Apr 192016

Sam-Savage-author-photo1-923x1024 Sam Savage


It is not a bad fate for a poet to instead survive thanks to a small but impassioned readership, and it is my sincere hope that Sam Savage finds such a readership. His poems abundantly deserve their afterlife. —David Wojahn


Zero Gravity: Collected Poems (1981-2015) — Sam Savage
Numéro Cinq, Vol. VII, No. 3, March 2016


The poems of Sam Savage are quietly revelatory and informed by a certain oddness of perception that derives in some respects from surrealism—but to link his poems to any literary movement does them a disservice. Savage is a party of one, and it is baffling that his poetry has not found the readership that his fiction has enjoyed. His poems have a fictionist’s command of narrative, but his story lines are always implicit, and always compliment an astringent lyric acuity. Above all, his verse reminds me of something Stanley Kunitz observed about the poetry of James Wright, in which “things are capable of changing into their opposites, as suffering into joy, despair into radiance.”

As often as not, Savage’s poems emerge from the experience of uncertainty and pain, of the body in rebellion. Here is a characteristic passage, a description of patient being x-rayed: “Oh yes, says someone/ you don’t know, pointing to a bird-wing-like/ blur behind the white bars,/…………There’s this.” Yet Savage’s pervasive awareness of mortality almost invariably gives way to buoyancy, even to a kind of whimsy. We see this latter quality in especially satisfying fashion in his poems about an alter-ego named Kiffler, a character in the mode of Zbigniew Herbert’s indispensable creation, Mr. Cogito. That Savage can forge a poetry of such emotive complexity within the confines of a decidedly spare and minimalist style is a very significant accomplishment indeed. Witness the epigrammatic concision of the following poem, which I quote in full:   

My Father’s Death

The sun had just come up
when all the light of my father died.

A lizard in its crept place opened one eye.
Ants climbed in spiral motion a stem of tall grass.

In that instant an instant was given.
It was shining as on the first day.

Birds sang brightly from the trees
and nothing was left that was obscure.

God is in the details, quipped LeCorbusier, and that is certainly the case here. I adore the description of the “lizard in its crept place,” and the grimly playful conundrum of “in that instant an instant was given.” And, above all, there’s the exquisite and pained epiphany of the poem’s final line.

Literary reputation, as we all know, is fickle. And to even employ a term such as “literary reputation” in respect to contemporary poetry seems more than a little absurd. Yes, a handful of poets at work today will be remembered, but that handful is not likely to include those figures who are currently at the top of the food chain. It is not a bad fate for a poet to instead survive thanks to a small but impassioned readership, and it is my sincere hope that Sam Savage finds such a readership. His poems abundantly deserve their afterlife.

—David Wojahn



David Wojahn‘s ninth collection of poetry  FOR THE SCRIBE, will be issued by The University of Pittsburgh Press in 2017. His FROM THE VALLEY OF MAKING; ESSAYS ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY was recently published by the University of Michigan Press. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.”




Apr 082016


With The Reactive, Ntshanga seems less interested in writing a novel with a straight, linear plot than he is in writing one about overarching themes of family, denial, and disparity. — Benjamin Woodard


The Reactive
Masande Ntshanga
Two Dollar Radio
174 pages ($15.99)
ISBN 978-1-937512-43-9


Topping 6 million infections, South Africa is home to the largest number of HIV cases in the world, and it’s an understatement to say that the country’s government has paved a rocky road in its reluctant battle against the lentivirus. Though educational programs flourish today, as does a substantial antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatment program, ramifications from past decades linger. Without proper identification and care, infection numbers rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and the early 2000s saw high-ranking officials, particularly then president Thabo Mbeki, actively engaged in AIDS denialism, claiming tenuous links between HIV and AIDS and chastising aggressive medicinal assistance. During this time, ARVs were scarce, despite offers from international manufacturers to supply patients with inexpensive medication, and those who received such treatments were few and far between.

Masande Ntshanga’s engrossing debut novel, The Reactive, unfolds during the Mbeki presidency. It’s 2003, and Lindanathi, a young HIV infected man in Cape Town, spends his days huffing industrial glue with his friends Cecelia and Ruan. When they’re not slumming in an apartment, the trio work together to illegally sell Lindanathi’s extra ARV supply—Cecelia and Ruan are not infected, and Lindanathi is a lucky ARV recipient—to local reactives for quick cash. In lieu of chapters, the novel is broken into five parts, and the first dedicates itself to establishing the relationship between Lindanathi, or Nathi, and his friends, who casually float in and out of day jobs, HI Virus group meetings, parties, and cloudy conversations. Nathi tells his story in first-person POV, and the reader is swiftly immersed into the daily ennui of the gang. Two Dollar Radio, the novel’s American publisher, sells Ntshanga’s narrative on its website as “James Baldwin + Transpotting + Harmony Korine,” and the comparison is apt. More than once, I was reminded of the closing line of “Sonny’s Blues”—“For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling”—while reading. Like the Biblical cup of suffering tenuously hovering over Baldwin’s character, waiting to be acknowledged or shunned, in many ways, Nathi’s life is one of limbo, of both life and death, and death’s inevitability frequently crops up, whether Nathi claims, “It’s still a long stretch of time before I die,” or plays games like Last Life, which “is the name we’ve come up with for what happens to me during my last year on the planet.”

The novel’s main antagonist arrives early in part two, when word arrives that a potential new client desires to purchase Nathi’s entire drug stash. The mystery man floods the group’s bank account with a life-changing amount of money and, to show his power and seriousness, he emails information to the three that proves he knows their identities. Though the idea of selling to only one client appeals to the trio, an underlying sense of menace from the man—and the possibility that he’s police—leaves the dealers on edge. With Nathi, Cecelia, and Ruan metaphorically pinned under the client’s thumb, it would be easy at this point for Ntshanga’s novel to devolve into a generic narrative of cat-and-mouse, yet such objectives never surface in The Reactive. Instead, this new assignment subverts expectations, leading to an unexpected, subdued climax, and it allows Nathi to reflect on his own past and come to terms with the death of his brother, Luthando, who expired at the hands of initiation school workers years earlier. As Nathi begins his engagement with his new client, he receives text messages from an estranged uncle, Bhut’ Vuyo, that urge him to return home. These notes, combined with the futility of his current lifestyle, open Nathi to ruminations on those he left behind. A short prologue reveals that Nathi blames himself for Luthando’s death: as teens, the two had planned on stowing away together at an initiation school (a multi-week excursion where each would be circumcised and achieved manhood), but Nathi stayed behind at the last minute, leaving his brother to go it alone. Luthando’s cutting, like many others, was botched, and his death inspired Nathi’s relocation to Cape Town, where he eventually shut his family from his life.

With The Reactive, Ntshanga seems less interested in writing a novel with a straight, linear plot than he is in writing one about overarching themes of family, denial, and disparity. By setting his narrative in the early 2000s, before the widespread availability of ARVs, Ntshanga entrenches his characters in a realm of political denial, which in turn results in physical denial, yet much of Nathi’s own narrative finds root in emotional renouncement: he refuses to consider a return to his family, shuns his uncle’s messages, and despite his own decent upbringing, he sabotages himself in order to reject a potential life of happiness. Early, Nathi admits that he, Cecelia, and Ruan are not stereotypical stoners, but that “each wrote matric in the country’s first batch of Model C” private schools. Ruan is a computer programmer; Cecelia works at a daycare center. Nathi went to university, worked in a lab testing strands of HIV, and was infected while on the job. The life he leads after becoming HIV-positive is chosen precisely because it allows him to deny himself happiness and upward progress. His guilty conscience prevents him from wanting success and promotes his limbo state. Without revealing too much, this same kind of denial eventually surfaces in The Reactive’s mysterious drug client subplot, as well.

Beyond thematic bonds, Ntshanga’s novel succeeds thanks to the author’s gift for language. Characters come to life via precise descriptions. For example, here’s how we meet  Bhut’ Vuyo:

“Pushed forward by the locomotive of a lucrative Toyota scholarship, he’d gone to the city of Kyoto at the age of twenty-four, before coming back and accepting too many drinks on the house in a tavern called Silver’s.”

The economy on display here is enviable, for the reader is able to fully engage and understand Bhut’ Vuyo with only one sentence. And the sentence itself flows with a lyrical quality that continues throughout the novel. As Nathi tries to come down from a glue high, he notes, “The atmosphere feels warm and slippery on my skin, and my mind instructs me to glide, so I push my arms out and try to do that.” When speaking to prostitutes, Nathi mentions “how shattered their faces looked, as if they were the survivors of a protracted battle,” and as the group firsts encounters their severely burned and scarred mystery client, Ntshanga speaks volumes of the man’s physical appearance with Nathi’s unpretentious line, “If he’s smiling, then none of us can tell.”

It’s worth mentioning that this client also occasionally wears a tin mask to hide his true visage, and this literal idea of a man having two faces echoes metaphorically in Nathi’s life. Beyond the fact that he feels as if he’s missing part of himself without his brother, and beyond the multiple lives he has led, the protagonist is named after a girl, and the moniker, the reader is told, means “wait with us.” This definition inserts plurality directly into Lindanathi from birth, and as he struggles with the decision to return to visit his family, his multiple faces emerge.

Writing this review as a thirty-seven year old white male in the United States, I wonder why Nathi’s story strikes so close to my own emotions. And then I realize that, as a child of the 1980s, I grew up under the cowering fear of HIV, convinced in my youth that the infection was inevitable. That any shot or finger prick could spell disaster. I remember Ryan White and Ronald Reagan’s own denial. I was shaken when Freddie Mercury died, dumbfounded by Magic Johnson’s abrupt retirement announcement in 1991 and, come 1994, I rocked my No Alternative CD at top volume. In essence, I, like so many of my generation, have matured to the threatening rattle of HIV and AIDS, have seen the way it has been confused and unfairly stigmatized over four decades, and so, despite never having stepped foot on South African soil, there is an immediate recognition of, if not kinship, then memory that comes from engaging a novel like Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive. This is a powerful, compassionate story that refuses to rest or shuffle off into the murk of the mind. It exists so that we never forget.

— Benjamin Woodard



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


Apr 032016


The infinite suggestiveness of common things… —Patrick Madden


Sublime Physick: Essays
Patrick Madden
University of Nebraska Press, 2016
244 pages, $24.95


In the last sentence of his postscript to “Independent Redundancy,” the mammoth centerpiece essay of his new collection, Patrick Madden quotes Gide: “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” This might be just a bit too morose to serve as an unqualified summation of Madden’s essayistic perspective, but it’s pretty close. To read a Patrick Madden essay is to interface with the mind of an engaged, self-conscious thinker. Actually, that’s not quite right: It is to interface with Madden’s curation of the minds of many thinkers within the expanse of his own.

Madden is not a hoarder of his thoughts or his words, or the words of his many sources, and he frequently seems more interested in exploring mysteries than creating them. In his first collection Quotidiana (2010), Madden declared the essay “an open, leisurely form, somewhat allergic to sensationalism,” and the primary intention of the essayist to “make the mundane resplendent with their meditative thoughts.” In Sublime Physick, his second collection, he continues exploring “the infinite suggestiveness of common things”—spitting hockers, turning 35, being recognized in a public place, temporarily losing his children—while expanding upon a tendency he intimated in Quotidiana of blending his sources into his own thoughts and sentences to the extent that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where his own thoughts begin or end. This will probably be the most divisive element of Sublime Physick’s otherwise gentle, reflective style: Either you are carried away into the free-flowing stream of voices commingling under Madden’s umbrella, or you are confounded by his seeming unwillingness to settle on a central voice or thematic concern.

Madden does his part to prepare the reader in “Fisica Sublime,” the “introduction” which is also the second essay of the collection. After explaining his choice of placing the “introduction” second in the collection, Madden spends most of the essay giving the etymology, metaphorical significance, personal associations, multiple spellings, and binary structure of the essay’s and the book’s title(s), concluding:

Perhaps, I’m beginning to think, everything we think we know is a kind of sublime physic, an abstraction derived from concretion and a double-aspected entity that we think we know in two distinct forms, yet is really a unity: matter-energy, space-time, mind-body, emotion-intellect, self-others, inside-outside, nonfiction-fiction; you could go on and on listing apparently opposed binaries and find, again and again, that where they meet is beauty.

These beautiful binaries comprise the nucleus of the collection’s essays, whose ostensible subjects range from Madden’s travels with recently deceased Uruguayan poet/storyteller Eduardo Galeano, to the brief disappearances of three of his six children, to a midlife non-crisis, numerous meditations on time and its discontents, and the acquisition of a bass guitar.

And that’s just the first half of the book. Much of the second half is taken up with just two essays, the first of which, “Independent Redundancy,” can fairly be called the opus of the collection. In thirty-six sections that seem to be written from at least eighteen points of view, Madden explores the phenomenon of the title, a term Madden coins “to describe the phenomenon of two or more individuals coming up with the same idea without any cross-pollination or shared influence.” The essay trots out a set of cultural referents seemingly impossible for one head to hold, unified mostly by representing different cliques of the same school of thought. Following are some notable juxtapositions and conversations.

Madden opens the essay and comes back numerous times to the phenomenon in popular music of the independently redundant melody, like the one shared by George Harrison in “My Sweet Lord” and the Chiffons in “He’s So Fine,” and by Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” and Joe Satriani’s “If I Could Fly.” He even traces back the latter pair, in a connection one can guess only he has made, to the Argentine band Enanitos Verdes (Little Green Men). At least as interestingly, Madden also addresses the more obvious technique in modern hip-hop and mashup culture of sampling – direct “quotation” of previously recorded material, most times without citation, a technique, interestingly, that Madden consciously practices in his own essaying. As usual, most musical references somehow lead back to Montaigne or the band Rush.

He spends less space but as much energy on the nature of innovation and discovery in the sciences, positing most great advances as the cumulative work of many— “the result of convergences in ideas, materials, and possibilities”—rather than “the result of genius operating in isolation.” He points out that though the discovery of sunspots, the law of conservation of energy, and the invention of the airplane were all products of independent, synchronous work by numerous thinkers, “our mythologies tend to give full credit to a single inventor.” This leads Madden to ponder the place of free will in this process:

It occurs to me that the struggle between models of determinism…applies to invention as much as individual (or group) destiny, invention being a subset of destiny, and that all are opposed, in some way, to any real model of creativity. Rather, if we stipulatively determine (determine!) that invention means an unpredictable, unexpected, not inevitable creation and that discovery, as is binary, is that which—like a rock in the path of a tiller—will inevitably be turned up, then that is the same struggle. And this would mean that those who believe invention inevitable really really mean that there is only discovery, not invention…

Of course, Madden is not afraid to turn the scope inward. He peppers examinations of his own writing style throughout the essay, from examination of influences like Woolf, Borges, Lamb, and Hazlitt, to farcical interactions with various artificial intelligence devices, robots, and computer-generated feedback services, to his surprised reaction and subsequent self-analysis after a friend tells him he’s a postmodern writer. He decides he’s postmodern mostly in that “I am painfully metaliterary in my thinking.” Perhaps the most singular purpose to this self-analysis (or written-self-analysis) is, in his words, “to wave at the attentive reader, calling attention to the artifice, the fact that this is a creation made of language; it is not the thing it describes.”

