Raised primarily in cities like Maputo, these young citizens “behave as if they were emigrating to a strange and hostile universe” once landing in rural areas for University fieldwork. Couto goes on to tie this cultural remoteness to the creation of multiple citizenships within modern Mozambique, where city dwellers look down on those who live in the countryside. In addition, he sees this divide as a result of many citizens refusing to accept history as truth, arguing that Mozambique, along with much of Africa, has crafted an inaccurate, distorted history for itself, placing blame on others where it should instead look inward. “This twisted reading of the past is not merely a theoretical diversion,” he writes. “It ends up giving sustenance to an attitude of eternal victimhood; it suggests false enemies and unprincipled alliances.”

In this essay, as well as in many others, Couto reasons that Mozambicans would be better off embracing their nation’s historical faults, and that for true prosperity, all citizens would also strive to recognize their identities as not simplistic, but multifaceted. In several spots, he writes these thoughts as if providing advice to fellow writers. By way of example, “What Africa Does The African Writer Write About?” urges the writer to “deny his own self,” to become “a creature of the frontier.” Later in the collection, the author worries, “The words of today are increasingly those that are shorn of any poetic dimension, that do not convey to us any utopian vision of a different world.” Couto explains that Africans, like their writing, cannot be pigeonholed into one general, pure entity. “There’s no such thing as purity when one is talking about the human species,” he says. He sees the need for modernity as essential for the nation’s survival, but one hinged on Africans’ acceptance of living in a culturally bountiful world.

Couto’s talk of identity and hybridity saturates most of Pensativities, to the point where some may find his claims redundant. This viewpoint fails to recognize the fact that Mozambique is, as a Republic, quite young, having gained its independence from Portugal in 1975 and then toiling through civil war until 1992. Thus, it has existed as a stable independent environment for only about 20 years. When considered in this perspective, Couto’s ubiquitous musings on individuality translate as not only fair, but expected, as he is a constant witness to a country—flush with nouveau riche and mass poverty—trying to figure out its place in both Africa and the world.

Of course, not all of Couto’s essays ring true. When he tackles rap music, in “Baring One’s Voice,” he sounds largely dated in his observations, complaining that the genre has devolved into “facile rhymes” that merely objectify women and glorify violence. This stereotypical trouncing paints rap in a single color, which ultimately rails against the author’s desire to see the world as an endless prism. Similarly, the essay “The Fly or the Spider?,” which concerns Mozambican adoption of the internet, reads as if written by a technophobe. “I worry about the easy availability of magic wands, fantastical solutions that we arrive at as if they were downloaded,” Couto laments, yet how are his fellow countrymen and women to become a greater part of the global community without such technology? Though the author spins these ideas back into his stance on creating a strong citizenship within Mozambique, his trepidation seems misguided.

For every essay that doesn’t quite stick its landing, however, Pensativities offers over a dozen that succeed. “Half a Future” eloquently honors Henrik Ibsen while simultaneously arguing for women’s rights. “Waters of My Beginning” transcends continents to share the feeling of growing up in a place littered with small town dreams, and “The City on the Veranda of Time” and  “The Sweet Taste of Sura” take the form of travelogue-esque reports to dissect physical changes in Maputo and the Bay of Inhambane, as well as the impact these changes have had on Mozambicans. It is here, in these late entries, that Couto refines his overall point to its essence. When looking at Maputo, he says the city exists “on its wide veranda that looks over and into itself.” It’s a mantra that all readers can absorb, for isn’t that how we all should be motivated to live: at harmony with both ourselves and our world?

— Benjamin Woodard



Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Revolver, Maudlin House, and Cheap Pop. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review OnlineAlternating Current5×5, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at and on Twitter.


Sep 072015

Chris Hedges

The election of President Obama and the economic policies of his administration play like “trickle-down justice.” But, whether he has a choice or not, he is just a puppet to the corporate state, just as any other president would be in today’s polarized, cynical, economically fixed electoral system. —Tom Faure


Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt
Chris Hedges
Nation Books, May 2o15
304 pages, $26.99


Drones, the Patriot Act, stagnant real wages, failed public schools, a compliant press, the state’s shutdown of the Occupy movement, Citizens United, Stand Your Ground laws, stop and frisk, Ferguson, fracking, wiretapping, and the continuous mistreatment, often violent, of minorities, women, and particularly trans people. That’s just the tip of the U.S. iceberg. Then you’ve got the rest of the Earth: poverty, hunger, slavery, and injustice—compounded by the effects of global warming.

We’ve heard it all before, and the liberal mainstream has given up due to cynicism and lack of imagination. The lack of a simple solution dispirits idealists. The politics may be boring, but the situation is dire.

Chris Hedges’ Wages of Rebellion, published in May by Nation Books, reminds us of just how dire, chronicling a litany of anti-constitutional practices undertaken by the U.S. government, often in service of what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism,” a state run by corporate interest. Hedges does not offer any policy-based panacea, the absence of which will disappoint those looking for quick fixes. Indeed, this important book is more a mix of genres. Over his years of international reporting, Hedges has spoken to rebels like Axel von dem Bussche, Julian Assange, Mumia Abu-Jamal, guerrilla fighters, hackers, defense lawyers, Occupy members, and others who toil in the name of social justice. By way of the theories of Gramsci, Havel, Mandela, Baldwin, Paine, and Kant, the book is a series of portraits of these dissidents and rebels, exploring whether a true revolution is in the offing and who the main agents of change would be.

Hedges’ central thesis is that revolution cannot be purely intellectual. He examines the character trait Reinhold Niebuhr called “sublime madness.” Hedges quotes Niebuhr’s declaration that “nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’” Liberalism is too rational, fearing the emotional component necessary, Hedges and others argue, to revolution. The possessor of sublime madness has foregone the mores of the state in favor of universal moral laws—embracing Kantian dignity and duty despite public ridicule and, frequently, violent retribution.

If there’s one thing you can count on in mainstream political discourse today, it’s that it will be dismissive of unquantifiable notions such as truth, love, passion, and fairness. Probably, this is because political discourse is so widely corrupted by neo-liberal ideology, which looks down on these notions with impatience or, sometimes, an embarrassment born out of, I think, fear and insecurity. Liberalism too often allies itself with one of humanity’s more exploitable capacities: rationality.

These abstract notions and their emotional cousins that receive this lazy derision are precisely what those yearning for revolution must not overlook, according to Hedges. An emotional force is the true catalyst—a force born out of misery but also frustrated expectations. Herein lies a major obstacle to any potential New American Revolutions. The masses are placated because their expectations are not frustrated to a large enough extent. They are sipping caloric Starbucks Frappucinos, commoditizing their digital avatars via the strict norms and algorithms of Facebook, freely handing over to corporate interests their valuable political and commercial data. The poor are angry, yes. But the middle class is sedate.

At Columbia University—a bastion of fascist anarchism, if you believe Bill O’Reilly—a standard introductory macroeconomics course includes on its syllabus, as would be expected, the vastly influential thinker John Maynard Keynes. Bravo, Columbia, you lefties! But Keynes makes up perhaps 2 percent of the syllabus, and he is the only economist featured who offers any critique of the supply-side economics pipedream known as the trickle-down effect. As an 18-year-old student, I was shocked and confused by the lack of rigorous critique of neoliberalism initially offered to undergraduates.

As Hedges notes, faith in the trickle-down effect plays an important role in the global takeover of corporate interests in politics, policy, and culture. The idea that the rise of the elite will benefit the weak is very compelling, for multiple reasons. There’s only one problem. The people “benefiting” from the elite’s exploitation of labor and resources are not the weak who can’t help themselves. They are the middle class—those hanging on by a thread as real wages decline and citizen rights become hollowed out. The weak? They’ve already been eliminated.

A similar dynamic is in play with regard to race. The election of President Obama and the economic policies of his administration play like “trickle-down justice.” But, whether he has a choice or not, he is just a puppet to the corporate state, just as any other president would be in today’s polarized, cynical, economically fixed electoral system.


The result is the totalitarianism of the invisible hand. Real wages have not increased in decades, millions of people, especially minorities and especially African Americans, are incarcerated thanks to Bill Clinton’s easy-plea-one-two-three, and even if Black Lives Matter takes off, the Keystone XL Pipeline will probably contaminate millions of people’s water on its way to contributing catastrophic greenhouse gases to the environment.

Hedges posits that revolutions happen, not when the people are subdued by total abjection, but rather when they have had a glimmer of hope. Raised expectations follow technical innovations and a rise in the standard of living—this is when the failings of the state, and its all-too-frequent efforts to smother dissent, fuel the fire of rebellion. Much of the battle is invisible, residing in the language and metaphors of the people. Organizing and community-building facilitate the evolution and sharpening of a language necessary to articulate the emotion awakening in the people.

Another key factor, Hedges writes, is the use of nonviolent civil disobedience. Descending into violence or property damage legitimizes the state’s violent response in the eyes of the masses, whose emotional reaction is so key to the success of the revolution.

The growth of social media might offer a beacon of hope. However, Hedges writes, even in this relatively promising domain, dissident leaders fear the state’s ability to infiltrate and control virtual space:

It is only through encryption that we can protect ourselves, Assange and his coauthors argue, and it is only by breaking through the digital walls of secrecy erected by the power elite that we can expose power. What they fear, however, is the possibility that the corporate state will eventually effectively harness the power of the internet to shut down dissent.

Hedges’ book is a multidimensional, somewhat scattered, consistently incisive exploration of the psychological and linguistic margins upon which any revolutionary fervor might explode in the coming decades. Its critics have rolled out the hackneyed rebuttal: “well, if not global capitalism, then what?” Their claim is that Hedges does not offer any new ideas, dismissing as recycled his calls for civil disobedience and labor organizing. But, just because he doesn’t offer a structural alternative to neo-liberal ideology, that does not make the status quo acceptable.

Besides, the main weakness of Wages for this reader is that it’s simply not terrifically written. Too many instances of awkward syntax break rhetorical flow. Hedges is very thorough—the bibliography offers a comprehensive education on the anarchist critique of both capitalism and communism, as well as on the litany of injustices perpetrated by the U.S. government against its people and those abroad—but he also has a tendency to repeat himself, which can be challenging to a reader seeking the next step of the argument. At other times, Hedges does the opposite, veering into hyperbolic leaps of logic without sourcing data—odd, given his assiduous sourcing otherwise—or leading the reader step by step through the argument.

But these are quibbles, because the book is a political manifesto of sorts, not, say, a piece of literary fiction—yet they do matter, because the book could have been more ambitious. It flirts with cultural criticism at times, elevating the discourse on fanatical capitalism to the metaphorical and literary levels—notably, drawing analogies to Moby Dick. But then Hedges either pulls back intentionally or loses interest in the metaphorical thread, I can’t tell which.

Herman Melville’s odd masterpiece is an ode to the ocean and, though his narrator Ishmael warns against viewing the tale as an allegory, a frightening portrait of capitalism as seen through the whaling industry. Captain Ahab, a fanatical sea wolf, is hell-bent on killing the eponymous great “white whale” that took his leg. Ahab is prepared to forego the massive profits of the whaling expedition as he focuses his energy and his men on finding and destroying this one whale. His language contains sublime madness, which is unfortunate for the crew, all of whom will drown because of Ahab’s charismatic quest. Starbuck, the first mate, is one of the few who expresses doubts about Ahab’s plans for the Pequod.

Ahab's white whale has become a popular metaphor.

Ahab’s white whale has become a popular metaphor. Cartoon by Dave Granlund.

The crucial moment comes in Chapter 36 when Ahab enthralls his poor, exploited crew with glorious visions of killing Moby Dick. Ahab notices Starbuck’s uncomfortable look. He invites Starbuck to respond, in full view of the crew. The first mate initially expresses his worry over consigning the entire enterprise to his “commander’s vengeance.” Ahab rebukes this swiftly, using revolutionary language (my emphasis added):

How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.

Starbuck folds. He lacks the sublime madness (which, interestingly, Ahab does possess, as Hedges acknowledges) or language of rebellion to mutiny against his commander. He bemoans that Ahab has “blasted all my reason out of me!” Hedges writes: “Starbuck especially elucidates this peculiar division between physical and moral courage. […] Moral cowardice like Starbuck’s turns us into hostages. Mutiny is the only salvation for the Pequod’s crew. And mutiny is our only salvation.” Hedges makes a compelling argument that today we have too many Starbucks.

Much of Wages focuses on cataloguing the injustices meted out by the state, only reserving a portion of its energy for portraits of rebels and an exploration of this sublime madness. Hedges does not explore with sufficient force how the quality might develop and how those possessing it will harness their passions and wake the masses out of their slumbers. What does emerge, though, is a compelling spotlight on those who are in the trenches today.

“You can’t fight power if you don’t understand it,” says Abu-Jamal from prison. Better understanding can only aid the cause—but until the corporate state trips up in its successful smothering of the will to understand, there’s little chance sublime madness will penetrate the middle class; without this, any real wages of rebellion will continue to stagnate against the inflation buoyed by mainstream narratives of capitalist ideology.

—Tom Faure


Tom Take 4

Tom Faure received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Waxwing Literary JournalZocalo Public Square, and Splash of Red. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.



Aug 142015

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey cover

Mirrors on which dust has fallen
Jeff Bursey
Verbivoracious Press
344 pages, Paperback $22.99 CAD
ISBN: 978-981-09-5437-6


NOBODY WOULD ACCUSE JEFF BURSEY of being lax in his demands on literature. In much of his book reviewing and other literary criticism – including pieces published here on Numéro Cinq – Bursey argues vehemently against a prescriptive approach to fiction. He trumpets the elasticity of form; he challenges his fellow novelists to eschew tried-and-true strictures on structure; he shames those who take a paint-by-colours approach to characterization; he begs us to embrace experimentation in the truest sense of the term. Mostly, he hates it when writers make rigid statements about what can/can’t be done, should/shouldn’t be done, or must/mustn’t be done when it comes to a creative work.

This mindset is very much on display in Bursey’s own fiction. His debut novel, Verbatim, published in 2010 by Enfield & Wizenty, is written almost entirely in Hansard, the official transcriptive record of a Westminster-style parliament. The book is a kind of literary curios: in it, Bursey shows how much of the muck and mess and pulse of a place –in this case, the city of Bowmount in an unnamed, fictitious Canadian province – he can capture via the verbatim excretions of elected officials. Here Bursey hews closely to perhaps an overtired tenet of fiction (write what you know), as he himself works for Hansard in the provincial legislature of my home city of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Full disclosure: During biannual visits home from Toronto, I will summon Bursey to attend a social gathering I affectionately refer to as the Prince Edward Island Writers Mafia (members include J.J. Steinfeld, David Helwig, Judy Gaudet, Steven Mayoff, and Beth Janzen) in which Bursey’s position resides somewhere between secretariat and chief thumb breaker. Bursey and I see eye to eye on many – though not all – literary conventions and trends, and I’ve generally judged his reviews, even the harsher ones, as well above the belt. One thing is clear from both reading and socializing with him: he is adamant in his insistence that novels be, well, novel.

