Feb 072016


Despite disruptions of her own reputation, Williams remains most adept at dropping readers into an inarticulate present where something is always amiss and each sentence conveys a syntactically spry sense of yearning, however vague or fleeting that sense may be. In the stories throughout Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, narrative jumps beg to be bridged, implied meanings considered, and absences filled however readers see fit to fill them. —Jason Lucarelli


Diane Williams
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine
McSweeney’s Books, 2016
136 pages, $20.00


Inside every Diane Williams story lives a tense and turbulent narrative, where pressurized and peculiar sentences carry epiphanies and ambiguities—and sometimes both in the same sentence.

To read one of her stories is to forget what you know about conventional storytelling. Forget the rise and fall of dramatic action. Forget plot. Revel in the inconclusive. These fictions are fractured, and many of them last for only a page or two. But their brevity is impactful, an unexpected slap.

What Williams has created over eight collections of condensed fiction is an enigmatic genre of prose that falls somewhere between language game, parable, and poetry. And her exploration of this genre-bending territory continues in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, her newest collection of stories.

Diane Williams has been described by Ben Marcus as “a startlingly original writer worthy of our closest attention.” She has taught at Bard College, Syracuse University, and the Center For Fiction in New York City. As current editor of the well-respected literary annual NOON, she publishes authors like Gary Lutz, Greg Mulcahy, Deb Olin Unferth, and Noy Holland, and stories that “leave one conscious of powerful meanings not yet fully absorbed.”

Williams’ own stories have been called “unsettling,” “sensual,” “cryptic,” “strange,” and “revelatory.” They leave us asking, “What is this?” Here’s a taste from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine:

The Bucky’s waitress says she is happy to have back that amorous part of her life and that this makes her less of a Plainer Jane.

And, with an old man named Humphrey, she says she’s made a pretty bargain.

Today she said, “I’ll take some of this, too!” and she took a gulp of my water.

And we enjoy laughing about the poor hot beverages she serves and about our divorced husbands. Although my partner in marriage, Ray, was nobody to laugh about—Ellie always says she’ll clear the decks to ignore that. (“Flying Things”)

Readers looking for insight into Williams’ narrative logic should turn to Gordon Lish, her teacher of many years and the editor of her third collection of stories The Stupefaction. Lish holds that there is a “combative relationship between sentences,” and that while each sentence is born from the prior sentence, “every sentence is in contest with what has been said.” His method of composition is based on students saying “no” to the prior sentence, and “swerving” away from its intended direction. Lish would instruct his students to write each sentence by “looking for how it’s saying something other than what you think it’s saying, and exploring that rather than what you think it intended to say.”

With Williams, this method of composition, this continuous swerving away from the expected, lends her fiction a suppressed quality where narrators engage syntactically but remain proactively evasive. An absence or break in logic becomes a source of narrative momentum. In an interview with The White Review she said, “I don’t think I’d be happy if I were clear about everything that ends up on the page. I’d like to get beyond what I know as far as I can. In my fiction I like to provide some mystery, a place to meditate, where I might be nearing a new insight, if in fact I haven’t reached it.”

Her latest collection of 40 short stories, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, contains tales of characters encountering ghosts, marital woes, pesky gophers, second husbands, thieving sisters, dinner parties, and, above all, impending death. These new stories are as short or as long as anything Williams has written in the past, yet the finest fictions here are the longer ones, the ones persisting beyond three pages. In these stories, Williams demonstrates a new willingness to linger, to follow an intended direction and extend a narrative arc beyond a few sentences or a paragraph. This new continuity is not purely a function of length. Rather than deflect the flows in her prose as she has seemingly done in the past, Williams appears to embrace them. By balancing ambiguous phrases beside narrative assertions, she allows readers to enter the action instead of being barred from it.

The collection kicks off with “Beauty, Love And Vanity Itself,” a story told in first person perspective with a length of two pages, 380 words. A woman, who is largely unconcerned with her appearance, is looking for love. While the “real thing” comes along, she chooses instead to go forward on the “funny path” pursuing her “vocation.” The narrator makes her way through a town and keeps to a path along a fence where she looks into the distance. Suddenly, she is poolside at The Marriott Courtyard where she seems to witness three women drowning in the hotel pool. When she alerts the lifeguard, he says that the women do not “know what the rope is” even though “everybody knows what a rope means.” She asks the lifeguard why he failed to tell them that, and he says because he doesn’t “speak Chinese.” The story ends with the narrator and lifeguard watching the surface of the water.

Yes, a Diane Williams story in summary form does not appear a compelling read nor an accurate conveyance of her uncompromising vision. To summarize Williams is to miss the actual drama of the work, which is in her aggressively organized sentences. This drama is not always character-on-character fiction, but the inner workings of characters, the switching of gears, the erratic battle between competing motives enacted by the grammar in each sentence.

Let’s look at a few examples from “Beauty, Love And Vanity Itself,” starting with the first sentence:

“As usual I’d hung myself with snappy necklaces, but otherwise had given my appearance no further thought, even though I anticipated the love of a dark person who will be my source of prosperity and emotional pleasure.”

The story begins “as usual,” as most of Williams’ stories do, in the middle of things, in a world already awry. In this sense, “as usual” points back to the narrator’s habits off the page, the habits that got us to this place of engagement. The sentence’s terse drama turns twice on not one but two “but constructions” (the use of a conjunction to reverse, revise, surprise, or contrast). The first “but” initiates an interior drama in a narrator who chooses to accessorize instead of focusing on improving her physical appearance. This conflict is amplified by the variant but construction “even though” as readers realize that the best the narrator can do in anticipation of a “source of prosperity and emotional pleasure” is to throw on a few necklaces. Continued re-readings allow the phrase “hung myself” to behave figuratively, as if this is a narrator who often sabotages her own desires. It’s a theme that reappears throughout the collection: our ability to impede our own progress.

What follows from here is a narrative arc that draws out this conflict, until the narrator swerves so steeply she changes tense mid sentence:

“The real thing did come along. Bob—Tom spent several days in June with me and I keep up with books and magazines and go forward on the funny path pursuing my vocation.”

After introducing the “real thing” and confusing his name—Bob or Tom—the narrator abandons her desire entirely. She neglects to define her “funny path” or her “vocation,” and as she walks through town the language leans metaphorical. The narrator says, “And isn’t looking into the near distance sometimes so quaint?—as if I am re-embarking on a large number of relations or recurrent jealousies.” At this point, the form of the story seems to embody its content. This is a narrator whose attention is hard to hold.

The story concludes with the indifferent narrator and lifeguard watching the drowning women. The narrator says:

“Our eyes were on the surface of the water—the wobbling patterns of diagonals. It was a hash—nothing to look at—much like my situation—if you’re not going to do anything about it.”

This commonplace description is made verse-like through the alliteration in “water” and “wobbling,” and the assonance shared between “surface,” “patterns,” “diagonals,” “hash,” and “at.” Attention to linguistic force is evident in all that Williams writes, but her attention is especially fine in sentences where sound and sense work as one. As readers try to understand what the narrator’s “situation” is, the phrase “if you’re not going to do anything about it” points a metafictional finger at readers to arrange the mess into a straightforward conclusion. Readers are directed back to the spaces between sentences, to the unsaid, and, in this way, the final sentence frames the rest of the collection: active participation is required.

Readers looking specifically for a formula or to excavate traceable patterns of desire in each story may find gentle hints or remnants in shorter works, and more opportunities for connective tissue in longer ones. In “The Romantic Life”—three pages, 567 words in length—a love-deprived, life-shy houseguest has a run-in with a ghost named Gunther who leaves her with much-needed confidence. Nested among the story’s sentences is the narrator’s pattern of desire captured in two lines, before and after Gunther’s appearance. The first sentence, in which her desire is expressed:

“And, really—wasn’t this a lavish new world with new and possibly better rules?—so that I would no longer be sitting along the curbing.”

And, the second, where she confirms that desire’s fulfillment:

“I stayed at Rohana’s another day or two before I went home with a new backbone for my plodding along.”

These sentences establish a contextual connection between expectation and closure, making the story one of the collection’s most startling cohesive pieces.

Despite disruptions of her own reputation, Williams remains most adept at dropping readers into an inarticulate present where something is always amiss and each sentence conveys a syntactically spry sense of yearning, however vague or fleeting that sense may be. In the stories throughout Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, narrative jumps beg to be bridged, implied meanings considered, and absences filled however readers see fit to fill them.

In a half-formed family history, “Head Of The Big Man”—two pages, 439 words in length—Williams appears to speak outright at the notion that she abandons or under develops the desires of her characters, when she concludes the story with: “Young farmers and rural characters, obstetrical nurses, scholars, clergy—all the rest!—will have their great hopes realized more often than not—unless I decide to tell their stories.”

In “Gulls”—one page, 212 words in length—a woman says to her husband, ‘“We’ll have to knock ourselves into shape, won’t we?”’ Yet whatever that shape is—the shape of a happy couple?—is left unmentioned.

One of the collection’s longer stories, “To Revive A Person Is No Slight Thing”—three pages, 625 words in length—describes the dangerous early days of being a newlywed. The reader drops in on an argument between a wife and husband for which there is little context: “I ripped off some leaves and clipped stem ends, with my new spouse, from a spray of fluorescent daisies he’d bought for me, and I asserted something unpleasant just then.”

In “Perform Small Tasks”—two and a half pages, 589 words in length—a secret relationship is brought into the light, and the male narrator says, “…I wondered if I would rise to my own occasion.” It’s a phrase that carries the same expectant quality in the collection’s epigraph by Leo Markun: “How long will Harry Doe live?… Who will win the war?… Will Mary Jane Brown ultimately find a husband…?” Any reader upended in suspense might ask similar questions. But readers of Williams’ fictions would do better to reconsider what is reasonable.

Viktor Shklovsky held that the technique of art is “to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” Despite the brevity of her surreal fictions, Williams extends this “length of perception” as far as it will go. Her stories may be short, but their mysterious centers are nearly unreachable—and reaching them is not always part of the exercise. As Williams once said, “How unlifelike to understand perfectly.” Instead of reinforcing normal human habits of perception, her fiction exists to subvert them.