Each of the 36 parts echoes independently and redundantly, while Madden stops for breath only occasionally to project himself on the reader:

What if we are our book but our book is not us? What if this independent redundancy spins out of control and the inadvertent plagiarism becomes complete? (184)

…whatever we may convince ourselves, we will never know it all, and no matter our cries of originality, we are ever repeating, singing back the melodies we heard somewhere before, whether we remember or not. (222-3)

As if to pull in the reins after the freewheeling “Independent Redundancy,” Madden finishes the collection by meditating in its final essay on fixity. As if in counterpoint to the multitude of voices, influences, and points of view in the previous essay, Madden situates “Fixity” firmly in his own, starting at a centuries-old grave in Greenwich, England and moving outward to the situation of Greenwich as earth’s prime meridian and finally addressing the gathered crowd with “how you necessarily apprehend my essay, dear reader: by depending on my observations as I in turn depend on the observations of others, near and far, here and long gone.”

Which is all fine and would be a fitting theoretical tie-in to, even justification for, the multitude of voices and echoes he invokes through the previous essay. But Madden goes deeper into himself, deeper into his own fixed point in the landscape, or rather a fixed point adjoining his. As he was traipsing through Greenwich, “111 degrees 52 minutes 24.1608 seconds west of me,” Madden’s wife felt the surging limbs of what would be their firstborn son within her and remembered the ghost-child they lost a year and a half earlier, “realiz[ing] with a start that had this lost child come to term, there would have been no time for this new person inside her now, so strikingly active so near to advent; that the loss of one is the profit of another.”

And thus the essay and the book end with a beginning, a birth, that might have been a continuation had circumstances, fate, or whatever shrugged and begun a family a year and a half earlier—the forces that shaped Madden’s life words would have had an entirely different prime meridian, his family started from a different point, the quotidian moments given substantially different context, all built upon “rigid foundations and relative freedom” from which “we flail against nothingness or take stock from temporary origins and movable objects.”

—John Proctor



John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. His publications include Atlas & Alice, The Weeklings, Essay Daily, The Normal School, The Austin Review, DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, and Underwater New York. His essay “The Question of Influence” was a recent Notable selection in The Best American Essays 2015, and his essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at NotThatJohnProctor.com/.


Mar 142016

Lina Wolff

The real strength of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs isn’t that it hews closely to this one prescribed theme. In fact, the reason this book haunts and horrifies and challenges us so much is that it strays so widely, and so wildly, from any fixed structure or approach. — Mark  Sampson

Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs
Lina Wolff
Translation by Frank Perry
And Other Stories, 2016


Men are dogs. This is the prevailing theme of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, a debut novel that has already turned Sweden’s Lina Wolff into a literary sensation. Wolff’s project – a text at once fragmented enough to pass for a short story collection and yet untraceably centred on the character of Alba Cambó, a writer of violent, horrifying tales who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer – draws a connection between the canine-like nature of human males and the limitations of revenge against their more animalistic natures by women. Setting Alba’s story mostly in colourful Barcelona, Wolff renders it into a kind of narrative kaleidoscope, told through the eyes of her friends, lovers, and acquaintances.

Wolff’s own life seems as kaleidoscopic as the story she has created. She has done stints in both Spain and Italy, and now lives in southern Sweden. She has published one previous book, a short story collection called Många människor dör som du (Many People Die Like You; Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2009), which was met by strong reviews. She writes with an unmistakable focus on feminism – but it is a peripatetic feminism, one that looks to travel widely across the expanse of gender dynamics, and to hit them from a multitude of angles. Ironically, one of her biggest literary influences appears to be French shit disturber Michel Houellebecq, whose own work makes a deliciously comic appearance in Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs.

Wolff’s novel’s title is explained by the back-cover copy, but readers will be misled if they think the following is a summation of the whole book: “At a run-down brothel in Caudal, Spain, the prostitutes are collecting stray dogs. Each is named after a famous male writer: Dante, Chaucer, Bret Easton Ellis. When a john is cruel, the dogs are fed rotten meat.” In actuality, this sequence comes relatively late in the novel, and yet captures the very essence of book’s theme. Here it is, narrated by character named Rodrigo Auscias, a man who once had a threesome with Alba and one of her casual boyfriends:

We’ve got a kennel and the dogs in it are all named after famous writers, she had said. Whenever some guy pays us a visit and is nasty to us, we give the dogs rotten meat. I couldn’t help laughing at the whole idea at the time. Passive rebellion is what they call that, I informed her. When you’re powerless, passive rebellion is what you come up with. It’s also called projection. You make the dogs suffer for what the men have done to you because the dogs are weaker than you. It’s like a father who abuses his children because the factory owner has forced him to work too hard.

Rodrigo goes on to ask where the women got the idea from, and the say they were once visited by an “intellectual feminist” who planted the seed in their minds. This term, passive rebellion (one might also dub it a kind of low-level terrorism), has, the reader will now realize, played a huge role in the various chapters that have preceded this scene. This idea of punishing an animal for the sins of a person has appeared a couple of times already in the novel, with the murder of a canary in one chapter and the boiling of a cat in the other. With a sharp, unflinching eye, Wolff shows us that revenge can take many strange, off-kilter forms.

Yet the real strength of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs isn’t that it hews closely to this one prescribed theme. In fact, the reason this book haunts and horrifies and challenges us so much is that it strays so widely, and so wildly, from any fixed structure or approach. This lack of a traditional narrative arc allows Wolff’s imagination and talent to sore: there were several points throughout the novel’s episodic approach where I was wowed by her out-of-left-field audacity and the unexpected twists in the turn of events.

A summary of these sequences would prove to be as disjointed as the novel itself. The story begins with an unnamed narrator recounting the time that Alba was spending time with one of her lovers, a man named Valentino, and informed him after a romantic episode together that she was in fact dying from cancer and would not be around for very much longer. The novel then shifts and we soon learn who this narrator is: a young girl named Araceli Villalobos, who lives in the same apartment building in Barcelona as Alba. We learn that Alba is gaining notoriety in the neighbourhood for publishing a series of brutal, feminist-infused short stories in a magazine called Semejanzas (Spanish for “Similarities.”) The most memorable of these pieces involves a man who kills himself after humiliating himself at his own surprise party by farting loudly just before turning on the lights.

The story soon shifts as Araceli learns of a woman from South America named Blosom who is living with Alba. Alba attempts to pawn off Blosom to Araceli and her mother as a kind of live-in housekeeper. After that happens, Wolff takes us on a detailed, first-person tour of Blosom’s life. We learn that she was once married and had a young son who was killed in a traffic accident. We also learn that Blosom began an affair with a married man while working as his housekeeper, right under his wife’s nose. The tension in the household comes to a head during a scene in which Blosom is helping the wife, whose name is Jessica, take a bath. This was one of the most audacious scenes in a novel full of them:

“You’re a pretentious little ignorant cow,” Jessica cried. “Is that what got drilled into you while you were growing up, that there’s nothing more important than giving a man a child? Hah. Along with all those Venezuelan soaps you watch. that’s soft porn for old ladies, all of them thinking the best thing you can do for a man is to give him a child and then the women are left with chains around the ankles and a ring through the nose, stuck with life in a cage. Fortunately, Vicente doesn’t belong to the old school. He doesn’t actually want to have children.”

Our eyes met in the mirror on the other side of the bathtub. I hate you, I thought. I hate you so much it’s killing me.

“You’ve got something in your hair,” she said.


“It looks like sperm.”

“Well it’s not that.”

“Would you mind washing it off, please.”

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is full of these kinds of jarring, shocking sequences, and they infuse the novel with an inventiveness rarely seen in contemporary fiction. As we go along, the perspective of the book changes once more. By the time we meet a girl named Muriel, a classmate of Araceli’s at the translation school where she is studying, we get a sense of just how decentralized this book’s structure is.

Eventually we loop around to the story of Rodrigo. He has his threesome with Albo and her casual boyfriend Ilich. Ilich uses his cell phone to film part of the encounter and threatens to reveal the video to Rodrigo’s wife, Encarnación, unless Rodrigo agrees to help him. What does Ilich want? He wants Rodrigo’s help breaking in the Spain’s competitive timber market. It’s actually more compelling than it sounds. Rodrigo does what Ilich wants of him and he comes to think he is now free of the man. But Ilich shows up one day at Rodrigo and Encarnación’s apartment in a scene that is rife with domestic tension. The section concludes with Rodrigo watching as his wife descends into a harrowing alcoholism that he cannot stop.

Themes of cruelty and of vengeance churn through this book at every turn, to the point where such acts feel completely normalized. Yet Rodrigo, in detailing his encounters with Alba and Ilich, offers a powerful counterbalance to the notion “passive rebellion” discussed above:

I have no political convictions. I don’t give a damn about politics. People with political convictions frighten me. People who are willing to sacrifice themselves for an idea are also willing to sacrifice other people for the same idea. That applies to people who have been the victims of injustice as well. They are the most dangerous people of all because they believe themselves entitled to revenge.

This one passage helps to snap so much of this novel into focus. The idea that revenge is an entitlement, even if (or, in the case of passive rebellion, especially if) the victims of that revenge are not the same individuals who victimized you in the first place, feels very much like a contemporary preoccupation. The entire world, this book is seeming to say, is full of randomized violence and cruelty, and ideas of “motive” or “blame” may very well be passé in this new reality. Wolff’s dark vision of how our world now operates is a disturbing, but deeply compelling, one.

— 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), a short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015), and a collection of poetry, Weathervane (Palimpsest Press, 2016). His stories, poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous journals throughout Canada and the United States. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Mar 132016


In Party Headquarters Georgi Tenev reduces the traditional novel with its linear time, clear relationships, memory and complex characters to an indissoluble essence. Characters, for example, are nameless—they are merely bodies or even types. Memory, hallucination and current narrative merge creating a fluid world where time is relative. —Natalia Sarkissian

party headquarters

Party Headquarters
Georgi Tenev
Translation by Angela Rodel
Open Letter, 2016
Paper, 123 pp., $12.95


Almost thirty years ago, in the early hours of April 26, 1986, at Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4, staff and emergency workers rushed headlong into the exploding core, oblivious to the chunks of smoldering graphite leaching radioactivity. Nearby, the water in the Pripyat River boiled. Fires burned. Ash rained down. Bodies melted, or they sickened, shriveled, died. Evacuation was slow for those living in towns closest to the catastrophe, while for others—for example in Communist Bulgaria—the news was kept from the populace. In fact, in Bulgaria, in the days and months afterward, only the families of elite Communist party officials were tested and cared for. Because Chernobyl had shown that the Soviet atom was unsafe—perhaps the Soviet system itself—the average Borises and Natashas were kept in the dark, their bodies left to soak up iodine-131, caesium-137, strontium-90 and radionuclides. Then, a mere three years later, the Bulgarian Communist Party Boss was deposed; the year after that Communist Party Headquarters in Sofia were torched by demonstrators. A new, transitional era was ushered in.

These historical events—the fallout, both radioactive and political—loom large in Georgi Tenev’s short novel, Party Headquarters. Set during the transition from communism to democracy (1989-1990s), Party Headquarters was first published in 2006, and now, with Angela Rodel’s translation into English, is available for the first time in English from Open Letter books.

An experimental work, organized into three short chapters which are, in turn, divided into non-chronological, discrete sections of memory, fantasy, and thinly disguised historical fact, Party Headquarters tells of tortured relationships and revenge. Gradually the reader pieces together the story. The protagonist, a nameless, ex Pioneer/Comsomol member who is obsessed by the past, must retrieve a suitcase full of money ($1.5 million)—an ill-gotten slush fund—from a Hamburg bank for an old communist party boss, “K-shev”.

 K-shev bears a close resemblance to real-life strongman Todor Zhivkov. Not only does K-shev (like Zhivkov) keep quiet about Chernobyl, but he inflicted “the whole horror of experiencing communism, or socialism—call it what you will” on the country. But unlike Zhivkov, in an ironic twist of fate, K-shev is infected with leukemia and languishes in a Hamburg clinic. This may or may not be the “final proof needed to deify him once and all. [Because he is] A strange sort of god ready to die […] from an illness […] we ourselves all feared becoming infected with.”

 Symbolically, the protagonist is K-shev’s son:

“He, the old man, makes love with the body of the motherland. This love gives birth to thousands of children and he organizes them into Pioneer battalions….”

The protagonist may even be K-shev’s son-in-law; the reader is never quite certain. What is clear is that he dreams of thwarting the old man’s wishes for glory after death by having his body cremated and his ashes scattered in outer space where “everything brought along from earth will lose its significance.” His revenge also includes “collision[s] of love” with a body/the bodies of women who may be either K-shev’s biological daughter or they may be symbolic daughters of the motherland. As the protagonist explains, “she is still a part of his body and he is present in hers…[It would be] the mirror of my masculinity, if it didn’t represent above all the risk of being accused of a crime.”

The novel opens in the middle of one vengeful physical encounter:

Even without the tears I still want to hit her, painfully hard. But when she cries it just gets out of control. The victim’s magnetic attraction inflames the perpetrator. I’m driven to tears myself—out of frustration that I can’t force myself to finish it off, to do absolutely everything I want to her. In exactly the order I would like.

If anyone were to see us at this moment, bawling, locked in this torture chamber at opposite ends of the bed—in the middle the bloody sheets are stained with wet spots, but not from blood, lymph, vaginal secretions, sperm, or who knows what else—could it be that some other beings are copulating here with us?—at that moment the shocked outside observer would think we are crying for each other, for ourselves.

Wrong. An incorrect judgement, a faulty interpretation of ambiguous facts. I’m not sorry. What can I say?

The protagonist’s desire for revenge resides in the exposure—to radiation, to socialism—that he suffered as a child, participating in Communist children’s Pioneer camp activities:

We had no way of knowing […] a few days earlier, a thousand kilometers to the north and east, Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl had exploded, under the watch of the Fifth Shift [….] A strange taste invade[d] my lungs, the scent of ozone—what does ozone smell like anyway?—at least that’s what I tell myself now as I try to grasp something more, a greater meaning and importance held in those last few moments.

And the question I add to all this today: why didn’t anybody call out to us, tell us to come back? So many secrets in such a short time….

Just as under socialism—we do and did everything correctly, yet life, the world, continues to collapse beneath our feet like a reactor that has entered a runaway state of nuclear meltdown. Is there any need to explain what those two great liberating words mean: chain reaction?

A reaction that breaks chains.