Which brings us to his latest offering, Mirrors on which dust has fallen, an explosively unconventional, deeply disturbing, and relentlessly original work. This is not, in effect, your daddy’s Canadian Literature. The novel is set in Bowmount in the late 1990s, same as Verbatim; and rather than dropping the reader in medias res, the opening pages provide us with both general details of the town and some specific issues of the day. One of the larger challenges the city is facing, it seems, is to engender a sense of community among a certain contingent of its populace: “Clearly, for those alleged troublemakers Bowmount was not a community but a point on a map, not a City rich in varied history but a town with a grandiose self-conception.” While these prefatory remarks appear a bit rough around the edges – why is city capitalized here? what is “self-conception”? do we mean “self-perception?” – Bursey does a good job of situating us in a fully imagined and concrete place. (With the novel opening in such a prefatory way, it is unfortunate, and somewhat redundant, that publisher Verbivoracious Press decided to include an incoherent, academically pretentious, and wholly unnecessary introductory essay by Christopher Wunderlee.)

The narrative picks up heft as we begin to meet, through alternating chapters, the book’s motley ensemble of characters. There is Loyola, a university-drop out who works a soul-sucking job at a clothing wholesaler. There is his sleazy, supremely confident friend Jules Deeka, offering all manner of temptation from the wings. We meet a deeply compelling woman named Ivy, who struggles with the onset of middle age and its concomitant frustrations. We get a view into a radio station looking to update itself with the times (at the expense of several of its employees) and we also encounter the local Catholic church grappling with a sex abuse scandal. We lounge around in perhaps Bowmount’s most down-market watering hole, Johnny Bar’s, and we learn about three cops killed in a hostage taking at the local pet shop.

Bursey presents each of these threads in fragmented form, the chapters twitching and looping and hopping from one narrative to the next. Unsurprisingly, these strands intersect in surprising ways, and we soon learn about Bowmount’s darker auras glowing just below its skein of lower-middle class normalcy. What impresses most is the level of occupational detail that Bursey weaves into these stories. He is equally comfortable writing about the logistics of clothing wholesalers and the challenges of running a small radio station as he is about the quotidian detail of Catholic ceremonies and the grit needed to keep a seedy pub afloat. Here is an example of this kind of mastery, taken from a chapter called “The priests”:

The archbishop had descended from the refined heights of Toronto and Montreal, and regarded the priests and laymen of the Catholic Church in this province as boobs. Oh yes, intelligent decisions were made now and then, but less than the law of averages allowed; and of course, good works of a highly Christian nature were performed almost every other week. But to his mind the capillaries of the local Church were clogged by the lacklustre efforts of poor priests recruited from the local population, and by the vapouring laymen and church committees.

This level of specificity helps to offset the larger challenge that Mirrors presents to readers – that of a carefully constructed and confounding set of elisions.

What form do these elisions take? Funnily enough, they are very similar to those found in his previous novel, Verbatim. When you write a book almost entirely in the language of Hansard, (not that you have, or I have, or anyone else has, as far as I know; this seems to be strictly Bursey’s domain), you create the unusual constraint of limiting nearly all of your prose to dialogue – specifically the official dialogue of a provincial legislature. In Verbatim, the novelty of this was sharp and rendered into a very believable verisimilitude. A number of our expectations get thwarted or left out as a result: these elisions include descriptive writing, internal thoughts, and other nuanced interactions between characters.

But interestingly, much of Mirrors is also written in dialogue. There are long stretches that consist almost entirely of two or more characters riffing on each other over some element of their individual narratives, with their exchanges demarcated by dashes. Indeed, like Verbatim before it, much of Mirrors reads like a transcription – and as such, it too comes with various exclusions and limitations. Through most of the book, we get very little exposition, almost no physical descriptions of the characters, and a paucity of internal thoughts or monologues. In this sense, Mirrors is like a mirror of Verbatim. But whereas the previous novel was concerned with the “official-speak” of politicians looking to put their best foot forward and get the upper hand on opponents, Mirrors concerns itself with the rough and rowdy transcript of the street. Its characters talk at length about the filth and failure and frustrations of their personal lives. They discuss thwarted ambitions, secret desires, and their often strange or uninspired sex lives. This is the opposite of politicians’ orating formality in a legislature. This is workaday people being baldly honest in the agora of the public square.

Throughout these narratives, there is one issue, one preoccupation, one motif that occurs and re-occurs. It is an obsession of Bursey’s that I failed to spot in reading his first book and his literary criticism, or in socializing with him personally – that of the human anus. The human anus is, it should be said, the closest thing that Mirrors has to a main character. It makes numerous appearances in the different intersecting narratives of the book. At one point Ivy, suffering from some kind of gastric malady, reflects back on a sigmoidoscopy she received, “its camera transmitting pictures of pink flesh, white flesh, red veins in chain lightning patterns, the camera bungling around the nooks and crannies of her intestines during its serpentine intrusion.” At another point, two men discuss how to prepare for the inevitable unpleasantness of prison life with the aid of a carrot. In a particularly provocative section, Jules and Loyola get into a debate about sex’s more cloacal joys:

– But enjoying it? With a man?

– Before AIDS, when things were safer, you went in the back door with a woman, had a bit of anilingus.

– What? Jules explained, finishing with –a pungent meat, like game, make sure you wash before and after. The fundament is one of those places you get a lot of pleasure out of. Slapping, tickling, biting, kissing, enemas if you’re into that, so why not anal intercourse? Greatest warriors in the world did that, the army, the navy, you name it. Natural. Not healthy, not now, but natural. You’re looking pink. It isn’t the chili, is it?

Of course, not all interactions with the anus in Mirrors is consensual. The book also includes a harrowing anal rape scene, recounted by its perpetrator to the fellow lowlifes who inhabit Johnny’s Bar. This man tells how he stalked a young girl whose clothes (or lack thereof) reveal a bit too much of her backside for his liking. His subsequent assault on her on an isolated bike trail is told in chilling casualness, couched as an act of prostitution because he throws the girl forty dollars before raping her. This is as dark as Mirrors gets, and many readers who find their way to this chapter will no doubt be disturbed by it. As someone who has himself included difficult scenes of sexual assault in a novel, I have no advice or solace to provide other than this: as horrific as the scene is in Mirrors, it’s important to see how it fits into the larger thematic structure that Bursey has built for us. There are many ways this novel shows how the city of Bowmount – rendered into such stuffy officialdom in Verbatim – is still very much in touch with its lizard brain. For all the macro social engineering that occurs at the municipal level, individual citizens still feel – and resign themselves to – their basest human instincts.

The rape scene in Mirrors simply takes this to an unconscionable extreme.

Yet change is coming to Bowmount. Indeed, one could argue that change is the ultimate theme in both of Bursey’s novels. In Verbatim, it takes the form of new (and somewhat corrupted) management at Hansard that actually influences the transcripts of the legislature. In Mirrors, the change comes as an unpleasant intruder into the lives of its core characters. Many of them, it seems, wrestle with the brutality that time can exact on us all and the very instability of modern life. Yet this novel ends on a surprisingly tender note in a chapter called “A new cycle.”

What awaits our intrepid Ivy as she is about to take one step toward a man that she should have been with all along? She doesn’t know, and neither do we, but what we’re left with is the knowledge that it’s probably very important to take that step forward anyway. It’s important that dust not settle on the mirrors we hold up to ourselves.

—Mark Sampson


Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.


Aug 032015

Liz Howard

Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent
Liz Howard
McClelland & Stewart
98 pages, Paperback $18.95 CAD
ISBN: 978-0-7710-3836-5


LIZ HOWARD”S DEBUT COLLECTION of poems, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, is astonishingly capacious: It is an extended metaphor for the mind. It is a fiery, radiant rollick through language. It is a meditation on Indigenous lineage and muted origins. It is the type of hard, crystalline speech which illuminates the social-scape from its gutters, a song gifted by an absolute Other, eerily coalescing at the junction of race, class, and gender. The poems which make it up celebrate the natural world while simultaneously attuning themselves to the toxicity of its rivers.

The collection could be described as a supernatural invocation. It could be described as a science of Wonder, a discourse on Wonder with a neuro-scientific diction. It channels scientific language as if it were part and parcel of its mother tongue. It speaks Anishinaabemowin also. It is an appropriation of various giants: Plath and Wittgenstein, many others. It is a neural riot. It is emotionally prodigious. Like the infinite citizen it is named for, the text, too, is startled by some big thing which rattles its stars; it, too, stands with a gaping maw, gobsmacked and in love, reaching beyond itself, fearlessly.

The Shaking Tent rite, in various Indigenous traditions, is carried out by a spiritual healer for the sake of procuring knowledge from the great abyss of the beyond. The healer, the shaman, is enclosed in a tent, whose quaking movements, observed from without, signal the presence of supernatural entities presumed to assist with the mediumistic enterprise. The shaking tent, in the context of this collection, is a metaphor which rebuffs the figure of the solipsistic, self-made self: Howard’s speaker proclaims that her guiding desire is “to not be / inside my own head perpetually / not simply Wittgenstein’s girl / but an infinite citizen in a shaking tent.” Within the metaphorical tent, she is thus positioned so as to be open to a variety of ‘others’: A temporal other in the form of events which have not yet occurred (hence she can “receive / the call that comes / down the barrel / of the future”) and a human Other (an Autrui): “I know myself to be a guest / in your mind a grand lodge / of everything I long to know and hold / within this potlatch we call / the present / moment.”

These others are, of course, not quite amenable to being grasped. If they are grasped at all, they are never grasped fully. The speaker’s desire for knowledge is, as the title of the collection suggests, infinite: inexhaustible, but also asymptotic (“this is my delta my neural asymptote”). That is, the speaker approaches, verges on, that which she reveres and longs for, but never reaches it. Only desire which is asymptotic can be, along with the pleasure which accompanies desire, indefinitely sustained. Only desire which is asymptotic, moreover, is compatible with wonder: it is an active curiosity which cannot conquer, and which is thus at the same time a non-violent ‘leaving be.’ The beyond, the remainder which is never colonized but which touches these poems, at times lends the collection something like a religious quality: The text nods its head to something sacred and inhuman, almost god-like (“What auspice will lend me a sacred belt?”), and possibly imperilling (“What little there is beyond impermanence / conspires with half a mind on the original / to sew us closed”).

The poems are riddled with references to time, to standard time, to time ephemeral (“the time zone of some desperate hour”) and to time unending (“O creek, bleeding hills, census inveterate / let me sleep five more minutes just five / minutes more before we default on / eternity”). How these references fit together, or fit into their respective poems, is occasionally mysterious. This is because Howard’s lines at times defy conventional sense: “I have as much stake / in speaking this / as the water / which also / discloses futurity / in a little black dress.” Lines carve out logics which exceed those of everyday communication. Many (not all) of Howard’s poems run on semantic discontinuity, on the imaginative leap: “I remove my belt / and snap it / at the stakeholders of the commonplace / at a crucifix / at the tariff of longing / at the dawn / at my own name.”

The experimental poet Charles Bernstein has observed that sense is irreducible to connotation and denotation, that meaning’s reach is total: acoustic sense (the sense, for example, Howard’s lines make to the ear, if not to the schooled mind, which is trained to unpack propositions and carry out theme-based exegesis) is still sense,[1] even though—because at a remove from reference—it is more difficult to theorize about. The infinite citizen herself insists that “our only limit / will be of language”; “feral,” she tells us, “I enter / the court of words,” where “tangents come to take you away.” It would be wrong, then, to reduce the time-related mentions so ubiquitous in Howard’s book to anything like a series of genuinely-intended claims—which is not to say that they are never genuinely intended—and to hold their enigmatic character against them. Still, we can say that temporality exists as part of the book’s conceptual-scape. It is a conspicuous motif:

The speaker casts a casual eye toward an apocalyptic future (“we’re just friends / hanging out / in my apartment / until the world ends”). At times the world, the “whole earth,” seems to have ended already, seems to have already “retired from intimacy.” Elsewhere, the speaker is preoccupied with the present, “LOLing / in the middle / of mere existence.” Several of the poems included in the collection (e.g., “Look Book,” “Boreal Swing,” “1992,” and “Bildungsroman”) are essentially portraits of the speaker’s past, glimpses of poverty, records of the sensory impressions and memorable communications of the speaker’s youth (“This is our welfare half / a duplex with mint green / siding shrugged between / rail yard and main street”; “when I was / small and somewhere my / birthfather is drunk and / homeless, half-mad when / the cops ask him for his name / he’ll say, December”). These poems are, to a certain extent, set apart from the other poems in the collection in that they participate in a slightly different aesthetic; still, they exhibit continuity with the other poems insofar as they participate in the temporal triptych (past, present, future) Infinite Citizen is, elsewhere, constantly alluding to.

The colonial critique Infinite Citizen is carrying out is subtle. For the most part, it is not effected by explicit statements; rather, it is evoked by the politically charged vocabulary, or diction, Howard has incorporated in surprising ways into the poetry, a diction which, so-embedded, has become ambiguous without fully shedding its political resonances: Line sequences like “into the puffed metastatic coal became the water / into the affirmative action embryonic mortality / of the loon summit,” and “bioaccumulation became us Athabasca / sweet reconciliation spoke in / mercury, arsenic, lead, and cadmium” prime us, politically, without saying any one thing in particular. Isolated, creatively contextualized words in this way function as constant reminders; their associations haunt, invade, the text. We are not allowed to forget. The text refuses to be blatant, but it has found a way to do this, quite ingeniously, while simultaneously refusing compulsory silence. Even the text’s more positive incorporation of, for example, Anishinaabemowin concepts—such as the Shaking Tent—is a making-present, a kind of metaphysical assertion of a culture covered-over, if not outright killed, and of a portion of the speaker’s subjectivity which has been culturally minimized, or suppressed.

