Jul 132017

Her new short story collection, I Am the Brother of XX, serves to showcase her exceptional ability to create an atmosphere of brittle, gothic claustrophobia with a contained, simmering intimation of violence that, on occasion, rises to the surface. And the three brief biographical essays that comprise These Possible Lives are a delight. — Joseph Schreiber

I Am the Brother of XX
Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Gini Alhadeff
New Directions
128 pages; $14.95

These Possible Lives
Fleur Jaggy
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor
New Directions
64 pages; $12.95

One might argue that Fleur Jaeggy does not write so much as channel language, allowing her words to form imaginary spaces that exist on an altered plane of experience. To read her is to inhabit, for a moment, that space—one that exists in the shadows, one that contains, to borrow an expression from one of her earlier stories, a certain “sacred inertia.” [1] You can almost feel it. There is an unmistakable current of brisk, melancholic foreboding that courses beneath the surface of her prose. The chill can make you shudder, the stark beauty of her terse sentences catch your breath. Atmospheric. Disconcerting. And strangely alluring. It is a rare author who manages to sustain an emotionally intense voice that is at once distinct, abstracted, and tightly restrained. However, anyone who has fallen under the spell of Jaeggy’s fiction will know its undefinable appeal.

Of Italian-speaking Swiss heritage, Jaeggy was born in Zurich in 1940. Raised and educated in Switzerland, she moved to Rome when her studies were complete. There she met Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann. The latter would become an especially close friend. In 1968, she relocated to Milan to work with the famed publishing house, Adelphi Edizioni. She married writer and publisher Roberto Calasso, and established a reputation as a novelist and translator over the following years. But it was her masterful fourth novel, I beati anni del castigo (1989), translated as Sweet Days of Discipline (Tim Parks, 1991), that introduced her to an English speaking audience. Exquisitely spare, this subtly disturbing tale of obsession set in a boarding school in the Swiss Alps, examines themes that continue to resurface in her work: familial dysfunction, emotional detachment, and a preternatural obsession with sadness or, as her narrator so poignantly puts it, the “pleasure of disappointment.”

Subsequent publications, a collection of dark gothic fable-like stories, La paura del cielo (1994) and the autobiographical novel, Proleterka (2001) found their way into English translation as Last Vanities (Tim Parks, 1998) and SS Proleterka (Alistair McEwen, 2003) respectively, but to date, her earlier works remain untranslated. Consequently, the announcement that two new, relatively recent (2015), releases—I Am the Brother of XX, a collection of short stories, and These Possible Lives, a set of three tightly abbreviated literary biographical essays—would be forthcoming from New Directions was received with anticipation and a revived interest in this notoriously elusive author. For the attentive reader, one of the greatest rewards of this renewed attention, is the publication of a rare English language interview in the Summer 2017 issue of TANK Magazine.

Jaeggy is a reserved and reluctant interviewee, but her modest responses are simultaneously generous and mysterious. She is clearly uncomfortable talking about her craft, unwilling perhaps to even acknowledge her role in the creative process as more than a passive one. She describes her precious manual typewriter—a swamp green Hermes—as the generative source of the letters and words that appear on the page. “I believe you can almost write without me,” she says. “Once I have finished a book, it doesn’t count any more; I don’t want anything to do with it any more.” As to the works she keeps close at hand, she admits to reading little new literature. Beyond a fondness for W.G. Sebald and, of course, her friend Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina, her reading tends to the mystical:

. . .Francis of Assisi and Angela di Foligno, who was born in 1248 in Tuscany and left everything behind. The saints are truly wonderful writers. But more than anyone else I read Meister Eckhart. I almost know him by heart. He is always close to my Hermes. One should read pretty much everything by him. He was for renunciation.

This admission, if surprising given the dark undertones of so much of Jaeggy’s writing, goes a long way towards explaining the eerie, intangible and otherworldly beauty of her work.

Her new short story collection, I Am the Brother of XX, serves to showcase her exceptional ability to create an atmosphere of brittle, gothic claustrophobia with a contained, simmering intimation of violence that, on occasion, rises to the surface. With twenty-one stories in 128 pages, some of the pieces are no more than two or three pages long—exercises in tightly condensed sentiment. There are, however, a number of tales that have a more reflective, nostalgic, and personal tone. Some of these even feature appearances from real-life friends and acquaintances like Ingeborg Bachmann, Joseph Brodsky, Italo Calvino, and Oliver Sacks. The translation by Gini Alhadeff, captures well the crisp poetry of her prose.

The title story, easily one of the stand-out pieces, is a finely executed exploration of a territory Jaeggy visits frequently—the uncanny landscape of dysfunctional family dynamics. The narrator, a melancholic young man, obsesses about the strange nature of his relationship with his older sister, whom he refers to as XX. He is convinced that she has long been spying on him, determined to write his future and ultimately, write him out of his own life. With a pensive, melodramatic spirit, fueled, in part, by his mother’s early regimen of dosing her children with sleeping pills, the narrator’s distrust of his sister’s intent grows, especially after their mother dies and she makes his future her concern:

She, my sister XX, leaves the room. And I am alone with my books, the desk, and I find myself, the brother of the voice that has just spoken, having a great urge to hang myself somewhere. Coming to my own aid, I think again of solitude, of the solitude that surrounds my existence. And that thought, always so lugubrious, distressing, now, after the importance of succeeding in life, becomes almost light. Words have a weight. Importance is weightier than solitude. Though I know that solitude is harsher. But the importance of succeeding in life is a noose. It’s nothing but a noose.

So articulate and careful in his account, it is impossible to tell if his paranoia is justified, or part of a deeply imbedded neurosis, and if his gradual unravelling is allegorical or real. Either way, in this story, as in much of Jaeggy’s fiction, her characters often demonstrate an emotional detachment and indifference to pain, in themselves or others, that makes them strangely tragic and engaging. It is not unlike catching a sideways glimpse of oneself in a darkened mirror.

“The Visitor,” another particularly impressive, beautifully rendered piece, is a fantastical little tale featuring one of her favourite mystics, Angela di Foligno. On an undated day, Angela, patron saint of those afflicted by sexual temptation, makes an appearance at the Archaeological Museum of Naples. As she passes through the halls, the inanimate inhabitants quiver and come to life, slipping off their pedestals and emerging from the surface of the frescoes.

The Nymphs step out of their representations, step down from the painted garden decorating the wall. The wall closes in on itself like a sepulchre. They are nearly all minute, damp, rapacious. They are still cloaked—Angela knows this—in a somber voluptuousness and a wild inebriation with which she identifies. The Nymphs give the impression that they listen to dreams. Not entirely awake, like those returning from an apparent death, they blindly contemplated the halls of the museum, without daring to move. The light wounded them. A pallid terror flutters across their eyelids. There is silence. Only the sound of shards falling was heard, colored shards, as they have left their mooring. A silence of dust.

Released, the Nymphs panic, desperate to return to the security of mindless existence in painted terra-cotta. The drama of their brief taste of freedom and desired renunciation returns them to a state of dark happiness as the museum resumes its formerly static existence.

Short story collections can present particular challenges. It can be difficult to maintain a consistent level of quality while avoiding a sameness that blurs the distinction between the stories. The twenty-one pieces here cover a range of styles, and although definite themes recur, Jaeggy’s inimitable style is such that there are bound to be passages that redeem even the weakest offerings. But it must be said that a few of the pieces do feel more like writing exercises than finished works, even for a writer who is well known for her suspended imagery and willingness to leave much unsaid. By contrast, the few more conventional gothic horror stories—“Agnes,” “The Heir,” and “The Aviary”—also seem slightly less satisfying because they are a little too neat, the protagonists too obviously sociopathological. The language and mood is still classic Jaeggy (“A modest gray afternoon. Vitreous.”), but it could be argued that there is something more unsettling when her characters’ neuroses are less clearly defined, more ambivalent, a little closer to home.

Entirely different in scale and intent, the three brief biographical essays that comprise These Possible Lives are a delight. Here she enters into the worlds of three writers she has either translated or written about—Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob—to create ultra-compressed, finely detailed portraits that capture the essentials of their lives, and the details of their deaths, from her own unique vantage point. Her prose, translated here by Minna Zallman Proctor, is precise and poetic, but with a hyper-focused, intentional quality that is less apparent in her fictional works. Like hand-painted miniatures, she pays attention to the appearance and style of each of her subjects, while filling in the background with curious diversions that allow for an intensely personal, unforgettable encounter.

With each of her subjects, Jaeggy’s concern is with choice elements of life experience—background, education, inspiration, adventure—as forces driving their creative energy, rather than with the works they produced. One might say that she imagines each writer as a character in his own life and death, to craft an essay that assumes a space somewhere between biography and literary folk legend. Her intention is to glance into their hearts. With Thomas De Quincey she introduces him as an imaginative, visionary child, follows him through his early experiments with laudanum, diverting her attention briefly to catalogue his literary contemporaries’ obsessions with the quality of their dreams, and then proceeds to chronicle his growing eccentricity and eventual descent (or ascent?) to a state of madness:

He was sometimes overcome with sleepiness in his studio and dropped, pulling the candles down with him. Ash reliefs adorned his manuscripts. When the flames got too high he’d run to block the door, afraid someone would burst in and throw water on his papers. He put out fires with his robe, or the rug—a thin cleric wrapped words in smoke, chains, links, captivity, bondage. When invited to dinner, he promised attendance, holding forth on the subject of the enchantments of punctuality. At the appointed time, however, he was elsewhere. Perhaps he was studying pages piled up like bales of hay in one of the many shelters that he never remembered having rented. Paper storage, fragments of delirium eaten away by dust.

The John Keats essay begins with a reflection on the barbaric nature of the children’s toys popular in the early years of the nineteenth century and ends with an extended account of the young poet’s tragically romantic death. This is the longest piece, while the shortest is a brilliant, dizzying distillation of the impressive lineage, unconventional life and exotic adventures of Marcel Schwob. Remarkably, each one of these perfect little portraits leaves one eager to explore further the writer’s life and work. And that is quite an accomplishment for a book that is only 64 pages long. But then, this is the meticulous magic one comes to expect from Fleur Jaeggy.

— Joseph Schreiber


Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He is an editor at The Scofield. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and Literary Hub. He tweets @roughghosts


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Fleur Jaeggy, “The Wife,” in Last Vanities, trans. Tim Parks (New York: New Directions, 1998), 24
May 022017

Michael Carson



“An artist always incites insurrections among things,” says the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “The Structure of Fiction.” This is a grand claim. It makes art seem like the exception to everything else in experience—the things. I can’t speak for all aspiring writers, but I imagine this is what draws many would-be writers to literature in the first place: the impression that art is exceptional in its relationship to experience, that literature, unlike every other endeavor, allows the writer to shake things up, to rescue the magical from the mundane. So how do we make Shklovsky’s declaration less abstract? How do beginning writers—and here I very much include myself—accomplish this radical transformation and shake up the world around them to the point of insurrection?

Simply put: Artists shake things up through conflict and the primary vehicle of conflict is plot. While at first glance this response might seem reductionist or even crude when speaking of something exceptional like art, it is actually crude and reductionist for beginning writers to ignore what is in some respects the most difficult aspect of craft. A writer can do little with his or her brilliant ideas, characters, sentences or settings (much less start an insurrection) unless they appreciate what plot is and how effective stories require plotting.

Douglas Glover’s essay “How to Write a Short Story,” in his Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing, describes a short story as a “narrative involving a conflict between two poles (A vs B).” This conflict, he argues, “needs to develop through a series of actions in which A and B get together again and again and again.” He describes this conflict as “a desire-resistance pattern.” A character desires something and another character resists (sometimes this can take place internally too, within a single character). According to Glover, this “central conflict is embodied once, and again and again, such that in the successive revisitings we are drawn deeper into the soul or moral structure of the story.” These articulations give a story “a rhythmic surging quality,” and they make possible the aesthetic space for the writer to “go deeper into the moral and spiritual implications of the conflict.”

This essay examines how three canonical writers—Flannery O’Connor, William Trevor, and John Cheever—arrange a conflict between two poles to systematically draw the reader deeper into the “soul or moral structure of the story.” Through the course of the essay, we will see that even though each selected story possesses a unique conflict and writing style, all three possess congruent desire-resistance patterns, and each of these patterns provides its artist the aesthetic space necessary to incite insurrection.


Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf” begins when a bull wakes up Mrs. May. The next morning Mrs. May enlists the help of Mr. Greenleaf, her farm foreman, to remove the bull from her property. She finds out from her sons, Wesley and Scofield May, that the bull is actually the property of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf. She lets Mr. Greenleaf know this and reminds him of her order to get rid of the bull. She goes to the property of O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf to let them know their bull is on her property. She cannot find them and tells the boys’ foreman to give them a note telling them about the bull. Back at her farm, Mrs. May’s boys mock her. She cries. The boys fight each other, upending the kitchen table. Mr. Greenleaf appears at the door, asks if everything is alright, and Mrs. May reminds Mr. Greenleaf to get rid of the bull. The bull returns to her window that night. The next morning, Mrs. May orders Mr. Greenleaf to get into her car. They drive to the pasture and Mr. Greenleaf leaves the car to kill the bull. He and the bull disappear into the forest. Mrs. May follows him into the pasture and then gets out of the car to wait. She falls asleep on the hood of her car. She wakes up to the sight of the bull charging at her. The bull gores her. Mr. Greenleaf appears and shoots the bull in the eye four times.

Flannery O’Connor

“Greenleaf” is a 9,500 word story related in the close third person. O’Connor divides the text into three sections, the first relatively short and the next two very long. Unlike the other authors we will look at, O’Connor’s section breaks do not denote a jump forward in time, or, more precisely, there is no chronological pattern to her section breaks: she has no problem jumping forward in time—like say to the next morning—within a section as well as between them. This is all to say the logic of the section breaks is different in O’Connor. The first short section details her first confrontation with the bull. Only in the second section does she confront Mr. Greenleaf and begin the desire-resistance pattern in earnest. Mrs. May wants the bull off her property and Greenleaf does not want to remove the bull from the property. He resists her desire through the second section. In the third section she takes active measures to remove the bull herself (but, interestingly, not actually do the work herself), first by going to O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf’s property and then by picking Mr. Greenleaf up in her car and forcing him to go the pasture with her.

O’Connor delays the actual conflict—the literal back and forth between antagonist and protagonist—until the second section. And yet O’Connor definitively establishes the conflict’s parameters through both backfill and the conditional tense. After being woken up by the bull, Mrs. May reflects on how for “fifteen years” she “has been having shiftless people’s hogs root up her oats, their mules wallow on her lawn, their scrub bulls breed her cows.” She blames Mr. Greenleaf, her foreman, for this ongoing oppression, and then imagines what would happen if she went to wake Mr. Greenleaf up just then and what he might say. “If hit were my boys,” says the imagined Mr. Greenleaf, “they would never have allowed their maw to go after hired help in the middle of the night.” This not only helps frame the conflict but marks the first iteration of a curious form of “recycling” where Mrs. May imagines the desire-resistance pattern and the different ways she might end it by telling Mr. Greenleaf what she really thinks of his wife (an eccentric religious enthusiast).

After this two-page section—again, much shorter than the other two sections—O’Connor places her two characters in the same room, establishing and clearly delineating the desire-resistance pattern: “The next morning as soon as Mr. Greenleaf came to the back door, she told him there was a stray bull on the place and that she wanted him penned up at once.” Mr. Greenleaf immediately begins his resistance, which takes a shape of a denial that there is any kind of conflict at all: “Done already been here three days.” Much of the story’s comedy derives from this passive–aggressive (or, in Mrs. May’s eyes, just plain aggressive) refusal by Mr. Greenleaf to admit to a problem. The scene’s internal calculus plays with this too, as Mr. Greenleaf, standing on her back porch, speculates, “He must be somebody’s bull,” rather than answer her questions. The reader also waits for Mr. Greenleaf to simply admit there is a problem.

The scene moves inside to an “off-angle” interaction, this time between Mrs. May and her two sons, each boy uniquely horrible. They are, in a sense, active manifestations of Mr. Greenleaf’s reproof, his resistance, which boils down to the fact that no matter how lazy or troublesome he might be, at least he’s not as bad as her two sons. Inside the house, they threaten to marry a woman like Mrs. Greenleaf when Mrs. May dies and gleefully let her know that the bull is actually the property of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons. This is a long careful delay—note that the Russian formalist writer Shklovsky considers digression the essential component of narrative art—with much backfill on how Mr. Greenleaf was hired and a fleshing out of the two worthless sons, but the scene ultimately returns back to Mr. Greenleaf outside the house (never in the house) and Mrs. May ordering Mr. Greenleaf to put the bull “where he can’t bust out.” Mr. Greenleaf resists, comically, given the desire-resistance pattern, stating the obvious—“he likes to bust loose”—not answering, and not clearly saying whether or not he will follow her order.

At this point of the story the conflict and plot has consisted of the single—if prolonged and disjointed—interaction, this resistance on Mr. Greenleaf’s part to admit there is a problem with the bull or do anything about the problem. The first battle is undecided thanks to Mr. Greenleaf’s refusal to admit a conflict. Given the amount of characters involved—Mr. Greenleaf, Mrs. May, the two pairs of sons, and Mr. Greenleaf’s wife—a less experienced reader might get distracted here by not only the characters, but also the pervasive and pronounced symbolism. Does the derelict bull represent faltering class hierarchies in the post-World War II United States’ South? Is the bull emblematic of Mrs. May’s denial of Christ, her faux-Christianity and unacknowledged hubris? Why did O’Connor create doubles of the antagonist—the successful Greenleaf sons—in her own unsuccessful sons? Yet all of these questions should be put aside: they are reformulations of the basic conflict between Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf over the literal fate of the bull. The conflict is the story. It is dangerous to mistake ancillary material and symbolic implications for the backbone plot (though these too are crucial); if we do, we risk missing the central narrative importance of the interactions between Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf.

Thus we should take Mrs. May’s movement in the second scene, her journey over to the modern farm of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, as a plot-step variation, a delay and reformulation of the actual conflict between Mr. Greenleaf and Mrs. May (Douglas Glover calls this movement a “stepping out,” a delay in an event by creating steps within the event). That the Greenleaf boys are not home (we never meet them in the story) frustrates again Mrs. May’s desire to get rid of the bull; yet only when she returns to her own house, and after getting in another fight with her own boys, does Mr. Greenleaf appear on her back porch. What follows is the second tangible iteration of the conflict—remember that these plots almost always come in threes—and Mrs. May orders Mr. Greenleaf again to get rid of the bull, this time threatening to shoot the bull, upping the ante really and signaling conflict-driven change and development in Mrs. May’s character. Mr. Greenleaf resists first by pushing the climax off, “Tomorrow I’ll drive him home for you,” and, when she shuts that down by repeating her order, through silence (this seems to be the go-to resistance reformulation in the modern short story: all three authors examined in this paper resist through silence in the second iteration of their respective desire-resistance pattern).

Mr. Greenleaf only breaks this silence not by discussing the bull, but by interrupting Mrs. May’s self-pity “quick as a striking snake” (a favorite O’Connor simile) to point out that she has two boys to do what she is asking him to do (again, the unstated assumption that Mrs. May can’t get rid of the bull herself, or without the help of a man, allows for the basic conflict and forces the reader to wonder if there is a sexual element to this conflict). The scene moves again to her bedroom and the nighttime and the bull munching away just outside the window. There is no line break here like the line break after the last nighttime interaction with the bull. This would possibly imply that O’Connor sees this entire scene, from the movement to the boy’s house to the next morning and the climatic confrontation with the bull, as one dramatic unit. The next morning Mrs. May arrives at Mr. Greenleaf’s house, “expressionless,” ordering him to “go get your gun.” Mr. Greenleaf reluctantly retrieves the gun and Mrs. May smiles at the thought that he would like “to shoot” her “instead of that bull.”

The third and final instance of the conflict, the climax, takes place in a secluded environment; the protagonist and antagonist are alone in a new story setting where the antagonist forces the desire to its conclusion. The bull must die. Mr. Greenleaf, characteristically, avoids the problem and runs the bull off into the woods. Determined to make this the climax of their long-running fifteen-year war, Mrs. May exits the car and waits on the hood. She falls asleep (again—she sleeps a lot in this story) and with the sleep comes the impression of a sun like a bullet bearing down on her head (the third instance of this image in the story). Also in these final moments we have more speculation from Mrs. May where she imagines the climax and resolution turning out differently, with Mr. Greenleaf gored by the bull and her being sued by Greenleaf’s sons. She calls this “the perfect ending.”

It is not in fact the “perfect ending.” It is the perfect ending for Mrs. May, who sees her entire life as one perceived injustice after another, an endless series of insults against her, her race, her class and her work ethic. The actual perfect ending, the ending necessitated by the story O’Connor constructed, immediately follows the imagined ending: the bull crosses the pasture toward her ‘in a slow gallop” and “buries his head in her lap” like “a wild tormented lover” (a deft reformulation and return the “uncouth country suitor” outside her window in the story’s first pages, and the ongoing “courtship” between her and Mr. Greenleaf). “Here he is, Mr. Greenleaf!” she shouts just before the goring, remaining “perfectly still, not in fright, but in freezing unbelief.” Her unbelief dooms her in a literal sense—I can’t help but feel this a joke from the Catholic O’Connor here—but the conflict has already been settled earlier, when Mr. Greenleaf runs the bull into the woods (the sight of Mr. Greenleaf’s wife’s ecstatic religious rituals).

What always fascinates me about this story’s ending is the way Mrs. May’s literal perception is changed by the bull’s horns. The horns lift her up and she continues to stare “straight ahead” but “the entire scene in front of her changed”; the tree line becomes “a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky,” and Mrs. May has the look of “someone whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the sight unbearable.” She then, from this upside down position, and even though she doesn’t face Mr. Greenleaf, watches Mr. Greenleaf approach with the gun, “outside of some invisible circle, the tree line gaping behind him and nothing under his feet.” This marks a return to Mr. Greenleaf’s earlier trait, his sullen-shy tendency to create an invisible circle around those to whom he speaks. (Also fascinating is Mrs. May’s imagined switch to Mr. Greenleaf’s point of view in this ending where he witnesses her “whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear.”)

Sometimes when reading O’Connor I feel overwhelmed by the “on-the-nose” nature of her symbolism and thematic pretensions. This bull must then be another moment of that “grace” peculiar to the Catholic imagination, right? The scenario seems to have all the subtlety of a symbol for Truth or Unresolved Issues running up and attacking the protagonist (which is exactly what happens). But this reading willfully and lazily misses the carefully detailed desire-conflict resistance pattern that makes up the actual story. In a book review of William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo, O’Connor herself defines “genuine tragedy and comedy” as the place where “the definite is explored to its extremity and man is shown to be the limited creature he is, and it is at this point of greatest penetration of the limited that the artist finds insight.”

