Nice bit of news. Unexpected good news is always the best. A Pushcart Prize nomination for my novel excerpt in The Brooklyn Rail last April. I’m delighted that TBR nominated me. Almost as good as winning the prize. They publish exceptional fiction consistently and courageously. I am always proud to appear there.
A lovely bit of news and another example of the magic that used to happen around the magazine: Darrel J. McLeod, a Cree writer from Sooke, British Columbia, in October won the Governor-General’s Award for Nonfiction for his autobiographical book Mamaskatch, A Cree Coming of Age. First off, we need to congratulate Darrel, whom I got to know three years ago. He’s a warm, unassuming, humble man with a story burning in his heart.
As it happens, we published Darrel’s first short story in Numéro Cinq in the October, 2015, issue. After the GG announcement, I was reading about Mamaskatch and something clicked. The same names were appearing in both texts. And I remembered that Darrel had told me all the characters and events in the story were based on his family. So I dug around a bit more and found this graceful credit line in an interview Darrel did for the Vancouver Authors Festival in September.
I concluded the story “Hail Mary Full of Grace” at a week-long workshop with Shaena Lambert in the summer of 2014 – you were there Jen, and you were so incredibly helpful. I was thrilled with the final version of the story, and submitted it to Douglas Glover for publication in Numéro Cinq. After helping me to find a better ending, he published it, but I knew I wanted to include it in my memoir as well.” Q&A with Darrel J. McLeod
Shaena Lambert, in fact, brought Darrel to me and the magazine. She had quickly recognized his talent and thought of us. And that’s the story, a circuitous story, a wonderful story, of how Numéro Cinq came to publish the first short story by a Cree writer in Canada and that short story became part of a Governor-General’s Award winning nonfiction book.
The story is called “Hail Mary, Full of Grace” and you can click on the title here and read the entire piece. Or you can buy Darrel’s book and read that. Or you can read both.
Here is the publisher’s description of the book:
Growing up in the tiny village of Smith, Alberta, Darrel J. McLeod was surrounded by his Cree family’s history. In shifting and unpredictable stories, his mother, Bertha, shared narratives of their culture, their family and the cruelty that she and her sisters endured in residential school. McLeod was comforted by her presence and that of his many siblings and cousins, the smells of moose stew and wild peppermint tea, and his deep love of the landscape. Bertha taught him to be fiercely proud of his heritage and to listen to the birds that would return to watch over and guide him at key junctures of his life.
However, in a spiral of events, Darrel’s mother turned wild and unstable, and their home life became chaotic. Sweet and innocent by nature, Darrel struggled to maintain his grades and pursue an interest in music while changing homes many times, witnessing violence, caring for his younger siblings and suffering abuse at the hands of his surrogate father. Meanwhile, his sibling’s gender transition provoked Darrel to deeply question his own sexual identity.
The fractured narrative of Mamaskatch mirrors Bertha’s attempts to reckon with the trauma and abuse she faced in her own life, and captures an intensely moving portrait of a family of strong personalities, deep ties and the shared history that both binds and haunts them.
Beautifully written, honest and thought-provoking, Mamaskatch―named for the Cree word used as a response to dreams shared―is ultimately an uplifting account of overcoming personal and societal obstacles. In spite of the traumas of Darrel’s childhood, deep and mysterious forces handed down by his mother helped him survive and thrive: her love and strength stayed with him to build the foundation of what would come to be a very fulfilling and adventurous life.
Here is the ending of Darrel’s sad and yet triumphant story of Bertha’s escape from the residential school:
Bertha, Margaret and their aunts managed to make it home late in the evening the day they escaped from St. Bernard’s. Their sister Agnes wasn’t with them. She had been convinced that it was just a matter of time before the police would round them up. As they were walking she reminded her sisters and aunts what happened to students who left and were taken back. Convinced she would die if she went back, she continued walking to the junction of the highway to Edmonton and hitchhiked as far as she could go – to land’s end – the Pacific Ocean.
For weeks Bertha slept in her mother’s bed. Her mother even had to take her into the bushes or outhouse to pee. Margaret was more independent but she didn’t go far on her own either. Whenever a policeman or stranger in a uniform or suit showed up – the girls would hide and not come out until they were called by name. Bertha’s mother registered the two sisters for regular school in Slave Lake. They attended for one year – but the daily trip by dogsled became too much. Bertha taught herself and Margaret to read, write and do arithmetic.
Word spread quickly about the escape. A rumor circulated that the nuns were scared of Bertha’s teen-aged aunts and had them expelled. And there had been so many deaths at the school that local police stopped responding to the church’s requests to arrest and return children.
With the exception of Bertha, the girls married young and raised healthy families. Margaret had eighteen children. Agnes married a fisherman on the coast, worked her whole life in a cannery, and raised one son who became a prominent surgeon.
For some reason, perhaps a series of tragic deaths of her most beloved in rapid succession – compounded with childhood separation from her mother and untold abuse at the hands of nuns and priests, Bertha fell apart in her early thirties – became a chronic alcoholic and abandoned her seven children.
It’s been more than a year since the magazine ceased publishing, a year of losses. It always surprised me how invested I became in the lives and passions of my writers and editors. Okla Elliott died in March 2017. Paul Pines in June 2018. Ann Ireland in August 2018. And just last month, David Helwig. I miss them all, their force of personality, their fierce will to create, and their affection, their decency as human beings. We are diminished by their absence.
In February, my mother Jean died in her own bed, on the farm she loved. Many of you have been kind enough to follow her career here on these pages, Jean reciting Walter Scott, Jean and her chickens, Jean and the farm. She liked that. At her burial, a native woman emerged from the small group of mourners, unannounced, and drummed and sang around the grave. For her memorial event in August, I put together a slide show of Jean’s life. The texts are a mix of my commentary, dates and context, but also diary excerpts, letters and interviews. Above all, it’s a woman’s life. She lived 96 eventful years. She was smart, feisty, energetic, and indomitable. She championed the weak and hurt, believed in chem trails, loved trees so much she would embrace them in the woods. She got along better with women than with men, but she had three sons. She drove me to Toronto as a kid to see Picasso and Van Gogh exhibits. She would always stop at the library in Brantford or Simcoe when she went shopping and bring back a wicker basket full of books. She could be as annoying as hell, God bless her. I miss talking to her.
The music in the background is the Welsh lullaby Suo Gân. This is the version arranged by John Williams and sung my James Rainbird for the movie Empire of the Sun. You can interrupt the music at any time by clicking the pause button.
Perhaps the best way of viewing the slide show is to click on the first image below so that you go into full screen mode, then click on the arrows to advance the slides at your own pace. To view images of the farm, the chickens, etc. click on “The Farm” button on the left.
In the mid-1990s I hosted a weekly literary radio interview show at WAMC-Albany (New York). One memorable morning over the studio phone, I interviewed Gordon Lish, whom I knew because he had published stories of mine inThe Quarterly as well as my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. (1993) at Knopf. The interview now appears in Conversations With Gordon Lish, edited by the estimable Cambridge (UK) critic David Winters and Jason Lucarelli, who was once a student of mine and contributing editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine. The book was published earlier this year by University Press of Mississippi in their wonderful “Conversations” series. The cover photo above is, of course, by NC contributor bill hayward.
Here is the publisher’s book description:
Known as “Captain Fiction,” Gordon Lish (b. 1934) is among the most influential–and controversial–figures in modern American letters. As an editor at Esquire (1969-1977), Alfred A. Knopf (1977-1995), and The Quarterly (1987-1995) and as a teacher both in and outside the university system, he has worked closely with many of the most pioneering writers of recent times, including Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Sam Lipsyte, and Ben Marcus. A prolific author of stories and novels, Lish has also won a cult following for his own fiction, earning comparisons with Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett.
Conversations with Gordon Lish collects all of Lish’s major interviews, covering the entire span of his extraordinary career. Ranging from 1965 to 2015, these interviews document his pivotal role in the period’s defining developments: the impact of the Californian counterculture, the rise and decline of so-called literary “minimalism,” dramatic transformations in book and magazine publishing, and the ongoing growth of creative writing instruction. Over time, Lish–a self-described “dynamic conversationalist”– forges an evolving conversation not only with his interviewers, but with the central trends of twentieth-century literary history.
This book will be essential reading not only for students and fans of contemporary fiction, but for writers too: included are several interviews in which Lish discusses his legendary writing classes. Indeed, these pieces themselves amount to a masterclass in Lishian literary language–each is a work of art in its own right.
I can’t resist this. Cynthia Sample alerted me to the fact that you can pre-order my new book of essays already! (Book not out till next July.) I checked Amazon, just to see, and was, as often happens, charmed by what I saw. There’s my book. Though that’s not the actual cover. This is standard for new books. Publishers put up a placeholder till the real book cover is available. And the subtitle appears different on the cover mockup and in the book description. I probably caused that confusion myself, since have always gone back and forth between the two. (I welcome your input.)
But best of all is the little “#1 New Release” flag followed by the words “in Erotica Fiction Writing Reference.”
No doubt this will do my public image no end of good and make me popular in the B&D crowd. Just to check, I searched the book title only and this is what came up.
The irony is, of course, as many of you know, that the title essay of the book — “The Erotics of Restraint” — is a long text on Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park.
But let me not deter anyone from buying the book on mistaken (or any other) grounds.
“Here we rediscover the old truth that repetition is the heart of art”
(Douglas Glover, Attack of the Copula Spiders 94).
A story, like all artistic work, requires a structure upon which it can sustain itself. Most stories rely upon the arc of the conventional plot: a beginning, middle, and end, with rising tension culminating in climax then denouement; a wave rising from the ocean, peaking close to shore, crashing upon the beach, and dissipating with a hiss of water and foam. There are many ways to describe this classic structure. Douglas Glover calls it a series of repeating conflicts between one character’s desire and a resistance to that desire (24-26). Michael Shaara describes it as the shifting of power back and forth between opposing characters (Burroway 265). Claudia Johnson reframes the dynamic in terms of emotional connection and disconnection (Burroway 267).
Resisted desire, shifting power, emotional disconnection. However you phrase it, these describe inherently interesting plots. But what of the outlier story that eschews the classic plot? How can it be made interesting? Captivating prose carries the reader only so far. What tools are available to the writer who veers away from the conventional, but still hopes to achieve an interesting, resonant story of some depth?
In this essay, I will examine five short stories with unconventional plots: “The Distance of the Moon” by Italo Calvino, “Axolotl” by Julio Cortázar, “The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter, “The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” by Lion Miller, and “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury. In analyzing each story, I will consider whether and how it departs from the conventional plot structure, and what other literary devices are used to engage and hold the reader’s interest.
“The Distance of the Moon” by Italo Calvino
“The Distance of the Moon” is a speculative story about a time on earth unknown to us when the moon travelled in an elliptical orbit and, once a month, would come so close to the earth that people could climb upon the moon with ladders. This fourteen-page story has no line breaks or numerations to indicate story sections, but the structure is dual, split in two.
The first half is primarily descriptive, detailing the phases of the moon, its orbit, how the people used rowboats to move under the moon and ladders to climb upon her, the acrobatics used to navigate the gravitational field between the moon and earth when mounting or dismounting the moon from the ladders, the ingredients and formation of moon-milk and how they harvest it from the moon’s scabby surface. It also introduces the story’s characters: the first-person narrator, Qfwfq; the Deaf One, Qfwfq’s cousin who has an affinity with the moon; Captain Vhd Vhd, who commands the boats; Mrs. Vhd Vhd, the Captain’s wife who plays the harp; and Xlthlx, a twelve-year-old girl. Ending the first section is a short pre-story that presages events in the main story. Xlthlx becomes stuck in the ambiguous gravitational field between the moon and the earth. She’s too light to fall into either orb’s influence. She floats between them and eats the shellfish and sea creatures that are also caught between worlds, gaining heft as she eats and as other sea creatures attach to her body, till finally her weight reaches a critical threshold and she splashes to Earth.
It is at this halfway point, after the characters and setting are (thoroughly and delightfully) explained, that Qfwfq tells us outright the nature of the story: “This is how the story of my love for the Captain’s wife began, and my suffering.” He then succinctly describes the situation: the Deaf One loves the Moon, Mrs. Vhd Vhd loves the Deaf One, and Qfwfq loves Mrs. Vhd Vhd: the story of unrequited love in triplicate, each loving another in different ways. a conventional desire-resistance plot, but multiplied in three parallel desires. A point of note towards interestingness: the trio of orbs—sun, moon, earth—echo these love triangles.
The second half of the story contains the plot line. One day, Qfwfq decides not to climb the ladder to the moon so that he can remain in the boat with Mrs. Vhd Vhd, but Mrs. Vhd Vhd for the first time decides to climb the ladder and go to the moon. Qfwfq mounts the ladder after her to help push her up to the moon, and starts to follow after her, but Capt. Vhd Vhd grabs his ankle and pulls him back to the boat. Mrs. Vhd Vhd can be seen searching the moon’s surface for the Deaf One, but as usual, he is playing his private games with the moon. Finally, it is time to return to earth, but the moon is suddenly further away than usual. Everyone struggles to dismount. The Deaf One “hurled himself into the air [but] he remained suspended, as little Xlthlx had.” Qfwfq climbs the ladder to help Mrs. Vhd Vhd back and lunges into the ambiguous gravitational field to add his mass to hers, but instead of falling to the earth, they fall back to the moon where they remain stranded for a month. After one month when the moon and earth are near again, but quite distant now, the Deaf One constructs a long bamboo pole and rescues Qfwfq, destroying the pole in the process, while Mrs. Vhd Vhd remains permanently upon the moon.
Viewing the second half of the story through the lens of desire and resistance, we find first a summary of the status quo, the default stance of the characters in their three desires. Usually when Qfwfq returns to earth from the moon, “in all the groping, sometimes I ended up by seizing one of Mrs. Vhd Vhd’s breasts,” or “managed…to put my other arm around her hips.” After crashing back into the boat, Captain Vhd Vhd would “throw a bucket of water in my face.” The bucket of water suggests momentary resistance, but not from the object of his desire. More telling is the difference between how Mrs. Vhd Vhd assisted him back to earth compared to the Deaf One. For the Deaf One, “Mrs. Vhd Vhd lost all her self-control, doing everything she could to take his weight against her own body.” But for Qfwfq, “her body was soft and kind, but not thrust forward, the way it was with my cousin.” Captain Vhd Vhd also creates a barrier between his wife and the Deaf One. When the boats moved off, the Captain would hand her her harp. “Nothing could separate her more from the Deaf One than the sound of the harp.” As for the Deaf One, he loves the Moon, and the Moon seems to love him in return, without resistance. Qfwfq states: “Once I even thought I saw the Moon come toward him, as he held out his hands.”
The first desire-resistance episode within the plot-line comes on the pivotal day when the moon is growing more distant to the earth, seemingly unbeknownst to the characters. Qfwfq and Mrs. Vhd Vhd both act in accordance with their desires. Qfwfq decides to remain on the boat to share the company of Mrs. Vhd Vhd for the day, but she resists him in deciding to climb the ladder to the Moon for the first time (presumably to spend time with the Deaf One). The Captain gives no resistance to his wife, “made no objection.” Interesting to note here that Mrs. Vhd Vhd’s climbing of the ladder functions both as a resistance to Qfwfq and an expression of her desire toward the Deaf One, efficiently accomplishing two plot steps with a single action.
The second desire-resistance episode follows quickly after the first. Qfwfq helps Mrs. Vhd Vhd up the ladder to the Moon, “press[ing] my face and the palms of my hands against her [behind],” but he’s “heartsick” when she goes to the Moon without him and calls out that he’s going, too. However, the Captain holds him back on the boat. Qfwfq is thus resisted twice by two characters: by Mrs. Vhd Vhd who goes to the Moon without him, and by the Captain who prevents him from following her to the Moon. Mrs. Vhd Vhd, though she makes it to the Moon’s surface, experiences resistance to her desire to spend time with the Deaf One. The Deaf One often ventured into “hidden zones” upon the moon. On this day, “[w]e saw her cross the scaly zone various times, length and breadth, then suddenly she stopped, looking at us in the boat, as if about to ask us whether we had seen him.” Both Qfwfq and Mrs. Vhd Vhd are unable to spend the day with the object of their desire. However, the Deaf One does make it to the moon and does spend the day with the object of his desire.
The third and culminating desire-resistance sequence occurs when Qfwfq tries to help Mrs. Vhd Vhd back to earth that same day, for the moon is alarmingly distant of a sudden. As presaged by Xlthlx’s pre-story, he leaps and swims through the sky till he can entwine his limbs in hers, add his weight to hers, and bring her back to earth. Though he “enjoyed the fullness of that embrace,” she “show[ed] [him] first her impassive face and then her backside,” rejecting him yet again. And instead of falling to Earth, they fell back to the Moon. Qfwfq finally realizes that Mrs. Vhd Vhd wants nothing to do with him. “I had lost: a hopeless defeat.” Mrs. Vhd Vhd also realizes her defeat: the Deaf One “loved only the moon.”