Infinite Citizen exhibits feminist preoccupations as well; the speaker, it seems, is a feminine subject; the colloquial language which, at times, erupts into what, at other times, seems like a specialist’s text (“hey, self / are you lovely yet?”; “with red needles I will ask you again / where is my good / gloss?”) calls to mind the work of writers like Margaret Christakos and Lisa Robertson, two of Howard’s former mentors. Wasn’t it Lisa Robertson, who, taking on the dead male poetry giants of the epic tradition, trying to outdo, or amp up, even their classical pomp, irreverently wrote “Hey Virgil / I think your clocked ardour is stuck…”? Both Lisa Robertson and Gail Scott, moreover, in different ways in their respective writings, have preoccupied themselves with ‘ornamentation’ and ‘surface,’ conceptions traditionally associated with femininity; they have made something out of these notions aesthetically as part of a feminist re-appropriation of writing itself (with Gail Scott producing texts which abandon plot in favour of imagistic and linguistic tangents, or, in other words, in favour of ‘ornaments’ which make up the text’s ‘surface’). Howard’s colloquial expressions, her speaker’s good gloss (deemed, by dint of inclusion, an appropriate subject for poetry), and the “punk psalms” she, at other times, refers to, elaborate and affirm a form of feminine subjectivity, as well as a politicized, dissident aesthetic which admits of only a recent history.

Throughout the text, Howard blurs the border between the subject’s cognition and the world which is external to it. The infinite citizen’s psychic geography is physical; it is made up of veins, blood paths, as much as it is populated with creatures and stones. A hare goes “to rut in the reverb / of precognition.” “The total psychic economy shimmers / a latent mouthpiece of maple.” The infinite citizen thus stands in relation to the environment as absolutely porous; the highway is ‘venous’; the snow is ‘hemodynamic.’ The mind and the body likewise reserve nothing from one another, extend into one another, become conflated with one another. In this text, there is only fluidity, never dualism; the spiritual is a good dirt; the spiritual is chemical.

At a technical level, Infinite Citizen is appropriative; the work, then, not only dismisses the boundary between the objective and the subjective, it does away with the territory lines gouged between texts. The poems in the collection help themselves to each other, as in the procedural poem “Ring Sample: Addendum,” which is made up of lines which occur in the book’s earlier poems.The words and rhythms of many other writers have made it into Infinite Citizen as well. Where Plath, for example, writes “O my God, what am I / That these late mouths should fly open,” Howard writes “could our late mouths ever know such a green word / as vertigo.” Where Plath writes “In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers,” Howard writes “in a daffodil chorus of posthumous laughter / this clapboard passport.” In one poem, Plath remarks: “All morning the / Morning has been blackening, / A flower left out”; in another, she speaks of a father figure at whom she cannot look much, since his “form suffers / Some strange injury / And seems to die.” Howard, who, seemingly moved by Plath, nevertheless refrains from embracing her totalizing bleakness, in a single poem, informs the reader: “All night the blood moon measures the dilation / of your pupil, pinprick or dinner plate / in this plenum where our attention fails to die.”

It is the plenum, nothing short of the plenum, which is, I think, the source of these new poems, as well as their resplendent infiltrator. Liz Howard has managed something extraordinary here, has managed, in fact, a number of extraordinary things: She has composed an incredibly thought-provoking, intelligent text and she has pulled this off in an impeccable, beautiful language. She has registered—expressed rather than turned from—life in its most gritty, sad, anxiety-producing manifestations. And she has managed to excite. And she has managed, also, ferociously, to marvel.

—Natalie Helberg


Liz Howard is a Toronto-based poet. She works as a research officer in cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Science degree with High Distinction from the University of Toronto and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals (The Capilano Review, The Puritan, and Matrix Magazine). Her chapbook Skullambiant (Ferno House) was a finalist for bpNichol Chapbook Award in 2012. Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent is her first full-length collection.


helberg pic

Natalie Helberg completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on and in Canadian Literature. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. See Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption”
Jul 112015

Jeff Parker

At its core, Where Bears Roam the Streets aims to strike a balance between Thompson-esque madness and serious journalism. — Benjamin Woodard

Where Bears

Where Bears Roam the Streets
Jeff Parker
Harper Perennial
368 pages($16.99)
ISBN 978-1554683826


As an American child of the 1980s, three well-known figures essentially forged my understanding of Soviet Russia: Odessa-born comedian Yakov Smirnoff (“Why don’t they have baseball in Soviet Union? In Soviet Union, no one is safe!”); Ivan “I must break you” Drago, the fictional pugilist from the cinematic travesty Rocky IV; and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (though, to be honest, most of my interest here surrounded the various jokes about his birthmark).

To say that I grew up in a non-political household would be an understatement. I was a child living in blissful ignorance of the outside world, and the U.S.S.R. was simply a place with funny rules, mean boxers the size of horses, and a leader as strange as our own Ronald Reagan.

Jeff Parker, in his energetic new journal/travelogue/memoir, Where Bears Roam the Streets, admits to a somewhat different childhood. Raised in north Florida, he writes that, while his family wasn’t “tuned in” politically during his childhood, he developed a fear of the U.S.S.R. thanks to nuclear attack drills during school hours, coupled with the 1983 TV movie The Day After:

After seeing the movie The Day After, which solidified in me the understanding that Russians were my enemy, I asked my mom if we could put in a below-ground fallout shelter.

Of course, Parker expanded his worldview as he aged. A budding writer, he found appreciation in Russian literature—Gogol, in particular—and in 1999, while in graduate school, he began visiting the nation regularly to work at the St. Petersburg Summer Literary Seminars. During his first summer abroad, he bonded with Igor, a walking tall tale of a young man, and their friendship bloomed. Until the Literary Seminars shuttered in 2008, Parker and Igor spent summers together, and when Parker was back home, the pair kept in contact via Skype. Then, in the summer of 2009, as Parker’s marriage slowly deteriorated and Igor found himself suddenly unemployed thanks to an economic collapse caused by Russia’s armed conflict in Georgia, the duo decided to spend the summer traveling. The point of the trek was twofold: to unwind, firstly, but also so Parker could write about the land that scared him so in his youth. The result—Where Bears Roam the Streets—is a fascinating volume, equal parts examination of Russia culture and rowdy road trip, that rarely stumbles in its bid to illuminate the highs and lows of modern Russian life.

The book oscillates in time and location, with chapters chronicling Parker and Igor’s travels (first to the Black Sea coast, then to Siberia to visit Parker’s estranged wife) interspersed with sections devoted to a wide variety of Russian curiosities—from matchmakers to political activists—as well as Igor’s wild past. These shifts occasionally feel abrupt, derailing some narrative flow, yet all are important to understand the actions taken by those Parker encounters. Tales from Igor’s history, especially his time in England, working for pittance while being “trained” as a manager for a British muesli plant set to open in St. Petersburg, establish the man’s skepticism. Further, a brief account of Igor’s multiple comical attempts (and eventual success) to evade military service in 1999 permit the persuasive, suave Igor of 2009 to seem all the more fathomable. This story of draft dodging also resonates in the larger world when juxtaposed with Parker’s visit with writer Denis Burov and Ilya Plekhanov, both former soldiers who fought in Chechnya. When Burov, who suffered from poverty and intense PTSD following his service, tells Parker, “Service is not a noble thing here in Russia, unfortunately…Now the common point of view is a real man has to buy his way out of the service,” it’s hard not to look at Igor’s charm and persistence with a bit of disgust. Through these somewhat unrelated incidents, his character rounds out, so that as his journey continues, we feel for his triumphs and defeats.

Likewise, such encounters also bring to light some of Parker’s own unease, serving to expand his persona:

I always felt guilty around guys my age who had gone to Iraq while I prowled bars and wrote my stories. And unlike Igor, I hadn’t swindled my way out of fate…Put in the same situation [as Igor], I’d have done everything in my power—I’d have paid much more than Igor for an X-ray showing a non-existent crack in my spine.

Here, another heartbeat of Where Bears Roam the Streets is exposed, for while Parker claims his book’s overall agenda is to further comprehend Russian life, time and again his explorations prove he’s also searching for a greater understanding of his own nature. After Igor tells Parker of his own psycholinguistic method of working out problems, the author finds himself testing the technique on his own woes. Likewise, Parker chastises Igor’s treatment of women, claiming his friend suffers from a “‘man is first’ mantra,” yet the author sometimes describe the females he encounters with a touch of male gaze (it should be noted, however, that Parker does devote large chunks of his book exposing some of the horrible injustices faced by many Russian women: unforgiving romantic expectations, physical and sexual abuse). It’s in moments like these that Where Bears Roam the Streets chronicles Parker’s psyche as much as that of the world around him, a general feeling echoed about halfway through the book when Parker writes, “I wondered at the Igor part of me. And the me-part of him…” As the two roll across the land, consuming vodka, sweating in banyas, and mulling life, there are certainly times when these “parts” blur.

Gary Shteyngart, in a blurb that appears on the back cover of Where Bears Roam the Streets, calls the book “A kind of Fear and Loathing on the Trans-Siberian Railroad,” and while such a catchy quote will certainly help move paper copies, it ultimately sells Parker’s ambition short. Yes, the total amount of alcohol consumed during the author’s escapades with Igor would leave lesser writers dead, and scenes of hosting celebrations full of fellow travelers while staying in Listvyanka contain a fair share of combustible energy, but to paint Jeff Parker’s latest as a Hunter S. Thompson imitation would be a massive disservice. At its core, Where Bears Roam the Streets aims to strike a balance between Thompson-esque madness and serious journalism. As Parker speaks to his subjects, both casually and in more formal interviews, he does so with the interest of a man who truly wants to learn, who truly hopes to grow from each experience, and as readers along for the ride, we are all richer for having experienced the world via his curious nature.

— Benjamin Woodard



Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews and criticisms have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, The Kenyon ReviewPublishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at and on Twitter.

Jul 112015


As with any collection of essays or reviews, there are aspects to argue against and agree with, which is a sure indicator that Winters sparks interest. —Jeff Bursey


Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory
David Winters
Zero Books
Paper, 210 pp., $22.95
ISBN: 9781782798033


Readers of new writing increasingly get a fair sense of what is out there, and how it’s viewed, by going to Internet journals or blogs run by reputable, trusted figures, and less and less from the review sections of newspapers that appear dedicated to safe choices. Occasionally an individual’s contributions to book reviewing warrant publication, as was the case last year, with Dzanc bringing out John Domini’s zesty collection that showcased familiar (Gilbert Sorrentino, John Barth) and less familiar authors (Lance Olsen, Dawn Raffel), drawn from over three decades of critical thought. It’s the work of a mature writer who is also a novelist.

David Winters is co-editor in chief of 3:AM Magazine, an Internet journal relied on for news about literary matters, and he is, according to his website, also “…a literary critic, currently based at Cambridge University, where I’m researching Gordon Lish’s influence on American fiction from 1960 to the present. Alongside modern and contemporary literature, I’m also interested in continental philosophy and metaphilosophy, the history of concepts, and the sociology of ideas and intellectuals.” A current book title containing the word infinite brings to mind not endless expanses but defined territories, either because the use of the word here has to be ironic or not serious, or because a contrarian approach rises up inside or is expected to be found in the pages. The three-part division of Winters’ book—“Introduction,” “On Literature,” and “On Theory”—indicates that theory, apart from its, well, apartness or maybe alien(n)ation (so to say) from literature, is an equally circumscribed and vast fiction. Hence, immense space can be conceived, but that thought often crumbles into thoughts of the continent lived on, the country inhabited, the city that hosts the seat of higher learning where metaphilosophy can be studied, or the neighbourhood lived in. In Infinite Fictions, tension exists from the outset.


A banker once asked a group to help define his occupation. “What do you call a parasite that lives on parasites?” Metaparasite sprang to mind. David Markson, in Reader’s Block, wrote: “Horseflies that keep the horse from plowing, Chekhov called critics.” A review of any fellow reviewer’s collection could contain this old verse: “Big fleas have little fleas,/Upon their backs to bite ’em,/And little fleas have lesser fleas,/And so, ad infinitum.” Despite the personal nature of a large amount of literary criticism—at times the confessional tone topples over into the ridiculous—it’s useful to keep in mind that Infinite Fictions is the object in the world that’s under consideration, though imbued with some of its subject’s nature—critics don’t have, or else aren’t granted, the same elasticity with regards to creating personas as fiction writers—but while it may be impossible to divorce one’s own obsessions from the obsessions of the subject, it is also, to a degree, impractical. A literary work of any meaning—and “literary” means anything that uses words, from flyers to a high-flyer like Foucault—engages with its contemporaries, its predecessors, and future writings not yet dreamed of. Or, to speak with, against, alongside, and over fellow fleas.

Terry Eagleton’s The Event of Literature and D.N. Rodowick’s Elegy for Theory frame the section “On Theory.” This is neat bookending in the sounds, in the event closed off by a lament for the dead genre, and the seeming capitulation of theory to literature. From Eagleton’s work, as quoted, mediated, and commandeered by Winters—don’t hold that word against him, or rather, hold it against most reviewers who try, in Domini’s words, to “honor my elders,” since inhabitation of a text is at times irresistible in order to winkle something out of it and make it a fixture in the armature of personal thought—the report arrives that literary theory had its best days in the 1970s and 1980s, and its energies, approaches, and concepts, unsurprisingly, have been subsumed by cultures small and large and integrated into general discourse (such as the way your eye just passed over the word discourse without a mental blink). Eagleton “attempts to retrieve some of literature’s strangeness and singularity” by calling on theory; “…Eagleton makes a persuasive case for returning to what could be called ‘pure’ literary theory… To theorize in this sense is to reassert the centrality of close literary analysis, recovering literature as a determinate object of study, distinct from broader conceptions of ‘culture.’” Free of humility, Eagleton’s view retains its savior complex, that theory is again able and ready, even from its recumbent position, to help literature go wild.

Discussing Rodowick’s book, which “excavate[s] the fossil record of theory, rather than adding another two cents to the increasingly tired arguments ‘for’ or ‘against’ it,” Winters writes that “academic disciplines… [are] increasingly keen to deny theory’s lasting effects; thus, theory is rather ritualistically declared ‘dead,’ and we assume that we’re safely ‘after theory.’” He sees hope in Elegy for Theory: “…perhaps [theory’s] historical closure leaves it newly illuminated, in ways which weren’t possible when it was pressingly present.” (Oppressively omnipresent might be another way to put it.) In this review Winters seems more comfortable, and he is more persuaded, than in his review of Eagleton—whose work he ends by judging as somewhat “diffuse” (129)—hence his writing picks up a bit and the sentences flow better.

At certain times in this section bias overcomes the usually even-handed treatment of the book at hand. Winters’s review of Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels, an insider’s look at Oulipo by one of its two American members (inexplicably, Harry Mathews goes unmentioned), is slightly condescending to the efforts of this group—encapsulated in “even if, like me, you remain unconvinced by the Oulipo, an outsider looking in” (140)—that may be understandable on its own (not everyone likes restrictions and games). However, when explaining the content of Martin Woessner’s Heidegger in America—a “‘reception history’” on how the philosopher’s ideas permeated the thinking of U.S. academic institutions—Winters stays mum on Heidegger’s Nazism, though Woessner doesn’t, and the omission looks selective.