The characters in Williams’ stories sometimes rise, sometimes don’t, and sometimes readers just don’t know. The real fun is in her sentences that stick inside the mind and mouth where—with enough wrestling—they may shake loose stark revelations about human existence. Her incisively plain language has a delightfully weird way of reintroducing the uneasy drama in everyday life, and distorting its familiar forms into something you’ve not seen before.

— Jason Lucarelli



Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.


Jan 012016

Leonard Gardner (left) at City Lights Books. Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire. (2)Leonard Gardner, photo courtesy PFLA Newswire.

“Ernie pushed his hands into the heavy gloves held braced for him by the wrists. He stepped into a leather foulproof cup. A headguard was jerked over his brows. Padded and trussed, his face smeared with Vaseline, a rubber mouthpiece between his teeth, he stood waiting while two squat men punched and grappled in the ring. Then he was following his opponent’s dark legs up the steps. For two rounds he punched, bounded and was hit in return, the headguard dropping over his eyes and the cup sagging between his legs . . .”

From FAT CITY by Leonard Gardner


Fat City
Leonard Gardner
200 pages ($14.95)
ISBN 978-1-590178928


It was mid-September, the end of a long heat wave. That kind of heat, this time of year, came from the interior: a gathering mass over the Central Valley pushing west, stifling the ocean breeze, so even San Francisco sweltered. This had changed in the last few hours. The wind shifted. It was cooler. Even so, you could still smell the heat in the Chinatown alleys, and it was still warm inside the buildings, particularly in the reading room upstairs at City Lights Bookstore. A crowd gathered in the small room. They filled the seats. They leaned against the walls, against the railing at the back, against each other. Those who could not fit into the room sat on the landing, on the wooden staircase that led back down to the first floor.

I was one of these latter. I had arrived late and sat on the bottom step.

Leonard Gardner, the author of Fat City, would be in conversation that evening with Eddie Muller, a novelist and film historian. Fat City, originally published in 1969, had just been re-released by NYRB Classics: a publisher who has made a habit lately of reviving American classics in a distinctly desolate vein, including Nightmare Alley (1946), the geek show novel by William Lindsay Gresham, and Don Carpenter’s hard-edged Hard Rain Falling (1966).

Fat City is a boxing novel. That’s the usual tag, but as Denis Johnson writes in the introduction to the latest edition, the two main characters exist, “far outside the boxing myth . . . deep in the sorrow and beauty of human life.”

The story takes place in Stockton, California, in the late ‘50’s, out in the flatlands of the Central Valley, at the east end of the great delta: a town of modest, low slung, wood frame buildings, sloughs and fields, a working class place with a stunted skyline, a warehouse district edged by canneries and old hotels.

I should pause here.

I am not an objective witness or reliable reporter. I don’t pretend to be that. I am not objective about anything, let alone the way I feel about particular writers or the books they have written.

I have known Leonard for some time. By fate, or coincidence—however you want to frame the way events unfold—he lives around the corner from me, in a small wood frame house built shortly after the war: a modest, bungalow of the sort that used to be ubiquitous all over the state. There are yellowing Venetian blinds across the front picture window, a desk on other side of those blinds, a room filled with shadows, a couch, a rattan chair, shelves lined with books.

The fact that Leonard lives in the same neighborhood, though, had little to with why I came that night to City Lights.

It was on account of the book. Because it had moved me in a certain way, long before I’d known Leonard. And still does.

Author Domenic Stansberry (left) with Peter Maravelis of City Lights Bookstore.  Photo by Mark Coggins. (2)Author Domenic Stansberry (L) with Peter Maravelis of City Lights Bookstore. Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire.

The world Gardner writes about in the novel—Stockton in the late ‘50’s, the world of gyms and trainers frequented by young men nursing deeper aspirations—this was not part of the world where I grew up, in the suburbs of San Jose.   It still existed in San Francisco back then: a much different city than it is a now, a port town whose heyday as a venue for legendary ringside battles and fat purses had not quite passed. There was also a kind of minor league of smalltime boxing venues that ran up and down the West Coast and east to Salt Lake. Boxers often traveled to them alone, unable to afford a trainer in their corner. The payoff was small.

But I didn’t know about any of that growing up.

I first read Fat City some 30 odd years ago when living in New Orleans, homesick for California. I had been attracted by the noirish cover on the Vintage Paperback, and also by Joan Didion’s endorsement. She described the novel as “a metaphor for the joyless in heart.” It was the kind endorsement that appealed to me. Though Gardner’s subject matter is much different than Didion’s, they cover similar physical and emotional terrain in their renderings of California. If there is a nostalgia there, it is a dark nostalgia: a yearning for the forlorn, for the desolate and forgotten. I liked the book because it evoked the landscape in ways that rival Steinbeck, but felt hard-nosed, more real, less sentimental. It reminded me too of California writers like Chandler and MacDonald—and just a bit of Hollywood cast-offs like John Fante—who knew something of life in the shadows of paradise. At the same time, there was something deeply tender and familiar in the yearnings of the characters.

I read the book in New Orleans, reread it, then reread it again a few years later when my wife and I moved to Spokane, Washington, a town with its own hard light, a Greyhound Bus Depot, a boarded up Carnegie library, endless freight trains passing over the trestles.

Maybe the town has changed since, but the desolation for me was its saving grace.

My wife, Gillian Conoley, had a teaching job. She made most of the money. I was stringing for UPI, meantime working on my second novel. The more I worked on it, though, the more I looked out the window at those endlessly passing freights—the more I realized the book was not only a tangled mess, but a hopeless imitation of Fat City.

I put it in the drawer.

Gillian is a writer, too, a poet. She had a good job. Her career was going well. We had friends, no real reason to leave. Ultimately though the pull south to California, to whatever remained of home, or my idea of it, was just too strong.

A couple of years later in San Francisco—maybe this was 1990, or ’91, I don’t know—I learned Gardner would be at a retrospective at the Castro Theater: a screening focused on well-regarded movies that had been box office flops. Among these were John Huston’s Fat City, the 1972 film based on Gardner’s novel. It is one of Huston’s best films, up there with Asphalt Jungle and The Dead, remarkably faithful to the book, as Huston films often were. Gardner wrote the screenplay.


I brought my copy of the Vintage paperback version of the novel for Gardner to sign: the same dog-eared copy I’d carried around since New Orleans. Also—though it felt foolish—I gave him a copy of my own first novel, published a few years before. Gillian brought a copy of her first book of poems, Some Gangster Pain.

He looked pleased, bemused, but also a little puzzled, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop.   We gushed, lingered, then turned to leave.

“So, you don’t want anything?”


This wasn’t exactly true. I suddenly felt very silly.

“What could I want?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just sometimes, people want something. ”

He put his hand on my shoulder.

The truth, I did want something. I just didn’t know quite what it was, maybe. Or how to say it. Or maybe I knew but also knew it wasn’t something he could really give me.

I wanted to write a book as good as Fat City.

Leonard Gardner is often referred to as a writer’s writer.  Meaning, I suppose, that his work is more popular and influential with writers than with the general public. Whether this is true, I don’t know. The book has been reprinted several times in English and translated into numerous foreign languages. Not all of these readers could be writers, I don’t think, though it’s true at times the world seems full of them.  Too full. It is also true that many writers—of very different sorts—have admired Fat City, sung its praises, grown and suffered under its influence. Didion once wrote it was the kind of novel every writer wished to have written. Crime novelist Ross MacDonald said it was one of the best novels he had ever read, putting it in the category with Melville and Twain. More recently Denis Johnson talked about the indelible mark the book had made on him, so much so he sometimes felt every word he himself had written was in the shadow of Fat City.

The book starts out like this:

He lived in the Hotel Coma—named perhaps for some founder of the town, some California explorer or pioneer, or for some long-deceased Italian immigrant who founded only the hotel itself. Whoever it commemorated, the hotel was a poor monument, and Billy Tully had no intention of staying on. His clean laundry he continued to put back in his suitcase on the dresser, ready to be hurried away to better lodgings.   He had lived in five hotels in the year and a half since his wife had left him . . . His room was high and narrow. Smudges from oily heads darkened the wallpaper between the metal rods of his bed. His shade was tattered, his light bulb dim, and his neighbors all seemed to have lung trouble.

Tully works as a fry cook and drinks up his wages. He is a former boxer, 29 years old, haunted by the memory of his ex-wife. In the throes of that hopeless desire, hungover, he heads to the local YMCA, overcome by the notion he left his career too soon. Here he spars briefly with Ernie Munger, a gangly, young man ten years his junior.

From this point, as Denis Johnson says, “the stories of Ernie Munger, a young fighter with frail but nevertheless burning hopes, and Billy Tully, an older pug with bad luck in and out of the ring, parallel one another throughout the book. Though the two men hardly meet, the book blends the perspective on them until they seem to chart a single life of missteps and baffled love.”

That evening at City Lights, I edged past the others on the stairs and found myself a place to lean inside the famous room up there on the second floor, above what had once been Cavalli’s Books: where Mussolini’s voice had blared during weekly broadcasts from an outdoor loudspeaker back in the ‘30’s. And where Ferlinghetti later started the now infamous City Lights Books, a publishing house on a different side of the political spectrum, which found itself at the center of the censorship trials in the late ‘50’s.

Leonard Gardner (right), in Conversation with Eddie Muller at City Lights Books, September, 2015.  Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire. (2)Leonard Gardner (right), in Conversation with Eddie Muller at City Lights Books, September, 2015. Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire.

Eddie Muller, who has his own ties with Leonard, took the role of interviewer that night.  Eddie had sought Leonard out at one time, too, with his own first novel. More than that, Eddie’s father and namesake had once been the boxing columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Leonard had read those columns and followed the careers of the boxers there.

Of course there is very little boxing in the city anymore, or need for a boxing column. And the Chronicle too is a shadow of itself.

The conversation that evening was book-ended by two short readings. Eddie began the evening by reading from the opening of Fat City. And Leonard closed the event out an hour or so later, reading a scene where Tully attempts his comeback against Arcadio Lucero, an aging Mexican boxer.