The key word here is “definite,” and with the definite comes a refusal to let one habit of perception—or urge to reduce the story to one meaning or another—dominate the other levels, levels of structure and craft O’Connor worked very hard to make definite; it is to ignore the desire-resistance pattern that actually frames the story and makes it a story at all. Though new writers often claim to resist detailing the specifics of plot out of a fear of unfairly “reducing” the story to the banal and everyday, the temptation to reduce a story to a certain reading or moral is actually strongest when we dismiss the importance of craft in the articulation of a writer’s vision. In other words, the awful vision of grace in “Greenleaf” is created not by the fact that O’Connor set out to write about the awe-filled vision of grace but because she found an interesting desire-resistance pattern and followed this desire gracefully through to its awful conclusion.


William Trevor’s “Teddy-bears’ Picnic” begins with an argument between a newlywed couple, Edwin and Deborah Chalm. Edwin, a stockbroker, does not want to go to a Teddy-bears’ Picnic, a get-together Deborah and her childhood friends attend every few years at the home and gardens of an elderly couple, the Ainley-Foxletons. Due to planning the Teddy-bears’ Picnic, Deborah forgets to cook Edwin dinner. Deborah attempts to make dinner. They argue more. Edwin drinks excessively. Edwin apologizes the next morning. They drive out from London to Deborah’s childhood neighborhood on a Friday, spend Saturday with Deborah’s parents, and attend the picnic at the Ainley-Foxletons’ on Sunday. At the picnic, after Deborah thanks Edwin for attending, Edwin excuses himself from the garden picnic to go to the bathroom. He drinks excessively in the house. He remembers a time from his youth when he made a spectacle of himself at a party. He goes outside and pushes Mr. Ainley-Foxleton over the edge of the lawn and the old man cracks his head on a sundial. Edwin returns to the picnic. Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton discovers her husband’s body. Edwin leads the picnickers over to the corpse, declares Mr. Ainley-Foxleton dead, and takes charge of the proceedings.

William Trevor book cover image

“Teddy-bears’ Picnic” is about 9,000 words long and told through the close third person, switching from the consciousness of Edwin to Deborah and then back to Edwin again, with occasional rare moments of non-POV-dependent authorial summary. There are five sections to the story, each divided into substantial chunks of backfill and dialogue. Trevor’s “Picnic” features a protagonist who resists the action of the antagonist. But here it is Edwin, the husband, who resists his wife Deborah’s desire to go the Teddy-bears’ Picnic. The story’s first section, the longest, initiates this confrontation; the second provides backfill on the couple’s relationship and a short dialogue confrontation; the third, the shortest, escalates the conflict between the couple (if in a somewhat indirect way); the fourth consists of an extended memory/backfill from Edwin and the climatic action; the final scene provides aftermath by detailing the consequences of the already settled desire-resistance pattern.

Trevor registers Edward’s resistance to his wife’s desire to go to the Teddy-bear Picnic in the story’s very first line: “I simply don’t believe it,” Edwin asks, “grown-up people?” She tries to explain the Teddy-bears’ Picnic tradition, to continue to push her desire, in a way that hints at the fundamental miscommunication between the two personalities, which will surface again and again in the story. “Well,” she says, “grown-up now, darling. We weren’t always grown up.” This disconnect between Edwin’s understanding of maturity and his wife’s frames the desire-resistance pattern. Edwin’s next response—“I’ll absolutely tell you this. I’m not attending this thing”—makes obvious Edwin’s violent resistance to what Deborah sees as a perfectly harmless desire.

Through the course of the apartment scene—snippets of dialogue followed by a paragraph or two of summary, both of the principles drinking more and more—the desire-resistance pattern surfaces again and again. Deborah cannot understand why her husband would refuse to have “a bit of fun” while Edwin cannot understand how mature adults could “call sitting down with teddy-bears a bit of fun.” The idea of maturity pops up again and again, expertly “loaded”—to reference another Douglas Glover analytical term—through significant history, juxtaposition and word splintering, but the reader does not lose sight of the plot due to the recursive dialogue exchanges, all of which circle around whether or not they will go to the Teddy-bear’s Picnic. The scene ends with a silent truce. We are told that the next morning Edwin apologized, the implication being the first round of combat has gone to Deborah rather than Edwin.

In the next scene, Trevor’s continues his deft POV switches, showing, somewhat comically, how one side does not see this conflict as a big deal while the other views sitting down with teddy-bears as an existential insult. Because Deborah finds “the consideration of the past pleasanter than speculation about the future,” she spends much of the scene providing relationship backfill and seeing “little significance” in their quarrel over the picnic. Edwin, for his part, thinks about the future, his persistent anger, and how he can give the marriage “a chance to settle into a shape that suited it.” Yet only at the end of the scene, on the way to the weekend getaway—and in yet another admirably concise dialogue exchange—does Trevor push the conflict to the surface again. Deborah interrupts Edwin’s story about the stock exchange to tell him the story of Jeremy’s “Poor Pooh,” her adult male friend’s teddy-bear. Edwin “didn’t say anything.”

This silence constitutes the second movement in the conflict. Edwin’s passive resistance, his stony agreement to attend yet not substantively interact with others at the Picnic (a sort of adult pout really), colors both the second scene and the third. It persists through his arrival at the elderly couple’s house and as they sit down for the Teddy-bears’ Picnic. Edwin drinks heavily through this scene and privately rejoices that he “smelt like a distillery” during his introduction to the elderly Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton. He internally mocks the ridiculousness and ugliness of all of Deborah’s friends. He only breaks this silence at the end of the third scene, when he tells Deborah, he has “to go to the lav,” after Deborah whispers, “thank you.” (Interestingly Edwin makes no comment about and does not seem to have an opinion of the elderly Ainley-Foxleton, who will ultimately bear the brunt of Edwin’s rage.)

Edwin’s interpretation of his wife’s thank you is of course couched within his understanding of the desire-resistance pattern, which is to say Deborah sees Edwin’s attendance as a nice gesture, a moment of loving appreciation and give-and-take between understanding spouses, while he takes her words for a sinister reminder of his earlier humiliation. It also provides for the movement toward the third stage of the desire-resistance plan and the story’s climax; Edwin has in a very literal sense left the Teddy-bears’ picnic. It does not matter that he is just going to the bathroom and that this would seem a perfectly natural thing to do; within the framework of the short story this movement constitutes a definitive and provocative action, yet another resistance on Edwin’s part, and the necessary plot step that brings about the third, climatic confrontation.

After an extended reverie on Edwin’s part, where he drinks the Ainsley-Foxton’s whiskey and reflects on a time in his youth when boredom, anger, and a need to come out on top pushed him to ruin a perfectly pleasant garden party—“within minutes it had become his day”—Edwin goes out to the lawn and tells Mr. Ainsley-Foxton that he sees fungus on the lawn below the rockery. He then murders Mr. Ainsley-Foxton. Deborah is not present in this scene but Edwin’s action cannot be interpreted as anything other than a violent resistance to her original desire. They are still within the same “room”—the sentimental and, to quote Edwin, “gooey,” world of the Ainsley-Foxton’s, Teddy-bears, and Deborah’s childhood (and, by implication, perpetual childhood, the antithesis of Edwin’s stockbroker “manliness”). Whatever the aftermath’s specifics, the consequences, the Teddy-bear Picnic will come to an end and no one will ever again—at least within Deborah’s circle of friends—be attending any Teddy-bears’ Picnics.

Trevor’s final section details the moments following the violent act of a protagonist, moments where he waits for the consequences of his actions. Trevor becomes hilariously mordant (and also philosophical) expertly juggling the juxtaposition of nostalgia and fear, violence and maturity, and innocence and experience in Edwin’s reflections on the blissfully unaware picnickers. And yet even though action does occur—Edwin and everyone else hear Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton scream and Edwin takes “charge of the proceedings,” becomes the grown-up in a world defined exclusively by death—this Teddy-bear’s Picnic has already technically ended because Edwin has already categorically and triumphantly resisted his wife’s desire.

The problem for readers like me is that we tend to mistake these endings for the heart of the story, which they are, in a sense. One leaves Trevor’s story impressed not by the conflict between actors, but by the profound emotional effect and intellectual questions the conflict allows. The effect is never simple; it inverts assumptions and resists explication. In a sense that is the “conflict” of literature. Most readers desire human experience be explicable within some heuristic; literature resists, heroically so. These stories are remarkable artifacts of that resistance; and yet they are nothing at all and mean nothing at all without their perfectly explicable internal desire-resistance pattern. All talk of heart and soul and transcendence aside, these stories—to quote Edwin—would be simply “gooey” without a plot to help substantiate them.


John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” tells the story of Lawrence (Tifty) Pommeroy’s visit to Laud’s Head, a summer place on the shore of one of the Massachusetts islands. Lawrence’s family—including the middle brother and story narrator—awaits the brother’s arrival with some trepidation, as Lawrence, the youngest brother, has not visited the family in four years. Lawrence shows up with his wife and two boys, begins complaining about the summer home’s proximity to the shoreline, and refuses to drink with the family. His mother gets drunk. Lawrence goes to bed and the rest of the family goes swimming. The next day Lawrence refuses to play tennis doubles with the narrator and the family goes swimming to escape Lawrence. That night, Lawrence disapprovingly watches the family play backgammon. Later in the week the narrator and his wife help plan a costume “come as you wish you were” dance at the boat club. The narrator tries to convince Lawrence to enjoy himself and attempts to physically force him into the dance. Lawrence resists. Everyone at the party goes swimming. The next day the narrator goes swimming and finds Lawrence on the beach. Lawrence agrees to walk to Tanner’s Point with the narrator along the beach. The narrator confronts Lawrence about his bad attitude. When Lawrence insults the narrator and walks away, the narrator hits him on the back of the head with a root. The narrator goes swimming. A bloodied Lawrence returns to the summer home and tells his family he is leaving. Lawrence leaves.

John Cheever

“Goodbye, My Brother” is about 8,000 words and is told in the first person, from Lawrence’s brother point of view. Cheever breaks up the story into six sections using line breaks. The major conflict—Lawrence (or Tifty) wants to show his disdain for his family; his family resists—takes places in sections three, four, and five. These major conflict sections take place chronologically, over the course of the two-week family vacation. The first section provides backfill, summary of the family’s history. The final section imagines and reflects on Lawrence’s leaving (aftermath rather than plot). It is important to note that of three stories examined, Cheever’s possesses the most complicated plot structure. Not only is the story told through a narrator who is physically implicated in the desire-resistance pattern only in the story’s second half, but the desirer—Tifty—also expresses his disdain for specific family rituals as well as specific characters. This creates a more elegantly algebraic plot pattern, less A vs B in three different rooms, than A vs X1, and then A vs X2, and then A vs X3. Further, each of these X variables is subdivided into a somewhat consistent pattern of smaller plot iterations—a1, b1, and b3.

The story’s conflict takes a definitive shape about a page into the story’s second section. This scene is defined almost exclusively as a confrontation between Lawrence and his mother, with the other family members watching on. Initially, there is “a faint tension” in the room at Lawrence’s arrival, but Lawrence does not press his disdain on the family and no one actively resists this disdain until Lawrence reappears from a visit to the beach. Here, in a short dialogue exchange, Lawrence’s mother asks Lawrence what he thought of the beach and if he wants a Martini: “’Isn’t the beach fabulous, Tifty?…Isn’t it fabulous to be back? Will you have a Martini?’” She calls him Tifty—one of two family nicknames for the youngest brother; the other is “Little Jesus”—and essentially answers the question she asks for her son, rhetorically providing him an “out,” what he needs to say to elide his four-year separation. Lawrence response—“I don’t care…Whiskey, gin don’t care what I drink. Give me a little rum”—makes clear that he will not fall back into the family banter and habits and has arrived not to rejoin but has come to disapprove of the family. “We do not have any rum,” says the mother with the “first note of asperity.” The narrator then goes on to provide more backfill, to explain Lawrence’s original separation from the family after their father’s death, when Lawrence originally disapproved, when he decided that his mother was “frivolous, mischievous, destructive, and overly strong.”

Unlike the other stories examined, Lawrence’s initial attack seems misdirected. He first gets into a fight with the mother, then makes a snide comment about the sister’s promiscuity, and finally ridicules the dead father’s “damn fool idea to build a house on the edge of a cliff on a sinking coastline.” The scene concludes with the mother getting “unfortunately” drunk and declaring that if there is an afterlife, she “will have a very different kind of family,” one with “fabulously rich, witty, and enchanting children.”

Because Cheever’s story is narrated by a character who has no direct exchanges with Lawrence in the first plot scene, the reader might conclude that this long first family interaction with Lawrence is not plot. This reader would be wrong. Lawrence’s disdain here addresses a particular family pastime—getting together to have drinks—and—with this—the process of coming together, of reuniting after a long separation. Lawrence’s challenges—which come in three neatly forceful dialogue exchanges with the mother—represent an assault on the family’s “delight at claiming a brother,” their efforts “to enjoy a peaceful time,” and, most importantly, their ritualistic drinking, which refreshes “their responses to a familiar view.”

Douglas Glover, in an essay on Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung,” argues that Munro is “almost always precise and transparent in terms of her desire-resistance patterns” because “her story organization is heterodox.” In other words, the more complicated the plot structure, the more important a precisely delineated desire-resistance pattern. This holds true in the first scene of Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother.” Because Lawrence is in conflict with an idea or family ritual rather than a specific person and knowing that Lawrence will be conflict with another ritual in the following scene, Cheever must guide the reader carefully through the scene, expertly modulating the conflict’s pressure, insistently reminding the reader of what is in fact at stake. We have seen in the other stories that a desire-resistance pattern tends to work best in three iterations. Cheever knows this, so he gives the reader this three-pronged pattern within the scene itself (think back to the “stepping out” observed in the O’Connor story). Lawrence’s rejection of the family’s ritualistic drinking comes three times—remember the three almost parallel dialogue exchanges?—that leads to the mother drinking too much and insulting the family. The scene itself could be a story. It has its own desire-resistance arc (a+b+c=A (Tifty) vs X1 (family drinking)), one that the consequent scenes (where A will be in conflict with new rituals, new X variables) will reformulate and expand upon.

In the third scene we finally have direct story interaction between the narrator and Lawrence. The narrator asks Lawrence if he wants to play tennis. Lawrence, through indirect dialogue, says “no thanks,” and the narrator excuses Lawrence’s decision because “both he and Chaddy play better tennis than I,” but then, just a few lines later, “Lawrence disappears” when family doubles are about to begin, which makes the narrator “cross.” This frames the later direct confrontation with the narrator and Lawrence—which will be the climax of the story—while carefully and consistently perpetuating the desire-resistance pattern established in the previous scene. Here Lawrence shows his disdain of family tennis doubles, then comments on the house’s specious gentrification—“Imagine spending a thousand dollars to make a sound house look like a wreck”—and finally the family’s eating habits. We have again the three iterations, but this time of three separate family rituals; and yet—since we just had this in the last scene and the key to quality plotting is reformulation, as Viktor Shklovsky says in his Energy of Delusion, plotting requires “inversion and parody”—these three expressions of disdain function as a prelude for the scene’s central dissatisfaction, that is, Lawrence’s disdain for family backgammon (the X2 in the basic plot pattern).

Unsurprisingly, given Cheever’s previous patterning, the backgammon scene-let can be further subdivided into three iterations also (a+b+c) that blooms from the climax of the original three iterations (tennis, house, food):[1] Lawrence watches on with disdain as the narrator plays his other brother’s wife (a), the narrator plays his other brother (b), and finally the other brother plays their mother (c). As the games proceed, the narrator is sure that Lawrence “finds an inner logic” to this innocent family ritual, and “it will be sordid.” He will, according to the narrator, see each loss and victory as evidence of “human rapaciousness,” that they battle not for money, for fun, but for “one another’s souls.” It’s also important to note here that all of this is filtered through the narrator brother, who, importantly, not only internalizes his brother’s criticisms but also interprets and voices them. While one might think that this distancing might mitigate the intensity of the desire-resistance pattern (why not just have Lawrence verbalize these accusations?), the fact that this interior monologue of disdain comes from the narrator’s imagination of Lawrence actually increases the conflict’s intensity. The disdain Lawrence feels for the family is bottled up by the narrator and fermented, and the narrator “resists” Lawrence’s disdain by trying to articulate it, trying to frame it, which again foreshadows his eventual failure.

Lawrence wins this scene’s desire-resistance pattern. He effectively expresses his disdain for this family ritual through silence (which the narrator verbalizes) and then, in the final paragraph, actively states, “I should think you’d go crazy” and “I’m going to bed.” Here, about halfway through the story, we have a seeming break from the desire resistance pattern, as the narrator makes a point to avoid Lawrence over the next few days, to enjoy his vacation and plan for the “Come as You Wish You Were” dance. But this is not an actual break in the plot. Like Mrs. May’s decision to go look for the Greenleaf boys and Edward’s pouting, this is an attempt to resolve the conflict by a new form of resistance (escape). It is another plot step, but one accomplished in the form of a delay (remember Shklovsky on digression and delay). Lawrence might not be physically present or even mentioned through the majority of the scene, but the reader waits for his return, which roars back at the end of this fourth scene with the same puritanical disapproval, this time of the dance party ritual (A vs X3). The narrator resists by pushing Lawrence into the party—the first physical resistance of the story—and Lawrence fights back limply, asking, “Why should I? Why should I?” The narrator returns to the party without Lawrence and they all dance and drink and “chase balloons”—another attempt to escape the conflict, and also the satisfying and logical climax to that scene’s desire-resistance pattern.

The fifth and climatic scene follows the pattern established in the previous scenes, but Cheever adjusts the movement, reformulates it in a way that speaks to the increasing pressure of Lawrence’s disdain on the narrator specifically. It might be useful to think of this in cinematic terms. The first part of the story has a distant shot of the desire-resistance pattern and Cheever moves in closer and closer until the conflict becomes a physical one (a close-up) between Lawrence’s disdain for the family and the narrator’s resistance. This is not to say Lawrence in this final section does not despise a family ritual too. He very much does—he despises the very idea of a beach vacation. After Lawrence’s wife’s vacation laundering affronts the narrator—her “penitential fervor,” iteration “a”—he goes to swim and finds Lawrence at the beach (iteration “b”). He swims with Lawrence watching. Upon exiting, the narrator imagines Lawrence’s criticisms—this again comes in a neat three-iteration cycle; remember that Cheever constantly has the third iteration give birth to a subset of three iterations, like algae blooms of conflict—and the narrator confronts the way Lawrence “kept his head down” as they walk along the beach (iteration “c”). Lawrence responds with the first explicit expression of disdain: “I don’t like it here.”

Following this blunt description of the desire-resistance pattern, the narrator resists verbally by repeating, “come out of it, Tifty.” Lawrence then insults the narrator physical appearance. The narrator strikes Lawrence from behind with a “sea-water heavy” root. This violence comes fast and is surprising, yet at the same time it is expected; through the successful cycles of desire-conflict exchanges, how Cheever reformulates each in their movement toward this particular confrontation, and the fact that the narrator has been verbalizing Lawrence’s disdain for the family through the entire story, it only make sense that the narrator would end up committing violence on a family member and, by extension, on the family.

Why? Because this is the exact pattern established in the first confrontation with the mother and the drinking— her afterlife with “fabulously rich, witty, and enchanting children”—where Lawrence’s disdain for the family produces a disdain for the family from the family itself. This action is a plot twist and yet is also firmly within the established pattern. So too the narrator’s actions after the violence—his binding of the wound, his silence about the action, and his decision to go swimming yet again, to throw himself into that baptismal font, that “illusion of purification,” the one place in the family’s world that Lawrence “neglected to name,” and thus the one place resistant to Lawrence’s powers of “diminution” (one gets the sense that the narrator cannot name it either, and that is what keeps it redemptive and viable even after the events of the story; it is also, of course, where their father drowned—ironic conflict means syntactic excitement!).

In the next scene, the narrator imagines his brother leaving and reflects on the morning’s intensity and wonders whether anything can be done with “a man like that.” He then looks out his window to see the women of the family emerging naked from the water. In terms of story, the sublime imagery and wordplay are ancillary (though no less important). The plot has already ended. The conflict itself came to a conclusion on the beach. Likewise, the narrator’s philosophical ruminations, all the varied reasons he gives for Lawrence’s disposition and disdain, are tempting to privilege (as they come at the end), but this misses the fact that the actual story, the plot, would not work at all if not for Cheever’s determination to follow the original conflict—that of Lawrence’s puritanical disdain for the family—through the course of the story and to let them play out in three similar yet distinct scenes. This nuts and bolts craft substantiates the lyrical prose and philosophical digressions to follow. Missing this craft does not mean we miss the point of the story; it simply means we will likely have a good amount of trouble writing one.

In his Theory of Prose, Shklovsky argues that “art is not a march set to music, but rather a walking dance to be experienced, or, more accurately, a movement of the body, whose very essence it is to be experienced through the senses.” Each of these three stories has a pronounced musicality to them, and it certainly feels at times that the reader is carried along through the background music alone (whether that comes in the form of syntax or theme or psychology). But this is not what makes a story. As E.M Forster declared in his Aspects of the Novel, a story qua story has but one single merit: that it “makes the audience want to know what happens next.” This merit exists only in an author’s capacity to create a “walking dance to be experienced,” a determination to follow with “the body,” an investment with “the senses.”

We have seen this play out in the three stories analyzed. Each takes a specific character’s desire and invents a situation where another character or group of characters resists this desire. It then takes this conflict and reproduces it at least three times in at least three distinct scenes, and each iteration is reformulated to provide a sense of syntactic excitement, irony and elaboration without ever abandoning the original desire-resistance pattern. This steadfast commitment to the original conflict creates the aesthetic space for the “movement of the body” because this plotting is, ultimately, a commitment to the senses on the part of the author and the reader, to exploring—to quote O’Connor again—“the definite to its extremity.”

Culturally Americans tend to treat literature as an unknown quality, unique with respect to other art forms and disciplines, both urgent and enduring precisely because it cannot be planned, described, and compartmentalized. But this isn’t quite true. The urgent and enduring qualities of literature extend directly from the fact that literature is, as Douglas Glover says, “a process of thinking with its own peculiar form.” Contrary to popular belief—a romanticized and lazy understanding of what art accomplishes and is—this peculiar and specific form provides literature its unknown quality. Writers create interest through, as Glover argues, “variation of form, surprising turns or denials of expectation, dramatic action and emotional resonance”; writers move readers through a walking dance, never for a sentence forgetting that there would be no dance without conflicting bodies and no interesting bodies without this formulaic dance.