Generally, however, throughout this section of the book Winters appears knowledgeable about a variety of theoretical approaches, and writes with confidence. His appraisals of Franco Moretti and Cathy Caruth are good introductions to the ideas of both, and he has some interesting things to say about Robert Musil when examining Robert Musil and the NonModern by Mark Freed.


Winters is not a writer one quotes for the loveliness of his phrasing. There are no witty expressions and few surprising word choices, or viewpoints that catch one off guard, though there is the occasional alliteration. His sentences lack a firm enough individualistic rhythm, and this may be due to frequent quotations from others, such as when he quotes Derek Attridge using one word, “singularity.” Like environmentalists spike trees with metal, Winters deploys quotations and critics as a defence and bulwark for his opinions. In “On Theory” that habit of thinking or writing choice fits in with the topics, but “On Literature” covers 21 fiction writers who possess styles that leave the quotations from Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu, and others jutting out in ungainly ways.

“On Literature” opens with a review of Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes and closes with a review of Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla. It is worth quoting lines from the first paragraphs of each to demonstrate that, as in “On Theory,” Winters has chosen carefully his frame works.

Writing about the work of Micheline Aharonian Marcom is likely to leave one searching for words. Each of her books has been newly, bravely bewildering, in ways that are almost beyond paraphrase. That is, these texts assert such stylistic strength that they seem to resist the language of criticism, or any language other than their own. How can prose so poetically self-reliant, so set apart from our ‘ordinary’ discourse, be faithfully described, let alone criticized, from outside? Confronted with this kind of writing, any critical review—any act of writing about—could run the risk of redundancy.

I won’t say anything about Andrzej Stasiuk, and I’ll try not to say much about myself. About Poland, I’ll say nothing. This text doesn’t need to be contextualized. Equally though, Dukla shouldn’t be subjected to a ‘close’ reading. Perhaps the words on the page aren’t worth as much as we think. What matters is the way that a work presents itself. The experience it evokes; the constellation of images it conveys.

This is not simply something linguistic. Literary language is not what makes literature literature…. Books aren’t what we as readers believe them to be. There’s something beneath the words that we read. With Dukla, one way of saying this is that language is ‘backlit.’ The book is lit up by something shining behind it.

It is unclear what that “shining” background comprises and difficult to condense poetic prose in fresh words. A looming deadline and a waiting editor, as well as the irrepressible urge to provide a partial (in more than one sense) description of what a book does to the mind, in the hope that not too much damage will be done in the rendering, often combine to push scruples out the window. Winters spends several pages on two books he is reluctant to trap, as Domini put its, in “a kind of shrink-wrap that risks suffocating the artwork under consideration.” As a professor of mine liked to say, we must eff the ineffable; it’s a compulsion.

In the review of Dawn Raffel’s In the Year of Long Division Winters offers a view of publishing as well as one of many encomiums to the Great White Wizard whose shadow stretches across this section of Infinite Fictions:

Between 1977 and 1995, the American publishing industry witnessed a burst of avant-garde activity whose cultural impact has yet to be adequately assessed. The years in question correspond to the legendary (and controversial) career of Gordon Lish as senior editor for fiction at Alfred A. Knopf. For nearly two decades Lish was uniquely placed to, as he put it, “indulge my fantasies at the expense of a large corporation.” … From Diane Williams to Gary Lutz, Rudy Wilson to Jason Schwartz, Lish championed writers who challenged fundamental conventions of style and form.

Raffel “is an author associated with what some have called the ‘School of Lish.’ Yet this crude category does a disservice to what are often… strikingly singular writers and works.” Crude it may be, but the generality is enforced by Winters’s frequent evocations of his acquaintance and references to Lish’s literary invention, consecution, which Winters makes clear, while reviewing Lish’s Peru, can be defined as “less a methodology than a metaphysic; a miraculating agent; an instance of spirit or pneuma submerged in the world.” From potential savior and midwife (a mix of Eagleton and Ezra Pound)—in the mini-history above the authors are subordinate to their discoverer—to the mind behind “a miraculating agent”—if readers are not persuaded by this near-hagiography of Lish, then that will affect their opinions on Winters’s collection.

As with most review collections, there are ones that are successful and ones that are not. The virtues of Ivan Vladislavić’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories excite Winters as he explores a text that “…is brought into being by the tension between being written and unwritten, where neither ever overwhelms the other. In this way the work doesn’t work out, isn’t resolved into a work, but rather results, inevitably, from a field of forces…,” and his admiration leaps off the page in an infectious way. “Fictive forms preserved in infinite space,” says Winters of Vladislavić’s novel; it’s a remark that also evokes his own book.

Kjersti Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, a novel that deserves to be much better known, is a well-told sad story about the predicament of its lead character, Mathea. Her state, as well as the calm tenor of the prose, encourages Winters to enter more emotional terrain. Mathea “longs to lose herself in a benignly entropic universe, obeying her mind’s inward pull toward dissolution and death. But an opposite impulse calls her to cling to her life’s specificity, searching for any attributes that make her unique…” This neatly captures the yo-yoing Mathea feels, and is respectful of her movement from one thought to another.

Some reviews fail to convince. Winters declares: “Marcom is not preoccupied with plot; her writing reads more like an open inquiry into her chosen emotion… Hence narrative convention is overturned by something closer to the lived experience of loss: rather like in life, a relationship’s end retrospectively alters its memory.” This review first appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, a home for unconventional works reviewed by unconventional writers for  unconventional readers. (Regrettably, there is no clear indication exactly when and where reviews originally appeared nor is there an index.) After reading the preceding paragraphs Winters provides on the risks Marcom takes, it’s unclear what review reader would be so wedded to “narrative convention” or find Marcom so radical.

Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends, and another Lish protégé, is the subject of a review that founders on a misunderstanding. Isabel tells Ned she’s “‘depressed’” and that she likes “‘melancholy,’” and it becomes clear that she treats these two terms as if they are the same. Instead of interrogating this word choice (it could be appropriate for the character) or outlining the differences, Winters leaves untouched psychology and neurological advances on the make-up of depression, turning to a literary theorist for instruction: “In this, [Isabel’s] condition recalls Julia Kristeva’s description of ‘melancholia.’” Summarizing more of Kristeva on this matter, Winters says that in her view “there’s clearly an ambiguity at the core of depression. In their inarticulate plight, perhaps depressives are like failed artists, blocked writers. But by accessing an inner world of poetic expression, each is also an artist in the making… One way of recovering,” Winters continues, “from melancholia is to craft an ‘independent symbolic object’—a work of art.” He has adopted Schutt’s interchangeable use of depression and melancholy. It’s a flawed review that never recovers.

As with any collection of essays or reviews, there are aspects to argue against and agree with, which is a sure indicator that Winters sparks interest.


“Introduction” speaks about the reasons behind this book’s existence, and Winters’s experience as a reviewer. On the cusp of inviting the world to dive into a collection of his writing, he is less sure of himself than is illustrated in the attitudes and knowledge found in the pages ahead. Speaking on how reviewing can contain aspects of oneself, he make the good point (though few will agree with it) that “literary subjectivity isn’t always aligned with autobiography. Right now, I’m writing this in the first person, but I perceive that person as a perfect stranger.” It’s doubtful that “perfect” is any more accurate than “stranger,” unless Winters’s personality changes so uncontrollably it’s beyond his grasp. He elaborates: “Put simply, I’ve never known who I am. Nor do I feel securely in sync with the world. I intersect with it at an abnormal angle—my link with life is dislocated. Of course, this condition isn’t uncommon. I mention it only to emphasize that an initial alienation led me to literature.” If something isn’t uncommon then it’s not abnormal; it can be odd, eccentric, idiosyncratic, and even normal. Not to speak harshly or dismissively, but he must have his pose, as do other reviewers (though see above regarding the restrictions). “I wouldn’t say I give much away in my writing, but some of it still speaks obliquely of secret experiences: depression, religion, unrequited love.” He’s left most of his life outside the reviews, then—or to quote him, “About Poland, I’ll say nothing.” Yet if he’s a perfect stranger who doesn’t know himself, how does he know this, and what trust can be placed in his ideas? In one review he states that “personae in books are merely arrangements of surfaces, much like us.” Why, then has he assembled this book written by other David Winters, and what value does it have? He can’t be speaking from any position of grounded authority, although the reviews themselves carry a greater assurance.

The key to this work may rest in this line from the introduction: “I’ve tried to rationalize my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.” (Theory has a special place in his world: it is a “totem or talisman; a charm that we clasp to our hearts.”) Solace is a comfort one offers to others, in a positive way, as if to say, “Since art (or religion, or sex, or Pop-Tarts) has been a balm, for me, then maybe it can be the same for you.” This may be the impulse behind the collection. However, considering the role Lish played in getting people published—that is, in making commodities of artists’ utterances—and in furthering the careers of other writers who have gone on to earn money through publishing and/or teaching, it’s unusual that Winters regards books solely as artistic creations. He’s aware that part of a reviewer’s task is to bring notice of novels, poems, essays and such to readers so they’ll purchase them, and many are delighted when their words are placed on a book jacket. (His expression recalls a totally contrary belief voiced by Gilbert Sorrentino in The Moon in Its Flight: “Art cannot rescue anybody from anything.”) Hence (a word Winters frequently uses), the question of whether he has a blind spot here is an open one.

In the introduction’s closing paragraph, Winters talks about the “triviality” of reviews, and about “the vanity of assembling this kind of collection…. Really, they’re only records of my desperate autodidacticism.” In contrast, the last line quotes Bourdieu (a touchstone in this book) referring to “‘a collection of unstrung pearls…’” Wealth and trivia; there’s one more tension. The reviews themselves have little of this nervous throat-clearing, and show, more fully, that David Winters wants to be included in conversations around ideas, letters, and figures that are heard throughout the republic of letters. There’s no need for modesty, real or false, and no need to apologize. “In a way, to write a review is to hide behind what another, better writer has written.” Or to jump on the back of others—like a flea—and draw sustenance and courage from them.

—Jeff Bursey


Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the forthcoming picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Jul 072015

Robert MusilRobert Musil

Robert Musil translated by Genese Grill

Thought Flights: Stories, Glosses, Literary Fragments of Robert Musil
Translated and with an introduction by Genese Grill
Contra Mundum Press, 348pp.
ISBN 9781940625102



here are writers who draw readers into their magnetic fields so that everything they write is of interest—because the author’s dreams, thoughts, questions, do not simply mirror the reader’s but take him or her through the looking glass into a secret world. Literature in this sense is not an entertainment, but an initiation. The writer may be dead, but the words still hold life and in the case of Robert Musil, whom I know only in translation, it is the electric current of thought that seems to pass from his pages to me—teasing, taunting at times; asking me to accompany him into a zone of danger. There are other great novelists at the end of whose books or stories I have found myself changed, Kafka, Proust, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, come to mind, but I confess that none have exercised the continual hold on me that Musil does. And yet, Musil remains for all his frankness, elusive, perhaps because he often found his own existence and mind so.

If I begin with my own experience of Musil’s hypnotism, it is to explain why Thought Flights, the most recent publication of Musil’s work is such a valuable addition to his published work. The handsome edition of Contra Mundum Press has a long, thoughtful introduction by Genese Grill. She speaks both to the complexity of translating Musil and to the psychology of his prose, particularly in the feullitons, short pieces which make up a significant number of the pieces in this collection. They may seem at first glance as Grill remarks, using a critical phrase of Musil’s like “soap bubbles,” or “shenanigans,” Spielerei, but in fact like his major opus, The Man without Qualities, they attempt to explore “the other condition.” She defines Spielerei in her introduction as, “timeless states hovering between decision and act, like Kafka’s.” I have to admit that as a storyteller it is the short narratives that fix themselves most in my imagination. Musil with a few short strokes gives, a portrait of young girl hovering between childhood and womanhood in the stare of a man fascinated by her; the tale of a young man who lures an older woman, married woman to a room in a country inn, where his game of eroticism turns dizzily from poetry to clichés, to a final madness. The method of the short essays where the unexpected jumps out at us like a jack in the box is operating in these fictions. One can witness Musil setting up the spring of his plots for the longer stories and his unfinished masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities. I have read several of these short narratives before (published in the magazine I edit, Fiction), but joined to others not available before in English they come into a further focus. Thought Flights by bringing together a number of these short pieces makes clear what is not so evident when one reads in isolation a story like “Susanna’s Letter” about a woman watching a man on a train watch her through his monocle—that Musil, the writer as scientist, is deliberately experimenting with what happens as you shift the lens of narrative. So in the brief pages where the author watches the fourteen year old, for a few moments on a streetcar, “Robert Musil to an Unknown Little Girl” and imagines her as a child then as a woman; or the man who sees a pony and begins to tells the story of boys who steal a wagon and pony and in doing so finds a way to glimpse something of what he defines as his soul. We follow what are both narratives and investigations. What Musil is trying to do in these brief stories, reflections, essays, is to question the nature of reality. Like the other important writers of the Twentieth Century who absorbed the idea of Relativity, fiction and the essay are tools to try to understand, or see into a universe that is apprehended as forever shifting. The bantering laughing voice of the “shenanigan,” masks the serious intent of the attempt.

Genese GrillTranslator Genese Grill

There is of course another way to view Musil’s insights—and writers who have pledged their vision to right the wrongs of this world will relish the political edge of Thought Flights or the sharp eye for Viennese social manners and smugly ignore Robert Musil’s curiosity about “the other” world. Genese Grill’s critical volume on Musil, The World as Metaphor, challenged the conventional portrait of Musil as merely a social realist and detailed the mystical and philosophical influences on his fiction. Thought Flights exemplifies an intuition she articulated in The World as Metaphor, “Musil, although he did not completely reject the existence of a shared, measurable and to some extent repeatable a priori reality, was fascinated by the idea of a magical relation through human action, thought, artistic creation, and the real physical world, a relation wherein what a person does, says, and even thinks, affects and even co-creates a shifting reality.” Whether it is language as in “Talking Steel,” fashion in “There Where You Are Not,” or the taboos of murder and cannibalism, we can observe Robert Musil in this collection searching for clues to his own elusive persona.

The translation has many happy moments when Musil’s laughter is revealed. Among my favorites, is the characterization of an out of work theater director, met accidently in the street, “Human sorrow can collect in the worn-out knees of a pair of pants. His face looked like a cornfield cut with a sickle.” And I would be remiss in remarking on Thought Flights, if I did not mention the careful notes that illuminate the many specific references to individuals and events in the articles and glosses. These provoke one to return to its riddling moments and read them again as I did in “Page from a Diary” where Musil writes to define what flashes between himself and a woman, M, as they recall fragments of childhood and emotions tied to moments that can no longer be experienced since the context for them has vanished. Learning from the notes that M is Martha, Musil’s wife, I realized that he is giving us access to their intimacy, a sense of what passed between them through the medium of stories. To do so is to catch the writer as his thought turns magical in his mind.