It is a moving scene in the novel, but also in the film, where Huston shows Lucero stepping from the bus, with the demeanor of an aging, wincing matador, pissing blood in the urinal before the fight.

In between these two short readings, Muller asked the kinds of questions people ask at these things: about how the book came into being. Though I have known Leonard for some time, I had never heard him talk much about his own process.

I knew he had gone to San Francisco State and studied in the Creative Writing Program sometime in the early ‘60’s. I knew he had attended that school about the same time as a number of other writers, including Don Carpenter, author of Hard Rain Falling, and Gina Berriault: a dark-haired woman from Long Beach, daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who later won the National Book Award for her selected stories, Women in their Beds. Gina and Leonard lived together much of the time and were close companions until her death in 1999. I knew that while working on Fat City Leonard had worked for a while parking cars in a downtown garage along with another young writer and SFSU student, crime novelist Joe Gores. I also knew, later in his career, he had worked for several years with the TV producer David Milch as a writer for NYPD, and did his work for that show on a battered old Smith Corona long after everyone else in the trade had switched to computer.

Other facts:

Gardner, 82, grew up in Stockton California. He worked the boxing circuit when he was young, about the same age as his protagonists. I have seen the faded news clipping of him as a young man posing with a Stockton boxing club. It hangs in a small frame on the wall of his living room. He was rangy then and still is now. His face bears the marks of those early years: a nose that looks to have been broken more than once, flattened and pushed to the side—a boxer’s nose.   Leonard is relatively soft-spoken, not all the time, but most. He seems to listen when you speak, with eyes that fall to the floor and then back to yours, alternately shy and penetrating. He does not fill the air with words, but speaks slowly, in a voice and rhythm that to my ears bears the inflection of an older California, children of depression era migrants, Okies and farmers and ranch hands and laborers that had come out here from the middle of the country. His father used to take him along on walks through downtown Stockton, into the bars there. While his father drank and talked with the men in those bars, Leonard studied the taxidermy on the walls. This was what Leonard told me once when we were sitting in the Elks Club in San Francisco, looking at the stuffed head of a giant elk. There was a boxing gym, too, on those streets where he grew up, more bars, service stations, men disembarking from buses after long days in the field, anxious for a drink. The air stank of the delta, long days of endless heat.

The Hazleton Public Library had not yet been demolished, with its 25,000 titles. So there was plenty of reading material. Meanwhile Owl Drugs—like drug stores everywhere at that time—stocked pulp paperbacks in ways that did little to separate the sacred from the profane; literary and genre writers mingled together on the shelves behind covers that didn’t necessarily have much to do with the content. Erskine Caldwell alongside Mickey Spillane alongside Stegner and Steinbeck and Faulkner and Zane Grey, and Flannery O’Connor, all in revolving racks positioned somewhere between the candy bars and the foot powder.

When Muller asked Gardner if there were any books from that time hat might have influenced him, he mentioned B. Tavern, author of The Treasure of Sierra Madre:

“Tavern wasn’t a very good writer, pretty terrible in a lot of ways, but I read all his books. I read a lot of boxing novels, too, at some point, but most of those were melodramas, and they weren’t very real. So when I realized I could be a writer, and maybe had some talent . . . I didn’t want to write a book like that . . . I wanted to write a book that captured some of the darker side of things . . . And had the feeling of something real . . . Some writers work in conventions, certain things have to happen, in particular places, but I wasn’t interested in that. You only get so many chances with your material. So I thought just because I had Billy Tully in the first chapter, it didn’t mean I had to stay with him.   If I wanted to write about another character for a while, to visit the onion fields, or something, why couldn’t I do that?”

Though Fat City focuses primarily on Munger and Tully, it does move into the consciousness of other characters, sometimes for entire scenes, other times only in passing. The shifts do not seem to grow out of schematic but out of circumstances, out of evolving narrative. True, the events, the scenes, almost always center around Tully and Munger, even when they themselves are off-stage, or involved in activities far from the ring (as they are most of the time).  Though there are impressionistic moments, and a degree of interiority, of reflection, the book is on the clock when it comes to the narrative momentum; suspense rooted not so much in action, though that is part of it, but in the fates of the characters, even when they are just hanging around, lost in reminiscence. There is a reason for this.   The underlying conventions of the boxing story form the skeleton of the action: the process of training, the distractions of romance and love and alcohol, the build-up to the important match. Though these conventions are familiar, they don’t feel familiar in Fat City. Or rather they have the feeling of the familiar, the pleasure of that, while at the same time undermining it. Partly that’s because this is boxing in the regional circuit, far from the big time and the hype, where the gains are transitory, where the trainer can’t afford to travel with you to the big bout, where stepping into the ring is as much about emotional sustenance as it is survival.

Fat City is extremely evocative it its details. Eddie Muller—who grew up around the ring, in the shadow of his own father’s daily boxing column—asked Leonard how much research he had done while putting together the book.

As it turns out, of course, the book didn’t come together all at once. There was an earlier version called The Gym. “The boxing part, I knew pretty well,” Leonard said. “I was into the scene, so you know I followed that.” There were other things, though, about which he had less familiarity, including the nature of the itinerant farm work Billy Tully undertakes to pay for his lodgings.

“I was living in San Francisco while I was working on the book,” said Gardner. “There used to be a place where the bus came to pick up men, in the early morning. Down there by the old hotels.   They came while it was still dark. To pick up the men from the hotels, itinerant workers, and drive them out to the fields. So I went out there and stood in the line. I didn’t do this for a regular living, I’m not saying that. But I went out there on the bus, and worked different jobs. I didn’t live the life of a farm worker, I’m not saying that. I just felt if you are going to write about something, you maybe should know a little bit about it.”

The bus rattled past the dark houses, gas stations, neon lit motels, and the high vague smokestack of the American Can Company, past the drive-in movie, its great screen white and iridescent in the approaching dawn, across an unseen creek beneath ponderous oaks, past the cars and trailers and pickup-truck caravans of the gypsy camp at its bank and out between the wide fields . . . As the blazing curve of the sun appeared, lighting the faces of the men jolting in the bus—Negro paired with Negro, white with white, Mexican with Mexican and Filipino beside Filipino—Billy Tully took the last sweet slug of Thunderbird and his bottle in its slim bag rolled banging under the seat.

From Fat City

The novel is full of this almost documentary realism, evoking the work in the fields: the task of thinning tomato plants; long hours with a short handled hoe; the bagging of walnuts beaten from the tree. Also the grey streets of Stockton, the gas stations, the mud hens by the river, the Lido Gym, the wrapping and taping of a young fighter’s hands before he steps in the ring, the lovemaking between this same young fighter and his girlfriend in the back seat of a car in the pouring rain, a rain so fierce and hard that the car gets stuck in the mud.

Fat City is a novel in the naturalist tradition, in the older sense of that term: realism in which the fate of an individual is cast as a struggle in the wake of social and natural forces. The prose is finely tuned, realistic, in a transparent style that focuses not so much on itself but on the object and actions rendered. There is a lyric quality, but it seems to emerge from what is observed, not from the hand of the writer.  Yet it isn’t the detail alone that gives the reader attachment to the characters.

There’s that baffled love.

I am not sure really I know how to explain this.

But it permeates the novel. It’s there in Tully’s affair with Oma, another man’s woman, a hopeless lush whose sharp insults Tully longs to escape but whom he regards with a drunken tenderness that reduces him to tears. It’s there in the scene where Tully’s trainer, Ruben Luna, makes love to his own aging wife, while thinking of a waitress in gabardine slacks. And also in the hopeless desire that gives way to sudden resentment, a feeling of being trapped forever, when Ernie Munger finally loses his virginity in the backseat of that car, impregnating a young woman, his future wife, whom he seduces by confessing a love he’s not sure he really feels.

That baffled love permeates the Huston film as well. Eddie and Leonard talked about that film, starring Stacey Keach and a very young Jeff Bridges: how the director cast old timers from the boxing world in San Francisco into supporting roles; how the actress who played the drunken Oma bore an eerie real-life resemblance to the character herself; how John Huston was an aficionado of the old circuit, of the lost world of gyms and back-road boxing venues.

They talked, too, about a review of the novel when it first appeared, a favorable review that had nonetheless irked Leonard, by referring to the characters as “beautiful losers:”

“Yeah, that rankled me at the time. It pissed my off. Because I wasn’t writing about beauty. That wasn’t the thing. Also, the characters weren’t losers. Not in my view anyway. They had something they wanted. They pursued it. They fought for it. And they succeeded. They weren’t losers. So that characterization kind of bothered me. But maybe the guy was just trying, in his inarticulate way, to say something about the book. About what he saw there.”

I thought back to my own lack of words that evening I had sought out Leonard in the Castro. I hadn’t expected that I would see him again, but then a few weeks later, we ran into him at the poet George Evan’s place out in the Sunset District, that foggy remote part of the city once covered in sand dunes. Non-fiction writer Bill Barich was there, author of Laughing in the Hills, and so was Gina Berriault, in all her beauty and elegance. Steve Vendor, too, if I remember, a private detective, and also Clancy Carlile, Leonard’s best friend, a Cherokee novelist and screenwriter who later worked with Clint Eastwood. Over the next several years, we formed a circle of sorts—though none of us would have referred to it that way, in that kind of parlance.   There was nothing formal, just a loose knit group of writers with something resembling a shared sensibility. Who had at times the need to see other people.   To sit in the back room at the felt table in Tosca in North Beach.   To stand around Bill Barich’s house in San Anselmo. To drink until closing on a hot night with all the doors and casement windows wide open while outside litter and trash and discarded wrappers and old newspaper swirled in the Mission Street dust. The circle did not last forever of course. Names changed, faces. People divorced, died, moved away.

Gina BerriaultGina Berriault

Then somewhat by coincidence—maybe it was a dozen years ago, not long after Gina’s death—Leonard moved around the corner. He had no idea we lived the next street over. It was several months before I went up and knocked on his door.