—Michael Carson

Works Cited

Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: First Vintage International, 2000.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.

Glover, Doug. Attack of the Copula Spiders. Ontario: Biblioasis, 2012.

Glover, Douglas. The Enamoured Knight. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 2004.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews. Compiled by Leo Zuber and edited with an introduction by Carter W. Martin. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Energy of Delusion. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 2007.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 1990.

Trevor, William. The Collected Stories. Penguin: New York: Penguin House, 1992.

Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. A note here on syntax: Cheever actually reproduces this exact plot pattern on the sentence level in much of his writing. He likes to use the three-beat pattern and then lightly disrupt it, extending the sentence into a six-beat pattern. Here is a particularly strong example from the ending of “Torch Song”: “Jack emptied the whiskey bottle into the sink./ He began to dress./ He stuffed his dirty clothes into a bag. He was trembling and crying with sickness and fear. He could see the blue sky from his window, and in his fear it seemed miraculous that the sky should be blue,/ that the white clouds should remind him of snow,/ that from the sidewalk he could hear the shrill voices of the children shrieking,/ “I’m the king of the mountain,/ I’m the king of the mountain,/ I’m the king of the mountain.”
Apr 112017


This is the story, I said, looking at the blank page, and she said to me she knew it was written for her, but I knew I had not written it for anyone.

This is the story, I said, listening to the blank page, and she said she’d heard it before, and I said it is not possible because it is being told still.

This is the story, I said, can you hear it? Silenced it wants to be told, so the screen can crack.


I want to tell you of reading The Blank Page, the short story by Isak Dinesen in which a storyteller tells the story of the blank page.

I have been reading the story repeatedly, over the last few months—not to interpret its mysterious parable: I’ve been reading The Blank Page as an echo chamber, listening to the voices that speak to me through it, and through me to it and to you.

Today I’m not reading The Blank Page: I’m looking at a photocopy I made of the first page of the story.

The photocopy is not quite so blank, and I’m reading the notes I wrote on it during my repeated encounters with it, some of which appear obscure to me since the thoughts that prompted them have been lost, while others continue to generate further thinking. I am looking at this photocopy of the first page of The Blank Page as a record of past beginnings, disorderly poured into the ever-present of each repeated reading, return, rewind, da capo.

I am listening to and reading into this blank page as volume.



My eyes linger for some time on the title, and soon they move around my nearly illegible handwriting as they try to reconstruct in vain the sequence of these incomplete writerly incursions. I can’t resist the temptation of starting from the least obvious connection, from the most remote one.

Turquoise capital letters, on the left: PIZARNIK 139. Three turquoise thick lines around it. An arrow on the right: look at this, it matters.

How promising. My reading of The Blank Page begins with a diversion that precipitates me straight into another book.

I open Alejandra Pizarnik’s collected poems, Extracting The Stone Of Madness, page 139, and I remember the sense of urgency I perceived at the time, in finding an echo while reading Pizarnik during the same days as I read Dinesen:

Here is how I can go about reading this heavily annotated photocopy, entitled The Blank Page and anything but blank: with two eyes looking at the frenzied absence of the blank page, in ferocious void, listening. And, following Pizarnik’s suggestion on the page before, to let there be language where there ought to be silence.


Pizarnik’s blue handwritten name actually appears slightly off the page, although in close vicinity to it: on a rectangular scrap of paper that I glued onto the photocopy. There’s ambiguity between foreground and background, between the told and the teller, between who writes and who is being written, what is held and what holds: it enwraps the entire operation of Dinesen’s story and, inevitably, of my words with it.

Or: the glued scrap of paper that holds a specific instance of reading could be an attempt at staying very close to the material of such reading, while performing those small gestures of variance from which writing always rebegins.


Top right corner: CARMELITES. In a convent in Portugal, for centuries, Carmelite nuns have been keeping a collection of framed linen sheets, each one holding the trace, in blood, of the first nuptial night of a princess. One of these sheets is completely white, shows no trace of blood, and continues to attract pilgrimages of people who stare at it and interrogate its enigma: it is the blank page that gives the title to the story.

Why the sheet is blank, it is not told.

How the sheet in the story becomes a page in the title of the story, it is not told.

It is not told because it’s not what is expected to be heard, so I try to hear through its absence: something more, and something else than words, Pizarnik suggests to me. Like in Scheherazade’s 1001 blank nights (‘one more than a thousand,’ Dinesen wrote, I underlined) so much happens outside the frame. The blank page continues to compel readers who, like the procession of pilgrims described in the story, couldn’t resist the riddle of the blank sheet that it is generated from, and that it perpetually generates.

A strange and silent museum keeps the collection of bodily inscriptions framed by the stillness of gold, framed in turn by the telling of the story by the old woman at the gate of the town, framed by Dinesen’s own telling although, I’d underlined in red, ‘they and I have become one’. Dinesen haunts her stories, becomes one with them.

I want to hold on to this sense of porosity allowing the told and the teller to become one, rather than to the staccato of the framing devices. I’m drawn to the merging. Rather than considering spatial arrangements I want to think through time, and transmission. Scheherazade as transmitter, Scheherazade who continued speaking and being spoken through, Dinesen as transmitter, Dinesen who said she was not a writer but a storyteller, Pizarnik as transmitter, Pizarnik who wrote I cannot speak with my voice, but I speak with my voices.

At the bottom of my photocopy, after reading the story once, I wrote in capital letters:

“WHAT HAS GONE UNHEARD”. And untold, I add now. The blank page is the site where a more silent tale can be found, through the unheard and unspoken weaving that makes its material. The storyteller disappears in the story yet is present in it, as channel and substance.

I keep staring at The Blank Page through Pizarnik’s eyes and through her inner ears, to hear the place where silence is formed.


Have you read The Blank Page yet? Or perhaps you remember it from long ago? And if not, what do you think it is, beyond the first photocopied page? Are these words very abstract? What have you been reading so far in these words: a chronicle of blank, or a chronicle of engagement? Are you more drawn to what is missing, or to what is here? What holds the story, what emanates from it, and why this one? The story unfolds its charms and chances. You read the words and beyond them, something more and something else. Can you tell, now?


Top left, in red, thin marks:

POROSITY (not quite “resistance”)

GERMINATION (plough-writing)


I read again Dinesen’s story in the aftermath of Elena Ferrante’s ‘unmasking’. Today the lack of blood on the sheet bears a defiant statement: to be materially present within words does not call for a bodily mark, the material presence of a telling does not need to be legitimated or verified by a trace of the teller. I am tempted to read the storyteller’s disappearance into the blank page not as a symptom of hiding, but as a deliberate gesture that gives space to what Ferrante calls the truth of language, present and significant without the need for biographical evidence. Further down my photocopy I read: IS WRITING ALWAYS WOUNDING/BLEEDING? I wrote these while reading Susan Gubar’s acute analysis of Dinesen’s story in relation to female creativity, in which she refutes the claim that the evidence of a body is the only way for women to be recognised in art. The blank page is not a retreat: it holds meaning whose form is its truth. Along the left border, in red capital letters and referring again to Gubar: ‘Does writing always have to reflect / be a trace of the movements and motions that produce it?’


There is no way to enter the page because you are already there, and there are many ways of being there: I learned this from Teresa of Avila. The storyteller is there, through the blank page and its story, in absentia. Her presence is porous, it enables and hosts fabulatory activities as transmissions, and transmissions can be spurious. That’s how I read Dinesen’s storyteller’s / Dinesen-as-storyteller’s statement, ‘silence will speak when the narrator is faithful to the story’: the silence of the blank page is the storyteller’s poiesis, and the words it generates exceed the page: can you hear them? The people in the story keep watching, and I keep listening while watching, with Pizarnik’s eyes looking for the place where silence is formed.


In the lower centre, a mark in capital letters, red pencil: FRANTUMAGLIA 72. I recall, but shall not quote, the words of another invisible storyteller, Ferrante, in La frantumaglia, page 72 (Italian edition), discussing the truth of the story as keeper of its own truth, literary truth, with no need for external legitimisation—writing, later on, that the more effective story is the one which allows to gaze out at everything that’s been excluded from it, outside of the frame.


THE BLANK PAGE: I look at the title on the photocopy and beneath it, handwritten in red: THE IMMORTAL STORY. Outside of the frame I see Orson Welles, who’d once declared to be in love with Dinesen and who directed The Immortal Story as a homage to her eponymous tale of a rich man at the end of his life, who can’t believe that a story he hears and knows never actually took place, and who makes it happen: at the end, the protagonist of the story realises that, because he has actually been inside the story, he will no longer be able or willing to tell it.

That silence is the story’s porous boundary.

In the inversion of foreground and background, the blank is the material of muteness that exceeds the page. A telling, a spinning of a nothingdense: the truth of that form of silence, sounding with stories passed on, and with voices streaming into the volume of the blank page.


I turn the page:

‘Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence…. Who then… tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book? Upon the blank page. When a royal and gallant pen, in the moment of its highest inspiration, has written down its tale with the rarest ink of all—where, then, may one read a still deeper, sweeter, merrier and more cruel tale than that? Upon the blank page.

‘We,’ she says at last, ‘the old women who tell stories, we know the story of the blank page.’

In the previous page, the woman’s voice is introduced by ‘she said’.

She says, she said.

She says, she said, I read. This is happening now, it happened before, I’m stuck in the looped timing of da capo.


Sometimes the photocopy of the blank page can be disappointing, opaque. It’s a material of time. It doesn’t always have to hold meaning. It allows a germination whose movements are slow and difficult to perceive. I can’t exhaust the blank page. Some days it’s impenetrable and I’m drawn to this relationship that doesn’t always have to be meaningful but allows me to drift, or stay still, and nothing changes and its material does. I can’t extract too much from these marks. Only reread them and repeat them, and I’ll be able to hear something then: a troubling urge. This reading is not to find purpose, but to look with a purposive eye, and listen. I hear the sound of a spinning. That is the material of The Blank Page today. In the story, the fabric of the linen is spun from flax grown in the fields surrounding the convent. The making of the linen through spinning is the invisible/inaudible activity of every day which leaves no mark, but makes the material of silence possible. The blank page is dense with unseen work, its silence full with the sound of spinning.


I wrote of the linen of the blank page but I want to misspell it as limen, border.

And then I want silence to erode those gilded frames and see them rot.


On the border of my photocopy, bottom left: SPIN SPIN SPIN SPIN —— The urge to spin words in a succession of da capo. On the back of the photocopy, my words in cursive sound much like a curse:

On a page, not too different from this one. Out of sync but no. But the attempt. But the gestures. I know I’m writing, but I do not feel I’m in the place where my hands are. These words came before me. They inhabit the page from outside. The voice of the storyteller, that never stops beginning, torments these words, I hear in them what they apparently do not tell. Language is disturbed. The blank page beyond language. These words never finish leaving. Their beginning is absent. I wasn’t there. The muted perturbation of the copied page is the interval between the words I can’t remember. It shakes them but they are muted and cannot say what shakes them. Maybe it will never be named but it moves, shakes them. They gently shake by way of the specific quality of silence the surrounds them. A beginning doesn’t know how or what: it senses its where. It’s impetus before content. An absolute volitive. The space of the blank page transgresses the order of facts to affirm a rebeginning. A small variance allows writing to begin. Not pleasing, orderly and smooth but as disturbance, scratch, crack.


A desire for enchantment. I remember a voice from elsewhere:

These thoughts of mine… I have fetched them from far far away.

You’ll never hear her speak to you again. You’ll never hear her speak to you again. You’ll never hear her speak to you again.

She said. She says. I write. Will I tell? Is reading another way of telling the story of the blank page?


There is not a grand plan in my reading of the photocopy, but a daily engagement with its marks as interruptions, a sustained silent conversation with the page as material, and with the thoughts I hear through it: material. This is where syntax breaks, as it must attend to the rhythms of such material, not to a plan. This is how The Blank Page becomes a blank page and mine, through stillness. The blank page is the unnameable, yet visible and audible medium, that amplifies, transmits, echoes, extends, connects voices between interferences and unsteady unison. To lay it bare would be absurd. And to read it is not attached to the privilege of having certain doors opened, to the privilege of access: it is not tied to the ‘discovery’ of new material, but to the thrill of working through what is on the page, available as opaque substance, and rediscover its density and its excess.


Isak’s actual name was Karen. Isak means laughter. I think Karen meant some laughter too: at the thought that anyone might claim for the enigma of the blank page to be solved. Today I hear Karen’s laughter across the decades, defiant and distorted, against solutions, spinning more and more words, da capo.


There is no blank page as an absolute condition, no purity marked by bleeding: the blank page, loaded with the marks of its making, calls for the presence of more marks, voices, other copies, and screens, many more notes and scratches: the teller disappears into the story so more stories can be heard through her and through it while generating more. Silence holds the excess of words: anything that occurs off the page, and yet wouldn’t be there without it, states of stillness, and rewind, and mishaps, and sometimes nothing happens.

But, still, there. There I can disappear too: in listening, in channelling. I try to read the marks on the photocopy but the marks aren’t the only bearers of meaning: the whiteness is as dense. The blank becomes manifest as the material of muteness that exceeds the page.

I close my eyes. I too have something to tell, it’s not a story: a spinning of silenced motions in and out of languages, made of the debris of stories passed on, and half-forgotten voices. Reading the canonical from a partial view, placing the opaque in a position of prominence.

I look again at a snapshot of my photocopy of The Blank Page on my iPad, it’s full of noise, the screen is cracked, a telling in writing can rebegin.

—Daniela Cascella

List of References

Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Yvette Siegert, Extracting the Stone of Madness. Poems 1962-1972, New York: New Directions, 2016.

Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia, Roma: Edizioni e/o, 2003

Isak Dinesen, The Blank Page and Echoes, in Last Tales, London: Putnam, 1957.

Isak Dinesen, The Dreamers, in Seven Gothic Tales, London: Penguin, 2001 (1934).

Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story, in Babette’s Feast and Other Stories, London: Penguin, 2013 (1958).

Orson Welles (dir.), The Immortal Story, 1968.

Susan Gubar, ‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 2, ‘Writing and Sexual Difference’ (winter 1981), 243-263.


Daniela Cascella is a London-based Italian writer. Her work is concerned with impossible silences, their residues and disturbances. She is the author of F.M.R.L. Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound (Zero Books, 2015) and En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing. An Archival Fiction (Zero Books, 2012). Her texts have been published in Gorse, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Wire, 3:AM Magazine, The Scofield, minor literature[s]. She is a Contributing Editor at minor literature[s]. Her next book, a hybrid text prompted by a reflection on rebeginnings and the transmission of knowledge, is entitled Singed: A Transmission of Muted Voices, After the Fire. Twitter: @enabime www.danielacascella.com


Feb 112017

Mark Jay Mirsky



He stepped out of an imposing limestone hall in the streets between the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Center. He was in a corridor of private clubs, one of the last remnants of a handsome 20th-century midtown Manhattan aping the 19th, where a book party was ending for a woman he had not seen in ten years.

Surprised by the invitation, fingering the creamy paper of the envelope containing it as he entered the hall, still he reasoned, book parties are not exclusive social gatherings, though it was addressed in broad loops under the postal stamp in the blue ink of a fountain pen. Publishers want at all costs to fill a space where reviewers or agents for the movies may be lurking.

The invitation was in his breast pocket. Under the gold embossed print was a brief note in the author’s hand, “Dear Harry . . .” expressing the hope that he would attend. Gale’s book had not been published under her married name.

She was tall, imposing. Watching her strong back, broad hips, the thrust in her breasts, he had imagined what it might be like to encounter her in bed, to lie under a woman from the professional world of Manhattan. In her presence he felt short, diminutive, an amateur. At the party, circulating through the crowed, he recognized editors who determine the rise and fall of reputations. Something had urged him to come, but he saw that he was invisible to men and women who, when he was reviewing for newspapers with a national reach, gave him a respectful greeting. Gale, though, greeted him with a warm hello and he followed her around the room for ten or fifteen minutes, close to her elbow. After that the writer knew his presence would become obnoxious.

Gale’s husband was dedicated to social causes, also a legal scholar, writing essays difficult not to respect. Her husband had become engaged to Gale shortly after the writer had first met her. This had inhibited Harry’s thoughts about Gale under her clothes.

He had paused in the doorway leaving, feeling the chill air, before going out. He could turn back to where the book party was winding down. If he did tease her, would she slap him or be flattered? Seeing his age in a head of hair that had turned from pepper to white, the circles under his eyes, he recalled his first stare at her sharp, handsome features, the hectic flush in her cheeks. Was it twelve years before?

He set his shoe down on the cold sidewalk, swept of snow but treacherous in icy, early March; pausing to face a red brick façade across the street—the Harvard Club. The college was his alma mater.

At the party, a woman well tanned but breezy, firmly attached by a regime of exercise to the visual line between thirty-nine and forty, (but possibly seven years older), had noted his threadbare college tie emblazoned with Latin in its shields—Veritas. She asked, as if he were flaunting the association, “Do you belong to the Harvard Club?”

“I can’t afford it,” he answered, the edge of his mouth curling into his cheek, “Just the tie.”

Observing that she shifted her attention at this, turning away, he was free to listen as she began to talk with Gail, whom he had been standing beside for ten minutes or so. He knew no one well enough in the imposing space to go up and start chatting but he followed the movements of this confident, and he guessed successful professional, her trim, well-muscled backside. Was she an agent, an editor, a publicist? From the fragments of the conversation in the noisy room, an identity was hard to construct. “I’m Jewish but I drink,” he heard her say. As she wheeled on her high heels in svelte black slacks, he caught her goodbye.

“Your husband is so thin,” she barked.

“Yes,” Gail agreed.

With a pang, he saw the woman disappear in the crowd. His quip had cost him his existence in her eyes.


Facing the brick propriety of the Harvard Club he saw a familiar face, coming out, mocking, ironic, then looking through him, and walking away before he could identify her. Was it the editor of a review that had consistently rejected his stories? The Harvard Club—that was another world. What had happened to his early prospects? He felt as if back in the hall where the party was ending, as he had faded out of the woman’s eyes, a death sentence had been pronounced upon him.

Gale, how much he had been attracted to Gale, despite the sour shake of her head. The brusque, self-assured carriage that she brought from the snobbish world of her college campus; her slightly disheveled appearance at times, her disapproval of his manners, which reminded him of his mother; made him think there might be a link between them. She was statuesque but distant even as a woman in her early twenties. His former wife had once remarked on Galen as “belonging to the past century.”

“Exactly,” he had assented over their breakfast. Galen looked like one of the imposing carved figureheads that coasted the pages of Henry James and Edith Wharton; not their confused naive heroines, but the stiff, starched cousins, whose proper behavior and choices set the rules that heroines are born to break.

He had met Galen, or Gale (as her name had been fixed in his head), at a Jewish Studies Conference in Boston. It was a gathering he usually avoided; a place for specialists, and self-promoters, with panels and lectures on fine points of history, rabbinic learning, Hebrew or Yiddish linguistics. He was interested in many of the subjects but clichés of criticism were rife and with a tenured position at a college, he wasn’t hunting employment. Galen Edwards now Mussorgsky had attended a panel discussion, which he was induced by an old friend to join. Its subject was the possibility of establishing an American Jewish canon. The members of the panel were assembled almost at the last moment, and not listed correctly in the Association’s booklet of events.

He recognized among the participants as they gathered for a hasty session beforehand, a man whose articles celebrated the new lights of the Holocaust industry. He had awarded paeans to several “emerging” writers, whose work was hopelessly thin. With a sinking feeling, Harry sat down at the “planning” lunch to map out an outline for their discussion. The food at the famous Seafood restaurant proved insipid. A skinny sliver of cod loin, contrary to the waitress’s reassurance—“fresh”—had either been taken from a freezer in the frenzy of lunchtime lines or over baked. “Kafka’s cod,” he joked to the company about the mealy fish steak. They looked at him, puzzled, “Eaten by the worms of anxiety.”

The editor seated with them, paying for the lunch, was complacent. No one complained over the plates and as a guest Harry didn’t want to send it back. Earlier he had flirted with the waitress. Distracted by her and the fish, he had not followed the conversation about the seminar’s planning. Joining it now, he found he was not to present a paper he had prepared. His friend, a scholar whose work was respected in the academic bureaucracy, had scanned the paper, said it was fine but between forkfuls, the chair of the panel ruled “Not on topic. Speak spontaneously.”

Earlier, he had been told to speak on the theme of a novel, which had won him his college appointment. It had challenged the clichés of the social critics who were predominant in the academic field. A Crazy Jew, Not Like You had a brief life getting mixed reviews in the national newspapers and literary journals but then faded from view.

He had written other novels, and books on the irrational, but none of them had won him much attention. Now working on a study of female devils in contemporary literature, he had hoped to simply read a few of this manuscript’s pages.

He suspected that it would never find a university press or trade publisher. He had conceived of a book into which he could disappear. Not just a commentary on older books but one in which its author lost himself like the Zohar’s author, seeking mystical union with the Unknown. He invented a world where narrators were taken up by a dangerous female presence fluttering over the universe. He linked Franz Kafka’s obsessions with women to Biblical heroines, spoke of the Jewish writers whose mothers were prostitutes, insane matriarchs, feminist “bitches” and succubae.

His friend had a sense of humor, and loved a good joke. But the panel’s chair, with a flat Mid-Western voice, interrupted his friend’s plea for the prepared pages. It was far a-field from a canon. “No paper,” Harry was warned, but the chair encouraged the writer to go over some of the ideas ad hoc. “Be spontaneous!” Spontaneity meant hours before the seminar making notes, unpalatable bits of fish grinding away in his stomach.

He did finally sway majority opinion at lunch on the fish, “Yes, yes,” they agreed, “awful”—cleaning their plates. Otherwise excluded, he went to a corridor of the hotel to find a chair and try to make an outline for an irrational “Jewish” canon.

At the seminar table he found himself assigned the last slot. The panelists droned on. Halfway through, two critics in the audience whose recent work he admired, filed out. “Come back!” but he tried to cry but stifled it. Depression fixed him to his folding chair. Only five or six people were in the seats by the end. As he spoke, his words sounded random and senseless in his own ears.

His eyes lighted on a young woman in the second row of seats. He clung to whatever her attention he could perceive. In the question period no one asked him anything but gathered up coats and scurried away. Dashing out of the room, to avoid apologizing to his friend, who lingered, he saw an impressive back and waist, a female form. It swayed in the lobby’s crowd as if detached from John Singer Sargent’s portraits of Boston debutantes. Strands of auburn hair fell over her shoulder. He caught up and touched an elbow.