With Party Headquarters Georgi Tenev won the 2007 Vick Prize for the Bulgarian novel of the year. A 1994 graduate of Bulgaria’s National Academy of Theater and Film Arts, Tenev (b. Sofia, 1969) studied under experimental Bulgarian artists such as Margarita Mladenova and Ivan Dobchev. A founder of the Triumviratus Art Group, he has written a number of novels, short stories, plays and screenplays that have been performed in Russia, Germany and France. In a recent interview, Tenev says his background in theater has strongly influenced him. “[It] taught me self-discipline: no mercy for the text, no respect for verbal beauty merely for the bon mots.”

It is evident that Tenev also experiments with structure. In Party Headquarters he reduces the traditional novel with its linear time, clear relationships, memory and complex characters to an indissoluble essence. Characters, for example, are nameless—they are merely bodies or even types. Memory, hallucination and current narrative merge creating a fluid world where time is relative. Roland Barthes’ zero point of literature may have been one influence. As the author states through his protagonist: “I had discovered the zero point within the system of coordinates. The place where everything begins and ends.”

The text has been skillfully translated by American Angela Rodel, one of the most prolific translators of Bulgarian literature today. The recipient of a PEN grant for the translation of Tenev’s collection of short stories, Rodel’s collaboration with Tenev here has yielded a book of haunting beauty built upon unexpected imagery. Pared down to the essential, there is no room for sentimentality.


She, of course, is a virgin. And I press down on that barrier with the whole weight of my body, as if poured into a funnel. A whirlpool that changes my own anatomy: at the very bottom, in the center, the point that I flow through—this is where my heart is. And my belly button as well, and maybe even some steaming spot on my back has been sucked down into this vortex. While up above, all at once my head, legs, and bangs are the leftover silt in the funnel.


I’m radiating rays, I’m lit up. Glittering nucleotides bursting from my body in all directions. The water tastes unbelievably bitter in my mouth, the stinging air envelops my hands, all the hairs standing on end in my skin shoot out arrows. Butterflies fall all around me, along with stunned spring sparrows, the frogs in the marshes don’t finish their jet-propelled jumps. The water fleas, legs splayed on the surface of the pond scum, lose their electrical footing. The miracle of walking on translucency has broken down.

Populated by bodies—corpses, near corpses, prostitutes, Pioneers, astronauts, lovers grappling with each other—Party Headquarters is a “bodily adventure,” as the protagonist says; fittingly so for survivors of nuclear catastrophe:

“The body, the flesh transforms itself according to its own laws [.…] no connection is more bodily than inheritance, which makes up the whole of you, yet which you also desperately want to get rid of more than anything.”

A disoriented and disorienting world, with bodies shattered or glowing with unnatural light, is Tenev’s dazing yet dazzling result.

—Natalia Sarkissian


Natalia Sarkissian

Natalia Sarkissian holds a BA and MA in art history, an MBA in international finance and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing and photographs have been published in the US and Italy by the University of Texas Press, IPSOA publishers, Corriere della Sera, The Huffington Post, Numéro Cinq and other publications. She divides her time between Italy and the United States.

Mar 122016


Ludo’s central role—a forgotten and then unnoticed eye in the sky spying on others, later thought of as an invisible goddess—and her predicament as an outlier figure who is part myth, part creature, and part human (something stemming, perhaps, from Agualusa’s love of South American fiction and its magical realism tradition), affords Agualusa distance from what he want to depict.  —Jeff Bursey



A General Theory of Oblivion
José Eduardo Agualusa
Trans. Daniel Hahn
Archipelago Books
Paper, 249 pp., $18.00


I. José Eduardo Agualusa (b. 1960) often treats the troubled past of his native Angola, a former Portuguese colony, in an ostensibly light manner, the hints of violence, treachery, conflicted identity, and desperation communicating the meanness of life during the War of Independence (1961-1974) and, especially, the civil war that followed (1975-2002).

In his International Foreign Fiction Prize-winning novel The Book of Chameleons (2004, English translation published in 2007) Agualusa mixes the tale of a gecko infused with the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges with the daily life of his owner, Félix Ventura, a man who reinvents the histories of clients eager to cover over their civil war activities. Several characters Ventura has dealings with serve to fill in the picture of a country undergoing an uneasy and fragile transition from hostilities to peace. There is menace in this tightly wrapped story to both main parties, from different sources, and without giving anything away, it can be said that the atmosphere around the amusing or profound thoughts of the Borges gecko act like a lantern held up against a darkness that could swallow everything.

My Father’s Wives (2007, English translation published in 2008) examines racial issues and mediums that people choose to share stories: music, oral history, and literature. Agualusa undercuts their truthfulness (emotional and factitious) by mingling the tales of characters who seem real with those we are told, almost assured, are not. Well before the end of this clever, poignant novel we are becalmed in a sea of lies, half-truths, and possible realities, forced, like those we’re reading about, to adapt to ever-changing conditions. Where we land depends on what we choose to believe. Here, as in The Book of Chameleons, there is a fine degree of control over a debilitating existence lived under almost constant strife and mayhem.


Many of the same themes are present in A General Theory of Oblivion (2013; English translation published in 2015), which is set between the mid-1970s and the early 2000s. (It would be wrong to regard or dismiss the persistence of Agualusa’s themes as obsessive or tiresome sifting and resifting of material. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, John Dos Passos, and William Vollmann, along with many more, have rescued important and hidden facts from historical oblivion and worked to keep alive the memory of incidents that plunged entire peoples into despair or periods of ferocious activity, and they have contributed new angles from which to analyze obscure and well-known events. Similarly, Agualusa is mining a rich and deep national memory and has much to tell readers.) The cast recalls those from the previous books: strong women, women praised for their beauty, ignorant men, thick-headed and greedy men, victims of tragedy, and the kind-hearted. Above them all is Ludovica (Ludo) who has accompanied her sister, Odete, and her new brother-in-law, Orlando, from Portugal to Angola just before independence is brought about. She is the figure Agualusa focuses on. Through her, despite her isolation in an apartment building, we are given an overview of Angolan history and society.

Well before leaving for a new life in Africa, Ludo could not stand being outdoors (she “never liked having to face the sky”), which means she is drugged for the flight to Luanda, the Angolan capital. When unrest first breaks out in the city streets, with demonstrations preceding armed warfare, followed by the overthrow of a government, a brief cessation of complete hostilities, and then the decades of factional fighting involving Angolan, Cuban, South African, and other soldiers or insurrectionists, she stays, as she always has, in her missing relatives’ apartment—they attend a party one night and never return—fending off robbers with a pistol before erecting a wall that seals off the apartment entrance from the rest of the building. As conditions throughout the capital and the nation deteriorate and people flee the country, the other tenants vanish until Ludo is, perhaps, the only one remaining. Her company is an albino German shepherd (perhaps a sly allusion to German South-West Africa, an older, colonial name for Namibia, Angola’s southern neighbour) she christens Phantom. She has many books to read and, for a short period, a working telephone, radio, and phonograph. For food she at first relies on a stuffed pantry and crops from seeds Orlando had planted in his terrace. Covered in a cardboard box with eye and armholes to protect her from the sky, she attends to this tiny, life-sustaining garden, catching water from rainfalls when the municipal systems start to fail. But it is often dry, electricity dies, and supplies eventually run out:

The hunger came. For weeks, weeks as long as months, Ludo barely ate. She fed Phantom on a flour porridge. The nights merged into the days. She would wake to find the dog watching over her with a fierce eagerness. She would fall asleep and feel his burning breath. She went to the kitchen to fetch a knife, the one with the longest blade there was, the sharpest one, and took to carrying it around attached to her waist like a sword. She, too, would lean over the animal as he slept. Several times she brought the knife to his throat.

Over the course of the many years spent without other human company that she wishes to contact—for after a while the apartment building attracts new residents—the window is her sole connection with the outside world. It is also a protection against it, and an apparatus to help her eat, for with the appliances long dead Ludo can only cook on sunny days, thanks to Orlando’s magnifying glasses that focus the sun’s heat. When a monkey enters her garden she is ruthless. Eventually the crops she planted assist with her and Phantom’s food needs.

Ludo writes her thoughts down in a series of notebooks, and Agualusa gives us some of those entries, as well as later ones using other surfaces (always presented in italics):

The days slide by as if they were liquid. I have no more notebooks to write in. I have no more pens either. I write on the walls, with pieces of charcoal, brief lines.

I save on food, on water, on fire, and on adjectives.


I carve out verses
as prayers

words are legions
of demons

I cut adverbs

I spare my wrists[1]

Burning furniture, books, and paintings keeps her warm. Her eyesight is going. Life is getting truly desperate, and then a young boy, Sabalu, begins bringing her food, though he starts as a thief entering her apartment through the window while she sleeps and stealing what looks valuable. His own life story changes once they talk. By the time he shows up, well past the halfway mark, we have met others who, while unaware of Ludo, are linked to her and to each other.

Ludo’s central role—a forgotten and then unnoticed eye in the sky spying on others, later thought of as an invisible goddess—and her predicament as an outlier figure who is part myth, part creature, and part human (something stemming, perhaps, from Agualusa’s love of South American fiction and its magical realism tradition), affords Agualusa distance from what he want to depict. Angola’s almost unremittingly traumatic modern history is an immense and complex set of subjects that here is addressed using Ludo’s panoramic view (but a view, as stated, that is decreasing in ability until she has only “peripheral vision”). While her solitary position doesn’t allow her to become involved with anyone but Sabalu, indirectly, through her family and location, she plays a part in the lives of many others as they, in time, come to do in hers. One of the people who, early in the novel, had been after Orlando’s “‘jewels’,” about which Ludo knew nothing at the time, and a Marxist officer he once was in conflict with, meet just outside the apartment on the same day that others, whose lives we have seen in partial ways, also congregate there. Sabalu had broken through the defending wall, with Ludo’s consent. As in a murder mystery—and there are aspects of the detective novel present—the loose threads are tied up, old wounds are given a chance to heal, mysterious sounds explained, a “sea goddess called the Kianda” finally accounted for, and a long-standing absence is revealed at the midway point.

Many of the other characters—Arnaldo Cruz (a sometime political activist turned businessman, more commonly referred to as Little Chief), Magno Moreira Monte (an intelligence officer), Jeremias (a Portuguese soldier), and Daniel Benchimol (a journalist), to name a few—receive time in the narrative for their stories to be fleshed out. Their lives contribute to the seediness and criminality (societal criminality as distinct from crooks) of Angola, as does advocacy journalism, to dovetail with Ludo’s singular story. It’s by design that she is in an equivalent of a Panopticon overlooking a lawless, somewhat formless state where, as Agualusa has shown in earlier novels, no one feels safe, identities and fortunes are fluid, ideologies (Marxism and capitalism) are opportunistic equally, and outside interests (Cold War powers, smaller countries near and far) and factions work to dismember the nation. Splintering the narrative among these assorted characters helps convey their society’s pandemonium and recklessness.

That centre point is also a symbol for something else. Only a boy can break into the apartment, through the window that is Ludo’s eye; that same orphaned boy, who calls Ludo Grandma, breaks down the wall she constructed as a barrier against the world so he and she can emerge. Windows, walls, and doors can be many things, including hymens, and in a metaphorical sense Sebalu and Ludo are reborn when the wall comes down, this time into a changed world, surrounded by those who are not quite family, but close. At the close of the novel what we hear of Ludo’s childhood might make us reconsider what’s gone before, ponder the multiple meanings residing in the imagery, and appreciate the connection of Ludo’s early life to her acceptance of Sabalu.


In addition to what’s been discussed above, there are other significant features about this book: the first concerns the language of the writing itself, the second Angolan history.

As with other books by Agualusa, each translated by Daniel Hahn, there is attention paid to how to phrase characters’ thoughts and on how to squeeze just the right amount from certain conceits. Trapped and cut off from news, Ludo speculates about what is going on, often in language inspired, perhaps, by the many books she has read: “I’m afraid of what’s outside the window, of the air that arrives in bursts, and the noise it brings with it…. I am foreign to everything, like a bird that has fallen into the current of a river.” In order to explain one man’s disappearance another man invents the tale of his being swallowed by the ground, which matches the vanishing of planes and villages. There is a dancing hippo. People are not recognized for who they are: everyone has an opportunity (and a motive) to be new, or at least camouflaged, in this country that’s a work-in-progress. When Ludo has to convert her library into fuel she feels “…as though she was incinerating the whole planet. When she burned Jorge Amado she stopped being able to visit Ilhéus and São Salvador. Burning Ulysses, by Joyce, she had lost Dublin. Getting rid of Three Trapped Tigers, she had incinerated old Havana.” (This reflects Angola’s own hellish environment.) Descriptions of scenery and nature are used sparingly but effectively: “That afternoon they knocked down the fence and crossed to the other side. They found a bit of water. Good pastures. The wind began to blow. The wind carried heavy shadows along with it, as though it were carrying night, in shreds, yanked away from some other, even more distant desert.” Plain speech used by such people as soldiers and Little Chief is as carefully written:

There were guys locked up for diamond trafficking, and others for not having stood to attention during the raising of the flag. Some of the prisoners had been important leaders in the party. They took pride in their friendship with the President.

“Only yesterday the Old Man and I went fishing together,” one of them boasted to Little Chief. “When he finds out what’s happened, he’ll get me out of here and have the morons who did this to me arrested.”

He was shot the following week.

As in The Book of Chameleons and My Father’s Wives, one feels safely guided by Hahn through the multiple voices and tones of this diverse cast.

The second topic arises from Agualusa’s interest in making sure there aren’t any loose ends: Is history over for Angola? What I mean to suggest is not that the history of a nation can be wrapped up once and for all in narratives (there will always be more stories, and then there are the counter-narratives), but that, to my mind, the conclusion of A General Theory of Oblivion unwittingly indicates that events can come to a neat close. Agualusa’s propensity to connect the actions of his characters, and the characters themselves, as attenuated as they might appear, though it functioned well in the earlier novels, comes off here as overtly predetermined. Ludo, for example, has a background that is useful to link her to Sebalu, but since they become family quickly enough as it is, when the narrative provides us with that story it is, by then, unrequired and in any case too familiar. Certain characters glance off each other and are forever paired, and this happens many times, too many when you dwell on the length of time of the action—decades—and the gigantic sprawl of the canvas, thereby provoking a disbelief, and shutting down critical sympathy. Less reliance on clearing up every mystery could have resulted in a more satisfying novel, especially since there is so much that is bloody and messy. The communal and personal histories combine, as they often can, but more disorder and loss—what Ludo described as being swept along by her adopted country in its long state of turmoil—would have removed the feeling that we are reading something that is artistically schematic and contrived to finish in a burst of sentimentality.

Despite that reservation, one that may be chalked up to personal preference, José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion has much to recommend it. This short novel, written with confidence and poise, contains sharply sketched characters, an evolving and engaging main narrative around Ludo, and years of conflict succinctly summarized and easily understandable.

—Jeff Bursey


Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.




Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In the acknowledgements Agualusa thanks “the Brazilian poet Christiana Nóvoa, who at my request wrote Ludo’s poems…”
Mar 102016

Jenny Erpenbeck

The End of Days explores allegiance to family, to friends, to ideology. It is a story of Jewish identity, and of persecution. It is a story about boundaries and the borders between nations, between people, between ideas, between faiths. It is about the divisions we create within ourselves and the horizon where life meets death. Here is a novel that seeks no less than “the weave of life in its entirety.” — Frank Richardson


End of Days
Jenny Erpenbeck
New Directions, 2016
Paperback $15.95, 240 pages


When I discovered Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, I remember how disappointed I was that I would never get to review this remarkable novel. Susan Bernofsky’s translation of Aller Tage Abend had been published in 2014 by New Directions, had won major literary awards, and had received a plethora of accolades from critics across the globe. Damn it, I thought—how often does one get the opportunity to write about such a gem? But, it’d been done and done well, and I had a thesis to write anyway. Six months later, while trolling publishers’ websites, I was delighted to see the novel was being released as a New Directions paperback. Fate and a generous editor would grant me a second chance. Erpenbeck has penned a novel of rare excellence and beauty, a novel of questions that lets you swim in possibility, and it’s all about second chances.

Born in 1967 in East Berlin, Jenny Erpenbeck studied theater directing with Heiner Müller, has worked with Werner Herzog, and has had a distinguished career directing in opera houses in Germany and Austria. In 1999, she published her first prose fiction—the eerie, fable-like novella The Old Child—which quickly garnered international attention. For her first novel, Visitation, she won the Hertha König Prize 2008, and for The End of Days she won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2015) and the Hans Fallada Prize (2014). Her most recent novel—Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Knaus, 2015)—was short-listed for the 2015 German Book Prize. An English translation from Erpenbeck’s long-time collaborator Susan Bernofsky is, hopefully, forthcoming. The End of Days is the fourth of Erpenbeck’s books translated by multi-award-winning Bernofsky, noted for her translations of Robert Walser, Hermann Hess, and Franz Kafka. Her translations of Erpenbeck’s fiction have won numerous prizes including the 2005 PEN Translation Fund Award (The Old Child), and for The End of Days she won the 2015 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and the 2015 Ungar German Translation Award.

The End of Days explores allegiance to family, to friends, to ideology. It is a story of Jewish identity, and of persecution. It is a story about boundaries and the borders between nations, between people, between ideas, between faiths. It is about the divisions we create within ourselves and the horizon where life meets death. Here is a novel that seeks no less than “the weave of life in its entirety.”


It is the year 1902 in a small provincial town in Galicia, present day Ukraine, near the border with Poland. A mother drops handfuls of dirt into the open grave of her baby girl who died mysteriously, her breathing simply stopped. She will not be consoled and imagines her daughter’s life—her playing the piano, her coppery hair, her aiding her mother in old age. She thinks about the mound of earth that tops all fresh graves, that for her child’s it should be as “huge as the Alps,” symbolic of the potential her daughter has lost. The eighteen-month old girl is, however, the protagonist of this story, and she will be resurrected and die four more times.

The 240-page novel is organized as a series of five numbered books of roughly equal length. Each book explores a possible life for the central character, unnamed until book three. The books are separated by short (three-to-eight page) “intermezzos” that serve as segues; here especially the narrator explores what might have been. The concept of a multiverse—that all possible lives are lived in all possible universes—isn’t new, and many authors have used the conceit of parallel universes, but The End of Days isn’t that kind of novel. Not really. The main plot, loosely based on Erpenbeck’s family, follows a single character (let’s call her H.) from her birth in Brody to her life in post WWI Vienna, her joining the Communist Party and emigration to the Soviet Union, and her career as a writer in the German Democratic Republic. Periodically, throughout the course of this plot arc, Erpenbeck’s narrator presents a scenario where H. dies. She then presents a contrary scenario in an intermezzo and subtly opens a new, yet linked narrative. The resulting effect suggests multiple lives, and while her solution looks straightforward and easy, it is a testament to Erpenbeck’s artistry that she can shift the direction of her narrative so effortlessly.

Great characters ground great books, and H.’s diverse histories reflect her complex character. She is courageous, stubborn, willful, loving and loyal, but capable of spite. She is an artist, a writer of novels, stories, and radio plays, who writes “in defense of the beautiful and true.” With each book, her desires shift with her fortunes: in Vienna she falls in love with her best friend’s fiancé while struggling to avoid starvation; in Moscow she must literally write for her life, either to succeed and become a Soviet citizen, or fail and die in a gulag; and in East Berlin, at the height of a brilliant literary career, when faced with losing all she has ever known, she longs most for contact with her son. In an interview Erpenbeck said she wanted “to look at the question of how present death is in our lives, and how our paths change when people close to us remain or leave.” And so, while H. is the focal point, the subplots of richly imagined secondary characters swirl around her. Here, Erpenbeck doesn’t waste a word showing us the regret of H.’s grandmother:

That morning, for the sake of her daughter’s happiness, she had sold her daughter’s happiness. Sometimes the price one pays for something continues to grow after the fact, becoming too expensive long after it has been paid.

Each book comprises numerous short chapters (many only a paragraph long). A third-person omniscient narrator limits herself to a single character in each chapter and shifts focalization with chapter breaks. After some focalization shifts Erpenbeck uses pronouns without antecedents, deliberately blurring the point of view, asking us to acknowledge that all her characters could share the life she describes. This can be slightly confusing, but the character’s identity becomes clear from the context before confusion turns to frustration and rereading. Few characters have proper names, one of the author’s trademarks. Although the linear chronology begins in 1902 and ends ninety years later, in some books Erpenbeck employs nonlinear time as she shifts character focalization, e.g. in the fourth book, while days pass for one character, for another character time is suspended in an instant. Despite multiple books and chapters, changes in character focalization, and use of nonlinear time, the narrative is a harmonious, resonant whole, a vision of the ramification of our lives and the consequences of our choices.

Forking Paths


Erpenbeck leaves no detail unexamined in her intricately interwoven patterns of images, metaphors, and symbolic associations. Given that she grew up in East Berlin, perhaps it is not a coincidence that the primary images of The End of Days are borders, although she writes (Paris Review) and speaks fondly of her childhood and adolescence.

First, there are the geographic borders: H. is born in a border town, and after both World Wars, the borders of Europe are redrawn; Germany is divided. There are subtler borders of place, and propriety—for example, a friend must drop a letter across the threshold of a window since to hand it to the receiver would constitute working on the Sabbath. Then there is the border between faiths: after marrying a Christian, H.’s Jewish mother is left “hanging between two worlds.” While trying to reconcile her imminent death in the Soviet Union with her decision to join the Communist Party, H. questions the “irreversibility of good and evil” and “whether hope had boundaries or not.” And, at the end of her life, ninety years old and slipping into dementia, H. confronts the border between memory and oblivion. As in reality, the link to the ultimate border, death, comes in many forms. Sometimes it is the vagaries of nature—a cold front results in a frozen puddle that turns one’s course toward a deadly encounter. Sometimes the cause is a conscious decision, suicide the only answer. Sometimes the whim of a petty bureaucrat sends you to Siberia, and sometimes it is just the inexplicable, absurd folly of falling down the stairs.

While this strong pattern of boundaries serves as the backbone of her novel, Erpenbeck uses a myriad of other recurring, interconnected images. To cite just one example, H.’s heirloom collection of Goethe’s complete works appears throughout the course of the novel. The books figure prominently during the episode when H.’s grandparents are attacked; the scene is replete with border imagery, including: the boundary between inside and outside their home; the threshold of an opening onto the roof and the violent tug of war between the mob and those who are trying to flee; and the boundary of life itself. Each time the books appear, including volume nine with its scraped spine from where a rock hit it during the attack, we are brought back to this scene. Sometimes specific poem titles or lines of Goethe’s poetry are used to tie the associated images together. Of course, books are made of words, and language becomes a fixation of H.’s father, who concludes we each have our own vocabulary for the “constant translation between far outside and deep within.” The books accumulate various associations as the story progresses and become, in the end, a focal point of sublime reminiscence.



On Style

Jenny Erpenbeck’s style of prose and her choices for the novel’s organization demonstrate a deep sensitivity to language. The intermezzos serve as borders between possible lives, stylistically mimicking the imagery of boundaries. The last chapter of the first book is an amalgamation of points of view from all the characters up to that moment. From one sentence to the next, then within a sentence, then from word to word, Erpenbeck tells us what the characters are doing (she shifts to the present tense) and what their lives have become in a montage that culminates with the single question that plagues the father, the mother, and the grandmother: why did the baby die? After the reader turns the page, the next logical thought is “But if . . .” and the baby is saved from its mysterious loss of breath by a handful of snow rubbed against her chest. She is revived, and in the first intermezzo we are asked to imagine an alternate life for the young family, the parents never having been burdened with a devastating loss, and the daughter who becomes a young woman. The intermezzo provides an opportunity for reflection, for imagining multiple scenarios beyond the one continued in the narrative.

While it may be imprudent to address prose style in a translated work—after all, isn’t so much of style untranslatable?—nevertheless, Bernofsky’s translation is so expert, so pitch-perfect, it is worth the risk. Regarding the translation, Erpenbeck said in an interview:

I did feel that it was really my book. It was perfectly done. Sometimes her translation is so perfect that I don’t even know the vocabulary she has used.

Erpenbeck’s prose swings between the concise precision of a proverb: “The forest provides the wood for the axe that will chop it down” to the lyrical sinuosity of memory:

For one brief, sharp, clear moment, he understands what it would be like if he could arrive there along with her: The wheat field would be there right from the start, just like the rustling of the leaves at his back, the silence would be filled to the brim—that deafening crack living only in his memory, absent now—and the memory that filled out this silence would be just as real as the footsteps of all the human beings walking upon the earth at this moment, along with their falling down, their jumping, crawling, and sleeping at this very moment, just as real as all that mutely lay or flowered within the earth . . .

Erpenbeck’s longer sentences are not inchoate stream of consciousness demonstrations. They serve, beautifully, the needs of her scenes, her characters, and her themes. When immigrants wait at Ellis Island (a border, intermezzo place), pensive about their admittance into America, the anaphora and rhythm of the sentence becomes the tolling of Donne’s bell:

The people squat, lie on the ground, or sit on benches: people with bundles, bedding, and crates, with samovars, people without any baggage at all, children running about . . . people who are filled with hope, with despair, people who are homesick, frightened, people who don’t know what’s in store for them, people who are wondering where they’ll find the twenty-five dollars for their immigration fee, people who suddenly want to go back . . .

And it’s not an accident that this scene, which occurs in the first book, is echoed in a memory only a few pages from the end of the novel.


The End of Days, a book of elegant style and penetrating insight, filled with arresting characters and provocative questions, is a book to come back to a second time, and a third, and . . . who knows how many times? Erpenbeck writes with a gentle intensity—a feeling light as a dream yet so grounded in the moment that if a grenade exploded outside your window, you wouldn’t jump. Although death frames the novel, The End of Days celebrates the beginning of days, for it affirms life’s multiplicity and the potential of every human life. Erpenbeck quotes W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz in an epigraph; in part, he asks—“where will we be going now?” This question vibrates throughout her novel and remains with us as we move on from this book, and this life, to the next.

— 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.


Mar 082016


There is no one like Stanford in modern poetry. The triumph and beauty is in the work, more than many us could have imagined forty years ago when we searched out his poems in a few small editions and poetry magazines. And as Stanford said near the end of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, “all of this/ is magic against death.” —Allan Cooper



If we’re lucky, once or twice in a generation an artist comes along who changes the complexion of our entire landscape and gives us a way of seeing the world as we have never experienced it before. Often these artists receive little or no recognition in their lifetimes, and it takes years–sometimes generations–for their genius to be acknowledged. I think of the work of William Blake and John Clare, Emily Dickinson, Vincent van Gogh, Paula Modersohn-Becker and the haunting, other-worldly poems of Frank Stanford.

Frank Stanford’s creative life spanned a little more than ten years. During that period he wrote the nearly 700 pages of poetry collected in What About This, and the epic poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (over 500 pages when it was first published in 1977, 15,283 lines of poetry. A little over 600 lines are printed in What About This). Other uncollected poems will surely come to light with time.

Stanford corresponded with a number of poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Thomas Lux, and Alan Dugan, who served as a sounding board, confidante, advocate and friend. It was Dugan who urged him to publish Battlefield without further revision: “Received your blockbuster of a ms. and am reading it. It’s wonderful so far, and I think that it should be published as it is in a small edition of books: it could sleep for a number of years and then explode.”

Among the many fine poems in What About This one poem in particular has stood out for me for nearly forty years, a modern masterpiece as poignant as Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” The poem lives somewhere between the domestic and the wild, between what we know and what we don’t know. It transforms the earthly and familiar into something else:

Place on a Grave

It’s not hard to forget what they ate
Every winter, when the father
And the oldest brother went back to do time,
Cowpeas and smoked goat, all winter
The same muddy supper, their voices
Thick as pan bread, the hollering
At dawn when the mother went out
To the pens in cowboy boots
With a bucket of feed and a roll
Of toilet paper, finding a swatch
Of her daughter’s nightgown
Fluttering on the barbed wire,
The hollering and calling
The rest of them did when they
Raised up from their cold beds
And went out searching at first light
For their crippled sister, who dreamed
Walking over the mountains
In the dead of winter, the smell
Of cooking in her hair, believing
She was gone from there, dignified
Like a wooden figure on the prow
Of a ship with no horizon.

There’s no other poem in the immense body of Stanford’s work that better contains the haunting beauty that is the trademark of his writing and of his life.


Frank Stanford was born Francis Gildart Smith on August 1, 1948 to a single mother. He was given up by his birth mother, and soon after was adopted by Dorothy Gilbert Alter, who became the first female manager of Firestone. She married Albert Franklin Stanford, a levee engineer, in 1952. By all accounts Frank Stanford had a comfortable middle class childhood. In the summer his father took the family with him when he worked:

“Unlike most levee contractors, his adoptive father lived in the levee camps with his family during the summer months, and this is the speech Stanford imbibed as a child. It saturated his long, hot, and humid days and his radiant, lunar dreams.” (C. D. Wright, The Poet Frank Stanford, Between Love and Death, from American Poets Magazine. Posted April 1, 2015, poets.org)

The men, women and children he met there populated his poems from the beginning. Many of their names are real. Here’s a small list from “The Blood Brothers”, the first poem in his first book The Singing Knives, published in 1971 by Irv Broughton, editor and publisher of Mill Mountain Press, and Stanford’s lone publisher throughout his life:

Born In The Camp With Six Toes
Baby Gauge
Ray Baby
Charlie B. Lemon
Mose Jackson
BoBo Washington

Some of these are nicknames, but many recur throughout his body of work, especially in The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. It’s as if his themes, his images, and his concerns were formed at a very early age. Stanford himself claimed that there were poems in his early collections that were written when he was ten years old. This may seem preposterous to us–and Stanford could be a teller of tall tales–but at least one of the poems in What About This was written when he was seventeen years old. It’s feasible that his dreamlike poetic landscape came to him during those childhood summers on the levees, and provided the directive for his entire body of work.