—Mark Jay Mirsky


Mark Mirsky

Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.



Jul 062015

R W Gray

Gray is deconstructing the weight-bearing walls of the Western canon, subverting its appeal, questioning its meaning. Homer and Joyce and Christ himself are fair game, because in many ways, we remain trapped by these myths. Using an uncanny narrative, Gray reminds us that great stories can never be fully told or defined. We have wandered into the wonderful, swirling stew of entropy, where Gray challenges the very expectation of what a short story can do. —Richard Farrell

Entropic FC

R.W. Gray
NeWest Press
200 pages, $18.95


The principle of entropy quantifies disorder in a system. The study of entropy is an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, to express the ineffable, to measure the un-measurable. Entropy isn’t chaos per se, but rather is an interrogation of the forces where chaos reigns, where ordered intentions and organized actions hold less sway. Much like dreams or poetry or love, entropy dwells in numinous spaces, pressing beyond the workaday din, spreading into territories where mystery and possibility still exist. Outside the well-ordered, rational world we often mistake as reality, another more resplendent, magnificent world exits. What a wonderful place for a talented writer to cast his net.

“The bodies of fishermen all wash up on this beach eventually,” R.W. Gray writes, an apt image for the ten stories in Entropic. Inside, Gray explores characters, ideas, and emotions all washed up on various strange shores. A massage therapist’s magical touch causes her clients to burst into tears. A son searches for his missing father on the grainy images of a VHS porn tape. A woman edits her flaws by erasing them from videos. Two former lovers stalk and then seduce a younger version of themselves. Gray’s characters occupy liminal spaces, teetering on the brink of transformation, or salvation, or damnation.

This is Gray’s second story collection, just out with Edmonton’s NeWest Press. Gray—a Canadian author, filmmaker, professor, and poet—leans on these varied disciplines to craft his work. The resulting stories are cinematic, lyrical, tightly structured affairs, carefully infused with intelligence, imagination, and meaning. Gray often repurposes myths, or re-imagines canonical texts with archetypal characters to tell his tales. And yet his characters are thoroughly original. They are recognizable men and women trapped in modern dilemmas, filled with desires and longings. Under Gray’s steady hand, we penetrate the unsteady scrim of ordinary reality and emerge far better for the journey.

In “The Beautiful Drowned,” two ostracized women, Lilly and Cora, wander the remote shores of a British Columbia fishing village. Lilly is searching for her inveterate, philandering, drunkard excuse of a husband. She dodges the stares and bitter gossip of the cannery women, the very same women who once burned Cora’s home and drove her to the grisly beach. The mixed-race progeny of a Japanese father and Tlingit mother, “Cora, they say, like all monstrous woman, had been a threatening beauty once.” Now she is a ghoulish shadow of her former self. Nightly she gathers the jetsam and flotsam on the shore, along with the dead bodies of local fisherman thrown back from the ruthless sea.

After a week of searching, Lilly finally stumbles upon her husband with a local girl, in flagrante delicto. Lilly reaches for a rock while the lovers reach for their britches.

And there he is, his white naked ass a grotesque mushroom in among the tree roots, rising and thrusting, a woman’s legs spread awkward shaking branches either side of him. Scramble of legs, her bare feet on gravel as she pushes out from under him and stumbles, falls to grab clothes, covering herself before the second rock hits the gravel next to them, Lilly reaching down for a larger one. She’d so expected she was going to be a widow, but instead she’s just a stupid girl with this skinny white assed, stray dog, poor lay of a man wailing, blurry drunk with his little erection, angry red rhubarb nub in spring.

Gray tempers the shock of the moment with a pastoral beauty. His flirtatious and fecund metaphors—coupling a naked ass with a mushroom, an erection with a spring rhubarb—simultaneously conjure high drama, humor, and ecstasy. By the story’s end, Cora and Lilly have ascended into mythical status, latter-day versions of Demeter and Persephone.

The story works by pitting these two women in parallel but reversed narratives. A wonderful inevitability guides to their twinned fates, laden with powerful sexual overtones and themes of exclusion. Through shifts in point of view, Lilly’s story moves forward in chronological time, while Cora’s story is told mostly in flashback. The effect is a dazzling meander, with the two plot lines winding their way toward a dramatic intersection.

In “Sinai,” a much longer story at forty pages, three travelers break down on the road into Cairo. The protagonist, Eric, clambers up a nearby hill to take a piss and then spots “a red cloth billowing in the wind.” Inexplicably, he sets out across the open desert. Cut off from the road and his companions, he loses his way back. The red cloth turns out to be a mysterious woman, who lures him further from the road.

The flag is not a flag at all. He stops in his tracks, face white, as the woman turns, wraps the billowing venous red cloth around her shoulder once and then again, drawing in the slack, then ascends the ridge and falls away from him. She must have stood there, still as a caryatid in the desert, for half an hour. She must have seen him. So why did she quit him now? And what could she be doing out here in the desert?

Who is this mysterious woman? What is her allure? Why does he keep going? Gray sprinkles in a few clues. Eric has been reading The Odyssey. The story’s epigraph comes from Joyce’s “The Dead.” And so we think we are onto the gist of the plot: Eric recast as the latter-day Ulysses.

But then this strange story descends (or ascends) into the surreal when a first-person narrator interrupts the on-going scene. The narrator, we soon learn, is no less than Lazarus himself, brought back from the dead but condemned to an eternal, sand-blasted decay, a hardening of body and soul but not consciousness. “A delirium of days passes over my face like flies.”

The two points of view continue to alternate, but eventually the Lazarus story takes over, as Eric wanders further into oblivion. The mysterious and elusive woman appears to be Mary Magdalene. “She is ellipses too, like me, an open-ended story, bleeding.”

For Lazarus, resurrection represents a cruel and unending fate, a story with a hell of a beginning but no ending. “It seems I can’t die. There isn’t even that to wait for.” But this story turns out to be about ancient grudges, when Gray creates one of the most compelling love triangles ever. Lazarus and Mary both harbored romantic feelings for the unnamed savior (the Christ figure is only referred to as ‘he’ and ‘him’ throughout). And two millennia do little to heal broken hearts.

The man we loved, his hands were soft, tiny. You wouldn’t know he worked with them. I remember his hands in his lap as he sat across from me in my mother’s yard. He was not disgusted, not sickened by my rotted flesh, the disease about me, and this somehow made my condition worse. I could have borne him not looking at me, eyes averted, but he looked right at me, right into my eyes, so I averted mine.

Gray is deconstructing the weight-bearing walls of the Western canon, subverting its appeal, questioning its meaning. Homer and Joyce and Christ himself are fair game, because in many ways, we remain trapped by these myths. Using an uncanny narrative, Gray reminds us that great stories can never be fully told or defined. We have wandered into the wonderful, swirling stew of entropy, where Gray challenges the very expectation of what a short story can do. He reexamines form, whether taking the conventional love story and twisting it into a macabre meditation on Christ, or turning the Odyssey into a journey with no end. You will walk away shaken, unsteady, but absolutely enthralled.

In the title story, “Entropic,” a man, M, is cursed with great beauty. “Strangers passing on sidewalks gaze up the length of him, in cafés and grocery stores they caress his back, his forearms, press into him on buses, the sighs of women inhaling against him on the subway and in elevators.”

M enlists the help of his more ordinary friend, the story’s narrator, to challenge notions of what beauty means. M has conceived a plan. He will rent a warehouse. The narrator will drug M unconscious. Guests have been invited. They will have forty minutes exactly to come and do as they wish while he sleeps. The narrator’s job is to wait outside the room and ensure that the guests are never alone. When their time is up, the narrator will wash M’s skin, check his pulse, and prepare for the next visitor.

There are echoes of Marina Ambrović here, and Matthew Akers’ award-winning documentary, The Artist is Present. In the film, Ambrović waits at an empty table in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while patrons arrive and sit across from her. Subject and object begin to merge, opening a strangely intimate, disturbing, mesmerizing space. A similar transference occurs in Gray’s story as well, as one guest after another arrives to gain a tangible experience of beauty.

They are allowed to touch him. To even hit him if they need to. But nothing that will damage or alter his body. I police this. A baseball bat leans in the corner in case I need it. But he’s asked me to hang back, appear invisible if I can. He wants each of these people to feel alone with him.

Gray has mined deeply into the human psyche. Our fascination with beauty. Our covetous nature. Our objectification of the flesh. Behind this story stands a rhetorical inquiry—what would you do? Some cry, some masturbate, some sit frozen in awe. The implication is that the gap between our dreams and our reality remains forever unbridgeable, the finger of God eternally reaching toward the finger of man. Such longing, such indescribable curiosity, has plagued man forever.

In Gray’s stories beauty, hope, and possibility are set in opposition to a backdrop of modern life, hidebound by conventional thinking. Gray refuses the shackles of the ordinary. He privileges imagination over verisimilitude, wonderment over banality, entropy over order. He destabilizes the form just enough to leave us pondering, yearning, and forever searching for the lingering pulse that reminds—there must be something more out there. And through it all, Gray still tells a damn good tale.

—Richard Farell



Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, Contrary, Connotation Press and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.

Jun 142015


Haints Stay is a snaky western with characters cut and formed by the elements, with wandering plots that get chopped off by murder or misunderstanding, only to rise anew out of strange circumstances or twisted events. A brutal book of lost souls trying to survive cannibals and stampedes and marauders, it reminds us no one gets out alive, and that there is always something more evil out there. —Jason DeYoung

WINNETTE-Haints Stay-cov

Haints Stay
Colin Winnette
Two Dollar Radio
211 pages; $16.00


“There was no logic to life and no road that could take you straight to elsewhere. Living was all winding around and doubling back.” Such are the lives of the characters in Haints Stay, thus is its philosophy.

Written in unhurried, cool prose without traditional chapter breaks—just double space returns—Haints Stay is a snaky western with characters cut and formed by the elements, with wandering plots that get chopped off by murder or misunderstanding, only to rise anew out of strange circumstances or twisted events. A brutal book of lost souls trying to survive cannibals and stampedes and marauders, it reminds us no one gets out alive, and that there is always something more evil out there.

But Haints Stay isn’t a traditional western, nor is it Cormac McCarthy-lite. Colin Winnette is already the author of four well-received books of fiction, including Revelation (2011), Animal Collection (2012), Fondly (2013), and Coyote (2015), which won of the prestigious Les Figues’ Nos Book Contest. Instead of the anti-pastoral of the afore mentioned McCarthy, Winnette has fed his vision of this earthy genre through his own sensibilities, one influenced by Oulipo, to arrive at something playful and visceral and acidic.

Haints Stay opens with two hapless killers, Brooke and Sugar, brothers, returning to an unnamed town, where they discover their employer’s bar has been burned to the ground. Looking for baths and beds, they are brought before a tiny man behind a desk. This tiny man doesn’t care very much for them, and at first tries to kill them, but Brooke takes the killer down with an ashtray, after which the tiny man offers them begrudging hospitality. It’s all stage setting for a novel in which—as we are blithely told by a dispassionate narrator—“things change… They changed often. There was not use fighting it.” These words in a way telegraph the novel’s narrative, prepping us for the shifting fortunes and wild plot maneuvers ahead. Indeed, Haints Stay with its circular narrative and relentless doubling lies somewhere between David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky.[1]

The brothers are run out of town, and when they wake the next morning a naked male child is lying between them. The child has amnesia, and doesn’t know how he got to the killers’ camp, or from where he came. He does speak English, but that’s his only asset. The brothers take it upon themselves to try to return the child to his parents or guardians. But before they can get very far on that quest, faceless marauders rob them in the night of their food, gear, and blankets, and “avenging the blankets” supplants retuning the child, whom they call Bird.

Once the blankets have been avenged, and the marauders’ teeth cut out of their mouths and buried—‘So [that they are] buried with their ghosts’—the brothers take the child to a graveyard, where Sugar and a thin man in a suit, sitting upon a rock, have a strange conversation regarding Bird’s future. As the conversation progresses, however, we realize that the words are coded and that Sugar and the thin man are discussing something quite different:

“You should keep the baby this time,” said the man. “The woods are crying out with all you’ve left them.”

He looked up and around, as if at nothing in particular.

“There is no baby,” said Sugar. “Enough about the baby.”

“Nothing’s gone away. You know that as well as I do.”

The thin man wants Brooke and Sugar to keep Bird as their own child, and he also wants Sugar to keep a forthcoming baby. All along we have been given hints that Sugar is not a man, and we’re left to ponder his gender for much of the novel. Later it will be revealed that Sugar is biologically female, but lives as a man, and he is pregnant, perhaps by his own brother.

Sugar is angered by the thin man’s insistence that he keep both children. Enraged, Sugar stabs Bird, and upon stabbing the child a stampede of horses thunder through their camp, taking with them the wounded Bird.

It’s at this point the novel shatters. There’s a sense that it does so because Sugar has disobeyed the thin man, who is…. what?…. a small god, a spirit, a shaman? We’re never told, and we are never told whether the stampede was the thin man’s doing. After Bird is carried off into the dark by the horses, Brooke and Sugar try to search for him, but end up in a dry town, only to get arrested and separated. Brooke is convinced his brother is dead; Sugar is convinced likewise; and the three main characters never see each other again for the rest of the novel.

At its core Haints Stay is very much a novel built on ignorance and of the unknown. Characters knowingly enter fake marriages, shift identities, hold secrets, and practice mysterious customs, which impart a sense that there is more in this world than we could ever fathom. When Brooke and Sugar avenge their blankets the last living marauder spits out that “There will only be more men like us….You will only kill and kill until you are overcome.” We’ll hear these words repeated later in the novel, reminding us that there is something greater out in the abyss that we won’t see until it’s too late: “Between each of the towns was pure wilderness, and what came bearing down upon civilization was beyond imagination.”

In this envenomed wilderness, Bird will come face-to-face with a man who has gone to beast, and eats much of the skin off one of Bird’s arms. Bird’s savior, a man named John, will be gunned down. Why? Don’t know. But the “remarkably nondescript” men who come to do it claim vaguely that they are there to “collect.” Often characters don’t even begin to understand their own plights just the tireless maliciousness of survival, where their faces are rubs in the fact that “we are always in the wilderness. Beneath everything is the wilderness and there is no end to it.”