“You were at my seminar,” he blurted.

Without waiting for an acknowledgment, he began a monologue mocking his own remarks at the seminar.

She did not disagree but interrupted him to single out one pronouncement of his with which she agreed. When asked for her reaction to the other speakers, instead of answering, she turned and left him standing under the ceiling of the hotel lobby.

Was she twenty-three, twenty-four? He had forgotten even to ask her name. Too far now for him to follow he watched her swim away into the crowd.


He was sitting at her elbow the next evening. “Do you know Gale?” his host, a professor at Harvard, asked, motioning Harry to a place beside her at a crowded supper table set for a dozen guests in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, restaurant.

“Are you Gale?” he asked.

“Gale, Galen, whatever you like best.”

She wasn’t, it seemed, Jewish, and that made her presence at the conference even more interesting.

“What do you do?” he asked.

She was a reporter for a major American newspaper, even though she was barely out of college.


As he turned from the red brick front on the opposite side of the street, leaving the book party behind, the opaque mirror of limestone and glazed crimson brick in the Harvard Club’s front seemed to reflect his tie, frayed at the edges. Veritas? Gale, now, forever Galen, a friendly but distant professional, had been more than attentive to him at her party than he deserved. Given the high-powered circle around her, however she seemed to be sailing into their horizons.

Why was that painful? What did he want from her? He grasped at the thought of a much younger woman whom he had met a few months ago.

Over forty years separated them. The girl, only nineteen or twenty, had recently met with him in his position as editor of a small journal he continued to edit despite the waning of his career as a writer. She wished to discuss a piece she wanted to submit. It would be about myth and the sex life of Jewish women in religious worlds. In her eyes a streak of green ribbon darted out points of orange. She had laughed, puckering her lips as if teasing him, then told a story about an older man, her teacher—a rabbi in a religious high school, who molested her.

Reliving the moment it seemed, she spoke about the paralysis that gripped her as the rabbi’s hands began to wander. He reached under her blouse, into her pants. When the young woman finished, the silence in the air was charged. Harry had been unprepared for this when he asked her to meet him in a coffee shop, curious about what she might submit.

“No,” he admitted, taking one step after another over the icy sidewalk, afraid to slip and lose his balance. He had been more curious as to the person who would write the essay. Catching sight of her at the coffee shop in the blue denim jacket and dungarees, she told him she would be wearing, his heart stopped. She looked like a teenager. He was momentarily shaken into a state of vertigo, dizzy, afraid to meet her eyes, trying to take in the rest of her in the booth where she crouched as he slid in against the bolster on the opposite side.

How was it that she so quickly shared that story with him? A question kept running through his head when he got up to leave an hour later. Did she feel that he was attracted, even before she told him the anecdote whose purpose he started puzzling over later? Was it a warning shot across his advancing bow, or a provocation to come on faster? She touched him but it was not her body that was spinning him around but an idea.


Anger distorted her face as the girl had told about leaving the rabbi’s study, seeing the rebbitzin, his wife, washing dishes in the kitchen, pretending, the young woman said, bitterly, not to notice her agitation.

Who was she describing? Was there a rabbi?

He felt the magnetism this girl was exerting as she left, seeing himself against her in the flesh. Was that “bad” trying to imagine what she looked like without her clothes?

He wondered if she could imagine him looking at her.

How did she see him?

Was she setting up a trap? Did his caution mean he was he losing the force of a curiosity that had guided him to the worlds of platonic forms? Was he now just one of them”?

“I thought of him as my grandfather.” Her wriggle against the bolster of her booth’s seat back had stopped. She stiffened, displaced her smile. She stared as if daring him to stare back. Had the thought of physical penetration become worse than the taboo against commission? Was the act irrelevant if the thought had been committed? Was this the cursed life of angels when they rebelled in the story of the Flood?


He quickened his step outside the Harvard Club as the image of the girl who had come to see him slipped away.

What did he want? The stoplight at Forty Second Street, which separated the professor from the stream of traffic, brought him to a halt. The glaze of ice on the asphalt reflected nothing but he was conscious in this dark, slick surface of his body. He had lost some weight since his fifties. What did he look like? Teasing an undergraduate about his weight loss several years ago, he had asked, only half joking, “Aren’t I more attractive.”

“No,” she snapped. “You’re old. Aren’t you still married?”

Could the life he had constructed out of books answer what he wanted? And what was that intimacy which he brushed against in pages and sometimes in the faces of others?

“You are too naked,” his former wife had told him when he complained, a decade before, of his inability to speak with colleagues at the college. That nakedness, of course, had led him to behavior, which exhausted her patience. He saw himself in her clear blue eyes as a willful child, “You pay no attention to other people.”

Was that so? “You can be,” she admitted, “generous, attentive, but only because you feel that way, not because you see that whomever you are speaking to wishes for your attention.” Then his wife added, “Or that they want to articulate thoughts of their own.”

He stopped at the curb. He had paid attention to his teachers, and the older scholars he had befriended, their whispers out of the classroom, in the corners of comfortable, living rooms, He had collected stories of nakedness, forbidden unions—the annals of wife swapping sects of Turkish Jews, experiments with multiple unions through Polish towns, the far reaches of Hungary, Romania, villages beyond Prague—not merely for pleasure but in breaking a taboo, to go naked, to touch?

The rabbis were men of flesh. Yes, cautionary tales follow on the heels of breaking the law. Chaos sweeps up those who search for the Messianic when the universe will be remolded—that moment in Creation when matter separates, worlds divide, the rules of order still unset. Genesis’s first moment is cataclysm. Still, between the lines lurk a quixotic encouragement to overturn, to disorder—the Talmud’s adage, “Without evil there is no perfect service.”

What is the slight divide between a young woman now and my own adolescence; time is relative according to Einstein? And if I could go back in time, how far back? Would I travel to the abyss before the Beginning?


Do I in fact exist?

If I do, though disintegrating, the myth is to draw an angel into one’s arms, wrestle with it until ribs and tendons are exchanged; not boxed, wrapped in tinsel. Celan’s cry, “Über dich, Offene, trag ich dich mir zu.” Through you, Open ones, I bear you to me.”

One of the purveyors of the hip, the editor of a magazine New Judaism had crossed Harry’s path several years before when he was still being solicited to write about books. “Jazz it up,” she suggested after he sent his first draft in. He was reviewing an academic tome on the origins of mystical fantasies the mysteries of Lilith among medieval Jews.

“Jazz up a female Devil?” he asked. No one had previously required him to revise, not prominent newspapers or academic journals.

“You know—make her ‘hot’!”

He put down the phone, stunned but on the tip of his tongue, “Give me a lesson?” Like Gale the editor was tall, with an imposing body and a way of moving that attracted the eyes of every man in the room, though her voice had the grating accent of the Long Island Jewish mafia. He had snapped the remark back between his teeth. Would it amuse her—to be brazen? And why did he so frantically want to please while stung by her attitude?


“Why aren’t you funny, anymore?” a student had asked in his last class at the university. She was from New Jersey and had written a paper on the implications of hairstyle among suburban high school princesses. She had read his first book where good-natured laughter had made an impression that once had won him attention.

“What I found funny at your age, I can’t return to,” he answered. “What strikes me as comic now, after the death of my parents; after a career watching idiots advance, mediocrity triumph . . .” paused, but then said it, waiting to hear if she would react “a divorce.” After a moment of silence in which he could detect nothing from the expression on her face, he finished his sentence, “is different.”

She came to class in a skirt with a slit up its side, midway between her knee and her waist, a window of opportunity for someone as she tossed the ringlets of her long hair like a curtain, to the side. Does one have a right to desire her? And what did he desire?


He turned to the story of Dante, who was not afraid to characterize himself as lecherous. The poet speaks of Beatrice’s eyes, whose light seems to touch him.

Still teetering at the curb, he wondered again about that woman, the editor, coming out of the Harvard Club, who seemed for a moment a double of the one who asked about his tie. Again the girl he had met a few weeks ago appeared to stare with an invitation into his eyes.


A former student of Harry’s, responding to his whining when she called to inquire about him, had offered an interview. She occasionally placed articles on a Web site about Jewish topics. “What are you seeking for in your books?” she read from a sheet when they met at his favorite coffee shop,.

He grasped for a formula that would be more than a vacuous generality. He named writers who had influenced his work. She broke into his catalogue, asking, “What did you find in those books?”

“I found voices that spoke to me.”

“What does that mean?”

“Take Dante trying to answer Beatrice’s accusation that he has been unfaithful.”

“You keep quoting books written from a male perspective. Your putative author of the Zohar, Moses de Leon, used women as the portal to sexual congress with Divinity as a mere vehicle of male passion.”

“You think that all things are sexual,” she added, smiling but with a faint pout of disapproval in her full mouth, cherry red, bright with newly applied lipstick.”

“Up to this point, sexual desire has been my most powerful experience of the ecstatic. To be swept up beyond your own self when voices speak through you is even more electric, overwhelming when you write.”

“It is the unhappy truth,” he continued, staying on topic—since she had come to demand an accounting for his “male perspective”— “that these are the books of men but they are also the imaginings of men and women. Dante had a wife, children, but he imagined a woman, Beatrice, who imagined him. A man becomes what a woman imagines him to be and so the woman becomes what the man imagines. Mystical union is impossible without that union in imagination through which they pass into each other.”

What does she make of that? he wondered as she smiled, picking up her notebook. They exchanged a polite, goodbye. She had been the brightest student in his class through several semesters. Who did she imagine he was?


He had tried to speak about these matters to the young woman wrestling with her rabbi against the booth, adolescence clinging to her. “What we imagine is real. Did Dante sleep with Beatrice? Almost all the scholars deny it and yet Beatrice tells Dante, ‘Never did nature or art present you / with a pleasure equal to the beautiful limbs in which I / was enclosed…’ How explicit can a courteous poet be? Dante is told he cannot have the body of Beatrice until The Last Judgment. He goes blind in Paradise when he is told this.” He wanted to ask, “Would you have been angry if the rabbi had only imagined making love to you? Was it the idea or the real touch of his fingers that appalled you?”

The professor had stared into her green eyes instead, and said, quietly, “Dante’s only hope for another consummation of adultery will be the day after the final sentencing.”

The young woman exchanged a smile as he whispered across the table. “Yet he is told he can ‘touch’ her through light, the light in her eyes.”

Only it was not only Beatrice Dante had desired, just as it was not Gale, or this girl, who he wanted to find on the sidewalk.

Only one woman had ever reconstituted herself through light in his imagination. Dante was afraid to mention her and like the poet, he shied away from that thought and once again summoned another image. It was Freud who understood Dante, poet and lover of the mother.


Why had he teased the girl about “touch”? Was he asking for trouble? After their meeting she sent in an essay was called, “Legend of the Patriarch, study in Lechery.” She had addressed it at the magazine to him. She was only a few years from the incidents she described. In the essay she had called into question the behavior of the Biblical Abraham through his final years. As an editor he didn’t see how he could publish it and yet he was loath to break off contact.


“Why did you write me?” he had asked the young woman, after they had introduced each other at the coffee shop.

“I read your article.”

Yes he remembered it. Frustrated by his inability to place “Age, Eros and the Dream of Time” anywhere else, he had broken a rule and published it in his own magazine.”

Now, on the cold corner, he wondered. Did you come to meet Abraham or your grandfather? And if it was the old patriarch, you imagined, what did you want?

A part of love is loyalty, he thought. One turns to hide against the breasts or breast of the beloved, as a refuge from both the world, and the fear of death; to twist desire into a dream of flight to another world. To escape in metamorphosis into another body . . . ?

What did the rabbi want from the girl, and what did she want from him? Her story of seeking another life was complex. Was she fleeing a family, a dangerous patriarch, or looking for the disinterested love of another one?


“Tell me that I exist!” It was craven, but he wanted to cry, “Desire me!”

Was it possible to be desired through a whole life? Would children have changed him? Was that the true conduit for desire?

He recalled the lines of Yeats, who had evoked the other woman from whose shadows Beatrice had taken shape.

Being mocked by Guido, for his lecherous life
Derided and deriding, driven out
To climb the stair and eat that bitter bread
He found the unpersuadable justice, he found
The most exalted lady loved by man

And a moment later, about to cross the street, he wondered why, apart from the evening’s reception, the verse summoned Galen.

She had lost that fragile edge he and his wife had noted— adolescence blossoming into womanhood with hardly an awkward moment. Despite the whirl of recognition, publicity, in the hall behind him, he suspected it wasn’t a career, but babies to whom she would give her breasts, thighs, and the last glimmer of power as he had imagined her, “that fierce virgin,” fading.

It was . . . He stopped again, noting the danger—traffic was heavy.


Gale was still handsome, but at the reception she had whispered, happily that she was expecting. She was passing, content, into child bearing and where she might forget a career. It was only in that friend’s cruel eye on his tie that he had felt a searching intensity, a desire that touched him with light from a world of fantasies.


The father in Kafka’s story “The Judgment” sees his son’s sexual interest in anyone else as a betrayal of the mother. “Because she lifted up her skirts,” the old man mocks, referring to his son’s girlfriend; disgusted by the sight of a woman’s vulva. Kafka and his friends thought this very funny but the writer set the accusation down and was never able to marry. Harry paused about to take the last steps into the street, as if his mother could hear him, “Who am I?

“Is life an idea, a leap forward to find that flash of light, sun burst that it escaped from but now wishes to fix in the disintegrating matter of the universe? Can I escape into a book and lie there waiting for the embrace of another to take flesh again?”

Does what we do write in the universe? Do we write only in our bodies and those of others? Spinoza thought that in the ocean of being our experience inscribes itself on matter? Does it matter? The pun asks—are matter’s components indestructible, do they face extinction in a black hole? Before the Big Bang and after the last whimper, does anything matter?

An old man or woman’s fantasies—leagues away from the girl, Gale caught up in the publicity of a first book, or children. Who is real at this moment, Galen, the girl, my wife?

I am stepping into Kafka’s suicidal point, he thought, recalling the end of The Judgment. The son grasps the railing of a bridge, its traffic “just starting up,” cheerfully accepting a father’s verdict: “I sentence you to death!” Kafka read this to friends who burst into roars of amusement, rolled on the floor. “‘Dear parents, I have always loved you all the same,’ and let himself drop.” At that moment, Harry heard Manhattan’s unending stream of traffic blare. The light changed and he and his thoughts dropped into it.

—Mark Jay Mirsky


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

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

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


Apr 082015

Kelly-Link-final-Copyright 2014 Sharona Jacobs PhotographyPhoto Copyright 2014 Sharona Jacobs Photography

Throughout Get in Trouble, Kelly Link dares her characters to make tough decisions, whether it’s stepping into a hurricane or fooling around in an abandoned amusement park, and while these choices vary in their reward for the author’s protagonists, they continue to shock, move, and amaze the reader. — Benjamin Woodard


Get in Trouble
Kelly Link
Random House
352 pages ($25.00)
ISBN 978-0804179683


Fans of her earlier work are well aware of Kelly Link’s ability to transform seemingly straightforward narratives into twisty, haunted masterpieces without tripping over clunky genre switches or bloated reveals. As a writer frequently delving into alternate realities, Link conditions the reader to accept the unexpected through subtle shifts and hints: an unusual moment here, a strange encounter there. Never in her stories do moments of verbal whiplash surface. And, as opposed to the fates of her characters, this storytelling ability has nothing to do with mystical interference: Link simply understands the mechanics of writing at its simplest, structural form, as well as the value of efficiency in language. In fact, she frequently subscribes to a very traditional first act composition—a simple structure perfected in her latest, the superb Get in Trouble—and it’s this skillset that allows her to leap into the fantastic with ease, dropping protagonists in ghostly communities, a superhero’s arms, and pocket universes, while also exploiting various genre tropes to comment on societal issues.

To see Link’s mastery of form in action, look no further than Get in Trouble’s leadoff story, “The Summer People.” Here, Link introduces characters, conflict, and motivation within the story’s first few pages, using nothing but simple, direct first act structure, before introducing the story’s otherworldly elements. Yet, at the same time, she threads small moments of the unusual within these paragraphs to prime the reader for what’s to come. The story: young Fran lives in a vacation town, and as her narrative begins, she is sick with the flu and left home alone after her drunkard father travels to attend a prayer meeting. Before leaving, he instructs her to clean and stock the local summer homes for soon to be arriving out-of-towners. (This, it should be noted, all unfolds in four brief paragraphs.) Soon thereafter, Fran attempts to return to school, yet her fever forces her to take leave, and she receives a ride from her classmate, Ophelia, a “summer person”-turned-full-time-resident of Fran’s town. The pair work together to fix up a vacation house and, upon dropping Fran off at the end of the day, Ophelia decides to act as the sick girl’s nurse.

Up to this point—about 30% of the story has passed—the structure of “The Summer People” efficiently follows a traditional setup. The reader knows the characters, their shared predicament, and their motivations. There are no real stones left unturned. And it is at this point that Link’s writing takes a turn for the strange. Fran plucks three hairs from her head, places them in an envelope, and sends Ophelia to a mysterious house, where she is to leave the hair in exchange for a remedy. Over the next five paragraphs, the narrative jumps lanes, taking the form of a classic haunted house story, full of secrets, magic, and premonitions. However, this transformation feels natural thanks to a combination of elements: Link’s strong commitment to introduction and organization in her first act structure, as well as little oddities sprinkled like powdered sugar in this opening to whet the reader’s appetite. A man on TV throws knives; Fran’s father is described as “a dark shape in a room full of dark shapes;” a toy known as a monkey’s egg wobbles about. Each of these quirks last no more than a passing mention, yet as they pile up, they ready the reader for the eerie circumstances to come.

Several of the stories in Get in Trouble take shape using this method of affixing an uncanny appendage to a rather time-honored frame. “The New Boyfriend” takes the discomfort of teenage love and mistrust into the near future by inserting robotic boyfriends into the mix. In “Secret Identity,” what begins as a tale of an underage girl traveling to meet a much older man takes a sharp turn when she arrives at their rendezvous only to find a convention of dentists and superheroes. And even when Link shifts into a less linear mode of storytelling, like in “I Can See Right Through You,” she clues the reader into the narrative’s unfamiliar path. The story opens with a discussion of filmmaking, and it includes the following:

Film can be put together in any order. Scenes shot in any order of sequence. Take as many takes as you like. Continuity is independent of linear time. Sometimes you aren’t even in the same scene together. (44)

While this commentary ties into the relationship between two characters, who once starred together in a vampire film, it also doubles as a form of metacommentary on the part of Link, who essentially tells the reader to expect an atypical structure. This warning comes early, in the story’s fourth paragraph, and, like her other narrative winks, helps usher the reader through Link’s imagined world.

Perhaps the best story in Get in Trouble is “The Lesson.” It may also be the collection’s most accessible narrative, focusing on Thanh and Harper, a gay couple, their quest to have a child via surrogate, and their trip to a remote island to attend a friend’s wedding. Their surrogate, Naomi, is on bed rest, and Thanh fears that if they leave town for the wedding, “something terrible will happen.” Nevertheless, he and Harper fly off, finding themselves eventually on Bad Claw Island without cell service. The isolation of the environment, combined with the chaos of the upcoming wedding (the bride insists everyone wear wedding dresses to go on a hike; the groom is nowhere to be found, though his colleagues, a shifty bunch, linger about; Bear Claw Lodge, where Thanh and Harper stay, is full of leaks from recent rain, as well as spooky bumps in the night) convinces Thanh that trouble awaits them on the mainland. And as his premonition comes true and Naomi goes into premature labor, this island pandemonium takes on an allegorical meaning: the helpless fear that courses through Thanh’s veins. He has put himself in a powerless situation. In his mind, he has made the wrong decision. Throughout Get in Trouble, Kelly Link dares her characters to make these kinds of tough decisions, whether it’s stepping into a hurricane or fooling around in an abandoned amusement park, and while these choices vary in their reward for the author’s protagonists, they continue to shock, move, and amaze the reader.

— Benjamin Woodard



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

Jan 102015

Lennon, J Robert

It is impossible not to be intrigued by some of the plights featured in this or that story, thanks in part to the kinetic and assured momentum of the sentences and word choices, but thankfully, there is no pressure or encouragement from Lennon to regard any character as a person. —Jeff Bursey



See You in Paradise
J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf Press, 2014
236 page, $16.00/$18.50 Canadian
ISBN: 9781555976934


1. Since the appearance of his first novel, the award-winning The Light of Falling Stars (1997), J. Robert Lennon has built a reputation on taking ideas and, in novels and short stories, bending them to form alternate versions of the world. What starts off as a shared comprehension quickly dies a jolly death, though that pleasure is restricted to the chamber containing the narrative; outside a consideration of the structure itself, the substitution of Lennon’s vision for the actual world dislocates his characters and, by extension, Lennon’s readers. Put bluntly: I believe the world is such-and-such, but if I take to heart what See You in Paradise says is the way things truly are, then my naive perspective is overturned with an attentive and genuine malice.

After reading this newest collection of short stories, in addition to two earlier works, Pieces for the Left Hand (2005), a set of 100 stories, and Familiar (2012), a novel, it seems to me that, unlike Wordsworth’s resigned statement that the “world is too much with us,” Lennon believes the contrary: people are not concentrating sufficiently on what the world contains, are too comfortable (or complacent, or distracted) to look at it with their own eyes, are ill-suited for it, or are immature and therefore incapable of comprehending what is going on. His disapproval is present everywhere, but it is humorously presented, a point to which I’ll return.


Lennon positions the reception of this book with the first story, “Portal.” It dwells on the ramifications felt within a family of a feature discovered by the two children on the property. Jerry, the father, starts off:

It’s been a few years since we last used the magic portal in our back garden, and it has fallen into disrepair. To be perfectly honest, when we bought this place, we had no idea what kind of work would be involved, and tasks like keeping the garden weeded, repairing the fence, maintaining the portal, etc., quickly fell to the bottom of the priority list while we got busy dealing with the roof and the floor joists. I guess there are probably people with full-time jobs out there who can keep up an old house in great shape without breaking their backs, but if there are, I’ve never met them.

My point is, we’ve developed kind of a blind spot about that whole back acre.