Their reactions to their mirrored defeats, their resolutions, demonstrate three different forms of love. When the moon next cycles near to the earth, Qfwfq wants desperately to return home, to himself, and abandons Mrs. Vhd Vhd in the process. “[T]he minute the pole touched the lunar crust, I had sprung and grasped it … driven by a natural power that ordered me to return to the Earth.” Mrs. Vhd Vhd, in contrast, chooses to stay on the moon, to abandon herself to the moon, “to be assimilated into the object of that extrahuman love. … She proved her passion … hadn’t been a frivolous whim but an irrevocable vow.” And the Deaf One simply loves and accepts the moon unconditionally: whether she is in close orbit or moving away. “He was unable to conceive desires that went against the Moon’s nature.” He doesn’t change for the moon, nor expect the moon to change for him. With his bamboo pole, “he was driving the moon away … he was helping her departure … want[ing] to show her to her more distant orbit.”
The second half of the story is conventional in its plot structure (repeated desire and resistance), but overall the story takes a different shape: two halves hinged together. Nothing is described in the first half which doesn’t bear upon on the second, resulting in a sense of connection, matching, and pairing. Xlthlx’s free float between the two spheres is repeated by the Deaf One, and with Qfwfq and Mrs. Vhd Vhd. Additionally, Qfwfq describes in the first half how the Deaf One was “deft and sensitive” with the moon, and “displayed a special gift” for milking the moon, which “seemed to be the height of amusement for him.” Then in the second half during the bamboo-pole rescue, “he was playing his last game with the Moon, one of his tricks…as if he were juggling with her.” Another example: While Qfwfq and Mrs. Vhd Vhd are exiled on the moon for a month, the moon “nourished [them] with its milk,” while the milk and the milking of the moon had been described in detail earlier: “It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey,” and many other odd ingredients. Additionally, the way that the Deaf One milked the moon by touching “gaps between two scales, naked and tender folds of lunar flesh,” reflects the later descriptions of Qfwfq fondling Mrs. Vhd Vhd’s body, previously quoted. A final example: in the first half it seems the Deaf One’s movements with the moon “have no clear, practical sense.” And in the second half, “we realized that his virtuosity had no purpose, aimed at no practical result.” There are so many examples of this pairing that one has the sense that if the first and second halves were laid side by side, you could draw lines to nearly every word between the two, creating a matrix of connectivity.
Writers are sometimes admonished to reveal the central conflict of their story as soon as possible, but here, description takes center stage. What if Calvino had woven the description into the second half of the story, instead of front loading it? The plot would have lost its momentum, bogged down in backstory and details. And Qfwfq, in fact, does insert a hint of budding trouble early in the story. The crux of the plot is that the Moon’s orbit is changing, moving away from the earth. It’s first mentioned in an italicized introduction to the story that has the tone of an encyclopedia entry, and is based on an actual historic (though incorrect) theory of the moon: “At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away…” Next, in a parenthetical aside on the second page, Qfwfq explains that they “had taken the measurements [of the distance to the moon] carefully (we didn’t yet suspect that she was moving away from us)…” This colors the introductory statement with a sense of foreboding and raises a question in the reader’s mind. It hints at danger, and danger is always interesting. But Qfwfq doesn’t mention it again during those pages of plotless description, letting it hang in the mind of the reader and build suspense. Finally, Qfwfq raises the issue again when description turns to plot: when Mrs. Vhd Vhd mounts the moon for the first time, leaving him behind in the boat. He wonders if the Captain “had known from the beginning that the Moon’s orbit was widening? None of us could have suspected it. The Deaf One perhaps, but only he…”
The familiar love story is also made fresh through devices of defamiliarization, or enstrangement as Viktor Shklovsky calls it (6). Enstrangement forces the reader to see something known and familiar in a new and foreign way. First, the use of foreign or outlandish language impedes understanding and causes the reader to pause and dwell on the text. In this story, the character names are completely foreign (i.e. of no existing human language) and unpronounceable. Are the characters even human? They seem to have human relationships and emotions, but there is uncertainty, unfamiliarity. Second, familiar objects/images or events/rituals can be described in detail, often without being named in the abstract, to force the reader to see them new and evade “automatized perception.” In this story, the moon, an object we see so often that most have ceased to notice it entirely, is described first in unusual terms regarding its phases, e.g. “when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind.” Later, the moon is described with unrealistic and bizarre details regarding her moon milk (mentioned previously) which makes the familiar satellite completely foreign. Finally, the close orbit of the moon that brings it so near to the earth that “it looked as if she were going to crush us,” and which allows the characters to climb upon her using only ladders, is unusual to say the least. What else is being enstranged in the process? The cliché symbol of the moon for love and romance. It shifts the reader’s perceptions and primes the mind to view the old love story new again.
The protagonist’s voice adds an interesting and unusual element to the story. Qfwfq opens the story, “How well I know! … the rest of you can’t remember, but I can.” He speaks directly to the reader, but also seems to have a questioning audience before him. I imagine him surrounded by young space aliens sitting cross-legged on the floor. In the next paragraph, he says, “Orbit? Oh, elliptical, of course… Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did.” This question and answer format pulls the reader into the tale, which feels both reminiscent and instructional. “This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it…” The punctuation is also different and unfamiliar, such as the use of sequential colons.
Though it’s seemingly told in the first-person perspective from the point of view (POV) of Qfwfq, it might more accurately be described as a third-person POV as a narrator exists behind Qfwfq. The entire story is Qfwfq orating to an audience, but the narrator reveals itself (I say “it” because it’s unclear if the narrator is human, or some sort of cosmic energy, or some other type of nonhuman being) only at the very beginning of the story via italicized text. First, as mentioned above, there is a brief quasi-scientific description of how the moon’s orbit changed over time, referencing Sir George H. Darwin. Then, in the first sentence, one italicized speech tag exposes the narrator: “How well I know!—old Qfwfq cried,—the rest of you can’t remember, but I can.” This hints at a larger mystery or reality behind Qfwfq. The entire book builds on this pattern by beginning stories with an actual scientific theory of space or earth history, then introducing Qfwfq as the narrator who sets the story, based on the scientific theory at issue, into motion.
In conclusion, Calvino in “The Distance of the Moon,” makes the traditional love story new again by defamiliarizing the situation, context, and characters in a wildly imaginative way. He carefully explains everything necessary to understand the story using the engaging voice of Qfwfq, then tells the story. But he triples the plot by repeating it with different sets of character, exploring different facets of romantic love.
“Axolotl” by Julio Cortázar
“Axolotl” is a speculative transformation story about a man who becomes an axolotl (a species of salamander native to Mexico). The story is framed at the beginning and end in present tense from the first-person (or first-axolotl if you prefer) POV of the man qua axolotl, with most of the story written in past tense from the POV of the man pre-axolotl transformation. It spans just over six pages with no line breaks.
The plot is perhaps deceptively simple. One spring day, the narrator goes to the Paris zoo to see the lions and panthers, but he ends up at the aquarium instead, a building he’d never before visited, where he “hit it off with the axolotls.” He watches them for an hour and becomes obsessed. He then goes to the library to read about them in a dictionary. The next day and every day thereafter, he visits the aquarium to study to axolotls. Many visits are merged and summarized with much description of the axolotl and interior thoughts of the man as he imagines the conditions in which the axolotls exist in captivity. Then, one day the man leans close to the tank, presses his face to the glass, stares into one axolotl’s eyes, and in an instant, he is looking out from that axolotl’s eyes at himself on the other side of the tank. The POV remains in first person but shifts to the axolotl, who reports that the man continues to visit the aquarium, but less and less often, and finally stops visiting entirely. The axolotl’s only hope is that the man will, perhaps, write a story about them, believing that he’s making it up, which, of course, he does. The ending creates a Möbius Strip, returning the story to the beginning.
In a traditional plot, we would ask what does the protagonist desire and what resistance presents itself against that desire. Viewed through that lens, there are two primary options, though they are simply two sides of the same coin. One is that the man, upon discovering the axolotls, desires to “penetrate [their] mystery.” The words penetrate and mystery are used numerous times within the story. He comes to view the axolotls as “not animals,” but “a mysterious humanity.” The axolotl also states as much at the end of the story, speaking of the man’s “desire to know us better.” The man encounters two forms of resistance, perhaps more accurately described as obstacles within the context of this story. The major obstacle is the simple fact that the man cannot know the axolotl better because he cannot communicate directly with the axolotls because he is not an axolotl. At one point, he imagines that he can hear them say, “Save us, save us,” but axolotls cannot (presumably) speak Spanish (the language in which the story was originally written and presumably the language spoken by the protagonist). The second obstacle comes from the aquarium guard who “coughed fussily” when the man leans too close to the glass tank, but that is of less import. Despite these obstacles, the man succeeds in his desire to know the axolotls by becoming an axolotl himself. He discovers that their thinking is “humanlike … every axolotl thinks like a man.”
The second option is to view the primary desire as that of the axolotl who wants the story of their captivity told. “I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us…” Their obstacle is the same as the man’s: they cannot communicate with him. But the axolotl succeeds as well: the story is written (and the story is written because the man succeeds in his desire to deeply know the axolotls, the circularity of the Möbius Strip).
Because the protagonist and axolotl cannot communicate, different techniques are used to raise tension in the story. The first is repetition. The narrator describes the axolotl at length, their “rosy” bodies, their “golden eyes,” their feet and hands, the “tiny sprigs red as coral” that grow from either side of their stone-like heads. The descriptive words repeat again and again throughout the story so that they become mesmerizing to the reader, as the narrator is mesmerized. Their golden eyes are a particular focal point, referenced at least twenty-three times, and serve to ratchet up the tension of the story as their description morphs. They begin as “eyes of gold,” then “diminutive golden points…burning with…terrible light.” Later they have a “terrifying purity” that “devour[s] [him] in a cannibalism of gold.” Finally he sees that it was “[n]ot possible that such a terrible expression [in their eyes]…should carry any message other than one of pain, proof of that eternal sentence, of that liquid hell they were undergoing.” The story then peaks and he becomes an axolotl.
A second technique used to raise tension is suspense via foretelling. This tension is introduced in the very first paragraph which, in only forty-three words, summarizes the entire story. It begins: “There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls.” It ends: “Now I am an axolotl.” This immediately raises a fascinating question in the mind of the reader: how has this impossible change occurred? The reader is reminded of the coming transformation a second time approximately half way through the story, twice on the same page but in subsequent paragraphs: “I knew better later…” and “I knew it before this, before becoming an axolotl.” This piques the reader’s interest and heightens the suspense. Finally, on the second to last page, the man is again staring into the golden eyes of an axolotl: “No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood. Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know.” This telling of the climax at the beginning, the mid-story reminder of the coming climax, and the climax itself, serves as a structure similar to the desire/resistance structure. It is much like Calvino’s mention of the growing distance to the moon at the very beginning, on the second page, and midway through the story. Many short stories use a trio of desire/resistance episodes (resistance, resistance, success/failure), and this foretelling, foretelling, happening mimics that structure.
An additional device that supports this tension is a slippery point of view. As previously mentioned, the story begins in first- axolotl POV as the frame, then switches to first-person POV where it remains with exceptions until the final frame switch back to first-axolotl. However, within the person-narrated sections, there are two instances when it slips into the POV of the axolotls as first plural. When describing the creature, the man says, “I saw a rosy little body…ending in a fish’s tail of extraordinary delicacy, the most sensitive part of our body.” At the bottom of that same paragraph, he states, “I saw the diminutive toes poise mildly on the moss. It’s that we don’t enjoy moving a lot, and the tank is so cramped… The time feels like it’s less if we stay quietly.” But in the next sentence/paragraph, it shifts back to singular first: “It was their quietness that made me lead toward them…” These shifts are done so smoothly that they may not consciously register on first reading, but they add interest by subtly reminding the reader of the coming transformation.
A final source of interest is the story’s theme. How can we know another’s mind? How can we see through their eyes? How can we experience their life and know it as our own? How can we link to humanity? These are the questions asked of the story. The answer comes directly from the man. Fascination with another. Obsessive observation. Intense curiosity, leading, ultimately, to empathy and sympathy. Then, one day, in an instant, we will be transformed, metamorphosed, and see the world through another’s eyes. Then we will be able to tell their story as our own.
In “Axolotl,” Cortázar utilizes a variety of techniques to keep this story interesting when the bulk of the story action involves many summarized and combined trips to the zoo where a man stares into a glass enclosure. He raises tension by foretelling the unusual ending. He ends the story so it warps and wraps back to the beginning. He shifts the POV within the same character but from man to axolotl. He repeats descriptions again and again, but varies those descriptions in such a way as to rachet up the energy and tension of the story, carrying the reader to the climax.
“The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter
“The Company of Wolves” is a retelling and revisioning of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. There is a three-page introductory section demarked with a line break before the story begins in earnest, the main story itself comprising just under six pages, for a total of nine pages. The introductory section serves as a cautionary lesson to the reader. The voice is authoritative, omniscient, and directive. It speaks in the present tense, describing the eyes of the wolf, the howl of the wolf. It tells how children always carry knives. It tells the first cautionary pre-story that comprises only half a sentence: “a woman [was] once bitten in her own kitchen as she was straining the macaroni.” It warns: “You are always in danger in the forest… Fear and flee the wolf; for, worst of all, the wolf may be more than he seems.”
With this mysterious statement, the introduction next tells three more stories. The first story of this trio, comprising two paragraphs (though the second paragraph is only one short sentence), tells how a wolf was trapped in a pit with ducks as a lure, then the hunter fell upon the wolf, slit his throat, and cut off his paws. However, the wolf transforms into “a man, headless, footless, dying, dead.” The second story, one paragraph made up of two sentences, tells of a witch who turned a wedding party into a pack of wolves. The third and final pre-story is a full page and relates how a woman married a man who turned out to be a werewolf. He fled on their wedding night and so she married another man and had children with him. Years later, her first husband returned and, seeing her children, called her “a whore” before “he was chopped up with the hatchet.” She cried and her second husband beat her. The introductory section then concludes with more information on the werewolf, most importantly to beware a naked man in the woods, and that a werewolf’s natural lifespan is seven years, but if you burn his clothes, he’ll be a wolf the rest of his life.
After this lesson, the main story begins in earnest. It is Christmas Eve, the winter solstice, and a virginal girl with budding breasts who has just commenced her menses goes through the forest in her red cloak to deliver oatcakes to her grandmother. She carries her knife. She hears a howl in the woods, but then a clothed man, not a wolf, appears on her path. He is a hunter with a gun. He laughs at her surprise, and he is handsome. They walk together for a time. Then he shows her his compass and says he can get to her grandmother’s in less time than she. They make a bet of it, a game, so that he’ll receive a kiss if he wins. She dawdles in the woods to ensure his victory.
He does arrive before her. He knocks and pretends to be the granddaughter. The grandmother invites him in and he eats her. He then tidies up and waits for the girl. She arrives and knocks. He pretends to be the grandmother and welcomes her in. She sees her grandmother only and is disappointed, wanting a kiss from the man. She inspects the room: because the Bible is closed instead of open and the pillow fluffed without indentation, she knows her grandmother is dead. “What big eyes you have,” she says. Twenty or fifty wolves gather outside and begin to howl. But the girl does not express fear at their numbers. Instead, she expresses sympathy with the wolves. Though she felt afraid when she realized her grandmother was dead, she decides not to be afraid because it will do her no good.
She asks the wolf what she should do with her shawl, and he says to throw it on the fire. Then she strips off her shirt; into the fire. He skirt, stockings, shoes; into the fire. She stands naked before him and freely gives the promised kiss. What big teeth you have she says, and he replies in the expected manner: “All the better to eat you with.” But instead of being afraid, she laughs at him. At this crucial junction, the story shifts into the future tense and tells what she will do: lay his head on her lap, pick the ice from his pelt and, perhaps, eat them. The clock strikes midnight and the girl sleeps “between the paws of the tender wolf.”
Carter’s version, like the traditional fairy tale, has a beginning, middle, and end, with rising action. In the traditional fairy tale, the girls resists the wolf throughout, wanting to deliver her cakes to grandmother, but ultimately he eats her. Here, the girl begins with the traditional desire of delivering oatcakes to her grandmother, but when she meets the man on the path in the woods, she immediately surrenders her basket of cakes (including her knife hidden within) to him. When he makes the bet that he can beat her to the cottage, a new desire blossoms within her: a kiss. At grandmother’s, she is at first afraid and wants her knife back, but “since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.” Notably, between her fear and release of fear arose her sympathy for the wolves: “It is very cold, poor things; no wonder they howl so.” With that, all her resistance to the wolf dissolves. He tells her to remove and burn her cape, her blouse, her skirt, all her clothes, and she never resists even though she knows he’s killed and eaten her grandmother. When naked, she voluntarily kisses him though he hasn’t asked for his reward. When he says he’s going to eat her, she laughs. She strips off his shirt. It is implied that they have sex. The revisioned plot is unresisted desire on the part of both parties within a story that has a long tradition of resistance. The fairy tale is built on the assumption that the girl resists, and the girl will fail. But what if the girl actually wants what the wolf is offering? By removing the customary resistance within the traditional tale, it creates a new tension because the story resists the reader’s expectations. The girl is curious when she should be frightened. She’s naked when she should be modest. She’s eager when she should be devoured.