Sometimes I run him into at Colonial Liquors. Or see him walking down by the lagoon near the old police station. Sometimes at a party. Once he and I and the poet Alissa Valles and Gillian went to the race track over in Golden Gate Fields and lost some money. Sometimes, when he is out of town, my daughter feeds Pi the cat, and I check the mail. At such times I will linger for a while on the couch, maybe, reading randomly from the books on his shelves, or maybe just lie there watching the motes in the slanted light that falls through the blinds.

When the event was over, I lingered at City Lights. I took pictures with my cell. I talked to Eddie Muller. To Peter Maravelis, the event manager at City Lights. To book artist Steve Vincent. To Alissa Valles, the poet and translator who these days lives with Leonard, and to her friend the Russian-American writer Anastasia Edel. We planned to meet afterwards at a bar across the street, soon as Leonard was done with the signing. Meanwhile a long line snaked away from Leonard at the signing table, all the way down to the bottom of the stair. It became clear he would be here awhile. I grew impatient and went outside to catch some air, to smoke a cigarette.After the reading at Specs Bar, Columbus Avenue. Anastasia Edel, Alissa Valles, Leonard Gardner, Eddie Muller. Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire.After the reading at Specs Bar, Columbus Avenue. Anastasia Edel, Alissa Valles, Leonard Gardner, Eddie Muller. Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire.

I knew this part of town pretty well, North Beach, the old Italian neighborhood, with Chinatown around the corner, and the ghosts of the old Beat writers in the black and white photos on the walls inside City Lights. Of course the city has changed—everybody knows that, the wild influx of money, of technology—but just standing there it still looked pretty much the same. There was an SRO around the corner, a flophouse, absurdly priced no doubt, but a flophouse nonetheless. A man stood in the doorway coughing. A young man and woman across the street embraced sloppily, then pulled away from each other, arguing, before tumbling toward the Barbary Coast, the line of strip joints that runs down Broadway. A cluster of tourists negotiated the crosswalk.  Then for a moment the street was all but empty. Or that was how it seemed. There was no breeze, and I felt the heat, still lingering, the smell of the Central Valley in the air, of the hinterlands, of human sweat and longing and desolation that neither money nor fog nor the future could dispel. I heard voices behind me, coming down the stair.  I put out my cigarette and walked across the street to the bar, to wait. To drink too much. To drive across the Golden Gate to the other side.

— Domenic Stansberry

First print rights to this article provided to Numéro Cinq from the PFLA Newswire, a project of the Pacific Film and Literary Association, a 501(3c) non-profit.


Domenic Stansberry is an award-winning novelist known for his dark, innovative crime novels. His North Beach Mystery Series has won praise in The New York Times and other publications for its rich portrayal of the ethnic and political subcultures of San Francisco. An earlier novel, The Confession, received an Edgar Allan Poe Award for its controversial portrait of a Marin county psychologist accused of murdering his mistress. He is the author of nine novels and a collection of stories. He has a new book coming out in 2016, THE WHITE DEVIL, with Molotov Editions.


Dec 132015


Haddad’s novel satisfies in ways similar to that of a great magic trick: an act that offers the audience a blend of fact and fiction, along with a presentation that constantly demands attention. — Benjamin Woodard


Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters
Hubert Haddad, translated from the French by Jennifer Grotz
Open Letter Books
309 pages ($16.95)
ISBN 978-1-940953-20-5


In his 1924 book, A Magician Among the Spirits, the late Harry Houdini set out to demonstrate the counterfeit nature of Spiritualism: the belief that the dead can correspond with the living. Over thirty years, Houdini attended hundreds of séances in the United States and abroad, always with a skeptical-yet-open mind, hoping, as he put it, “to [ultimately] speak to my sainted Mother who awaits me with open arms to press me to her heart in welcome, just as she did when I entered this mundane sphere.”

Houdini never did reconnect with his departed mother before his own passing from peritonitis in 1926, but the text he left behind, a damning condemnation of Spiritualism’s manipulative practice, consisting of chapters devoted to mediums, collected letters, and correspondence, continues to stand as a kind of Bible for those leery of psychics and other parapsychological phenomena that perpetually linger in popular culture.

Margaret and Kate Fox, the subjects of Hubert Haddad’s fascinating new novel, Rochester Knockings, appear prominently in Houdini’s exposé and are often cited as the architects of modern Spiritualism. As Haddad explains via robust prose, in 1848, the sisters first experienced spiritual “rappings”—think cryptic knocks on the walls and floors, like mystical Morse code—at their family’s farm in the hamlet of Hydesville, New York. It didn’t take long before word got out about the sisters’ unusual ghostly connections, and the duo soon exhibited their gifts to paying audiences, traveling from Hydesville to Rochester, under the care of their entrepreneurial older sister, Leah, before eventually showcasing to a who’s who of New York City aristocrats. Theirs is a captivating, strange narrative, and Haddad’s fictional retelling, shaping itself as a classic dramatic tragedy, with a stratospheric rise, tragic flaw, and equally crushing plummet for its heroines, satisfies in ways similar to that of a great magic trick: an act that offers the audience a blend of fact and fiction, along with a presentation that constantly demands attention, as sections float from close third-person narration, shadowing the sisters or local residents, to epistolary scenes via Margaret’s diary.

Haddad walks a literary tightrope throughout Rochester Knockings, splitting time between the Fox sisters and their unique personalities, and it is here that small winks fill the reader in on the legitimacy of the fledgling mediums’ talents. While Kate, the youngest, appears genuine in her belief that she can speak to the dead, Margaret wavers at times when writing in her diary. For example, after Leah establishes the “Fox & Fish Spiritualist Institute” and books the girls in a local theater (“the biggest room in Rochester”) to drum up business, Margaret writes about the nerves that come along with forced public performance:

“I have the feeling I’m stepping on a bridge that’s collapsing, or steering an enormous boat into a black abyss where everything is creaking and streaming with water. And in those conditions, I still have to maintain the look of being tranquilly seated in a salon, awaiting the deluge! So, when nothing comes, it’s true, I crack my toes. What charitable person would expect someone dying not to cheat with death?”

These confessions of fraud continue in Margaret’s missives, until, so deeply rooted within the business of misleading believers, she one day burns her diary to protect her family’s livelihood. It isn’t until late in her life, and in the novel, that a down on her luck Margaret—alcoholic, widowed, dirt poor—finally admits her secrets in an attempt to embarrass Leah, who, having discarded her younger sisters, started her own profitable Spiritualist society. Margaret concedes to a crowded theater the whole thing was a sham. And yet, rather than have this reveal act as a thrilling climax, here Haddad uses the shift to cast doubt over Margaret’s admissions, as Kate says to her sister, “What? You were pretending?” Like a yin-yang, the more Margaret speaks of tricks, of the swindle, the farther Kate convinces herself that her own powers are real. This “who is telling the truth” question muddies itself further when, during their successful run, the sisters are subject to scrutiny from lawyers, doctors, and scientists, who take it upon themselves to debunk the women’s routine. Though history does show that these minor persecutions indeed took place, and were never successful, Haddad’s inclusion of each adds to his crafting of a complex narrative that, while centered around the rise and fall of the Fox sisters, also speaks to the concept of faith and devotion in general. What happens when we believe too much? When that belief is questioned? When that belief doesn’t return our piety?

Woven throughout Rochester Knockings is the rambling account of William Pill, a fictional gambler and troublemaker who, after meeting the Fox sisters, decides to fake his way into the medium business to pay off debts. Like so many others at the time (Spiritualism boomed in the 1850s thanks to the Fox sisters), Pill, taking on the alias Mac Orpheus, finds ample employment claiming his own spiritual networks, and eventually joins the Barnum circus. Unlike in his treatment of Margaret and Kate, however, here Haddad clearly establishes the forgery of Pill’s actions:

“At poker or roulette, Lady Luck was linked as much to bluffing as the little fetishistic rituals and would almost certainly elude [Pill] once he put faith in her star; but in front of a public gaping at ghosts, every turn was good for filling his wallet.”

In binding the skillsets of a gambler to that of a medium, Haddad perhaps shows the reader his true thoughts on Spiritualism’s genuineness, and yet Pill is not the only fictional addition to the novel who challenges the core concept of faith. Early in the novel, Methodist preacher Alexander Cruik stands before a Hydesville congregation, a guest of the hamlet’s Reverend Gascoigne, and uses “intuition more than reason” to speak to the room of churchgoers. As Haddad writes, he “let himself go off in a loud voice about numerous parables of his own creation, which his listeners imagined were taken from the Bible and the wisest took accurately as apocryphal.” Again, in this passage we see the author speaking to the slippery connection between faith and deception, only now he layers in the seemingly legitimate practice of organized religion. Add to this Cruik’s eventual alliance with the Fox sisters, as well as Reverend Gascoigne’s dabbling with spiritual readings from Pill’s Mac Orpheus, and Rochester Knockings becomes far more than simply a novel about Spiritualism: it’s a story that thoughtfully questions the potency of all belief systems.

Frequently, Haddad ends his chapters with a stanza of poetry. It’s an interesting choice, one that lends a fairy tale quality to the novel and allows the author to inject subtle revelations. Perhaps the most effective use of this technique comes after Kate spends an evening with Ralph Waldo Emerson. The next day, still starstruck, she recites a section of his poem, “Brahma”:

Far or forgot to me is near;
………..Shadows and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
………..And one to me are shame and fame.

Emerson’s transcendentalism is on display in the quatrain, and the whole of “Brahma” addresses the connection of all beings to a universal spirit. Still, within this stanza, one can also see the themes of Haddad’s novel: religion, faith, deception, profit. The duality of these four lines echo the complementary lives of Margaret and Kate Fox, and they mirror the structure of Rochester Knockings as a dramatic tragedy in commenting on nature’s extremes. It’s small kernels like this stanza that string the reader along—in a story about the art of convincing, would one expect anything less?—and elevate Haddad’s novel to extraordinary heights. In expanding on Harry Houdini’s discoveries, Haddad has penned a narrative that not only continues to condemn the world of parapsychology, but further questions all organized belief systems. That an author is able to achieve this while also writing a fun, engaging, and entertaining story is a rare accomplishment.