Jerry and his wife, Gretchen, are having marital difficulties, and their children, Luann and Chester, are typical youngsters, complete with mood changes and late-night phone calls from unidentified friends. While it’s stated that the family’s adventures in the portal start to change each one, Jerry is either unaffected or doesn’t have the awareness to look at his own conduct. His description of their property’s features and problems (one and the same) is amusing for its absence of abiding wonder. After the first few excursions to worlds with hovercrafts, robots, and faceless people, the portal comes to resemble a clapped-out amusement park attraction. Much like the raising of the dead in a later story, “Zombie Dan,” attempts at a scientific explanation are left out or only hinted at, and the conceit works because Lennon doesn’t expend any energy making this freak of Nature probable; it just exists, like the story itself, and has the same reality.

Confidence is required to place those opening lines at the beginning of a book. This story of a worlds-travelling device, one that hums and sputters, provoking Jerry to consider it as “out of whack” and “[l]ike an old guy in denial about the onset of dementia,” is a story about, among other things, story-telling itself. Chester gets lost in Xbox, and Luann spends hours out of the home. The portal can’t compete. What is Lennon saying about his own efforts, and about the regard for writing nowadays?

It is a sign of control, and of a firm hand in fashioning this book, that while its contents were written over the span of fifteen years, it is as unified as if it had been composed within a shorter time. With that in mind, it’s worth indicating certain themes, techniques, and moods present throughout the 14 stories.


Categorizing people is important for Lennon, and for the characters in his fiction. Considering the previous owners of his home, Jerry tells us that they “looked like indoor types, frankly. Not that Gretchen and I look like backcountry survivalists or anything.” Edward and Alison in “No Life” vie to adopt a particular child with an older couple, the man a judge, “an honest-to-God member of the privileged class”; in the title story a hapless man is threatened by the rich father of the woman he’s somewhat interested in, and forced to take a job he’s never considered. Not everyone can resume life as “restored-life individuals” (italics in original) in “Zombie Dan”; it’s only for the privileged few: “The rich had been getting the goodies for millennia—why should that change now?” In one of the most harrowing tales—and many can qualify as Twilight Zone-like—bearing the evocative title “A Stormy Evening at the Buck Snort Restaurant,” a brother and sister are “running out of money” and people in those parts know there’s “something wrong with them…” Yet no one intercedes.

Examples of people slotting others above or below them are found throughout the book, with the most extended and naked assertion of difference saved for the final story, “Farewell, Bounder,” where two characters can see from outside the people gathered for the unusual party that’s underway, and which they are about to join:

… the town’s activists can be seen affecting solemnity, their caftans and rimless spectacles and gaunt, squirrellike bodies moving through the emptied front room. Here is Lydia Speyer, who lies down in front of idling bulldozers. There is Paul Waller, architect of the local scrip, earned in local health food stores and restaurants and redeemable at same… They are all here, the editor of the anarchist newspaper, the brewer of medieval beers, the used bookstore owner, the wan naturopath.

This is both true to life—who does not know that special someone who brings a guitar to rallies and sings made-up lyrics to popular tunes?—and almost underhanded in the undercutting of the commitment of these progressives. Lydia lies down only in front of bulldozers that are idling; the anarchist editor socializes instead of setting off an incendiary device somewhere; the unhealthy looking practitioner of healthy eating likely redeems Waller’s food-snobbish currency. And what comes to mind if the adjective “used” when applied to the bookstore owner is viewed as operating in parallel function to “wan”?

Class matters a great deal (this is also seen in Pieces for the Left Hand). The rich return from the dead and, like the judge in “No Life,” pick their descendants—extending their lives in ways not open to others—while everyone else stumbles along to extinction (like the brother and sister in “A Stormy Evening”). In “The Wraith” this is located in fantastical terrain: the depressed Lurene miraculously separates into lighter and heavier selves. Her husband, Carl, must accommodate the two halves, a sheer impossibility, especially as his efforts are half-hearted. The result of his failure is horrific and throws Lurene back into desperate confusion. Margaret and David in “Total Humiliation in 1987” are separated by her ambition to do more with her talents as a chef and his contentment at raising their two daughters, Lynnae and Lyrae. Whether it’s politics or money, domesticity or regeneration, career demands or accidents of birth, the lesson is that the great divide separating the majority of people from the minority cannot be crossed. In these stories society is not breaking down; that has already happened.

What would unite the two main groups? If an answer to that question was revealed, still it would be useless, in the end, for the prime agents here are not so much flawed as inadequately formed, resembling creatures out of the cosmogony of Empedocles. See You in Paradise is replete with women without a childhood that prepares them for adult life, men who have not emerged out of late adolescence (the train-obsessed narrator of “Weber’s Head” may be a candidate for Peter Pan Syndrome) and those who, like the teacher Luther in “The Future Journal” (who wants to classify his second grade students’ reading habits along evolutionary lines), are incapable of considering the impact their ideas might have on others. Nothing will go quite right or as expected.

It is impossible not to be intrigued by some of the plights featured in this or that story, thanks in part to the kinetic and assured momentum of the sentences and word choices, but thankfully, there is no pressure or encouragement from Lennon to regard any character as a person. The menace present throughout the collection, built up from “Portal,” exists on the atmospheric level, and doesn’t transform the figures into objects deserving of compassion. (Think of Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods [2012].) Though the opening line of “Total Humiliation in 1987”—“We rose at four in the morning—Margaret, the girls, and me—and zombied into the already-packed van to depart on our final family vacation…”—portends trouble, and a burial occurs, it isn’t a sentimental tale. Lennon’s roster of players includes failures, liars and whiners, the inept, the incurious, and those who are high maintenance but not high performance. What they are made to go through is fascinating, but if you stopped to think of them as your friends, you’d conclude that they’re dead losses.

Perhaps it’s needless to say that, for me, such a disregard for the importance of characters is a positive aspect to See You in Paradise.


At the start I mentioned Lennon’s disapproval, and malice. These are motors that power most of the best stories. (When missing, as in “Ecstasy,” “Flight” and “The Future Journey,” the result is less interesting). These two features can be presented under the guise of geniality—in “Portal,” Jerry foregoes being a pioneer in favour of restoring an old house—and can also be sharply worded. The prickliness takes many forms. In “The Accursed Items,” a list of damned objects or memories, each described in a sentence that begins with upper-case letters and ends without a period, Lennon writes: “THE ORANGE TOBOGGAN whisking her to her death”. When former lovers meet due to a travel mishap in “Flight,” the woman offers the man a place to sleep at her apartment: “‘There’s a patch of cold floor with your name on it,’ she said.”

Apart from the phrasing of lines that bring out rueful laughter and leave a sting, Lennon has branded his characters in a way that opens them to ridicule. Though names contain importance for the characters—in “Hibachi,” Philip and Evangeline correct “anyone who mistakenly called them Phil or Angie”—they work here in specific ways, when characters are given one. A name will appear in more than one story, as though it’s been shoved in there for our convenience; a name can be dull (John, Dan); or in the case of Lurene, Ruperta, Lynnae, and Lyrae, names serve as markers of someone’s failed attempt at uniqueness. This dismissal of a convention highlights the inferior position identity has in relation to what is going on.

All that, in addition to the action, the shifting perspectives, the ambiguities, and the clever, entertaining, and unanticipated conceits that fill See You in Paradise, while important, would not be enough if J. Robert Lennon didn’t posses a fine command of tone. This is a rich collection that will repay rereading.

—Jeff Bursey


Excerpt from “Zombie Dan”

One of the main features of See You in Paradise is the way Lennon pays attention to language as he makes his various points. (By points I mean, in part, that he has his fixations, like most writers.) In the excerpt there is an appeal made to Dan’s friends on this basis: “as friends and neighbors and decent, compassionate Americans.” That there is nothing special about these people—they are as “thoroughly debased” as the narrator of “Weber’s Head” says he is—becomes obvious. But the appeal to their patriotism works on multiple levels: it’s amusing, and seems a ridiculous way to enlist people; it is rhetoric that the speaker, the rich Ruth Larsen, Dan’s mother, believes can clinch the deal; and it aims to elide the distinctions that separate her from the undifferentiated friends, who would never be her neighbors. It also speaks to the higher stature of Americans when compared to people in other countries. American exceptionalism, then, is class snobbery on the nation-state level, and that fits in with many other remarks and observations in this collection. In “Zombie Dan” money’s reach extends into the grave, putting a spin on the term voodoo economics. None of Dan’s friends stand up to Larsen because they are further examples of the half-formed men and women, those without a strong inner core, who populate Lennon’s collection. Maybe they are the truly dead.

—Jeff Bursey


Excerpt from “Zombie Dan”

They figured out how to bring people back to life—not everybody, just some people—and this is what happened to our friend Dan Larsen. He had died falling off a yacht, and six months later, there he was, driving around in his car, nodding, licking his pale thin lips, wearing his artfully distressed sport jackets and brown leather shoes.

​Dan’s revivification was his mother’s doing. Yes, it was his father, Nils Larsen, who greased the right palms to get him bumped up in the queue, but his mother Ruth was the one who had the idea and insisted it come to pass, the one who called each and every one of us—myself, Chloe, Rick, Matt, Jane, and Paul—to enlist our emotional support, as friends and neighbors and decent, compassionate Americans. When Dan revived, she explained, he would need to rely upon the continuing attention and affection of his loved ones, and it was all of us—his old high school chums—whom he would need the most.

​Of course we agreed, how could we not? Dan’s mother brought us all together in the living room of the Larsen penthouse—a place of burnished mahogany, French portraiture, and thick pink pile carpet which none of us had ever imagined we’d see again—and told us what was about to happen. We stared, petits fours halfway to our gaping mouths, and nodded our stunned assent. A thin, bony, almost miniature woman of sixty with an enormous dyed-black hairdo like a cobra’s hood, Ruth Larsen gazed at each of us in turn, demanding our fealty with hungry gray eyes. The procedure would take several days, and then Dan would need a few weeks to recuperate—could we be counted on to sit at his bedside, keeping him company in regular shifts? Why yes, certainly we could! Were we aware just how important a part of the revivification process it was to remind the patient of his past, thus effecting the recovery of his memory? And did we know that, without immediate and constant effort, the patient’s memory might not be recovered at all? And so would we commit ourselves to assisting in this informal therapy by enveloping Dan in a constant fog of nostalgia for the entire month of March? Sure, you bet!

​Excellent, Mrs. Larsen told us, her papery hands sliding over and under each other with the faint, whisking sound of a busboy’s crumb brush.

​What remained unspoken that day, and went largely unspoken even among ourselves, in private, as we waited for Dan to be brought back to life, was that we had pretty much gotten over Dan since the funeral, and could not be said to have greatly missed him. Indeed, by the time Dan reached the age of twenty-five, the year of his death, we had basically had all of Dan we could ever have wanted. He was, in fact, no longer really our friend. The yacht he’d fallen off of belonged to some insufferable blueblood we didn’t know—that was the crowd Dan had taken to running with, the crowd he’d been born into, and all parties concerned had seemed satisfied with the arrangement. Dan’s being dead was no less acceptable to us than his having drifted out of our circle.

But Ruth Larsen didn’t know this, and so we were the ones she called upon in Dan’s time of need. Either that, or the insufferable bluebloods had refused. At any rate, we agreed to do what Mrs. Larsen demanded, and for better or worse he would be our friend once again.

—J. Robert Lennon


jeff again (3)

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic and author of the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010). He 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.

May 102014

Earlier this week, I moderated a Skype event at the Noah Webster Library in West Hartford, CT, featuring writers Laura van den Berg, Ethan Rutherford, and Jessica Hollander (You may recall my interview with Ethan printed in NC last year). The program, in celebration of National Short Story Month, was a mix of interview, reading, and Q&A, and the three spoke about crafting fiction out of doubt, the thematic elements of their work, and how drastic life changes influence their style. You can watch the full event (it’s about an hour long) below:

— Benjamin Woodard


May 092014


 Where would I have gone? one character asks. Is this question meant to illustrate his entrapment? Where would I have gone: there’s nowhere else I can go. Or is it an expression of preference? We walk a line, always, between obligation and isolation. Can you make peace with what you owe to your partner? What do you mean when you tell her, where else would I have gone? — Adam Segal

Selected Stories Cover

Selected Stories
Kjell Askildsen
Translated by Seán Kinsella
Dalkey Archive Press, May 2014
Paperback, 100 Pages, $11.95.


When Ameir discovered that I was a nonbeliever, he was incensed. We worked in a kitchen in downtown Iowa City; it was mid July and sweat was plentiful. What began as a jocular conversation about the benefits of certain religious dietary rules had become an expression of more radical thought: the most just society, argued Ameir, would be a total theocracy populated only by faithful adherents. He was a master provocateur, somehow believing this sincerely while simultaneously saying it simply to goad me. What about atheists, I said. They don’t belong in any society, he said. So I began to make my case.

The ensuing debate was lengthy and passionate but likely unremarkable, having been played out by young students for centuries. But one of Ameir’s more compelling barbs connected, and has stayed with me for years. If you’re so certain there’s no God to judge you, he says, and no afterlife to reward or punish you for your deeds, then why are you still here? Here, in Iowa City, in the July heat, in a restaurant kitchen. The mundane Here and not the seductive Elsewhere. His challenge presupposed questionably that the forces holding me in this Midwestern college town (close friends, need for financial stability, general contentment, crippling postgraduate uncertainty, etc.) were moral obligations as opposed to practical ones. But the challenge stung, and the challenge lingered, because in truth I’d been contemplating escape. In truth I’d been wondering just what ties were holding me in place.

This May, Dalkey Archive Press is publishing a taut little collection of fictions by the Norwegian author Kjell Askildsen.  Askildsen has been writing consistently since the 1950s, though these Selected Stories have been gathered from four collections published in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Askildsen is currently in his eighties. His writing has not yet been widely translated into English.

I think of this encounter with Ameir when I think of Askildsen. Selected Stories is a meditation on individual freedom, a book fraught with the day-to-day pressures of human life.

The nine brief stories collected within can all be described in terms of absences. The absence, for example, of experimental or ornate, “flowery,” prose. The absence of unnecessary characters. The absence of exotic or alien locales, or of complicated plot arcs. The emotional landscape is barren, bleak. The stories, on first glance, exhibit such stark similarity that it’s almost alarming. The first four take place prominently in suburban gardens and on the overlooking verandas. Very few of the protagonists mention work, none of them are seen working, and only one, in the three-page “The Nail in the Cherry Tree,” has a named profession. He is a poet. Only in the opening story, “Martin Hansen’s Outing,” is a young child involved or even mentioned. Parents are aging, ailing, or freshly dead. One senses that Askildsen is delicately, deliberately seeking answers to a particular set of nagging questions, and is never quite satisfied with what he uncovers.

Askildsen’s stories are thus constrained, quiet, and at times they even feel polite. But they are not simple.

It does at first seem odd, the overwhelming lack of employment. Where, after all, is this idle world in which one’s primary concerns consist of caring for guests and tending to the vegetable patch, a world in which several stories can begin with some variation of, “We drank morning coffee in the garden”? But it is precisely in this idleness that Askildsen is able to pursue his obsessions. He is fascinated by human pettiness. His characters lie in hundreds of small ways, grow unfairly annoyed with one another, expect much and offer little. They refuse to forgive, and never apologize.

“Martin Hansen’s Outing” sees the titular protagonist lie to his wife about having to meet his brother, just so he will be able to spend his evening drinking alone on the town. Elsewhere characters pretend not to hear their wives, berate grieving relatives for not having enough ashtrays, empty bottles of wine down the drain to create the illusion they got drunker than they did, and stand around in the middle of an upstairs room, simply to “let time pass.”

These antics are variously sad, cruel, and uncomfortably relatable. But Selected Stories is not just a comedy of minor indiscretions. Martin Hansen’s lie about his brother, for example, hints at further lies, and deeper infidelity. Martin comes clean and is asked by his wife “what’s the point of all this sudden honesty?” a question that keeps him up all night, wondering, “what does she know about me that I don’t know that she knows?” Askildsen convincingly plays out the multifaceted tensions and aggressions that arise between siblings and lovers alike. These stories, with very few words, evoke whole years or even decades of family history.

The peaceful, almost pastoral setting in which these stories take place does very little to abate the characters’ strife. Askildsen avoids lingering in his descriptions of nature. In “The Dogs of Thessaloniki,” the protagonist casually takes stock of what is perhaps the collection’s most vivid depiction of Norway’s natural splendor: “I had the fjord and the distant, wooded hillsides in front of me. The murmur of hushed conversation and the gentle gurgle of the water by the shore put me in a drowsy, absentminded state.” Otherwise one gardens in order to ignore one’s family, walks in the woods as a means of hiding from one’s spouse, discusses the weather to cover up all the things one ought to say but refuses to, or can’t. “A Lovely Spot,” a story about a married couple visiting the family summer home, repeatedly employs the title phrase as a sickening joke to illustrate just how incapable the couple is of genuine communication.

—Isn’t this a lovely spot, she said.

—Certainly is, he said.

One of Askildsen’s more acute concerns in these stories is the nature of adult male sexuality, which to him contains subtle underlying elements of violence, rapaciousness, and exploitation. Martin Hansen stares out the window at his daughter’s 15-year-old friend and finds that “it wasn’t difficult” to close his eyes and picture himself “taking her.” Another character reads a “rape-like scene” in a novel, and “felt [himself] aroused.” He develops an intense sexual interest in his new sister-in-law, commenting several times on “how easy it would be to lift her up.” None of the male characters act on these darker urges. But the urges are there, contributing to the sense that the thoughts and actions bubbling up to the surface in Askildsen’s stories–the lies, evasions, and little betrayals–are just superficial manifestations of the forces really at play.

In fact the depictions of male desire reminded me often of the work of J.M. Coetzee, whose aging, overeducated protagonists are often disgusted by and at odds with the power their lust still holds over them. But where Coetzee’s protagonist philosophizes and self-interrogates, reining in the influence of his phallus as if it were an excitable beast on a chain, Martin Hansen and his compatriots are much less interested in self-study. There is very little guilt or shame to be found within these pages. Defending his curious, evasive behavior while home for his father’s funeral, Bernhard, the protagonist of “The Unseen” declares, “I can’t help the way that I am. If I were to kill a person, for instance, I couldn’t help it, but I’m not about to kill anyone, that’s not how I am. Everything that I do, I do because that’s how I am, and it’s not my fault that I’m the way that I am.” Only in “The Unseen” is this idea so explicit, but a soft fatalism envelops every one of Askildsen’s stories.

I have, on several occasions, attempted to comfort myself and close friends in the wake of a breakup with the observation that, individual human desires being as they are so fleeting and disparate, it’s really something of a miracle that any romantic relationship manages to last at all. I acknowledge that the verity of this observation, as well as its usefulness as a soothing agent, are open to debate. But it strikes me now that if youthful romance is “miraculous,” then a lifelong committed marriage must be an exercise in impossibility. Two unlike and unlikely lives, welded together by tradition, eros, child-rearing, desire for fiscal responsibility.

At very least, this might be the thought of many of Askildsen’s characters, who view marriage as a form of oppression in direct opposition to their freedom. Martin Hansen (who, it seems, makes for the perfect prototypical Askilsenian protagonist) wonders for some time just why it is he lies to his wife, and eventually lights upon the realization that “my non-disclosure and falsehoods were prerequisites for my freedom.” Another character lies about visiting his sick father in order to get away from his wife for a few hours. He, too, is attempting to reassert control over his life: “Later on, as he was driving out of town in the direction of R, he felt almost cocky, and he thought: I do as I please.”

“Do you remember the dogs of Thessaloniki,” asks the protagonist’s wife Beate in the story of the same name, “that got stuck together after they mated… All the old men outside the café shouting and screaming… and the dogs howling and struggling to get free from one another.” This unsubtle little allegory makes it clear that all parties feel equally choked by the marital bond, and also brilliantly depicts the overwhelming agitation – the howling and the struggling – hiding beneath all this small talk over coffee in the garden. But how to break free? Beate’s husband, out for a walk earlier in the story, confides: “I noticed I was reluctant to go home, and suddenly I thought, and it was a distinct thought: if only she were dead.”

What, exactly, is this sort of freedom that manifests itself in such childish, petty ways? Why is it so important to establish one’s autonomy through minor deceptions, just so that one can go smoke cigarettes down by the fjord? It turns out that marriage isn’t the real culprit. What these characters want, more than anything, is to be free of all obligations, to be owed nothing and owe nothing in return.

It’s no coincidence that friendship is almost completely missing from these stories. The closest thing any protagonist has to a friend is described as “a man my own age who lives in the area, with whom I have a somewhat forced relationship, because he once saved my life.” This same character explains to his sister that he has no girlfriend because “I prefer women who don’t make any demands of me, but who give, take, and go.” In “The Unseen,” Bernhard is shown contentedly allowing his sister and her fiancé to carry on a conversation without him: “It had grown darker, their faces weren’t completely distinct, he felt almost unseen. Almost free.”

So it’s appropriate that so many of these stories are about family visits and homecomings: the homecoming is the time when one’s current self is weighed against old expectations and aspirations, when weddings and funerals shake up or reify the accepted family dynamics. Longtime conflicts, neglected or forgotten, seethe and push against expectations of civility. In an environment of increased pressure, it’s hard not to dream of escape.

But Askildsen’s stories don’t ever build to a level of tragic, operatic family collapse. The conclusions are anticlimactic, the conflict is rarely resolved. There is generally a return, or a resignation. There is an uneasy acceptance of the fact that one is trapped in the same situation as before. “The Grasshopper,” a story of admirable subtlety and palpable sadness, ends with the husband finding his wife–with whom he has of course had some quarrel–alone and afraid in their bedroom. “I thought you had gone, she said. Where would I have gone, he said.”

Where would I have gone?

Is this question meant to illustrate his entrapment? Where would I have gone: there’s nowhere else I can go. Or is it an expression of preference?

Askildsen’s Selected Stories present a world in which one can never truly escape from one’s obligations. There is one character who gets close. His wife is dead and he is ambivalent; he speaks with her father and feels “something approaching satisfaction thinking about how, now that Helen was dead, he was no longer my father-in-law, and Helen’s sisters were no longer my in-laws either.” In all this loss of ties he seems to lose his humanity as well. Contemplating life alone on a large, empty estate, he closes his eyes and sees “that great deserted landscape, that’s painful to see, it’s far too big, and far too desolate, and in a way it’s both within me and around me.” There’s only one place we’re certain to be freed from our debt: the grave.

We walk a line, always, between obligation and isolation. Can you make peace with what you owe to your partner? What do you mean when you tell her, where else would I have gone?