It’s imperative that a poet find his or her external landscape, the touchstone or cornerstone from which the poems flow and grow. For Stanford it was Arkansas.

That was his home, his place of living, where he worked as an unlicensed land surveyor to support himself. Many of his best poems are narratives, and Stanford was an acute listener of stories and voices and a watcher of people. Here’s an excerpt from the interview with Irv Broughton in What About This:

I B: You’re a great observer–delaying trips at bus stations.

F S: Not so much just to observe. I did it so I could meet a person; I wanted to talk. Not just to meet but I wanted there to be words, too…. I’m sad when I see really indigent people, people that are down in their heart and their soul. I wanted to help them, but I don’t know how I can.

I B: Have you ever felt that by talking to people you were actually helping them?

F S: If they thought they could truthfully confide in me, if I took a load off by maybe saying a few kind words, maybe so…. But I just helped because I talked to them. Maybe anybody could have talked to them.

Stanford found his influences wherever he could. There’s a whole chapbook of previously unpublished improvisations and versions of the poems of Jean Follain called Plainsongs in this collected, echoing and expanding Follain, set in Stanford’s Arkansas landscape. Here’s one poem from that manuscript, “The Dream Near The Witness Tree”:

Death uses a beautiful rock as its perch
you don’t know what it feels like
how cold and bright it is
until it snows and a blackbird leaves there
the wind blows through its crag
and holds up a branch in the night
like the last peach on the tree
or a woman who has lost a breast
and thinks she will lose you too
Death makes a point of saying I will lose you

We can feel Stanford’s empathy near the end of this poem, and sense that there’s a much larger story behind figure of the woman–the single peach leading to the single breast. Stanford listens and watches, and then selects and amplifies details like a painter. He’s a master of what should be kept and what should be left out.

A poem from One-Finger Zen, another previously unpublished manuscript shows just how much he learned from Follain:


a man by himself in a bar
feels a shadow behind him
thinks of his wife eating
bleeding meat
hears the rain by the sea
tries to forget his day laid out like dresses for the dead
he knows his heart is closed up for the night
and the people
who are poor and cannot sleep look through the blinds

Stanford’s empathy was immense. He postponed bus trips to listen to others. He cared about the lost and forgotten, the poor and afraid. And he brought them into his poems where their despair and hopelessness could shine clearly, “cold and bright.” His poems should be a wake up call for all of us.


Franz Wright has called Stanford “one of the great voices of death.” I think that’s fair. But the myths and misinformation that grow up around poets who die young—Frank Stanford, John Thompson, Sylvia Plath—rarely do the poets justice. In fact their death, in many ways, tends to be a mirror reflecting the reader away from the work. There’s the urge to look for all the sordid details in the poems, and if they’re not there, we seem to have many curious ways of trying to convince ourselves that they are.

While a poet’s work is always more important than the details of his life, sometimes a few details are helpful. Stanford once said “Let’s put on a pot of coffee and write all night.” While he was at the University of Arkansas (he never completed a degree) he was probably writing The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You late at night in his room. He could write anywhere, but he had his favourite places. Again, from the interview with Irv Broughton:

I B: Talk about the ideal writing environment.

F S: During my college days, it seems the best circumstances were for me to spend long periods of time in a given place that I felt some affinity for, that I’d gotten used to, like this cabin. This cabin had a lot of magic feeling to it. I could get up any time of the day, any time of the night, and I could write in it. I felt so at home in this place. It was so strange, when I think of it now, getting up in the winter, building a fire at three o’clock in the morning, making coffee, going down there and writing or reading. It’s a strange feeling. I really became one with that place. It wasn’t a possession. It was just a place you could exist in. It was my place, where I spent all of my time.


I want to return briefly to the Follain influence. At his best, Stanford could write a small poem that had the power and depth of a good short story. Again, as in Follain’s work, only a few crucial details are there–a hint of dialogue, three or four condensed images, but they are enough. This poem is from his collection You, published posthumously in 1979:


At the end of the war there weren’t many
Men left.

So the widows traveled
To the gallows on hanging days
To look for a blindfolded man.

Any woman could save a bandit then,
And maybe two
If she had a thousand acres or a daughter.

All she had to do was bring another horse
And tell the sheriff, him.


I keep thinking about the rhythms of Stanford’s lines, their sway and lilt. They’ve always reminded me of blues and jazz rhythms, the leaps of jazz, the smoke of the blues, especially in the long Whitman-like lines of The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You:

I said I love you in the field of honour
and she was like a colt
and she was water I held in my hands
and she was the canoe I worked through the river
and she was the flash at two-thirty in the morning of the suicidal knife
and she was a fire of pine cones who ran like a deer
and she was a butterfly that lit on the float of my pole
and she was the night herself

In Hidden Water (Third Man Books, Nashville, Tennessee, 2015), a companion book to What About This, there are further unpublished poems, facsimiles of letters and photographs, hand written notes, and a partial list of Stanford’s record collection: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Roland Kirk, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed–over 120 records, and the list goes on and on. Stanford wrote several poems which touch on the blues. Part of it might have been due to his feeling of having lost that Edenic world of his childhood, those summers spent near the levees with his family. Here’s a poem from his first book, The Singing Knives:


I had my quiet time early in the morning
Eating Almond Joys with Mother.
We’d sit on the back porch and talk to God.
We really had a good time.

Later on,
I’d sort baseball cards
Or look for bottles.
In the afternoon I’d shoot blackbirds.

Jimmy would go by the house for ice water
And make the truck backfire.
Oh, I really liked that.
That was the reason he did it.

In the evenings the cottontails ran across the groves.
I shot one and put him in the backseat.
He went to the bathroom.
Jimmy said I knocked the shit out of him.

At night we would listen to the ballgame.
Then to the Hoss Man.
Jimmy liked “Take Some Insurance On Me Baby” by Jimmy Reed.

By the time Stanford wrote the following lines from a longer uncollected poem, perhaps a fragment itself, there was no more talking to God, no more good time. The poem begins with night and shadows:


Night is nothing
but the small shadow a woman-child’s foot casts
when she puts on her boots
when the taichi lesson is over.


As you can see
I have the blues.


I believe the farmer who stays awake all night,
sacking his mind like oats
for a name for his farm,
is more of a poet than most.

It’s about time the white men
got wise to blue guitars
of the delta.

I’m a two-timer and a drifter
so I won’t ask you to stay very long with me.

I don’t want anyone else to get
two steps from the blues.

Closer is a word the wise and foolish lovers use.
The incestuous roosters of dawn
are all of the time tracking it down.

The ones who follow wicked routine
are always saying, “Make ends meet.”

If we have to meet, then I want to
meet you like smoke. Yes, I’d like
to chop the kindling of my childhood once more,
we’re the same there. But those days are gone,
for better or worse. So, if we meet at all,
whoever you are, let us meet like horses
smelling one another out
before they mate.

All great poets go deep into their own inner landscapes, and that journey can be dangerous, sometimes fatal. Theodore Roethke wrote in one of his notebooks, ” To write poetry: you have to be prepared to die.” The old saying “he wrote with his blood” isn’t just some romantic aphorism. How far did Stanford go? Was he dogged, as the delta blues musician Robert Johnson was when he wrote “Hellhound on My Trail”?

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail…


Stanford didn’t write a lot about his poetics. He made a short autobiographical documentary film with the help of Irv Broughton titled It Wasn’t a Dream, It Was a Flood. Some of his ideas about poetry are found in two short pieces in What About This: the interview with Broughton, and six pages of prose that first appeared in Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process. An excerpt from that piece, “With the Approach of the Oak the Axeman Quakes,” is printed below:

I don’t believe in a tame poetry. When poetry hears its own name, it runs, flies, swims off for fear of its own life. You can bet your boots on that. Jean Cocteau said a poet rarely bothers about poetry. Does a gardener perfume his roses?

Truthfully, it is the lure of the other fields, of other forces which draw me into a poem, not the techniques of a self-conscious poetics. A book like The Secret Life of Plants would have more influence on my poetry, add more in explaining and understanding the other systems of poetry, than would certain texts.

Every poet has a field of force not presently understood.


Stanford wrote a few poems from his experience as a land surveyor. To me it seems his physical work laid a grid or template over his poems, and showed him the boundaries in which his poems could percolate and grow, like the frame around a painting. In this previously uncollected poem, we sense how deeply he had gone into his psychic landscape near the end of his life:

How I Showed the Men No-Man’s-Land

The party of lost surveyors
Gathered at my fire
Dead and weary
While I cleaned my fish

“See this creek” the field chief
Told his chainmen
“It doesn’t appear on the map”

It was dusk
And my fire was going down
Like the sun on the ridge

They looked in the sky
For a star to follow
The wind blew
But the branches were still

“It’s odd here men
There must be something underground
The compass won’t work
The needle’s still
As a ship in dead calm”

I came out of the dark with my deaf dog
I asked them wouldn’t they
Take their rest

They whispered among themselves

I offered them biscuits and liquor

“Stranger all we want to know
Is where we are”
So I drew them a map in the dirt
Quietly with my knife

And when they understood
How deep they’d traversed
They looked one another in the eye
And parted company

That night every man looked for his own stone
To lie down beside and die alone

And in the background of the poem, that “ship in dead calm” rocks slowly like Charon’s boat on the bayou.


Poets of Stanford’s generation were nurtured by older poets who believed that another aspect of a poet’s work was to start a magazine, or a small poetry publishing house, or translate from other languages—all a part of giving back to the gene pool of poetry. Part of this process is to search out new and overlooked voices and give their work a place to be.

Stanford understood this, and established his poetry publishing house, Lost Roads in 1977. The first title from the press was well-known American poet C.D. Wright’s first collection of poems, Room Rented by A Single Woman. Stanford and Wright had a relationship for most of the last three years of his life.

Shortly before his death, Stanford prepared his will. He had reportedly visited his mother more frequently than usual in the weeks leading up to his death. On the evening of June 3, 1978 he returned to his home and took his own life.

His wife, Ginny Crouch Stanford, and C. D. Wright were in the house at the time of his death. What is perhaps most remarkable is that Wright and Crouch Stanford became co-executors of Frank Stanford’s estate and carefully preserved his many manuscripts over the last four decades. This story is not unlike that of Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who preserved many of his famous paintings that we cherish today.

I find a commingling of many of the themes in Frank Stanford’s poems in this previously unpublished fragment:

The night, the child, the moon, the drunken sailor,
the woman who wears through her ring like
a pair of Levis that last and last,
the blind Negro who taught me how to strut
when I was six, the look you gave me
the other day, whoever you are, the brave
and the lonely, the animals that see us,
a long time before we shoot them, the bank robber,
the drifter, all of us drink
from the same pool. So, when we meet,
let’s float down together, sane,
stoned, drunk, whatever, like those indigo
dragonflies of spring that will be here


There is no one like Stanford in modern poetry. The triumph and beauty is in the work, more than many us could have imagined forty years ago when we searched out his poems in a few small editions and poetry magazines. And as Stanford said near the end of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, “all of this/ is magic against death.”

—Allan Cooper


allan cooper.

Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.


Mar 062016


It is a work of extraordinary emotional and psychological complexity, about a woman who locates salvation in her own creativity and is audacious enough to seek recognition in a world governed by men, from which it is not readily forthcoming. It is also a novel which plays with the line between confidence and egoism in a setting in which the slightest display of confidence on a woman’s part is too easily glossed as egoism — Natalie Helberg

dutton book covr

Margaret the First: A Novel
Danielle Dutton
Catapult, 2016
Paper, 167 pages, $15.95


Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First is a fictive recreation of the life of Lady Margaret Cavendish, a seventeenth-century word-smith, scripter, raging oddball, and wheeling brain. This was a woman who ventured to publish her outlandish thoughts and writings when there was very little precedent for acts of this kind (she was, after all, a woman, and constrained by the conventions which dogged her era). In some ways reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Dutton’s book unfurls in prose which is arrestingly poetic; it concentrates on the small moments, emotions, and sensuous details which make up Margaret’s life, though without forgetting about the larger, less fleeting events which might be termed her life’s frame. It is a work in which colourful linguistic molecules reign, a work whose language is perhaps as excessive and stunning as Lady Cavendish’s own wardrobe was said to be.

It is also a work of extraordinary emotional and psychological complexity, about a woman who locates salvation in her own creativity and is audacious enough to seek recognition in a world governed by men, from which it is not readily forthcoming. It is a novel which plays with the line between confidence and egoism in a setting in which the slightest display of confidence on a woman’s part is too easily glossed as egoism (“Hadn’t I thoughts, after all?…It cannot be infamy, I reasoned, to run or seek after glory, to love perfection, desire praise…”; “I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First”). On another level, it is a novel about a woman being pushed along the line that is her life, a woman being buffeted about and subjected to forces she has no control over—wars, illness, her own body—while others, including loved ones, drop away: “In March, in London, my niece died from consumption. In April, my sister Mary. In Ireland that summer my brother Tom was crushed by his horse. The following autumn, our mother was taken…Alone in my room in Paris, I felt oblivion creep near.”

Margaret Cavendish, the character Dutton has fashioned, is at once bold and insecure, audacious and isolated (she is often more daring on the page than it is possible for her to be in person); even when she is all the rage (because her writing or eccentric attire is garnering attention) she is without community; she is by turns an object of praise, admiration, ridicule and resentment. The novel sweeps breathtakingly along from her birth to a noble family and early childhood in Colchester, England, to her death on a garden bench one winter’s morning. In between these events, the young Margaret Lucas serves the queen as a lady-in-waiting, marries William Cavendish, an aristocrat with no money but good connections (they dine and otherwise socialize with the best minds of the time: Hobbes, Descartes, Dryden, and others—all of whom more or less ignore Margaret), writes copiously (though she has her crises), and moves with him, in exile, from place to place: They are Royalists and the English Civil War is raging.

It is interesting to consider Margaret the First in light of Dutton’s other works. Dutton, who identifies as a writer of fiction, is nonetheless preoccupied with forms of narrative which resist the very distinction between poetry and prose. Neither her collection of short stories, Attempts at a Life, nor her first novel, SPRAWL, make use of conventional plot. Both are works which appear to let the sentence guide ‘what happens’ in the writing: the only rule seems to be that whatever comes next must be linguistically surprising, or refreshing. (Carla Harryman is another American prose-writer who works in something like this way, and Dutton is of course familiar with her.)

Today there’s no use for descriptions of the past. But life changes on a dial, in a garden, a clinking of beetle wings, a shrimp bush and dry pink petals of Chinese lanterns dangling. Once I thought: I’ll just plant things until there’s no time to be afraid. But storms are furious in their own way, green lightning and bullets as big as hail in the desert, as frogs.