The howls of the wolves are used as a repetitive pattern that functions like a simplified Greek chorus, describing the plot to assist the reader in understanding or contextualizing this retold version of the tale (though the technique only succeeds if the reader has a strong musical vocabulary or a dictionary handy). The Greek chorus traditionally sang to describe, comment upon, and interpret the action of a play for the audience. The first instance of this is in the longer pre-story in the introduction: the husband-werewolf sings melancholic “canticles” (alternately defined as sung Bible hymns, love poems, or hymns of praise) on their wedding night. In the main story, when the girl hears the wolves howl outside her grandmother’s house, they sing a “threnody” (mourning hymn) shortly after the narrator compares her red cape to the red of “the blood she must spill,” indicating that some sort of death will occur: Will she kill the wolf? Will her hymen break and her virginity die? When she, naked, “freely gave the kiss she owed,” the wolves outside howl a “prothalamion” (a marriage song). Shortly after, the wolves “clamour the forest’s Liebestod.” (This has two potential meanings. The Liebestod is the final dramatic music as Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body. As a literary term, it indicates erotic death; consummation of love in death.) Presumably, since both the girl’s and the wolf’s clothes are burnt, the girl will transform into a werewolf, killing her human existence (and the obvious interpretation that she’s transformed into a sensual, sexual, adult woman, her innocent girlhood dead). Thus, the werewolf chorus adds a surprising dimension to the telling of the story, adding context to the story action through their song selections.
Supporting the plot structure are what I will call twinned actions: an action occurs twice in the story, the second occurrence a flip or reversal of the first. There are four major twinnings in this story. First, at the largest scale, is the comparison of marriage between the final pre-story and the main story. The pre-story woman effectively disavows her werewolf husband and marries a human, but the story ends with her insulted, in tears, and beaten. Flipped in the twinning, the girl effectively marries the werewolf and wholeheartedly opens herself to him, and the story ends with her peacefully sleeping with him, a complete reversal. A second twinning is of shivers. While describing the girl’s virginity at the beginning of the story, we’re told that “she does not know how to shiver.” But once inside grandmother’s house with the werewolf, “…she shivered, in spite of the scarlet shawl she pulled more closely round herself as if it could protect her…” This reference to what can “protect” her is itself a twinning. On the previous page, the narrator slips into the story to chastise “granny” for thinking that her Bible “was a sure prophylactic… call on Christ and his mother and all the angles in heaven to protect you but it won’t do you any good.” The final twinning is of laughter. In the woods, the werewolf as man “laughed with a flash of white teeth… He laughed at her again; gleaming trails of spittle clung to his teeth.” However, in grandmother’s house when he says he’s going to eat her, she “burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face…” In sum, these twinned and flipped actions mimic a sense of movement, change, or transformation. Something is different than before.
Similar to twinnings are triplicate repetitions or leitmotifs, repeated thematic phrases or words. These can mirror the beginning, middle, end structure of a conventional plot when strategically placed within those sections of the story. For example, there are three references to lice in the fur of werewolves: first in the pre-story, second with grandmother mid-story, and finally with the girl at the very end. Neither the pre-story wife nor the grandmother reacts to the lice, but most readers will likely have a squeamish reaction to this parasite. However, in the resolution of the story, the girl “will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony.” She treats the lice differently than the other two women. This also mimics the desire-resistance model, with the lice being resisted by the reader in two instances, followed by a final success with the girl. Another example is the thrice repeated phrase: “carnivore incarnate.” It first occurs in the second sentence of the story in the introductory section, then again with the grandmother mid-story, and finally in the resolution with the girl. The phrase doesn’t substantially change, but works through juxtaposition to other developing plot elements (the wolf chorus, her laugh, the lice). It also simply reminds the reader what the story is about.
The tale also surprises by frequently shifting verb tenses. The story begins in the present tense as the narrator explains the wolf. During the four short pre-stories, it shifts to past tense, though with one exception. At the end of the first paragraph it shifts from the narrator’s POV to the newlywed wife’s, enters her thoughts, and shifts to the present tense: “And she waited and she waited and then she waited again – surely he’s been gone a long time? Until she jumps up in bed and shrieks to hear a howling, coming on the wind from the forest.” In the next paragraph, the POV switches back to the narrator who describes the howls, the melancholy of the wolf in present tense, then shifts back into the story, into past tense. After the only line break in the story, the main story begins in present tense, but shifts back and forth between tenses throughout the story: “It is midwinter… The forest closed upon her like a pair of jaws… There is a faint trace of blood on his chin; he has been snacking on his catch… She wanted her knife from her basket but did not dare reach for it… Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.” The resolution post-climax suddenly shifts to future tense, quoted above, followed by “The blizzard will die down. The blizzard died down…” This shift from future to past indicates that what was predicted (her eating his lice, their marriage), will come to pass. This shifting between now and then, past, present, and future, distorts time and disorients the reader. It creates a shimmering effect as if viewing the story through all time, through traditional beliefs and modern sensibilities, as well as a future where the previously unacceptable will be acceptable.
There is a further contrast, a tension, between what the narrator is seemingly trying to scare the reader into believing at the outset – be afraid and run away! – and what the story accomplishes. The four pre-stories are fascinating because none of them occur in the woods, which is where the reader is told to be cautious. None of the people run away, as the reader is told to do. People are either bitten, or they fight back and kill the wolves. In fact, the girl in the main story does everything wrong according to the narrator, but ends by sleeping peacefully with her wolf. The narrator who consistently warns the reader away from wolves (“Fear and flee the wolf”) at the end seems oblivious to her previous words and is triumphant in the girl’s success: “See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.” The narrator her or himself has had a transformation, a change of mind, through the telling of the story.
The story also uses an odd humor that seems to poke fun at the chastising tone of the tale, and at how seriously people take the issue of human sexual desire. The first instance is the woman who is bitten while “straining the macaroni.” Straining the macaroni? Who strains the macaroni in Little Red Robin Hood when werewolves are about? Another instance is the duck dropped in the pit as bait for the wolf in the second pre-story. “Quack, quack! went the duck…” Quack, quack! is in tremendous tonal contrast to the entire rest of the story. Later, when the wolf from the main story undresses in front of grandmother, “she can see how hairy his legs are. His genitals, huge. Ah! huge.” Is she delighted with his size? And simply the word “genitals” is so technical and odd in what is purporting to be a fairy tale. Ah! there are no genitals in fairy tales.
One final note, “The Company of Wolves” is one story in a linked collection of retold fairy tales. Throughout the book, certain phrases or images are repeated in different stories, reverberating through the book, connecting all the stories thematically.
In conclusion, Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” turns the fairy tale Little Red Robin Hood on its clitoral head by subverting the traditional desire-resistance plot into a plot of unopposed sexual desire that is resisted only by the reader’s preformed expectations of how the story should develop (and how girls should behave). Adding to the interest of the story, the verb tenses shift throughout from past to present to future, disorienting the reader. The wolves as Greek chorus add a wonderful and odd touch. The purported message of the story via the narrator seems to be to beware of sexuality, but is in direct conflict with the outcome of the story which encourages a revisioning of female sexuality from a perspective of victimhood to one of agency.
“The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” by Lion Miller
“The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” is written as an academic report on a strange phenomenon, and runs just under four pages. There is a citation to the report (authored by Dr. Alma Victoria Snyder-Gray, Sc.D. and published by Fort College Press) at the very beginning, centered beneath the title. The tense shifts from past to present as would be normal in a report of this nature, as Dr. Snyder-Gray discusses and analyzes the subject of her study (i.e. the Worp Reaction). The only line break in the story occurs on the last page and separates the bulk of the report from two final paragraphs which give a summary of the where things stand now.
The report tells the story of Aldous Worp, a boy who was born “a hopeless idiot” and lived a sedentary and quiet life for his first six years, making only one sound, “closely akin to the expression ‘Whee!’” But when he’s six, he begins to gather junk from the city dump behind his family’s house and store it in an unused chicken coop. He collects junk for twenty more years. Then, for one additional year, he stops gathering and only moves slowly among his gathered junk, seemingly accomplishing nothing. At age twenty-seven, he begins mysteriously fitting his pieces of junk together into a large structure. One day at 10:46 a.m. he is witnessed climbing into the structure where he remains for five minutes. He then exits and pulls a lever on the device. There is a rushing sound from the object, purple light glows from beneath it, then it rises three meters into the air and hovers. Aldous says “whee!” three times, then turns another lever on the contraption and the object settles to earth. No one knows how it works. Aldous demonstrates it for people, but on the afternoon of the second day, the press corps arrives. With their arrival, Aldous lowers the machine to the ground and begins to dismantle it in exactly the reverse order that he’d constructed it, taking the pieces one by one to the chicken coop, then one by one back to the city dump. Aldous returns to his original sedentary, idiotic state, but occasionally his eyes light up and he quietly says “whee!”
A traditional story has a desire-resistance plot culminating in success or failure. In this story, Aldous is not seemingly propelled by a conscious desire, but some unconscious impulse; nor does he seem to encounter any resistance to this impulse. Still, the story has a traditional story shape with a beginning (Aldous’s birth), a middle (his junk collecting and the building of the device), a climax (the device levitates), and resolution (he dismantles the device and all returns to normal). However, this “story” isn’t a story, but rather purports to be an excerpt from the official report of Dr. Snyder-Gray, Sc.D. of Fort, Indiana. Hers is the character lens through which the story is told, and the desire is not the desire of Aldous to build his machine, but the desire of Dr. Snyder-Gray to understand his creation, the impulse of creativity.
In the report, Dr. Snyder-Gray interviews three people who were all present at the first levitation: Aldous’s father, Lambert Simnel Worp; Major Herbert R. Armstrong, U.S. Army Engineers; and Dr. Phillip H. Cross, A.E.C. (though why Armstrong and Cross were at the house of an “idiot” child who collected junk from a city dump on that exact day at that exact time is a mystery in itself). However, no one gives her the understanding she desires. L. S. Worp “was able to shed [little light] on the problem.” A “Dr. Palmer,” of unknown affiliation, stated: “It’s all nothing but a bunch of junk.” And finally, according to Dr. Snyder-Gray: “The most exhaustive tests, Geiger, et al. revealed nothing.” Dr. Snyder-Gray’s desire to comprehend the mystery of Aldous’s machine is resisted, obstructed, and defeated with each successive interview. Thus we find hidden within the story the traditional desire-resistance model not between the characters on the page, but between the author of the report and the characters within the story.
Of note, Dr. Snyder-Gray never interviewed Aldous, or if she did, failed to mention it in her report. According to her, Aldous could not speak except for one sound: “Whee!” She declares: “Communication with Aldous Worp was impossible since the young man had never learned to talk.” However, it is possible to succeed in communication or understanding without talking (as happens in “Axolotl”—both these stories having a character resisted by the muteness of whatever or whomever they wish to understand). Those attendant at the first levitation told Dr. Snyder-Gray that “Aldous jumped around with every semblance of glee and we distinctly heard him remark ‘Whee!’ three times.” By not discussing that word, she seems to assume it lacks meaning, or is unimportant to her understanding of the phenomenon, though its import to the story is emphasized by its repetition in the text: at the beginning, at the climax, and at the end. This tripled repetition in the beginning, middle, and ending of the story mirrors the common plot structure, as discussed above regarding Carter’s “The Company of Wolves.”
And what of that word, whee? Is it without meaning? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines whee as, “used to express delight or exuberance.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines whee as “an exclamation of joy, exhilaration, astonishment, etc.” Dr. Snyder-Gray herself states that Aldous “took great delight in operating his machine.” And while analysis of the component parts inside the finished structure failed to adequately explain how they worked together as a whole (as analysis of art can fail to discern the magic and mystery that animates the sum total of its component parts), she ignores the fact that its invention is a creative product of delight and inspiration. The academic report structure supports Dr. Snyder-Gray’s obtuseness, as many academics are lampooned for their emphasis on so-called rational, scientific explanations of reality, dismissing emotional, subjective, or ecstatic evidence as irrelevant.
Additionally, the word “whee” is contained within the word symbolizing the most important part of Aldous’s invention: the cogwheel. The cogwheel is the first item Aldous retrieves from the junkyard and the last item he fits into his structure before it levitates: idiotic delight as the alpha and omega of artistic creation. Further, Aldous never says whee without exclamatory emphasis: “Whee!” “Whee!” and “Wheel” look nearly identical as characters in text, and reference to the cogwheel is sometimes shortened to wheel within the text. References to the cogwheel or wheel repeat four times within the story (typically within one to two paragraphs of the word whee): in the beginning, middle, and end of the story (see above on triplicate repetition). Merriam Webster’s defines cogwheel as a toothed wheel (gear) that performs a specific function in a complete machine. We might then deduce from the text that creative delight performs an essential (if mysterious) function within the whole of an artistic work, but also that word play based not just on meaning, but also sound and textual congruence can be utilized for structural support through repetition.
Another structural device beyond plot or repetition is a story written as a faux document, such as this academic report, which mimics the structure of the real-life document on which it is based. This provides the author a known form to write from and play within. These “shadow texts,” as Douglas Glover refers to them, might be police reports, psychological tests, newspaper articles, poems, novels, bible stories, etc. For example, an author might use the structure of King Lear to write a novel (e.g. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley). Shadow texts build resonance within the story by echoing against the external document, silently engaging the reader by encouraging comparison between the faux document qua story and its real-world counterpart (though the reader may not always be aware of the root source of the structure if it is not stated plainly).
The faux document can also allow for a different tone or diction for effect (e.g. academic, bureaucratic, scientific, etc.). In this story, parody of academic analysis is used to humorous effect, beginning with the officious citation preceding the story: “Being an excerpt from Prolegomena To A Preliminary Research on Some Instances of Unique Anomalies…” The report’s title, despite its words, says absolutely nothing and is redundant to boot: a preliminary discussion to preliminary research on some odd oddities. Dr. Snyder-Gray is obdurate in her academic quasi-scientific investigation. And, as previously stated, the faux document can be used as a frame to insert tension or conflict into a story that has no internal conflict among the “on stage” characters from the perspective of an observing character.
In conclusion, Miller’s “The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” combines numerous literary devices to transform this simple story from mundane to mystical. The strategic repetition of two key words (one an exclamation, one an object, but both nearly identical in text) connects the story to and within itself. By using the structure of a faux document combined with an external, investigating narrator, tension is built into a plot that had no inherent conflict at the time it was occurring. Those same devices also add humor to this story whose theme ultimately levitates beyond the laughs, into the mystery of creativity.
“The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury
“The Fog Horn” describes one night at a lighthouse. It is told in past-tense from the first-person perspective of young Johnny, who’s been working in the lighthouse for only three months. Though the story is told from Johnny’s point of view, his workmate, McDunn, a salty old timer, talks via direct dialogue through much of the story and because of this, the story feels as though it is written from his perspective. It is a ten-page story with one line break on the second to last page, between the climax and the resolution.
The action begins when the two men head up the lighthouse stairs to turn on the light, McDunn saying as they climb that he’s got something he’s been meaning to tell the boy. At the top, McDunn turns on the light and tells Johnny that a monster is coming that night, then the monster (a dinosaur from deep beneath the ocean, lured by the sound of the fog horn) arrives on scene. The fog horn and the monster call back and forth to each other, but McDunn turns off the fog horn for a moment. The monster goes mad in the ensuing silence and destroys the lighthouse. McDunn and Johnny both manage to escape, but a year later, Johnny is married and out of the lighthouse business, while McDunn is installed in a new, steel-reinforced lighthouse.
The story shape is seemingly traditional with a chronological development from the beginning (early evening), to the middle (fog horn sounds, monster approaches), to climax (monster attacks), to resolution (a year later). But what desire is resisted? Johnny doesn’t have any conflict with McDunn. The story begins with McDunn asking him if he’s used to their “lonely life,” and Johnny responds that yes, he’s used to it, and is glad that McDunn is “a good talker.” McDunn, for his part, is glad to have a witness to the monster that night, but otherwise does not express any desire. It is, in fact, the monster that has the desire. The monster has been living alone at the bottom of the ocean for eons, “waiting alone, for someone to come back who never came back.” When the lighthouse was built and the fog horn sounded, the monster believes it’s found another like itself at last. It wants communion with its own kind, an end to loneliness and isolation. The monster and the fog horn cry back and forth to each other. When McDunn turns off the horn, he creates the resistance to the monster’s desire for connection. Though McDunn turns the horn back, it’s too late. The monster is bereft and enraged. Thus we find within the story a single resisted desire, but not between the two human characters as might be expected.
The crux of McDunn’s resistance to the monster lies within the story’s theme. Immediately before McDunn turns off the horn, while the monster and fog horn are serenading each other, McDunn states in a thematic passage:
“That’s life for you… Someone always waiting for someone who never comes home. Always someone loving something more than that thing loves them. And after a while you want to destroy whatever that thing is, so it can’t hurt you no more.”