— Adam Segal


Adam Segal

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


Read “A Great Deserted Landscape” on Electric Literature

Nov 072013

redel photo Ettlinger

Victoria Redel

Make Me Do Things
Victoria Redel
Four Way Books
227 pages; $17.95

Whether examining divorce, infidelity, shaved genitalia or historical re-enactors who forget they’re acting, Victoria Redel’s prose tramples fiercely over safe and familiar conventions. Zany, powerful, and at times downright heartbreaking, her raw and luminous characters set out from territories that, at first glance, seem anything but exotic. And yet when they arrive, their destinations (and destinies) are always sublime.

A poet as well as a fiction writer, Redel has just released a new story collection, Make Me Do Things, with Four Way Books. This marks her seventh book; she has three previous books of poetry and three of fiction. And though her language and imagery are always sharp and rich, there’s a tidiness about her prose, a self-contained urgency, that makes each of the eleven stories in this collection taut and trenchant. It’s not surprising that Redel studied with Gordon Lish, or that Lish published her first book. In an interview, she credits Lish with “the belief is that the story works from the first sentence on, and if it doesn’t, then you fix the first sentence and go back.”

The first sentence of “On Earth” certainly works: “‘What if we were the last ones on Earth?’ her daughter said after Sasha turned off the bedside lamp and put the book back on the shelf.” In this twenty-five page story, Redel teases out themes of family, marriage, evolution, infidelity and obsessions. The daughter, Ella, is a seven-year-old girl preoccupied with dinosaurs. Sasha worries that dinosaurs are a “boy thing.” Then, on the second page, the story swerves, destabilizing expectations and opening up fresh possibilities.

This afternoon, the lover had moved Sasha over to the window. ‘Look out there,’ he’d said, positioning her against the sill as he pressed into her. ‘We’re all that’s left.’

Notice the parallels between the daughter’s question and the lover’s remark. Note the physical space of the two scenes—both set in bedrooms, Sasha twice poised on a bed but for very different purposes. Juxtaposed as they are, the scenes render an almost diabolical rhythm to the story. And yet Sasha still loves her husband. A connubial bliss somehow survives. After having passionate sex with her husband, she thinks, “if she told the women in the Muffin about the lover, they would be surprised most of all that she had no complaint about her husband.”

Later in the story, when Sasha discovers that her morose lover is secretly obsessed with her daughter, she is faced with an extinction of her own. The scrim standing between fantasy and reality becomes suddenly much thinner than she imagined:

Heat coughed from the pipes. The room was broiling. What instinct gone kerflooey would put so much at risk? He was making survival kits, three of them. ‘Come with me, my love’ he’d said. She was wrong; she hadn’t stepped into unexpected weather. She was her own catastrophe. Her own bolide collision. No, there were catastrophes much larger—unseen shifts to the system—she hadn’t considered. Extinction. The underlying cause, the failure to adapt to changing conditions.

All the elements of this story—the obsession with dinosaurs, the passion, the infidelity, the presumptions of reality, the premise of extinction—resonate throughout the text in wonderfully intricate patterns.

Again and again, Redel plays for the highest stakes, and she delivers with remarkably clever stories that haunt us long after the final words are sounded. In “The Third Cycle,” two seemingly innocuous albeit infertile women are sitting at a café having lunch. They decide to assume new identities:

‘I could use being someone else today,’ says one of the women.
‘You? Call me Polly and I’ve got to be happier than who I am,’ the other woman says, squeezing at her arm.
‘Polly? Right. That’s perfect. You’re Perky Polly and I’ll be a Susie,’ says the new Susie.

They order fresh, viable eggs for lunch. “‘Eggs! Eggs! More eggs!’ they shriek. ‘Lots and lots of them!’ And both of them are laughing now, unladylike, practically snorting water right at the waiter.” The set up is rather breezy, with humor and a curious energy. Like Lorrie Moore, Redel blends humor and sadness seamlessly, each hinted at in the characters’ refusal to say the word ‘baby.’ But Redel never particularizes this sadness. We don’t learn these characters’ histories, and the residual gaps work to set up expectations.

Then the Blue Woman, pushing a pram, sits down next to them, and things suddenly go off kilter. Polly and Susie offer to hold the Blue Woman’s crying baby and the two friends transform into, well, witches of a sort.

Redel is summoning Angela Carter here, and retelling a Slavic folktale, “Baby Yaga,” in feverishly inventive ways. When the Blue Woman asks for her baby back, Polly and Susie refuse to relinquish the infant. There’s mounting evidence that these two women have the darkest intentions: “The baby is plump, with full, plum cheeks. ‘Is this delicious or what?’ Susie says, leaning over the baby, making smoochy nibble kisses.” We refuse to believe that these women are about to actually eat the baby, but it certainly looms as a possibility. A storm ensues, a maelstrom of biblical proportions, replete with torrents of frogs and plagues of vermin. “Of course, slaying of the firstborn has been, if not mentioned, already considered.”

Perhaps what’s most surprising about Redel’s fiction is how masterfully compelling her twists turn out to be. What began as a relatively simple opening—resting on assumptions of maternity, infertility, wish fulfillment—turns dark, intriguing and utterly unexpected.

It’s impossible to nail down Redel’s style. Each of these eleven stories is uniquely crafted, perhaps because she approaches them with a protean lens, focusing attention down on the particular details of narrative and syntax, so that the result is clarity of intention and meaning. As a writer, she is willing to let her images guide her, willing to follow her sentences and characters into whatever strange and twisted paths they seem destined to trod.

In the final story, “Ahoy,” a husband and wife, after selling an internet startup company for a fortune, move to an island for a year. Their idyllic plans and their marriage quickly begin to unravel, primarily due to the husband’s incessant partying and budding cocaine habit. Then, Olivia takes a job at the Hardwick House, a historical home where she plays the part of a sea captain’s wife. She becomes pregnant, and for all intents and purposes, starts living in the nineteenth century.

This story is rich with dreamy details, conjuring up John Fowle’s novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which actually takes on a prominent role in the story. Like the novel, the murky line between reality is driven to a desperate, dramatic convulsion. The husband even begins to assume the role of Captain Hardwick.

This, the end of my story: like me, it’s wobbly, more often than not unable to walk a straight line. I have been away, at sea, adrift. I wish I came home bearing exotic gifts, tales of the South Seas and perils of rounding angry Cape Horn, but I never left port.

Like Redel’s narrator, we journey through this book as Redel builds a geography of textured prose that emerges from her lush and prolific imagination. Endowed with an amazing gift of wit and wisdom, she offers variations on themes and reconfigures the richness of life, story and memory. Her words rush out from familiar shores toward the unsettled shoals of ontology. Her characters are wonderfully and arrestingly broken, seekers in the best sense of the word. Innocence coexists alongside wisdom, hope alongside despair, love alongside lust. Somewhere in these stormy seas, Redel navigates us through these vivid and irresistible stories, and we, the beneficiaries of her work, never have to leave port.


—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, A Year in Ink, upstreet, New Plains Review, Descant (Canada) and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.


Oct 062013

In the latest edition of “The Lonely Voice,” Peter Orner focuses on short story writer Breece D’J Pancake. Pancake’s tale is a sad one: dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, he published only six stories while alive. These stories, and a handful of others, were collected posthumously for the book, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. Full of loss and moments of deafening silence, Pancake’s narratives truly are to be admired.

— Benjamin Woodard

So today I read “First Day of Winter” slow, the sun hardly up, the house quiet. When I finished, I put the book down on the kitchen table and went outside. A cold dawn in Bolinas, and I wished we had snow here like they do in West Virginia, or in Chicago for that matter, but the rising wind in the trees was enough.

I thought about Hollis and his fading parents.

The sun was blackened with snow, and the valley closed in quietly with humming, quietly as an hour of prayer.

Pancake paid close attention to the silence between his characters and also to the silence between sentences, between words. In the last paragraph of the story, Hollis listens to his mother hum as his father weeps himself to sleep. All the pressures closing in on what’s left of this family are—for a few moments, anyway—stayed. “First Day of Winter” is short, at least in terms of pages. It took me less than an hour to read and reread it, and yet it is the sort of story that lives on after the last period. Maybe this and this alone is the true test of any story. Does it remain after it is over?

Read the rest at The Rumpus

Jul 072013


Ethan Rutherford’s debut collection, The Peripatetic Coffin, is a funny, cutting, clever look at seclusion, often on the high seas. The title story, concerning the first Confederate submarine, was anthologized in the 2009 edition of The Best American Short Stories, while other stories originally appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, and Five Chapters. Though less than two months have passed since its publication, Rutherford’s collection has quickly gathered praise, from a longlist nomination for the Frank O’Connor award, to inclusion on several summer “must read” lists.

Though I eventually met up with the author at a reading in Providence, RI, the following interview was conducted during a long chain of emails, sometime between late May and mid-June. 

— Benjamin Woodard


Benjamin Woodard (BW): There’s a strong theme of isolation—both physical and emotional—that runs throughout the book. Did you aim for this theme, or did the thread organically appear as you assembled the collection?

Ethan Rutherford (ER): I’d like to say the thread appeared organically as I was putting the collection together—that I sat down with, say, twenty stories, and it became clear that what connected these eight particular stories was that they all orbited around the theme of what you’ve nicely identified as physical and emotional isolation (that “and” is important). But for whatever reason, isolation is a bit of an idée fixe for me as a writer. I can’t get away from it, and the result is that almost all of my stories hinge on, and address to varying degrees, the deleterious effects of spiritual, emotional, or physical isolation. If I were the sort of person who looked inward, rather than pushed these things outward, I’d be tempted to look for reasons: either that’s a sensation I’m familiar with, or the condition I fear most, or some fraught combination thereof. Or, most simply—and less all about me—I think that when a character finds herself in an isolated state, she is at her most combustible, which is an interesting place to be as a reader. And those are the sorts of moments I hustle towards, as a writer.

As for the stories that made the cut and appear in the book: the hope, with a collection, is that each story pulls its weight in order to make the whole somehow greater than the sum of its parts. You want thematic riffing between stories, but you don’t want repetition. The stories need to be in conversation with each other, even if that conversation is submerged, but you don’t want to bang the same pots and pans over and over again. The ocean; the theme of isolation; the ways in which all the characters, at some point, confront what I’ve taken to calling the Talking Heads question—David Byrne, in “Once In A Lifetime,” saying in the turn around: “You may say to yourself, My God, what have I done?” After many cuts and substitutions—giving different stories a shot in the lineup—the stories you see here were the last ones standing. 

BW: Staying on the theme of isolation, you often achieve this effect by employing large vessels to quarantine your characters. Of these, two—the Hunley and the Saint Anna—are real, and one—the Halcyon—exists in a sort of alternative Earth. I’m curious as to what drew you to write historical narratives around the Hunley and the Saint Anna, and also what spurred you to create an alternative universe in which the Halcyon exists.

ER: Ah, “quarantine” is a great way to put it. Well, the easiest answer is simply that I love boats, and the ocean, and one of the great things about writing fiction is that you can sit down and ask yourself: where do I want to go today? The answer for me is always: out to sea. But the challenge, of course, comes when you begin to interrogate what you’re doing, and ask: well, what’s interesting about this, and what makes it a story? What drew me to the historical stories—“The Peripatetic Coffin,” which is set aboard the H.L. Hunley, the first Confederate submarine, and “The Saint Anna,” a story that swims and dips into the True Arctic Disaster genre—was that the real circumstances and events of those stories were so bracing, and end in such calamity, that I was interested in trying to pull those events back down to the human scale. We know how the stories end—catastrophically—but as I read about the fate of those ships, I began to wonder what it felt like to be aboard, embarking on what anyone would eventually recognize as The End of the Line. How do you wrap your mind around something like that?  How do you square up, and to what extent does your emotional response meet or fall short of the ways in which you would’ve hoped and expected? Both of those stories end, to some degree, in failure—the ship is sunk, the crew, nevermore.

With “Dirwhals!” I was hoping to flip the scenario—it’s a successful voyage, in that they finally get what they came for, but at what cost? They’ve hunted a species to extinction, and here we are, the David Byrne question ringing out once more, but this time in a slightly different key, perhaps a more horrified register. “Dirwhals!” was supposed to be a novel—a sequel to Moby Dick—set during the waning days of the American Whaling Industry, when, after the discovery that petroleum could be distilled into kerosene, whaling seemed even more pointless. The voyages were longer, the returns diminished, the hunt increasingly senseless. But, you know, who can go up against Moby Dick? That book is a masterpiece. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the concerns of that imagined story—the rolling wheel of capitalism, the senseless degradation of the environment, the squeezing of natural resources until there is simply nothing left—were still resonant, maybe even more so, today. It’s not too hard to see the way we are going with the environment, and the decision to put the story a few years in the future had to do with wanting those issues to be even starker than they are right now. So there’s the heavy thematic answer for you. On a more basic level, I just love sci-fi, and was excited to write in that genre, and build whatever world I wanted.


BW: “The Peripatetic Coffin” quickly builds a rhythm off of a series of narrative lists. “Summer, Boys” flows thanks to a strong use of parallel construction. And “Camp Winnesaka” bounces along with a steady combination of high and low (even casual) vocabulary.  How do you approach the language of your narratives?

ER: Well, for me, the challenge of a particular story, the fun part, is sitting down and wondering: who is the best, most interesting person to tell this story? And then you’re faced with the question of how are they going to tell it. I wanted each story to be distinct, and the way I chose to do that was to vary the formal approach—the narrative nuts-n-bolts—of each story. You don’t want stylistic repetition. There may be no new stories under the sun, but there are always new ways to tell them. But the trick is trying to marry form and function. In a story about friends who view themselves as somewhat indistinguishable from one another, a parallel construction and a blurring of narrative POV is in some ways appropriate (“Summer, Boys”). In “Camp Winnesaka,” which is what Charles Baxter would call a dysfunctional narrative in that it is a story in which absolutely no one is willing to take responsibility for what has happened, a monologue that falls all over itself trying to avoid culpability, complete with sentence fragments, etc., seemed like a good mode to work in. You know, that camp counselor has a hard job, trying to convince the reader that the accidental deaths of like, 70 campers, is emblematic something other than a total debacle. The trick is in finding a way of telling that augments the themes contained within a story—brings them into sharper relief, makes the stories sail a little further than they would have otherwise. But narrative tricks, or formal experimentation for experimentation’s sake—where form is the dominant characteristic—that falls flat for me as a reader.

BW: In a story like “Saint Anna,” how do you balance the level of humor and horror in a narrative that essentially revolves around impending death?

ER: Well, I don’t know how it’s done, necessarily, and I couldn’t write a story that says [insert joke here], but I do know that tragedy without comedy isn’t tragedy at all. The characters I love, as a reader, are the ones who take the time to say: wait a second guys, did you see that? That is ridiculous. It’s about seeing. And if all you see is doom and gloom, you don’t have your eyes open very wide at all, and it comes off, on the page, as seeming less than human. Or maybe I should just say this. In every story I write, Bill Murray, who is my hero in every possible way, is sort of sitting on my shoulder, saying: sure, the ship is about to be crushed by ice, but have you tried this amazing hardtack? I like the dissonance created when someone who should be taking something seriously does not; it’s a refusal I find stubbornly humane. Here’s a quote I love, but even as it’s guided my approach to writing about bracing things, I’m not sure I fully understand: “To joke in the face of danger is the supreme politeness, a delicate refusal to cast oneself as a tragic hero.” Edmond Rostand wrote that. And I guess I have an issue with the idea of bland, tragic heroism. The world is so much more complicated than that. At a reading, someone said that the characters in “The Peripatetic Coffin,” as I’d written them, behaved heroically. And that hadn’t been my intention, at all.

BW: Your stories, while containing dialogue, do not rely on long character conversations to relay a narrative. When you write, do you construct longer passages of dialogue that get edited down, or is this sparseness there from the start?

ER: It got hammered into me pretty early that dialogue should only be used sparingly. The sparseness is there from the start, and I tend to think of dialogue more as a form of emotional punctuation in a story than anything else. Every time a character speaks, it should be in the service of revealing how that character feels about a situation, and I’ve found that if that’s your intention, you don’t need a page of conversation to get to the point. I’m happiest when exposition does most the work of moving a story forward, and dialogue daggers in either to veer the emotional content in a new direction, or reveal something about how the events feel to a character. Obviously, there’s a spectrum here, and the ratio of exposition to dialogue will change depending on the formal choices you’ve made—if the story is told in the first person, there is less dialogue than if it were, say, told in close third. But for the most part I try to keep the dialogue sparse. Action speaks louder than words, and all of that. I’m sure I’ll regret saying this, and my next story will consist of nothing but dialogue, but that’s how I felt when putting these stories together.

BW: At the beginning of “A Mugging,” your omniscient narrator pulls a very brief metafictional trick by speaking directly to the reader and admitting that he (or she) cannot do anything to stop the story from happening. What played into your decision to have the narrator make this statement, as it is the only time he (or she) makes such a move?

ER: In the original draft of that story, the narrator swoops in again at the end, to bemoan the inevitability of the fallout from the mugging and to provide a bookend for that initial meta-commentary. But it never sat right, that ending, and felt largely unnecessary, and too directive (really, it was one of those: “What you’ve just read is…” kind of things, just mortifying in retrospect). I went to chop the beginning, though, and found that I could not. And I think it has something to do with the initial invocation of the “you,” the direct address to the reader, making him/her complicit to some degree with the events that follow. One of the unsettling things for me about being a reader is that you are fundamentally passive, and though you are engaged with whatever story you’re reading, you are helpless to stop the locomotive as it rounds the bend. Making that explicit, in this particular story—I’m not sure what the effect is for other readers—but for me, in writing it, it made me care more about the dissolution about this particular marriage. The story is also told in the future tense, which also hopefully compounds the reader’s sense that something could have been done, if only someone could have cut the red-wire on the ticking bomb in time, stepped in, said “stop.” I think the characters are aware of this as well—aware that their actions are destructive to one another even as they are doing them, but they can’t bring themselves to act differently. The characters are passively watching as they unravel their own marriage. It seems only fair to spread some of that blame around. 

BW: I read “Camp Winnesaka” as an allegory for the Iraq War. Is that a fair assessment? How do you react to these kinds of interpretations of your work?

ER: Oh, yes, absolutely, and in this case, you’ve found the nerve. This story originated after I’d been reading about Pat Tillman, and the events that followed his death due to friendly fire (more specifically: the way that narrative was spun by those invested in the war effort, until the truth came out). But the hope is that the story succeeds on its own, even if the parallels aren’t picked up. People have read that story without registering the Iraq/Afghanistan/Endless War analog, and have been properly horrified, which makes me happy, because if seeing the “real world” parallel is required for the story to have any emotional heft, then it’s a failure. Just this morning, I was in the car, and “Space Oddity” by David Bowie came on the radio. For years and years I’d thought that was just a weird and beautiful song about an actual spaceman, in actual space, whose final missive, as he’s heading out of range, is to tell his wife he loves her very much (“she knoooooows!”). Then someone told me: you know that’s about drugs, right? And I was strangely flattened by that news. You can’t unhear it, and I liked the song better when I understood it literally, rather than as an elaborate junkie metaphor. Which is a long way of saying: I’m happy to hear that anyone has enjoyed that story, on any level. These stories—they’re not yours once you send them out into the world, and it doesn’t matter what your intention was as you were writing them. What matters is how they’re received. “Camp Winnesaka,” though, was the happiest I’ve ever been writing a story, though, for whatever that’s worth. It just came right out. Pure joy to write that one.

BW: In addition to writing, you play guitar in the band Pennyroyal. Do you find that your work in one medium influences the other? Have you written songs that become stories, and vice versa?

ER: The crossover has only happened once, between the story “The Saint Anna” and a song called “Captain,” which opens: “Captain, the ice it won’t break on its own / and we can’t brook the expanse all alone. / By your brow I can see you’re unhappy now. / The leads have stitched and there’s no going home.” What a chart-topper! Other than that, music and writing rarely intersect for me. I find when I write fiction, the pleasure comes from inhabiting the lives of others, and trying to bring color to experiences I’ve never had. When writing music, it tends to be more confessional, more personal, more of a direct unburdening. What I love about writing—that you are responsible for creating your own tiny universe—is the exact opposite of what I love about playing music, which is that when things are moving well, and everyone is playing and really listening to each other, what is created is always a bit of a happy surprise. You know immediately if something is working or not; whereas with writing, it might take you months to figure out you’ve hit a sour note, or were playing in the wrong key all along.

BW: Several small narrative elements in “Summer, Boys”—the Boz poster, Spokey Dokes, Garbage Pail Kids, Bambi vs. Godzilla—firmly and genuinely plant the story in the late 1980s. I’m guessing you were a kid during this time. Do you have fond memories of these knickknacks, and, if so, is it difficult to inject real elements of your childhood into a fictional story?

ER: I was a kid during the 80’s, though the references invoked in that story are a combination of the things I loved and what I understood Older Kids to love (i.e. the things I knew I should love too, but my parents either wouldn’t get for me, or wouldn’t let me watch). And it was a pleasure to allow myself to go back in time like that, remembering this or that cherished and fetishized, and now forgotten, object of childhood. Just a pleasure. All of it came right back. When you’re a kid, you love stuff. The few things that are yours are extremely important to you, emotionally and imaginatively; they link you to the world. Who am I? I’m a kid who lives for a new pack of Garbage Pail Kids. There’s always a concern out there—someone always brings it up—that if you include pop-culture touchstones in a story you are unnecessarily dating a piece of writing, ensuring that it won’t have resonance outside of the few people who cherished the exact same things you did, and therefore Won’t Become Literature. I get where that idea is coming from, but with respect, that theory of literature can go sink itself. It’s the most reductive way to think about fiction, that there are certain things you can and should be writing about. And for “Summer, Boys” in particular—a story that is about a fleeting moment in childhood, when meaning is attached to, and in many ways originates from, very specific pop-cultural flotsam—how could you not include the names? They’re not toy robots. They’re Transformers. That these things ascend as treasured objects, and then are promptly forgotten, or replaced—that’s the point of the story. And as far as that emotional sentiment also characterizes the friendship between the two boys, is where its sadness comes from.

BW: Perhaps this is a cruel question to ask someone on the week that his debut collection is released, but what are you working on now?

ER: Oh boy, you are cruel! I’m working on a novel, which is in its infancy at the moment, and may thrive, or may not. I mean: I think it’s a good idea for a book. But I’m also the guy who spent seven years trying to write a story narrated by Conan the Barbarian, so I don’t always have the best perspective on these things.

BW: Finally, what’s the best advice you received from a literary mentor?

ER: Paraphrasing here, but from Jim Shepard—take what you’re interested in seriously, push it until you find what’s weird about that, and then keep digging until you find the emotional heart of your story. More directly, from an interview he did: “Quirky without pain? Then you’re just performing.” And from Charles Baxter, who said to me once: “Nothing’s happening here.  Something has to happen.” He’s also the guy who pulled the plug, finally, on the Conan story, and the world can thank him for that forever.