My tongue reveals something faintly audible here. But birds come in off the low-slung roof and confess themselves atop cupboards. Even the occasional warm bird sandwich is prohibited. I spend a term untouched, living in an abandoned chophouse, pulling weeds. I post banns up and down the avenue, on palm trees and street signs. I drive a simple bargain. (“20C Pastoral” in Attempts at a Life)

Whereas Attempts at a Life consists of very short pieces which coalesce like poems (it is almost tempting to think of them as prose-poems), SPRAWL, whose structure is supposed to reinforce its theme, consists of a single, stream-of-consciousness-like paragraph whose sentences inventory the phenomena making up an equally sprawling suburbia:

We have a distinctive ecology involving cows, furniture, farms, real estate, azaleas, fires, corn, curtains, dust, passion, malefactors, milk, meat, cherries, wasps, mayors, pipefitters, fences… So we sit on the couch and drink cocktails with umbrellas and are strongly on this one side of taxation, with an emphasis on judges, unpleasant violent crime, serenity, the good life, biographies of famous leaders, science fiction, and marijuana. I say, “Thanks for coming.” Then I say, “Sakes alive!” then “Mendicant!”

Both books are textured, so to speak, like fiction, but the linguistic parts which make that texture up are allowed to sit next to each other in ways which are perhaps more mysterious than conventional fiction would allow (and how do the elements making up a poem fit together?—often they fit together illogically, which is to say: magically). In this vein, Dutton is an adept maker of lists. Many of her sentences, and paragraphs, too, assume the form of a list whose elements are motley enough to startle expectation, but coordinated enough to sustain a kind of sense overall. This kind of slightly discontinuous listing, if we can call it that, makes Dutton seem aesthetically close to Gertrude Stein, who is one of her acknowledged influences (Virginia Woolf and Georges Perec are others).

Margaret the First makes use of this technique as well, though the items which make up its various lists are slightly more coordinated than they are motley. This is perhaps because the novel, unlike Attempts at a Life, say, although it too is made up of short, poetically-cohering sections, strives to transcend its parts to sustain a longer, unified story. In this respect it is like Dutton’s first novel, though Margaret the First labours under an even greater constraint than the rather open-ended SPRAWL, since, however fictionalized it is, it is about a specific historical figure, whose life it promises to animate. ‘The list’ serves precisely this end; its recurring presence is one of the reasons the book’s prose is so sumptuous, and the world it conveys so vivid. It is also one of the reasons the mundane details of Margaret’s life become entirely engrossing:

One morning that June, I took only a conserve of marigold for breakfast, trying to loosen a cough, and, after wandering the halls, went to the garden with two hard plums in my pocket. I ate; the church bell tolled. Eventually, in petal-flecked shoes, I found my way to the sitting room, where my mother dozed and John’s pregnant wife stood absently by the settle. The room was remarkably hot, for Mother believed in keeping windows shut, and a fat summer fly bumped against the glass. I stood at a table fiddling with a vase. I counted thirty-seven stems and dreamt up a ruby coat for a Chinese empress, a watery dress for Ophelia, a series of towering crystalline hats that rattled, sparkled, and shook—until from the hall came a series of noises.

The kind of writing fictionalized Lady Cavendish does appears in the novel, too. It is also described. At times, it almost seems as if lodged in Dutton’s book is a poetic—a theoretical articulation of a writing practice (Cavendish’s)—which exceeds the poetic the book itself (that is, Dutton’s) partakes in. This poetic is presented in a positive light, as if it is radical and desirable, fully endorsed, even loved. Perhaps it is loved all the more because it does not speak to the novel’s actual style; instead, it is held at a distance, a condition for eros:

Margaret writes everything: poetry, plays, essays, fancies, alternative philosophy. The structure of many of her texts is chaotic, directionless (“just a jumble of speeches and scenes” without structure—though, of course, even a mess has structure: life’s chaos is structured, and Margaret wishes her texts would unfold “like the natural course of things”). Her writing also embraces hybridity (she produces a book which is both fictional and theoretical, both fanciful and philosophical, for example), and switches styles on a whim (“Might not language be as a closet full of gowns?”). It disregards grammatical requirements as well, mainly because Margaret is unfamiliar with them, but refuses to be held back. In a word, her text is wild. It is as wild as she is inexorable. It cuts what seems like it must be an impossible figure of freedom, but which is precisely not impossible: We could say that in Dutton’s novel lies an unformulated manifesto for writing, which in principle, but so rarely in practice, is open to every possibility.

Margaret’s theoretical thinking, too, is feral and fantastical. She disapproves of many of the scientific trends of her day (including experimentation on animals) and produces, we can gather from certain snippets, a kind of alternative metaphysics (which reads like a ‘pataphysical critique): “I rejected any clock-like vision of the world. I chastised men who hunt for sport. The moon might be a ball of water…” When she is finally able to attend one of the Royal Society’s meetings (she has to nudge, but she does get in), she is silent however. Internally, she is enraged; externally, she is docile. “Gentleman,” she says disingenuously, “I am all admiration.” Later, she tells her husband that the meeting was only “more chatter,” and we are given a fuller idea of her own sense of impotence; her docility, her agreeableness at the meeting, was just a throwing up of arms; her speech was the silence of one whose speech is dictated, of one who is trapped or cornered, of one whose genuine thoughts, if they do not provoke violence, will fall on deaf ears, of one who is alone in the world, while the rest of the world bears down.

Psychologically acute moments like this, subtle emotional swivels, rather than action per se, give this narrative shape and depth. The single constant Margaret has in the world, besides her writing, is her husband, William, but even her relationship with him sours and sweetens. He is initially supportive of her writing, even proud, going so far as to distribute copies of it to his eminent friends, but he becomes peevish later on (at one point he even tells her—more or less—that women should be seen and not heard). She does not help matters, either: for all her shyness, she is a shameless self-promoter, and is perhaps too preoccupied with her own doings to realize when she is stepping on his toes: She attends the opening night for a play he has written with her breasts bared and nipples painted—something of a fashion experiment, which is much noted during the performance. “Congratulations,” she tells him afterwards. “No, no,” he says, “Congratulations to you.”

Lady Cavendish is undoubtedly a complex, perhaps even contradictory, character: she is a character one for the most part sympathizes with, though she has it in her to be mortifying. She is an awkward character, to put this another way: both very public and extraordinarily private. The text holds a part of her in reserve, or seems to refrain from disclosing her fully. She wonders if William has forgiven her after the play-incident, but we are given little other insight into her anxiety: we know enough to know it is there; we know enough to know she suffers; still, these things are cloaked with silence. Dutton’s striking novel has its own way of wrapping things in silence: it leaves us with a winter’s tomb after giving us page after page ashake with leaves and petals, orations and courtships, wars and corpses, air pumps and eldritch grammars, seas and sciences, itinerancy and gossip, plums and manuscripts, ups and downs, birds and debt, kings and crates, fancies and Fox-men, wit and infertility, stupor and chewed goose, poems and autumn roses, Spanish stews and steady love. Its energy is inimitable; its curious aura—its curious beauty—burns a long while.

— Natalie Helberg


Natalie Helberg

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 recently won The Capilano Review’s Fifth Annual Robin Blaser Award for poetry. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.


Feb 142016

Ben Jelloun

Although Ben Jellouns writing is simple and straightforward, he does take chances in structure and effect. The narrative shape of The Happy Marriage is corrugated and layered—like the broken and fretful marriage it depicts. It is problematized by withheld information and the character’s anguish and paranoia. —Jason DeYoung

the Happy marriage
The Happy Marriage
Tahar Ben Jelloun
Melville House, 2016


“If we knew what went on between women and men,” Mavis Gallant once said, “we wouldn’t need literature.” This quotation played over in my mind as I read The Happy Marriage, a novel that at times I thought uninspired and clichéd (albeit self-aware of it), and yet at other moments heartbreaking and authentic. The Happy Marriage is about that most ancient and indefatigable topic: betrayal. Only in The Happy Marriage we glimpse it through the eyes of a man and woman during social changes in Moroccan laws and customs, when men no longer hold all the power to determine when a marriage has ended, and when women are enacting more control over their own lives.

Born in Morocco in 1944, Tahar Ben Jelloun was the first North African writer to win the Prix Goncourt Prize for his novel The Sacred Night (1987) and has been short listed for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The author of over fifteen novels, he’s is best known for a trilogy about the life of Ahmde/Zahra, a girl who is raised in Morocco as a boy. More recently, he won The International Impac Dublin Literary Award for his novel This Blinding Absence of Light (2000), a novel that depicts the real-life, twenty-three-year prison sentence of a survivor of King Hassan II’s desert concentration camp, where political enemies were kept in lightless, underground cells with little food or water. Most of his novels, however, are more like The Happy Marriage, preoccupied by the daily life and relationships between men and women in Muslim society. They often focus on escaping its dogmas (Leaving Tangiers) or returning to its comforts (The Palace in the Old Village).

Ben Jelloun lists the typical Western pantheon of influences—Joyce, Cervantes, Pessoa. But he is on record of saying that he doesn’t really identify with other writers, “rather with certain filmmakers: Orson Wells, Federico Fellini, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni.” These cinematic influences inform nearly all of is fiction, generally through one of his characters being a movie aficionado. He does, however, state in interviews that Jean Genet, who he knew in the 1970s, gave him one piece of important advice, which Ben Jelloun has followed: “When you are writing, think of the reader, be simple,” Genet advised.

Although Ben Jellouns writing is simple and straightforward, he does take chances in structure and effect. The narrative shape of The Happy Marriage is corrugated and layered—like the broken and fretful marriage it depicts. It is problematized by withheld information and the character’s anguish and paranoia. It is novel in two parts—one male, the other female. Part One is entitled “The Man Who Loved Women Too Much” and Part Two is “My Version of Events: A response to The Man Who Loved Women Too Much.” It’s a tit-for-tat kind of book, similar to another of Ben Jelloun’s novels, The Last Friend (2006).

Part One is the man’s side of things. Known only as the painter, his narrative opens in Casablanca, February 4, 2000. He is bedridden after a stroke, and he is unable to paint. At one time he was a celebrated artist, but now he lives out his days being cared for by a pair of twins who helps him get a round, and is visited by Imane, a physiotherapist, who is helping him regain muscle control. It is a portrait of an invalid that Ben Jelloun presents, but the painter’s mind is still alive, vivid, and over the course of the first part of the novel, he reflect back over his life, dwelling mostly on his unhappy marriage.

At first the marriage is indeed a happy one. The painter and his bride are very much in love. They are, however, from two different strata of Moroccan society (he from something higher than she), and there is also fourteen-year difference in their ages (he is 38; she is 24). “Nobody present [at their wedding] had been happy, apart from the painter and his wife,” we are told. “Nobody had wanted them to get married. One had to be absolutely crazy to want to bring such different worlds together.”

It’s difficult for the painter to trace the beginnings of their marital troubles, saying, “once their son was born, his wife gained a great deal of confidence and her attitude and behavior underwent a vast transformation.” Slowly the small moments of martial discord become a stridency of outrages and indignities. The wife is portrayed as irascible, irrational, and prone to fits. The painter freely confesses to a multitude of affairs, some as short as one night, others that went on for years, followed with heartbreak. Yet, he never sees himself completely in the wrong: “At no point did the painter feel guilty,” we’re told. “He was doing nothing wrong, he was simply looking for some equilibrium outside of his marriage, which only functioned intermittently.”

What’s not revealed until late in the novel is that the painter’s section is being written by an amateur writer, who visits the painter regularly during his convalesce. The two friends chat, the writer types and polishes (reshapes, I often wondered) the story the painter has told, and the pages are kept in the painter’s safe. It is this manuscript—in which the painter blames his wife for all his misery and illness—that the wife finds and prompts her to pen her response.

Part Two is a first-person narrative and a rejoinder to the painter’s side of the story. Unlike the painter who never reveals his own identity, the wife proudly states her name—Amina Wakrine. In comparison to the painter, Amina doesn’t seem to shy from her flaws. Her first words sum up how she sees herself: “Before giving you my version of events, I must warn you that I am nasty.” The wife has a cold eye for herself and for others. What we learn from her more clinical approach to the story of their marriage is that the painter, whom she calls Foulane, an Arabic word used to refer to “any old guy,” is that their marriage had more complexity that he revealed. Yes, there were the infidelities, but also he withheld money from her, despite earning more than enough from his paintings. But his family—not the one he created with Amina, but his siblings—was always his first concern, and he made his wife and children live off a small allowance.

For a while we take the wife’s side of the story as truer—both her petty and principal complaints seem more sincere than the husband’s—until she begins to edge into paranoia, and rants about all the evil spells she believes the painter’s family have cast on her:

Foulane said he didn’t believe in such things, but I had proof that the women in his family were using sorcery against me… I cleaned the house from top to bottom. My friends helped me and we found little packets wrapped in tin foil all over the house, tucked under each bed and inside the toilets. The house was overrun by spells designed to make me ill.

And just like in the painter’s half, we begin to doubt her integrity. Suspicious spreads like an epidemic in this work.

The end of the novel leaves us with our own decision to make (if we care to, that is). Who’s right? Who’s wrong? In both parts, we have common statements of awareness:

While he’d never necessarily wanted his wife to one day grow docile and submissive, he had always harbored a secret hope that she would at least become loving and obliging, calm and reasonable, in short, a wife who could help him build a family life and then share it with him. It had been his dream. But he’d been misguided and he had instead oppressed his wife, forgetting to acknowledge his share of responsibility for that failure. (The Painter)

My mistake was to think people can change. None of us change, not least of which a man who’s already lived out most of his life… (The Wife)

Clearly, both narrators are flawed, and Ben Jelloun does a fine job of not betraying loyalty or agreement with one character over the other—unless you equate giving the wife the last word as consensus. In a Paris Review interview with Ben Jelloun, he says that his “job is not to give answers or to find solutions, but to ask questions, to testify in a human situation….[to] tell a story in hopes that it will incite reflection, provoke thought.” If provoking thought is his goal, I feel he’s done so. As I sit here parsing out this book, I keep coming back to the fact that I just don’t like these characters, neither one. The painter is an ass; the wife is mentally cracked. But then, why do I think these things? Why do I judge them so harshly?

The novel is keenly aware of the changing tensions between men and women in Moroccan society. Often the painter’s section reeks of chauvinism, while the wife’s section smartly leans in a more feminist direction. The infidelities and betrayals, which are damaging yet described quite rightly as “banal,” are in some ways pretense to show the changing political values. Whereas a lesser novelist might have chosen younger characters to portray this change, Ben Jelloun chooses middle-age characters, those whom perhaps would feel the change more intensely. Amina acknowledges “in our culture, a woman who cheats on her husband no longer has any rights, everyone thinks badly of her, even if she was victimized by a lying, violent husband.” Thusly, she enacts her revenge through the changed marriage laws, refusing to divorce the painter, stating:

I’ll never leave Foulane, I’ll never leave him alone. He has to assume his responsibilities. I couldn’t care less about his health, mood or state of mind. I’ll never stop hating him so long as my thirst for revenge isn’t quenched. One day I’ll rebuild my life, but not before he’s paid the price. So long as he refuses to atone for what he’d done to me, or publicly confess in front of everyone, I’ll revue to let go! I’m too proud to leave him. I’m full of hate, and if anyone were to shake me, drops of poison would inevitably fall out.