By turning off the horn, McDunn fulfills his own lonely theory of life. He breaks the monster’s heart by turning off the horn, causing the monster to want to destroy the source of its heartache. McDunn lives a lonely life, believes that to be the only life, and perpetuates that loneliness onto the monster. The reader can imagine that perhaps he had a wife or lover at some time in the past, though that’s not part of the text. In contrast, after this experience, Johnny marries and chooses a life of community and connection.
In addition to the plot advancement, McDunn’s slow revelation of the monster to Johnny serves as a source of rising suspense through mystery. On the second page, we learn that McDunn had “been nervous all day and hadn’t said why.” A little later he tells Johnny, “I got something special I been saving up to tell you.” Then, after they climb to the top of the lighthouse, he says, “You been here now for three months, Johnny, so I better prepare you. About this time of year something comes to visit the lighthouse.” However, McDunn fails to tell Johnny what to watch for. While they’re waiting, McDunn tells a story of how the fog horn was invented. He says that he made the story up to explain why “this thing” keeps returning to the lighthouse each year. What thing? McDunn still won’t say. At last, “[s]omething was swimming toward the lighthouse tower.” The creature emerges from the deep and Johnny finally gets a full view of the beast, easing some of the mystery and tension built from McDunn’s anxiety provoking statements, but then Johnny asks, “Why does it come here?” We are then treated to a description of the serenading of the beast and the tower, along with McDunn’s explanation for how the creature rises from the deep, the time it takes, and the effort, to reach its man-made mate. Finally, McDunn turns off the horn, breaks the monster’s heart, and instigates the story’s climax.
In addition to the suspense, McDunn’s storytelling proclivities mimic the triplicate pattern common to many conventional plots. McDunn tells three stories to Johnny in the course of the story. First, he tells a story of how, one night, all the fish in the sea swam to the surface to stare at the light of the lighthouse which beamed red and white into their “funny eyes.” They fanned out in the water “like a big peacock’s tail.” McDunn imagines that the fish must have come to worship, believing themselves “in the Presence.” This pre-story mirrors and predicts the coming of the monster who will be similarly attracted by the sound of the fog horn.
Next McDunn tells his invented story of how the Fog Horn came into existence:
“…[A] man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean … and said, ‘We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I’ll make one. I’ll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was; I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long; … I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls… I’ll make me a sound…and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.’”
This story describes the sound of the lighthouse, but also predicts the voice of the coming monster. Additionally, it develops the story’s theme—loneliness—which was first introduced in the initial dialogue between Johnny and McDunn on the first page of the story: “It’s a lonely life, but you’re used to it now, aren’t you?”
Third and finally, McDunn tells the story, again imagined by himself, of how the monster first heard the sound of the fog horn five years ago when the lighthouse was built, and how it must have taken three months to rise from the deep, feeding “on great slakes of cod and minnow, on rivers of jellyfish,” rising slowly to “pressuriz[e] yourself day by day” so you don’t explode, hearing the call, and finally finding the lighthouse with its “neck like your neck… a body like your body…a voice like your voice.” An end to loneliness. Interestingly, McDunn shifts mid-story from his assumed POV of the monster, into the second-person, putting himself, Johnny, and the reader into the mind of the monster, increasing our sympathy to it, experiencing its endless aching loneliness for ourselves.
In sum, the plot of “The Fog Horn” is carried along by multiple devices. Smaller parallel stories within the story create resonance as they echo against each other. Tension is built through mystery: incremental teasers that something big and bad will visit the lighthouse. The monster’s desire is resisted by McDunn to explosive effect. The theme of loneliness is developed through the word’s repetition throughout the text, resulting in a story that leaves the reader bereft.
A writer who veers away from the traditional plot can employ numerous devices to achieve an interesting, resonant story. Shifting points of view, verb tenses, and narrator tone can disorient a reader and arouse curiosity. As an alternative to conflict between in-story characters, the driving desire can be placed on an out-of-story character or narrator. Subverting expectations when retelling a well-known story can activate reader interest. Stories within a story can echo and amplify each other. Shadow texts can be adapted into faux documents which provide an alternative structure. Defamiliarization can revitalize a well-known plot. Tension can be raised through mystery (hinting at what is to come) or foretelling (naming what is to come). These devices are not unique to outlier stories; they are the same devices used in traditional literature. However, they can be orchestrated to keep a story buoyant and interesting when a conventional plot is absent.
Yet one device is paramount and deserves special treatment. All of the stories discussed in this essay employ repetition. Repetition lies at the heart of the conventional plot structure (the same conflict repeated, the same desire resisted), but is itself a versatile technique that can be utilized with any words, images, or thematic motifs within a story to develop a structural pattern. Repetition creates connections, intertextual reverberations that impel the reader to compare and contrast each successive iteration. Similar to rhetorical questions, it is a technique that allows a story to resonate within itself, to be in dialogue with itself, to build density and depth. Through juxtapositions, twinnings, and triplings, repetition multiples a reader’s mental associations with the text, thereby exploring more deeply a story’s meaning.
An unconventional plot built on repetition resembles a spiral, revisiting the same word or phrase again and again, but each time from a different context. If a traditional plot is like a wave, perhaps an outlier is like a seashell, swirling inward, tighter and tighter, until its inner core is touched. Both are interesting, and not necessarily so different from one another. In fact, if you hold a seashell to your ear, you can hear the ocean whisper.
Bradbury, Ray. “The Fog Horn.” The Golden Apples of the Sun, Greenwood Press, 1971, pp. 15-24.
Burroway, Janet, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 7th ed., Pearson, 2007.
Calvino, Italo. “The Distance to the Moon.” Cosmicomics. Translated by William Weaver, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, pp. 3-16.
Carter, Angela. “The Company of Wolves.” The Bloody Chamber and Other Stores, Penguin Books, 1979, pp. 110-118.
Cortázar, Julio. “Axolotl.” Blow-Up and Other Stories. Translated by Paul Blackburn, Pantheon Books, 1967, pp. 3-9.
Glover, Douglas. Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, Biblioasis, 2012.
Miller, Lion. “The Available Data on the Worp Reaction.” Best SF Three: Science Fiction Stories. Edited by Edmund Crispin, Faber & Faber, 1958, pp. 89-92.
Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Translated by Benjamin Sher, Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.
Julie Jones is currently enrolled in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Connecticut but hikes everywhere.
Delighted and charmed also by the arrival of my author’s copy of Experimental Literature: A Collection of Statements, edited my Warren Motte and Jeffrey R. Di Leo. In it, you will find my essay “The Literature of Extinction.” The book is a special revised and expanded edition of American Book Review 37.5 (July/August 2016), where my essay originally appeared. It’s published by JEF Books, which is the book publishing wing of The Journal of Experimental Fiction.
I take particular pleasure in this publication in part because it cemented a friendship with Warren Motte, whom I met when I asked him to contribute to Numéro Cinq. Here is Warren.
Almost equally of importance is the fact that so many Numéro Cinq editors and contributors contributed to this book. Let me count the names: Douglas Glover (moi), Rikki Ducornet, Julie Larios, Michael Martone, Warren Motte (himself), Lance Olsen, and Eleni Sikelianos, This is a tribute to the sharpness of our cutting edge, the heft and depth of our community. I am pretty proud of this.
Here is the publisher’s description:
Literary Nonfiction. Essays. In EXPERIMENTAL LITERATURE: A COLLECTION OF STATEMENTS thirty-four writers and critics reflect upon how literature puts itself to the test in an effort to make itself new. Those reflections assume very different shapes, and each approaches the question from a different angle. There are formalist readings here, and historicist readings; some contributors consider the politics of literature, others focus upon aesthetics; some statements deal with national traditions or periods, others are more synchronist. There are pieces on French theater, the Russian avant-garde, and performance in West Africa. There are meditations on poetry as a daily practice, on experiment as a way of knowing, on the restlessness of liminal spaces, and on the incommensurate dimensions of dream and reality. Each contribution is fueled by the notion that literature works best when it is willing to interrogate its own premises. Both individually and collectively, these analyses display an extraordinary mobility, one that does justice to the dynamism of experimental literature itself. Each essay engages its readers actively and thoughtfully, inviting us to participate in a conversation about literature’s horizon of possibility, about what literature is and can be. Robert Coover, arguably the most distinguished living American experimentalist, contributes an afterword to this volume.
I am delighted and charmed to (drum roll) be able to say that I just received my author’s copies of Ingrid Ruthig‘s wonderful collection of essays David Helwig: Essays on his Works. I have mentioned this before on the blog, in the pre-order stage. Forgive me for repeating myself. It’s a lovely book. I mention in my essay an earlier essay by the late Tom Marshall, and Ingrid managed to snag the rights that essay and include it in the book. And so many Numéro Cinq alums had their hands in it, including Mark Sampson, rob mclennan and George Fetherling. And, of course, Ingrid herself published in the magazine (poetry and art). The book is published by Guernica Editions.
My essay “The Arsonist’s Revenge” on David Helwig‘s novella The Stand-in was commissioned by Ingrid especially for the book. I had a lovely time writing it. Helwig is a master of the novella form, also a master poet, novelist, memoirist — you name it. David is an old, old friend (inimitable) and also multiple contributor to the magazine. Not only that, but (have I mentioned this?) the book is stunningly good. Coincidentally (or not), the estimable and inimitable publishing house Biblioasis re-issued a splendid new edition of The Stand-in. You can buy a copy on the Biblioasis site or Indigo or Amazon.
My essay “The Arsonist’s Revenge” on David Helwig‘s novella The Stand-in will shortly appear in David Helwig: Essays on his Works edited by the inimitable Ingrid Ruthig (pub date is September 1 2018, but you can pre-order on Amazon.com or Indigo). Ingrid is a protean artist, contributing both poems and text/art to our pages (follow the links). In fact, she’s a prime example of how many people who found their way here actually became friends.
Ingrid subsequently, in her role as editor, invited me to write the essay for the book, which I was happy to do because David Helwig is an old, old friend (also inimitable) and also multiple contributor to the magazine. Not only that, but the book is stunningly good. Coincidentally (or not), the estimable and inimitable publishing house Biblioasis re-issued a splendid new edition of The Stand-in. You can buy a copy on the Biblioasis site or Indigo.
So, oddly enough, the magazine lives on (actually we still get upward of 600 views per day) in its influences and friendships.
From the essay:
It’s a dramatic monologue, three lectures delivered extemporaneously by an unnamed retired humanities professor, a last minute replacement for the famous Denman Tarrington who has mysteriously succumbed the week before on the green-tiled floor of a hotel bathroom in New York. Our narrator has gone over the edge, abandoned circumspection and control; he has the podium, his ancient rival is dead (he and Tarrington were, for years, colleagues at the hosting institution), he will joyfully and maliciously set the record straight. Tarrington goes up in flames, demonstrated to be a plagiarist (he wrote his essays off the narrator’s ideas), a wife-beater, a compulsive and boastful seducer (the narrator’s wife ended up running away with him), and a flawed badminton player.
Buy the book to read the rest.
I am a bit slow on this one. An excerpt from my Davy Crockett novel Doom was published in the April issue of The Brooklyn Rail. Something here relating to a childhood obsession with Walt Disney’s version of the story and Fess Parker and raccoon hats.
A little research demonstrated that Davy probably never wore a coon skin hat, that this popular image derived from a stage actor who became immensely popular doing a broad caricature of Crockett’s public backwoods persona.
The backwoods persona hooked into a kernel of truth. Crockett was a hardscrabble farmer, living mostly in poverty, hunting for meat. But when he turned politician, he leaned on his street cred, drawling out homespun stories, telling jokes on his opponents, dolling out chewing tobacco and horns of liquor to constituents.
The real David Crockett perhaps looked more like this.
He became a member of the House of Representatives from Tennessee, a Washington personality, a campaigner for what were called squatters rights, a popular speaker, and a legend in his own time. At one point, he was nominated to run for president, though not much came of this. But what really interested me, aside from not being what he seemed to be, was that Crockett wrote a book, his memoirs, which was intended as one of the first campaign biographies but was actually a very readable, if somewhat untrustworthy, account of growing up in rural America after the Revolution. Some critics see it as an early precursor of the kind of folksy humour Mark Twain made famous. There is also some doubt about how much of the book Crockett actually wrote (he had some help). But he published other books as well, collections of articles and speeches, mostly intended as potboilers.
All this interested me. In one of his letters from Texas, he confided that he wanted to write one more book, a sentiment with which many of us can identify. This was on his way to the Alamo, and we all know what happened there (though current research says we have all that wrong as well).
Here’s a taste of what is in The Brooklyn Rail, from an early chapter.
Yr Informant indites:
When the Orchestra blared out Crockett’s March, Hackett, the Actor, tramped upon the Boards in Moccasins, leather Chaps, buckskin Fringes a foot long dangling from his Shirt, & a shiny Rifle cast in the Crook of one Arm. On his Head was a Varmint curled in a peculiar Manner so that the Tail hung over one Temple.
This was at the Washington Theater.
It were Uncanny to see the Legend from the Box, me & not me.
As if there weren’t already enough Versions of me wandering the Earth.
There was no use saying I didn’t wear a buckskin Shirt or that the Fringes would catch in the Laurels on a bear Hunt or that Hackett was Taller & Straighter & Leaner than yours truly.
He bowed & I bowed. It was like looking through the Mirror. I had the Feeling as the Audience bayed & Applauded that there was some mean public Joy in the Juxtaposition of the Real & the Theatrical, only I was not sure which was which.
I knew who I was when I pissed in the Pot & put on my broadcloth Coat & tied my Tie & brushed my broad-brimmed Beaver ere Tom Doggett came to Fetch me at the boarding House.
But I had entered a treacherous Place in which it did not matter what I thought was real. People were sure James Hackett’s Colonel was the authentic One.
To most Folks who had seen the play or just heard about it, he was the Identical Colonel.
This is some new Dispensation in the Order of Things. I cannot Fathom it completely. Christians quote me back what I Said in the Play & if I don’t talk the way Hackett makes me talk they Turn away disappointed. So I find I must Bend myself toward the Unreal to seem Real.
I believe I was somewhat responsible for promoting Myself on the Stump & liked the Acclaim & Intrigue.
But it has got Away from me.
I am living Legend but the Legend precedes me.
He bows & I bow.
Did you ever see the devil,
With his pitchfork and ladle?
I am all of a Sweat because I envy Him.
Except for that peculiar Hat.
Which now the Constituents expect me to wear, which I do, God Help Me, imitating an Actor imitating me.
DG has been observing radio silence the last few months. He was supposed to be relaxing, basking in the after-glow of his retirement from magazine publishing. But then many bad things happened, not the least of which was the death of Lucy, the NC Blue Dog. Friends and readers who followed the magazine and the Out & Back blog knew her well. She was DG’s constant companion and photographic model.
In March, when the karmic tsunami of bad things began to ebb, DG found a new dog. His name is Pancho. DG was thinking of Pancho Villa, the great Mexican bandit revolutionary, but probably Willie Nelson’s “Pancho and Lefty” was in the back of his mind.
Sulphur Mountain from dg’s bedroom window, Banff Centre
The past week and a half I’ve been at the Banff Centre, surrounded by hysterically looming, steroidal mountains, teaching nonfiction in the Emerging Writers Intensive program along with Elizabeth Philips (poetry), Jennifer Haigh (short fiction) and Rachel Cusk (first novel chapters). Here is a picture of us all. Cascade Mountain on the left and Tunnel Mountain on the right behind us.
The mountains totally intimidated me as did the signs all over campus indicating that bears were plentiful and dangerous and that the elk were rutting and that I should avoid male elk especially (I had some serious fears in this regard), although, as it turned out, we saw no bears or elk (no doubt they were off rutting in private instead of parading their lubricity in the streets).
An enterprising person in my workshop early discovered the Park Distillery downtown, which soon became a regular meeting spot for intense literary discussion, manuscript critiques, and philosophical debate. We had so many philosophical debates there that my class gave me a bottle of the Park Distillery’s homemade gin (best with Fentiman’s botanically brewed tonic water) as a bon voyage present.
Some of us were going to walk up Sulphur Mountain one afternoon after workshop, but the weather turned indifferent and we strolled along a branch of the Bow River on the Hoodoo Trail instead (I should be clear: a group of intrepid students did go to the top of Sulphur that day and lived).
Mostly the scenery defeated me as a photographer, and it’s all been photographed to death anyway (you could see the mountains blushing with embarrassment).
But the people in my workshop were extraordinarily lovely — engaged, passionate, animated. We held workshops in the Max Bell building with my diagrams tacked up around the room like a frieze (occasionally a deer would look in the window to see what was what). But for individual manuscript sessions we met in the McLab café looking toward Mount Norquay in the distance.
And at night I’d go to bed listening to the train whistles (after all, that’s the reason the town is there in the first place — the trains). I make jokes, but I think I was ready for this trip.