— Ethan Rutherford & Benjamin Woodard


Ethan Rutherford was born in Seattle, and now lives in the Midwest. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, New York Tyrant, Esopus, Five Chapters, and The Best American Short Stories. His work has received special mention in the 2009, 2010 and 2013 editions of the Pushcart Prize, and received awards from the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. He received his MFA from the University of Minnesota, and has taught creative writing at Macalester College, the University of Minnesota, and the Loft Literary Center. He is the guitarist for the band Pennyroyal, which has been assaulting the ears of its listeners with songs of the ocean and long lost love since 2010. He is currently at work on a novel set in the Alaskan wilderness.

Ben_WoodardBenjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His writing has been featured in, or is forthcoming from, Numéro CinqDrunken Boat, Cleaver Magazine, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.

Apr 042013

lipsyte(Photo: Robert Reynolds)

Fun Parts

The Fun Parts
Sam Lipsyte
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
224 Pages, $24.00
ISBN 978-0374298906

About halfway through Sam Lipsyte’s comical, prickly new story collection, The Fun Parts, comes “The Worm in Philly,” a narrative wound around the nameless junkie son of a sportswriter and his desire to pen a children’s book about the middleweight boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler (“Why Marvelous Marvin Hagler?” he ponders. “Why not?”). The story contains all the Lipsyte standards—absurdity, crudeness, punchy dialogue, and a strange, underlying sweetness. It also weaves two elements of the author’s personal life into the text: the well-known sportswriter/children’s author father (Lipsyte’s dad is Robert Lipsyte), and the moment when the narrator realizes nobody has any interest in pursuing his project:

“What about the book?” I said.
“The book.”
“The advance?”
“The advance,” said Cassandra. “Here’s your advance.”
She pulled bills from her bag, tossed them on the table.

Lipsyte’s first novel, The Subject Steve, suffered from an unfortunate publication date, September 11, 2001, and flopped so badly with the general public that when he completed his follow-up, Home Land, he couldn’t acquire US distribution. And though things eventually worked out—Home Land finally found paperback publication, and the author has since released another novel, 2010’s The Ask—this brush with failure seems apt, in a way, for an author whose stories repeatedly provide toeholds for similar situations. Dating back to his 2000 collection, Venus Drive, Lipsyte’s strong understanding of those existing on the fringe allows his narratives to crackle with an uneasy vigor. As such, the struggles of has-beens and never-weres flood The Fun Parts. Tovah D’Agostino, the part-time preschool assistant in “The Climber Room,” is a failed poet. The male mother’s helper in the witty “Wisdom of the Doulas” finds himself marginalized by his employer to the point where he takes desperate measures to regain his stature. And the namesake of “Ode to Oldcorn,” once a famous shot-putter, now rolls into town to party with a bunch of teenagers, declaring, “I want all the beer in your town … And I want teen poot, if that’s available.”

While the thirteen stories in the collection are not intentionally linked, like in the aforementioned “The Worm in Philly,” most find a thematic spine in their exploration—both closely and peripherally—of family bonds. In these tales, parents often come across as aloof, cruel, or manipulative. Doctor Varelli, the father of the title teenager in “The Dungeon Master,” calls his children “puppies,” and fawns over them as if a fanatic, rather than an authoritarian. Similarly, the parents of an overweight boy in “Snacks” pressure him to lose weight while simultaneously neglecting to help him achieve said goal. And, returning to “The Climber Room,” the character of Randy Gautier, adoptive father to Tovah’s young student, Dezzy, uses his power and money to influence the world around his daughter, controlling the schedules of daycare employees by dangling the carrot of an annual donation in front of their faces.

This parental scheming slinks into the relationships between Lipsyte’s adult characters and their aging progenitors, as well. “Nate’s Pain is Now,” one of the book’s strongest stories, chronicles the day-to-day of a once-popular author of drug memoirs:

I had a good run. Bang the Dope Slowly and its follow-up, I Shoot Horse, Don’t I?, sold big … My old man, the feckless prick, even he broke down and vowed his love. But as a lady at a coffee bar in Phoenix put it, what goes up can’t stay up indefinitely because what’s under it, supporting it, anyway?

Realizing his star has faded, the author bums around the city and finds nourishment in the faxes sent to him by his father, which begin “Dear Disappointment.” This, of course, is often quite funny. Still, at a later visit, the following transpires:

“Why don’t you drink a pint of lye and get it over with?” my father said. “Why don’t you have yourself a nice little lye-and-hantavirus smoothie? That’ll fix you up good, you piece of shit.”

My father flung himself across the table, flapped his hand in my face. It’s true he never hit me. A father need not hit. His coughs, his smirks, are blows. Even a father’s embrace confers a kind of violence. Or so I once pronounced on public radio.

Though clearly aiming for a laugh with the final line in this passage, Lipsyte’s own words argue a truth behind the contrasting ideas of love and violence within family. For even the few healthy relationships within The Fun Parts contain pointed edges. “Deniers,” concerning a recently clean woman, a man looking to escape the prejudices of this past, and her Holocaust-survivor father, presents a man who loves his daughter, yet rarely speaks to her from his nursing home bed. He’s lost in his memories of WWII, his own dementia, and in the middle of a conversation, asks her, “How’s the whoring? You make enough money for the drugs? You let the scvartzers stick it in you?” Though she replies with a clever retort, she looks up at her father’s attendant for “some flicker of solidarity.” A similar reaction occurs in “The Republic of Empathy,” where young Danny, a boy convinced he’s “the narrator of a mediocre young adult novel from the eighties,” waxes poetic during a drive with his father:

I generally want to hand it to him, and then, while he’s absorbed in admiring whatever I’ve handed to him, kick away at his balls. That’s my basic strategy.

Despite the fact that the surface relationships between these characters appear stronger than those in the collection’s other stories, they are still quite fragile. Verbal and physical violence, humorous or not, simmer under a thin façade. Such emotion, like the individuals who possess them, quivers on the fine line that divides success from failure.

This is not to say that The Fun Parts loiters in misery. If anything, the collection finds some of its finest moments laughing at despair. And much of this success comes from Lipsyte’s terrific use of language. A student of Gordon Lish, the author borrows liberally from his mentor’s literary toolbox, frequently employing Lish’s idea of consecution to his writing. As defined by Jason Lucarelli in his essay “The Consecution of Gordon Lish,” consecution is, “about continually coaxing action, conflict, and interest out of prior sentences by bringing out what is implied or suggested in what has already been written.” This technique includes the use of image patterning, alliteration, repetition, and parallel construction, among others, to construct strong, momentum-building narratives.

As an example, “The Climber Room” contains two repeated images: Jesus Christ and penetration. One, in a way, implies the other, and yet they transpire separately within the narrative. The first image echoing Christ occurs when Tovah is at a market checkout counter. “You didn’t die for my sins, lady,” the register employee tells her. “So don’t go building a cross for yourself.” Later, Tovah thinks about a past moment of comfort and equates it to “the way Jesus must have worked.” When she then considers having a child of her own, Jesus returns with the quip: “You couldn’t be pregnant if you hadn’t been laid in three years. A devout Catholic could still hope, but not Tovah.” And, finally, Jesus Christ makes an appearance in a panicked curse, when Randy exclaims, “Jesus fucking Christ.”

Similarly, the image and concept of penetration begins its patterning when Tovah suffers from a stomachache so painful, it is as if “a miniature swordsman flensed her gut with his foil.” In the next paragraph, her fountain pen is said to have “impaled” a pillow. This pattern continues throughout the story, from reference made to a heroin addiction, to “sharp” dollar bills and gold-digging implements “edged enough to carve.” And the ultimate payoff is the story’s final image: that of Randy standing in front of Tovah with his penis exposed, ready for sex, the ultimate penetration.

The two repeated images in “The Climber Room” create a kind of thematic consecution, providing, as defined in Lucarelli’s essay, “a deeper level of coherence and unity to a story with passages that offer insight into story meaning.”

Lipsyte also employs alliteration to add a bouncy depth to his narratives. The pregnant couple in “The Wisdom of the Doulas” is described as the type lost without “their antique Ataris and sarcastic sneakers.” Within the first two pages of “The Climber Room,” parents are called “crypto-creepy,” and Dezzy is complimented on her “sparkly shoes.” Talk of Dezzy’s sparkle shoes then leads to the memory of a home, which is called “dizzying.” Dezzy, sparkly, dizzy. Likewise, Lipsyte finds strong use for parallel construction in these stories. The boy at the beginning of “Snacks,” in considering the perks of losing weight, mentions the possibility of receiving “blow jobs,” “hand jobs,” and “all the jobs” from his sister’s friends. And when Tovah in “The Climber Room” meets an old flame for dinner, the third person narration notes: “The shock about Sean was his shock of white hair.” This playfulness creates action at the base level of sentence, and in turn strengthens the overall work.

In the end, though, what makes The Fun Parts such a joy to read is Lipsyte’s commitment to creating environments and situations that are often left in the shadows of contemporary American literature. In a 2010 interview with Paris Review, the author said, “I write what I want. I try to write what I’d like to read. I think about not wasting a reader’s time, my own included.” This personal enjoyment is evident in his stories, where the losers find a voice, even if they continue to stumble toward obscurity.

Benjamin Woodard


Ben_WoodardBenjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His reviews have been featured in Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. His fiction has appeared in Numéro Cinq. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.

Dec 112012

“A Cut” is a very short story, allegorical, if you will, mordant and slyly ironic in the modern mode, representing a clash of values, a clash of the new and the old, with the voice of tradition coming in the words of the teacher trying to keep control of his classroom, inhumanely and blindly reciting the former courtesies in the face of contemporary social realities (chaos and violence). “A Cut” is Catalan writer Quim Monzo‘s second appearance in Numéro Cinq (see his earlier story “Gregor” here). The story is excerpted from Monzo’s collection A Thousand Morons, translated by Peter Bush, and just published by Open Letter Books. See NC Senior Editor Richard Farrell’s review of A Thousand Morons here.



Toni dashes into the classroom with a look of terror in his eyes and a gash in his neck. It is a deep, broad cut, spurting blood that is bright crimson rather than red. One would say, on the evidence of a glance, without a proper investigation, that, now that the flesh has opened up, the gash—that in principle should be no more than a millimeter wide—is two to three centimeters across. We might estimate its length at twenty to twenty-five centimeters, given that it starts under his left ear, goes down his neck, and ends level with his chest, slightly to the right of his sternum.

“They attacked me with a broken bottle.”

Blood is seeping down his neck, staining the white shirt of his uniform. His jacket collar is equally soaked in blood.

“Come on, boy. Is this any way to walk into the classroom, Toni?”

“Sir, Ferran and Roger got hold of a broken bottle next to the vending machine, stuck it into me, and . . .”

“How does one enter the classroom, Toni? Is this how one comes into a class? Does one enter any old way? Does one enter without saying ‘Good morning’? Is this what we have taught you at school?”

“Good morning,” says Toni, putting his right hand over the gash to try to staunch the flow of blood.

“Generally speaking, habits have been degenerating, and you are not to blame, I know. We are also to blame, in institutions that are unable to offer an education that shapes character with a proper sense of discipline and duty. But society is also to blame, and all the many parents who demand that school provides the authority they are incapable of wielding. You, Toni, are but a sample, a grain of sand from the interminable beach of universal disorder. Where is the discipline of yesteryear? Where are the sacrifice and effort? Where are the basics of education and civility we have inculcated into you day after day, from the moment you entered this institution? I know that many other educational institutions practice a much laxer form of education, and that, as it is impossible to totally isolate each individual, and being aware of the tendency of the youth to mingle and fraternize, I know, for all these reasons, that, however much our institution strives to educate you in exemplary fashion, if we are the only ones inculcating any norms, you have too great an opportunity to be polluted by the lax mores of others.”

“Sir, I’m soaked in blood.”

“So I see. And I can also see the dreadful mess you are leaving on the parquet. Not to mention your shirt and your jacket. You know by now that I like your uniforms to always be spotless. But we will leave that for tomorrow. Now go to reception and ask Mr. Manolo for a mop and a bucket of water and try not to splatter blood all down the corridor, as you will have to clean that too.”

—Quim Monzo


Quim Monzo is an award-winning Barcelona based writer. He has written novels, story collections, essays and journalism. His short story collection, A Thousand Morons, translated from Catalan by Peter Bush, is available from Open Letter. Bush’s sharp and flawless translation brings together 19 stories and shorter fictions from one of Catalonia’s leading writers. Monzo’s short story “Gregor” can be read here at Numéro Cinq.


Jul 182012

 Quebec author and publsher, Gilles Pellerin

 “Je vous présente Véronique” is a sly, comic, bitter very short story that twists and twists. The narrator and his wife arrive at a party separately. She is talking to someone else who introduces her to her husband without knowing their connection. The wife and husband play the game of strangers. Maybe they play too well. Maybe we shouldn’t play such games.

This is just one little story in a new selection by my old friend Gilles Pellerin, author, critic and publisher at Les Éditions l’instant même. See his twitter stories published earlier this year on, Le lit de Procruste.




Du moment qu’ils se sont brouillés, ils se sont mis à me téléphoner sans arrêt. Avec la même demande : « As-tu vu l’autre ? » – le prénom même était proscrit –, est-ce que je lui avais parlé ? Au début, je répondais non. « Je suis très occupé, pour ainsi dire jamais à la maison. » Je ne me suis jamais résolu à me procurer un téléphone portatif, me contenant d’une ligne sèche à la maison. Au bureau on ne doit sous aucun motif autre que professionnel me passer un coup de fil, la chose est universellement connue. Je ne Je raccrocherais immédiatement au nez de qui ferait entorse à ce principe, voulût-on m’annoncer le début de la Troisième Guerre mondiale. Je me suis inventé une vie trépidante : « La saison théâtrale est grandiose, je sors beaucoup, rentre tard et me couche aussitôt. – Seul ? – Évidemment. » Sur ce point, je ne mentais pas : aussi seul que le pronom personnel je. Ce qui serait à inventer chez moi, c’est des amis, une histoire d’amour, une histoire, une simple histoire.

Or, c’était la Troisième Guerre mondiale : les deux belligérants avaient choisi d’étendre leur querelle à l’ensemble de leurs relations et de constituer chacun ses alliances. La ligne de front s’était vite étendue à tout l’univers connu. Un peu plus et je demandais s’il ne conviendrait pas aux uns et aux autres de porter des couleurs distinctes afin que chacun se reconnaisse et sache à cent mètres d’avis s’il fallait sourire ou tourner les talons quand on rencontrait quelqu’un de leurs connaissances.

À la longue, je me suis rendu compte que leur inimitié me minait : appels et rencontres ne portaient que sur les torts et les défauts de l’autre. Il est plus facile de combattre que de tenter de faire la paix, semble-t-il. J’en ai appris au-delà de ce qui est raisonnable, j’avais droit à des largesses qui me faisaient l’effet de pots-de-vin. J’ai vriament multiplié mes soirées au théâtre et au concert car alors personne ne pouvait me joindre ni au téléphone ni à la maison. Comme j’étais leur seul ami commun, je me suis retrouvé seul dans le no man’s land et suis devenu suspect aux yeux des membres des deux saintes alliances, dont je me trouvais exclu. Pour m’en sortir, j’ai commencé à inventer des obligeances discrètes que l’un aurait manifestées à l’égard de l’autre, de timides appels de phares dont j’aurais été témoin et qu’il me semblait indispensable de transmettre au bénéfice de la paix à retrouver. Je n’ai jamais eu d’imagination : ce que je racontais était crédible, avait l’air réel. Je n’avais qu’à doser ces soi-disant confidences sur le mode du crescendo, à prêter à l’absent ce que j’avais moi-même le goût de dire (que notre ancienne amitié, notre amitié historique m’était chère) : ce n’était plus mes amis que j’avais devant moi, leur querelle avait vicié notre propre relation, je voulais que tout redevienne comme avant et j’ai tout mis sur le compte de l’autre, de son désir inavoué mais profond de tout effacer de cette brouille, de tout recommencer. Je tenais une histoire, pas la mienne, certes, mais une belle histoire de réconciliation dont nous bénéficierions tous. C’est en inventant que je m’en sortirais, que le téléphone se tairait enfin, que nous retrouverions nos soupers d’autrefois au-dessus d’un saumon grillé, au son des toasts et des rires.

Pour m’en sortir, je m’en suis sorti : le téléphone ne sonne plus, les réseaux se sont réconciliés, en me voyant chacun tourne les talons. Blâmes, travers, vilenies, petitesses, on a tout enterré, et moi avec, qui ai tout entendu.


Je vous présente Véronique

J’ai apprécié ce que j’ai d’abord attribué à l’humour : on me présentait Véronique – ma propre femme. J’allais établir l’équation entre elle et moi, en essayant d’être le plus diplomate possible, de ne pas faire sentir au type l’incongruité de sa démarche – j’ai horreur, en société, de sentir mes interlocuteurs mal à l’aise, encore plus si j’y suis pour quelque chose. Véro est parfois coquine : elle jouait le jeu. J’ai décidé d’en faire autant, mais avec moins de talent qu’elle, je dois l’avouer, à tel point que de-ci de-là au cours du cocktail, j’ai eu peur de la trahir par un signe de familiarité à son endroit. Je me suis évidemment abstenu de la toucher, ce qui n’était pas le cas de l’autre, encore moins l’embrasser : agirait-on ainsi avec celle qui était encore une inconnue quelques minutes auparavant ? Ce serait d’autant plus déplacé que personne ne me connaissait ni n’avait retenu mes nom et prénom quand j’avais salué les uns et les autres, oubli que je leur rendais bien, d’ailleurs.

L’embrasser, le désir m’en était cependant venu – j’utilise « désir » dans son acception forte –, ce qui m’a troublé : Véronique devenait-elle plus désirable du fait que la situation me la rendait étrangère ? Tantôt, elle était à côté de moi, tantôt elle disparaissait dans la foule, ainsi que dans les rêves la femme convoitée sait se défiler.

Les scénarios, même quand ils surgissent à l’improviste, finissent par se conclure : du coin de l’œil j’ai vu Véronique quitter la salle, saluer les uns et les autres, puis s’engager sur le trottoir en direction de l’auto – notre auto. Elle était venue en voiture de la maison, et moi à pied du travail, comme nous en avions convenu. Le bureau est à deux pas, ce qui au reste me permettait de partir un peu plus tard et de régler dans le calme le dossier qui m’avait occupé depuis quelques jours.

J’ai hâté le pas afin de la rejoindre – je pensais la prendre par le bras, la vouvoyer, lui demander si elle voyait quelque inconvénient à ce que je fasse un bout de chemin avec elle, avant d’y aller avec une proposition plus conséquente – vous êtes libre ce soir ? vous viendriez manger un morceau avec moi ? je connais un bistro plutôt sympathique, avec un éclairage tamisé tout ce qu’il y a de plus chouette. Tamisée, ma voix l’aurait été, mais Véronique s’est retournée brusquement, visage fermé, hostile, « maudit collant », tout de suite le téléphone cellulaire à la main, prête à composer le 9-1-1 qui donne accès à la centrale de police, l’endroit tout indiqué pour appeler à l’aide quand une femme est suivie par un importun qui s’approche d’elle à grands pas, dans le but évident de l’accoster.


Page blanche

Je voulais écrire des histoires sur les trains. J’ai acheté un carnet ligné à belle et forte reliure et un assortiment de stylos à encre bleue, plus un à l’encre noire pour les corrections et retouches, que j’espérais mineures tout de même. J’ai attendu que vienne la prose robuste dont je me sentais capable.

Rien. Ni prose ni histoire. Je vis dans une ville oubliée par le chemin de fer à l’époque où l’on en construisait. Qu’à cela ne tienne, j’ai déménagé, me suis installé près d’une gare, d’un Café de la gare comme il y en a cent, mille. J’y allais, carnet et stylo bleu à la main, prêt à capter l’impression brute – il serait toujours temps de faire des retouches, une fois de retour dans la quiétude de la maison. Je buvais lentement, aussi lentement l’autorisait la patience du personnel devant un client aussi parcimonieux. Rien.

J’ai pris l’habitude de prendre le train, d’aller dans la grande ville, observant les voyageurs, attentif au paysage qui défile plus ou moins vite de l’autre côté de la fenêtre. Chez nous le paysage varie peu, surtout que la grande ville est entourée par une plaine interminable, plantée de maïs à perte de vue. Les passagers : pour la moitié ils somnolent ou dorment, les autres racontent au téléphone qu’ils sont dans un train sans savoir où ils sont rendus ni à quelle heure ils vont arriver, certains sont rivés à leur ordi (film, jeu vidéo, film), quelques-uns lisent. Aucune phrase qui vienne à leur propos, surtout les lecteurs – y a-t-il quelque chose de moins littéraire, de plus plat ?

Pourtant je ne voyage pas en vain, attiré par la possibilité de tirer parti des dialogues muets des amoureux. Et là, lumineuse, l’idée : il faudrait épier (c’est déjà un pas plus loin que l’observation passive) ce qui se passe dans les wagons-lits, surprendre les secrets d’alcôve. Exécution : je me suis engagé à la compagnie de chemin de fer, j’arpente les voitures, de nuit ou de jour, au gré de mes quarts de travail. Je poinçonne les billets, les place sous la bande métallique qui court sur le porte-bagages au-dessus des banquettes afin de savoir qui descend où et de réveiller, le cas échéant, le voyageur assoupi.

Hier un passager a passé tout son temps à écrire dans un carnet vert bouteille, les yeux perdus dans le vague. De temps en temps, il refermait le cahier, pour le rouvrir aussitôt, saisi par l’inspiration, esclave heureux obéissant à la voix impérative des pages encore blanches. C’est décidé, demain j’achète un beau carnet vert bouteille comme le sien, à forte reliure, ainsi qu’un crayon bleu. Le noir me paraît désormais superflu.


Les drames de l’automne

Il y avait des champs de blé d’Inde près de la maison où j’ai grandi. Et des boisés plongeant vers la rivière, de part et d’autre de la Saint-Maurice. Des amis, nés ailleurs, prétendent que c’est une région faite pour l’automne. Papa, mauricien depuis quatre générations, ne disait rien à ce propos : la nature chamoirée avait toujours fait partie de son univers, même avant sa naissance.