If this is a happy marriage, it’s not a sense of happiness that many will identity as such. Despite their early nuptial contentment, these are two miserable people, made so by life, ego, family, and conflicting desires and ambitions. One of the tropes that Ben Jelloun uses in the novel is montage: the painter dives deep in his memory, pulling images of the women he loved up and remembering their time together. The Happy Marriage in many ways is part of montage of unhappy marriages that I’ve seen, and perhaps you’ve seen, too. I can’t say this is a good place to start reading Ben Jelloun in English—I’d give that to The Last Friend or Leaving Tangiers. But what The Happy Marriage does do well is give us a solid portrait of two flawed individuals, and their example, one can only hope, might help to make the next marriage a happier 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.


Feb 132016


It can be said that the entire book is a working out of how a Western-educated liberal, free from acquaintance with Eastern philosophy (apparently), and bereft of much human contact, sees his world—a Man without Qualities in a novel of ideas for our time when the idea of the nation-state is being replaced by the mechanisms of a large private limited company. —Jeff Bursey


Matches: A Light Book
S.D. Chrostowska
Paper, 538 pp., $25.00


An apt place to start discussing S.D. Chrostowska’s new work is with the cover, where the representation of untapped fire in the form of matchboxes rests in our hand along with the book itself to summon forth imagery of conflagrations ignited by congregations of ignorance, inbred fright and hostility, where the State and/or citizenry burn books gleefully or, where restrained, banish them from library shelves for their views on gender issues, same-sex marriage, explicit descriptions or the use of offensive words defined as such by those eager to protect their children. The pyrotechnics continue on the copyright page—that overlooked dead leaf in most books (would that there existed a work made up solely of idiosyncratic copyright pages)—where Punctum states:

This work carries a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license, which means that you are free to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, and you may also remix, transform and build upon the material, as long as you clearly attribute the work to the authors (but not in a way that suggests the authors or punctum endorses you and your work), you do not use this work for commercial gain in any form whatsoever, and that for any remixing and transformation, you distribute your rebuild under the same license.

Anything goes, then, this book is practically a box or kit filled with gears and levers, you can make out of its contents a soapbox racer or a towering edifice to Marxism, a paean to the life of the public intellectual or a scrap with philosopher-sociologist Bruno Latour, and the book performs its own self-transubstantiation from the top line on the back cover where booksellers are aided in commodifying it by the heading “Philosophy/Essays,” like that first word will propel sales or encapsulate the pith of Matches by offering a partial truth—a fragment of the truth—of what Chrostowska has achieved, for what we have here is a multi-sided work: the unnamed narrator (hereafter referred to as N.) as a goad, as a cynic despairing of humanity’s chances, watching while the world comes to a slow and distasteful end, and occasionally winking at this or that outrageous statement. (Who’s to say that essays can’t be spoken by a persona?) The decline is presented in stages, with themes, walk-on parts for minor figures, costumes (verbal dressing of arguments), and sharp attacks (verbal dressing downs). “Before you level at me the charge of inkhorn writer, you must try to understand my reason for choosing ‘bookish words’: they remind me there used to be such things as books” (“Inkhorn”).

Nostalgia, sentiment (not sentimentality), days of golden glory long gone to rust, a cultural milieu fast disappearing, a long battle with inanition and lowering standards—what is this all for? While it contains philosophy, Matches is more an intellectual biography of a fractious mind in contact with long-standing and current crises engendered by politics and science as well as fads and paradigm shifts, sparing scant glances at the stuff of the sensory world. Real people are almost absent, and when they are encountered it’s dramatic and disturbing:

As the bus pulled into the station at the end of the line, I took a tactical position and, passing him, ran my shoulder into his—instantly realizing, however, that my puniness may have left the wrong impression (of an accident, not deliberate aggression). Fearing cowardice and loss of composure, with shame already coming on, I turned around to give him one final look with all the urgency I could muster. (“Angel of Death”)

Instead of a moment of significant impact there is an instance of insubstantiality. Wispiness of N.’s physical self, a life that does not include many descriptions of meals, surfing, broken bones, or guitars, is countered by vigorous cerebral activity. But to be as precise as N., the scene of his running into a man dressed in the regalia of a Nazi SS officer is as vaporous as this: “It is a comforting thought that the extremes of good and
evil as we knew them are a thing of the past, that in our attention-deficit economy good and evil are losing their edge, growing closer together” (“The Gulf of Inattention”). We pause to take in both the humour and the sting. Yet there’s nothing actually going on beyond the press of ink on paper; nothing has happened. Despite the acknowledged limitations of the page Matches makes clear a larger world lies beyond it. But it’s not a safe place, as N. notes: “No scaffold is too elevated for a writer’s execution. He has come into being as a public figure, and it is only fitting that he be helped to die as one” (“Literary Public Execution).


Matches has seven sections: Proem (a kind of preface), Books I-V, and Paralipomena (defined as things omitted but added as a supplement). Proem as a whole is a joy to read aloud, and here is the first paragraph:

I had a vision of a book that shed light. A torch book to light my way. A comet book, its luminous tail to leave a trace for me. Its brightness so intense that closing it submerged whoever broke it open in deeper darkness than before. I fancied a kind of sempiternal flame that shot up again as one resumed where one had left off.

Notice the small steps that lead from a personal light to an object “whoever” can use, and then the subtly implied external (and therefore potentially larger) audience of “one” that may find illumination in what’s to come. Attention to assonance and consonance in service to both the embrace of a widening audience and an abiding metaphor persists to the book’s final, slippery words: “Endings: Can be eelusory.”

The bulk of Matches contains threads of discussion, picked up and dropped as N. loses interest, on writing and books, indigenous people, the pursuit of knowledge, Utopia and what that recurrent idea says about the world we inhabit, sensitivity, art, and dreams, but these categories only hint at what resides in this book. Here are random examples:

This work of art may have been made by your neighbour, but in it he seems a stranger. (“Work of Exception”)

What, at base, is resentment, if not the need for equality clumsily expressed? (“Resentment”)

Nature seems never
 to have cared less for our micro-minded designs for self-preservation than in our present age. Twice marked, once wise, we make do in the killing fields without admitting this bleak and ageist thought. And our horrid work isn’t exactly getting any easier. But when our turn comes, let’s not flatter one another. It is nature that pulls the trigger—not in our name, no, but in its own. (“Sapiens sapiens, or Nil Admirari”)

Matches is a work that is replete with fragmentation, a literary incendiary device that changes a marathon reading to a deliberate exercise in sifting cultural rubble. “What do all these fragments have in common?” asks N. “What unites them? Or is their fragmentariness meant to point us in the direction of the titular ‘threshold’?” (“Cannonball”) That question isn’t directed inwards; it’s left to readers to discern what we can from the one-liners, the puns, the pastiches, the wry tone, and the longer considerations of this or that topic. Perhaps figuring out the narrator might help the book cohere.


What is N.’s nature? I built in my mind over the course of 450 pages the following figure: a garrulous aunt you primarily see at weddings, funerals, and festive celebrations, stationed by the food, drink in hand but not drunk, a little shorter than average, maybe known as Madge, peppery, quick-tongued, cognitively aware, and unafraid to say what came to mind, a woman wearily aware of the passing of time and the ends of things, nearer to pessimism than meliorism. In “Making Up Lives” N. says: “My biographer might write, based on my work: he was interested in X because he had experienced something like, or something of, X.” He. Everything I had concocted exploded by this pronoun. Recalibration of motivations began, but why had I led myself astray? Does gender change ideas that much? In Chrostowska’s novel Permission (2013), where a one-sided epistolary affair collects tension as to whether or not the recipient of the letters will refrain from responding, the action is made up of recollections and hypotheses, to the point where one might feel bored, until there is a sudden shift, a confession from the letter writer (Fern) that cautions the reader from making complacent assumptions. Chrostowska has executed a similarly smart move in Matches dislocating the point of view so casually and so deep in the work that I’m left questioning myself.

When N. writes about commerce, culture, and civilization, bracing his remarks with long and short quotations from this or that public intellectual, there is a reserve of anger that emerges in flashes of impatience or, more commonly, a forced resignation (or powerlessness) to accept the way things are or look to be going. Matches can be seen as protest literature, though without strikes, demonstrations or civil disobedience. Whatever action the narrator might contemplate is never more than a thought. Passion and humour are present, yet what’s most prevalent is the ambivalence and melancholy about everything from political activity to the use of aphorisms (in a book filled with them), and skeptical or dismissive of such things as “the grasping hand of Christianity in the shape of the modern capitalist state,” life coaches, and “the revolutionary power of social media.” In “Faster! Faster!” N. addresses technology: “Some say that we are modern if and when we accelerate. Such a modernity would be worth celebrating only if things were moving faster and in the right direction.” This leads him to speak on efforts to forestall climate change: “And technological acceleration as a way of outpacing nature’s decline—to save it at the other end—is something of a vicious circle. Has anyone ever succeeded in catching someone they had themselves pushed off a roof?” The Anthropocene age is embraced decisively (as is “the Age of the Troll” [“Naming Contest”]). How to not descend into an even more drastic state is, as any newspaper or newscast will show, a question left to those in power: billionaires and their factotums (so-called world leaders), corporations, and advocates of globalization.

As the entries mount N. comes across as an impotent, ineffectual, dejected liberal who, at times, sounds like a neoliberal or a conservative. The thinkers brought in to bolster a case on this or that topic—de Man, Foucault, Habermas, Nietzsche—are flawed or far removed from the public they ostensibly understand and seek to represent. N. is most withering when he invokes Marx (pilloried not long ago but Lazarus-like since the Great Recession started) in this passage from “Mutatio mundi”:

But Marx’s words cannot themselves accomplish what they call for, which is new to philosophy. They are conscious of communicating a novelty to thought. They are a call for a new totality (the world), in the making of which philosophy can—must—cannot but participate, and the enormity of the task requires marshalling the totality of philosophy, a move so revolutionary as to pull thought out of its orbit. In theology, exegesis, prayer, the task of thought exceeded its worldly limit; with modern philosophy, thought sets for itself a task at once greater than itself and within its new limits, which it projects and identifies with those of the world. The last Feuerbach thesis is furthest out in this respect, jutting out like a pier into swelling waters, its pillars firmly planted in the ocean floor. At the end of it stands the revolutionary visionary. Diverting his gaze from the dreamy horizon now back towards dry land, now down into the depths below, is the tension in his breast between the beachcomber and the pearl diver. (253-254)

In this image there is the liminal space between earth-bound reality and liquid illusions (hopes), and the visionary—the philosophical visionary only—is hesitancy incarnate. A ditherer. The poor, as N. states in “Means without End,” though willing to take some course of action, are unable to act: “After all, how can the slavishly exploited. . ., the truly solidary who willingly gave up their spare and excess means in return for the truth of struggle against ‘scarcity,’ who make ends meet in the struggle’s day to day, who instead of ‘minding the gap’ between where they are and where they’d like to be have wound up dwelling in it bodily—how can they actively prefigure a collective utopia?” The book is redolent of what might be termed negative Whiggishness—a view that everything declines, and that that is natural.

To draw such a clever image as that revolutionary on a pier—pointedly not at a barricade—is to indulge, as N. frequently does, in binary oppositions. This Manichean view of issues—in politics, criticism, social theory—requires false dilemmas and straw men. Far from being a weakness, that suits one of the narrative’s intentions, I believe: through polemics, to make us side (or not) with N.’s black-and-white positions and then catch ourselves for not considering every side. (Men of action will get on with things.) N. has a short entry that removes the option of empathy: “A soft spot for the opponent in a political debate indexes decay in one’s own position” (“Mushy Criticism”). Politics is a blood sport, but not a team one, as shown when religious imagery is used to illustrate more about the individual than about God or His people (the public is often invoked but is never a felt presence):

The simpler the life, the more pronounced its religious features. We carry the world’s expectations of us into our hermitage, priding ourselves on our private orderliness. As long as the mind does not deviate, we feel our days have been well-spent, and we have fulfilled our duty to the world: rising, the first meal, light or heavy, the first stimulant of the day. Morning ablutions, drying and dressing of the body. Choice of activity, planning out the rest of the day, exercise, a look at the budget, concluded with entertainment of some sort. We know it all well enough, take pleasure in this simple discipline, and yet when other things come to occupy our mind, these private rituals quickly lose their gravity and precision. It is still possible to be devout, as long as mind and body worship each other without interruption or intermediary.

A pleasant, unruffled, and still life sanitized of children, pets, parents and siblings, employers, neighbours, and their needs. Nowadays even the ring of a telephone is disruptive. Everything has to have a filter. No wonder social media is so pleasing.

In “Heart & Home” N. looks at this splendid isolation from another angle:

Political ignorance extends to the idea that the nation-state is just a bigger home, in which all the nation’s families live in harmony as in a communal dwelling.

The cosmopolitan, whose knowledge of political community breaks with such sentiments, rejects this Aristotelian conception of the state as home-land—as much as the idea that politics needs a fixed abode—fixed by familial-national attachment. Regardless of what he calls home, his true home is his heart—his cosmopolitan heart. And this home is his politics.

Syrian refugees? Forget about them. And there’s no wish to side with the 99% when your heart is the only residence you need. Who wants to contain multitudes these days? Isn’t selfishness more appropriate for this world than, say, a return to the demeaning German conceit of Kinder, Küche, Kirche, taken on in the last century by the English, and seemingly doing well in the Republican Party?

Narrowness of vision, attributed to the entire populace and shared, to some degree, by N., has contributed to the degradation of practically everything. Yet N. is at times blind to what is glaringly obvious, as when he writes: “Thieves need banks to deposit their stash without accounting for it. This to keep it from being stolen by others like them” (“Safety Deposits”). The 99% believe the real thieves are the banks and bankers, as N. knows, but he sits alone, diagnosing the maladies afflicting the body politic yet barely raising his own pulse through taking part in a struggle for change. He always has more words to buffer his heart, however grimly, as in this creed:

Thinking as source of certainty, and its mouth.

Thinking as the bed of certainty, and its bank.

Thinking as the cradle of certainty, and its grave. (“Three Clear Thoughts”)

There are set pieces when N. distances himself from his own thoughts, perhaps to explore alternate viewpoints in external form. In addition to quotations from Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault, Cioran, Gombrowicz, and daily papers, which allow for debates on items major and minor, there are dialogues between entities labelled A and B and A and A1. After a while you start to think of A and B as a refined Statler and Waldorf. They glide along in their speeches about what is human and what isn’t, on publishing, and nostalgia, as examples—though we are reminded by N. of “the naive embrace of the benefits of eloquence” with TED talks the epitome, for him, of the debasement of communication—and have a patter that, while occasionally showing irritation, reinforces the notion that they’ve gotten used to each other over time and enjoy their parole. Never mind the camouflage, however; this is N. thinking through subjects.