— Benjamin Woodard



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


Dec 102015
Bohumil Hrabal

Bohumil Hrabal

Mr Kafka
Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult
Bohumil Hrabal
Translated by Paul Wilson
New Directions, October 2015
160 pages; $14.95



r. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult, recently released by New Directions, represents the latest addition to the growing body of work by the late Czech author, Bohumil Hrabal, to be made available to an English speaking audience. Composed and set, for the most part, during the early years of Communist era Czechoslovakia, this collection of seven short stories is deeply informed by a time when Stalin’s larger-than-life cult of personality loomed over a country unwillingly caught up in the thrust of major social and economic reforms. Yet, as the author indicates in his preface, this book can be seen as both a representation of his society’s evolution, and as an expression of his own creative evolution. During this period there was no single experience more profound for Hrabal, the writer, than his recruitment, in 1949, as a “volunteer” manual labourer at the Poldi Steelworks in the town of Kladno near Prague.

Today the Koněv division of the steelworks where Hrabal worked stands in ruin. During his term of service though, it was a bustling operation devoted to turning the wreckage of war into the raw material required for, among other things, armaments for the forces of the Soviet Union. Although he studied law, Hrabal had worked at a variety of positions including railway dispatcher, insurance agent and salesman prior to finding himself on the factory floor of the steelworks. He arrived in the company of an assortment of other white-collar workers and professionals who suddenly found themselves engaged in unfamiliar work in a strange and dangerous environment alongside seasoned labourers, Party hacks, and prisoners.

Of course, Hrabal was also an aspiring writer whose literary explorations had, to date, been informed by the French Surrealists. He described himself as plucking bits and pieces from the likes of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Céline. But at Kladno his pretentious, “pseudo-artistic” world disintegrated. What he had once aspired to, he now recognized as insubstantial in the presence of the real things, real people, and real words that surrounded him. In the face of this artistic crisis, he came to understand that he needed to reorient his approach altogether, taking on the perspective of a reporter; drawing on the lives, work, and conversations of the people he encountered on the job, on the street and, most commonly, in the pub over a beer.

With this discovery, Hrabal was on his way to developing the style of writing he would come to describe as “total realism”.  The stories in Mr. Kafka, which primarily date from the 1950’s, can be seen as his earliest efforts to ground his approach to writing in the real world, and demonstrate that reality can potentially be at least as magical as anything the Surrealists might conceive.

The steelworks have a starring role in four of the seven tales. The grandest and most ambitious of these is “Strange People,” set over the course of a single shift on the factory floor.  The story opens with a sharp visual that will be evoked repeatedly, every time someone or something passes down the long factory hall through the ribbons of light created by the sun pouring through the louvers of the ventilation towers above. As the shift foreman approaches, the light casts stripes across his overalls. He emerges, passing the silent machinery that ought to be in full swing, to confront a group of grinders who are resting by the sorting table “knees up, their arms folded behind their heads, like extras waiting in the wings for their cues.” Quotas have been raised without consultation and, under the leadership of a former milk bar owner and devout communist nicknamed The Dairyman; the grinders are refusing to work.

Meanwhile, a character known as the Judge struggles to get the hang of managing the two-button control pendant for the hoist that is used above the vats of acid with the assistance of a co-worker named Vindy. Early on he accidentally steps into a puddle of acid, so his shoe and pant leg will be eaten away as the day goes on. Over on the scrap heap, a group of female convicts unload freight wagons and toss metal crucifixes, coffin lids and other goods into hoppers to be carted off to the smelting ovens.

The scene will shift back and forth between these groups. The grinders, which include in their number a cop, a priest, a lawyer, and a restaurateur; debate among themselves the merits and risks of their job action while continuing to argue their case up the ladder of management until they reach the Trade Union Rep. At the vats, as they move in and out of the clouds of caustic green vapours, and cross over rickety planks, the Judge treats Vindy to a stoic account of all of the ways that his life has improved now that his circumstances are reduced to living in a sparsely furnished basement room. In spite of the pleasure he claims to find in small acts, like burning the scraps of fine wood he salvages, his discourse is imbued with an absurd, tragic sadness.

In the middle of it all, a film crew arrives to record a piece of propaganda entitled “Lunch Break in Our Factories.” The grinders are recruited to sit on a pile of ingots, hold newspapers and shout anti-American slogans. An aquarium is rolled in and birch saplings are arranged to approximate a grove of trees. Apprentices are directed to emerge from the “trees” singing and dancing, and to stand around the aquarium pretending to discuss the fish. Not willing to play along innocently, the grinders manage to convince the director to supply them with a round of salami buns for the sake of authenticity and refuse to stick to the script.

From the sidelines, Hrabal masterfully orchestrates this grand tragi-comic opera. He delights in the play of images, in the conversations and interactions of the cast he has assembled, and in the opportunity to present social commentary and human drama without appearing to take sides. In this scene, for example, the manager arrives, through the light-slashed hallway, in a gondola suspended from the crane. From his perch he insists that he is merely executing a trade-union decision, and encourages the grinders to return to work. Without an agreement in place, they refuse:

“Right, then,” said the manager, raising his black sleeve till it was immersed to the elbow in a shaft of golden sunlight. “But I’m reporting this to the director’s office and to the trade union.”

“Why are you treating us like this?” shouted the grinder with the cruciform scar under his eye. “Why are you taking a day’s wages out of my pocket?”

“Václav!” said the manager. “I hardly know you any more. You’re an old comrade and you’re coming after me like that?”

“You’re making my life miserable! The grinder shouted, and he picked up a crowbar, tossed it from hand to hand, scattering little reflections of sunlight around the shop, then hurled it at a stack of cast iron slabs. The crowbar clanged and clattered to the ground, the echo of its voice dying away among the blue shadows. The grinder ran on to the stack, climbed over the slabs, quivering with rage, and stood there, sliced in two by a band of sunlight.

“But Václav, I’m one of you, I’m a worker too, you know that, “ the manager said, placing his hand on his heart.

The energetic, highly visual style typical of Hrabal’s writing throughout his career is already evident in these early stories He is freely drawing on the characters he encounters on the worksite, playing up idiosyncratic mannerisms, physical features, and environmental details such as, in this story, the bands of light falling onto the factory floor. However, if he is starting, as he desires, from the ground up, there is a gently exaggerated quality and a delicate balance between comedy and sadness that reaches back, not to the French Surrealists now, but to his Czech literary forebears, like Jaroslav Hašek, author of The Good Soldier Švejk.

Those familiar with Hrabal’s work will know that he commonly employs a first person narrator to carry a story, either as the protagonist or as a secondary character. It is a striking feature of this collection that four of the stories employ a third person narrative, and that two of these tales – the one we have just examined, “Strange People”, and “Ingots” – are told from the perspective of a detached observer (“The Angel” and “A Betrayal of Mirrors” feature limited third person narratives).  With a narrator who stands outside of the action, watching and recording the activities at hand, the characters are allowed to freely engage in conversation, from idle banter to intellectual discourse, and from political commentary to personal confession. Nothing feels forced or contrived as Hrabal manages a relatively large ensemble within a limited space. One senses that during this time he is developing his ear, fine-tuning his ability to listen, and laying the groundwork for the flowing, almost stream of consciousness style that will mark his well-loved longer works.

A useful counterpoint lies in another of Hrabal’s early works, one that had its genesis as a series of tales that he collected from his uncle in 1949, but later cut and reworked into the rambling, one sentence discourse of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. In this novella, published in 1964, the narrator is an exuberant old man who regales a group of sunbathing women with an insanely wild account of his life and loves, augmented with digressions for his commentary on history, literature and, well, just about anything that crosses his mind. The irresistible charm of the narrator holds the story together. Hrabal’s well known later novels such as I Served the King of England, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, and Harlequin’s Millions, tend to favour long sentences and paragraphs that can extend for pages, but make effective use of repeated images and motifs, and even recurring characters and locations – features that he is clearly exploring in the short stories he was writing in the 1950’s. In light of his earliest work, they seem to strike a balance between the staged structure of a story like “Strange People” and breathless intensity of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age.

The present collection, which was first published in 1965 under a title that could be translated as Want-Ad for a House I No Longer Wish to Live In, is framed by two stories that were originally written in 1950 as “epic” poems and later re-envisioned as prose. The title story, “Mr. Kafka” is set in the years between the end of the Second World War and the Communist coup of 1948. The narrator, with a clear nod to the writer with whom he shares a last name, has been unlucky in love, resides with an odd landlord and his wife, and spends his days checking invoices against products in the warehouse of the wholesaler for whom he works. After a day sorting toys he takes to wandering through the darkening streets of Prague. He meets and engages with a number of colourful characters, from a precocious child in the park, to a philosopher who invites him to share a grilled sausage, to the prostitutes who ply their trade by night. But in his heart he still pines for his beloved who, most curiously, is named Poldinka – a name that the steelworkers often affectionately applied to the Poldi steelworks.

Our friend Kafka returns to close out the collection with “Beautiful Poldi”. Here the allusion is direct, this is a twisted love song to a cruel mistress. The reality of life for the steel worker, on the job, or after an accident or injury has left the unfortunate survivor maimed and disfigured, is played out in a mix of dialogue and long flowing passages.

Life is fidelity to the beauty exploding all around us, even, at times, at the cost of our own lives. The newspapers, meanwhile, publish glowing accounts of the volunteer laborer who comes home from work and dances the Cossack Dance while sending mental telegrams of gratitude to the authorities, whereas in reality he coughs up black bile and collapses into his bed. Or a thirsty drop of molten steel swims through a roller’s eye, his wife’s image vanishes, and he tries, with ludicrous little steps, to dance away his misfortune.

Hrabal’s own career as a volunteered steel worker was cut short when a crane fell on him in 1952. After recovering, he went on to work as a paper baler in Prague from 1954 to 1959. Although he was writing during these years, he would not begin to publish seriously until the early 1960’s and even then, his works were subject to censorship. By the time his books were finally appearing in print he was already into his 50’s. However, his foray into heavy industry was hardly a fruitless detour. Rather it would prove to be fundamental to the development of a unique voice, at once magical and grounded, that would help make him one of the best loved Czech writers of the latter half of the 20th century.