The estimable Montreal literary magazine Matrix (a print magazine, Issue #109). has just published the first four chapters of After Grace, a novel I’ve been working on, one of many such. After Grace is an entertainment set in Ragged Point, Alabama. If you follow these sorts of things, Ragged Point is a fictional place on the Gulf Coast wherein several of my stories have arisen: “Story Carved in Stone” in A Guide to Animal Behaviour and “Sixteen Categories of Desire” and “The Left Ladies Club” in 16 Categories of Desire. Since Ragged Point doesn’t exist — and in any case, I have never been to Alabama — it’s a kind of relaxing place to visit. Anything can happen.
If you want to read the text, you’ll have to buy the magazine. But here’s taste:
Moses and the Burning Bush
Barley Tinkle was teaching Bible Stories for Little People in the basement of the Ragged Point Newest Separated Baptist Church of the Twelve Mercies, a cinder block one-storey with a half-basement out by the sewage lagoon a mile past the brick and wrought-iron entrance to the Mermaid Marina and Country Club on the bayou. Upstairs Pastor Gilboom was leading the congregation in singing “In the Firefight of Life, the Lord’s got your Back” accompanied by his wife Tabitha and her vibrating electric organ. Pastor Gilboom was a veteran of the War in Kuwait, where he had heroically driven a refrigerated food services truck for four months before he sprained his back hefting pallets of frozen TV dinners and had to be evacuated State-side. He had written the hymn all on his own, pecking out the melody on his grandson’s 10-key plastic piano. He said, “I had no idea I had a musical gift till I tried. The Lord, who made man and woman out of mud, sent the spirit to me.”
Barley was aware that the eleven parishioners made a pathetic show next to the Assyrian Baptist Church across the street, which was all black people except for his neighbour Geeda Rainbolt, who had a half-black son named Adam and no husband, also two Vietnamese shrimp fishermen and their families, an extended family of Guatemalan immigrants, a Kurdish Christian orthopedic surgeon (unlicensed, as yet, in the US of A) named Hamid, and a token unrelated white woman named Vida Delgrove, who was a defiant person and sat at the back on principle when she was home from college in the summer and at Christmas, though she had once or twice been asked to leave. The Assyrians had an overflow congregation of 127 adults and when they belted out a hymn you could hear it in Bayou La Batre. Not only that but the Church of the Twelve Mercies didn’t actually own its own house of worship but rented it from the Assyrians who had previously occupied it before moving into the spiffy, glass-fronted modern building with the curved, upswept peak that made it look like a ski chalet with a paved parking lot and palmetto hedge overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
Five small people sat cross-legged on the lawn-green fire carpet in a semi-circle before Barley who assumed the seat of authority, a purple polka-dotted bean bag chair that would not support his back. Overhead a dull yellow bar light buzzed. Everything smelled of mildew. There was only one half-window that looked out at the parking pad and the rear fender of Pastor Gilboom’s RAM Rebel (with the Southern cross vanity plates). Every time someone flushed the toilet in the bathroom upstairs it sounded like Niagara Falls coming through the walls. There was a shiny new Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner in the corner with a BUSTED sign taped to the handle, a Casio keyboard with MISSING POWER SUPPLY sign leaning against the wall, a rolled up map of the Bible Lands he had bought in a flea market, a stack of sprung-backed hymn books left by the Assyrians, and a matte black gun locker that contained Pastor Gilboom’s automatic weapons collection.
Around the walls Barley had taped up a dozen crayon drawings of Jesus in the Manger that he had collected from the children before Christmas, pictures detailing the well known and beloved story of Jesus, his mother Mary, his father Joseph and the four dogs, a pony, a budgie, two hamsters, and a kitten that had attended the birth. One showed Baby Jesus with an Xbox controller. Iris Tullahome, who was thirteen, had said, as she handed over her Cubist portrait of a dismembered Saviour and his mother’s three breasts and Joseph’s copious tears, “I feel sorry for Joseph because his wife was having another man’s child.”
Iris Tullahome was the largest of the small people, all of whom seemed faintly demonic to Barley, who had no children of his own, nor a wife (except for that one time), let alone a girlfriend. This was not for want of trying as he had profiles up on six dating websites: “Christian gentleman, 32, blond hair, blue eyes, divorced, a few extra pounds, traditional family values, non-drinker, disease free (hookworm cured), non-smoker, not a fan of beaches or air travel, nervous stomach, part-time student at the American New Light Fellowship Online College of Pastorology (license conferred upon completion of the course), prefers easy listening music, does not drive, needs inhaler occasionally, open-minded but inexperienced, interested in LTR and Civil War re-enactments (watching only), seeks like-minded white female with car.”
“Are you a homosexual?” Iris once asked. Another time: “Are you sexually interested in children or animals?” The other children looked up to Iris Tullahome. She was the pack leader and the highlight of their weekly Sunday school class. Whenever she raised her hand to speak or ask a question, Barley could see the glint of anticipation flit from eye to eye. “Personally, I am doubtful of men who wear pastel yellow cardigan sweaters and LL Bean stretch dress khakis.” At the moment she said this, Iris was dressed in a neon green belly shirt, a denim mini-skirt hemmed above mid-thigh, blue tights, pink knee socks with the word PINK in white, and Uggs because it was winter. She noticed Barley’s eye tracking the letters on the sides if her legs. She said, “Do you know what PINK stands for, Mr. Tinkle?” And the way she said the word, with about eighteen syllables and a certain arching of her prematurely plucked eyebrows, made him blush crimson and lose what was left of his train of thought.
The lesson for the day was Moses and the burning bush, chosen carefully with Iris Tullahome in mind (Rahab the Harlot was out, as was any reference to the rape of Dinah, Onan, David and Bathsheba, Mary Magdalene, Lot and his daughters, Jephtha and his daughter, the emerods in Kings, or the “hill of foreskins” on the banks of the Jordan in the book of Judges – all of which topics had been raised by Iris in the past; evidently she was an avid Bible reader), except that as soon as he said the words burning bush the demonic congregation began to titter inanely.
Iris Tullahome held up her pink phone, pressed the screen, and said, “We are not alone, Mr. T. I am streaming you. What was that about somebody’s burning bush?”
“Not that kind of bush,” said Barley. “Iris, tell me you’re not—.”
“What kind of bush did you think I meant, Mr. T.?” asked Iris Tullahome. “Golly.” She pushed the phone towards him.
Iris Tullahome gave Barley fits when she started in like this. He couldn’t imagine a motive for twisting his words so maliciously the more so since Iris had a quiet, Christian sister, older by four years, named Lorelei Tullahome, who prayed upstairs with the adults, was a straight A student, a member of the swim team (breast stroke), and had applied to Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, early decision. With Lorelei he could have intelligent conversations about intelligent design, fetal rights, what books should be banned from the school library that weren’t already banned and why African-American people were mostly poor and behind (except for the ones they had in Ragged Point who seemed, unaccountably, above average). But Iris disagreed or misconstrued everything he said. He felt sorry for her because she would not come to Jesus if she went on like this and she would miss the blessings of heaven, the pleasures of the communion of angels, the chance to talk to illustrious dead like Pastor Weldon Taber of the Second Alabama Circuit and the saintly Sister Euphemia Applegate, Barley’s ninth grade choir director, both of whom he had sought out for one-on-one discussions of Christ’s mission on earth and the difficulties of self-pollution before they passed. She had also been seen standing outside Rance’s Men’s Wear on Water Street of late in the company of LaTrobe Washington, a local basketball prospect and rap singer (also rumoured to be a drug dealer, though Barley could not believe that there were any illegal drugs sold to the children of Ragged Point).
Barley hadn’t given the lesson yet, but Iris raised her hand again. She had thick black hair, thick eyebrows, extremely red lips and long dangly earrings. She said, “Is it true that in the Bible Moses wife is a Negro?”
“We call them African-Americans, Iris.”
“Moses’ wife was an African-American?” She held out her phone.
“It doesn’t say that. But some authorities think she was from Ethiopia and the people there are Africans.”
“So it’s true. Moses, God’s right hand guy, had a African wife. How could God let that happen?”
“Well, it’s not clear–”
“And is it true that, as a favour to Moses, God gave his wife leprosy to turn her white?”
“It’s seems – well, maybe – something like that.”
The four other demons were gaping in stunned amazement and adoration at their beloved leader’s audacity and superior Bible knowledge, also in astonishment that there were such things in the Bible (although after Iris’s interventions and digressions on Rahab the Harlot, the rape of Dinah, the emerods, etc., nothing should have surprised them).
“That would be kinda hard on Mrs. Moses, wouldn’t it?” said Iris. “I mean when her skin melted and her nose fell off and her fingers rotted down to nubbins and she died. Is this the sign of a God who thinks ahead?”
Barley was staring out the half-window, struggling with his heart. I am having convulsive heart failure, he thought, knowing full well that there was no such thing. Between the tires of Pastor Gilboom’s pickup, he could see a rectangle of the front entrance and parking lot of the Assyrian Church across the road and an endless cavalcade of African-American legs and feet debouching from their morning service. They were happy legs, couples touching thighs as they walked, families holding hands with little ones half-suspended between their elders, legs leaning together for a handshake or a hug, legs in pressed pants or billowy dresses. His neighbour Geeda Rainbolt’s lean white legs were easily recognizable beneath the chaste navy skirt he had seen her wearing when she left for church. Her legs flashed in the sunlight, next to Adam’s chubby knees. The sun was shining on that side of the street but not in the dismal cave where Barley stood with Iris Tullahome and her phone and the Mother of God with three breasts. Surely, Christ dwelt with the black people these days. Surely, he preferred their company to Barley’s who felt, especially when a female talked back to him, unutterably bereft and alone. Profile: Christian gentleman, 32, blond hair, blue eyes, divorced, a few extra pounds, seeks Saviour, LTR preferred but will consider all offers.
He felt a hand tugging at his sleeve.
“Mr. T.” Iris Tullahome said, “I got a text from Daddy. He wants to see you A-SAP.”
Audible has just (September 13) released the audiobook version of my novel Elle. This audio version is narrated by the replendent Severn Thompson who adapted the novel for the stage last year. Click the image above to go to Amazon and hear a sample of the novel.
Editor-in-chief prepares to leave the building.
Now is the moment for reflection, gratitude, and farewells. Not that I am going away or anyone else connected with the magazine for that matter. It’s just that we won’t appear again in quite this form. (And I am going to sell the white horse, which has started to attract attention.)
The magazine started with a group of friends feeling outsiderish and piratical, and it has persisted in that light, though the names have gradually changed over time. There are 40 people on the masthead today; the list of artists and writers who have appeared in the magazine could fill a small town; and then there are our readers, most of whom we will never know, though some, in keeping with our policy, have become writers for the magazine and friends.
The fact that we got so big and lasted so long (on fumes) is miraculous.
It would be invidious to single out individuals, but there are some who by their intelligence and loyalty have altered my thin view of the human race. And others whose sheer bloody-minded willingness to throw their support behind an upstart magazine and persist have taught me something about the nature of friendship and the value of art. I will never forget the decency, kindness and camaraderie that have characterized NC’s inner workings. You are an astonishing tribe. I am eternally grateful.
My sons grew to adults under the sign of Numéro Cinq (while my dog — the blue dog of NC fame — grew ancient and incontinent). It was ever a topic of dinner table conversation (Mission Control has always been in the bedroom, where my laptop lives). Jonah designed the logo. Jacob still reads with the analytic eye he learned writing reviews for the magazine.
Now the feeling around here is distinctly autumnal, and I am a bit anxious about what I am going to do with myself when I don’t have to get up in the morning and attend to the magazine chores.
As for the site, it will remain live as a monument to us all. All your work, the archives, the special features and anthologies, will be available. Possibly, I will post in the NC Blog now and then on matters relating to the magazine. I’ve been using the “Out & Back” blog category as my personal blog; I might have to sort that out (or not).
There are going to be loose ends. Story of my life.
A few issues back I mentioned a speech from Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander that seemed to capture the feeling. It’s very early in the film. Oscar Ekdahl is making his annual speech to the cast after the Christmas pageant in the little family-owned theatre.
Dear friends, dear fellow workers, dear family! For twenty-two years I have stood here and made a speech. I am not really any good at this sort of thing. My only talent, if you can call it a talent in my case, is that I love this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse. And I’m fond of the people who work in this little world. Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds for a moment in reflecting the big world, so that we understand it better. Or is it perhaps that we give the people who come here the chance of forgetting for a while, forgetting for a while the harsh world outside. Our theatre is a small room of orderliness, routine, conscientiousness, and love. I don’t know why I am so awfully moved today of all days. I feel so comically solemn. I can’t explain how I feel. I had better be brief.
(He shakes his head, raises his glass, and looks at the people gathered around him.)
Okay, the scoop. Aidos, a short film by our senior editor R. W. Gray, marks Douglas Glover’s first credited film work (at 3:44). (It is not, however, his first onscreen appearance since he had an uncredited role as an extra in Michael Douglas’s 1979 movie Running; check out the start of the marathon. In terms of an acting career, this early success led nowhere — it is a galling fact of dg’s life that many things have led nowhere, though he remains optimistic.)
R. W. Gray has edited NC at the Movies for years, decades even, it seems. In between times, he’s been writing (his story collection Entropic last year won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award) and making films.
He shot Aidos in the winter-spring of 2014 when he and I were both rooming in Mark Jarman’s house in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Some of the scenes were filmed in Mark’s house or nearby (you can see the old railway bridge through the stained glass window in one scene and the cathedral in the background of another).
The film has traveled the world (Tel Aviv, Romania, Lithuania, and all over the U.S. and Canada) and was programmed in twelve festivals. And now that it has finished its festival run, Rob has posted Aidos on Vimeo where we can all see it.
Aidos is, on the surface, about love and mourning. A young gay man has died, the voice over narration tells is that 21 people avowed their love for him before the end. What follows is 21 different actors saying “I love you” with the sound muted, just the faces, eyes, expressions.
When Rob filmed my bit, he told me nothing of the film’s structure or point. Actually, he told me nothing (I got no contract, no star in my door, we are still in litigation about the star on the door thing). He just wanted to film me saying the words “I love you.” This took a long time because he wanted a spiritual depth, a vulnerability, one is not used to performing in public. One, moi, I am so bloody shy. He coached me. He told me to visualize someone I loved and address that person. I thought of my sons. In my bit, I am thinking of my boys. That in the film this thought is translated into a completely different meaning is a revelation to me, a revelation about the nature of acting, which included, yes, an object lesson in the difference between acting and pretending — I was not pretending, though I was summoning up an image to cue myself. I am still mulling over this experience. I think I learned some, though I am not sure what.
That quality of vulnerability is what Rob was after in the film, I think. The word “aidos” bursts with complex implication, which you must think about as you watch the film. It’s a Greek word that means, as a quality, a mix of reverence, modesty, and shame and is meant to be one of those aspects of personality that restrain us from doing evil.
Here it is personified in Hesiod, where she appears as a goddess, a companion to Nemesis.
And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.
The shame aspect is interesting because it involves the consciousness of being visible to others, of being seen, not just as a projection but as an emotional, thus vulnerable, self. The words “I love you,” so easily spoken in private, expose this inner self to ridicule (which, in itself, is an element of acting).
So re-watch Rob’s film and pay special attention to the interior contortions embodied in the faces of the actors (and, of course, they are mostly men, so the shyness/modesty quotient is very high — ah, we are a limping gender!): the effort to be real.
With the publication of Paul Lindholdt’s wonderful essay on living in Spokane, we’ve reached the end of the line for our What It’s Like Living Here series. But now you can see the whole series (7 1/2 years worth of essays listed alphabetically by author) on our What It’s Like Living Here page. Now you get an idea of what I envisioned when I started this series. We have some magnificent pieces of writing, great photos, deeply felt connections to place and home. These essays (along with Childhood series, the My First Job series, etc.) were meant to be the human face of the magazine, the place where writing, emotion and sense of self found an aesthetic meeting point.
It’s difficult to make a list of favourites (because I loved them all), but check out Shawn Selway on living in Hamilton, Ontario; Carrie Cogan on Salt Spring Island, Stephen Sparks on San Francisco, and Tiara Winter-Schorr on Manhattan. Also look at Court Merrigan’s essay on Torrington, Wyoming, and Brad Green on Denton, Texas, and Gary Garvin on Cupertino, and John Proctor on New York.
I’ll list them all if I’m not careful.
More retrospection. I almost hate to do this. Many will suggest that I should let sleeping dogs lie. But really, folks, there have been occasions of sublime tomfoolery (and embarrassment) on Numéro Cinq, especially early on when there were fewer people in the community. We used have a lot of fun in the margins. Feisty and irreverent. There has always been a current of that spirit running through the magazine.