Bird is something of an anomaly among the characters, not even Mary, the other child in the novel, comes close to his naiveté. A kid, around twelve or thirteen years old, Bird is in some ways fresh from the unknown, but has no recollection of it. What we see over the course of the novel is how he grows as a person. At first trusting Brooke and Sugar (especially Brooke), and then after Sugar stabs him, the stampede, and the cannibal’s torture he looses his memory again or it’s all mixed up (or he could be lying). He tells John it was two brothers who killed his family and he vows to avenge them. In many ways, Bird’s path through the novel, his progression and accumulation of knowledge and ethics (or lack thereof) is the most interesting because it is his dumb soul that is rung out through the cosmic stew of violence and consequences, and still he comes out full of bloodlust. For all its humor (yes, there’s humor here) Haints Stay is a bleak tale.

Even with its sinuous plots, Haints Stay is a damn good read and it does a lot well. The use of backstory here is particularly interesting. Brooke recites to himself his and Sugar’s life history to keep sane while he is in the wilderness. Because it’s so integral to Brooke’s survival, this history become a kind of hybrid form of forward moving action. Winnette also is careful not to divulge much about his world, which heightens the suspense and mystery. It takes confidence and rigor to deploy this level of subtle surrealism and leave so many questions unanswered and still deliver a satisfying novel. But the element here that is so well done and surprising is Winnette use of dialogue, and he offers a showcase of dialogue forms to admire:


“How old are we, Brooke?”

“Why would I know that?”

“You seem to know so much about our life and how we should live it. I thought you could tell me a thing or two about how old I am, why your body’s like that and my body’s like this. I thought you could answer one honest question.”

“We’ll get two new horse. They will be stronger and livelier than the old ones.”

“Henry and Buck.”

“Then Henry or Buck, yes, and they’ll serve us well and we’ll love them as we loved Henry and Buck, and then they’ll die and we’ll get more horses. And on and on, Sugar. Now sleep.”


“Have you ever caught anything before?” said Brooke….

“I don’t know,” said [Bird].

“Let’s say you haven’t,” said Brooke. “You’re going to feel a certain kind of pride, a sense of accomplishment. But you’re also going to feel uneasy with that, as if there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. It’s as natural as breathing. That guild tis all fear, anyway. Fear that one day you’re going to be on the receiving end of a blow, and the sudden wish that no one had to do that kind of thing ever. You can rid yourself of all that if you just accept what’s coming to you in a general sense, and work to prevent it in the immediate sense. No matter what you let live you’re going to die and it’s just as likely it will be a rock falling on your head or getting a bad cough as if is that someone will decide they want you gone. So accept it now and move on.”

“Okay,’ said the boy


“Did they take anything? What did they want?”

“It doesn’t matter.”


“That’s not how this works.”


He was crying again.

“Because we are always in the wilderness. Beneath everything is the wilderness and there is no end to it.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean, and that is why you’re scared.”


“I’m Brooke,” said Brook, “and this is Sugar.”

“Twice the fee for two,” said [the hotel manager]

“Same as two rooms?” said Brooke

“Same,” she said.

“That doesn’t seem exactly fair,” said Brooke

“Maybe it isn’t,” she said

On whole, the prose doesn’t contain much internal monologue. Rarely do we get much in the way of what the characters are thinking until they speak. The stark absence of much thought leaves us again in the unknown, but the dialogue delivers us somewhat, and Winnette uses it to great effect to draw his characters, their thoughts and their desires. Additionally, the snappy heat of these exchanges adds a measured balance to all the killing and gore that haunts the pages.


After the characters are scattered by the events of the stampede and capture, the novel uncoils with various plots. After John is gunned down, Martha, his wife, leaves Bird behind to seek revenge for her husband’s murder. Bird lives out a snowstorm with John and Martha’s daughter, Mary. Bird has the notion of becoming a hired gun because within that role he believes he’ll finally find safety. Mary argues that its a foolish ambition, and eventually leaves him after they reach civilization. Brooke wanders the wilderness looking for his brother, and eventually meets a very sick Martha, whom he nurses back to health. Sugar’s baby is brought to term, and delivered by a drunken and manic doctor, who along with the sheriff kidnaps the newborn. Sugar eventually breaks out of prison, and slaughters everyone in sight while looking for his daughter. The novel ends on a safe plateau for most of the surviving characters, but as the novel repeatedly informs us: innocence dies easily, evil lives on.

The story closes in the same saloon and with the same villain—the tiny man behind the desk—it opens with. He is hiring Bird to hunt Brooke and Sugar. The pessimistic vision of Haints Stay is captured in this moment with the Sam-Elliott-tinged statement: “Left to their own devices, people will live out every possible variation of a human life.” These words are spoken derogatorily about Sugar, but there’s something more interesting at play here. It is the unnamable that Winnette seems to be chasing in Haints Stay. It isn’t who we project to the outward world, but that lost soul underneath. Not one character can live out their “possible variation” because civilization (as it is known within these pages) won’t tolerate it and the wilderness is too cruel to allow it to flourish. In the end, Haints Stay tells us that it is only “safety” that its characters can aspire to, satisfaction is impossible.

—Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In general, I don’t like comparing novels to movies, but in an interview with Two Dollar Radio, Winnette explains that while finishing Haints Stay he secluded himself in a “California Knockdown,” where he “just wrote and wrote and read and watched westerns.” So, if he doesn’t mind confessing that he was influenced by movies, I don’t mind saying his novel reminded me somewhat of El Topo.
Jun 132015

My main intention here, anyhow, is simply to say,
Go read the work. — Sydney Lea


Angular Unconformity: The Collected Poems 1970-2014
Don McKay
Goose Lane Editions
584 pages ($45.00)
ISBN 978-0864922403


Someone once said of art historian E.H. Gombrich that it seemed pretentious even to praise him. That phrase, whose origin has disappeared from memory, swam back into my ken as I considered the forty-plus years of work contained in Don McKay’s collected poems, Angular Unconformity. While I might not hyperbolize to quite that degree, I do confess to feeling daunted in the face of such unusual achievement as this poet’s, and am somewhat embarrassed that we, his neighbors to the south, seem to know so little of it.

Even if I could adequately consider the whole of this hefty volume, to do so would demand more time, frankly, than I have just now. Though retired, I am all but frantically busy raising funds—against an imminent deadline—to complete a conservation project in a part of Maine dear to my heart. This latest acquisition will be the final tile in a mosaic of protected land—some private, some state, some (in New Brunswick) crown—amounting to 1.4 million acres.

There are many so-called ecological reserves among these holdings. In our own latest case 7100 acres of fabulous wetland are set aside, including a rare domed bog of almost two thousand acres. This zone will be immune from human alteration whatever until the end of time, and will provide nesting and feeding grounds for any number of bird species.

Don McKay, I believe, would approve. Indeed, I first came upon his work over twenty years ago on a visit to Montreal, when I picked up a used copy of his Birding, or Desire (1983), whose principal speaker, like McKay, is an avid amateur ornithologist. (As I indicated in a blog post some time ago, I then unaccountably forgot McKay until lately reminded by another fine Canadian poet, John Lee.)

Not that birds are McKay’s only wild interest. For all its complexity—or perhaps because of it—I highly recommend his philosophical essay collection, Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness (2001), which, far more than I’ll do in this short compass, may provide insights into McKay’s poetics and poetry. Indeed, prior to considering Angular Unconformity, I think it useful to make a brief divagation into Vis à Vis, because McKay increasingly sees himself as one of several fellow Canadian “ecopoets,” keenly attentive both to the natural world and to its crisis in our time.

It’s all very well for the hip, urbanized postmodernists to dismiss such concerns, no matter their own domains will likely be the first and worst to suffer, as appropriate only to bumpkins or sentimentalists. As McKay himself notes in “Baler Twine,” the penetrating initial essay of Vis à Vis, “admitting that you are a nature poet, nowadays, may make you seem something of a fool, as though you’d owned up to being a Sunday painter…. By this time ‘nature’ has been so lavishly oversold that the word immediately invokes several kinds of vacuous piety, ranging from Rin-Tin-Tinism to knee-jerk environmental concerns.”

McKay seeks another path. His acknowledgment of the postmodern stance, however, is crossed by resistance, for reasons that are “merely empirical: before, under, and through the wonderful terrible wrestling with words and music there is a state of mind which I’m calling ‘poetic attention.’ I’m calling it that, though even as I name it I can feel the falsity (and in some way the transgression) of nomination: it’s a sort of readiness, a species of longing which is without the desire to possess, and it does not really wish to be talked about.”

The author distinguishes between his poetic attention and romantic inspiration; in the case of the latter, McKay notes the aptness of the Aeolian harp to the romantic author’s poetry, such poetry yearning for perception to become language. This is less, he points out, a celebration of nature itself than of the creative imagination for its own sake. “Poetic attention,” on the other hand, “is based on a recognition and a valuing of the other’s wilderness; it leads to a work which is not a vestige of the other, but a translation of it.” The author who pays such attention is in search of an awareness released, however incompletely, from the “primordial grasp” involved, say, in building a home; he or she will pay tribute to the wilderness of the other.

No matter its density, Vis à Vis is a joy simply from a stylistic point of view. For example—and I could find scores—“whenever I see (a raven), I feel absurdly gregarious, and often find myself croaking back, hoping it might decide to perch a spell. Yes, there’s a kind of reverence in this. I do imagine receiving wisdom from this creature, but not packaged as wisdom. It’ll come dressed as talk, palaver. And it will have content, unlike, say, the pure lyric of a white-throated sparrow.”

This prose work is not merely to be read; it is to be re-read and re-read. The same can be said, even more emphatically, of Angular Unconformity. I make no claim, as I’ve already conceded, to having considered each of the book’s hundreds of pages: I have, with a sort of willful non-muscularity, roved through it, and I savor the notion that it will always be close at hand, for even to rove here is to encounter abundant pleasure and challenge.

McKay’s “A Note on the Title” defines angular unconformity—savaged as a title term in a smug, self-indulgent, and stupendously wrong-headed rant against the whole book by gadfly Michael Lista (National Post, October ’14)—as “a border between two rock sequences, one lying at a distinct angle to the other, which represents a significant gap—often millions of years—in the geological record… It might also be described as a fissure through which deep time leaks into history and upsets its authority.” The realms that fascinate this poet, then, are so vast and so imponderable that, as in Vis à Vis, no mortal man or woman may dream of containing them, not even in the 554 pages that go into this grand collection.

I mean, therefore, to “review” Angular Unconformity in an entirely unorthodox, even a dilettantish way, but one which may, I hope, indicate certain abiding themes and motifs, not to mention the sustained high quality, of this poet’s oeuvre. Just as if, in fact, the book lay at my bedside, I’ll dip at literal random into portions of the collection, not even responding to every last one, or, in some cases, responding with mere generalities, and ultimately snapping shut in the interest of space.

My main intention here, anyhow, is simply to say, Go read the work.

I preface what follows with a poem from Strike/Slip (2006). In several ways, I believe, it synopsizes a good deal of what I’ve been discussing. The poem’s omni-referentiality, in fact, may account for the publisher’s decision to replicate it on the dust-jacket:


Astounded, astonied, astunned, stopped short
and turned toward stone, the moment
filling with its slow
stratified time. Standing there, your face
cratered by its gawk,
you might be the symbol signifying eon.
What are you, empty or pregnant? Somewhere
sediments accumulate on seabeds, seabeds
rear up into mountains, ammonites
fossilize into gems. Are you thinking
or being thought? Cities
as sand dunes, epics
as e-mail. Astonished
you are famous and anonymous, the border
washed out by so soft a thing as weather. Someone
inside you steps from the forest and across the beach
toward the nameless all-dissolving ocean.

Such an utterance, like so many of McKay’s, illustrates (how impoverished a verb!) that radical distinction of poetic attention from Aeolian Harpism, to call it that, in which the natural and the imaginative are presumed to be deeply correspondent—so much so as ultimately to become one. McKay eschews any such notion as Emerson’s “transparent eyeball,” whose possessor dares to say “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.” In the moment “translated” by the poem above, otherness is so radically other that it parries even such billowy, Emersonian definitions. True, every “border” is “washed out,” but this leads to no seamless interfusion, to nothing like what Coleridge describes, precisely, in “The Aeolian Harp”:

O the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where…

As one often introduced as a nature poet myself, I equally often hear that I take my inspiration from the natural world. But if I am “inspired” (a term at best equivocal to me anyhow)—if I’m inspired at all, it’s because, like McKay, I contemplate nature as otherness, a dimension in which our fixities and definites are idle, and anthropomorphisms simply Disneyesque. As the poet asks here, “Are you empty or pregnant,” “thinking/or being thought”? And of course these rhetorical questions themselves subside at length into the unanswerable, into “the nameless all-dissolving ocean.”

The trouble is, and none is more aware of it than McKay, the moment we say a thing about that otherness we have at least partially removed ourselves from it. Our “translations,” however hard we try, are always partial and rough. To that extent, the lit-theorists have made much of a truth, usually rendered in inscrutable prose, quite evident to any “nature writer” within the first day of his or her career: as McKay knows full well, to mouth or write the word raven, say, is instantly to depart its mystery for a human construct, to enact what he—again in Vis à Vis—calls our “primordial grasp.”

From this self-evident datum, the theorists elaborate, however variously, perspectives that are ultimately nihilistic. Since the very gesture of articulation compromises some putative, absolute truth, then the world from protozoon to planet is one big carny gig, and absolute truth the silliest sort of pipe dream. The poet, however, or at least the poet who like McKay resists such inclinations, finds beauty and even, yes, meaning in the provisional truth to which he or she is reduced perforce. Wallace Stevens, in a poem aptly called “Of Modern Poetry,” described poetry’s actual subject as “the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” That nothing will ever suffice entirely is merely a goad to keep trying for that unattainable sufficiency, to write more poems.

I’ve always found it strange that contemporary theory bothers with arguments at all, since those arguments must surely be susceptible of deconstruction themselves; and it’s nearly amusing that it costs so many (cloudy) words to demonstrate the inutility of words. To proceed from that sense of inutility, to go on from insufficiency: that is the mission of so-called creative writing, and not just of the naturalist variety.

Yet of course the natural world is McKay’s principal bailiwick. Notice how he responds, for example, in this excerpt from an early poem in Long Sault (1975” called “Off the Road:”

The kids float sticks
down the creek behind the campsite
while we sip our coffee by the fire.
The moon
hangs over the tent like a neutral traffic light that leaves us
uhh just about to say something that
we don’t–

Dusk is almost better than a word.

I recognize that scene: something as fabulous as the moon may move us to verbal response that, even when lyric or clever or both, seems banal, premised as it is, say, on some simile from our quotidian world, such as “like a neutral traffic light.” It might indeed be the better option, as here, not to “say something” at all, for “Dusk is almost better than a word.”

It is, however, that almost I batten onto, because if dusk—or any other natural phenomenon—were entirely better than a word, then we would have no poetry at all, and in Don McKay’s case, we’d lose something which I’d hate to be deprived of.