Hrabal was, first and foremost, a gatherer and disseminator of stories: the stories of ordinary people – big dreamers, unlikely heroes, melancholy souls. He would face criticism for failing to take a more vocal stance against the Communist government, but it would wrong to assume that political currents do not run through his work. However, they take their place among all of the other aspirations and anxieties of human existence and, as such, hold to no overt agenda. Even if he did err on the side of caution, it did allow him to continue to collect and share the stories that mattered to him. And when a number of his literary contemporaries chose a life in exile, he stayed in Prague until the day he fell out of his hospital window at the age of 82, leaving behind 18 volumes of collected works.

Within the context of his life and work, Paul Wilson’s translation of Mr. Kafka and Other Stories from the Time of the Cult offers a welcome and highly entertaining opportunity to witness an important moment in Hrabal’s self-identified evolution as a writer.

 –– Joseph Schreiber

Joe Schreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He tweets @roughghosts.



Dec 042015

Gass author photo William H. Gass / Michael Lionstar New York Times

Eyes book photo

William H. Gass
Knopf, October 2015
Hardback $26.00, 256 pages
ISBN: 978-1101874721

Everything is the same except composition.

—Gertrude Stein

William Howard Gass was born in July, 1924, the year Gertrude Stein first published portions of The Making of Americans. In one of many essays about Stein, a writer who became his literary role model and inspired his experiments in composition, Gass writes that the first time he read Three Lives, circa 1948 while a graduate student in philosophy at Cornell, he stayed up all night and that his “stomach held the text in its coils as if I had swallowed the pages.”[1] William H. Gass, newly minted Ph.D., would go on to write over a dozen books composed of sentences the details of which work both symbolically and literally, sentences whose sound and syntax and structure lift worlds from the page.

With a literary career spanning more than half a century, William H. Gass has been praised for his artistry, the beauty of his writing, and the depth of his analytical acumen. He is the author of four novels (including Omensetter’s Luck, The Tunnel, and Middle C), a collection of novellas (Cartesian Sonata), and nine works of nonfiction (including On Being Blue, The World Within the World, and A Temple of Texts). His numerous honors and awards include, among many others, the 1996 American Book Award for The Tunnel, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism (for Tests of Time, Finding a Form, and Habitations of the Word), the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction (1975), and in 2000 the PEN/Nabokov award and the PEN/Nabokov Lifetime Achievement award.

For thirty years Gass taught philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he has been the David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities since 2000. His most recent publications include a book of essays, Life Sentences (2012), Middle C in 2013 (winner of the 2015 William Dean Howells Medal), and in October of this year from Knopf, his newest book of fiction, Eyes, a superb collection of two novellas and four short stories. Now ninety-one, he lives in St. Louis with his wife Mary, to whom he has been married since 1952.

Despite the accolades, periodically Gass’s fiction has been accused of being “difficult” or “opaque” in much the same way as the usual postmodern suspects he is associated with, authors such as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkins, and John Hawkes. Like most artists, Gass dislikes labels, although when pressed, he has called himself a “decayed modernist.”[2] His fiction is language driven, his characters “locales of linguistic energy,”[3] his plots secondary to astonishing metaphorical matrices. When asked about criticism Gass once replied “How can you write well enough to write about Colette?”[4] He’s right. The writing should always speak for itself. For me, discovering Gass was like his discovery of Gertrude Stein the night he read Three Lives. I cannot write well enough to write about William H. Gass; nevertheless, I hope to lure you to trust an artist and master of fiction and explore the world through his eyes.


Through a Glass, Darkly

In Camera opens as all the stories in this collection, with its own frontispiece: a black and white “selfie” of the author, possibly from the 1980s, with Gass standing in front of a large storefront window on an urban street. Thus the first image in a story bursting with imagery shows a literal camera, serves as a symbolic representation of the primary theme (our perception of reality), and is a visual pun on himself—a glass Gass. In the background, across the street, is a building with a door of steel panels similar to the steel shutters that protect the shop of Gass’s character Mr. Gab, a collector of vintage photographs—prints by Stieglitz, Atget, Sudek, and many more. The analogy of a camera shutter couldn’t be clearer.

The story is set in the present. Mr. Gab, seventyish, hides out in his shop in a derelict neighborhood where he spends long hours staring at his precious photographic prints. The shop itself becomes the next image, the shop as a camera—the first term for which was “camera obscura,” or “dark chamber,” which is exactly how Mr. Gab’s shop is described, except for the light that leaks through the shutters, projecting the image of shadows on the rear wall, shadows of external objects, objects outside Mr. Gab’s chosen hideaway. And so the images of cameras, photographs, shadows, and projections, begin piling up—all within the first few pages. If the imagery hasn’t been clear, Gass tips the reader to think beyond the surface story he’s telling to its philosophical underpinnings with the clause “but genius was a dark cave full of flickers” and we know we are in Plato’s allegory of the cave.

The seventy-five page novella is divided into four approximately equally long chapters. The third-person point of view uses the indirect internal monologue of Mr. Gab’s assistant (variously named the stupid assistant, you stupid kid, hey-u-stew-pid, u-Stu, Stu, and Mr. Stu in a wonderful progression that parallels the narration of the backstory), but the focalization shifts seamlessly when needed, and through Stu’s thoughts and Mr. Gab’s exposition (and thoughts) we learn how much the photos mean to Mr. Gab; they are his obsession, his raison d’être. The photographs are both for sale and not, as Mr. Gab would prefer to hoard his treasures; however, occasionally he is forced to sell a few prints to make ends meet and he acquires new stock by haggling with shady characters who visit the shop from time to time. His is a cash-only business, and he keeps no receipts so there will be no paper trail.

The stupid assistant, Stu, actually Mr. Gab’s stepson (Mr. Gab “had been his mother’s husband, but was not known to be his father”), is assumed by everyone to be mentally handicapped because of his physical handicaps, which are numerous. Although Stu walks with a limp, has only one good arm, and one good eye—like a camera—he is actually highly intelligent and during the long hours he spends observing the empty shop, perched on his stool like Quasimodo atop Notre Dame, he reads library books, including Walter Pater (another writer famous for his prose style and works on aesthetics, art criticism, and Plato).

During the course of the story, which covers Stu’s history with Mr. Gab, Mr. Gab explains his theory of art and life to Stu using his favorite prints as examples. Gass’s language is so intriguing and beautiful it is difficult to resist the temptation to Google the photos, which are real (at least the ones I looked up), and Mr. Gab’s tone of reverence is pitch perfect, as in this excerpt where he is describing a photograph:

There’s a dark circle protecting the tree and allowing its roots to breathe. And the dark trunk, too, rising to enter its leaves. In a misted distance—see?—a horse-drawn bus, looking like a stagecoach, labeled AI, with its driver and several passengers. In short: we see this part of the world immersed in this part of the world’s weather. But we also see someone seeing it, someone having a feeling about the scene, not merely in a private mood, but responding to just this . . . this . . . and taking in the two trees and the streetlamp’s standard, the carriage, and in particular the faint diagonals of the curb, these sweet formal relations, each submerged in a gray-white realm that’s at the same time someone’s—Alvin Langdon Coburn’s—head.[5] [Gass’s ellipses]

The phrase “in a private mood” works not only in context, but as a metaphor for “in camera,” Latin for the legal term meaning “in chambers” or “in private,” for we are in the most private of chambers imaginable, inside a mind, submerged in a “gray-white realm,” i.e. the gray and white matter of the seer’s brain. This description works metaphorically for the relationship between Gass and his reader as well, with Gass the “someone seeing” a scene and writing it down for us to experience (and don’t forget the frontispiece). Mr. Gab expands on his description, driving home the primary question Gass would have us contemplate:

Such shadows as are here, for instance, in these photographs, are not illusions to be simply sniffed at. Where are the real illusions, u-Stu? They dwell in the eyes and hearts and minds of those in the carriage—yes—greedy to be going to their girl, to their bank, to their business.[6]

Mr. Gab sees the photographers as “saviors” who “bore witness,” each a “stand-in for God . . . who is saying: let there be this sacred light.” The image of God, or gods, is present in all the stories of Eyes and is one of many intertextual links. The religious imagery continues with Stu stealing fruit from the local street market, a metaphor for the forbidden fruit and the tree of knowledge.

Gass once remarked (somewhat flippantly by his admission) that he writes to “indict mankind,”[7] and although that’s hardly the whole story, Gass’s pessimism is conspicuous throughout the collection, as in this example of Mr. Gab’s assessment of the world: “It is misery begetting misery, you bet; it’s meanness making meanness, sure; it’s calamity; it’s cruelty and greed and indifference . . . .”[8] Mr. Gab wants the pure perfection shown in the photograph. For Mr. Gab, the camera is rescuer and redeemer; for him, although the world is “full of pain, full of waste,” through the work of the photographers, “every injustice that the world has done to the world is forgiven.”[9] Stu isn’t so sure. He lives in the outer world, beyond the shop’s shadows, where he walks to and from his flophouse room, exposed before the world’s judging eyes.

Stu stands opposite to Mr. Gab, juxtaposing sun-filled reality with the illusory (though comforting) world of the shop’s shadows. The window in Stu’s flophouse room is unshaded and open all the time, compared with the shuttered shop, and Stu’s single form of recreation is to read (expanding his consciousness) in “sun-filled vacant lots”[10] while the entrance to Mr. Gab’s bedroom (above the shop, i.e. he never leaves) is described as a “hole that was even darker than the inside of a hose.”[11] However, it isn’t so neat and tidy; there is a distinct tension within Stu, the lure of the outside world—a world of color photography—versus his fear of losing the comfort of the concrete world of the shop, not to mention his meager wages. This serves as the story’s plot, as Stu becomes increasingly worried Mr. Gab will be arrested for dealing in stolen photographs. In many ways he wants to stay in the cave with Mr. Gab, and in an ending where the accumulated images culminate in a crescendo as achingly beautiful and sublime as Joyce’s “The Dead,” Stu’s choice is as subtle as a shadow.