“The Lost Poems of Paris Hilton” is a comment conversation (on the NC Blog in April, 2010) that exploded willy-nilly under a post to which it bore only a conjectural connection. Eventually, we extracted the “Lost Poems” conversation and gave it a blog post of its own (hence, the references part way through to a David Helwig photo that is no long attached to the piece). Paris was much in the news at the time. Ivanka Trump also figures in the thread. She is much in the news today. No doubt we’ll be hearing from the Department of Justice later in the day. Of the writers involved, Natalia Sarkissian and Gary Garvin are still on the masthead. Rich Farrell is no longer on the masthead but contributes now and then, most recently a review of a Steven Heighton novel. Steven Axelrod has his own NC Archive Page.
Click on the image or the link above or find the “lost poems” here. The poems are not in the body of the post but in the comment thread below, so you have to click through to the original post and then scroll down. For added entertainment, read the extended URL.
p.s. Try not to judge us harshly.
Tower of Babel (for Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman) – ink, acrylic, antique paper on panel, 48 x 38 inches, 2016
This is the Last Call issue because it is the final issue. Numéro Cinq will cease publishing new work when we complete the roll-out in August. The site will remain live forever (or whatever forever amounts to in Internet years). It will also be backed up and archived, so that as long as there is electricity there will be a Numéro Cinq somewhere, a monument to the collective efforts of all our editors, writers, artists, and readers.
I’m stopping the magazine because we are soaring, reputation rising, the quality of new work never better. We have a well-oiled infrastructure in place. The masthead is replete with intelligent, gifted, dedicated people. But, paradoxical as it might seem, this feels like the perfect moment to sign off, mount up, and ride into the sunset.
The magazine is named for an imaginary terrorist organization in one of my short stories. It was born under the flag of the outsider: rumbustious, experimental, anti-capitalist, and defiantly non-institutional. We did it the wrong way on purpose. No submissions, no submission fees, no financing, no donors, no board, no contests to raise money, no grant applications, no splashy design help, no tech experts, no institutional support, no ads. I was thinking of samizdat, underground mags run off on mimeograph machines. I was moreover impatient with what I perceived as a general need for prior approval. (Oh, I’m going to start this project, research that, publish this — as soon as I get a grant.) And I was also reacting to a perceived threat: the advent of electronic publishing, the decline of bookstores. Everything was going to hell in a hand basket. But at Numéro Cinq we opted to embrace the new and see what advantages could be earned. Forget fear, ignore cultural malaise, we thought. Just try a little something and see where it will go. Have fun, be earnest and uncool, exhibit naive bravado, panache.
We also intended above all to honour the writers. One of the chief problems with print magazines is that they disappear shortly after publication. If you’re lucky, you have five copies and can perhaps find one in the stacks at the college library. The analogous problem with online publications is that after the flash of publication, your work disappears into the anarchic bowels of unsearchable archives. I designed NC to avoid these pitfalls. Instead of dumping the entire issue at the beginning of the month, we opted to publish one or two pieces per day so that each author had a day in the sun at the top of the front page. Then I added the RECENT ISSUES section; every writer’s name would be linked on the front page of the magazine for three months. And then I solved the impenetrable archive dilemma by designing multiple transparent search pathways and a logical archive organization: genre contents pages (linked to buttons down the right column but also lined to dropdown menus in the nav bar), issue by issue links under BACK ISSUES (in the nav bar), also special feature pages (linked in the nav bar) and our author archive pages (for authors who have appeared regularly in the magazine). We also opted to pay special attention to translators; we have a translators’ content page (so every translated item is entered in its own genre contents page and again under the translator’s name on the translation page). This mean seem a bit arcane, but it’s important to give a sense of how much care we tried to take with that precious commodity, our writers. (I also ruthlessly deleted any cross-eyed, stupid, ad hominem, unsupported comments that showed up under posts.)
NC was always meant to be a community, not a distant institution and especially not a submission portal that no one ever read or engaged with. We published mostly be invitation. But if a person engaged intelligently with the community (in comments, on Facebook, on Twitter), that person was apt to get an invitation. Many of or writers started as readers. We also used the set essay series — What It’s Like Living Here, Childhood, My First Job — as entry points for developing writers or gifted amateurs. You may all remember the periodic call for submissions.
In brief, this is what we were, what we tried to be. But it is the fate of revolutions to form governments and transform into the thing they rebelled against. The direction of all is toward entropy and stasis. Now we hope we can avoid that fate by simply stepping aside, assigning ourselves to the evanescent.
That said, the August issue is a revelation. I discreetly put out the word and, Lo! — it was like the housecarls and shield lords (if you can imagine also many female shield lords) gathering to make a last stand for the old cause. Writers leaped at the chance to appear in the last issue. Some put off other deadlines to finish work for NC. Long promised work suddenly materialized. I was touched over and over at the words people wrote to me about what the magazine has meant, how important it has become. (Okay, I have difficulty with praise. People have written things in the past weeks such that I have been unable to reply. You know who you are.)
But the issue. That’s the important thing, what I must focus on. We have writers from around the world — Canada and the U.S. but also Britain, Argentina, Italy, Nigeria, Hungary, Romania, Mexico, Russia, and more. A packed issue. Here’s the rundown.
Wayne Koestenbaum (Credit: Ebru Yildiz)
From Wayne Koestebaum, a writer I’ve know since the mid-1990s when he appeared on the radio show I hosted, we have two stunning “notebooks,” collections of aphorisms, brilliantly witty, mordant and touching (not all at once but delicately threaded).
……………..what is the
Harlequin Romance equivalent of
“friends, Romans, countrymen”?
is an ob word like obscene or
oblate or obsequy—
one’s loins across the public domain—
do shrinks even when off-duty
refuse warmth and ebullience?
or do I specialize
in non-ebullient shrinks?
—Wayne Koestenbaum from “#20 [thick book on mother-shelf pinnacled me o’er Tums]”
From Nigeria, by the young writer Chika Onyenezi, we have a new story in a mode that combines the contemporary with the folkloric.
A man chopped off a young boy’s head. He lured him to the back of his hotel and butchered him. When they found the head, it had tears in the eyes. That shit was all over the television, the saddest thing I had ever seen. They said he wanted to sell the organs to hospitals in Saudi Arabia. He rotted away in prison. He awaited trial until death took him. I swear everyone wanted to see him hang. The man lived ten blocks away from us before the event. A brave citizen alerted the people when the severed head was discovered at the back of his hotel. Everyone woke up and decided that enough was enough. An angry mob burned his house. For two weeks, smoke still escaped from charred remains. For two weeks, it smelled like a burning foam at his house. Whenever I walked past it, I felt sad. A month later, a bee hive formed. Three months later, a mad man moved into the house. A year later, the children of the murderer came back to claim their father’s property. Madness ruled these streets. Charred insanity rained here. I swear, the street ran itself for a long time. No government authority was effective here. Well, not just the street, the country ran itself, too.
—Chika Onyenezi from “There Are Places God Wouldn’t Go.”
Fernando, one of our indefatigable senior editors, long ago promised me a going-home essay. I never thought I’d get a text as astonishing as this. Fernando flies home to Argentina, and intercut with his own narrative is the fictional narrative of a second homecoming, the two trajectories magically coinciding at the close. This memoir has everything: the myth of return, gritty disenchantment, deft self-analysis and revelation, plus the outreach into fiction, resonance and mystery.
Missing Buenos Aires is a daily routine. Some days the longing arrives after a sound — memories are triggered, homesickness kicks in. Other times it happens after a smell, any smell, heavenly or foul. Most times the longing comes after the wanton recollection of this or that corner, any part of Buenos Aires that in my mind looks like Buenos Aires should look. Some days the feeling is overwhelming and I can spend hours wallowing in self pity. Most times the situation is manageable. I am writing this, listening to Astor Piazzolla, because today is one of those days where I can’t handle homesickness very well. And the music helps with the fantasy, it feeds it.
—Fernando Sdrigotti from “Notes Towards a Return.”
Rikki Ducornet — she’s been a comrade and inspiration the past few months. Rikki is one of those too busy to have a piece in the last issue, too burdened with other deadlines. When she told me, I was a tad disappointed. Five days later she sent me a poem, brand new, written for the magazine, a poem with obvious topical resonance framed against the metaphysical, profound with meta-commentary, and yet eruptive, alive.
-One has a tendency to ascribe intention to the Abyss,
……………….even a logical scheme,
although it has been demonstrated, time and time again,
……………….that any given hypothesis, even
“verified” is contingent on provisory facts. As the nursery rhyme asks:
In the mouth of of despot, what is more fickle than facts?
Thus is Philosophy forever seated on the horns of chronic uncertainty.
……………….Science, Her Right Hand,
insists that the First Quality of the Abyss is surprise.
—Rikki Ducornet from “Bees Are The Overseers.”
From Lance Olsen, we have a wonderful section of his novel-in-progress My Red Heaven. In this bit, Walter Benjamin appears seated under a linden tree composing his thoughts toward what will become his epic, unfinished Arcades Project. Readers will want to compare this section with an excerpt we ran earlier from the same novel. The two texts are radically different, and this gives you a sense of the collage structure of the novel as whole. It seems vast and beautiful, gathering the political and philosophical threads of a tortured modernity in early 20th century Europe.
Suppose, he considers, his weak heart twinging, I am falling in love with disjunction. Medieval alleys full of flowers. Suppose I am falling in love with learning to interrupt my —
—Lance Olsen channeling Walter Benjamin, from his novel-in-progress My Red Heaven.
Victoria Best said she didn’t have anything but then added that she had been working on a book of biographical essays about writers in crisis (the crisis forged into art). Would I like to see one of those just in case? Sure. She sent me three. I published her essay on Henry Miller in the July issue and saved the one on Doris Lessing for the final issue. It’s a masterpiece. No need to beat about the bush. It’s breathtaking in its concision, its masterful weaving of life event and shrewd psychological analysis and truly perceptive literary reading. Beautiful through and through. (Victoria makes you wonder why anyone would write a 600-page biography.)
Doris Lessing had taken all the ugly, entrapped, rageful relationships she had experienced – her mother and her father, her mother and herself, old Mrs Mitchell and her son, herself and Frank Wisdom, every relationship she had ever witnessed between a white man and his black slave and had distilled the awful essence from them. What she wrote in The Grass Is Singing was that any relationship based on domination and submission was doomed to disaster for all parties concerned; the dominant had to rule so absolutely, the submissives had to be so crushed, that no full humanity was available to either of them. Instead they were locked in airtight roles, waging a futile war to maintain a status quo that damaged and reduced them both. On one side would be fear and contempt, on the other resentment and bitter self-righteousness. Compassion and sympathy – love itself – had no room to breathe, no space to nurture joy and pleasure.
—Victoria Best from “Mother Tongue.”
Curtis White heard the call and sent me an excerpt from a work-in-progress written “after Rabelais.” It’s a delicious hoot. You can feel the Rabelaisian rhythms in the sentences. The text revels in excess. And the whole thing sizzles with the ironic tension between the flat American idiom and the ebullient Renaissance syntax. I wrote Curtis back, quoting one of my favourite list sentences from Rabelais, which he immediately recognized as one he used to teach his students.
Having decimated the main courses, she retreated to the soups and polished off one pot each of borscht, split pea, and, soup du jour, potato/leek. (“André! Scratch the soups!”) At this point she observed that her napkin was soiled and asked for another. Pitiless, she ate the herbed caviar roulade, the crepes with caviar filling, potatoes with caviar, caviar éclairs, oysters and caviar, and—a coup de main, de resistance, de theatre, d’etat, de grace, and de foudre—a cobbler with knuckle truffles (the low, obsequious sort common to the Aberdeens), creamed clotters, and crushed sweet-rind. (If you’re looking for the recipe, it’s in Mark Bittman’s Cobblers and Gobblers: Cooking with Cottage Clusters and Custard Clotters.)
—Curtis White after Rabelais from “Dining at the Stockyard Trough.”
S. D. Chrostowska
S. D. Chrostowska sent us a mysterious, glittering alternate universe story on the conflict between orality and literacy. The domination of oral cultures by literate cultures is one of my own hobby horses (we’ve both read out McLuhan), so I loved this story. Maybe you’ll want to call it a fable or a parable. But it imagines what would happen if orality were banned entirely.
Of course, much nuance was lost in the process, but it was not mourned for long; the baby, orality, was thrown out with the bathwater of facial expressiveness. Gradually and naturally, even private communication was being conducted exclusively in writing. Writers seen in the act of writing adhered strictly to the no-expression rule, which diverted attention from their face to the text committed on the transparent scroll interposed between interlocutors. Emotional concepts and terms, after a period of proliferation (when they were desperately needed to substitute for previously unconstrained nonverbal expressions), all but vanished as the suppression of expressiveness became normalized. The gestures, habits and practices that underpinned and imbued words like “love” with meaning were gradually lost.
—S. D. Chrostowska from “The Writing on the Wall.”
From Hungary, we have poems by ZsuZsa Takács translated by Erika Mihálycsa. Takács is the doyenne of Hungarian poetry. We’ve had her in NC before, a short story published last October. And Erika has contributed translations as well as her own essays and fiction. She has been a stalwart for the cause.
Where does bargaining begin, the withdrawal
of consent, the defensive fidgeting, the living
for the last moment, the hour stolen
for banqueting, or making love? I might
lapse there as well – our emperor left the decision to us,
but Socrates forbids cowardly action.
ZsuZsa Takács from “Yearning for an ancient cup” translated by Erika Mihálycsa.
Paul Lindholdt submitted a What It’s Like Living Here essay. It was elegant and beautiful. We had a conversation. I said it’s beautiful I’ll publish it but it’s not a WILLH essay because it doesn’t follow the form exactly. He wrote back and said he’d rewrite it. I said don’t you dare rewrite it. He said he wanted it to be a WILLH essay. I said well okay I’ll call it whatever you want as long as I get to publish it. This is where we left things. He’s a tremendous writer.
Col. George Wright hanged members of the Yakama and Spokane tribes. He slaughtered hundreds of their horses to weaken their ability to survive and fight. As a sort of reward his name memorializes a fort, a cemetery and an arterial drive. In turn the most well-known of his victims, Qualchan, lent his name (however ironically) to a real-estate development, a golf course and a footrace.
Onomastics, the study of proper names, has stirred my imagination since I settled here. The name Spokane looks as if it needs to be enunciated like cane at the end. But it has been given a midrange vowel, and so it sounds like can. The creek where Qualchan was hanged appears on state maps as Latah (Salish for fish), but it appears as Hangman on the national records. Federal cartographers seem unwilling to let the state forget its treacherous bit of regional history.
—Paul Lindholdt from his essay “Shrub Steppe, Pothole, Ponderosa Pine.”
I’ve published Ralph Angel’s poems and his essays before. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I read the line: “For the artist, wasting time, which the French perfected, is called discipline.” Need I say more.
For the artist, giving up thinking is called discipline. Giving up hope, giving up certainty, comparison and judgment is called discipline.
For the artist, wasting time, which the French perfected, is called discipline.
“Those who depend upon the intellect are the many,” wrote the minimalist painter, Agnes Martin. “Those who depend upon perception alone are the few.”
—Ralph Angel from “Influence, a Day in the Life.”
Hungary again! Kinga Fabó has already published poems in the magazine, and she’s been a wise and enthusiastic supporter of the magazine for a long time on Facebook and Twitter. Her work is experimental, wildly exciting, slyly ironic, and suffused with a dark eros. For the last issue, she sent me a short story translated by Paul Olchváry.
A fine orgy flooded through her. Perhaps her overblown need for a personality, her oversize ability to attune, was linked to her singular sensitivity to sounds. Effortlessly she assumed the—rhythm of the—other. Only when turning directly its way. She is in sound and she is so as long as she is—as long as she might be. Yet another orgy flooded through her. She would have broken through her own sounds, but a complete commotion?! May nothing happen! “VIRGINITY IS LUXURY, MY VIRGINITY LOOSE HELP ME,” T-shirts once proclaimed. This (grammatically unsound) call to action, which back then was found also on pins, now came to mind. An aftershock of the beat generation. And yet this—still—isn’t why she vibrated.
—Kinga Fabó from “Two Sound Fetishists” translated by Paul Olchváry.
This is our last Numero Cinco, our Mexican series. Dylan Brennan, our Mexican connections, has curated a powerful activist poem by Maria Rivera called “Los Muertos” and translated for us by Richard Gwyn.
Here come those who were lost in Tamaupilas,
the woman they gang raped before killing her,
the man who tried to stop it and received a bullet,
the woman they also raped, who escaped and told the story
comes walking down Broadway,
consoled by the wail of the ambulances,
the hospital doors,
light shining on the waters of the Hudson.
—Maria Rivera, from her poem “Los Muertos” translated by Richard Gwyn.
Our poetry co-editor Susan Aisenberg has brought back H. L. Hix for our last issue. Long time readers will remember he appeared here once before (look at the poetry contents page). Read these: fitting for the end of things.
Or that the something now coming undone,
much bigger than we are, includes all our
trivial undonenesses in its one
vast undoing, entails that we ourselves are
undone already, no matter what we do,
and undone ultimately, through and through?
—H. L. Hix from “That something has to come undone.”