Il m’a fallu partir de la Mauricie et atteindre la quarantaine pour éprouver pleinement (mais peut-être la sensation sera-t-elle encore plus forte dans quarante ans ?) le drame de l’automne. La blondeur du maïs que le vent agite alors que le ciel bas est alourdi de nuages gris-bleu me remplit d’une magnifique et tendre terreur. Petit je n’ai jamais vu pareil spectacle, je n’ai jamais été au cœur de cette scène où l’horizon ressemble à un amoncellement d’édredons fripés prêts à ensevelir des pâturages et des champs duveteux – et moi aussi. La forêt n’est pas encore dégarnie, les ombres se mettent à exister individuellement grâce à leurs coloris distincts, même ceux qui semblent ne pas avoir changé de couleur.

La Mauricie était féconde, mais il aura fallu que je n’y vive plus, que je ne sois plus témoin d’un spectacle que sa permanence même soustrayait à mes yeux, fallu que ma vue se détériore pour que la vue me soit donnée. J’avais de meilleurs yeux en ce temps-là, mais il me semble qu’ils n’ont rien perçu de l’enchevêtrement de mélèzes et de bouleaux dans la plée ni du peuple serré des hêtres à La Gabelle. Je sais aussi, depuis la mort de papa, que je regarde pour lui et pour moi. Son silence nourrit mon langage, son silence devient mon langage.

Je vis à Québec. Parfois, dans ma rue même, j’éprouve la sensation de marcher, d’être à Québec, ce qui relève de la banalité, du truisme le plus agréable qui soit et que j’appellerai le présent de l’indicatif. Impression d’arrêter le temps. Je sais où trouver des mélèzes de rue, domestiques, et m’en contenter. Le présent n’a pas toujours existé pour moi ; maintenant je puis dire « éprouver » en toute connaissance de ce que cela tient de la preuve : je lève les yeux sur le panneau qui confirme le nom de la rue. Je redeviens un bref instant l’enfant que j’ai été, en visite à Québec chez le frère de ma mère, sans cesser d’être un homme circulant dans une ville réconfortante. Les arbres au-dessus de nos têtes, les voitures ondoyant sur les faux plats du chemin Sainte-Foy, l’idée même de chemin à deux pas de la maison où je suis à mon tour un père silencieux quant aux choses essentielles de la vie – peut-être appartient-il à chacun de les reconnaître, sans attendre de l’aide de son père ni de qui que ce soit.

Tout cela me revient parfois exactement comme à l’époque où je n’étais qu’un visiteur. Il se jouait ici une partition qui m’était inconnue, les arbres ne viraient pas au jaune et au rouge de la même manière, un épisode moins intense qu’un drame. En contrepartie, je reconnais mes angoisses d’alors, dans la rue, à bicyclette ou à pied, quand me cernait la lumière trop vive de l’été d’une petite ville de banlieue mauricienne, qu’aucun arbre ne venait filtrer dans notre quartier. Des souvenirs de maisons en construction me reviennent. Elles me faisaient peur, y compris la nôtre, toute neuve, craquant de tous ses os par grand froid, et la forêt à deux pas, noire par contraste avant de prendre feu sous l’effet de l’automne, et les champs de blé d’Inde marchant comme des cohortes sous le vent.

J’habite une vieille maison, je retourne dans les rues trop claires de mon enfance pour le plaisir de laisser remonter les malaises muets.

Je comprends que je n’étais pas fait pour être neuf.


Il est venu après moi

Il est venu après moi, mais le résultat est le même : elle s’est sentie à l’étroit, puis elle a pris ses distances, ce contre quoi il a protesté, elle a haussé le ton et ils se sont quittés. « Elle a un de ces caractères. » Venant de lui, de sa voix de crapaud dépressif, avec la mimique qui rejette tout le blâme sur Mireille, le constat m’irrite. Un tempérament bouillant, j’en conviens sans mal, mais on ne parle pas ainsi d’une femme, d’une femme qu’on a fréquentée, pas les côtelettes à l’air sous la douche d’un centre sportif, après une séance de conditionnement physique, en présence d’un type, moi, qui sort du court de badminton. Comme s’il ne savait qui je suis, qui j’ai été pour Mireille.

À l’époque j’ai mis un certain temps à comprendre que c’est pour ce type qu’elle m’a largué. Nous traversions une période de reproches mutuels, nos accrochages se multipliaient même si j’avais l’impression de mettre de l’eau dans mon vin comme jamais auparavant. Elle s’est mise à espacer ses invitations et ses visites chez moi, mais je ne renonçais à rien de ce que j’avais échafaudé pour nous deux. Déjà, en temps de paix, Mimi me résistait comme personne ne m’avait résisté, mais cela contribuait à l’affection que je lui portais – c’est le terme édulcoré qui a fini par s’imposer après qu’elle a décrété que j’avais franchi la ligne de non-retour en lui parlant de mon amour pour elle. Reculer devant pareille affaire de sémantique, j’en étais capable – d’où « affection » –, mais il était trop tard : en fait de non-retour, il s’agissait du sien, elle a claqué la porte, « Si j’oublie du linge, tu en feras un sac que je viendrai chercher un de ces quatre ». Tout un tempérament, oui.

Elle partie, j’ai dressé l’inventaire de ses défauts comme de ses traîneries, jeté le voile sur ses irrésistibles qualités, voulu oublier le gouffre des réconciliations dans lequel nous nous abîmions, rescapés de la mort, prêts pour une renaissance qui n’était jamais que le recommencement du cercle de notre perdition perpétuelle. Dans ces conditions, impossible de parler d’amour ni d’affection, mais de passion – je parle pour moi.

Elle n’est pas venue prendre ses vêtements. Je les ai toujours.

• • •

Je commence par traîner sous le jet d’eau chaude, dans l’espoir qu’il se lasse. Quand j’adopte la tactique inverse, le mouvement subit vers le vestiaire, il me suit. Il reprend la conversation, cette question de caractère, mais dans son application intime : « une sacrée gonzesse » – c’est fou ce que le recours à l’argot français donne du relief à la dimension sexuelle : « une bombe, cette nana ». Et « des seins de compétition », tout juste s’il ne me donne pas la pointure du soutien-gorge. Il me parle d’elle comme si lui et moi avions partagé un même bonheur, un même bien. Évidemment, puisque nous avons partagé du « temps commun ». La crainte me vient, une crainte acide et laide, qu’elle lui ait raconté pour elle et moi, au lit je veux dire : les derniers temps, nous avions la chair triste.

Je n’ai jamais noué une cravate aussi prestement, mais je n’arrive pas à le semer pour autant, il se cramponne, en forme, la mine superbe : « En définitive, je t’ai sorti d’impasse, je t’ai débarrassé d’une harpie. Tu m’en dois une, mon vieux. »


Des nouvelles

Il n’était pas sitôt assis à table qu’il m’a demandé des nouvelles de Denise, ce qui est assez normal quand on a été marié une dizaine d’années à la sœur de celui chez qui l’on est reçu.

Je ne me suis pas converti aux usages modernes, j’observe la coutume ancienne de tout faire dans la grande pièce servant à la fois de cuisine et de salle à manger, souvenir d’une époque où le salon était tenu fermé, sauf pour les grandes occasions, ce que ne saurait être la visite de celui qui a jadis été mon beau-frère. Andrée, pour qui l’apéro devrait être pris au salon plutôt que dans la pièce où tantôt on mangera, réprouve ce reliquat de paysannerie, surtout quand on habite comme nous un condo. J’avais cependant besoin de compter devant moi sur la solidité de la table pour raconter à Raymond ce qu’il en était de l’état de santé de son ancienne épouse. C’est tout de même la raison pour laquelle je l’avais invité à venir souper – je tiens aussi au vieux terme – à la maison lorsque nous nous étions croisés au centre commercial plus tôt ce samedi-là : de toute évidence il n’était au courant de rien. Denise et lui ont rompu de façon fracassante, elle est partie vivre à Montréal, loin de lui, loin de tout.

Il m’a été infiniment pénible de faire le récit du cancer qui décharne Denise, comme m’est insupportable la maladie même de ma petite sœur. J’arrive mal à rapporter les événements, je me rends compte que j’ai besoin de les ordonner au nom d’une logique qui me fait défaut : Denise n’a jamais fumé et voilà que les poumons sont atteints, puis tout le reste, jusqu’au cerveau. Une fois, après un traitement de chimio, j’ai cru, voulu croire que ça y était, que la maladie avait rebroussé chemin, qu’elle ne laisserait que le mauvais souvenir d’une tête rasée, que Denise nous revenait. J’ai vite déchanté.

« Combien de temps encore ?

– Quelques semaines, trois mois tout au plus. »

Je me demande s’il la reconnaîtrait. Denise affichait une physionomie de rieuse, ce qu’elle était ; toute rondeur a désormais disparu. Ce jour-là, elle avait trouvé à rigoler des traitements qui avaient mobilisé une équipe complète d’« artilleurs ». De piètres coloristes, à l’en croire, et pires dessinateurs encore. Elle a trouvé le moyen de rire en parlant de son crâne comme d’une œuvre rupestre.

Un temps il m’a semblé que son caractère était assorti à celui de son mari. Lui : bon bougre, parfois naïf d’une naïveté que Denise avait qualifiée de feinte une fois la rupture consommée ; elle : prompte à la colère et tout autant à la réconciliation. Elle lui avait pardonné toutes ses frasques, ses fréquentations peu recommandables, ses lubies pour des entreprises hasardeuses desquelles elle arrivait à l’arracher avant qu’il n’y laisse sa (leur) chemise. Puis, non. Le mur de béton à propos de ce qui ne me semblait pas pire que les autres fois. J’imagine qu’elle avait tracé une frontière que Raymond n’avait pas su respecter. Je ne m’étais jamais tout à fait senti à l’aise en sa présence, mais lui en tenais peu rigueur : un beau-frère peut-il être autre chose qu’une acceptable calamité ? (Le frère d’Andrée est du même avis en ce qui me concerne.)

Le cancer a dénaturé Denise en plus de la rendre méconnaissable. La bête s’emploie à rejeter ma sœur hors du monde en la remplaçant par une fausse Denise, un simulacre. La femme forte n’est plus, celle qui me faisait des blagues au téléphone en se faisant passer pour la préposée d’une société de sondages imbéciles auxquels je me laissais prendre, celle qui amenait ses neveux au cinéma en les cajolant comme les enfants qu’elle n’aurait pas, convaincue qu’elle ne serait pas une bonne mère, la Denise qui se meurt n’a plus la force de rire ni même de regarder la télé.

Je n’ai pas tout rapporté. Il était sans doute inutile de raconter que parfois Denise trouve la force de gueuler contre l’évidente injustice qui la frappe – je ne l’ai vue qu’une fois aussi bouillonnante de colère : quand elle a laissé son médiocre et fourbe mari – à petite queue, hâbleur, brouillon, fourbe, menteur, malpropre, etc.

Raymond ne m’a pas interrompu, il a tout écouté sans broncher. Nous avons soupé en faisant semblant qu’il y avait d’autres sujets de conversation : lui, par exemple. « Que deviens-tu ? – Du pareil au même. » Nous n’en avons pas appris davantage d’un homme que nous n’avions plus vu depuis des années. Je ne me suis pas rendu compte de la vitesse à laquelle défilaient les bouteilles de vin. À la fin de la soirée, il était imprudent, inconvenant de le laisser partir. Quelqu’un à prévenir qu’il coucherait chez nous ? Personne. Il nous a souhaité bonne nuit, s’est couché. Avant d’en faire autant je suis repassé par la crise de larmes qui me perfore régulièrement.

Au matin, je n’étais pas frais. Je prépare le café. L’odeur le tire à son tour du lit. Il n’est pas sitôt assis à table qu’il me demande des nouvelles de Denise.

 — Gilles Pellerin


Depuis 1982, Gilles Pellerin a publié cinq recueils de nouvelles, le plus récent étant ï (i tréma), paru en 2004, dans le prolongement duquel  sera i (i carré). Son travail récent l’a amené du côté de l’essai, conséquence logique de son engagement dans la diversité culturelle et la défense de la langue. Membre de l’Académie des Lettres du Québec et de l’ Ordre des francophones d’Amérique, il a été fait chevalier des Arts et lettres de la République française et reçu le prix du Rayonnement international des lettres de Belgique. Né à Shawinigan, Gilles Pellerin habite Québec depuis près de 40 ans.

Oct 072011

McElroyJoseph McElroy (Photo by Peter Chin)

Stanley Elkin describes Joseph McElroy’s fiction as “the mazy coil of an educated, complex vision,”[1] and “The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne” (excerpted from his collection Night Soul and Other Stories) exemplifies what Elkin’s talking about.  At one level, this story is busy with phantom characters and the narrator’s cycling behavior and chaotic psychology.  And at another, it’s rich with allusions to literature and lore, taking on the slight flavor of a nineteenth century Gothic horror, which is not in McElroy’s other stories, but makes for an apt addition here because of the setting.  For me, the knot of confusion over invention at the heart of this story is as playful as it is unsettling—“I made him up out of what I knew, and I assumed he was too authentic to have time to make me up.”

—Jason DeYoung (who reviews McElroy new story collection here)



He was not to be confused with my new friends or my old. He was there before I found him and he did not care about being discovered. I knew him by a thing he did. He threw boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne. If he heard any of my questions, he kept them to himself. Perhaps we were there to be alone, I in Paris, he in the Bois that sometimes excludes the Paris it is part of.

But what makes you think Paris will still be there when you arrive? inquires a timeless brass plate embedded in the lunch table and engraved with an accented French name. Well, I’m in Paris, after all; that was obvious even before I sat down with my friend who invited me to meet him here, though the immortal name I put my finger on, that frankly I don’t quite place, might have been instead that of the burly American who’s also, I’m told, here somewhere staring in brass off a table—far-flung American name once commonly coupled with Paris itself. So now, like a memorial bench in a park, a table bears his name, that fighter who once clued us all in that you make it up out of what you know, or words to that effect. His pen (or sharpened pencil) had more clout even than his knuckles.

What is the name of that famous burly writer who lunched at this consequently famous restaurant? Out there past the brass plaques and dark wood surfaces and the warm glass and the conversation, the city doesn’t happen to answer. Not a student descending from a bus; not a woman hurrying by with two shopping bags like buckets; not a man in the street I’ve seen in many quarters carrying under his arm a very long loaf of bread and once or twice wearing a motorbike helmet. He is probably not the man my French friends patiently hear me describe, who is my man in the Bois whose very face suggests the projectiles he carries in a bag, a cloth bag I didn’t have to make up, to contain those projectiles in the settled November light of late afternoon in the Bois when I begin my run.

Which man? The man with the bagful of boomerangs, wooden boomerangs one by one, old and nicked and scraped and shaped smooth to the uses of their flight, one or two taped like the business end of a hockey stick. When I arrived, coming down the dirt path toward a great open green, and broke into my jog, he was there. And he was there when I wound my way back three or four miles later, in later light, around me the old cognates of trees, of dusk, of leaves, crackling under foot. Yet, veering down hedged paths, past thickets where dogs appear, and piney spaces with signs that say WALK, to surprise a parked car where no car can drive, and across the large, turned-over earth of bridle paths, and around an unexpected chilly pond they call a sea, a lake, that has hidden away for this year its water lilies, I could sometimes lose myself with the deliberateness of the pilgrim runner whose destination is unknown and known precisely as his sanctuary is the act of running itself. So I find I am beside the children’s zoo, or so close to some mute lawn girdled by traffic thinking its way home that I can plot my peripheral position sensing I am near both the Russian Embassy and the Counterfeit Museum. Or I can’t see Eiffel’s highly original wind-stressed “tree” anywhere, whereas here’s a racecourse that I know, so now I must be running in the other direction toward Boulevard Anatole France and the soccer stadium. But I am still meditating the famed water jumps of the other racecourse, and turning back in search of the Porte d’Auteuil Metro, I breathe the smoke of small fires men and boys feed near the great beech trees.

But most often, I ended where the boomerang-thrower was working his way into the declining light. And passed him, because that was my way back to the Metro. He began low, he aimed each of those bonelike, L-shaped, end-over-end handles along some plane of air as if with his exacting eyes he must pass it under a very low bridge out there before it could swoop upward and slice around and back, a tilted loop whose moving point he kept before him pivoting his body with grim wonder and familiarity. As I came near, I would not stop running but I might turn my head, my shoulders, my torso, to try to follow the flight of the boomerang. More than once I felt it behind me, palely revolving, silent as a glider and beyond needing light to cross the private sky of the Bois, which for all its clarity of slope and logical forest is its own shadow and contagion within a metropolis of illuminations balconied, reflected, glimmering, windowed in the frames of casements. More than once I saw the boomerang land near its intent owner, wood against earth. Sometimes he seemed to be launching the whole bagful before proceeding to retrieve. What was his method? He would pick one boomerang up with another or with his foot. One afternoon I must have been early, I was leaving as he arrived; I wanted to know how he started doing this, because we had boomerangs in Brooklyn Heights before the War in a dead-end street looking out from a city cliff to the docks and New York Harbor and the Statue, and we hurled our pre-plastic boomerangs out over the street that ran below that cliff and thought of nothing, not people below, not the windows of apartment houses. I looked this foreign boomerang-thrower in the eye, his the angular face of a hunter looking out for danger, a blue knitted cap, old blue sweatshirt with the hood back like mine. What was he doing off work at four? The things in the bag were alive, their imaginary kite strings resilient.

I come from a city also great, also both beautiful and dark, its people also both abrupt and not distant; and I wanted to (as Baudelaire says) “accost” this boomerang man. However, I could not find the French for what I had to say, remembering that at least in my own language I would know better what I had to say when I began to say it. I had lost one of his boomerangs in the dusk once, but the man himself seemed not to have lost it, although I never saw it land and I heard a sound in the trees near my head.

The French for all I wanted to say, I found in a dream, and there, I think, it stayed. I lived, during those first weeks, alone, consciously located between the light and darkness of living with someone. This person, sometimes mythical, later materialized as if she had never gone away, perhaps because I was the one who had gone. But in those weeks before American Thanksgiving, reaching toward Frost’s “darkest evening of the year,” dreams found their way to my new door and, unlike the daytime clients of the rare stamp dealer (though his metal plate ENTREZ SANS FRAPPER was all I knew of them or him, apart from what I knew of the subject matter of his business, not to mention a slow leak from a water-pressure valve in my kitchen which I heard nothing from him about), my dreams were by contrast both inside my apartment before I knew it and outside knocking like an unknown neighbor in the middle of the night.

At least once during my first dreams, the man with the boomerangs threw them all so that they did not come back. Two French friends of mine said he sounded a little crazy (the way in the United States they say that some poor person is “harmless”). A private citizen was how I took him, a survivor-craftsman testing the air. The boomerangs I dreamt were not some American dream’s disposable weapons; my twilight companion’s resources proved renewable, his boomerangs reusably old and known; this wasn’t some Apache spilling the blood of vowels F. Scott Fitzgerald rendered out of Rimbaud, but a native true to the wood from which the aboriginal implements were cut. I made him up out of what I knew, and I assumed he was too authentic to have time to make me up.

The phone rang and I went out to meet a friend. I checked the Mont-St.-Michel tides and saw a French child on a train wearing a University of Michigan sweatshirt. I came out of the Chartres cathedral and went back inside. I returned to the Jeu de Paume to hear American spoken without hesitation or apology and, from within that temple of light and color, to view through my favorite window the gray spirit of the riverbank—its founded harmonies of palace and avenue, whose foreground proved to be where those water lilies hang, safe-locked in the sister temple of this tennis court, where my three-dimensional fellow wanderers, refusing to disappear into the “Moulin de la Galette” we’re all admiring, crowd about me as if I were my mind. Here, what went up must come down—downstairs, I mean. “What gains admission must find exit,” they say with justice.

But what goes out—does it come back? I cannot help the signs and symbols; they are as actual as the knocking on my Montmartre door at the moment of my dream when at last I completed the invention of the man with the bagful of boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne. It was more urgent even than a phone ringing in the middle of the night, that knock at my front door—was it the concierge?—and I must wake from my dream just when I have at last found the French with which to accost the person I have made up. The stamp dealer went home eight hours ago. Who can it be at the door? Well, you can’t always choose your time to make the acquaintance of a neighbor. I’m out of bed, croaking, “J’arrive, j’arrive” (pleased to recall the more accurate English), walking half in my sleep through someone else’s curtain-insulated rooms to ask in French, “Who’s there? What is it?” only to realize I have heard no more knocks, and to suspect that they were not here upon this front door in the pitch-black hall but back in that bedroom where I left the dream. What a way to gain entrance to an apartment! Knock on the door at three in the morning until you rouse your prey, then express such concern over the nightmare yells and cries he did not even know were coming out of his sleep, that helplessly he opens the door to thank you.

But that was a New York dream. I found the light; I sat on my bed and remembered hearing the French I needed in order to address the boomerang-thrower, only in my dream fluency to pass to a stage in which he spoke to me. Till all the interference in my solitary situation left me in that empty apartment, and the sounds of knocking that had brought me stumbling through rooms I hardly knew faded from me with the French I had found but now lost, though not its sense. For the boomerang man from the Bois had told me what I could not have learned had I not already known it: that if it was worth telling, it was worth keeping secret, how he shied those pieces of himself down into the late autumn, his aim at some distance from him, his boomerangs quarrying not prey but chance which was to cast that old and various loop beyond routine success, dreaming the while of a point where at its outward limit the path’s momentum paused upon a crest of stillness and by the logic of our lunatic hope did not return. In this way, although he will not hear me, he is still there when I go, and here when I come back.

Yet if this is unbelievable, I tried something more down-to-earth. One cold afternoon I spoke; I approached the man and said in French that I had not seen a boomerang thrown “since” thirty years. He answered. He had been throwing them that long and longer, he said. I asked if he had hunted with them. He looked me up and down, his eyebrows raised, his forehead wrinkled. He had not, he said. And were these the same old boomerangs he had always used? Only this one, he said, raising the one in his hand. Speaking for all of us, I asked if his aim was accurate, though not having the French noun for “aim” (which proves to be but), I asked if, when he threw (lancé) he was toujours exact. In English, then, he said, “American?” We smiled briefly; we nodded. “You jog,” he said slowly, “I throw boomerangs.”

“I used to throw a boomerang as a child,” I said in French.

He was looking downrange, shaking the boomerang in his hand downward at arm’s length, first one big shake, then a series of diminishing shakes. “Moi aussi,” I heard him say.

Like a knife-thrower pointing at his target, he launched his toy. Like a passerby, I continued on my way.

—Joseph McElroy, from Night Soul and Other Stories, Dalkey Archive Press, 2011


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “Joe McElroy Introduction,” Stanley Elkin, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1990, Vol. X, No. 1, page 7.