Sudek CathedralJoseph Sudek, St. Vitus’s Cathedral, 1924-28


The Giver

The second novella, Charity, presented as a continuous block of text without paragraph indentations, tells the story of a single character, a Washington D.C. lawyer named Hugh Hamilton Hardy and his obsession with being asked for charity. Continuing with Plato’s theory of Forms, the primary theme of the second novella is the Form of the Good. Like the first-person stories “The Toy Chest,” “Soliloquy for a Chair,” and “Don’t Even Try, Sam,” Charity delves into a single character’s consciousness, but here Gass uses a third-person point of view, allowing him to shift between levels of psychic distance and explore a stream of consciousness style. The narrative also shifts in time, cycling (often abruptly) between Hardy’s past and present, and sometimes these shifts can be jarring and force one to reread a sentence or two. The first few pages, in particular, can prove obfuscating in the same way Benjy’s thoughts cycle between past and present during the opening pages of The Sound and the Fury. Gass expects his reader to trust him and move forward, and it is worth the effort.

Despite such speed bumps, the story effectively pulls the reader into Hardy’s consciousness. The style creates a claustrophobic feeling, keeping the reader trapped in Hardy’s mind, where Hardy, of course, is trapped, imprisoned by his feelings of shame and humiliation and guilt, anger and resentment, hating all the beggars and hating himself for his inability to say no. Regarding obsessional characters, Gass said “I want closure, suffocation, the sense that there is nowhere else to go”[12] and this is exactly what he achieves in Charity. On one level, Charity can be read as an inventory of all the people and organizations pleading for his aid. Gass loves a great list, and he indulges his genius for multiplicity, using exaggeration as a rhetorical device to engender in the reader the same frustration Hardy feels upon opening yet another letter that begins “I understand you have helped people like myself in the past.”

As with In Camera, there isn’t a conventional plot, only the rising tension of Hardy’s obsession with giving. Hardy’s obsession is tearing his psyche apart and his work only makes matters worse. His job requires him to travel around the world to various companies who are failing to deliver quality products—either from negligence or fraud—and inform them that unless they fix the problem, huge lawsuits will follow. He’s basically legal muscle, an “enforcer,” and his presence is a de facto threat to force the companies to comply, an ironic parallel with the panhandlers asking him for money.

Hardy works for “Health and Haven”—Haven an allusion to Heaven and God as the ultimate good, the ultimate giver. Hardy sums up his situation:

although I can walk into a Prague or Padua or Paris office and terrify the paperclips simply by saying hello and unsnicking my slick black briefcase, shiny as Mephistopheles’s mirror, I can’t face down a scheming beggar on the street.[13]

The irony of his situation is clear: the big scary lawyer is terrified of panhandlers. Gass creates a wonderful double meaning for paperclips: first, the literal—Hardy is so intimidating that the actual paperclips tremble (and a nice intertextual link to “Soliloquy for a Chair” where all tools are sentient); and second, the metaphorical—that the people Hardy confronts are as witheringly insignificant as paperclips. The simile of Hardy’s briefcase being like a mirror—shiny and clear, something to stand before and be judged guilty—is pushed that extra notch by assigning it to the devil. And that mirror, held up for us too, won’t let Gass escape either, recalling the reflection photograph of Gass (as if in a mirror) that opens In Camera.

Hardy’s continuous internal rant is punctuated by thoughts of Molly, the woman he is dating; their relationship constitutes a subplot. In this excerpt, Gass uses parallel structure (isocolon) to emphasize Hardy’s torment and then segues by association to his thoughts of Molly:

He’d been shaken down at high noon, shaken in full public view, shaken till his change withdrew from an embarrassed pocket and fell out of his crestfallen paw. It was humiliating but she loved to have him lick her like a puppy. Why did he do it? He did it because he was a coward. He did it because she was better at being beautiful than any woman he would ever be likely to know.[14]

Hardy’s mind leaps from “paw” to “puppy,” effecting the transition of his thoughts, but then his thoughts aren’t so clear. Does Hardy’s question apply to Molly, to giving money panhandlers, to both? Gass delays the answer, mimicking how thoughts can overlap. Such mental flights are occasions for Gass to have some fun with transitions, allusions, and imagery. For example:

Hardy would slowly kiss her cute feet: toe one, toe two, toe three . . . She would grow moistly abundant. Resplendent, the thigh skin, stretching away to the mount. He thought just then of the Mount of Olives. Absurd the adventitious bridges between words. Yet it was astonishing how a sacrifice, a catastrophe could comprise a gift.[15] [Gass’s ellipsis]

The sentence about “adventitious bridges” is Hardy’s thought, but it is also a metafictional wink to the reader, a reminder to pay attention and a way for Gass to comment on the possibilities of language. In this passage Gass doubles the image of charity beyond the use of the word “gift”: the Greek for charity is agape, the love associated with brotherly love and the love of God, as opposed to eros, or sexual love. Hardy is capable of the latter, but not the former. The reference to the Mount of Olives and the sentence about sacrifice as a gift brings in the image of Jesus and thus again God as the ultimate giver, and finally, charity is one of the three theological virtues in Christianity, together with faith and hope.

Bad parents run like a scar through much of Gass’s fiction, figuring prominently in The Tunnel, the novella Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s, and in “The Toy Chest.” In Charity, the protagonist’s parents are two of the worst, and the psychology that shaped young Hardy emerges as we learn of their stingy, insincere attempts at charity. During a pivotal episode of Hardy’s childhood, when his parents brought him along on an ill-fated attempt to deliver a box of donated items to a less fortunate family, Gass’s style amplifies the emotional resonance of the scene to such a degree, we cringe and squirm with discomfort. And it is this traumatic memory that will haunt Hardy to his breaking point.



The Utes

For Gass, a character can be “any linguistic location in a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier.”[16] Ideas can be characters. It should come as no surprise then that in the next two stories inanimate objects are the main characters. In the tradition of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, Gass offers us narrators in the form of a piano and a chair, and if Calvino (of whom Gass is an admirer) can write a convincing story from the point of view of a subatomic particle, Gass can certainly do so with a piece of furniture.

In “Don’t Even Try, Sam,” the piano featured in the 1942 film Casablanca speaks as if being interviewed and regales us with the inside story of this icon of American film. We get all the juicy backstage gossip—fastidiously researched, naturally—and for anyone who has seen the movie, it is obvious which actors (e.g. Beauguy and Miss Visit Stockholm) the piano is speaking about with her distinctly feminine voice. The story begins with a photo from the movie: a dour Rick leaning against the back of the piano as Sam plays, singing, the smiling crowd watching. This twenty-page story is the perfect thematic companion piece to In Camera and uses much of the same imagery. For what is Casablanca but a series of black and white photos? It is Mr. Gab’s stock, only animated—each frame its own collection of shadows, reflections, and glistening eyes, each only a simulacrum of reality. The piano’s grievance with the movie, and by extension, the world, is just this: it’s all a fraud. In the piano’s words: “If this is real life, real life must be a frigging fraud . . . . I go dum diddily dumdum but I don’t feel dum diddily dumdum.”[17] Of course the movie was false, movies are only representations. But the piano’s point is that there were layers of deception. For example, Dooley Wilson (Sam) wasn’t actually playing the piano—nor could he—and thus the title of the story sounds like what the piano might have said to Mr. Wilson during the famous scene when Ilsa asks Sam to play “As Time Goes By,” i.e. “Don’t even try, Sam.”

 Sam's Piano

“Soliloquy for a Chair” is another first-person biography told by an object—a foldable steel chair, named Mr. Middle. The chipper Mr. Middle (named for his placement among a group of seven similar chairs as seen in the opening black and white photo) introduces us to the Mississippi barbershop where he and his six companions have spent most of their lives. We learn he is a member of the race of Utes, who speak Utile or Toolese, for they are descendants of the first tools humans made “Back when the world had meaning.”[18] Mr. Middle’s tale consists of his observations of humanity interwoven with his story of how the barbershop became the target of a mysterious bombing. Gass uses rhyme and meter and sentence structure to engender a whimsical voice for the chair:

It was a friendly place, a little stuffy from piped-in warmth through the winter, but blossoming with habitués at all times of year because, as every person not cursed by baldness knows, hair in plenty grows, through droughts and blights and snows, but not in tidy rows. Not them. Not those.[19]

The philosophical parade continues with the story’s closing sentence (don’t worry, it isn’t a spoiler): “If it suits him in his heart to say it went this way, why not say it went this way, say I.”[20] Mr. Middle is commenting on the belief of Natty Know-it-all (who “got his name by being just the opposite”) that the Utes were the target of the bomber. The phrase “in his heart” implies the opposite of “in his head” (irrational versus logical); likewise “if it suits him” implies an irrational basis for his decision. Mr. Middle grants Natty the permission to believe whatever he wants, and stresses how little he cares with “why not.” If In Camera proposes the existence of an objective world, then this sentence suggests the opposite, and is as succinct as subjectivism can be. Leaving nothing to chance, Gass inverts the syntax, allowing him to end the sentence with “I”—a play on point of view and a pun (a favorite device) on “eye.”

 Steel Chair


A Folktale and a Nightmare

For the frontispiece of “The Man Who Spoke with His Hands,” Gass chose an illustration from William James’s Principles of Psychology that diagrams the neuronal pathways necessary for writing. Sensory information enters through the eye, travels through the occipital lobe to the thalamus and parietal cortex and then motor control is delivered down to a writing hand. The image of the hand figures prominently in the story, and Gass ensures we pay attention for he repeats the title (or slight variations) as the first line in 14 of the first 19 paragraphs. Gass combines this anaphora with his usual rhetorical and lyrical devices to create the tone of a folktale; you can almost hear the missing “Once upon a time” at the beginning.