Jowita Bydlowska just had a story we published selected for the 2017 Best Canadian Stories. I thought we could double that triumph by publishing another story, and she accommodated me. Not only that but she sent along a selection of her gloriously disturbing, alienated photographs as well. I met Jowita years ago when we were both touring for a book. I believed in her and her work from the moment she told me the story of coming to Canada as a young adolescent from Poland, lonely and marginal, and how she assuaged her loneliness by hiding out in the Woodstock, Ontario, public library for days on end painstakingly teaching herself to read English. That’s where she made herself as a writer.
“Why not? She’s beautiful,” my husband says.
She is. I would kiss the redheaded bartender. I’d probably do it for five bucks or for free but I like lying to my husband, pretending to be hesitant about it.
I think he lies to me all the time. I have no proof but if you lie you think everybody else is.
—Jowita Bydlowska from her story “Almost dies all the time.”
Ah, the divine Canadian poet Stephanie Bolster who has a talent for opening a chasm in syntax and driving the reader’s car right into it. Brought to us by our poetry co-editor Susan Gillis.
To select different options, click here.
Timed out waiting for a response.
Ten minutes ticking.
If you do not book now, the future into which you would have flown
will be irrevocably erased. No more husband and kiddies
at the park, the little one dangling in the baby swing,
wailing, as big brother tackles the slide for the first time.
Instead you will wait in an airport lounge for a stranger.
You will live on a floodplain and the worst will happen.
A fault will open and your car will plunge.
Earth will fill your mouth.
—Stephanie Bolster from “Midlife.”
Warren Motte, through our interactions over the magazine, has become a friend. We exchange news about our sons, our dogs. I solicit work from him, he solicits work from me. We have developed an amiable camaraderie (as I have with many of the writers and editors involved). Warren is also one of the few contributors who truly gets what an NC author photo should look like. I always say, Send me a photo of yourself, preferably relaxed and informal, with a dog or a child. Hardly anyone take me seriously. Only the chosen few who truly understand. Warren is among them.
Odysseus, Panurge, Eugénie Grandet, Gregor Samsa, Humbert Humbert, Oskar Matzerath, all of them from Ahab to Zeno, mere constructs! And their worlds pure figments: no more flying carpets, no more hansom cabs, no more magic lamps, no more tartar steppes! Such a perspective does not bear contemplation for long. Its very bleakness urges us toward another position, I think. One that we can occupy at our leisure, and wherein we are no longer obliged to choose between subject and object, self and other, inside and out.
—Warren Motte from “Division and Multiplication.”
Grant Maierhofer just arrived at the magazine last month. We published a Germán Sierra interview with him and a short story. He represents the cutting edge of experimental art that is sometimes called Post-Anthropocene, art that literally comes after the world era of human domination, art characterized by a systematic denial of the sentimentalized anthropocentric view of history and culture. Human have destroyed nature. We are in the countdown (Make America Great Again notwithstanding). I had to get him into the last issue if only because I have a tremendous sympathy for his aesthetic.
Walking for me changed when architecture changed, cities or long rural stretches suddenly took on meaning, became signs of something, warped. In Jarett Kobek’s novel of the 9/11 attacks, ATTA, his iteration of Mohammed, Atta, wanders cities hearing voices in their materials. I hadn’t known this prior to reading but Atta was a student of architecture, had written a dissertation in fact regarding the imperialist dominion of metropolitan architecture over the Middle East. The heft of these sentiments is largely unimportant to my purposes here, but I often wonder about the post-9/11 psyche and its relationship to architecture. Like the possibility of burned, sacked, destroyed works of art—either by the hands of their creators or fascists or mere accident—I wonder if anticipation of destruction alters our sense of the landscape in ways it simply couldn’t prior to the explosive power of our present.
—Grant Maierhofer from “Peripatet.”
Boris Dralyuk’s translations of poems by the Russian Alexander Tinyakov come to us via the good offices of Mary Considine Beck to whom we are eternally grateful. And grateful also for these blackly cynical and exuberantly negative poems. Read the teaser quote below. And smile.
Lovely new coffins are headed my way,
full of the finest young men.
Pleasure to see them, simply a joy –
pretty as birches in spring!
—Boris Dralyuk translation, “Joie de Vivre” by Alexander Tinyakov.
A. Anupama comes back one last time with a new selection of classic Tamil poetry, beautiful and mystical in their fusing of the erotic and the divine — read them carefully; they are a combination of sly, sometimes comic love poetry and the self meeting the godhead. Go back through the contents pages and read A. Anupama’s own poems, her earlier translations, and her essays on translation. We have a lovely extended archive of her work.
We live in the same city, but he avoids my street.
When he does come down my street, he doesn’t step in to visit,
and as though he’s strolling past some strangers’ cremation grounds,
he takes an eyeful and keeps walking,
as though he’s not the one who has driven me out of my shyness
and my mind. Such love, like an arrow shot from a bowstring,
soars for only a moment and falls someplace irretrievable, far away.
Pālai Pādiya Perunkadunkō
Kuruntokai, verse 231
—A. Anupama translation, “Poem from avenues lined with ornamental trees”
Patrick J. Keane
It took Pat Keane roughly three hours to get me a new essay when I wrote to him. This time an extended treatment of Mark Twain and T. S. Eliot. Erudite, eloquent, lapel-grabbing, astonishing in his ability to access quotations, Pat Keane is like a glacial eccentric, out there on his own, provenance unknown, no other like him. His contributions to the magazine, from early on, have been an anchor to my editorial heart. As long as Pat Keane trusted his work to me, I knew we were doing a good thing.
This recalcitrance of history is often lost in our tendency—not unlike the American love-affair with the film Casablanca—to lavish affection on a book which for many, especially in the wake of Ernest Hemingway’s encomium in the mid-1930s, is the “great American novel.” Placing Huckleberry Finn in the context of longstanding American cultural debates, historicist critic Jonathan Arac registered the virtues of the novel while also pronouncing it mean-spirited. Writing in 1997, he warned against that overloading of the book with cultural value that had led to feel-good white liberal complacency regarding race. And what he called the “hypercanonization” and “idolatry” of Huckleberry Finn was a flaw-forgiving development contributed to, Arac claimed, by Eliot’s Introduction to the novel.
Four years later, Ann Ryan examined Arac’s view that the now iconic Huckleberry Finn has an undeserved reputation as a novel that somehow resolved the issue of racism. In Ryan’s concise synopsis of Arac’s argument, critics since the 1940s, “self-consciously engaged” in an interpretive process, “equated Huck with tolerance and love, Twain with Huck, and America with Twain.” Reacting to the “self-serving criticism” of the “white literary establishment,” Arac represents Huckleberry Finn, not as healing or resolving, but “as a novel with a mean spirit and Twain as an author with a hard heart.” Countering Arac, Ryan argues that “it is precisely this raw quality, in both the book and its author,” that makes Huckleberry Finn a valuable asset in contemporary discussions of race, in general and in the classroom. She argues persuasively that, while Twain “evades political entanglements,” he “intentionally represents this evasion”; and that while the novel clearly “operates on racist assumptions and privileges,” it “unflinchingly illustrates how both are expressed and defended.”
—Patrick J. Keane from his essay “Of Beginnings and Endings: Huck Finn and Tom Eliot.”
Artist Josh Dorman’s “Tower of Babel” is a gift as cover art for the issue. An updated biblical icon combining a painterly quotation from Breughel the Elder with a Bosch-like menagerie of creatures. I dunno — it does remind me of the magazine in a way. Read the interview and look at other work by Dorman.
I work in a subconscious state. A narrative may assert itself, but more often, multiple narratives and connections emerge. You guessed right when you asked about images that beg to be grouped together. It’s almost as if they’re whispering when the pages turn. It may come from my formalist training or it may be much deeper rooted, but I feel the need to connect forms from different areas of existence. A birdcage and a rib cage. A radiolarian and a diagram of a galaxy. Flower petals and fish scales. Tree branches, nerves, and an aerial map of a river. It’s obviously about shifting scale wildly from inch to inch within the painting. I think the reason I’m a visual artist is because it sounds absurdly simplistic to say in words that all things are connected.
Fernando Sdrigotti, editor-at-large, snagged this wonderful excerpt from Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities. Anderson has long been on my hot list of prospects to invite, so it’s fitting he’s here at the end. Visionary.
The future will be old. It may be bright and shiny, terrible and wonderful but, if we are to be certain of anything, it will be old. It will be built from the reconstructed wreckage of the past and the present and the just-about possible. ‘The future is already here’ according to William Gibson, ‘it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ You sit amongst fragments of it now.
—Darran Anderson from Imaginary Cities.
Montague Kobbé uses To Kill a Mocking Bird as a prospecting tool to help unravel the contemporary mysteries of race, terror, diaspora and transculturalism.
Three days after the fortuitous capture of Salah Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man for four months, the BBC published a profile of his lawyer, Sven Mary. The title of the piece was deliberately incendiary and utterly telling of the sentiment prevalent in Paris, in London, in Brussels, in Europe: “Sven Mary: The Scumbag’s Lawyer.”
Despite his notoriety in Belgium as a high-profile defense attorney, I had never before seen a photograph of Sven Mary – indeed, I hadn’t even heard the name until I clicked on the aforementioned piece. Hence, it’s fair to say that I had never really had much of a chance of building a balanced image of the lawyer in question, my judgment necessarily skewed by the tone of the very first notice I had of the existence of this man. This circumstance immediately made me think of Atticus Finch, the hero in Harper Lee’s cult novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
—Montague Kobbé, from his essay “Of Discrimination, Transculturalism and the Case for Integration.”
Michael Carson has been on the masthead a short time but he’s already contributed lovely reviews and a powerful essay on story plot. Now, at last, we get to see his fiction. Wild, apocalyptic, dystopian, and alive. Note also his cheeky theft of the double amputation from my story “Tristiana.” Mike confessed when he sent me the story. We have had a good chuckle over this. He’s a young writer I believe in.
But first they have to kill us. It is beautiful from the top of a mountain—the killing. The city glows like it never done from inside. Dark shadows, could be talls, could be dwarves, explode like moths flaring up in candles the size of Jesus. Drones dart in and out of the fire, putting it out with more explosions. Camino Real and a few other hotels crumble. Highway 10 breaks in half. Billy Boy says many cities have done the same. No use getting upset. Billy Boy had some friends of his, Indian tribes come down from Ruidoso, take me up to Franklin Mountain to be safer. He says what’s going to go down no place for a pretty dwarf like me. I say it’s my fault. He says it ain’t no one’s fault. Bound to happen eventually. I say I can fight just like the rest of them. He smiles and says Darling, you a lover, not a fighter. I said he the same. That’s why we in love. But he says, no. He don’t believe in love. We just bugs in the end.
—Michael Carson from “El Paso Free Zone”
Paul Pines has contributed visionary and speculative essays and poetry to the magazine, but this time he pens a good old-fashioned memoir that draws on his time running a jazz club in Brooklyn. I adore this essay for its evocation of a place and a time and the music.
My fascination was ignited again during hormonal teenage summers cruising the beach that ran along the southern hem of Brooklyn from the elevated BMT subway stop on Brighton Beach Avenue, all the way to Sea Gate. My crew roamed between the parachute-jump, rising like an Egyptian obelisk from Luna Park, to the fourteen story Half-Moon Hotel. Both loomed like thresholds at the edge of the known world. The haunting quality of the place was especially palpable in the shadow of the Half-Moon Hotel, where Abe Reles, as FBI informant guarded by six detectives, jumped or was pushed out the window on the sixth floor. Reles had already brought down numerous members of Murder Incorporated. His defenestration occurred in 1941, the day before he was scheduled to testify against Albert Anastasia. The hotel’s name echoed that of Henry Hudson’s ship, which had anchored briefly off nearby Gravesend Bay, hoping to find a short cut to Asia. Folded into the sight and smell of warm oiled bodies on the beach and under the boardwalk, past and future pressed hard against the flesh of the present.
—Paul Pines from his memoir “Invisible Ink.”
From Bruce Stone, an excerpt from a work-in-progress, a trenchant, densely-written fiction. Think: dog boy and sperm trafficker, and a vast, spreading darkness.
If there had been a time before the dogs, the kid couldn’t recall it because, far as he was concerned, ma had always been breeding. He’s still not sure whether dad’s untimely exit was cause or consequence of ma’s decision to surround herself with seedstock Dobermans, but he’s seen the nativity photos of the dogs dipping their muzzles like jailbreak felons into the laundry basket, where the kid lay cushioned on beach towels, that placid dazed expression of a baby contemplating umpteen canine teeth and whiskers stiff as brush bristles. Also inexplicable is how the kid survived infancy when the possibilities for carnage were so numerous and imminent, but here he is, lo these dozen years later, still consuming resources and riding upon the Earth’s surface under the lucky Dog star of his birth.
—Bruce Stone, from his work-in-progress “Tokens.”
From Ronna Bloom in Toronto: tender, intimate poems often set in hospitals, thus bodies, separation, and tenuous hope.
In the Giovanni and Paolo hospital
the old wing opens out like fields and windows
in a Van Gogh painting, light penetrating halls
and making space in silence. No one’s there at all,
but—salve, salve, salve, salve.
When I return to my more brutal realms
the word comes with me. I don’t declare it.
How light in my suitcase it is, how old-fashioned
and almost ethereal, but in some lights
real, and close enough—to salvage.
—Ronna Bloom from “Salve.”
Igiaba Scego is Italian of Somali parentage. We’re privileged to be able to publish this excerpt from the translation of her superb novel Adua.
“Ah, we’ve got a rebel here,” the guard said. “If times were different,” he added, “we would have shown you, you piece of shit. In Regina Coeli we don’t like rebels. You’re ticks, useless lice of humanity. In Regina Coeli it’s easy to die of hunger or thirst, learn that. It’s easy to bring down that cocky crest you’ve got. In Regina Coeli it’s a short path to the graveyard. But you’re a damned lucky louse. They told me not to let you die. So I’ll bring you your water. But mind you, I might not be able to kill you, but put you through hell, that I can do.”
—Igiaba Scego from her novel Adua, translated from Italian by Jamie Richards.
And as usual there is more still in production. Actually, some not even seen yet but promised. It’s the last issue after all. So come to the bar, place your last orders, enjoy the last hours of conversation and laughter and delight. And say goodbye.
And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
Franz Marc’s The Large Blue Horses—another work of art that has been with me almost my entire life, a print of which also has hung on a wall for some fifteen years, and I can’t remember when or where I first saw it. My best guess is in the library of elementary school, high up in childhood memory, among other paintings on the walls surrounding the low shelves that held books within reach of our hands and hearts and minds, appropriate for the course our lives were supposed to follow.
The blueness of the horses did not strike me as strange but rather was a given supported by the mass of their collective surge and the energy of the overall composition, their motion made significant by their self-possession, the color itself part of some larger motion I did not question and wouldn’t have grasped if explained. But what I took from it then, I think, is that there could be power in reflection and composure.
And the painting has survived the process of school, its ideas of itself, its upward gradations; and the rising flood of images that followed on screens and in popular print; and, when I studied art in college, the outline taught that put art on an ascending conveyor belt of movements. There is no such thing as progress in art or any permanence in our ideas and distractions.
Events from the last years and changes in my life and recent reading, however, have unsettled the painting and made me question its place now over my hearth.
Marc painted The Large Blue Horses in 1911, for many a time of alienation from and revolt against rapid industrial growth in Germany and the materialist Wilhelmine society it brought, when Nietzsche’s appeals for a return to Dionysian passions flourished, when crisis in the Balkans increased in pitch and European instabilities made global war seem inevitable, a war which many others found attractive, a world whose vast web of motives and intrigues most of us have forgotten, if we ever learned it.
What I’m supposed to say is that Marc was a German Expressionist, who looked not at the facts and impressions of people and nature and society but at subjective realities beneath the surface, at undercurrents of self and culture, and, hopefully, at something beyond and higher. The animals he painted represented human states and a desire to return to uncorrupted nature, nature expressed in ideal landscape. Marc created his own color symbolism, and blue stood for the male principle, serious and spiritual.
All these terms are as intriguing as they are slippery, ultimately meaningless.
Of course the painting is sexual, but that slant obscures as much as it makes clear.
But there is no escaping the sensuous, sinuous, swelling flesh of the horses or the suggestive pull of their movement or the tension of the contrasting colors. The rhythm of their bodies continues into and complements that of the hills and sky, positing larger context. The horses’ blue, a color that optically recedes, is placed in front, while the distant hills are painted the forward red, this atmospheric reversal closing foreground and background and increasing the break from expectations, moving us from the nature we think we know.
Horses themselves give pause—such large animals that are not predators, that possess great strength yet are graceful and reserved. A horse without a rider lifts the burden of possession and use, opening up possibilities and raising questions. With their bowed heads Marc’s blue horses submit to the rhythm and yet push against, parting the distended white trees that divide the canvas.
In 1913, the world closer to war, Marc painted The Tower of Blue Horses, where there are four blue horses now, vertical and rising, open-eyed and agitated, their flesh taking on the angles of Cubism.