It can be said that the entire book is a working out of how a Western-educated liberal, free from acquaintance with Eastern philosophy (apparently), and bereft of much human contact, sees his world—a Man without Qualities in a novel of ideas for our time when the idea of the nation-state is being replaced by the mechanisms of a large private limited company. The comparison to Robert Musil’s work finds some underpinning in “Not Taken Lightly,” where N. writes:

. . . what better evidence that 
we are more discerning when we negate? Surely no one 
today would draw the more obvious conclusion: that there are more reasons to believe or more things to affirm than to disbelieve or disaffirm. But that won’t do. Refusal is often dangerous in going against the ruling consensus, it is courage to belief’s cowardice; it is safer and therefore easier to say yes. You don’t need much brains to say yes or no, but it takes nerve even to jangle your chains—sometimes conscious nerve. Negators expect to be held to account for their nos rather than patted and fed for their yeses. What’s more, negation is not always the result of whim or contrarian adolescence; not infrequently, it comes after thinking things over, thinking them twice (considering the risks of opposition). And expecting to be made to defend itself, it arms itself with arguments so as not to appear irresponsible. Either way you look at it, obviously a form of cognitive refinement.

N. doesn’t fight vigorously against anything, so he has chosen to put down his thoughts while attempting to fix himself in the shifting world. What started as notes has become, over time, a rough profile of his internal life. The fragments can’t be glued together, but they do suggest a lost wholeness that is impossible to reclaim in this breaking world. Has N. unwittingly shown more than he imagined?


In “‘The younger the more clear-sighted’” N. offers this opinion:

Why should we look up to the future as we do? Why should we expect it to go where we cannot lead it by example? Time will not separate the good from the bad. It will not judge better, only similarly or differently. Posterity will not know to hold in high regard what we now fail to appreciate. But we can be sure that it will look down on us—not because we deserve it, but just because it has superseded us.

Posterity contains condescension and youthfulness, and it’s not a smarter time or a safe repository for deferred respect. What does that mean when applied to Matches: A Light Book?

It must be apparent that the 538 pages that make up this book offer an abundance of streams for critics to attempt to chart and cross, choosing to pay attention to certain ones over others. (One could just as easily focus on N.’s aesthetic views as his politics, for example.) N. has many acute and, at times, severe remarks about those who write on books, and the most fitting may be this: “Critics today need to feel the writer had reason for what they did, reason to innovate, reason to be daring” (“Novel Experiments”). Is this work in need of justification? Not solely critics, of course, but any reader of Matches, now and in the future, will offer an answer to that and an interpretation if they’re open to its arguments, ready to disagree or to be persuaded, after which revelation will follow on revelation, an oecumenical group activity, as each person makes of it what he or she wants, and perhaps needs, since its fragments can be read in numerous ways, under bright and dim light shining straight on or pitched at an angle to throw up facets as the shards are handled gingerly or roughly caressed. No one can piece these entries together to form one wholly, catholic, and postulated assemblage. That’s part of its genius, to allow for and provoke debate on its essence, on the identity of N., and, since this is the way things go, what its creator meant by writing it.

A truly thorough examination of Matches: A Light Book would map all the terrain and take an unusual form: a multi-week course containing lectures, slides, video, theatre, playtime, and interactivity. S.D. Chrostowska is a writer of importance, and with this work she has raised her own personal bar, as well as challenged her countrymen to do the same.

The final words go to N.’s stand-ins where the occasional gloominess is relieved by mordant wit:

A The life of the mind is nearly extinct.
B Leave it to brains-in-vats! Leave it to the machines . . .
A You think they’ll revive it?
B But of course! We’ll transmit to them what we admire but have no more time for. (“Vita contemplativa”)

—Jeff Bursey


Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author the novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), 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

Feb 102016


Chirbes’ literary guides, the ghosts he claimed to regularly engage with, formed a personal pantheon of deceased writers that included Cervantes, Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius, Virgil, Faulkner, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz and others. It is perhaps fitting that he relied so heavily on this collection of dead authors for guidance, because as a novelist he saw the past— more specifically, history—as a necessary catalyst for the development of a literature that would allow him to “bear witness” to his time. – Joseph Schreiber


On the Edge
Rafael Chirbes
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
New Directions, January 2016
464 pages

For the Spanish writer, Rafael Chirbes, there was no room in the creative process for an aesthetic devoid of ethics. As a documentarian of his native country, from the post-war years through the transition to democracy in the 1970’s, and on into the opening decade of the 21st century, the late author offered a defiant chronicle of the point where social, economic, and political dynamics intersect with the harsh realities of the human condition. He argued that if the artistic endeavour aims to stand at that intersection, no perspective could remain neutral:

A point of view situates you somewhere, in a location where potentialities—ways of being—battle one another. When you write, or paint, as when you read or look at something, you have to be conscious of the fact that the author wants to invite you to look where he’s looking. Your mission is to protect yourself. Know that they want to seduce you.

This advice, from a brief interview segment in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction[1], should serve as fair warning before one enters into the emotional labyrinth that is Chirbes’ lauded ninth novel, On the Edge. Recently released by New Directions, in a measured yet lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, this book will serve as highly anticipated introduction for English language readers, to a writer at the height of his powers: a writer who has chosen, in this instance, to stand on the rapidly shifting ground of a country in the throes of economic collapse.

Born in 1949, in a small town in the province of Valencia, into a family with republican roots—that is, on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War—Rafael Chirbes would be influenced and shaped by the post-war environment in which he was raised and educated. When he was four years old, his father committed suicide, but not before teaching his precocious son to read. His mother, who worked as a switchman until she herself was detained by the authorities, was unable to afford to support him; so young Rafael was sent to an orphanage for the children of railway workers. His schooling would soon take him away from the Mediterranean coastal community of his birth; he spent his childhood and adolescence in the landlocked Castile region of Spain during one of the bleakest eras of the dictatorship. At the age of sixteen, he moved to Madrid to study Modern and Contemporary History. There he became involved in underground anti-Franco activities that would see him spend time in prison.

Always a voracious reader, Chirbes supported himself working in bookstores and writing literary criticism prior to heading to Morocco to teach Spanish. Returning to Europe he spent time in Paris, Barcelona, La Coruña, and Extremadura before ultimately making his way back to Valencia. He engaged in a variety of journalistic activities until 1988 when, at the age of 39, he released his first novel, Mimoun. From that point on, he would produce a series of novels that merged elements of realism and introspection with history and storytelling to fashion caustic portrayals of modern Spain.

Chirbes’ literary guides, the ghosts he claimed to regularly engage with, formed a personal pantheon of deceased writers that included Cervantes, Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius, Virgil, Faulkner, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz and others. It is perhaps fitting that he relied so heavily on this collection of dead authors for guidance, because as a novelist he saw the past— more specifically, history—as a necessary catalyst for the development of a literature that would allow him to “bear witness” to his time. And through Esteban, the anguished protagonist at the heart of On the Edge, the last of his novels to be published before his death from cancer in August of 2015, he has created a powerful testimony to the devastating personal impact of the economic crisis on his fellow countrymen. And, without preaching, he deftly sheds light on the broader currents flowing through a society plagued by concerns about poverty, violence, xenophobia, Islamophobia, human trafficking, prostitution, moral corruption, and environmental degradation.

Originally published as En la orilla in 2013, On the Edge opens with a gruesome discovery on the morning of December 26, 2010. Ahmed, a Moroccan migrant worker, presently unemployed, spends his days fishing in the marshlands outside the fictional communities of Olba and Misent where, as in other regions of the country and the continent, the economic collapse of 2008 has left its mark. Unemployment is high and climbing higher, while the detritus of the burst housing bubble can be seen along the roads lined with building projects left abandoned in various stages of conception and construction. Two dogs fighting over a piece of carrion attracts Ahmed’s attention, disturbing his quiet interlude; but when he realizes, to his horror, that the contested meat is, in fact, a human hand, he panics, making a hasty retreat lest he be wrongly connected with the scene of a possible crime. The lagoon, he knows, hides a decaying legacy of discarded goods, the spoils and evidence of all manner of legal and illegal activities.

Moving back almost two weeks in time, the majority of Chirbes’ novel will unfold over the course of a single winter day. Seventy year-old Esteban is a man at the end of his rope. Swept up in the euphoria of greed when it seemed there was no end to the burgeoning property explosion, he mortgaged all his father’s land and possessions, including the carpentry workshop and the family home above it, to enter into a partnership with Pedrós, a local developer with grand schemes—a man who has now suddenly disappeared leaving his creditors in the lurch and Esteban completely bankrupt. Forced to lay off his employees and say good-bye to Liliana, his cherished Colombian housekeeper, he is left with the thankless task of attending to his aged father’s personal care while awaiting imminent foreclosure and the loss of absolutely everything.

On the crisp, clear day in question, Esteban leaves his father secured to a chair in front of the TV, and heads out to the marshlands with his dog. As he makes his way through the reeds, along wet, obscured trails, ripe with the pervasive smell of rot and decomposition, he engages in a long and convoluted series of melancholic soliloquies. He recalls his Uncle Ramón, his father’s younger brother, who taught him to hunt and fish, made him toys and was more of a true father figure than the cold, gruff man, now aged and decrepit, presently tied to into an armchair at home. The blunt lessons about life and death that Ramón passed on to his young nephew on their hunting and fishing expeditions to the marshes will haunt Esteban’s own reasoning to the very end:

[T]he fisherman who fails to choose the right bait does so because he doesn’t know how fish think, and a fisherman or a hunter has to become the thing he’s hunting, the real fisherman falls in love with his victim: he’s hunting himself. Hold the hook like this, no, we’re not going to use the dough we normally use for bait, today we’ll use this stuff. Smell it. Disgusting, isn’t it? What a stink! Well, fish love that smell. And so do crabs. Everything rots. We’ll end up rotting as well and we’ll smell quite a lot worse. Many years from now, you’ll rot too—and it’s that rotten smell that the fish like. When you get older, you’ll realize that they’re like humans in that respect. Don’t go thinking you’re not going to end up smelling like a dead fish, Esteban.

Some sixty years on from these marshland lessons, Esteban is, as he combs the area—the lagoon, the canals, and the muddy pathways—closer to being both hunter and his own prey than he has ever been.

Another ghost that inhabits his retrospective musings is Leonor, his first love; the woman for whom he had returned to the town of his birth after a brief attempt to flee. She would soon abandon him, in effect condemning him to a lonely life of sawdust and wood glue, beside his father in the family carpentry workshop while she headed off to Europe to marry his best friend, Francisco—a man who did manage to escape and would, for decades, lead a life of glamour and prestige, before returning, after Leonor’s death, to assume an existence of cultured semi-seclusion in the finest house in town.

Lack of ambition, environmental factors—I used to think: I am the owner of my own deficiencies. The only thing I own is what I lack, what I cannot reach, what I’ve lost, that’s what I have, what is actually mine, the empty vacuum that is me. I have what I don’t have. And I felt infinitely sorry for myself, filled with a bitterness that sometimes verged on hatred of her, a false hatred (no, I don’t think I ever hated her, I still felt aroused whenever I saw her, I desired her, yes, I desired her right up until the end, she was the only woman for me), and a false hatred of Francisco which extended to my father (and did I really hate him, do I still hate him?), or vice versa: love in absentia. They were two sides of the same coin—on one side, what seemed to me unattainable and, on the other, what was denied to me: Francisco showing me what could have been, and my father showing me the depths of the nothingness that had become my sole property.

Chirbes allows his protagonist ample space for extended, rambling rants and remembrances—long sentences unwind in single paragraphs that stretch on for pages—peppered with asides, often directed at his father, who is silent, or to Liliana, from whom he imagines and integrates affectionate responses. Rhythms of resentment, nostalgia, and regret play out against each other, driving Esteban’s restless inner monologues forward as he catalogues and re-catalogues his history of failures and betrayals. Repetitiveness often arises, one part perseveration, one part forgetfulness; balanced by a healthy measure of witty observation and philosophical musings. In spite of himself, Esteban is a captivating narrator.

He is however, no less a complicated, conflicted and paranoid human being. Over the course of more than 400 pages we spend so much time inside his ruminations that it can be tempting, as Chirbes himself might warn us, to only see what our protagonist is choosing to see. And this is where On the Edge is so much more than the claustrophobic internalized ravings of one isolated man. No social situation is ever that simple. And the stage on which Esteban stands, in fact where he is planning to orchestrate and perform his own denouement, is inextricably bound to, and echoes, the whirlpool of rapidly declining economic circumstances around him.

So, other voices are invited to contribute. First there is a recurring Greek chorus of sorts, mediated by Esteban, mind you, who take turns speculating on the present state of social and economic affairs (Where could Pedrós have disappeared to?) over nightly card games at the local bar. These are, for the most part, Esteban’s peers—old friends—each carrying their own baggage, secrets and culpabilities. Yet, are their pasts really as shady as our guilt ridden and suspicious narrator imagines?

Then there are the recurring passages where otherwise silent supporting characters are granted an opportunity to step up and own the stage for a moment. Background stories briefly surface. We hear from disgruntled former employees of the carpentry shop, or their beleaguered spouses; their lonely, frustrated, and weary accounts cut through Esteban’s monologue. His father even speaks from the past through reflections recorded on the pages of an old calendar, and, eventually, his precious Liliana is allowed to offer her own brutal perspective. But perhaps even more revealing is the fact that some of the most important players—Ramón, Francisco and Leonor—essentially remain silent, known primarily through our protagonist’s memories and perceptions.

Esteban’s small corner of Spain, the one in which he finds himself in late middle age, belongs to the ordinary man, the small town resident—running a business on the bright or shady side of the law, or perhaps both. One imagines that it would have been almost impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of economic promise; an excitement that might have sounded more loudly for a the citizens of a nation that had come, relatively speaking, late to democracy. Here our narrator stands divided between his resentment of his father’s stubborn adherence to the socialist values that restricted his expansion of the carpentry business; and his bitter envy of Francisco, the son of a family with a dark fascist past, who fled Olba to ride the coattails of a world enamoured with the pleasures of fine wine and dining (with a line of coke and a beautiful escort on the side, of course). But as he nurses his regrets and calculates the sum of the injustices life has dealt him, Esteban’s strongest emotion is one of resignation to his fate, the one last thing over which he can exercise any control.

In her Afterward, Valerie Miles describes On the Edge as a “poetic spasm, an epic of the garbage dump written by a witness who breaks the underclass’ legacy of silence during a crisis that is not merely economic, but social and acutely moral.” The setting reinforces this reality most vividly: the fetid, polluted marshes, with the blue glint of the sea shining in the distance. Here the solidity of the ground can be dangerously deceptive and even the beautiful blooms betray their origins in their scent. Chirbes’ Mediterranean is no romantic playground—it is harsh, unforgiving, and unforgettable—like the monumental novel that he anchors in this desolate wasteland.

– 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.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Valerie Miles, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction (Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books, 2014), electronic edition.
Feb 072016

diane-williamsAuthor portrait by bill hayward.

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.