I’d be deprived, among other things, of his gift not only as lyric but also as narrative poet. Indeed, had I space, I’d quote sections in many of his volumes that contain marvelous, straightforward prose accounts, which are poetic only in the sense that by his very instincts this author must make them so.

“Along About Then,” again from Long Sault, begins like this:

Along about then this new Mountie, Macmillan,
MacDonald, something like that come down here
Sayin how he’s going to clean up all the stills,
And they was plenty in the township.
…………The others grinning steady, they’ve
…………heard it from uncles or grandfathers
…………in kitchens scrubbed like this one with a Scot’s

That is to say that, all through their lives, everyone on hand has heard this story unfold, with various modifications. The cultural studies crowd would call these versions, even the originative one, factitious (or some such), and to that extent, I suppose, lies. But McKay has been exposed to what remains of oral culture in North America. So have I: I know such kitchens or log landings, or campsites, or lumberjacks’ cabins, though in my case the vestiges of those cultures are to be found particularly in northern Maine. McKay is aware that these men (and women?) know the “truth” of a story to be all but irrelevant. What counts is, precisely, its facticity, the degree to which it is a made thing, but one that, almost like a natural organism, has evolved over time and has therefore become, in effect, community property.

It is not the Mountie but the game warden who uncovers the local trade in bootleg booze. The warden walks right up to a deer and touches it, whereupon the animal falls over. Dead drunk.

…old Lalonde and his boys been getting lazy and just
tossed their mash across the fence.
Probably polluted half the game in the township…

Listen to how the poet renders the audience response:

The chuckle’s more a rumble deep down. Everybody
has a sip of beer.
Now the story
will be mulled and tinkered with a rickety
contraption made of names
……………………………..names like the roads
they cut and stomped and rode…

In recent decades, the very notion of narrative has been viewed with opprobrium by certain scholars, regarded as a vehicle for all the usual suspects (for elitism—no matter the importance of story to all tribal cultures—and racism and colonialism and sexism: ism after ism). Indeed, many a contemporary poet shares that disaffection, for similar reasons or others. And one can’t help thinking that to this poet himself the conversion of experience—especially wilderness experience—to tale-telling is a blasphemy against that revelatory realm that lies beyond words.

But even if they be guilty pleasures for McKay, I, who don’t entirely share such scruples, am happy he makes time to indulge them. His austerer vision is the one for which this poet may remain most remarkable, but praise be, like a health food nut who sneaks to the 7-11 for an occasional Moon Pie, he now and then resorts to this one. Indeed, even in the “new poems” section of Angular Unconformity, and in the latest full volume preceding it, Paroxides (2012), the author persists in including those prose narratives.

The plain fact is that, like an Edward Abbey’s, McKay’s oeuvre exists in an area of tension between his affection for narrative and his propensity toward what is now often called Deep Ecology. The work may stray into one realm now, into the other next, and back again. That’s its very nature.

The volume succeeding Long Sault, it seems to me, explores this tension in a unique way. It is a sustained narrative—which persistently questions the validity of narrative, at least as we understand such a format as westerners. Lependu (1978) is immensely complex, and it would be an insult simply to synopsize, not to mention an impossibility. The historical premise (even if the poem at large pokes holes in the notion of any history that’s authoritative) goes as follows.

In 1829, Cornelius Burley, an illiterate and impoverished citizen of London, Ontario, was convicted of murdering a city constable. He may have been prodded into confession by a Methodist preacher named James Jackson, who may in turn—or so at least McKay insists—have shaped the supposed confession to his own ends, especially a love of publicity. (Jackson read the confession to an assembled crowd and later made it into a handbill, which he sold for considerable profit.) The hanging took place in the courthouse square in the summer of 1830.

A grotesque aspect of the whole affair was that a Yale medical student got ahold of the victim’s skull; a budding phrenologist named Orson Fowler, he displayed it all over North America, showing its various bumps and cracks as indications of Burley’s murderous temperament. What remains of the cranium is now on display in a box at London’s Eldon House, along with other relics.

The poem’s speaker visits that house at the outset of Lependu (French for the hanged man, and the epithet by which McKay usually refers to his protagonist). He sees

Hallways lined with trophies, the skulls and antlers of
………………………………………………………exotic animals:
Hartebeest, Waterbuck, Sable Antelope…
………………………………………………………and (slight pause) Cornelius

In “The Confession: notes toward a phrenology of absence,” McKay writes,

Burley, your silence is the wound in our
We have to climb inside,
into the box we built you, armed with ears
to scavenge and invent…

By way of such scavenging and invention, the poet transforms the pathetic Burley into the mythic Lependu, who comes to epitomize everything in the universe that will not fit into any of our boxes. Various characters throughout the poem, the poet included, will now and then be “inhabited,” however briefly, by his ineffable energy:

When Lependu flu hit Western U
there wasn’t an allusion free from the phlegm
that fell from the air,
Scoffed at profs.
Chalk him not meet blackboard
square but ugh– squawk– sending
shivers of où sont les neiges d’antan
down each individual backbone.

Among other things, Lependu recalls not only a pre-colonial continent (suggested by the pidgin “Chalk him not meet blackboard”) but also a pre-human one. In “Shadow City Shadow City,” the hanged man

lays the absence of his body on the city like a long
black negligee, wakens the buildings
softly, so the bricks remember
being earth.
So in our bones a new
Precambrian weight begins.

The feeling of that weight—which is really a temporary absence of weight—marks, I believe, the typifying moment of McKay’s “poetic attention,” referred to earlier on. Under the influence of Lependu, anyone can experience such moments—and won’t be the same thereafter. There is a prose sector here, for example, called “The Report of an Old Man Whose Life Was Changed After Briefly Becoming Lependu Back in 1946.” The unlikeliness of the title character betokens the omni-availability of these revelations, provided we get out of those boxes of ours; the old man has been on a days-long bender, puking his guts out until “I threw up everything that tied me down… I hung above myself, the zinging moving through like a breeze without a message, asking and making nothing of itself, a time not long but round, still round in my mind when I think back.”

“No message” in the “zinging”—only, as we recall from Vis à Vis, areadiness, a species of longing which is without the desire to possess.” The prospect of such readiness arises over and over in Lependu. It’s the untying that matters. At poem’s end, the author notes that when the hanged man invades our consciousness,

the only writing is the writing of the glaciers on the rocks
the only thinking is the river slowly
knowing its valley

until the city, seen
in a stutter of light between the branches
nests in the river’s crotch
our own tongues
speaking in a slightly different language and our heads
antlered with images

Now here I am, all these pages later, and I have not even made it halfway through McKay’s collected poems. So I will now accelerate, again with the advisory that anyone interested in contemporary poetry of international importance give this book more time than I can allow myself.

So as I warned, I leap ahead—first, to the volume that caught my attention more than two decades ago, Birding, or Desire (1983). I have spoken of the tension in this poet’s sensibility between an affection for story and an attraction to the natural world’s inarticulable vastness. In Birding…, I think, that tension is especially conspicuous. On one hand, the author is a birder in the Audubon Society sense, field guide in hand, seeking identification, a mark of the desire his alternate title names. (There is erotic desire in this collection too, but I’m scanting that, as so much else, for economy’s sake). Yet he simultaneously longs for the natural domain’s pure otherness. In “A Morning Song,” for example, as he drives to his professorial job, he thinks how

Soon I will be erasing Latin declensions left by the night class
while the dog, sleeping in the kitchen
nurtures my huge laziness in dreams
which are deep and cold
and speckled with uninhabited islands.

The poet has his own Latinisms (in a later collection, for instance, he’ll entitle a poem not “Starling” but “Sturnus Vulgaris”) but his further dreams, like his animal companion’s, are wild and uncatalogued. His “laziness” lies in his sporadic refusals to count and to list. As he says in another entry, “Audubonless/ dream birds thrive…/undocumented citizens of teeming/ terra incognita.”

The urge to document and the longing for pure abandonment to the unspeakable will persist, I suspect, so long as Don McKay writes—a long, long time, I pray—even, or especially given the world’s eco-crisis, in which we

…watch the nesting instinct of the Bald eagle weaken
shells grow thin
its brilliant mind go dim with pesticides.
Let’s tell cuckoo eagle jokes, e.g.
“Why did the cuckoo eagle forget where she laid her eggs?”

Let’s train the kamikaze starlings.

Let’s plan the street map of Necropolis
let’s have statues of everybody.

Let’s learn our own
dead weight.

We may well not recover from such crisis, as McKay suggests all through the poems from 45 years ago to now, and certainly won’t until we gain awareness of that Audubonless world, the world personified by Lependu, or by, for instance, the peregrine falcon in “Identification.” On seeing the bird,

I write it down because of too much sky
because I might have gone on digging the potatoes
never looking up because
I mean to bang this loneliness so speech you
jesus falcon
fix me to my feet and lock me in this
slow sad pocket of awe because
my sinuses, those weary hoses,
have begun to stretch and grow, become
a catacomb my voice
would yodel into stratospheric octaves
……………………………….and because
such clarity is rare and inarticulate as you, o dangerous
endangered species.

The speaker “might have gone on digging the potatoes / never looking up” locked in his quotidianness, which includes the desire to possess. But as I remarked at the outset, the very desire to possess is implicit in the very act of writing things down: this makes for the frustration in the process—

I mean to bang this loneliness so speech you
jesus falcon
fix me to my feet and lock me in this
slow sad pocket of awe….

True clarity, truth itself, exists in a realm as “rare and inarticulate” as the soaring falcon’s. Given such a reality, a lesser mind would retreat into silence, or perhaps into what I’ve called the nihilism of many recent literary commentators. McKay knows that an utterance adequate to the monumental world of nature, or perhaps to any world, is beyond him. But he moves on from such awareness of insufficiency. He does so not altogether happily, though we as readers should be more than happy for his persistence.

— Sydney Lea


Sydney Lea
 is Poet Laureate of Vermont. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in September, and Skyhorse Publications just released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.


Jun 102015


The narrator moves through these phantasmagorical settings, a diorama of his mind, with remarkable savoir faire, as if he knows he is in a dream, and instead of being afraid, he is curious; in fact, he states the same: “I was walking through a so-called living dream, a quite truthful reality, and thus, as they say, a zone of truth, where there is nothing with which to deceive oneself . . .” —Frank Richardson


The Game for Real
Richard Weiner
Translated by Benjamin Paloff
Two Lines Press
Paperback, $14.95, 256 pages
ISBN: 978-1931883443


Richard Weiner was one of Modernism’s great outsiders. Born in 1884 in the small Bohemian town of Písek in what is now the Czech Republic, Weiner began his adult life as a chemical engineer, only to abandon it for belles-lettres. In 1912 he moved to Paris and began writing poetry, but made his living writing articles for the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny. And he was Jewish. And he was gay. And then there was his fiction—abstract, surrealist explorations of guilt and shame and fear; metaphysical mysteries that undermined logic and reason, that simultaneously employed and rejected narrative techniques of verisimilitude to create psychological spaces at once disturbing and beautiful. Weiner’s last prose work, Hra doopravdy, now available in English for the first time in Benjamin Paloff’s translation The Game for Real, exemplifies his descent into the subconscious, his attempt to expose those regions of the human psyche most would prefer to keep hidden and locked away.

Completed in 1933, The Game for Real arrived at the apex of Modernism, into a world still reeling from the Great War—a war into which he was drafted. When he returned to Paris, in quick succession he published three volumes of short stories including Lítice (Furies), one of the first books in Czech about World War I. By the late twenties Weiner had become close friends with a splinter group of surrealists (including René Daumal, Roger Vailland, and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte) who called themselves Le Grand Jeu (The Big Game), and in 1929 he published Lazebník (The Barber), subtitled “A Poetics,” a collection of stories prefaced by a long lyrical essay. It had been a heady decade for fiction with the publication of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando; James Joyce’s Ulysses; William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; and from Weiner’s homeland, Karel Čapek’s play R. U. R., Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, and Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle. Weiner’s experimental, psychological fictions are products of their times, poetic stream of consciousness investigations inspired by surrealism, organized not according to plot or character, but through theme and imagery.

Benjamin Paloff describes The Game for Real as a “novel-in-two-novellas” and as “thematically intertwined detective stories,” and perhaps this latter description should suffice over conventional genre labels. In fact, depending on whom you read, The Game for Real will be described as a novel, or a collection of two novellas, or a novel and a novella. Semantic debates aside, The Game for Real contains two long fictional works—the first, The Game of Quartering, is 100 pages long; the second, The Game for the Honor of Payback, is 180 pages long. Each can stand alone; however, the stories share themes and images that suggest a unified novel, although whether they share a single protagonist is, finally, unclear. That the book’s unity is questionable is only the beginning of the mystery, and presenting the nominal plot of each is an exercise in hilarious futility; nevertheless, Weiner’s surrealism isn’t automatic writing, the book is carefully constructed, and there is method in his presentation of madness.


The Puppet Theater

The Game of Quartering opens simply enough, it is after midnight on a Paris Métro train and the first-person narrator, initially alone, describes a man boarding at La Trinité. The narrator, a middle-aged bachelor and self-described “hack,” is on his way home from the theater. He doesn’t know the stranger, but feels like he’s being followed, and when he disembarks, the stranger follows him to his apartment where another stranger, a woman, waits by the door. He knows, intuitively, they are from the “same team,” and the strangers follow him past the concierge’s door to his apartment where they flank him as he slots his key and turns the lock. The narrator presents his tale in the past tense from some notional present, though no indication of a date is given, and the events he describes could have taken place days, weeks, even years in the past.

Although not designated by chapter breaks—there are only occasional double line breaks—the story consists of four episodes that together complete a circular timeline, i.e. it ends at the beginning in a manner reminiscent of Julio Cortázar’s short story “Continuity of Parks.” The second episode begins when the narrator enters his apartment and his observers are transplanted from the hall to inside the apartment. They don’t follow, they are just present. Weiner often uses such sudden transpositions, a dream-effect with characters appearing and disappearing. The male stranger is afraid, cowering and mute; the female stranger is doll-like, her neck jointed. Struggling to make sense of his visitors, the narrator speculates that they are manifestations of himself:

Who knows, maybe that’s just the sort of horror that makes us sweat whenever, out of nowhere, we’ve run into ourselves, as I did today when I ran into my apartment; who knows, maybe there is constantly residing within us this sort of unexpected eternal visitation . . . (28) [Weiner’s italics]

And so we speculate with him—are these strange characters figments of his imagination, personifications of alternate selves residing within his psyche? Weiner doesn’t let us off so easily. The features of the strangers begin to merge into a combined likeness, prompting the narrator to examine why he was so late coming home, and the narrative begins its third and longest episode.