A few months later, war still closer, in Fate of the Animals the horses, frenzied and in peril, turn green, blue mixed with yellow, which, Marc tells us, “cannot still the brutality of red,”
in a picture that takes animals and landscape to the point of annihilation by the slashing diagonal lines, red flames, that dominate the canvas and set the fractured composition. An irony here—the painting was actually damaged in a fire and Paul Klee only partially restored the area on the right.
Fate of the Animals recalls Picasso’s Guernica, another painting of wholesale destruction and disruptive composition, his response to Franco’s request to bomb the town, Germany’s tuneup for the next world war. Both have since stood as pictures of the horrors of war in general, of civilization on the brink.
Marc also shows the influence of the dynamism of Futurism, though with inverted intent; Picasso continues his cubist experiments in his synthetic phase, with clearer representation in his angled shapes. These maneuvers are not advances, however, but adjustments to match the subject. But the breakup and rearrangement of parts does not create chaos but rather gives coherence to disorder, and with coherence, the terror of beauty.
Most have taken the bull as the source of the massacre, representing fascist brutality, and the horse stands for the slain innocents, their agony and death. The bull alone is passive, however, with a stilled face that is hard to read, and Picasso used the figure for other representations, including of himself. Guernica is direct in its images and but ambiguous in its meanings, leaving unanswered questions. The bull also leads us to the Minotaur and the labyrinth of mythical meaning. Still, there is the overpowering sense of revulsion at something we have done to ourselves.
But in Fate of the Animals the source of destruction is external, coming from some unseen force above, beyond our agency, entering the canvas in the flames at the upper left and rebounding and continuing their destructive course across the picture plane. It is, in fact, a picture of apocalypse. Frederick Levine, in The Apocalyptic Vision, makes a convincing case, explaining how Marc drew cataclysm from Wagner, from Nordic myth. The long column that slants left against the flames is Yggdrasil, the eternal ash, which shelters the four willowy deer on the right, who alone will survive to start a new race. Apocalypse is not just inevitable, it is desired.
We know that everything can be destroyed if the germination of a spiritual race does not endure the test of the greed and impurity of the masses. We struggle for pure ideas, for a world in which pure ideas can be thought and can be expressed without becoming impure.
Marc saw the war as the coming apocalypse and volunteered early, before conscription. It was something he had to witness and endure. But the imagined glory of the past that others wanted restored was what he wished to see destroyed. Like them, he had no idea what was to follow.
The combat of the infantrymen which I witnessed yesterday was incredibly hideous, more horrifying than anything I have ever seen. I was totally shaken last night. The courage with which they advance, and the indifference, indeed, the enthusiasm for death and for wounds has something mystical about it. Naturally, it is a mood of reconciliation, the clarification of something that was previously uncertain.
Purity is a trap, a dead end, and this is pathology. Marc, who was given to bouts of depression, has surrendered to his mood and in self-immolation projected it into unnamed abstraction. Spiritual shell shock here as well, as the pathology of the self meets the pathology of the world in a landscape of death and shattered mirrors.
And the apocalypse of Fate is what The Large Blue Horses leads up to, what stirs the trio in their lowered gaze above my mantle. Reading Levine forced reexamination of the painting and led me in downward spiral. My living room deadened in its plane and turned into a no man’s land, a grayness spreading to lifeless winter trees outside my windows, to lifeless streets, and lifelessness beyond, endlessly. Everywhere I went I saw entrenched lives and, on faces, in reports from around the world, the signs of dissolution and breakage. I avoided looking at the painting, then started avoiding the room. I long debated taking it down, not finding resolve.
Nietzsche’s descent into madness, legend goes, began with the sight of a beaten horse.
But psychology is sterile reduction. And to reject myth as superstition is to deny its power and persistence. Some notion of apocalypse has been with us a long time. It may be one of our earliest formations. In Dürer’s gorgeous woodcut the four horses unleashed in Revelation take the riders who scourge the land, necessary preparation for a new heaven and new earth. Destruction precedes renewal—or is it merely the underside of our highest, purist aspirations?
It is impossible to recreate the confusion of thought and emotion of Marc’s time and get a fix, but it is just as impossible to gain footing now in a world certain only of itself, not going anywhere at breakneck speed, where wars are fought by others and victims most often are others and apocalypse has become a casual diversion in movies and video games.
Too often when we read biography into art we only read ourselves. What I most became aware of looking at the Blue Horses was myself, a depression that came from within and radiated out. The signs of breakage were still there outside my windows, however. They are still there. They have always been there. If I hadn’t noticed them before it was because I wasn’t looking.
And I don’t know if a glance towards apocalypse isn’t what drew me to the painting over fifty years ago.
Only by risking everything do we know what anything is worth.
We risk everything because we do not know what else to do.
I have no idea which is true, if either.
I only know the old man will always be with us.
And that if I take the Blue Horses down I will be lost.
Slowly, cautiously, I have returned to their coiling, inward gaze. Color has returned to the room, slowly, cautiously, and leaves have returned to trees, and grasses return to barren fields and softly fill furrows and cover mounds though from which chunks of old concrete still protrude, though a grayish mist lingers over all.
March 4, 1916, near Verdun, Lieutenant Franz Marc rode a chestnut bay out on a reconnaissance mission and did not return. He was killed by shrapnel, French or German, no one knew. Another irony. The world is littered with ironies.
You can be a flâneur on Numéro Cinq, sauntering, loitering, browsing the archives, the contents pages, the back issues page. Now and then, I check the stats. They don’t change a lot at the top for the obvious reason that newer pieces just haven’t had time to catch up. Something published last month won’t be there. But over time, items with a consistently high hit rate rise through the ranks. Recently Anthony Doerr and Paul Curtis moved into the Top Twenty. Also my sons Jonah and Jacob — who’d have thought nepotism would work so well? The vagaries of hit rates and search engine terms are mysterious. I only have the brute stats provided by WordPress to go on. But certain things seem clear. Our What It’s Like Living Here series has always been extremely popular. This is a human thing. We like our nests, we like the local. These are very simple essays but utterly appealing. Pat Keane and Bruce Stone both have two texts in the Top Twenty, which shows that quality and consistency do win out. A. Anupama has a translation and classical Indian poetry constituency that happens to be very large and welcome. And the startling originality and visual panache of Anna Maria Johnson’s essay on Annie Dillard has always pulled in readers.
I am copying a second list below the Top Twenty. It’s the top twenty for the last three months. Interesting to compare.
All Time Top Twenty
- What It’s Like Living Here — Richard Farrell in San Diego
- Translations of Classical Tamil Love Poetry: Essay & Poems — A. Anupama
- The Senses of an Ending: The Grapes of Wrath, Novel and Film — Patrick J. Keane
- A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: Essay & Images — Anna Maria Johnson
- From “The Deep”: Fiction — Anthony Doerr
- What It’s Like Living Here — From Lisa Roney in Orlando
- What It’s Like Living Here — Wendy Voorsanger in San Mateo
- Nabokov’s Exoneration: The Genesis and Genius of Lolita — Bruce Stone
- 7 Things I Learned from Reading 15 List Essays — John Proctor
- What It’s Like Living Here — Michelle Berry in Peterborough, Ontario
- The Consecution of Gordon Lish: An Essay on Form and Influence — Jason Lucarelli
- Montaigne On Experience & Defecation: Essay — Jacob Glover
- What It’s Like Living Here — Kim Aubrey in Saskatoon
- Translation, Adaptation and Transformation: The Poet as Translator — Richard Jackson
- Revisiting Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet — Paul M. Curtis
- The Formalist Reformation | Review of Viktor Shklovsky’s Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar — Bruce Stone
- What It’s Like Living Here — Gwen Mullins in Chattanooga
- Talking to a 17-Year-Old Girl, When You are a 16-Year-Old Boy: Micro-Memoir — Jonah Glover
- Let Us Be Silent Here: Poems in English and Spanish — John B. Lee/Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon
- On Looking Into and Beyond Wordsworth’s Daffodils: An Intrinsic and Contextual Reading | Patrick J. Keane
Last Three Months Top Twenty
- From “The Deep”: Fiction — Anthony Doerr
- Translations of Classical Tamil Love Poetry: Essay & Poems — A. Anupama
- From Roses by Rainer Maria Rilke — Translated by David Need
- Uimhir a Cúig | Dunamon: Poems — Jane Clarke
- I am the big heart | Poems — S. E. Venart
- Revisiting Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet — Paul M. Curtis
- The Senses of an Ending: The Grapes of Wrath, Novel and Film — Patrick J. Keane
- Hot: Short Story — Adrienne Love
- Plot Structure in Three Short Stories | Essay on Conflict and Form — Michael Carson
- Through leaded panes | Memoir — Dawn Promislow
- Research for the Larger Project | Poems — Maggie Smith
- Painter & Poet: Studies in Creativity — Victoria Best with Miranda Boulton & Kaddy Benyon
- Portland | Fiction — Gary Garvin
- What It’s Like Living Here — Michelle Berry in Peterborough, Ontario
- Nabokov’s Exoneration: The Genesis and Genius of Lolita — Bruce Stone
- What It’s Like Living Here — Richard Farrell in San Diego, CA
- Numéro Cinq at the Movies: Tom Tykwer’s “Faubourg Saint-Denis,” Introduced by R. W. Gray
- How Swiss Is It? | Review of Walks with Robert Walser by Carl Seelig — Dorian Stuber
- 7 Things I Learned from Reading 15 List Essays — John Proctor
- Leconte de Lisle’s Les Roses d’Ispahan | Translation & Performance — Marilyn McCabe
Still in my retrospective mood, a mood which prompts me to sift through the archives for little pops of delight, moments of inspiration and, yes, perfect communication. Every once in a while, I would get an email that was a shining thing unto itself. A side effect of being a writer is that sometimes, in a languid moment, you just cannot stop yourself from committing random acts of beauty. When the stars aligned, we published the email. NC has always been able to react instantaneously and intuitively when the opportunity arose. Laura Michele Diener and Jean Marie Saporito were former students of mine when they wrote these pieces. Annie Bleecker was a student at the time, and the two pieces linked here were her cover letters to me.
All five texts went into the magazine pretty much unedited, exuberant bolts of fresh, lovely writing.
I’ve been rereading Jules Laforgue’s Moral Tales, translated by William Jay Smith. In his introduction, Smith wrote: “Laforgue attempted in his Moral Tales to break down all the barriers, to attain the effect of spontaneity, that ‘unwritten’ quality that we associate with his name.” It is precisely this effect of spontaneity, the “unwritten” quality, that is the chief charm of these texts.
In a retrospective mood, I just want to draw your attention the contributions of Brianna Berbenuik, a young contrarian writer who turned out to be one of the sassiest, most surprising discoveries I made while publishing the magazine. Brianna blazed onto our pages with an irreverent and delightfully enthusiastic essay on shooting guns in Las Vegas,
then carved out a niche for herself with an essay on Post Empire and Bret Easton Ellis (which became one of our all time most read texts — Ellis himself commented on Twitter).
And still later she returned to our pages with a startlingly bleak and violent piece of fiction.
This a belated righting of the balance of things. Jonah has been backing me up at NC, year after year, always willing to drop what he’s doing, often more important things, and dive head first in the htaccess file or the databases and bring order out of chaos. We’ve been under malware attack twice in the last six months, and the magazine might have folded without him (an ignominious way to go). So it’s only proper that he be given some presence on the masthead in recognition of long service. The photo above was not taken during an NC staff meeting as some of you might have opined, but you can see that he will fit right into the hard-partying culture at the magazine.
Jonah Glover is a twenty-three-year-old human male. Jonah was hired into a technical role despite a long history of shoving chalk into the Glover family VCR. His tenure as CTO is a brazen act of nepotism by DG, so he says. In truth, he has rescued the magazine from malware attacks and hosting issues over and over again. He works as a software engineer in Seattle and is completing a degree at the University of Waterloo.
Joining the masthead at NC is something like being swept up in the Rapture. One minute you’re an ordinary human being making coffee in a striped shirt and the next you are translated into the realm of the angels (as in, you know, the NC community — rebel angels). Nic Leigh has already been at work in the production trenches, invaluable, indefatigable, on time. It’s always a good day when someone like this decides to join up.
Nic Leigh has had work published in Juked, The Collagist, UNSAID, Atticus Review, Requited, Gobbet, and DIAGRAM. A chapbook, Confidences, won the Cobalt/Thumbnail Flash Fiction contest and is forthcoming from Cobalt Press. Leigh is also a fiction reader for Guernica.
Jowita Bydlowska’s short story “Funny Hat,” published just a year ago in our June issue, has been selected for inclusion in the 2017 edition of Best Canadian Stories (due out this fall with Biblioasis).
Permit me a moment of self-congratulation.
First, it’s a gorgeous, poignant short story, written with Bydlowska’s usual (extraordinary) panache. We have published two other pieces of fiction by her: a novel excerpt “Wolves Evolve” and another story called “Bad Sex.” Also we’ve published her brilliant and disturbing photographs. This is what we like to do: find a writer we love and trust and keep bringing her back, watch her develop.
Second, this is not the first Best Canadian Stories pick for NC. Caroline Adderson’s short story “Your Dog Makes Me Smile” was in the 2014 edition. Which means two stories in Best Canadian Stories in the last four years. Plus I had a story in last year, “Money” — published in The Brooklyn Rail. (I add this because, um, I am the editor and thus have an essential connection with the magazine and its culture.)
That makes Numéro Cinq something of fountainhead of great short story writing, a go-to place not only for craft (see the NC Holy Book of Literary Craft) but for mind-bending, cutting edge fiction.
P.S. Good to mention here that though the editor of Best Canadian Stories remains the inimitable John Metcalf, the annual anthology has moved from its ancient home at Oberon Press to Biblioasis.
At the Top of the Page this month, we’re presenting a retrospective series of touchstone posts, pieces that help define the magazine’s aesthetic, which has always functioned as an ideal, potential if not always actual. The pieces include essay by me (“The Novel is a Poem”), Andrew Gallix (on literary bondage), Jason Lucarelli (on Gordon Lish’s concept of consecution), Bruce Stone (on Viktor Shklovsky and Russian Formalism), Germán Sierra on Deep Media Fiction, and Victoria Best’s epic interview with Gabriel Josipovici. Also a selection of my audio interviews with Robert Coover, Gordon Lish, William Gass, and John Hawkes.
You saw it here on Numéro Cinq first, but now Rikki Ducornet and Margie McDonald are going live with a fantabulous show in Port Townsend all next month. It was just a year ago that we published a brilliant collaboration (click to see the images) between writer/painter/NC contributor Rikki Ducornet and sculptor Margie McDonald. Rikki describes that collaboration as an “ongoing conversation” between Margie’s whimsical refuse sculptures and her own painted scrolls, the former informing the latter.
If you find yourself in Port Townsend, WA in July, it’s worth visiting the Northwind Arts Center to see the resultinginstallation, delightfully named “CRAZY HAPPY.” If you can’t make it, be sure to check out the beautiful, mesmerizing video of their process.
Painted Scrolls by Rikki Ducornet & Sculpture by Margie McDonald
June 29 – July 30, 2017
Art Walk & Reception July 1
Art Talk July 2 | 1pm
Northwind Arts Center | Port Townsend, WA
Rikki Ducornet and Margie McDonald
Dizziness is a psychophysiological state tied to confusion and the mental processes of understanding, with a possible ontological component, if it makes sense to talk about ontology. There are many variations. You have just come to grasp a basic principle, a unity that breaks down barriers between the disparate things before you, and can see it, in the totality of its relevance, racing endlessly to comprehend them. Or you see the unity, but it careens off the walls of all the things it does not comprehend and scatters everywhere beyond them, while the things it does pervade dissolve into endless nothing. Or you only see the principle but sense no walls at all, only the outlines of what you think is there, the boundless extension of their empty possibilities. Or see the mesh of possibilities in things, but not the principle that might align them, only the chance of a principle, ever endless in its evasion. Or see neither the principle nor possible connections, only endless endlessness.
In each there is the same feeling, similar to that of physical dizziness, like an irritation in the ears, a tickling of equilibrium, and it is difficult to tell whether the sensation is one of rising or falling. In each also come feelings of doubt and confidence, of anxiety and elation, but it is not clear that the dread doesn’t belong to the confidence, the transport to the doubt. With these feelings, another emotion impossible to name, diffuse yet more intense, and with its movement, a stillness, a white mist spreading in a blinding sun—
See also “Perspective”
Just been informed that Bernard Hoepffner’s body was identified today, the same day we published his epistolary romance excerpt. I am floored. You read the letters he wrote to Sarah M., and you cannot miss the liveliness, the playfulness, of his mind. And now he’s dead. The contact who put me in touch with had let me know something was up, so I hastened publication of the piece. But the confirmation only just came through. This is very sad.
POLICE have confirmed that the unidentified body washed up on to Meirionnydd’s seashore is that of and internationally acclaimed French translator.
On Friday morning, 9 June, North Wales Police were called to Tywyn after a body was reported on the town’s beach.
The body is now confirmed to be Bernard Hoepffner, from Dieulefit, in Southern France.
Read the rest at the UK Cambrian News.