The narrator of this fifteen-page story is slippery, for although the story reads like a traditional third-person narrative, there are suspicious intrusions of a first-person “I.” The tale is about Arthur Devise, music teacher, widowed father of a college-aged daughter named Dottie, and the man who speaks with his hands—that is, he is constantly making gestures with his hands that don’t necessarily relate to what he may or may not be speaking about. Juxtaposed to Arthur are the other members of the music department, including Professors Rinse and Paltry (names to join the pantheon of such academics as Henry Fielding’s Mr. Thwackum and Mr. Square). The professors speculate extensively on what Arthur’s hand gestures might mean, only to find out that Arthur believes his hands are controlled by God. Paltry discounts this claim as madness and perhaps it is, since Arthur, whose wife was “terribly killed” and who must endure the “nymphomaniacal imposture” of his daughter (who is a student in Paltry’s class) might be suffering from a nervous disorder—which brings us back to William James’s Principles of Psychology. Much is left up for debate and the narrator delivers a barrage of sentences beginning with “perhaps” to close out the last two pages. Once again, the nature of reality is questioned, and the only conclusion is that nothing is certain and reality is subjectively determined.

 The last story in the collection is also the darkest. “The Toy Chest” is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, now an adult, reminiscing about his childhood, his toy chest a Proustian source of involuntary memory. The narrator is agitated, claiming “Today is one of my more lucid days,”[21] and the text is fragmented in places suggesting both a broken typewriter and a fractured mind. Here Gass uses textual spaces as a rhetorical device in a manner reminiscent of his novels Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and The Tunnel. In fact, the narrator shares many family motifs with Kohler in The Tunnel including an alcoholic mother, a critical father, and an odd aunt. The narrator produced his own newspaper as a child and wrote headlines such as “Death Day Extra” and “Drunken Mother Throws Up At Birthday Party” and as he drops deeper into memory, we are delivered into the solipsism of a single mind’s reality.


Worlds Within Words

When asked what he would concentrate on if he were to write an essay on his own work, Gass replied that he would “immediately start talking about the manipulation of language” and that he would “write about writing sentences.”[22] Anyone who has read Gass’s incredible essays knows what we might expect: detailed analysis of the structure of the sentence, spiral diagrams, etc. In the spirit of such an essay, consider the following excerpt from In Camera; it is from Stu’s point of view concerning a certain type of customer:

but occasionally there’d be some otherwise oblivious fellow who would fly to a box, shove off the bag of beans, and begin to finger through the photos as you might hunt through a file, with a haste hope might have further hastened, an air of expectancy that suggested some prior prompting, only to stop and withdraw a sheet suddenly and accompany it to the light of the good lamp in the rear, where he’d begin to examine it first with a studied casualness that seemed more conspiratorial than anything, looking about like a fly about to light before indifferently glancing at the print, until at last, now as intent as a tack, he’d submit to scrutiny each inch with tight white lips, finally following Mr. Gab, who had anticipated the move, through the rug to the card table and the cat in the kitchen, where they’d have what Mr. Gab called, with a pale smile that was nearly not there, a confab.

Concerning cost. This is what his stupid assistant assumed. The meeting would usually end with a sale, a sale that put Mr. Gab in possession of an envelope fat with cash, for he accepted nothing else . . .[23]

The first sentence (199 words including the part not shown) reports movement; it is what Gass would call a “scroll” sentence and describes a journey, a journey the customer takes from his entry into the shop, to the box of photos, to the rear of the shop, and finally to Mr. Gab’s kitchen. We are moving with the customer, and we are going to learn things about the world—including who lives in it—along the way. The sentence’s rhythm modulates as the traveler is either speeding along or stopping to contemplate the scenery.

A clear sound effect comes from the abundant alliteration, for example: “bag / beans / begin,” “hunt / haste hope / hasten,” “prior prompting,” etc., and assonance with “each inch” and “tight white.” Alliteration and assonance can create harmony or dissonance, and Gass uses both. Before the customer becomes “intent,” the alliteration is harmonious, mimicking his movement; however, after “until at last” the alliteration of the sharp ts becomes dissonant. The dissonance symbolically reflects the customer’s mood, his intense scrutiny, his eye attacking each square inch of the photograph. But the effects of Gass’s alliteration don’t stop there, it also affects the tempo of the sentence. Before “finally following” there are sixteen sharp ts beginning with “about to light” and two sharp ks (tack and scrutiny); after “finally following” there are seven sharp ts and seven sharp ks (including the sentence “Concerning cost”). The alliteration of all those stressed ts slows the pace as the buyer is scrutinizing the photograph (pronouncing all those ts slows the reading with almost a tongue-twisting effect). Further slowing the tempo while the customer scrutinizes his prize is the meter. Reading from “a fly about to light,” the meter is iambic until “last,” where there is a natural caesura and a convenient place for a comma. The meter then shifts to dactylic through “submit,” but breaks down between “scrutiny” and “lips” with multiple stresses. There are also caesuras between “submit” and “to” and between “scrutiny” and “each.” If you read this sentence aloud, you must pause, otherwise the words will overlap. Gass is constraining the system for effect, he wants us to move and stop with the customer. “Finally following Mr. Gab” with its easy alliteration and dactylic meter, releases the tension and resumes the forward momentum of the sentence as the customer is once again in motion, now being escorted by Mr. Gab; furthermore, now the sharp “k” sound predominates, symbolic of the location change. At the end of the sentence we have arrived.

Not so fast. It isn’t just sounds that Gass uses to create his effects, there is syntax (reflected in the meter) and structure as well. What about that odd paragraph break? If this were verse, we would call this an enjambment.

Enjambment is characterized by a line break without an end stop where the sentence carries over to a new line for poetic effect, for example for emphasis or surprise. Here Gass uses punctuation and a line break to alter the cadence just as enjambment works in poetry. Even though a period follows “confab,” it is clear this sentence doesn’t really end until after “Concerning cost.” Gass adapts enjambment to slow the cadence once again, to force the reader to pause and dwell on the secret haggling taking place behind the rug curtain. The reader makes a full stop at the period after “confab”; there is a natural pause in shifting to a new paragraph with the line break, and then there is another full stop after the two-word sentence “Concerning cost.”

What about Gass’s choice of words? “Concerning cost” is Stu’s assumption. The enjambment’s emphasis lends a sense of mystery—as if “concerning cost” was a euphemism for bribery or blackmail or theft, i.e. it is a genteel phrase Stu can apply to his master’s actions to maintain the illusion that all’s well and fair and legal and he need not worry about anything. If Gass had written (dreadfully) “About the price,” this effect would have been lost. The word “contraband” is used two sentences later with the same implication. There is also Mr. Gab’s “pale smile that was nearly not there,” which suggests conspiracy and coyness (and parallels the customer’s “tight white lips”), and the word “confab” is euphemistic for something less respectable, less legal. The customer first flies to the box of prints and is then compared to a fly directly—and flies are associated with refuse, carrion, disease. The history of each word becomes a part of the metaphor. Gass’s composition creates a metaphor for the customer’s movement, a metaphor for the customer’s and Stu’s state of mind, and metaphor for the moral character of the customer and Mr. Gab.

Lastly, the second sentence in the second paragraph brings the preceding into focus. This is all Stu’s interpretation, his judgment of what is happening, and where the larger metaphor of the story comes in: Because Stu can’t be certain of what is taking place behind the curtain—he can only assume—we know we are dealing with a question of epistemology, and that is the thematic base of the novella and a theme continued throughout the collection.

Magritte's The False MirrorRené Magritte, The False Mirror, 1928

Although each of the stories in Eyes was published separately, the themes and images connect them to produce an eclectic, yet unified whole. Gass’s ideal work of art is a thing in itself, a system of internal relations, and he hasn’t missed many opportunities to integrate these stories. Above all, there is the dominant image of the eye, around which other themes circle like “subordinate suns” according to his description. In Camera is replete with references to eyes, vision, observation, seeing; it is a story about photographs, images captured on film that were focused with eyes for eyes to see. Charity, a novella about a man who suspiciously regards the world, depends on the word “eye” as a verb (and as a noun); and all the stories draw from the definition of “eye” as a point of view, as judgment.

But beyond metaphors, shared themes, and intertextual links, the real quality unifying William H. Gass’s work is the composition, composition born from a belief in the beauty of language, composition that transcends the writing as a thing in itself to become a sublime affirmation.

The frontispiece opposite the title page is a black and white photo of a sculpture called Der Augenturm (The Eye Tower). It looks remarkably like a rocket ship, complete with a passenger sitting in the nose cone, ready for a journey. Marcel Proust wants us to believe that “The only real journey . . . would be to travel not towards new landscapes, but with new eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them can see, or can be . . . .”[24]

Be assured that William H. Gass’s journeys deliver some of the most exceptional views you will ever see.

—Frank Richardson

Frank Richardson bio pict 2

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.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. William H. Gass, A Temple of Texts: Essays (Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2007), 127.
  2. William H. Gass, Interview by Lee Gutkin (Los Angeles Review of Books, 2013), Web.
  3. Thomas LeClair, “William H. Gass and John Gardner: A Debate on Fiction” (Conversations with John Gardner, Allan Chavkin, ed. Mississippi UP, 1990), 180.
  4. William H. Gass, Interview by Thomas LeClair (The Paris Review, No. 70, 1977), Web.
  5. William H. Gass, Eyes (New York: Knopf, 2015), 30.
  6. Ibid., 30-31.
  7. William H. Gass, Interview by Jim Neighbors (Contemporary Literature, Vol. 43. No. 4, Winter 2002), 633.
  8. Gass, Eyes, 40.
  9. Ibid., 41.
  10. Ibid., 37.
  11. Ibid., 72.
  12. Gass, Interview by Thomas LeClair, Web.
  13. Gass, Eyes, 100.
  14. Ibid., 82.
  15. Ibid., 97.
  16. LeClair, Conversations with John Gardner, 180.
  17. Gass, Eyes, 158.
  18. Ibid., 176.
  19. Ibid., 183-184.
  20. Ibid., 196.
  21. Ibid., 234.
  22. Gass, Interview with Thomas LeClair, Web.
  23. Gass, Eyes, 16-17.
  24. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: The Prisoner and The Fugitive (Ed. Christopher Prendergast. Trans. Carol Clark and Peter Collier. London: Lane-Penguin, 2002), 237.
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.

Contact: tomfaure@numerocinqmagazine.com


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 jbrunger@vols.utk.edu.

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 www.GlitteratiIncorporated.com



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 benjaminjwoodard.com 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.

Contact: tomfaure@numerocinqmagazine.com


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 InfluencySalon.ca 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 benjaminjwoodard.com 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.