Earlier in the evening he arrived at a tavern where he finds his friend Fuld arguing with Mutig (German for “courage”) over their mutual acquaintance Giggles, who observes silently. The characters are in profile, like shadow puppets behind a scrim. The narrative shifts between the protagonist’s speculations and the overheard conversation of Fuld, Mutig, and Giggles, much of which is presented in the style of a stage script (a nice touch since it reinforces the idea that we are watching a play, something false, a fiction, probably a dream). Lights go up and down and the stage set—and he uses the word “stage” to describe the scene—changes many times.


In this section, more than any other, the dream-like qualities of Weiner’s narrative technique are apparent. People and objects appear from nowhere and disappear as quickly. Memory blends with reality (assuming anything is real). Locations morph from the streets of Paris into gardens into aquatic landscapes stretching to infinity. It is a world of “impressions” and “projections”—a world where an entire scene takes place inside the chest cavity of a “blackamoor.” The narrator moves through these phantasmagorical settings, a diorama of his mind, with remarkable savoir faire, as if he knows he is in a dream, and instead of being afraid, he is curious; in fact, he states the same: “I was walking through a so-called living dream, a quite truthful reality, and thus, as they say, a zone of truth, where there is nothing with which to deceive oneself . . .” (84).

The last episode begins when the narrator finds himself where he began, in the Métro. He designs an experiment to test whether or not he is in a dream, but when the result indicates he is awake, he discounts it, and his final conclusion—before he plunges back into dissociative meandering—is “who knows?” for “certainty is only a word.”


The Outsider

In The Game of Quartering we follow an unnamed protagonist down the rabbit hole of his own mind. The Game for the Honor of Payback also features an unnamed protagonist, but his story is presented by a first-person omniscient narrator. Or is it? One of the mysteries of this tale is whether the first-person narrator and the protagonist are the same; furthermore, whether this narrator is the same as the narrator of The Game of Quartering.

The story begins with a dream, a nightmare to satisfy any appetite for existential imagery. When the dreamer awakens, he is described as an “isolated” person, a “nameless” person, a man whose name is “Shame.” The man is alone in his rented room at the Benedictine Mill Inn. The events of the previous day play through inchoate thoughts, and Weiner’s circumlocutions capture the man’s drowsy, dreamy world, his tenuous grip on reality, his psychological agitation, and his anxiety. Here, he regards his reflection in the mirror, a reflection that assumes its own identity:

He saw someone who was unwelcome; he was, however, expectedly unwelcome. A foreigner. He sized him up with tepid animosity; he judged him with gestures and facial expressions. That one there performed them with him: both of them ironic, but with an irony so unsuspiciously innocent that it was disarming. A hand, sullen with a sullenness that lacked substance, ran across ashen stubble; squeamish fingers unearthed the degrading vegetation of the sparse, coarse hairs sprouting all the way up to right beneath his eyes, and the irritated flash in his eyes reproached them for this meddlesomeness . . . . He scowled at him, and the little person paid it back to him so faithfully that neither of them dared pull his eyes away: for they hated each other . . . (120-121)

Riddled with enough self-loathing to warrant comparisons to Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, the man sees himself as an outsider, a foreigner—a prominent theme in The Game for the Honor of Payback. We learn of his actions the previous day, his altercation with the affluent Mr. and Mrs. Steel, and the nucleating event of the plot: the theft of Mrs. Steel’s bracelet. Everyone in the inn assumes the nameless man is the thief, and he is eventually expelled. The narrative, like a rock skipping across a pond, alternates between long stretches of third-person narration of the man’s internal world and brief dips into dramatic real time.

Weiner continues to explore the outsider theme through a homosexual encounter the man has while spending two days in a neighboring town (before continuing to Paris). Throughout both tales Weiner’s imagistic narration adds to the surreal nature of the story. In this excerpt, the protagonist watches as a young man, “fleeing from Sodom,” approaches:

He was encouraging this rottenly ripening beauty with a harvest of smiles that feigned indifference and fished around for someone to whom they might hungrily appeal; he was disdaining it with a lattice of long, groomed, pasted eyelashes that denied the presence of lust no differently than a valet who’s been slapped around denies the presence of the master with a guilty conscience. . . . but when the other fellow spotted him, he flared his nostrils, already just as much on the scent, but till then indecisive. But now they were certain, and from beneath the shadowy eye sockets an unabashed, masterfully aimed harpoon had been hurled; it sank into the pupils of the seated man. Its thrower was drawing near; the rope with the barbed hook was being reeled in . . . (186-187)

Nathalie Sarraute used similar imagistic detail in her novel The Planetarium (1959) to slow the narrative rhythm and represent consciousness metaphorically[1]. Weiner’s poetic imagery extends to characterizing the nameless man’s specific emotions. For example, while on the train to Paris, the man obsesses over his unhappiness, an unhappiness that is “self-sacrificing,” “inscrutable,” that “answers for mistakes and blunders,” is a “screen,” a “sacrificial lamb,” the “confessor with absolution”; his unhappiness is “broody, but not dismayed; poor, but tidy; weak, yet not cowardly” (218-219).


In his Manifeste du surréalisme, André Breton defined surrealistic writing as “automatism . . . in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” Contrary to this definition, Weiner’s The Game for Real displays a carefully crafted narrative with clear concern for aesthetics. Like contemporaneous painter Salvador Dalí, Weiner used the techniques of realism to create a symbolic effect.

the-persistence-of-memory-1931.jpg!BlogSalvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931

In this strange and compelling novel—or however it is defined—the settings and characters morph and blend in a constantly shifting phantasmagoria of existential angst. True to their surrealist heritage, these stories undermine reality and the self-assurance of a scientific world that made the First World War possible. Weiner, who had already rejected science for poetry, rebelled into the surreal and produced one of Modernism’s true gems, and, ironically, through his creation he gave us a view of the world that has rarely looked so honest, so human, so real.

—Frank Richarson


Frank Richardson lives in Houston and is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978. Print.
Jun 062015

Georgi Gospodinov

Even if, as G [the narrator] writes, “the classical narrative is an annulling of the possibilities that rain down on you from all sides,” Gospodinov reminds us that there are other ways to construct a story, and we are devising new blue prints all the time. — Geeda Searfoorce


The Physics of Sorrow
Georgi Gospodinov
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Open Letter Books
275 pp; $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-940953-09-0


B y interlacing Greek myth, autobiographical and ancestral stories, and reflections on growing up in Bulgaria during the latter part of the twentieth century, Georgi Gospodinov constructs The Physics of Sorrow, a novel of fragments that reads like a playful hybrid between a frenetic roman à clef and a collection of diary entries untethered by chronology. The book’s unifying image—the halfling Minotaur imprisoned in a labyrinth—underscores the protagonist’s struggle with acute melancholy and provokes the reader to consider how individuals struggle in the wake of larger political transformations. And its structure—replete with interruptions, digressions, visual imagery, and anecdotes—is necessarily labyrinthine in order to immerse the reader in its protagonist’s experience of attempting, through fits and starts, to simultaneously escape and return to his homeland and in the process rediscover himself.

One of Bulgaria’s most translated authors since the country’s shift to post-communism in 1989, Gospodinov has won critical acclaim for his work, which includes four poetry books, his first novel, Natural Novel (published in English by Dalkey Archive Press, 2005), a collection of stories titled And Other Stories (published in English by Northwestern University Press, 2007), two plays, several screenplays, and a graphic novel. His skill working between genres is evident from the beginning of The Physics of Sorrow, first published in 2011 and newly translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, and several of the nine—yes, nine—epigraphs alert the reader to abandon any previously held preconceived notions of the constrictions of form.

What follows—in nine chapters bookended by eight prologues and eight epilogues—is a nonlinear recounting of various tales by a narrator, named Georgi Gospodinov (sometimes referred to as “G”). After embarking on an extensive period of travel to attempt to moderate his profound mid-life melancholy after his grandfather’s death, his father’s dementia, and his divorce, G returns for an extended visit to his boyhood hometown, staying in one of the many basement apartments his family inhabited during his youth as they worked toward a more solvent financial future which never materialized. He takes up residence in a “gloomy birthright of a basement,” wanders the town, encounters an old classmate, now working in a dilapidated “kitsch emporium” filled with tzotchkes that once enchanted G’s childhood imagination, and gazes at the “sullen, tired, and expressionless” people who are struggling in a Bulgaria that has been transformed during the last two decades of the twentieth century and at the dawn of the twenty-first.

G devotes himself to compiling his grandfather’s stories, along with the tangible records of his life thus far—myriad lists, newspaper clippings, a gasmask “filled with the exhausting fear of atomic and neutron bombs, of air raid sirens being tested,” an excerpt from a sex scene in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, a sharp retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in which old age is the wolf that devours the grandmother, and books with their “old socialist price tags”—and other memories and ephemera from his childhood and young adult life that would disappear if it were not for his doggedness. He wants to create a time capsule for posterity and fill it with everything and everyone he has ever known. The implication is that this time capsule will forestall annihilation, a fear that has plagued G from an early age.

“Some books need to be equipped with Ariadne’s thread,” G writes, referring to the tool Theseus used, in the Greek myth, to navigate his way through the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur and restore peace to Crete. Gospodinov offers a few strands to guide the reader through the labyrinth of his novel. The first thread is the notion of story itself—its vital importance in G’s life and its necessity throughout history. Even if, as G writes, “the classical narrative is an annulling of the possibilities that rain down on you from all sides,” Gospodinov reminds us that there are other ways to construct a story, and we are devising new blueprints all the time. Materials are forever being tested and retested and combined in new ways. Midway through the novel Gospodinov offers a primer for how the reader can enter it. In Chapter IV “Time Bomb (To Be Opened After the End of the World),” G writes:

Since other capsules depicted the world like a postcard—kind, pretty, dancing, endlessly inventing various trinkets—the capsule in my basement had to contain the signs and warnings, the unwritten stories, such as “The History of Boredom in the 1980s,” or “A Brief History of the Ephemeral,” or “An Introduction to the Provincial Sorrow of Late Socialism,” “A Catalogue of the Signs We Never Noticed,” “An Incomplete List of Fears During 2010,” or…my grandfather, the abandoned boy, the stories of all those coming of the void and going into the void, nameless, ephemeral, left out of the frame, the eternally silent ones, a General History of That Which Never Happened…. I imagine a book containing every kind and genre. From monologue through Socratic dialogue to epos in hexameter, from fairytales through treatises to lists. From high antiquity to slaughterhouse instructions. Everything can be gathered up and transported in such a book…. (140)

Lists and catalogs populate the novel to form another thread. With them Gospodinov displays G’s predilection for conflating world events with personal history—the engine upon which the book builds its momentum, albeit fitfully:

First kiss (with a girl).
Brezhnev dies.
Second kiss (different girl).
Cherenkov dies.
Third kiss…
Andropov dies.
Am I killing them?
First fumbling sex in the park.
A long half-life of exponential decay ensues. (103-4)

The backdrop for G’s “half-life” is modern-day Bulgaria, a country he deems is running on a “physical and metaphysical deficit” and which he describes through images of darkness, rust, and concrete even as it draws him back from his travels abroad. In Chapter VII “Global Autumn,” an annotated list of places G travels is preceded by a statistic: “Eighty percent of Bulgarians had not left their native country before 1989.” A startling observation, but no less so than the fact that in just fifteen years after the collapse of communism over one million mostly young people left because of the economic crisis that enveloped the country still in transition.

Gospodinov, who lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, has witnessed firsthand the tumult of his native country during the years following Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Todor Zhikov’s resignation in 1989 after thirty-five years. Democratic reform since the Autumn of Nations has led to widespread corruption and a stagnant economy that have caused a wide swath of the population to feel caught in a system that seems to be perpetually teetering on the brink of ruin.

The principal organizing image for The Physics of Sorrow—the famed Minotaur of Greek myth—is a creature with the body of a human male and the head of a bull. “I have not found any compassion for the Minotaur in all of the classics,” G tells us. “No departure from the established facts.” G begs the readers’ empathy for the Minotaur and, as the labyrinth of the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the human/animal is not only G’s psychological doppelganger, whose salvation may ensure G’s ability to emerge from the labyrinth of his misery, but also a stand-in for Bulgaria.

Even as G’s misery threatens to overtake him, Gospodinov’s humor is at play throughout the book, often amidst passages recounting brutality or injustice. In Greek mythology, the author notes in the second chapter, children “insofar as they exist…are most often devoured by their fathers. Any left undevoured will devour their fathers.” This observation is followed by a section titled “Devoured Children in Greek Mythology (An Incomplete Catalogue)” and a “P.S.” that depicts a “wacky echo in modern times” of a staged photo of a baby jokingly posed on a baking pan about to enter an oven, exposing the link between this classical motif and a modern family endearment (“You’re so sweet, I’m going to eat you up with rice.”). The chapter then ends with a fragment of “The Minotaur’s Speech in His Own Defense”—an alternately quirky and dire polemic, written in hexameter, during which the ostracized human/animal asserts his humanity (“I’m kin to all you all”) before King Minos orders his son locked up again.

Gospodinov employs repetition and ellipses to create an elegiac rendering of G’s past. Through these devices, Gospodinov asks the reader to consider not only images but the idea of language as an incantation, meant to simultaneously conjure G’s memory and release him from it. But the sheer number of memories conjured in the book are at odds with the desire to linger that the language creates. In one section, recalling his youth spent as a latch-key kid of socialism, awaiting his mother’s return from work and studying survival manuals in preparation for the atomic annihilation that racked him with fear as a child of the Cold War, G repeats the line, “We bang around like Mintoaurs in these basements…” Rather than unraveling the implications this metaphor carries with it, G decides it should be included in his “catalogue of epiphanies” and tucked into the capsule along with all the detritus he has stockpiled and saved for posterity and the reader is led toward another fragment.

The strongest thread is comprised of a handful of fragments scattered throughout the book describing G’s daughter Aya in beautifully simple language as a source of joy amidst his melancholy. He writes, “While I’m writing about the world’s sorrow’s, Portuguese saudade, Turkish huzun, about the Swiss illness—nostalgia…she comes to me, at two and a half, and suddenly snatches away my pen.” (177)

By interweaving all these threads Gospodinov offers G the possibility of deliverance from the sorrow gripping him, along with reminders that he can always duck down a side corridor for respite or if he’s worried that he’s lost his way. Because ultimately the “stories coming out of the void and going into the void” are what will lead him and Bulgaria—and the reader—through a maze dense with memories to a new idea of what it means to return home.

— Geeda Searfoorce


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Geeda Searfoorce is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes fiction and plays and teaches through the Vermont Young Playwrights program. Her work is forthcoming in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice.