For their fourth album, Tales of Us, British group Goldfrapp produced five music videos before the album’s release that they subsequently screened as part of a live event. The five films are meant to be part of a larger “film anthology” also titled Tales of Us.
All five films are black and white, establishing a noir-ish old Hollywood feel; they span various genres, from realism, to thriller, to what might be best described as romance. The resulting anthology film complements the storytelling the band does with this album. More to the point, the anthology haunts the viewer into tracing connections between the songs on the album, an aesthetic choice that is antithetical to the music industry’s current culture of the ‘single.’
Tales of Us, the anthology, is made up of the music videos for five songs from the album: “Stranger,” “Laurel,” “Jo,” “Drew,” and “Annabel.” The videos extend the album’s character studies taking us past the lyrics and music into cinematic expressions of the characters. Given this, and that the album is titled “Tales of Us,” it would have been strange for the band to release singles and videos one by one, the current music industry standard practice.
This anthology develops a sense of the first person plural “us” and also frees the band up to take a different approach to the individual music videos themselves. This is particularly relevant and significant for a song like “Annabel,” based on the novel with the same name by Kathleen Winter, both of which tell the story of an intersexed child. Goldfrapp notes that “if you just listen to the song, maybe you’d think it was just about a little girl . . . So it felt really important to make that film.” The song and the video provide both poetic and visual complements to Annabel’s struggle which is correspondingly both emotional and physical.
The third film in the anthology, “Drew,” is a peculiarly loose narrative that Dan Reilly for Spin Magazine describes as “Alison Goldfrapp wandering around a sprawling country estate, with a trio of nude friends following her and occasionally flying remote-control planes.”
The short film and the other four in the anthology are dream-like, cinematic, and shaped to psychologically offer more than just a sense of character and action. Kory Grow for MTV Hive describes the film as “shots of her loneliness intertwining with the threesome’s threesoming (pillow fights, entwined limbs, forest frolics, and so on), sometimes intersecting with the singer acting as a voyeur.”
“Drew” could be a simple music video with nudity if it were not for two interesting choices: the choice of three naked figures and the juxtaposition of past and present. Gunning chooses to include three naked figures, two men and a woman where a more conventional choice would have been two figures or a clear love triangle. Choosing three has the narrative of the film resist easy readings of what the three represent: are they past lovers, aspects of the protagonist, ghosts in the countryside mansion? Or do they represent more of an age or time in the character’s past, nostalgia passing over the mansion or by her as she rides her bike down the country lane?
Further, there are moments when these naked figures interact with her: the woman takes her hand and the man shows her how to fly the model plane, yet there are other moments where they run right through her as they do on the stairwell, ascending as she descends, rushing through the past as she steps down to the present. All told we never find out why she rides through the countryside alone, why these naked ghosts haunt her, and where they might be running off to together, a frolicking, haunting threesome. Nostalgia, though, seems the persistent point.
All five films are directed by Lisa Gunning in her first time director effort. Gunning is a film editor known for such films as Seven Pyschopaths, Nowhere Boy, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and she is the real life partner of the band’s lead singer Alison Goldfrapp. In a behind the scenes documentary, they describe how Gunning was around during the recording of the album and generated ideas rather organically alongside the album’s creation. They then shot the films on a limited budget all at once.
Gunning links the films through subtle repetitions: the various films locations repeat (the seaside, the woods, the large country mansion), two characters ride bikes along a country road, even the figure of Allison Goldfrapp herself repeats and links the tales. Also the black and white aesthetic, the simple narratives, and the choice to focus on one central character in each, connect these five films in the anthology into a larger whole.
The anthology music video concept has been around for a while, one of the earliest examples provided by iamamiwhoami who released all their videos in series, starting in December 2009.
More recently, this anthology concept found a different use in the mainstream with Beyonce’s album where she made music videos for each of the songs, a grand total of seventeen full music videos, and dropped them all at once, without releasing singles or doing any marketing campaign prior to the release. Lily Rothman in Time Magazine points out that “it used to be that fans heard one or two songs on the radio and had to purchase an album to check out the rest of it. These days it’s common for fans to have heard every song before deciding to buy.” The anthology of videos accompanying the album release were initially only available with the exclusive digital download of the album and these levels of exclusivity all draw a listening audience to experience the whole album rather than taste it single by single over time.
Gunning’s haunting visual tales avoid the literal and respond to the Goldfrapp songs and lyrics in a way that sublimates the traditional music video conventions. For the five characters in this anthology of music videos, this permits a more narrative and visual exploration of each of the characters and draws the five arguably marginalized individuals into a connected “us.”
THE CAT HAS BEEN DYING for two days and two nights when Eleanor finally drops the Steve bomb. She says the cat’s suffering, someone needs to do something and we can’t afford a vet. Steve in my place would work things out — he’s that sort of guy. Now it’s either the cat or her: I never got over that thing with Steve.
“OK, I’ll sort Toto out,” I say and she opens her eyes wide.
“What do you mean you’ll sort him out?”
“I mean I’ll sort him out! Do you want to do it yourself?”
“Are you going to kill Toto?”
“Yes!” I say and she starts crying.
“Oh my God, poor Toto! He’s like the son I never had…”
“Eleanor: Toto’s suffering. We need to put him to sleep. It’s the only decent thing to do.”
“How will you do it?”
“I don’t know yet. But I’ll Google something.”
“Make it something painless,” she says and suddenly she isn’t crying anymore.
“I will. Give me a while and I’ll have him meet his cat god.”
“I hate it when you want to sound tough,” she says and goes back into the room where Toto is dying and the telly is on showing a rerun of The Antiques Roadshow.
Online I come across thousands of links discussing how to kill a cat. I click on the first result, a page titled “7 Things You Probably Have at Home That Could Kill Your Neighbour’s Pets”. Broken-glass stuffed meatballs: slow and painful and a hassle. Poisoning the cat with anti-freeze liquid: I don’t drive. Bleached milk: barbaric, for some reason. I search once more, filtering the results with words like merciful, nice, happy, practical, cheap and I end up in someone’s minimalist blog –– apparently the latest thing is decluttering and living a frugal life. The post discusses how to put suffering animals to sleep, humanely and without paying through the nose –– there’s a minimalist approach to everything. The methods discussed are: shooting the cat in the head, drugging and drowning it, or taking it to a shelter where they’ll do it for free. The shelter seems the best idea: we aren’t far from Battersea. But is this something Steve would do?
“I’ll drown Toto,” I say to Eleanor.
“You’ll drown him?”
“Yes, I found a way to drown him fast and without pain.”
“I’ll feed him some of your Valium and then drown him in the river when he’s asleep.”
“Can’t you drown him in a bucket over here?”
“I don’t want you around.”
“That fucking river is rotten,” she says.
“I’m supposed to kill him…”
“I’m not sure… What will you do with the body?”
“Listen: I’ll take the bus to Richmond, where I can drown and bury Toto in a nice spot overlooking a garden or a stream or a mansion. By the way, did you know that Ronnie Wood lives in Richmond?”
“Do you really have to do this now?”
“You’ve asked me to do something! What else can be done?”
“What does Ronnie Wood has to do with this? Do you think this is funny? You’re so immature!”
“Chill out, honey. I’m trying to let off some steam… Let me handle this,” I say.
“No! You’ll fuck it up. You always do!” she says and slams the door shut in my face.
“Eleonor, open the door, please! We can’t let Toto suffer any more!”
“Fuck off!” she shouts from the other side.
“Come on, Els…”
“I’ll sort this out myself! WHY DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING ALONE!”
A minute later she comes through the door crying with the cat in his cage. I lock myself in the toilet and feed Toto four 5mg crushed Valium mixed with milk in a syringe. He swallows every drop without moaning. I almost feel sad for him.
It’s cold and it’ll snow any moment. Toto seems to like it: he’s quiet — the cold must ease his pain. My hands are freezing, my whole body is freezing. I walk fast, changing the cage from hand to hand, and in ten minutes I reach Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.
The place smells of wet dog and cat shit, even from the door. I go in: dogs barking, cats meowing, and other unrecognisable animal howls coming from who knows where. I check the signs and get to the reception. I stop at the front desk and tell the security guard I need to put Toto down. He says he’ll get me to see a vet and tells me to wait. No questions are asked –– I guess many people turn up nowadays, because of this minimalist fad and the Tories, to get rid of their pets. Five minutes later a fat guy with a thick double chin, wearing a white apron, turns up.
“Come into my office,” he says.
I explain to him that Toto has been dying for days on end and that he’s almost twenty years old. Animal euthanasia, heavy doors, antifreeze, Richmond, decluttering, Steve, I keep thinking but I just say that I’ve found out that here we can put him down for free.
“It’s a terrible decision to make, but we can’t let him suffer anymore, you know what I mean…” I say and he nods.
“I know what you mean,” he says, “let me see the cat.”
I open the cage and gently shake Toto but he doesn’t wake up. I pull him out onto the examination table and he doesn’t move. The vet looks at me with a blank face and then takes his stethoscope to the cat’s body and listens for a few seconds.
“Too late: the cat is dead,” he says.
“He was like the son Eleanor never had,” I say. He looks at me with compassion and I look at dead Toto, pensively, for like three seconds, to make up for very likely OD’ing him. Then I ask if they might be able to get rid of the body themselves and if it’s free. He says yes and that it’s free and what do I want to do with the cage? “You can keep the cage too,” I say and leave quickly after thanking him for not killing Toto.
It must still be early to go back home — I’m supposed to be on my way to Richmond. I check the time on my phone, and realise that I’ve missed eight calls. Before I can listen to my voicemail the phone rings again.
“DON’T DO IT,” Eleanor shouts.
“Don’t do what?”
“Don’t drown Toto,” she says, “I’ve changed my mind!” I stay quiet for a moment. “WHERE ARE YOU?” she asks. I don’t know what to say. “WHERE AAAARRRREEEE YOUUUUUU?” I hang up.
The phone starts ringing once more but I don’t answer. There’s nothing to say and there’s no coming back from hanging up. Now she’ll keep calling and leaving increasingly violent voicemails. Until she ends up bringing up that thing with her cousin and me. She never got over that thing with her cousin Anna.
It finally starts snowing and I cross the road and walk into a pub with my pocket vibrating. Perhaps after a few drinks I’ll be able to answer. Or not. Maybe it’s better if I never answer the phone again.
. Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and Numéro Cinq and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.
“I went to the house but did not enter. Through the opening, I saw the black edge of a courtyard. I leaned against the outer wall; I was really very cold. As the cold wrapped around me from head to foot, I slowly felt my great height take on the dimensions of this boundless cold; it grew tranquilly, according to the laws of its true nature, and I lingered in the joy and perfection of this happiness, for one moment my head as high as the stone of the sky and my feet on the pavement.” Maurice Blanchot, The Madness of the Day
Kevin’s story about the nightclub once again propelled Lucy into a world of doubt about her recent return to Ireland. It was a sort of panic attack – and it had not been the first. The attacks had caused her to book her return flight three times since her arrival, yet she had not actually left.
‘Shambles? Not a great name for a nightclub, is it? Can’t imagine what made them call it that,’ her father said to Kevin, who was now getting fat in his twenty-fifth year.
‘It’s just a place to drink and dance,’ Kevin said. Her father’s pupil’s latest tale, about his peers openly having sex in the town’s most popular nightspot, confirmed to Lucy that the generation that had come after hers (and which was already leaving the country for work as hers had done) pretty much got straight to the point when it came to meeting someone in a club, and that they had no need for the foreplay suggested, perhaps, by the monikers of the nightclubs that had been in the town when she’d grown up in it, such as Whispers or Amber.
‘What did you get up to on the weekend, then, Lucy?’ Kevin asked, as he moved a chess piece across the board.
‘Went up to Dublin to a play,’ she replied. Kevin did not ask Lucy which play, nor with whom she’d seen it. It occurred to her then that she’d been living something of a double life since returning. There was her domestic life – taking care of her father, the house and garden; some writing (letters, emails, half-hearted attempts at applying for jobs), and her cultural life, which consisted mostly of lone visits to Dublin’s theatres and galleries.
‘Find nothing like that in this town, ‘the arts’,’ her father said, as if to say, I told you so. And in a way he had told Lucy so, for her parents, after sixteen years away themselves had also returned to the town, which they’d found to be largely as she found it now, many years (including those of the Celtic Tiger) later: dull, inartistic, beautifully scenic, a pleasant-enough place in which to await death. Yet, in London, Lucy had found herself pining for the place; real melancholic pining; had put aside its borderland small-mindedness and could not remove from her mind the swathes of persimmon-coloured heather that would appear each June on the hills outside the town, nor the late-summer hikes to those hills – where she might see a hawk or fieldfare dart out from the bog, nor her walks along Shelling Hill in winter where the sea could be as wild as the Atlantic Ocean. No, these memories, which all seemed less vivid to Lucy now that she was actually home, had been pivotal in her decision to leave London. And the longing for them, as well as the inability to inure herself to this longing, had, she believed, brought about her eventual incompetence at her job (over time she found herself unable to make the calculated decisions required of her to fulfill her initial promise). This yearning for the town in which she was born and reared was, then, finally, Lucy’s Achilles’ heel, and not, as her friends believed, Arthur Hackett.
Lucy had reached a point in her career where the fact she’d made no substantive mark upon it had become something of an embarrassment – to herself and to her work colleagues. The Gallery tried to avoid this by promoting her. Lucy was experienced enough to know that promotion in such instances is often a sort of skewed version of the Peter Principle, applied, in the Gallery at least, particularly to female employees, whereby the employee is ‘promoted’ to a job with an impressive brief but which has no real power. In other words, Lucy had been put where she could do no harm, either to the Gallery nor to block the way of more exciting newcomers. So, it had come as a terrible realisation to her that after eighteen years of devotion to Modern Art she was not the high-flier of her university years, but, rather, a bit of a deadweight, an earnest plodder, with an over-developed sense of fair-play, and that if one’s career could be measured like a degree, she would probably get a third, at best a 2:2. (It was, Lucy thought, as if the pastoral backdrop of her upbringing needed to be erased for any kind of progress in London to occur. As if Modern Art itself could sniff her out; needed her to stamp out the tone of nature she must have carried always about her before it would let her come close and trust her with its frosty cleverness. As if it could smell the heather and tawny hawks off her, the salt of Shelling Hill, and no matter how much Lucy wanted it – it clearly did not want her.)
Of course, the whole business with Arthur had not helped. He’d been her mentor (he was the Gallery’s first owner and, after selling, remained as Chief Consultant), and in her second year in the job she had moved in with him, into his superb flat in Brondesbury Park. She knew that at first she’d been indispensable to him; she was acquainted with most of the YBAs, had (as a student) attended Damien Hirst’s Freeze and been on intimate terms with a couple of friends of the Chapman brothers. Arthur had a nose for the new and cutting-edge but he was not young, and so was known to use young women as spies into the habits and trends of the youthful. He was also a shark, and had often said to Lucy, and not in jest, that in the business of Art one should always have friends in ‘low places’. He certainly had contacts with dubious people, and Lucy knew for a fact that he had more than once brokered deals for stolen artworks.
‘You should go to Ice House Hill next weekend,’ Kevin said, as Lucy slotted the plates into the dishwasher.
‘Why, what’s out that way?’ she asked.
‘Shakespeare. In the open air. Saw something about it in The Leader.’
‘There’ll be none at it,’ her father said, emphatically, his face aflame now with annoyance at Kevin’s inattentiveness to the game (as a result of speaking to Lucy).
‘Well, if everyone took that attitude,’ Lucy said, and enquired as to which of Shakespeare’s plays was being performed.
‘King something,’ Kevin replied.
‘They do take that attitude, isn’t that the problem?’ her father continued, cutting across Kevin who was still trying to remember the name of the play being staged on Ice House Hill. Lucy had always considered that her father rather relished the cultural poverty of the town, for it had let him off the hook all these years: the lack of any significant artistic activity (in his mind, all the ‘arts’ were grouped together) had become the perfect dumping ground for his many failures. For it was tangible enough evidence, for all to see (surely), that he had just been too ‘advanced’ for the people he found himself living among, hence their rejection of him and his inability to succeed in anything other than board games upon his own return. So when something ‘artsy’ did occur, especially something exciting or innovative, Lucy knew he would most likely shoot it down.
‘That’s it,’ Kevin said, without looking up, ‘we done (sic) it at school.’
‘It’ll be the usual am-dram shit they have on here,’ her father said.
All the same, she had isolated herself, had not made friends upon her return, had certainly not linked up with her former school friends. The thought of having to explain her sabbatical from a flat-lining career to ‘the girls’, now middle-aged women, filled Lucy with horror. For ‘the girls’ would also want to know about her personal life. Hence, a scenario began to play out in Lucy’s mind, in which she would meet said girlfriends and they would judge her for her material lack and she in turn (as if defensively) would judge them for their lack of culture. (Prior to 2008 and the country’s financial collapse Lucy had observed the spread of what had become known as ‘status anxiety’ to a town once hinterland enough to have been referred to as ‘El Paso’ by the writers of The Rough Guide to Ireland (1989), and, despite the recent recession, she did not feel relaxed enough to accept her comparatively lowly ‘status’ amongst these ex-friends who in her absence had become doctors or lawyers or prominent business people or the wives of such people.) The reigniting of such friendships was therefore doomed and, Lucy considered, best avoided. Plus, she dreaded that awful question asked of every returning émigré to the town: when are you going back? Because she simply didn’t know when she was going back nor if she would ‘go back’ at all.
Lucy had done well at first, moving to London for her Masters, landing at twenty-two an assistant position (with the Gallery) while ‘the girls’ were still struggling at home in the remainder of the earlier recession of the 1980s. It’s just that after the acrimonious break-up with Arthur she remained in the assistant position (or some version of it, a fact that her various promotions failed to disguise), running out of ingénue years, never making a real mark, finding her instincts were not the market’s, and for one reason or another (most likely, she believed, as a result of Arthur’s malign influence) she had not found the right conditions in which to bloom. At forty-one, Lucy was, she considered, very much a thing unbloomed. She could easily have left the Gallery, and had been encouraged to by well-meaning friends, but was determined not to let Arthur Hackett think he held any power over her. Suddenly, as she pressed the dishwasher tablet into the plastic pocket of the machine, she remembered something she’d read.
‘Ice House Hill? Wasn’t that near the house where that woman was killed?’ she said, as she searched for a sharp knife with which to dig at the cuds of caked sugar now stuck to the worktop after her father’s slovenly attempt at making tea.
‘Aye,’ Kevin said, ‘the Ice House. They say the husband done (sic) that.’
‘They always say it was the husband, Kevin. Sometimes it isn’t you know.’ Of course Lucy knew quite well that (at least in the crime movies she’d seen) more often than not it was the husband, but she wanted to make a point.
‘Hadn’t he an alibi? He was at work in Dublin, in the bank,’ her father said.
Some of the details of the Imelda Woods’ murder returned in a flash to Lucy’s mind. It had been a gruesome act, which, she recalled, had seemed at the time to capture the town’s imagination (of all the other gruesome acts of the border region), perhaps, as it had come at the tail end of the Celtic Tiger and the beginning of the more recent recession, and was rumoured to have been connected to a property dispute. The town had gone quiet for months afterwards, as if the crime was the apex of something – perhaps that whole torrid period between two recessions that saw a simple house in a not-particularly-thriving part of the country valued at over a million euro.
‘Never mind that alibi. Supposed to have got three fellas to have done it for him,’ Kevin said. ‘The Doyles. From the Demesne Road. Hard fellas, them Doyles. Border heads. Father’s a Provo, has half his face missing from a beating. One of them Doyles was going out with Imelda’s daughter, battered her once with an iron bar. They done the job for next to nothing, too, I heard. Scumbag assassins is all they are.’ Lucy’s jaw dropped at Kevin’s elaborate new theory on the Ice House Hill murder. She felt that Kevin could easily have yammered on all day about the hard men that lived around the Demesne Road. For in a way he was a ‘hard man’ himself, and only that he’d developed a talent for strategy, for board games, chess in particular, at which her father fancied himself an expert and teacher, he may well have got caught up in town violence himself. She wondered how he was able to tell such stories while making his winning moves on the board. She made her excuses and left.
Lucy stood with her bike on the pavement. The Ice House did not look from the outside as if such a heinous crime could possibly have been committed within. It was an unfussy building with its name scored in white paint on a large rock set slantwise in the front garden. But despite the house’s cheerful new yellow paintwork (Kevin had told Lucy it had been painted by the victim’s family in an attempt to put behind them the horror of what had taken place inside), and the trimmed speckled laurel hedge, Lucy sensed something strangely knowing about it, something prescient and dark. Within, it seemed to her, as if represented by the two top-floor windows, were a pair of judgemental eyes looking out onto Demesne Road, to the back of the busy town. The house seemed to call out to passers-by, relaying the message that one of the town’s biggest secrets remained locked within its walls – and desperately required solving. It is possible in a small town not to know the slightest thing about some people, including those as apparently popular as Imelda Woods. Lucy, nor her father, had ever met the middle-aged aromatherapist. But, Lucy vividly remembered reading about the Woods’ murder, the twenty-seven punctures to the upper back, the image of which had haunted her mind because it was so brutal. She’d cycled down Demesne Road the year before and then there had been Garda cars everywhere. Now, with the white and blue tape gone from around the house, the longer Lucy stared and noted its ordinariness, its deceptive quietness, the more she saw that something was dreadful about the property. An atmosphere of pain engulfed the place, as if the unresolved nature of the crime had become a palpable thing, had entered the atoms of the freshly painted yellow bricks. What had happened to Imelda Woods seemed to sit there, still and heavy, stubbornly unhidden by the new paintwork, as if it sat also on the conscience of the whole town.
The fact that the house, at the end of a row of similarly square-topped Art Deco properties, cut into the edge of Ice House Hill gave it an added gloom. The Hill had once been a fort, beneath which, hundreds of years ago, people had supposedly hidden from marauding Vikings. The ancient forest on top descended to the edge of the house’s back garden. Lucy recalled reading that a couple of men had been seen running from the garden into those very woods on the morning of the murder. Something, too, about peaked caps. A shiver ran down her spine as she glanced up at the trees: black-green cedar, a few sally, some rowan and alder, all packed together on a heath that blocked the sun from entering the back of Imelda Woods’ now empty and silent home, but which, Lucy realised, would nonetheless make a perfect backdrop to Shakespeare’s moodiest play.
In the Tourist Office she came upon a leaflet advertising Chapterhouse Theatre Company’s tour of the northeast. There were to be two shows in Monaghan, one in Newry and one on Ice House Hill. The image of a castle, visible in the distance from the heath on Ice House Hill, featured on the front of the leaflet and was overlaid with an image of a woman cutting into a deep meat pie. (King Lear was in repertory with Titus Andronicus.) A few details on the reverse of the leaflet revealed the company to be local.
‘Have they been around long?’ Lucy asked the fair-haired man behind the counter in the Tourist Office’s modern wood-panelled foyer.
‘Sure,’ he said, in a local accent. ‘They won an award last year. I saw their Tempest in Stephen’s Green.’
‘Aye, they are,’ he replied. ‘A real physical company. Visual and intelligent. Are you thinking of going?’
‘Shakespeare here in the town? Doesn’t happen every day.’
‘Oh, there’s lots of stuff happening now. Oh yeah. Lots of bands, too, and exhibitions.’ The fair-haired man got up and walked to the front of the desk. He was lean and smelled of patchouli. He pulled a postcard from a carousel of postcards that stood in the centre of the foyer and handed it to her. The image on the card was of a voluptuous naked woman coiled around a tree. Lucy was embarrassed. Not by the naked woman but because she thought the work was terrible. She hoped the young man was not about to tell her that the picture was one of his. ‘That’s one of mine,’ he continued, and flicked through the cards to see if there were any more examples of his work in postcard form. ‘I’m in a group, you see. In Carlingford. You missed the exhibition in the Town Hall, but I’ve another coming up.’ Lucy nodded and said she’d love to see his next exhibition (while simultaneously feeling the enormous effort of lying course through her body). She noted the man’s name on the back of the card: Larry Doyle. She’d heard that surname once already that day (the family of psychos from Demesne Road). She pumped up her enthusiasm and left. On the way out she berated herself: Why did she have to know that the lad’s work was bad? Why couldn’t she think it good? Why did she have to be such a bloody expert?
Still thinking about her encounter in the Tourist Office, Lucy decided that twenty years in London, however difficult some of them had been, had, overall, spoiled her for anywhere other than big cities. She could not help but feel that everything at home was substandard; the theatre seemed amateurish, the visual art derivative and idea-less. What poets there were published themselves and went about local pubs selling glossy chapbooks of their rhyming quatrains. She’d been home two months – two months in the very same country it seemed the entire world believed was bursting with artistic talent, and still she felt starved of real, meaningful stimulus. She either needed to go back to London, fast, or move to Dublin or Belfast. Or, perhaps she needed to dig deeper; surely she had dismissed the place too soon. If she was to survive in this town at all she certainly had to stop coming across like a one-woman art Gestapo. Artistic mediocrity was not a crime: stabbing a woman in the back twenty-seven times as she washed the dishes was a crime.
As she cycled home, Lucy looked out at the streets once so familiar to her. There she had climbed a wall to pilfer apples, there she had stamped out her first (mint-flavoured) cigarette, there she had walked with her then best friend – hair slicked back, hands in cream Macintoshes with collars upturned, eyes heavily lined, faces pale as dolls – while loudly singing Ultravox’s Vienna. No, she would not, could not change her view. Artistic mediocrity was, she reasoned, very much a crime. Perhaps it was no coincidence, she considered, that when a town had no real art gallery, when the most popular theatrical performances were the local musical society productions of Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls, when the Tourist Officer himself had a penchant for lurid Celtic designs, the benchmark was somehow lowered, and so this was why, in this town, murders, particularly of quiet aromatherapists, seemed somehow less horrific than they should be, and, as in the case of Imelda Woods, one year on remained unsolved. After all, Lucy reasoned, lows are really only perceived as such against highs, otherwise they can be tolerated. This town, she concluded (though she fancied she’d absorbed something of its grit and obduracy), seriously needed to raise its own personal bar.
Passing the Ice House on her way home, its dusty white nets hanging in dense creases so as to permit no view inside, for some reason Lucy thought of Arthur. Perhaps he missed her. Perhaps now that she was away, no longer part of the proverbial office furniture, he would realise the full extent of what he’d lost: a lover, a loyal employee. Or perhaps not. However bad this sabbatical thing was proving, that cold, empty life in London could not be rekindled in a hurry, she reminded herself.
She parked her bike outside the Centra shop her father frequented and went inside. She saw the headline in the local newspaper immediately: Woods’ Husband Declares Innocence. Lucy picked up the paper, turned the pages. Imelda Woods’ husband’s letter to the editor had been given pride of place. It read: Dear Editor, I would like to put an end to the terrible rumour that has been circulating through this town about my involvement in my wife’s murder. I am devastated at the level of hostility shown to me by the people here, some of whom I believed were my friends. The letter continued to the effect that Mr Woods’ life had been destroyed by the kind of remark Kevin liked to dish out casually in her father’s kitchen. The writer seemed a far more sensitive type than the money-hungry fiend Kevin had described. In fact, this letter suggested that Mr Woods was quite heartbroken. She felt distraught reading the man’s plea to the town’s gossipmongers to leave him alone. She brought the paper, along with a carton of milk and a small loaf of bread, to the counter, and paid.
‘Poor fella,’ Dympna, the young You’re a Star contender remarked, as she placed Lucy’s purchases into a bag.
‘People thought he killed her, right?’ Lucy said.
‘Only the fools. And there are fools every place,’ Dympna replied. ‘What would be his motive? Sure they’d been split for years and he still won’t get the house.’
‘How do you know?’ Lucy asked.
‘Because she sold it a month before she died. To the council. She sold it for a song, too, so they’d let her live in it till they were ready.’
‘Really?’ Lucy replied, ‘ready for what?’
‘Aren’t they going turning it into an arts centre? About time we got something like that. You’d swear we’d nothing going for us here only The Corrs.’ Lucy took her change. An arts centre in the home of a murdered woman: was that not a little weird, grotesque even? Surely there would be something still there – a residue, a ghost, a revenant of some sort? But then she thought of Drury Lane and other such theatres in London that were supposed to have resident ghosts, often carrying their own heads. She was glad then that something good was coming to the town at last and that Imelda Woods had had the foresight to sell her home for such an excellent cause.
That night, Lucy got a text from Cindy, the Gallery’s junior assistant:
– Lucy, ffs the grad intern covering u is now shacked up with Arthur. I thought u should know! Cx to which Lucy replied:
– Who’s Arthur?
She began to worry that she’d mentioned Arthur’s name a bit too often in the office – and that she’d been too keen to share (with Cindy – and therefore the whole office) not only her anger over how he’d treated her over the years but also her pain in knowing he’d moved on while she hadn’t, her ongoing sense of loss. She should have kept such things to herself. But the break-up had felt like grief, had followed the same key stages, and she had needed to talk to someone. That night she felt much more than a renewed determination to make a go of her new life at home; she felt that Arthur Hackett had pretty much brought her to her knees, and began to feel again her former intense grief-like rage, for he had, effectively, with his charm and promises and eloquent mentorship, robbed her of her future. And that night she not only passionately wished him a swift demise but began to think of what Kevin had said about the hard men from the Demesne Road, the Doyles, the ‘scumbag assassins’ who would kill for hire and at a cheap rate, too.
Neither Kevin or her father could come to Ice House Hill to see the play. But a large crowd attended nonetheless. Around seventy people laughed and cried (and screeched at the blinding of Gloucester). The company was, as Larry Doyle had said, very physical and it put on a good show. Then, just as Lucy was about to depart the spectral darkness of Ice House Hill, she spotted Larry Doyle – chatting to the heavy-chested actress who had played Cordelia. He saw Lucy and beckoned her over. Lucy congratulated the actress and within minutes was being swept up in a buzzing horde of people, actors from the theatre company, local artists like Larry, and a few others, all heading for a bar in town. Excitement crackled in the air. A few hours into the drinking session in the bar on Park Street it occurred to Lucy how talkative and cheery she was being, and that a slight trace of her former accent was returning to her voice. She felt ever so slightly happy – and was enjoying herself.
Larry introduced her to Don Shields, the town’s arts officer. Shields was very keen to know about Lucy’s work in London though she neglected to mention her lengthy sabbatical. As the evening went on it became apparent that it was Shields who had been responsible for the purchase of the Ice House and that he would be at the helm of the project that would transform it. He was full of ideas. The house would have a small cinema, he said. He had in mind already the first season: rotating weeks of Italian neorealism, German expressionism, weekends devoted to David Lynch, Tarkovsky. Lucy sounded her approval. She didn’t want to appear to know too much about the gory details of what had occurred inside the house, to which Shields referred only once. The man had a strange way about him; he spoke hurriedly, with a trace of hostility, and looked beyond the person to whom he spoke as if he expected a row of people waiting to speak to him. He made Lucy feel as if time with him was precious, valuable. He was also loud, strident even and managed to down an entire packet of cashews in one go while he spoke to her – making him seem more clinically efficient than rude. The crowd with whom she had gone into the bar seemed to hang on Shields’ every word. It was Shields, too, she learned, who had suggested the performance on Ice House Hill to Chapterhouse Theatre Company. His boundless confidence recalled to Lucy, one Arthur Hackett, and because of this she was not quite as impressed with him as she thought he thought she should be. But her slight disdain towards him gave her the courage to speak frankly. So when she mentioned that surely the murder of Imelda Woods would need to be resolved before the arts centre was established and a cinema set up inside, Shields became sharp and defensive.
‘We’ve been as cooperative as we can with the family,’ he said, ‘but the house is our property now. Besides, the town should really just move the fuck on.’ Even deep in the sticks, Lucy thought to herself, the arts world had its stonehearted men of ambition.
A few hours later, Lucy walked home, merrily drunk, from the bar (alone). She went into a restaurant with a busy takeaway section to buy chips, something greasy. True to the town’s reputation for violence, a fight broke out as she waited in the disorderly queue. Two men emerged from the back of the dining area and dragged one of the men who’d been in the fight out onto the street. Through the glass, Lucy could see the two men screaming at the younger man as they slapped him about the head. The young man’s slate-blue eyes were wild, as if he wanted nothing more than to burst back into the restaurant and continue the fight from which he’d been dragged. She guessed that he was brother to the other two as all were tall, long-legged, had the same chalky pockmarked skin, the same crazed unfocused look – and there seemed to be a kind of understanding between them. The owner of the restaurant, a little Italian woman, banged on the window for the three to move on, but the younger one, still full of bluster and rage, ignored her and the two men rebuking him and continued his attempts to re-enter the place. It began to rain then, a light summer rain, and the young man calmed, and Lucy watched as he and the other two took similar-looking black peaked caps from their pockets and fitted them snugly onto their heads before moving off.
Done the job for next to nothing, too, I heard. Scumbag assassins is all they are.
‘Fucking Doyles,’ she heard the man behind her say, ‘bad bastards, the lot of them.’ Lucy paid for her order and set off home on the balmy night with her oily chips and onion rings. She did not go home via the back of the town and so did not pass the Ice House, but walked along Park Street towards home. The Doyle brothers walked animatedly ahead, their dark round heads bobbing before her like a group of seals. As she observed their loud playfulness, at once humorous and violent, she became overwhelmed with a deep sense of belonging, of rootedness. Something inside her had finally relaxed. She wondered, how – when she would eventually catch up with the Doyles, as she was resolved to do – she would go about striking up a conversation with them (at least before they made the turn for Demesne Road). She wondered, too, if any of them had ever been as far a-field as London.
Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer. Her play, Leopoldville, won the 2010 Papatango Prize for New Writing, and her most recent play, Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre Studio, London, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. It recently premiered in Chicago to much critical acclaim. Jaki’s short story, The Visit, won the 2010 Wasafiri Short Fiction Prize and appears in the 2012 Anthology of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Her story collection, The Scattering, was published in 2013 by Seren Books and was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. Jaki, who was longlisted this year for the inaugural Irish Fiction Laureate, is currently editing her first novel. Represented by AM Heath. Her blog, CloudNine, can be read here.
As an American child of the 1980s, three well-known figures essentially forged my understanding of Soviet Russia: Odessa-born comedian Yakov Smirnoff (“Why don’t they have baseball in Soviet Union? In Soviet Union, no one is safe!”); Ivan “I must break you” Drago, the fictional pugilist from the cinematic travesty Rocky IV; and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (though, to be honest, most of my interest here surrounded the various jokes about his birthmark).
To say that I grew up in a non-political household would be an understatement. I was a child living in blissful ignorance of the outside world, and the U.S.S.R. was simply a place with funny rules, mean boxers the size of horses, and a leader as strange as our own Ronald Reagan.
Jeff Parker, in his energetic new journal/travelogue/memoir, Where Bears Roam the Streets, admits to a somewhat different childhood. Raised in north Florida, he writes that, while his family wasn’t “tuned in” politically during his childhood, he developed a fear of the U.S.S.R. thanks to nuclear attack drills during school hours, coupled with the 1983 TV movie The Day After:
After seeing the movie The Day After, which solidified in me the understanding that Russians were my enemy, I asked my mom if we could put in a below-ground fallout shelter.
Of course, Parker expanded his worldview as he aged. A budding writer, he found appreciation in Russian literature—Gogol, in particular—and in 1999, while in graduate school, he began visiting the nation regularly to work at the St. Petersburg Summer Literary Seminars. During his first summer abroad, he bonded with Igor, a walking tall tale of a young man, and their friendship bloomed. Until the Literary Seminars shuttered in 2008, Parker and Igor spent summers together, and when Parker was back home, the pair kept in contact via Skype. Then, in the summer of 2009, as Parker’s marriage slowly deteriorated and Igor found himself suddenly unemployed thanks to an economic collapse caused by Russia’s armed conflict in Georgia, the duo decided to spend the summer traveling. The point of the trek was twofold: to unwind, firstly, but also so Parker could write about the land that scared him so in his youth. The result—Where Bears Roam the Streets—is a fascinating volume, equal parts examination of Russia culture and rowdy road trip, that rarely stumbles in its bid to illuminate the highs and lows of modern Russian life.
The book oscillates in time and location, with chapters chronicling Parker and Igor’s travels (first to the Black Sea coast, then to Siberia to visit Parker’s estranged wife) interspersed with sections devoted to a wide variety of Russian curiosities—from matchmakers to political activists—as well as Igor’s wild past. These shifts occasionally feel abrupt, derailing some narrative flow, yet all are important to understand the actions taken by those Parker encounters. Tales from Igor’s history, especially his time in England, working for pittance while being “trained” as a manager for a British muesli plant set to open in St. Petersburg, establish the man’s skepticism. Further, a brief account of Igor’s multiple comical attempts (and eventual success) to evade military service in 1999 permit the persuasive, suave Igor of 2009 to seem all the more fathomable. This story of draft dodging also resonates in the larger world when juxtaposed with Parker’s visit with writer Denis Burov and Ilya Plekhanov, both former soldiers who fought in Chechnya. When Burov, who suffered from poverty and intense PTSD following his service, tells Parker, “Service is not a noble thing here in Russia, unfortunately…Now the common point of view is a real man has to buy his way out of the service,” it’s hard not to look at Igor’s charm and persistence with a bit of disgust. Through these somewhat unrelated incidents, his character rounds out, so that as his journey continues, we feel for his triumphs and defeats.
Likewise, such encounters also bring to light some of Parker’s own unease, serving to expand his persona:
I always felt guilty around guys my age who had gone to Iraq while I prowled bars and wrote my stories. And unlike Igor, I hadn’t swindled my way out of fate…Put in the same situation [as Igor], I’d have done everything in my power—I’d have paid much more than Igor for an X-ray showing a non-existent crack in my spine.
Here, another heartbeat of Where Bears Roam the Streets is exposed, for while Parker claims his book’s overall agenda is to further comprehend Russian life, time and again his explorations prove he’s also searching for a greater understanding of his own nature. After Igor tells Parker of his own psycholinguistic method of working out problems, the author finds himself testing the technique on his own woes. Likewise, Parker chastises Igor’s treatment of women, claiming his friend suffers from a “‘man is first’ mantra,” yet the author sometimes describe the females he encounters with a touch of male gaze (it should be noted, however, that Parker does devote large chunks of his book exposing some of the horrible injustices faced by many Russian women: unforgiving romantic expectations, physical and sexual abuse). It’s in moments like these that Where Bears Roam the Streets chronicles Parker’s psyche as much as that of the world around him, a general feeling echoed about halfway through the book when Parker writes, “I wondered at the Igor part of me. And the me-part of him…” As the two roll across the land, consuming vodka, sweating in banyas, and mulling life, there are certainly times when these “parts” blur.
Gary Shteyngart, in a blurb that appears on the back cover of Where Bears Roam the Streets, calls the book “A kind of Fear and Loathing on the Trans-Siberian Railroad,” and while such a catchy quote will certainly help move paper copies, it ultimately sells Parker’s ambition short. Yes, the total amount of alcohol consumed during the author’s escapades with Igor would leave lesser writers dead, and scenes of hosting celebrations full of fellow travelers while staying in Listvyanka contain a fair share of combustible energy, but to paint Jeff Parker’s latest as a Hunter S. Thompson imitation would be a massive disservice. At its core, Where Bears Roam the Streets aims to strike a balance between Thompson-esque madness and serious journalism. As Parker speaks to his subjects, both casually and in more formal interviews, he does so with the interest of a man who truly wants to learn, who truly hopes to grow from each experience, and as readers along for the ride, we are all richer for having experienced the world via his curious nature.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap Pop, decomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews and criticisms have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, The Kenyon Review, Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.
As with any collection of essays or reviews, there are aspects to argue against and agree with, which is a sure indicator that Winters sparks interest. —Jeff Bursey
Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory
Paper, 210 pp., $22.95
Readers of new writing increasingly get a fair sense of what is out there, and how it’s viewed, by going to Internet journals or blogs run by reputable, trusted figures, and less and less from the review sections of newspapers that appear dedicated to safe choices. Occasionally an individual’s contributions to book reviewing warrant publication, as was the case last year, with Dzanc bringing out John Domini’s zesty collection that showcased familiar (Gilbert Sorrentino, John Barth) and less familiar authors (Lance Olsen, Dawn Raffel), drawn from over three decades of critical thought. It’s the work of a mature writer who is also a novelist.
David Winters is co-editor in chief of 3:AM Magazine, an Internet journal relied on for news about literary matters, and he is, according to his website, also “…a literary critic, currently based at Cambridge University, where I’m researching Gordon Lish’s influence on American fiction from 1960 to the present. Alongside modern and contemporary literature, I’m also interested in continental philosophy and metaphilosophy, the history of concepts, and the sociology of ideas and intellectuals.” A current book title containing the word infinite brings to mind not endless expanses but defined territories, either because the use of the word here has to be ironic or not serious, or because a contrarian approach rises up inside or is expected to be found in the pages. The three-part division of Winters’ book—“Introduction,” “On Literature,” and “On Theory”—indicates that theory, apart from its, well, apartness or maybe alien(n)ation (so to say) from literature, is an equally circumscribed and vast fiction. Hence, immense space can be conceived, but that thought often crumbles into thoughts of the continent lived on, the country inhabited, the city that hosts the seat of higher learning where metaphilosophy can be studied, or the neighbourhood lived in. In Infinite Fictions, tension exists from the outset.
A banker once asked a group to help define his occupation. “What do you call a parasite that lives on parasites?” Metaparasite sprang to mind. David Markson, in Reader’s Block, wrote: “Horseflies that keep the horse from plowing, Chekhov called critics.” A review of any fellow reviewer’s collection could contain this old verse: “Big fleas have little fleas,/Upon their backs to bite ’em,/And little fleas have lesser fleas,/And so, ad infinitum.” Despite the personal nature of a large amount of literary criticism—at times the confessional tone topples over into the ridiculous—it’s useful to keep in mind that Infinite Fictions is the object in the world that’s under consideration, though imbued with some of its subject’s nature—critics don’t have, or else aren’t granted, the same elasticity with regards to creating personas as fiction writers—but while it may be impossible to divorce one’s own obsessions from the obsessions of the subject, it is also, to a degree, impractical. A literary work of any meaning—and “literary” means anything that uses words, from flyers to a high-flyer like Foucault—engages with its contemporaries, its predecessors, and future writings not yet dreamed of. Or, to speak with, against, alongside, and over fellow fleas.
Terry Eagleton’s The Event of Literature and D.N. Rodowick’s Elegy for Theory frame the section “On Theory.” This is neat bookending in the sounds, in the event closed off by a lament for the dead genre, and the seeming capitulation of theory to literature. From Eagleton’s work, as quoted, mediated, and commandeered by Winters—don’t hold that word against him, or rather, hold it against most reviewers who try, in Domini’s words, to “honor my elders,” since inhabitation of a text is at times irresistible in order to winkle something out of it and make it a fixture in the armature of personal thought—the report arrives that literary theory had its best days in the 1970s and 1980s, and its energies, approaches, and concepts, unsurprisingly, have been subsumed by cultures small and large and integrated into general discourse (such as the way your eye just passed over the word discourse without a mental blink). Eagleton “attempts to retrieve some of literature’s strangeness and singularity” by calling on theory; “…Eagleton makes a persuasive case for returning to what could be called ‘pure’ literary theory… To theorize in this sense is to reassert the centrality of close literary analysis, recovering literature as a determinate object of study, distinct from broader conceptions of ‘culture.’” Free of humility, Eagleton’s view retains its savior complex, that theory is again able and ready, even from its recumbent position, to help literature go wild.
Discussing Rodowick’s book, which “excavate[s] the fossil record of theory, rather than adding another two cents to the increasingly tired arguments ‘for’ or ‘against’ it,” Winters writes that “academic disciplines… [are] increasingly keen to deny theory’s lasting effects; thus, theory is rather ritualistically declared ‘dead,’ and we assume that we’re safely ‘after theory.’” He sees hope in Elegy for Theory: “…perhaps [theory’s] historical closure leaves it newly illuminated, in ways which weren’t possible when it was pressingly present.” (Oppressively omnipresent might be another way to put it.) In this review Winters seems more comfortable, and he is more persuaded, than in his review of Eagleton—whose work he ends by judging as somewhat “diffuse” (129)—hence his writing picks up a bit and the sentences flow better.
At certain times in this section bias overcomes the usually even-handed treatment of the book at hand. Winters’s review of Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels, an insider’s look at Oulipo by one of its two American members (inexplicably, Harry Mathews goes unmentioned), is slightly condescending to the efforts of this group—encapsulated in “even if, like me, you remain unconvinced by the Oulipo, an outsider looking in” (140)—that may be understandable on its own (not everyone likes restrictions and games). However, when explaining the content of Martin Woessner’s Heidegger in America—a “‘reception history’” on how the philosopher’s ideas permeated the thinking of U.S. academic institutions—Winters stays mum on Heidegger’s Nazism, though Woessner doesn’t, and the omission looks selective.
Generally, however, throughout this section of the book Winters appears knowledgeable about a variety of theoretical approaches, and writes with confidence. His appraisals of Franco Moretti and Cathy Caruth are good introductions to the ideas of both, and he has some interesting things to say about Robert Musil when examining Robert Musil and the NonModern by Mark Freed.
Winters is not a writer one quotes for the loveliness of his phrasing. There are no witty expressions and few surprising word choices, or viewpoints that catch one off guard, though there is the occasional alliteration. His sentences lack a firm enough individualistic rhythm, and this may be due to frequent quotations from others, such as when he quotes Derek Attridge using one word, “singularity.” Like environmentalists spike trees with metal, Winters deploys quotations and critics as a defence and bulwark for his opinions. In “On Theory” that habit of thinking or writing choice fits in with the topics, but “On Literature” covers 21 fiction writers who possess styles that leave the quotations from Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu, and others jutting out in ungainly ways.
“On Literature” opens with a review of Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes and closes with a review of Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla. It is worth quoting lines from the first paragraphs of each to demonstrate that, as in “On Theory,” Winters has chosen carefully his frame works.
Writing about the work of Micheline Aharonian Marcom is likely to leave one searching for words. Each of her books has been newly, bravely bewildering, in ways that are almost beyond paraphrase. That is, these texts assert such stylistic strength that they seem to resist the language of criticism, or any language other than their own. How can prose so poetically self-reliant, so set apart from our ‘ordinary’ discourse, be faithfully described, let alone criticized, from outside? Confronted with this kind of writing, any critical review—any act of writing about—could run the risk of redundancy.
I won’t say anything about Andrzej Stasiuk, and I’ll try not to say much about myself. About Poland, I’ll say nothing. This text doesn’t need to be contextualized. Equally though, Dukla shouldn’t be subjected to a ‘close’ reading. Perhaps the words on the page aren’t worth as much as we think. What matters is the way that a work presents itself. The experience it evokes; the constellation of images it conveys.
This is not simply something linguistic. Literary language is not what makes literature literature…. Books aren’t what we as readers believe them to be. There’s something beneath the words that we read. With Dukla, one way of saying this is that language is ‘backlit.’ The book is lit up by something shining behind it.
It is unclear what that “shining” background comprises and difficult to condense poetic prose in fresh words. A looming deadline and a waiting editor, as well as the irrepressible urge to provide a partial (in more than one sense) description of what a book does to the mind, in the hope that not too much damage will be done in the rendering, often combine to push scruples out the window. Winters spends several pages on two books he is reluctant to trap, as Domini put its, in “a kind of shrink-wrap that risks suffocating the artwork under consideration.” As a professor of mine liked to say, we must eff the ineffable; it’s a compulsion.
In the review of Dawn Raffel’s In the Year of Long Division Winters offers a view of publishing as well as one of many encomiums to the Great White Wizard whose shadow stretches across this section of Infinite Fictions:
Between 1977 and 1995, the American publishing industry witnessed a burst of avant-garde activity whose cultural impact has yet to be adequately assessed. The years in question correspond to the legendary (and controversial) career of Gordon Lish as senior editor for fiction at Alfred A. Knopf. For nearly two decades Lish was uniquely placed to, as he put it, “indulge my fantasies at the expense of a large corporation.” … From Diane Williams to Gary Lutz, Rudy Wilson to Jason Schwartz, Lish championed writers who challenged fundamental conventions of style and form.
Raffel “is an author associated with what some have called the ‘School of Lish.’ Yet this crude category does a disservice to what are often… strikingly singular writers and works.” Crude it may be, but the generality is enforced by Winters’s frequent evocations of his acquaintance and references to Lish’s literary invention, consecution, which Winters makes clear, while reviewing Lish’s Peru, can be defined as “less a methodology than a metaphysic; a miraculating agent; an instance of spirit or pneuma submerged in the world.” From potential savior and midwife (a mix of Eagleton and Ezra Pound)—in the mini-history above the authors are subordinate to their discoverer—to the mind behind “a miraculating agent”—if readers are not persuaded by this near-hagiography of Lish, then that will affect their opinions on Winters’s collection.
As with most review collections, there are ones that are successful and ones that are not. The virtues of Ivan Vladislavić’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories excite Winters as he explores a text that “…is brought into being by the tension between being written and unwritten, where neither ever overwhelms the other. In this way the work doesn’t work out, isn’t resolved into a work, but rather results, inevitably, from a field of forces…,” and his admiration leaps off the page in an infectious way. “Fictive forms preserved in infinite space,” says Winters of Vladislavić’s novel; it’s a remark that also evokes his own book.
Kjersti Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, a novel that deserves to be much better known, is a well-told sad story about the predicament of its lead character, Mathea. Her state, as well as the calm tenor of the prose, encourages Winters to enter more emotional terrain. Mathea “longs to lose herself in a benignly entropic universe, obeying her mind’s inward pull toward dissolution and death. But an opposite impulse calls her to cling to her life’s specificity, searching for any attributes that make her unique…” This neatly captures the yo-yoing Mathea feels, and is respectful of her movement from one thought to another.
Some reviews fail to convince. Winters declares: “Marcom is not preoccupied with plot; her writing reads more like an open inquiry into her chosen emotion… Hence narrative convention is overturned by something closer to the lived experience of loss: rather like in life, a relationship’s end retrospectively alters its memory.” This review first appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, a home for unconventional works reviewed by unconventional writers for unconventional readers. (Regrettably, there is no clear indication exactly when and where reviews originally appeared nor is there an index.) After reading the preceding paragraphs Winters provides on the risks Marcom takes, it’s unclear what review reader would be so wedded to “narrative convention” or find Marcom so radical.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends, and another Lish protégé, is the subject of a review that founders on a misunderstanding. Isabel tells Ned she’s “‘depressed’” and that she likes “‘melancholy,’” and it becomes clear that she treats these two terms as if they are the same. Instead of interrogating this word choice (it could be appropriate for the character) or outlining the differences, Winters leaves untouched psychology and neurological advances on the make-up of depression, turning to a literary theorist for instruction: “In this, [Isabel’s] condition recalls Julia Kristeva’s description of ‘melancholia.’” Summarizing more of Kristeva on this matter, Winters says that in her view “there’s clearly an ambiguity at the core of depression. In their inarticulate plight, perhaps depressives are like failed artists, blocked writers. But by accessing an inner world of poetic expression, each is also an artist in the making… One way of recovering,” Winters continues, “from melancholia is to craft an ‘independent symbolic object’—a work of art.” He has adopted Schutt’s interchangeable use of depression and melancholy. It’s a flawed review that never recovers.
As with any collection of essays or reviews, there are aspects to argue against and agree with, which is a sure indicator that Winters sparks interest.
“Introduction” speaks about the reasons behind this book’s existence, and Winters’s experience as a reviewer. On the cusp of inviting the world to dive into a collection of his writing, he is less sure of himself than is illustrated in the attitudes and knowledge found in the pages ahead. Speaking on how reviewing can contain aspects of oneself, he make the good point (though few will agree with it) that “literary subjectivity isn’t always aligned with autobiography. Right now, I’m writing this in the first person, but I perceive that person as a perfect stranger.” It’s doubtful that “perfect” is any more accurate than “stranger,” unless Winters’s personality changes so uncontrollably it’s beyond his grasp. He elaborates: “Put simply, I’ve never known who I am. Nor do I feel securely in sync with the world. I intersect with it at an abnormal angle—my link with life is dislocated. Of course, this condition isn’t uncommon. I mention it only to emphasize that an initial alienation led me to literature.” If something isn’t uncommon then it’s not abnormal; it can be odd, eccentric, idiosyncratic, and even normal. Not to speak harshly or dismissively, but he must have his pose, as do other reviewers (though see above regarding the restrictions). “I wouldn’t say I give much away in my writing, but some of it still speaks obliquely of secret experiences: depression, religion, unrequited love.” He’s left most of his life outside the reviews, then—or to quote him, “About Poland, I’ll say nothing.” Yet if he’s a perfect stranger who doesn’t know himself, how does he know this, and what trust can be placed in his ideas? In one review he states that “personae in books are merely arrangements of surfaces, much like us.” Why, then has he assembled this book written by other David Winters, and what value does it have? He can’t be speaking from any position of grounded authority, although the reviews themselves carry a greater assurance.
The key to this work may rest in this line from the introduction: “I’ve tried to rationalize my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.” (Theory has a special place in his world: it is a “totem or talisman; a charm that we clasp to our hearts.”) Solace is a comfort one offers to others, in a positive way, as if to say, “Since art (or religion, or sex, or Pop-Tarts) has been a balm, for me, then maybe it can be the same for you.” This may be the impulse behind the collection. However, considering the role Lish played in getting people published—that is, in making commodities of artists’ utterances—and in furthering the careers of other writers who have gone on to earn money through publishing and/or teaching, it’s unusual that Winters regards books solely as artistic creations. He’s aware that part of a reviewer’s task is to bring notice of novels, poems, essays and such to readers so they’ll purchase them, and many are delighted when their words are placed on a book jacket. (His expression recalls a totally contrary belief voiced by Gilbert Sorrentino in The Moon in Its Flight: “Art cannot rescue anybody from anything.”) Hence (a word Winters frequently uses), the question of whether he has a blind spot here is an open one.
In the introduction’s closing paragraph, Winters talks about the “triviality” of reviews, and about “the vanity of assembling this kind of collection…. Really, they’re only records of my desperate autodidacticism.” In contrast, the last line quotes Bourdieu (a touchstone in this book) referring to “‘a collection of unstrung pearls…’” Wealth and trivia; there’s one more tension. The reviews themselves have little of this nervous throat-clearing, and show, more fully, that David Winters wants to be included in conversations around ideas, letters, and figures that are heard throughout the republic of letters. There’s no need for modesty, real or false, and no need to apologize. “In a way, to write a review is to hide behind what another, better writer has written.” Or to jump on the back of others—like a flea—and draw sustenance and courage from them.
Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the forthcoming picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.
It was in Iowa City where I first met Ray Carver. He was then teaching at the Writer’s Workshop. I don’t recall what I was doing there, maybe being interviewed for the kind of job Ray had: you teach one semester or two, and then someone takes your place. (In fact I did that a few years later.) Or maybe I was just passing through to see my friends Marvin Bell and Jack Leggett. Speak memory?
Somehow, some place, for some reason, Ray asked if I’d drive him to the Iowa City airport. Sure. By this time I’d read a number his stories in Esquire (not knowing then about the controversial cuts that had been made by Gordon Lish, the fiction editor there). In those days Ray was drinking. He drank on the way to the airport, offering me a pull. Thanks, but no thanks. Keep the bottle for me, he said as he got out of the car. Sure.
In the car I talked; Ray did not. Or at least not much. I told him what I thought about his fiction, especially Fat, using the two terms that in those days were applied to his work: “K Mart Fiction” and “Minimalist Fiction,” what Granta called “dirty realists”—that’s those Brits for you. Reading his stories, I said, he had taught me a few things. You don’t need much teaching, he said, and tried the bottle on me a second time. I’ll put it on your desk in EPB, I said. Thanks, he said.
I also asked where he was going. It was probably a Wednesday afternoon. You could teach either a Monday-Wednesday schedule at the workshop or a Tuesday-Thursday schedule. Ray had apparently picked Monday-Wednesday. But now that I think about it, he might have made special arrangements to teach Monday-Tuesday for reasons that I would learn later had to do with his flight that day.
Chicago, he said. Chicago? He said nothing more.
Frank Martin uncrosses his arms and takes a puff on the cigar. He lets the smoke carry out of his mouth. Then he raises his chin toward the hill and says, “Jack London used to have a big place on the other side of this valley. Right over there behind that green hill you’re looking at. But alcohol killed him. Let that be a lesson to you. He was a better man than any of us. But he couldn’t handle the stuff, either.” Frank Martin looks at what’s left of his cigar. It’s gone out. He tosses it into the bucket. “You guys want to read something while you’re here, read that book of his, The Call of the Wild. You know the one I’m talking about? We have it inside if you want to read something. It’s about this animal that’s half dog and half wolf. End of sermon,” he says, and then hitches his pants up and tugs his sweater down. ‘I’m going inside,” he says. “See you at lunch.”
This passage is from Ray Carver’s story “Where I’m Calling From.” I will explain later.
The next time Ray Carver—in fact the next two times—came into my life were through his editors, one being Michel Curtis, the fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and the aforementioned Gordon Lish of Esquire. In what order is also now lost to my apparently speechless memory.
At Washington College where I once taught we would bring in poets and writers for the students, but I thought a good literary editor might helpful as well. That had been my case when I was a student and the University of Arkansas MFA program brought to campus Ted Soloratoff of New American Review. In was in this spirit that I had invited Mike Curtis, fiction editor of the Atlantic.
In advance of his arrival, he sent me a copy of the magazine in which Ray’s new story, “Cathedral,” had been published. It was not at all like the Ray Carver stories I had read in Esquire: It was long, very long, and there was nothing K-Mart about it. But there was something else: it rambled as a matter of design. Not shamble, because there was nothing awkward or clumsy about its pace. If Carver’s Esquire stories were tight in their telling, this one was loose. But in its fashion, beautifully telling.
At lunch that day with Curtis and students I thanked him for the Atlantic and said how much I enjoyed “Cathedral,” but that it was long for a Carver story. It is neither long, nor short, Mike said, it is the right length for the story. His answer seemed blunt, as if there were reasons behind it I did not understand. Which was true.
We then talked about length (as opposed to brevity) in short fiction, with Melville being part of the conversation, along with Katherine Anne Porter and J.D. Salinger. But I kept thinking how quickly Curtis had made his point about Carver. I refrained from asking about the absence of the K Mart stores in “Cathedral,” much less “dirty realism.”
It was a few years later (or earlier?) that also in the spirit of bringing an editor to campus that I invited Gordon Lish, the fiction editor of Esquire. The students at Washington College had a literary house for themselves where they would give readings, host visiting writers, hold a salon among themselves, publish literary magazines and, using a warren of rooms, write novels and stories and poems and plays. All through the house were framed posters of those literary folk who had stopped by: Edward Albee, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, Allen Ginsberg, Toni Morrison, Joseph Brodsky, John Barth , Katherine Ann Porter, Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, Diane Wakoski, and more. The Washington Post called their house the Carnegie Hall of Literary Readings. They put it on a T-shirt.
It was the custom of the literary students who inhabited the house to decide if the visitors were worthy or not. If not, the poster would be hung upside down. Very few were, but apparently they thought Gordon’s visit (consisting of conferences, classes, and a public lecture) was so poor they turned his poster to the wall. Done.
Well, not quite done. Some of the students pointed out that while Lish was of little or no help to them with their writing, through him, Ray Carver had been. Not that I knew this until I was told later that everywhere Gordon went on our campus (to a student reception for him; in classes; in the conferences he had with students over their work), he brought up Ray Carver: What a fine writer Carver was and that one way to develop as a writer was to read with a writer’s eye authors you admire. Ray Carver, Gordon Lish had asserted, will teach you by what he has written. Type out passages you like from his stories, Gordon told them, and he will teach you more than your creative writing teacher (that would have been me).
After some debate, and after the students began reading Carver, a new vote was taken and Gordon got turned around. Still upside down, but at least no longer a blank on the wall.
What those students learned from Ray Carver was probably what I had learned: his restraint in describing or delineating a character and in this way giving the character a chance of his own; his candor about the grim faults of those he had created; his half open-ended endings, as if a door is left ajar. I owe him.
The second time I met Ray was with Jack Barth at a bar in Baltimore to get something to eat before Ray was to give a reading at Johns Hopkins that evening. Ray was not drinking, Jack said by way of introduction. I nodded; Ray nodded back. I wondered if he had remembered me from Iowa City. I didn’t mention it; nor did he. We talked books and writers. I mentioned Ray’s use of Jack London in “Where I’m Calling From.” He told me had learned a lot from London, but not about drinking. That he had learned on his own.
In the pause among us, I asked Barth how he learned to be a writer. I was a failure at being a jazz musician, he said. And you? he asked me. In fact it was from Jack London, I said. How so, asked Ray?
I read “To Build A Fire” for a university course in American Literature and when I went to class the professor explained that the story was a Man-Against-Nature story. He explained that for fifty minutes. There are Man-Against-Man, Man-Against-Society, and Man-Against-Nature stories. The next class the professor explained that sometimes nature wins, sometimes man wins…and so on…for another fifty minutes.
Ray said he’d heard that lecture as well.
Somewhere in haze of those hundred minutes, I said, I found myself thinking how much I liked the writing in the story. The language of it. Shouldn’t that count for something in an English class? Not that I knew then what could be said about the language. But when I went back to my dorm room and read the story again the writing seemed splendid in ways I could not name so that in order (I now suppose) to understand what I admired, I propped the book up beside the portable Royal type writer my mother had given me before I went away to school and typed out the first long paragraph which I then memorized:
Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun….
Before I could finish, Ray took over:
This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.
He had been there before.
It was later, and it was either Jack Leggett or Connie Brothers at the Iowa Writers Workshop, who told me that Ray had been flying back and forth between a college teaching job in California only to fly back later in the week to take up his position at Iowa. Not that anybody knew the story at the time. Or maybe they did.
Robert Day is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”
This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them… What Jandl’s wordplay accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too. — Julie Larios
Ernst Jandl’s book Reft and Light opens with this word of warning from editor Rosemarie Waldrop: “Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate.” Notice that she doesn’t say “extremely difficult.” She says “impossible.” That doesn’t bode well for English-speaking readers who, like me, know only a few words in German – principally those used by fictional Nazis in old WWII movies – “Achtung! Verboten!” – or for readers who, also like me, have been puzzled by the long controversy over whether John Kennedy, in a 1963 speech, called himself a jelly donut or declared himself to be a citizen of Berlin (“Ich bin ein Berliner.”)
The jelly-donut controversy no doubt would have pleased Ernst Jandl, an Austrian poet and translator, whose work often explored the strange malleability of words. He was philosophically if not officially a member of the Oulipo school of experimental poets (the moniker “Oulipo” formed from the French words Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, meaning “Workshop of Potential Literature”) who played with formal constraints as a means of re-examining or re-awakening language. Inventive word-morphing, reconstructions, deconstructions and deliberately misdirected readings and soundings of words at the sentence, word and phoneme level – these were his strong suit, at least as far as Reft and Light is concerned. Waldrop’s note introducing the book helps explain why few people in the United States have heard of Jandl, despite his popularity among German-speaking readers. Reft and Light is one of only two collections translated into English (the other is Dingbat, translated by Michael Hamburger) and Jandl’s “poems” in this book are not lyrical in the traditional sense nor are they narrative. I’m not sure I would characterize most of them as poems; in fact, and I can’t recommend Jandl’s other work to you since I can’t speak German. Reft and Light is not likely to satisfy people looking for poetry with a capital P. But for people looking at language at the word level and taking pleasure in innovation and experimentation, reading the book is like spending recess on a school playground.
I was handed Jandl’s book several years ago by Christine Deavel of Seattle’s poetry-only bookstore, Open Books. “You’re the perfect reader for this,” she told me, and she was right. I’m a recess junkie when it comes to poetry, which is not to say I can’t go back to the classroom and enjoy the quieter lessons when recess is over. But I admit to liking the dizziness of a ride on the dangerous Big Spinner, word-wise, especially if it creaks and groans at unnerving intervals, and even more so if I feel like I might just be thrown off by the G-forces at work, heels over head and away. Jandl’s book is for punsters, anagramists, riddlers, jumble solvers, Scrabble players, crossword addicts, and poets who respond to sound as much as they do to images and ideas. You get off the ride and don’t quite know which end is up.
So if his work is untranslatable, as Waldrop states, how successful is Reft and Light? The entirety of her Editor’s Note tries to explain:
Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate. But their procedures can be imitated. Here is an experiment: several American poets respond to each poem so that original is encircled by multiple English analogues. The responses (which range from close imitations to freewheeling versions that continue Jandl’s thinking into other semantic areas) form the first part of this book. The version that seems closest to Jandl’s text is usually the first to follow the German.
Part II presents, in roughly chronological order, poems by Ernst Jandl either left in their original form (including visual poems and poems that he wrote in English) or translated/adapted by Anselm Hollo or myself.
The characterization of the translations as “analogues” is a good one: they are comparable, but not equal to. They are not literal translations. They are re-interpretations; they “continue Jandl’s thinking” and find ways to express his thought-process in English. Take this short experiment (again, not what I would call a poem) where Jandl turns a simple counting list inside out:
The correct German numbers 1-10 would be ein, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn. Translated literally, the title means “series” and Jandl’s list reads (if I’ve got it right) ice, twig, fresh, cattle, fill, groan, syllables, oh, new, zinc. We hear the similarities in the German pairing – ein/eis, sieben/silben, etc. But how to translate this into English when all the wordplay involves German sound variations? In Reft and Light, various poets try their best with a comparable English version of counting 1-10. The poet Keith Waldrop offers this basic possibility:
It’s a simple enough bit of play. I often asked my students at Vermont College of Fine Arts to give it a try, just to shake up the way they hear their own language (in the firm belief that we stop really hearing our own language because it’s too familiar – idiomatic speech is sometimes inaudible and metaphors are flattened by over-familiarity. Finding alternatives for the numbers is not hard. But if I asked my students to take it a step farther, to see if they could create a narrative of some kind out of the words, it became more difficult and more interesting. Here is an excerpt from Julie Patton’s extended variation on Jandl’s wordplay; her version incorporates both German and English equivalents and moves beyond sound imitation toward storytelling – it “sounds” like it could be counting from one to ten, but it’s not:
Ray di Palma’s versions (five lists) even play with the title “series,” changing the title for each list to cherries, ceres, seers, jerries and cerise. This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them. In another example, “Otto Mops,” a univocalic, Jandl goes for the o’s to tie things together, sound-wise:
ottos mops trotzt
otto: fort mops fort
ottos mops hopst fort
otto holt koks
otto holt obst
otto: mops mops
Okay: it’s not W.B. Yeats. But Jandl is not going for mystery and moonlight. He’s going for Abbot and Costello, in their classic skit, “Who’s on first?” He wants to make us sit up and make us notice how confusing and playful language is. With my meager German and a good dictionary, I can discern this loose story in the Otto poem: ottos pug defies / otto: away, pug, away / ottos pug hops away / otto: so so. // otto brings coke [can that be right?] / otto picks fruit / otto listens / otto: pug pug / otto hopes // ottos pug knocks / otto: come pug come / ottos pug comes / ottos pug throws up / otto: ohgodohgod.
Notice that the poem uses only the vowel “o.” And notice that the German words do more than rhyme, they morph in terms of sound: trotzt, fort, soso, koks, mops, obst, horcht, hofft, klopft, komm, kommt, kotzt, ogott. Elizabeth MacKiernan’s English version, below, uses only u’s and o’s, having changed Jandl’s o’s to ooh’s. Our Hero become Lulu rather than Otto – fair enough. MacKiernan loosely follows the narrative thrust of the original but her words rhyme a bit more, morph a bit less:
This play with vowels is typical of some of the best known work by Oulipo poets. The French writer Georges Perec made enough of a splash in 1969 with his 300-page lipogrammatic novel La disparition (in which the vowel “e” is never used) that a translation into English (The Void) was commissioned – the translator was Gilbert Adair. This was followed three years later by a companion novel, Les revenentes in which no vowels other than “e” are used (it was translated by Ian Monk in 1996 and given the title The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.)
One of Jandl’s sound experiments is a little more haunting, less comedic; more zen, less Big Spinner:
Translated loosely, this says “all/ all / without // completely bereft // canzone // all / all / without // completely bereft.” Jandl arrives at this quiet moment by way of the original Italian word “canzone” (song, ballad) — to any German speaker, “canzone” sounds immediately like “ganz ohne,” which means “all without.” Gale Nelson offers up this English equivalent:
The English version doesn’t work quite as well because “sadly full” does not match “madrigal” quite as well as “canzone” matches “ganz ohne.” But it does continue Jandl’s thinking. Jandl also offers up a form which changes how we see the relationship between two words when a single letter gets replaced by another. He places the words on the page so their similarity is clear (this isn’t rocket science: it’s easy to imagine a good elementary school language arts teacher having her students do the same):
fr sch ….i
In German, “frosh” means frog and “frisch” mean fresh. The Englsih translators do even better with this form:
ch…mp || po…on || str..ng || bo y || .re . olve ….o………………. ti……………….i……………….d…………..v
Occasionally, the serious side of play shines through, as in this poem:
Craig Watson comes up with an excellent translation:
Is this a poem? I think this one is. Are some of the other, simpler experiments poems? Not in my opinion. What Jandl’s wordplay in Reft and Light accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. I was grateful that Christine Deavel put the book into my hands. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too.
Here’s one last Jandl poem, written in English late in his life and cited in the obituary the New York Times published when he died:
When born again
I want to be
a tenor saxophone
if it’s up to me,
theres gonna be
Ernst Jandl was born in Vienna in 1925 and died there seventy-five years later; he was called up into the German army during World War II but was strongly anti-Nazi and criticized the Austrian government for its cooperation with Germany during the war. I can’t tell you whether the majority of Jandl’s untranslated work consists of poems that play less and paint more. I’m only familiar with Reft and Light, which might be the sorbet in between other courses of a more substantial meal, serving to cleanse the palette. I do know that Jandl was voted one of the ten most important German-language poets of the 20th century by a group of 50 writers, scholars and critics; the fact that he has next to no name-recognition in this country makes him qualify as undersung by any standard.
As an experimental poet, Jandl is not to everyone’s taste – experimentation, by definition, is not mainstream, and to honor sound at the expense of image and meaning is dangerous. But an old-fashioned playground is dangerous, too. At the very least, be brave, whether reader or writer or both: Climb up on the equipment and give it a spin. Try some of Jandl’s experiments: break up words, bend them. Above all, re-hear and re-fresh them. Meanwhile, keep the sound of that Abbot and Costello bit about “Who’s On First?” in your head. Why does that classic routine continue to appeal to us? Comedy is often located in miscommunication, and confusion makes us laugh, makes us wince, makes us listen more carefully and sends us new directions. Not a bad agenda for the creative spirit.
Julie Larios has contributed several Undersung essays to Numero Cinq over the last two years. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in The Best American Poetry series.
here are writers who draw readers into their magnetic fields so that everything they write is of interest—because the author’s dreams, thoughts, questions, do not simply mirror the reader’s but take him or her through the looking glass into a secret world. Literature in this sense is not an entertainment, but an initiation. The writer may be dead, but the words still hold life and in the case of Robert Musil, whom I know only in translation, it is the electric current of thought that seems to pass from his pages to me—teasing, taunting at times; asking me to accompany him into a zone of danger. There are other great novelists at the end of whose books or stories I have found myself changed, Kafka, Proust, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, come to mind, but I confess that none have exercised the continual hold on me that Musil does. And yet, Musil remains for all his frankness, elusive, perhaps because he often found his own existence and mind so.
If I begin with my own experience of Musil’s hypnotism, it is to explain why Thought Flights, the most recent publication of Musil’s work is such a valuable addition to his published work. The handsome edition of Contra Mundum Press has a long, thoughtful introduction by Genese Grill. She speaks both to the complexity of translating Musil and to the psychology of his prose, particularly in the feullitons, short pieces which make up a significant number of the pieces in this collection. They may seem at first glance as Grill remarks, using a critical phrase of Musil’s like “soap bubbles,” or “shenanigans,” Spielerei, but in fact like his major opus, The Man without Qualities, they attempt to explore “the other condition.” She defines Spielerei in her introduction as, “timeless states hovering between decision and act, like Kafka’s.” I have to admit that as a storyteller it is the short narratives that fix themselves most in my imagination. Musil with a few short strokes gives, a portrait of young girl hovering between childhood and womanhood in the stare of a man fascinated by her; the tale of a young man who lures an older woman, married woman to a room in a country inn, where his game of eroticism turns dizzily from poetry to clichés, to a final madness. The method of the short essays where the unexpected jumps out at us like a jack in the box is operating in these fictions. One can witness Musil setting up the spring of his plots for the longer stories and his unfinished masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities. I have read several of these short narratives before (published in the magazine I edit, Fiction), but joined to others not available before in English they come into a further focus. Thought Flights by bringing together a number of these short pieces makes clear what is not so evident when one reads in isolation a story like “Susanna’s Letter” about a woman watching a man on a train watch her through his monocle—that Musil, the writer as scientist, is deliberately experimenting with what happens as you shift the lens of narrative. So in the brief pages where the author watches the fourteen year old, for a few moments on a streetcar, “Robert Musil to an Unknown Little Girl” and imagines her as a child then as a woman; or the man who sees a pony and begins to tells the story of boys who steal a wagon and pony and in doing so finds a way to glimpse something of what he defines as his soul. We follow what are both narratives and investigations. What Musil is trying to do in these brief stories, reflections, essays, is to question the nature of reality. Like the other important writers of the Twentieth Century who absorbed the idea of Relativity, fiction and the essay are tools to try to understand, or see into a universe that is apprehended as forever shifting. The bantering laughing voice of the “shenanigan,” masks the serious intent of the attempt.
Translator Genese Grill
There is of course another way to view Musil’s insights—and writers who have pledged their vision to right the wrongs of this world will relish the political edge of Thought Flights or the sharp eye for Viennese social manners and smugly ignore Robert Musil’s curiosity about “the other” world. Genese Grill’s critical volume on Musil, The World as Metaphor, challenged the conventional portrait of Musil as merely a social realist and detailed the mystical and philosophical influences on his fiction. Thought Flights exemplifies an intuition she articulated in The World as Metaphor, “Musil, although he did not completely reject the existence of a shared, measurable and to some extent repeatable a priori reality, was fascinated by the idea of a magical relation through human action, thought, artistic creation, and the real physical world, a relation wherein what a person does, says, and even thinks, affects and even co-creates a shifting reality.” Whether it is language as in “Talking Steel,” fashion in “There Where You Are Not,” or the taboos of murder and cannibalism, we can observe Robert Musil in this collection searching for clues to his own elusive persona.
The translation has many happy moments when Musil’s laughter is revealed. Among my favorites, is the characterization of an out of work theater director, met accidently in the street, “Human sorrow can collect in the worn-out knees of a pair of pants. His face looked like a cornfield cut with a sickle.” And I would be remiss in remarking on Thought Flights, if I did not mention the careful notes that illuminate the many specific references to individuals and events in the articles and glosses. These provoke one to return to its riddling moments and read them again as I did in “Page from a Diary” where Musil writes to define what flashes between himself and a woman, M, as they recall fragments of childhood and emotions tied to moments that can no longer be experienced since the context for them has vanished. Learning from the notes that M is Martha, Musil’s wife, I realized that he is giving us access to their intimacy, a sense of what passed between them through the medium of stories. To do so is to catch the writer as his thought turns magical in his mind.
—Mark Jay Mirsky
Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.
He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.
Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.
R.W. Gray’s fiction reexamines expectations of storytelling. His characters dwell in both strange and familiar places, often at the same time. Where paradox proves incompatible with reality, Gray reorders reality to accommodate, making room for delightful exploration. Questions, Gray says. He is not looking for answers when he writes, but he’s always asking questions.
Entropic, Gray’s second short story collection, has just been published by NeWest Press. Themes of hope, redemption, condemnation, and love swirl into a mesmerizing journey through deserts, parks, and cities, transforming ordinary landscapes into mythical, re-imagined worlds.
Gray is a filmmaker, poet, critic, teacher, and world traveler, and his stories are infused with elements of his life. He is also the editor of the incredibly popular Numéro Cinq at the Movies. We exchange a series of emails over the course of two months, building a conversation in which we discuss mad teachers, sleep disorders, and Gray’s uncanny ability to reimagine reality, invent unforgettable characters, and tell damn good stories.
Richard Farrell (RF): What were some of your earliest influences growing up? Did you always want to be an artist or did other passions grip you as a child?
R.W. Gray (RWG): For a few formative years, with a single mother living up on the northwest coast of Canada, we didn’t have a lot. Of course, I’ve seen far greater poverty in the world now, but we were poor enough that we were left to our imaginations more often than not. This, coupled with growing up in a place that was a little terrifying as a kid (bears, wilderness, swamp, ocean), kind of pushed me and some of the other kids who were more introverted into storytelling games. But I also grew up surrounded by tall tale tellers. Even my little brother has inherited this.
Reading didn’t come easy to me apparently. In the early grades I struggled. I am not sure where that flipped over. I had a draconian teacher in grade five and she probably scared me into it. But I also had a rather mad woman for grades one and three, Miss Neufeldt. The mad teachers were always the best I think. In grade three she explained to us how men in the trenches would urinate on rags and cover their faces to fend off chlorine gas attacks. As an eight year old that kind of stays with you. I don’t think she had a lot of filters and I still love her for that. I’d like to think that Miss Neufeldt’s storytelling encouraged me.
RF: At some point, many writers can describe a singular experience that set them on the path. Can you identify a single experience?
RWG: I think I was always surrounded by storytellers in my weird Irish family. But there was a moment of sort of condensation when I was ten, I had a rather epic dream one night, and the next day at school I felt compelled to write the whole thing down. I remember being frustrated at how I couldn’t get it all down fast enough, how the dream story changed as I tried to put it into language, closing off complexity, losing three dimensions, becoming a more two dimensional version of itself. The disparity between the dream and the story on the page was painful. Guess it still is. But I think there was a sense of wonder for me, how the dream had come out of nowhere, out of nothing, and then became a story on the page. It felt like a calling in that moment. When it was probably the fault of eating ice cream right before bed or watching that show Space 1999 that always gave me nightmares. The cause isn’t important I guess so much that I was born of storytellers and at last found the way I could tell stories in a less loud and less extroverted way.
RF: You mention a dream at age 10 and this teacher in grade 5. Would you care to talk more about this teacher?
RWG: Well, Miss Bautista was a ruthless dictator. Even the parents were frightened of her. She had this thing where she would shame you until your head would drop to you chest with the weight of it and then she would, pinching your chin, yank it back up insisting you look at her as she admonished you. I developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome where another student and I made her an entire painted ceramic nativity scene that we worked on for months and presented her with it at the end of the school year. I’d never been to a church a day in my life, and I painted a baby Jesus, wise men and camels for this woman.
I can’t recall fairly, but I would guess that the watershed sort of moment when I first wrote a creative story might be a product of opposites: first knowing the unbridled mad imagination of Miss Neufeldt followed by moving to a new school and falling under Miss Bautista’s ruthless rule. Simple recipe to make a writer. Now try it on your children.
RF: Not to delve into your personal life, but how do you sleep? I ask this because at least two of your stories in Entropic deal pretty directly with sleep issues. A number of other stories use dream imagery. I suppose I’m wondering what so fascinates you about sleep?
RWG: That’s hilarious. Yes, I think the stories seem to imply I am addicted to coffee and have a fetish for sleep. I think I was wondering that too as the collection came together: why does sleep keep coming back, run through the stories. This book more than the first one seemed to be about adult relationships and, for me, that’s where sleep becomes really apparent. Milan Kundera, in Unbearable Lightness Being connects the desire for shared sleep as indicative of love. Yet I think relationships and sleep for me just draw out how strange a behavior this sleep is, this space where we are unconscious, vulnerable to those around us, like children again really. None of the sleep in the book is about dreaming.
I am on planes all the time, all my family in other cities, and I have become a finely tuned sleeping machine. I haven’t had a beverage on a flight in years: I fall asleep before the plane takes off and wake just before it lands. It’s uncharacteristic, since in every other way I seem to care what people think, but am willing to drool, snore, whatever it is I do in front of them on these flights. I can do it but I willfully suspend my worry about what happens when I am not conscious and in control. I think several of the stories play out that curiosity.
RF: A theme that comes up is erasure. Sometimes it feels like your stories are attempting to correct, rewrite or even obliterate history in some way. Thoughts on this?
RWG: I do think that’s kind of fascinating, the way we walk around as these little non-reality bubbles, editing out the parts we don’t want, seeing people the way we want to, forgetting history to protect ourselves.
On the other hand, it’s how we create memories cognitively, condensing and erasing unnecessary details. In a world full of so many people and so many details, it becomes a necessary short hand too. Most of us have to gist the world around us to hold onto it I think, and this is an error-prone process.
RF: What do you think is the function of writing, of telling stories, to make sense of reality? Given that many of your stories are interrogating reality (or the limits of reality), does narrative have a power to reshape the way we understand the world?
RWG: Increasingly, I think reality doesn’t need our sense. I keep thinking all our suffering, our struggles come from us trying to paint over, alter, make the world the way we want to see it, instead of the way it is. My sense of some of my characters is that they are coming to terms with how limited their perspectives are. Sometimes unavoidably. What happens when you can’t see and master all? What do you do with that and how do you shape meaning then?
RF: Can you talk about your reading habits? Not just what you’re reading (though I’d love to know that) but perhaps also how you read.
RWG: Well, thanks to the various careers (professoring, filmmaking, reviewing) I generally feel like I don’t read. This year I have been on sabbatical though and it’s been an anomaly where I am blasting through books, remembering the pleasure of these imaginary spaces, that communion of the self through reading. I read Anna Karenina in a cabin on Prince Edward Island, Wuthering Heights for the second time in an apartment in Montevideo, returned to the Alexandria Quartet in Hanoi. And a smattering of Marquez’s short stories while I was in South America as well. I find myself rereading I guess, lately. I remember some writer once saying at a certain age we stop seeking new pleasures and grow increasingly nostalgic for the old ones. I fear I am falling into that camp.
RF: Is there a confluence of other forms on your work? You are a filmmaker, a critic, an academic and a poet. How does a careful study of various media effect your fiction?
RWG: I think teaching and criticism are major ways I both educate and reeducate myself. Teach to learn, that old adage. It’s pretty obvious in my writing about film for Numero Cinq at the Movies that I am exploring films I admire and trying to see how they did that admirable thing.
As for how it affects my prose, I think for writers like me one has to become a better reader to become a better writer.
Well, film done right, rigorously demands the externalization of the internal, a sense of meaning and structure. It’s kind of a haiku exercise in my books. And when I get lost in developing a story I often fall back on screenplay writing questions.
RF: Would you be willing to share some of those questions? I’m thinking of David Mamet’s wonderful “three rules for writing a scene.” Do you have touchstones when you get lost? Writers hate to think in terms of rules, but are there are signposts? What gets you back on the right road?
RWG: I think any of those “rules” are just questions, or…
I bounce around a lot. If I am struggling with character, I turn to Dara Marks Inside Story. If I want to back up and look at plot I look at Joseph Campbell or Christopher Vogler. In any event, none of these can be rules, they just pose questions. And when I am in the swamps, I just need questions.
RF: I’m always curious about process for writers. So maybe take me back to your earliest writings. Has your process evolved?
RWG: I guess my process was initially a lack of process. Something would provoke or inspire me and I would write about it. And then wait to see if it would happen again or try to provoke it by listening to too much Depeche Mode.
I think it’s only recently I have really defined for myself a daily practice, where I write for a minimum amount of time each day and have a small stable of exercises I do each day. I think I went through a stage of being quite prideful about not needing to learn things. Slow to the realization that I want to be a writer who is ninety and still learning new things.
RF: At a point in many of the stories in Entropic, you shift into away from a simple portrayal of reality and into something more mythical. Lazarus comes to life, a woman who seems to have a magical power, even medical re-enactors. Reality in your stories is slipper, at best a tenuous construct. I’m wondering where you might place this type of storytelling in the literary tradition. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Magic Realism, but I confess the thought crossed my mind more than once.
RWG: I think the first collection, Crisp, was more strongly “magic realist” than this one. Impossible things still happen here but they are perhaps less gothic and grandiose. I really respect realist writers, but I think I am always a little more interested in what is unspeakable, unrepresentable, except by defying the laws of reality. Maybe for me what is interesting in myself and others is the more shadow aspect, the part we fight to keep from the outside world, that place outside our brain pan.
Also, I think it’s easier to see these subtle emotional states, griefs, joys, when mythologized a little. Like pulling focus with a microscope and projecting the image on the side of a building. Harder to pretend away or erase that aspect of ourselves.
RF: I was mesmerized by your story “Sinai.” You seem to imply that Lazarus and Jesus may have been romantically entangled. You basically show that being brought from the dead was no gift. But I was also drawn to the notion of how Lazarus as a character in the Bible is sort of thrown away after his purpose was served. I guess I’m fishing for what inspired you to finish his story.
RWG: I wrestled with that story a long time, initially thinking it would be a play, then coming around to prose with it. Initially, what intrigued me most was just the question of what would unrequired desire would be like after centuries of waiting. Lazarus’s story is peculiar: raised from the dead and then left in a sort of ellipses. What then? What would it be like to live a life in the ellipses? Then, I think, in the writing of it I became more curious about how we bury our beloveds in mythology.
Under it all, too, was my experience of traveling in Egypt on the Sinai when I was twenty-one, how disturbed I was by the landscape where Bible stories were set, now covered in burnt out tanks and traversed by cruddy taxis and travelers like me. There was something absurd and contradictory in that experience I wanted to capture.
RF: What are you working on now?
RWG: I have been working on a novel for a couple of years now and just spent three months in an apartment in Uruguay making headway with that. But I also seem to be experiencing this odd surge that I also experienced at the end of writing Crisp. There’s been a sudden rush of stories and maybe even a title for the next book of short stories. All very rough, but I’ve been basically rushing to get them down.
RF: Do you want to see any of your fiction writing turned into movies? I ask because you work in these two fields. More and more, short stories are being turned into full-length movies. Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” and Ken Kalfus’ “PU-239” jump to my mind. I’m curious about your thoughts on this.
RWG: Adaptation is intriguing for sure. Generally I am more intrigued by what other people come up with when adapting my stories and feel less of an urge to do it myself. Almost all my screenplays have been original material. At the start, when I have the germ of an idea, there’s a process of trying it out and seeing what form seems to suit what I am curious about. Once a story has become a short story, I am not really curious to test that in another form. Though I am excited to see what someone else would reinvision.
I have had two short stories turned into short films: “Blink,” and then a friend is in preproduction on an adaptation of the “Beautifully Drowned.” I enjoy the process of seeing how people change and make the stories their own generally. I’ve found I feel less attached to the details, really, than to the thematic elements of the stories. If someone takes a story I intended to be about compassion and it becomes about abuse, then I am not so keen.
—R.W. Gray & Richard Farrell
R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. He is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Frederiction.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, Contrary, Connotation Press and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.
Gray is deconstructing the weight-bearing walls of the Western canon, subverting its appeal, questioning its meaning. Homer and Joyce and Christ himself are fair game, because in many ways, we remain trapped by these myths. Using an uncanny narrative, Gray reminds us that great stories can never be fully told or defined. We have wandered into the wonderful, swirling stew of entropy, where Gray challenges the very expectation of what a short story can do. —Richard Farrell
The principle of entropy quantifies disorder in a system. The study of entropy is an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, to express the ineffable, to measure the un-measurable. Entropy isn’t chaos per se, but rather is an interrogation of the forces where chaos reigns, where ordered intentions and organized actions hold less sway. Much like dreams or poetry or love, entropy dwells in numinous spaces, pressing beyond the workaday din, spreading into territories where mystery and possibility still exist. Outside the well-ordered, rational world we often mistake as reality, another more resplendent, magnificent world exits. What a wonderful place for a talented writer to cast his net.
“The bodies of fishermen all wash up on this beach eventually,” R.W. Gray writes, an apt image for the ten stories in Entropic. Inside, Gray explores characters, ideas, and emotions all washed up on various strange shores. A massage therapist’s magical touch causes her clients to burst into tears. A son searches for his missing father on the grainy images of a VHS porn tape. A woman edits her flaws by erasing them from videos. Two former lovers stalk and then seduce a younger version of themselves. Gray’s characters occupy liminal spaces, teetering on the brink of transformation, or salvation, or damnation.
This is Gray’s second story collection, just out with Edmonton’s NeWest Press. Gray—a Canadian author, filmmaker, professor, and poet—leans on these varied disciplines to craft his work. The resulting stories are cinematic, lyrical, tightly structured affairs, carefully infused with intelligence, imagination, and meaning. Gray often repurposes myths, or re-imagines canonical texts with archetypal characters to tell his tales. And yet his characters are thoroughly original. They are recognizable men and women trapped in modern dilemmas, filled with desires and longings. Under Gray’s steady hand, we penetrate the unsteady scrim of ordinary reality and emerge far better for the journey.
In “The Beautiful Drowned,” two ostracized women, Lilly and Cora, wander the remote shores of a British Columbia fishing village. Lilly is searching for her inveterate, philandering, drunkard excuse of a husband. She dodges the stares and bitter gossip of the cannery women, the very same women who once burned Cora’s home and drove her to the grisly beach. The mixed-race progeny of a Japanese father and Tlingit mother, “Cora, they say, like all monstrous woman, had been a threatening beauty once.” Now she is a ghoulish shadow of her former self. Nightly she gathers the jetsam and flotsam on the shore, along with the dead bodies of local fisherman thrown back from the ruthless sea.
After a week of searching, Lilly finally stumbles upon her husband with a local girl, in flagrante delicto. Lilly reaches for a rock while the lovers reach for their britches.
And there he is, his white naked ass a grotesque mushroom in among the tree roots, rising and thrusting, a woman’s legs spread awkward shaking branches either side of him. Scramble of legs, her bare feet on gravel as she pushes out from under him and stumbles, falls to grab clothes, covering herself before the second rock hits the gravel next to them, Lilly reaching down for a larger one. She’d so expected she was going to be a widow, but instead she’s just a stupid girl with this skinny white assed, stray dog, poor lay of a man wailing, blurry drunk with his little erection, angry red rhubarb nub in spring.
Gray tempers the shock of the moment with a pastoral beauty. His flirtatious and fecund metaphors—coupling a naked ass with a mushroom, an erection with a spring rhubarb—simultaneously conjure high drama, humor, and ecstasy. By the story’s end, Cora and Lilly have ascended into mythical status, latter-day versions of Demeter and Persephone.
The story works by pitting these two women in parallel but reversed narratives. A wonderful inevitability guides to their twinned fates, laden with powerful sexual overtones and themes of exclusion. Through shifts in point of view, Lilly’s story moves forward in chronological time, while Cora’s story is told mostly in flashback. The effect is a dazzling meander, with the two plot lines winding their way toward a dramatic intersection.
In “Sinai,” a much longer story at forty pages, three travelers break down on the road into Cairo. The protagonist, Eric, clambers up a nearby hill to take a piss and then spots “a red cloth billowing in the wind.” Inexplicably, he sets out across the open desert. Cut off from the road and his companions, he loses his way back. The red cloth turns out to be a mysterious woman, who lures him further from the road.
The flag is not a flag at all. He stops in his tracks, face white, as the woman turns, wraps the billowing venous red cloth around her shoulder once and then again, drawing in the slack, then ascends the ridge and falls away from him. She must have stood there, still as a caryatid in the desert, for half an hour. She must have seen him. So why did she quit him now? And what could she be doing out here in the desert?
Who is this mysterious woman? What is her allure? Why does he keep going? Gray sprinkles in a few clues. Eric has been reading The Odyssey. The story’s epigraph comes from Joyce’s “The Dead.” And so we think we are onto the gist of the plot: Eric recast as the latter-day Ulysses.
But then this strange story descends (or ascends) into the surreal when a first-person narrator interrupts the on-going scene. The narrator, we soon learn, is no less than Lazarus himself, brought back from the dead but condemned to an eternal, sand-blasted decay, a hardening of body and soul but not consciousness. “A delirium of days passes over my face like flies.”
The two points of view continue to alternate, but eventually the Lazarus story takes over, as Eric wanders further into oblivion. The mysterious and elusive woman appears to be Mary Magdalene. “She is ellipses too, like me, an open-ended story, bleeding.”
For Lazarus, resurrection represents a cruel and unending fate, a story with a hell of a beginning but no ending. “It seems I can’t die. There isn’t even that to wait for.” But this story turns out to be about ancient grudges, when Gray creates one of the most compelling love triangles ever. Lazarus and Mary both harbored romantic feelings for the unnamed savior (the Christ figure is only referred to as ‘he’ and ‘him’ throughout). And two millennia do little to heal broken hearts.
The man we loved, his hands were soft, tiny. You wouldn’t know he worked with them. I remember his hands in his lap as he sat across from me in my mother’s yard. He was not disgusted, not sickened by my rotted flesh, the disease about me, and this somehow made my condition worse. I could have borne him not looking at me, eyes averted, but he looked right at me, right into my eyes, so I averted mine.
Gray is deconstructing the weight-bearing walls of the Western canon, subverting its appeal, questioning its meaning. Homer and Joyce and Christ himself are fair game, because in many ways, we remain trapped by these myths. Using an uncanny narrative, Gray reminds us that great stories can never be fully told or defined. We have wandered into the wonderful, swirling stew of entropy, where Gray challenges the very expectation of what a short story can do. He reexamines form, whether taking the conventional love story and twisting it into a macabre meditation on Christ, or turning the Odyssey into a journey with no end. You will walk away shaken, unsteady, but absolutely enthralled.
In the title story, “Entropic,” a man, M, is cursed with great beauty. “Strangers passing on sidewalks gaze up the length of him, in cafés and grocery stores they caress his back, his forearms, press into him on buses, the sighs of women inhaling against him on the subway and in elevators.”
M enlists the help of his more ordinary friend, the story’s narrator, to challenge notions of what beauty means. M has conceived a plan. He will rent a warehouse. The narrator will drug M unconscious. Guests have been invited. They will have forty minutes exactly to come and do as they wish while he sleeps. The narrator’s job is to wait outside the room and ensure that the guests are never alone. When their time is up, the narrator will wash M’s skin, check his pulse, and prepare for the next visitor.
There are echoes of Marina Ambrović here, and Matthew Akers’ award-winning documentary, The Artist is Present. In the film, Ambrović waits at an empty table in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while patrons arrive and sit across from her. Subject and object begin to merge, opening a strangely intimate, disturbing, mesmerizing space. A similar transference occurs in Gray’s story as well, as one guest after another arrives to gain a tangible experience of beauty.
They are allowed to touch him. To even hit him if they need to. But nothing that will damage or alter his body. I police this. A baseball bat leans in the corner in case I need it. But he’s asked me to hang back, appear invisible if I can. He wants each of these people to feel alone with him.
Gray has mined deeply into the human psyche. Our fascination with beauty. Our covetous nature. Our objectification of the flesh. Behind this story stands a rhetorical inquiry—what would you do? Some cry, some masturbate, some sit frozen in awe. The implication is that the gap between our dreams and our reality remains forever unbridgeable, the finger of God eternally reaching toward the finger of man. Such longing, such indescribable curiosity, has plagued man forever.
In Gray’s stories beauty, hope, and possibility are set in opposition to a backdrop of modern life, hidebound by conventional thinking. Gray refuses the shackles of the ordinary. He privileges imagination over verisimilitude, wonderment over banality, entropy over order. He destabilizes the form just enough to leave us pondering, yearning, and forever searching for the lingering pulse that reminds—there must be something more out there. And through it all, Gray still tells a damn good tale.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, Contrary, Connotation Press and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.
Ou est mes dents? my father—whom I have never heard speak French, asks.
He is fluent, it turns out: he and Sofi, the blonde orderly, talk and listen to the same
50s hits CD: she holds his hand and spins around his chair.
His teeth go missing for two days.
I have his spare set, and send them express in a quilted jewelry box.
These are the ones he had made for him in Curacao, that turned out to be absurdly tiny, as if he had a necklace of seed pearls in his mouth.
He grew a mustache until he was able to replace them.
“Where did you put them, Dad?”
“I threw them under the railroad tracks.”
They turned up with the dirty sheets and towels.
In 1955, Elvis sings, “Train, train.”
He sings about a sixteen-coach monster that takes away his beloved.
And never will again.
Is what my father calls Lily, whose roses are returned to me because “she will eat them.”
Every day in bright lime green, and beaming: we have all been called here, after he fell and would not wake up—
“His breathing is bad,” the nurse said, handing over the keys to the palliative room.
I made it there in a few hours, calling to him, “Don’t go, don’t go” and somewhere in mid-litany he sat straight up and asked for water.
We arrived on our mother’s birthday after all,
She looks wrung out and small as she opens card after card,
Holds up her sponge cake after the candles have been lighted.
The night I arrive, Jim has to get Mary and I clamber over the bars of his bed
And lie beside him.
Comme une singe, I later explain to the amused orderly.
I put on Motown hits and we talked as the sky changed from dead blue to
A rush of black,
And we talked about feeling badly for not doing enough; about little Michael being like an angel on loan and seeing the Temptations on a sunny day;
We talked until the others came back and Mary, so relieved, spun like a top and
Made up a song called “Papadoo,”
And we planned what we would do the next day, after tucking him under the fuzzy blankets he likes, with the snowflakes and stars.
We will get him 7-Up and a peanut butter sandwich, clean clothes and a board game.
And open the door a little nervously.
Still stuck between our shoulder blades the knife that says “Your father is almost dead,”
That holds in the blood of remorse and guilt, the vast stream comprised of all of the little losings so far and the red ocean to come.
Dad can see the grid of streets from his window, a slice of the Oratory.
Sometimes he sees my mother, on the balcony in just a light sweater, and worries.
Falling golf balls: they are birds, I tell him, and he is embarrassed.
“I’m just trying to figure things out,” he says.
What and when he sees is a mystery to us: suddenly, the bed screws are buttons that the cats might choke on;
The restraint on his wheelchair is one of his torturer’s devices.
One night, he must have spotted the enormous Laura Secord Easter egg my mom
Left on top of his closet.
She came at lunch and, seeing the empty box, asked if it was good.
“Yes,” he said, and smiled.
At Easter he would hide tiny foil-wrapped eggs everywhere.
For months I would find them in hampers and drawers; once, in the slot behind the telephone.
I dragged a chair to reach in the cupboard above the fridge and found one there.
This was proof to me of an Easter miracle. “My dad can’t reach that high,” I told one of my friends.
I had some problems with logic and magical thinking when I was a kid.
I ate paint chips, hearing only chips when my mother complained about the damaged ceiling.
I also slept lightly and cannot imagine how the big Bunny managed to hide so many eggs in our little apartment,
How the Bunny reached the top of that closet, how he stood up without help,
How his silken ears twitch, as he remembers the rush of yellow yolk then the sacred sweetness of the shell.
Douglas Crosbie, Lynn’s father, reading to her and her baby brother James.
These poems are from the collection The Corpses of the Future, which is being published by the House of Anansi in 2017. Lynn Crosbie‘s most recent novel, a post-punk mystery featuring Kurt Cobain, is called Where Did You Sleep Last Night.
AT WORK ON THE thirty-first floor Anna would stand up at different times during the day to stretch her back and face the long bank of windows. A few steps from the industrial glass she could look beyond the silvery condo building and see the northern half of Philadelphia far below, the streets and rivers branching away toward the dark green ridges of the Poconos.
When the light was right Anna could shift focus and see her reflection in the thick, sealed glass, a fairly tall woman standing among the cubes as a few other people walked around. In that spot, if she focused below on a taxi driving along the parkway, the road corresponded to an aisle in the office behind her. If she focused on the reflection of a co-worker walking down that aisle, he also appeared to be strolling along the parkway, a giant in ghostly form, an apparition only Anna could see in that moment, in that light.
Anna called this office game the overlap. She enjoyed it. Though once when it happened the space in the immediate foreground between her body and the windows seemed like a sun catcher that had fused with her consciousness. That space contained her and she imagined it had compressed into a transparent object on the other side of the glass that she was forced to look back through. Her days and her body had been placed on the window a long time ago, projecting weak colors onto the shapes and shadows of the office space, always present but visible only at certain moments, like an eclipse, the same way she could look across at that great height and sometimes see workers in other buildings who may have been looking back at her.
She’d had this particular office job for almost five years. Beyond the glass there was always the open air. Old towers or new, it didn’t matter. Anna felt she could live forever in such places. She had been laid off and rehired by different companies eight times in twenty-five years. She was good at finding work and had listened to the buildings, knew the meaning of their sounds and vulnerabilities. She liked how the towers swayed and creaked a little in high winds, like old ships rocking the crew to sleep. She liked believing that somehow the green hills weren’t giving in, they were surging back toward the city from the horizon.
She knew that the different industries she’d worked in, like so many others across the world, were a dead end. Talking over the years to certain people about this, some had agreed and could admit it. Others smiled, but politely ignored her afterwards. Smart people around them in the air thirty stories off the ground must have known it was true, too, Anna thought.
Knowing something larger like this made it pleasant to feel somewhat invisible in the office. The pay was regular, the commute was a breeze. Why feign ambition? Be safe and smart about things. Stand up and take a few deep quiet breaths each day and let the week go by. Paint a scene now and then. Put it up at one of the little galleries. Raise a glass when one sells on first Fridays. Walking back to her desk Monday morning, passing the other cubes where people clicked keyboards or swiped at their screens, it felt good telling no one about her hobby and pretending life was the same as before that first stroke ever touched the surface.
Of course the whole place was terrible. People played along because it was important to have a job and money. Old towers went into the shadow of bigger ones every decade. After half of them went bankrupt, whole blocks stood vacant again. Everyone would grumble about the losses. Few believed that anything could be done about it that might matter.
Surviving depended so much on your ability to truly see and hear, Anna liked to think. Even in the office towers certain moments can contain everything or nothing. They could sustain or ruin her happiness for a long while if she let them. After a meeting one summer, for instance, Anna had walked back to her cube and anticipated the overlap, seeing herself getting closer in the window. She looked at the horizon first and smiled until the city appeared far below her. She saw a red, double-decker tour bus full of people traveling along the parkway at the perfect moment and deliberately stayed beside her cube to let it crush right through the middle of her reflection. Someone else might have seen the bus coming and moved or looked away out of superstition. High above, though, Anna stood her ground and watched, imagining her heart taking in all those tourists, holding them, expelling them later on, or not, whoever they were.
During moments like those there was always someone around who’d sneeze from behind the cube walls or laugh at something on their phone. It was Anna’s cue from the environment to get back to work. Who knew how many more towers she’d work in before it was over? She looked outside proudly once more before settling back down in her rigid, expensive chair.
Trying to distract herself by reading an email, she thought of how she’d never gone over and put her palm flat against one of the large windows. She figured the glass this high up would be cold, even on a sunny day. It was bad enough when someone noticed her staring outside for too long. People needed things to smirk and whisper about. Why risk getting caught by actually touching the glass? She thought about doing it and imagined it probably wouldn’t feel as good as those times at home when she watched the snow through the back window on the second floor. There the sting in her palm felt nice, with warm air from the heating vent rippling the hems of her pajama legs. It eased the memory of touching the window the first time she took the bus to school, leaving home for someplace worse. She’d held so much back then and on so many other days since. She was wise enough to know what would happen at the office. If she went up close to put her hand to the glass and saw her handprint evaporating after she took it down, she’d feel she was just standing alone with nothing to lose on the edge of yet another steel platform high above the earth.
. Matthew Jakubowski‘s writing appears regularly in publications such as gorse, Kenyon Review Online, 3:AM Magazine, Black Sun Lit, and The Paris Review Daily. He has served as a fiction panelist for the Best Translated Book Award and section editor for the translation journal Asymptote. He lives in West Philadelphia and blogs at truce. @matt_jakubowski
My grandmother, Yoeum Preng, passed away recently at the age of eighty-six. At the funeral our family came together, along with saffron-robed monks from temples in Revere, MA, and Utica, NY. Also present were white-clad nuns from the local community, to help mourn our beloved mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Earlier in the week my uncle, the oldest child, and his cousin went to the temple in Revere, had their heads shaved by a monk, knelt in front of a row of monks, and were given robes and instructions in Pali. They were becoming honorary monks following our Cambodian Buddhist custom.
I wondered what my uncle was thinking when he knelt and listened to Buddhist chanting. He was becoming a monk to honor and pay respect to his mother, whom he had been taking care of twenty-four seven for the past five years. Eyes closed, face focused, determined, he was handed a bright orange-yellow robe. The next day, the seventh and last day of our funeral rites, when, according to our belief, my grandmother’s spirit woke to discover that she was no longer of this world and needed us to guide her to her proper place, my uncle was asked by the head monk to speak. He rose slowly and deliberately. One hand clutching the microphone, he thanked the community of monks, nuns, and friends for their show of support and for their kindness. But when it came to speak about Lok-Yiey (i.e. “ grandmother” in Khmer), all he could muster was, “I have no more words.”
Grandma in Breakheart Reservation 2006
My crying came hard. I was inconsolable. Like a possession, my shoulders shook, chest heaved, body convulsed. The world became bleary. After my uncle said what he could say, which meant that the suffering he was experiencing was beyond language, the head monk asked if anyone else would like to speak. I felt the silence hang heavily in the air and my family turning to me, the most educated in the family, a college professor whose job was to speak clearly and intelligently in front of people. When my aunt looked at me and saw what I was going through, she said, “Leave him alone. He’s in no shape to give a speech.” I walked backwards until my back was against the wall, found a seat, and sat down, head in hands, sobbing uncontrollably.
BK and his aunt, Bunyien Prak, who had her head shaved to become an honorary nun (in honor of BK’s grandmother) in front of grandmother’s picture. Picture taken at Wat Ratanarangsey in Revere, MA.
I am a writer. I use words to tell stories. And I love writing. It’s my way to control the chaos of life, make sense of it, and share my thoughts and feelings with the world. But when it comes to real-life events, when I come face-to-face with another human being or surrounded by people, I fumble, mumble, and falter.
Writing is a private activity through which my inner world connects with the external world of family, friends, and strangers. But on that seventh day of our mourning, words failed me and, by extension, I felt I had failed my family when they needed me the most. I couldn’t find the words, any words, to encapsulate the hurt, loss, and suffering I felt that day. All I did was sob like a child. On that day I understood the limits of language and felt utterly helpless and alone. I lost my faith in the power of words, as I couldn’t console my family, who turned to me for words to comfort, guide, and heal. They also looked to me because I had a special relationship with Lok-Yiey, with whom I shared a common loss: the death of my mother.
BK’s uncle, Bunyonn Tuon, and his cousin Bunpak Tuon becoming honorary monks. This was their way of honoring his grandmother. Picture taken at Wat Ratanarangsey in Revere, MA.
My family wanted me to express what she stood for, what she meant to all of us, what we should tell the younger generation about her—in short, how we should remember and honor her.
When I was in graduate school, I began collecting my family’s stories. I was in my late twenties and didn’t know the story of my life; I had never sat down with my aunts, uncles, and grandmother to ask them about my deceased mother and father. So, one year, I returned home during the holidays, armed with a list of questions and a tape recorder. Naturally, I started with the story of my birth.
According to family’s legend, my birth brought everyone together. To celebrate the birth of the eldest son of the family, my father’s family came from Khmer Krom, now in Southern Viet Nam, crossing the Mekong by boat and riding the train from Phnom Penh to Battambang in Western Cambodia, where my mother’s family had lived for many generations. But this family celebration was marred by my constant crying. I cried and cried so much that even my parents didn’t want to hold me. It was Lok-Yiey who held me, fed and cared for me, while everyone else slept through the night. It was Lok-Yiey who took me to see lok-gru (i.e. a village elder), who explained that my spirit mother missed me and wanted me back with her in the spirit world. His solution was to trick this spirit mother into not recognizing me by changing my name. After my name was changed to Bunkong, which means “endurance” and “longevity,” I stopped crying.
On one of my visits home, I heard a story about how Lok-Yiey risked her life to keep me alive. It was late afternoon, after a family barbecue to celebrate a niece’s birthday, and the guests had already left. My uncle, his friend, and I were cleaning up. I was sweeping the driveway; my uncle and his friend were picking up the numerous soda cans and beer bottles that had been strewn about after the party. For some reason, the subject of survival came up. Maybe it had to do with the flies swarming around the grilled chicken wings, skewered beef, and papaya salad left on the table, the wastefulness of American wealth that made them quiet, and got them thinking about hunger under the Khmer Rouge regime. During those times people ate whatever they could find to stave off death: leaves that resembled the light-green vegetable they used to eat, larva worms for protein, and crickets, bugs, and insects that jumped and crawled about while they dug irrigation ditches and carried mud on their shoulders. Like two million other people, my mother fell victim of the Khmer Rouge regime when she died from sickness and hunger. It was at this point that Lok-Yiey became my mother. As before, she cared for me, made sure I was fed. But unlike before, her love for me battled against the Khmer Rouge law. She stole a few grains of rice from sahak-gor, the collective kitchen of Angkar, so that she could make rice gruel, barbor, for me to eat.
My uncle’s friend said, “She risked her life to feed you. If the Khmer Rouge had found out, she would have been ‘disappeared.’ That’s how much she loves you.”
“I didn’t know any of this.” I then asked, “Do you remember what I said about the gruel?”
My uncle answered, “You say, ‘What’s this? It’s better than chicken curry.’”
Even to this day, I have no memory of hunger and starvation under the Khmer Rouge regime, despite the fact that more people died from hunger and sickness during that time than from execution. I only remember my grandmother’s love.
During the couple of years before her passing, Lok-Yiey was in and out of the hospital. When she was first taken to Mass General Hospital, in Boston, my uncle, the one who took care of her, didn’t call to tell me what had happened. Whenever I called home, my uncle only said, “She’s doing fine. Everything’s fine. How’s your job? Are the students and professors treating you well? Are you done with your book yet?” He didn’t want me to be distracted, knowing that I was going up for tenure the following year, so he kept asking me questions about my job to keep me focused on achieving my American dream. It was a cousin who texted me, “Grandma is in the hospital. Liquid in her heart. Come home if you can take time off.” At one point, this cousin confronted this uncle, “He’s an adult. Treat him like one. He needs to know the truth about his own grandmother.” My cousin said to me afterward, “I know the old generation wants to protect you from the truth. But they need to trust us. We know about America more than them. They have to learn to rely on us, especially when they are getting old and will need to be cared for.” Caught between my uncles’ and aunts’ way of dealing with difficult subject matters in our lives and my cousin’s American way, I called my uncle and told him what I needed: “I have to know what’s going on with Lok-Yiey, so that I can decide what I need to do with work and my classes. My department is extremely understanding and supportive. Knowing myself, not knowing the truth will drive me crazy. Do you understand what I mean?”
There was a long silence on the other end. Then he said, “Okay, boy.”
Somehow Lok-Yiey was able to pull through and survive these harrowing experiences. I remember one time the family was given an ultimatum: either she was to have surgery or she would live out her last few days at the hospital. My uncles and aunts drove home, sat down in the kitchen, and discussed their plan. “She can’t have surgery at her age. It’s too much for her body to handle,” an aunt said. “But without surgery,” an uncle countered, “she doesn’t have long to live. At least with surgery, there is hope.” So they decided on the surgery. However, when the nurses were prepping grandmother, they discovered her blood pressure and heartbeat had returned to normal. They kept her overnight for observation and let her leave the next day without any other explanation except to say that she was “a medical miracle.” When I got home a few days later, Lok-Yiey was resting in her room. My uncle heard my voice, said to Lok-Yiey, “Your medicine is here.” Lok-Yiey turned her head, asked, “Who?” “He’s here, standing at the door, your grandson,” my uncle pointed at me and laughed. Lok-Yiey smiled, called out to me, and asked if I had eaten anything.
What forces in the universe drew us together and made us the kind of grandmother and grandson we were to each other? Was it fate? Was it history? Was it a combination of the two? I don’t know. An uncle who usually refused to talk about his experience under the Khmer Rouge regime told me this story during one of my holiday visits. “Before we left for the refugee camps in Thailand in 1979, Lok-Yiey went up to your father and told him she was going to take you with her.” He spoke while cutting the red and green peppers for the stir-fried steak he was making.
Horrified, I asked: “What did my father say?”
“I don’t know. I know that a week later in the camp, we met someone from the village who told us that your father came to our old home looking for you.”
My heart sank when I heard this story. I wonder what compelled Lok-Yiey to walk up to my father and tell him she wanted me to be with her? Was it because my father had taken another wife? Did she sense that my father would have children with this woman? Was she then afraid that I might be abused by my stepmother and neglected by my father? And what did my father say to her? What was he thinking when he was told that I was leaving him? Why didn’t he come after me sooner? Why didn’t he come with me and leave Cambodia? Did he talk to his new wife about it? What did she tell him?
Or did the reason Lok-Yiey took me with her have something to do with my mother? Did I remind her of her oldest daughter? Was it my round face and almond-shaped eyes? By this time, Lok-Yiey had lost so much already. Her youngest brother, who worked as an interpreter and tour guide in Siem Reap, had disappeared when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. Her oldest child, who went to study in Phnom Penh, had also disappeared. No one heard from him after the great purging of the capital. Still, Lok-Yiey held onto hope, believing that he was still alive somewhere, since no one had seen him taken away by soldiers and his body was never found. Then, in 1978, a year before Viet Nam invaded Cambodia and liberated it from the Khmer Rouge, Lok-Yiey watched my mother, her oldest daughter, wither away, her body shriveled and dried, as she was slowly dying from starvation and sickness. She saw pus oozing from her open wounds. Was Lok-Yiey determined to keep me, what was left of her daughter, to replace what was taken from her?
I held no resentment towards Lok-Yiey. Without her decision to take me with her, I wouldn’t be here, in the United States, teaching American students about the Cambodian Genocide. It was the working of life’s great mysteries, a kind of poetic, cosmic justice, where Cambodia was shrouded in mystery under the regime, kept in silence, until survivors broke their silence and told the world about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. It was Lok-Yiey’s quick and heart-felt decision on that day that allowed me to talk to today’s students about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and share it with the world in my poetry and prose. But still, somewhere in my mind, a thought flashed to my father: that moment when he came to Lok-Yiey’s thatch-roofed house and found it empty. No trace of me, his son, to be found. In my throat, I ached a little.
I carry the following memory with me: It was in 1979, and we were crossing the Cambodian jungles for what seemed like at least a week to my undiscerning consciousness. Too young to walk on my own, I was carried on Lok-Yiey’s back. We walked in single file. My uncles and aunts were ahead of us. Trailing behind was Vanna, the surviving daughter of Lok-Yiey’s youngest sibling, the one who disappeared as soon as the Khmer Rouge captured Siem Reap, guilty of the crime of being educated. I remember the rain falling hard over our heads, making our path muddy and slippery. A few years older than me, Vanna walked behind us until, too tired to see the puddle in front of her, she slipped and fell. When she got up, her face was covered with dark, earthy mud. All I could see were the whites of her eyes. From my perch on grandmother’s back, I pointed and laughed. Vanna was fuming, angry at me. Thus began years of childhood bickering between the two of us. But I relate this incident to illustrate how I was shielded from suffering, protected from life’s horrors, both large and small, by the love of my Lok-Yeay. People in my family, especially Vanna, say I’m lucky that I had a grandmother so loving, so kind, and gentle. I think they are right.
In America my uncles and aunts got married, had children, and took jobs. After a few years of working, they pooled their savings to purchase a three-story Victorian house in Malden, Massachusetts. Over twenty of us lived in that house, but Lok-Yiey wouldn’t want it any other way. While my uncles and aunts were busy working, Lok-Yeay took care of us all, her grandchildren. She cooked and cleaned; she bathed and fed us. She woke us up for school. In her bell-bottom pants and puffy winter coat she took from the clothes bin at our sponsor’s church, she walked my little cousins to school. I have no idea how she found her way home. Did she ask other parents for directions? But how was that possible? She spoke very little English. All she could do was point and smile. And when we got home from school, fried fish or Chinese sausages appeared, like magic, on the table, with cooked jasmine rice in a pot on the stove, just in case we couldn’t eat American food or we got hungry after a day of studying. That was her magic: No matter how poor we were, none of us ever felt hungry under Lok-Yiey’s watchful eye.
But it wasn’t really magic. Whenever I think of Lok-Yiey, I always see her in our kitchen preparing food. She is in her red-and-orange sarong and light blue shirt, hair dark and curly, wearing large round orange-rimmed glasses. She is either sitting on the floor with a huge meat cleaver in hand mincing pork for the prahouk, crushing garlic, red and green chilies, ginger and galangal in a mortar and pestle for sralauw, or standing in front of the stove stirring a hot pot full of boiled potatoes, onion, and beef curry. Lok-Yiey was five feet tall, sturdy, with broad shoulders and powerful forearms, a frame strong enough to bear the tough life she led. I remember one evening in Revere. I held her hand while she slept, studied it, turned it over, traced the grease surrounding her life line and touched the calloused bulbs at the beginning of each finger. Then I looked at my own hand, soft and tender, a baby’s hand. I remember her snoring. I reached out to touch her shoulder, shaking it. She opened her eyes, told me to go to sleep, and resumed her snoring. I lay there in her arms, feeling her breath on me, and tried to breathe in synchronicity with her.
Family 1980 in refugee camp in Thailand
At the funeral, Vanna, who took a red-eye flight from Arizona, whispered to me, “She was so strict with me. I couldn’t go out at night. No boys whatsoever. We butt heads, of course; I was a teenager, after all.”
I didn’t say anything. I sat watching Lok-Yiey lying peacefully in the coffin.
Vanna continued, “You know what? Looking back at it now, I realize she was doing the right thing, teaching me to be good. Without her, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. She was like a mother to me.” Then she sobbed.
Lok-Yiey was a mother to all of us. While my uncles and aunts worked at lumber companies and factories in cities and towns throughout the Greater Boston area, she became our Great Mother.
When my aunt, grandmother’s youngest child, bought a house in Wakefield, a twenty-minute drive from our family’s home in Malden, Lok-Yiey was worried that her family, which she had built and nurtured throughout the years, would spread out and be like other American families whose members only see each other during the holidays. She knew that, if we were to survive in America, we had to stick together. That was her lesson for all of us. But our family never became distant, and my aunt learned well the lesson of her mother. She continued visiting Lok-Yiey every day. When Lok-Yiey passed on, my aunt shaved her head, donned a white robe, and became an honorary nun. For a week she attended services at the temple in Revere each morning and evening. She didn’t shed her material possessions (hair, clothes, makeup, etc.) out of blind obligation. She did it out of love for her mother—the mother who continued to care for her even after she got married. When my aunt and her husband decided to pursue the Cambodian-American dream by leaving Massachusetts for Southern California to buy a donut shop, Lok-Yiey went with them. She cooked and cleaned while my aunt sold donuts in her store in Bell, California, and my uncle slept in the upstairs room, exhausted after a night of making donuts.
Looking back through the years, I have no memory of Lok-Yiey saying to me, “I love you.” But not once in my life did I ever doubt her love for me. Like the old generation in my family, who came from a culture of polite modesty, she expressed her feelings through actions rather than words. Her love was in the food she made food for me, such as prahouk with minced pork or salor srae or tirk kreoung. Whenever I came home from college, she would prepare Khmer dishes she had known all her life, peasant food for farmers. I don’t know what it was, but the flavor she created seemed magical. When I came home one day from college armed with pen and paper to document these recipes, she laughed and told me I was foolish. Like others from the old country, she didn’t use measuring spoons and cups, had no book of famous recipes, and didn’t consider her cooking worth preserving. Lok-Yiey learned to cook from her mother who learned it from her own mother, and so on. Everything related to food was passed down through memories of loved ones. And when Lok-Yiey couldn’t cook anymore, she had my aunts make food for me. I’m sure Vanna would say I was “spoiled.” But I would say simply that I was lucky to be loved by my grandmother.
We were all loved by Lok-Yiey. For her, nothing was more important than family. When her first husband died, Lok-Yiey was in her thirties, a single mother with six children, the oldest in his teens and the youngest, the aunt who would later shave her head, too young to remember her father’s funeral. She cared for them by getting up at dusk, putting wood in the stove, making fried rice and noodles to take to the train station in Battambang and sell to businessmen and travelers with her daughters’ help. She would run after the train when a customer forgot to return empty bowls and plates. After the morning rush hour, she would walk to the field and help her teenaged son farm the land. By afternoon, she would return home and cook food for businessmen arriving at the train station after work. When there wasn’t enough money to feed her children, she smuggled spices, eels, and fish across the Thailand-Cambodian border. One time, she was caught by the police at the train station in Poipet, but they took pity and let her go when she told them she did what she had to do for her hungry children.
Lok-Yiey put her children above everything. The truth is, my uncles, aunts, cousins, and their children wouldn’t be here without her love. In refugee camps, she continued to barter goods with Thai people through the fence surrounding our lives, risking beatings from the military police. In America, she sold fried rice and stir-fried beef at her daughter’s donut shop as a way of expanding the business. Lok-Yiey was a survivor, an entrepreneur, a fighter. And she did it all in the name of family.
Lok-Yiey didn’t receive a doctorate from Harvard or a business degree from one of the top universities in the States. She was the wife of a farmer; her children are the sons and daughters of farmers in a small village in Battambang. She didn’t use big words to impress people. But what she lacked in vocabulary, she made up for with a heart as big as the world. That is her lesson for all of us: family love.
Grandmother and the family picture taken recently. Note the contrast with the picture taken in Thailand.
It’s been three weeks now since Lok-Yiey left us. I am still sad. We have lost an era; a way of life where goodness comes from hard work, commitment to do the right thing, and love for family and friends; a worldview where the self is intricately connected to community, where a person’s actions are more valued than her words. She is gone now, and I don’t know how to fill that void, that emptiness, in my life. How do I keep Lok-Yiey with us and honor her memories?
I remember teaching In Revere, In Those Days by Roland Merullo at my college and asking the same question during class discussion. At the end of the novel, the protagonist loses his grandfather, the one who had given him emotional support and moral guidance ever since his parents lost their lives in a plane crash. “How do you honor the memory of such a loved one?” I asked my students. They were quiet for a moment, then one raised her hand, another followed, and so on. Of course, I had my own answer, which I shared with them. For me, it’s maintaining the values she stood for and the ideas she cherished. For Lok-Yiey, it could be as simple as cooking the food that she made for us when we were young, eating and sharing her favorite dishes with family and friends. More importantly, it is the symbolic value such culinary space represents: working hard, expressing love through actions, sharing what you have with others, and, ultimately, understanding the importance of family and friends. It is more important than ever for our family to uphold this value system. No matter what happens, we must not undo what Lok-Yiey had worked so hard to build. We must stick together as a family, forgive each other, care for and love one another, the same way that Lok-Yiey cared for and loved us.
To the younger generation in my family, it is now our turn to carry what Lok-Yiey and your parents have carried all their lives. We know the language and culture of the United States, as if they were our own, that’s because they are; we must therefore help the older generation navigate with dignity its social and political systems. We are, after all, Americans with a Cambodian accent. The first generation have carried us this far, and now we, the 1.5 and second generation, must carry them. It is the way of life, a cyclical pattern of the karmic order of things. It is Buddhist; it is Cambodian; it’s the human thing to do.
On that day when the head monk asked family members to speak their last words about Lok-Yiey, I wish I could have mustered self-control to speak from the heart. If I had, this is what I would have said: “Lok-Yiey, I know that in our Cambodian culture, we don’t speak directly and openly. But I’ve been in America for too long and have picked up some of its wayward customs. So let me speak from the heart. Thank you for all you have done for us, Lok-Yiey. We are gathered here to show our respect and deep love for you. Thank you for everything. I love you.”
Bunkong Tuon teaches writing and literature in the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, New York. His recent publications include Nerve Cowboy, Más Tequila Review, Chiron Review, and Patterson Literary Review. Gruel, his first full-length collection, is recently published by NYQ Books: http://books.nyq.org/title/gruel
. One morning in October I waited at the gate of the Air Ground Combat Center Marine training base in the Mojave Desert, Twentynine Palms, CA. I’d been invited with a community group about to take a public tour of what is essentially a grad school for combat. Marines from around the country–units 1,000 members strong–who’ve already completed basic training and are almost ready to deploy come here for 35 days of intensive work, including live-fire training and urban warfare practice in “Little Iraqi villages.”
Mockup of an Iraqi village for training.
“I don’t care if you learn anything today,” said the retired Marine who would lead our tour. “I’m here to keep you entertained. At the end of the day, if you don’t have fun, it’s my fault.”
But first, our drivers licenses were collected. Quick identity checks “just to make sure you’re not a terrorist.”
We waited. A woman near the front of the parking lot stared, scrutinizing me.
For a few years, my emails carried an automatic tag at the end: I am a terrorist. By paying US taxes, I provide financial support to State-sponsored terrorism and torture. I don’t remember when I deleted the statement, but it occurred to me my past might have caught up with me.
The woman beckoned to me. “Are you a writer?”
Well, yeah, but I wasn’t there on assignment. A nonprofit I’m associated with was interested in doing outreach to vets and active service members in the area.
“You’re media.” Her definition turned out to be rather encompassing: Anyone with a blog. “You’re not allowed on this tour.”
I hadn’t planned to write about the day but I let her know I would damn sure write about being left outside the gate.
During the 4-hour drive home, I realized what I really needed to write about was the loaded word fun.
Warning sign at 29 Palms.
Does any culture have as much of it as we do? When I try to find “fun” in other languages, I can’t seem to come up with a true equivalent. I find terms I would translate as amusement, diversion, joke, prank, leisure. None of which to me quite conveys the same meaning as fun.
A few days later I’m at one of the monthly workshops on nonviolent action led by civil rights hero Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. We’re considering violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and why governments see no alternative to war. Why is military force the default position? Why isn’t the peace movement effective?
I brought up the Marine base. What did the nonviolent movement for peace and social justice have to equal the promise of fun? To get people’s attention these days, so we have to compete with pulse racing, adrenaline-pumping excitement? The Civil Rights Movement was one of the most successful examples of nonviolence, and I dared to say it drew people to it through the promise of risk and adventure.
I knew the words were wrong, but I was trying to figure something out. What elements made it possible for the Movement to mobilize a whole nation, cutting across lines of race and class and gender?
Two of the Black participants in the group caught me at the break. Maybe it was an adventure for white kids who went to Mississippi for a month or two, they said, but for the Black people who actually lived there, there was no adventure. There was the same violence and oppression they had always lived under.
Of course they were right. And forgive me, insensitive, offensive, I kept talking. Instead of thinking aloud I should have just kept my mouth shut. Instead, I knew they were right so I stopped listening and kept trying to figure out what I meant, trying to account for the difference between suffering the constant threat of violence versus choosing to put your life on the line. There was something galvanizing in the Civil Rights Movement. Something made people embrace the cause and the risk. Wasn’t there excitement at the idea that through people claiming their own agency things might actually change?
“Our job is to engage and go through the enemy. Our job is not to take and hold territory,” said Mike, the ex-Marine tour guide.
I was back at the gate. See, after I gave up and drove home, Barbara Harris, who leads tours in the Joshua Tree area, wrote a complaint about how I’d been treated. The response came from public affairs officer Captain Justin Smith. I had his personal guarantee that I could tour. And he made no objection when I said I would, after all, write about it.
Mike said, “We kill everything that we see and let them (the Army) hold it.”
Mike wears a cap from Disneyland.
1200 square miles of desert. Even for someone like me who loves the desert, this barren landscape is hard to love. Marines here are housed (when not out in the field) in small K-Spans, structures that used to be called Quonset huts. Concrete floors, no cell phone reception, no A/C, no heat for the freezing desert nights.
60# of gear.
But foodie-inspired MRE’s? I spot a pouch labeled “Chicken and Pasta in Pesto Sauce”–a far cry from what my father said the mess hall served during WWII: DVOT (Dog Vomit on Toast) and SOS (which I later learned–because he always refused to tell us–stood for Shit on a Shingle). Then I try to picture that grainy green sauce and imagine today’s Marines, too, have come up with a suitable acronym.
Mike divides us into three groups to try out the Combat Convoy Simulator. Each group is in a separate room with a fullsize Humvee to drive, with gunners armed with M16s to provide security front, rear, right and left. We are to start off from Camp Dunbar and travel Highway 1 to the village of Asmar. Our mission is to get there and return without getting killed. “Don’t shoot people that are not shooting at you,” Mike warns. “If you shoot the noncombatants they get cranky and everyone will be your enemy.” The whole room becomes a 360-degree video game projected on the walls. We can see the other vehicles. We can see “Iraq” all around us.
Video view of Iraq highway created for training.
Captain Smith hands me an M16 and I hold onto it awkwardly as I try to put my camera and notebook away. “Here.” He takes it from me and replaces it with an M4– “the girl version.”
The rifles in the simulator fire compressed gas, making a sound like live gunfire. The recoil is just like real.
We’re the first vehicle in a convoy of three. I’m guarding the left side of the Humvee, watching for bad guys as video images move across the wall, and while I know I’m not as strong and fit as a young Marine, I’m still shocked at how much the weapon weighs, how my heartbeat speeds up and adrenaline surges from the mere stress of holding it in ready position.
We drive past market stalls where locals eye us, past fields where men move with their flocks, past kids on bicycles. Mike tells us to watch out for anything that might be a roadside bomb. Watch for people running towards us. They’re the insurgents. You don’t shoot at people running away.
Inside the Combat Convoy Simulator.
My group wiped out some insurgents and didn’t kill any civilians. One of the other groups was too trigger-happy. In the end, we’re blown up by a roadside bomb.
Even after the exercise ends and I relinquish the M4, my hands are still shaking.
Humvees are obsolete. Too vulnerable to IED’s. Defense contractors came up with the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle–the MRAP. The thing is, to make the vehicle adequately protected, it’s so top heavy that it will roll over even on an incline as gentle as 15-17 degrees. If it does, 8-10 Marines and sailors, with all their bulky gear, have to be able to open the 18″ x 18″ escape hatch and get themselves out, evaluate anyone who is wounded, and establish a 360-degree security perimeter. In 90 seconds.
Eight of us climbed in, fastened (with difficulty) our 5-point harnesses, held tight to our possessions as the MRAP tilted over on its side, and then the other side, back and forth and almost upside down as we screamed with shock and dizziness and delight.
We weren’t asked to escape. We climbed out, disoriented and shaken, asking How on earth do they do it?
Equipment waiting for us at the MRAP.
Captain Smith smiled and told of other impossible feats the Marines are trained to accomplish. As we walked on, I thought, but of course! It’s not a race. It’s not every man for himself. It’s about preplanning and teamwork. At least I think it must be. That’s what the training was for, so the men already know who opens the hatch, who climbs out (or gets boosted out) first, and how or if they help others, and where they stand in the perimeter and how the plan adjusts if someone is wounded and can’t perform his role. It would have been interesting to hear how men learn to cooperate. Instead, we had a Disneyland ride.
90 seconds to egress an MRAP. 60# of gear.
A young man my niece dated for a while joins the Marines. He wants to serve and I insist he should have joined the Air Force where you get treated better. I don’t understand that being treated better isn’t what some young people look for.
How on earth do they do it?
First the sheer physical and mental endurance, the brutality of basic training. Then Twentynine Palms. I come to appreciate the thrill and the pride that must accompany the challenge of accomplishing acts that seem impossible until you actually accomplish them. Even before they’ve faced threats to life and limb, they’ve had to prove themselves in ways I can hardly fathom.
What do I do–what have I ever done?–that demanded so much of me, that was so worthy of stunned respect?
For an effective nonviolent movement, don’t we need to be every bit as committed? To accept that waging peace is every bit as difficult as waging war and demands just as much sacrifice? In the Civil Rights Movement, people knew they might be injured or killed. Those who were Black were in constant danger of being injured or killed with or without a Movement.
But there’s something Sisyphean about the young Marines.
What is the point of pushing men and women to the breaking point, training them to perform superhuman feats if all we’re going to do is send them off to kill and risk life and limb in unjust, ill-conceived wars? Wars we cannot win.
World War I broke out in Europe in 1914 and a century later historians still can’t make sense of it. Millions of lives lost, carnage, destruction, suffering and no one can give a good reason why. The Great War was so horrific, humankind was supposed to have learned its lesson. Instead it turned out to be merely the prelude to more death, more suffering, more war.
To mark the centennial, the Goethe Institut-Los Angeles offered Make Films, Not War, a series of screenings, lectures, and workshops. When Ajay Singh Chaudhary, the founding Director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, and his colleague Michael Robert Stevenson presented their work on video games, I was there.
Please credit Chaudhary, Stevenson, and the Institut when I refer to gaming as prior to their workshop, I had never played a video game. I had never watched anyone play, none of which had ever stopped me from talking about how terrible the games are.
My only experience was this: Before Antioch University-LA moved to its campus in Culver City, when I taught there, classes were held in a modest building in Marina del Rey. The floor above us was occupied by a defense contractor developing video war games. A student might be reading her work aloud or we might be translating Chinese poetry or doing a rhetorical analysis of the Declaration of Independence, our words punctuated with explosions coming through the ceiling and walls.
More than 2,000 video war games are on the market. Some of the most violent games young people play for entertainment–for fun–were developed with funding from the Department of Defense.
Do violent video games lead to violence? Chaudhary says the studies are contradictory and inconclusive. Wouldn’t they have to be? Every individual reacts in his or her own way.
Years ago I’m sitting in the auditorium at the New York Public Library for a free screening of Buñuel’s film, Un chien andalou. Insects emerge crawling from the hole in a hand and a man in the audience rises to his feet. “That’s what happens!” he cries. “I told them! It’s true!”
This year, while writing this essay, I rush to see American Sniper, sure that it will bolster my argument about fun and entertainment. I don’t even mention it in the early drafts. No point in talking about the politics of the film, I thought, when in spite of the violence, it’s really pretty dull. Such an mediocre movie won’t get much attention, I thought. Shows you how much I know.
While in the meantime, ISIS posts online graphic video of beheadings. Most people are appalled. Some are thrilled. Some conclude ISIS should be destroyed. Others, drawn by the display of raw power, want to join.
Do we have to think about how every conceivable person will react to every conceivable content?
Specially designed video games are being used experimentally, I’ve read, to treat combat veterans suffering from PTSD. Virtual reality puts them back into the extreme situations that caused the trauma. The hope is to desensitize, to let the veteran relive the experience but in safety and with the ability to stay in control. Virtual violence that heals.
We watch a little boy as he plays Call to Duty, his hands flying, his body moving rhythmically with the first-person shooter action. The scenery changes at high speed and the kid is shooting and killing. A dog appears on the screen and for a moment, the little boy stops and just looks. “Dad,” he says, “can I have a dog?”
The game, the fantasy of the game, doesn’t change who you are.
Or does it? You get to choose your weapons. There’s a whole array with all their technical specs. The game can develop some serious expertise about military arms and it seems to me that expertise is something a person wants to use, and using it to play a game may not be enough. When you become confident and expert, won’t you identify with the endeavor? Are these video games excellent recruitment tools for militarization and war?
There’s a powerful resistance to killing deep in our moral structure, maybe even in our genes. Up until the time of the US war in Vietnam, most soldiers refrained from firing their weapons or intentionally fired above the heads of the enemies. So, as Lt. Col. Dave Grossman explains inOn Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by the time we charged into Vietnam, the military had developed psychological methods to improve the kill ratio by breaking down this natural resistance. But what happens afterwards? For some soldiers returning to civilian life, violence may no longer be taboo. For others, this sense of moral injury, of having become something he or she cannot even recognize as the self, remains an open wound. We can break down a person’s character. How do we build it back up?
Can peace be fun? Well, the Sixties. Sex. Drugs. Rock n Roll. Make Love Not War. But did that bring peace?
How do we compete with kicking down doors and blowing things up?
Video war games have extraordinary production values. They put you right into the action. They are expensively produced, sometimes with funding coming right from the Department of Defense. Many of the pro-peace games I saw use comparatively low-budget graphics. Little more than cartoons. And instead of adrenaline-pumping excitement, they offer earnestness.
We Come in Peace, more sophisticated, uses 3D satellite imagery but apparently only a trailer is now available. It’s designed so that when you play you see our earth. The goal is to move in on location after location and eliminate the stockpile of weapons. I see how a player can get involved in the task, but you can’t compare it to the excitement of a first or third-person shooter game. Instead it resembles more closely the experience of a drone pilot. Except the pilot is eliminating human beings.
The drone pilot may learn days later that he or she hit a wedding party or a funeral and will have to live with that knowledge. But it’s not quite the same as the player of Spec Ops: The Line who has a mission to accomplish in the Middle East. As the game progresses, you find yourself on a killing spree, women, children. By the end of the game, you realize you are not a military hero but a psycho killer.
Will some players smile with satisfaction? Embrace the identity of a psychopath?
I strike up a conversation at the workshop. The guy is Israeli and he tells me about Peacemaker, a game which challenges you to bring about a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians and win the Nobel Prize. You can play as the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister. You are called upon to make decisions in response to events and you then see the consequences of your decisions.
When he played the Israeli side, he told me, it was relatively easy to choose actions that led to peace. But he was entirely unable to imagine his way into the role of the Palestinian president. “Why?” I asked, bristling. I thought he was suggesting that “they” don’t have the same mentality “we” do. No, he explained. From the Palestinian side, he found himself frozen. There was pressure and influence and problems coming from all directions. He’d never before appreciated how difficult and precarious is the situation of a Palestinian leader.
If you’re going for true realism, much of military life is boring. Mike tells us that the Convoy Simulator, such fast-paced fun for us, is very boring for the Marines and sailors who use it for training. For 6-8 hours at a stretch, the Marines drive and drive and drive as they practice keeping their Humvees a set distance apart. It’s bad enough if a bomb takes out one vehicle. If you’re driving too close together, it could be two. Drive through the village and back to the base. No insurgents appear on the screen. Hold your weapons ready though most of the time you won’t have any reason to fire. Spot a possible roadside bomb? Stop and call for a security perimeter. Wait.
Staying awake–let alone staying alert–that’s a big part of going to war.
The wind howls. The scene is bleak, black and white, and a soldier trudges head down through the snow in the aftermath of a terrible battle.
You are that soldier. Men lie dead and wounded across the field. Some whisper pleas for help. There are bombed out buildings. There’s shelter in the distance and a fire–the warm orange flames the only color in the scene–and your mission is to comfort the suffering, to get survivors to that warmth before they freeze to death. Before you freeze to death with them.
The game, TheSnowfield allows you to walk and to pick up objects. That’s all. You can pick up a bottle of whiskey. A rifle (but it seems you can’t fire it). Your movements grow slower and slower and more labored, your footsteps drag the further you get from the fire.
The action is slow. Very little happens. I couldn’t stop watching.
The scenes are sad, horrific, but the game is created with such an eye to aesthetics, it all has a strange and compelling beauty.
Would a young male used to Call to Duty appreciate The Snowfield?
Could an action game include segments where to advance to the next level you have to slow down, you have to experience boredom, you have to face the ugly aftermath of killing? Of course such a game could be designed but who would bother? Who would market it?
The Call of Duty franchise has sold 139,600,000 games through the year 2013. Admittedly, sales have dropped. In 2013, only 14,500,000 copies of that year’s most recent game were sold.
That’s ten times as many people as actually serve in the US military today.
I look at the empirical study about civil resistance by Erica Chenoweth who was named by Foreign Policy magazine as among the Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2013. Looking at nonviolent social movements worldwide, Chenoweth she found that none failed “after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population.” Doesn’t sound like much. OK, take the US population of approximately 316 million. They means you only have to mobilize a bit over 11 million people. A lot, but fewer than bought the new Call of Duty game in 2013.
3.5% can bring down a dictatorship. What can it do in a country where many people don’t recognize their own oppression?
We’ve always known we can’t bomb our way to peace. We have to win hearts and minds. We just can’t figure out how to do it, even here at home.
When I bring up the violently misogynistic content of some games. Ajay Chaudhary suggests the greatest danger is when video games “reproduce social inequalities” by reinforcing stereotypes about identity, race, gender that are part of our daily lives.
The Stolen Lives Project documents cases of people killed by law enforcement agents. From 1990 to 1999, they collected over 2000 reports from public records. Most of the dead, people of color.
How much patience can we (of the up until now majority community) ask of people who’ve been waiting centuries for equal protection and equal rights and justice?
I want to get rid of the word “waiting,” as though African Americans have stood by passively. They have not been waiting, but rather working for justice, dying for their rights, struggling for centuries.
In the year 2000, I had just begun working on a theater project with a Black actor and director named Anthony Lee. A week later, a police officer shot and killed him. A tragic mistake. I was horrified, heartbroken, angry. But I also believe the officer was devastated.
I attended the trial of Johannes Mehserle who shot and killed Oscar Grant. I saw no remorse. There was not a trace in the statements of Darren Wilson. Is it possible they really felt none? Self-appointed security guard George Zimmerman showed us only self-pity. Do our legal system and our polarized society encourage self-justification and the angry refusal to accept responsibility?
When you take a life–justified or not–if you’re not a sociopath, you suffer a moral injury. How can it heal if you are not allowed to feel the guilt and to grieve?
At Twentynine Palms, Marines drive through the desert terrain, slowly, 15-35 mph on the alert for roadside bombs. Roads signs are in Arabic as they approach and enter one of three mock Iraqi villages.
At the height of training for combat in Iraq, the Marines hired 1,000 roleplayers– men and women of Middle Eastern nationality or descent–whose identities were closely guarded to protect them and their families from reprisal. They were just intended to be warm bodies providing local color. They were given scripts to follow, but according to Mike, it soon became clear they were needed for much more: to teach cultural competence.
Furnished Iraq interior for practising raids.
A Marine goes into a meeting with the town mayor and local notables and within minutes offends all of them.
A Marine passes an Iraqi woman in the street and greets her with a courteous “Good afternoon, Ma’am.” He’s immediately surrounded by a group of hostile Iraqi men, disturbed that an unrelated man has dared speak to a woman.
Surely it’s better to know something than nothing, but how much good did this training do when we were clearly in way over our heads? Marines learn a few words in Arabic, but Mike explains that in Afghanistan there are so many different languages, the military doesn’t even try.
I think of Anand Gopal’s book, No Good Men Among the Living. US misreading of situations and people in Afghanistan had us paying huge sums to dishonest informants, sending innocent men to Guantánamo, jailing Afghan allies because of false reports. However bad you thought it was, read the book and learn it was much much worse.
So where do we (the nonviolent movement for peace and justice) find 11 million people?
We love action. Video games with cars racing, weapons discharging fire and explosions all happening faster than you can blink. We love kicking down doors and blowing things up.
(But the little boy didn’t ask his father for a weapon!)
This essay is not concise. It meanders. On and on. Will anyone keep reading as I try to think my way forward?
We are addicted to the quick fix. Violence is instant gratification. When you want results NOW, with violence you can cut through the crap, the bureaucratic red tape, the naysayers, the law. But maybe not.
Shock and awe–the bombing of Baghdad by US forces–began on March 19, 2003, the strategy known as “rapid dominance.” We are still there.
Torture. Get a quick answer when faced with an imminent threat. Only the ticking time bomb scenario never actually occurred and torture yielded horrific injustice when we interrogated innocent people with no information to offer and yielded lies and misinformation when we tortured terrorists.
CIA apologist Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr. has justified torture again and again by repeating the imminent threat and ticking time bomb scenario. But in his self-serving memoir (Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives) here’s what else he says. Of course they knew that people being tortured will say anything. That’s why, he says, they never asked a single question of the prisoners while they were being waterboarded. The “enhanced interrogation techniques” were intended just to break their spirits. Then, during the months that followed, interrogators hung out with the prisoners. Rented DVDs and watched movies and shared popcorn with them, building rapport and garnering bits and pieces of information over the course of months. His own words then acknowledge there was no ticking time bomb. No imminent threat. No justification.
Peaceful methods take patience and time and skill. Violence is the quick fix when a person feels bullied, disrespected, ignored. When a person feels sad.
Only violence can resolve matters in an instant. Only it doesn’t.
After 13 years, the US leaves Afghanistan. Mission unaccomplished.
You’ve heard of brainwashing. What if brains aren’t washed, but poisoned? By war, exile, oppression. By toxic stress when family members are killed, incarcerated, deployed, deported; by surviving violence, including the violence of poverty and of racism, the mother’s stress hormones flooding over the fetus during pregnancy. The pain of sexual violence, of torture, of being trafficked and sold. The list goes on and on in endless cycles of pain and abuse, pain and retribution. Can we at least stop contributing to the cycle?
Children growing up in some Los Angeles neighborhoods show levels of PTSD comparable to children in Baghdad during the worst violence of the war. But understand: Not every person who’s been traumatized will grow up violent, without impulse control, likely to self-medicate through substance abuse. Can we maximize resilience instead of vulnerability?
We’re talking about millions of people.
Can we re-humanize our society? I talk about nonviolence and compassion but lose my temper on the phone after 40 minutes on hold trying to resolve a simple problem with the bank. What happens when frustration has left many of us numb and deadened till the rage breaks through?
Know Justice, Know Peace.
According to Commander John Perez, police officers in Pasadena feel really bad when they have to kill a dog–an attack dog which is also a family pet–in the process of making an arrest. So they tried alternatives. Foam didn’t work. Pepper spray didn’t work. One officer made a suggestion and was laughed at. He tried it anyway. Turns out at least some of the time, a Milkbone will tame an angry pitbull.
Our culture allows–even expects–police to express remorse over dogs. Out of remorse comes the search for solutions. If officers could be as open with their regret over taking human life, would they learn ways to de-escalate situations instead of relying solely on the gun?
If we can get rid of “waiting,” I’d also like to get rid of “police brutality.” Certainly we have too many examples of just that, but going after brutal and sadistic cops won’t stop the tragic mistakes, the deaths of Black men like Anthony Lee and like Akai Gurley, gunned down in a Brooklyn stairwell. Or Kendrec McDade, killed by Pasadena police responding to a 911 call that turned out to be false.
The word “brutality” won’t help us correct a culture in which Michael Brown’s family was treated with offhand disrespect, and which teaches central nervous systems to respond instantly, signaling “Danger!” when a Black man comes into view.
Instead of turning their backs on Mayor de Blasio, officers of the NYPD should thank him. By teaching his son how to conduct himself when faced with the police, the mayor protected his son but also made it less likely that a cop will have to carry the lifelong burden of a “tragic mistake.”
“Tragic mistake” = the least damning phrase I can offer for the US bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq.
From the immigrants rights movement I learned a principle, expressed in a slogan: Nothing About Us Without Us. The people most affected must be heard. If we’re going to reform policing, communities of color must be at the table. So must the people who best know what the job requires of them: the police.
Gandhi wrote, “We win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.”
Every small victory proves the oppressive power isn’t omnipotent after all. Every step is one crack in the edifice of unjust power. In the Civil Rights Movement of the Fifties and Sixties, mass marches raised awareness and spirits, created solidarity, forged alliances and suggested the power that might lie behind such numbers. If many white consciences remained untroubled by racism, they were still shocked by the brutal repression of peaceful and dignified resistance. (In those days, unlike now, mainstream media coverage advanced the struggle.) Local campaigns targeted local issues–buses, lunch counters, voter registration. Each local demand was focused but part of something bigger. Each victory, no matter how partial, advanced the larger goal of equal rights and justice without regard to race.
Wait a minute. Isn’t that what’s been happening?
May Day 2006, millions of immigrants and some of their allies took to the streets in nonviolent protest. No legislation passed. It seemed nothing changed, but as people came out of the shadows, the marches helped organize and mobilize local grassroots organizations and find new supporters for groups that had struggled for decades all over the country. Local groups championed the cause of specific immigrants and convinced judges to use discretion and cancel deportation orders. The young people who became known as DREAMers won executive action that protected them from deportation and allowed them to work. Undocumented immigrants are gaining valid drivers licenses. Some are about to win temporary protection.
Slowing down doesn’t mean waiting. It’s not that sort of patience. It’s about moving forward, step by step.
At the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, panelists spoke about considering everyone a “client”–including the government agencies and entities often seen as adversaries. Instead of fighting them, educate them.
The system won’t come to you. You must go to the system. Department by department, person by person.
I’ve seen examples here in Los Angeles. Here’s just one: Community-based organizations that offer an alternative to incarceration won over people from the D.A.’s office after they gave tours of their facilities and programs to show their effectiveness and share information about what they do. Of course it helps that we elected a new, very receptive D.A. Now Jackie Lacey’s office plays a role in educating hundreds of prosecutors, judges, and even defense attorneys who’ve had no idea what might be possible.
Vote in local elections. D.A., Sheriff, School Board may matter to you more than Congress or even the President.
On Monday evenings, leaders from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network bring Latino musicians to the street in front of the Metropolitan Detention Center. They serenade the immigrants locked up inside the building awaiting deportation proceedings, offering solidarity and a little joy while commuters, watching the scene from the elevated Gold Line, learn just what is going on in that strange edifice downtown.
So, music. I remember the Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Rhythm is the heartbeat. Voices raised together in song create a force.
At the grassroots, people agitate. Allies in law, the faith community, professionalized nonprofits don’t take the lead, but stand in solidarity, lobby, negotiate.
I’m sick and tired of marching. There are other ways I can offer my support. No more shifting from foot to foot for an hour or more waiting for the damn thing to get underway. Of the self-anointed leaders shouting through bullhorns and giving each other adulatory introductions. Of every fringe group in existence showing up to push every conceivable agenda.
But then I’m on the phone with Laurie Cannady, educator, Army vet, and author whose memoir of girlhood in the ‘hood–Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul–will be published this year. We’re talking about Ferguson and about Eric Garner and she is convinced this is the tipping point. There’s a new Movement now and we’re going to see change. I’m skeptical. Where was the change after Trayvon? Oscar Grant? Anthony Lee? And now, months later, will we have reached that elusive tipping point with Walter Scott?
I Can’t Breathe shirt to protest the death of Eric Garner.
Laurie came to mind when I heard through social media about a nonviolent march scheduled for December 27th in the streets of LA to protest the killing of unarmed Black Americans. I’d never heard of the organizers. Turns out they keep a low profile not because they have anything to hide but because they are committed to an organization based on We, not Me.
At the Millions March LA.
The march starts with thousands of people, on time, at the scheduled hour of 2:00. The 500 of us who want to join in conversation arrive at noon, seated in an amphitheater, not shifting foot to foot. It turns out to be a youth-led movement, almost everyone under 35. We meet each other, listen to poetry and spoken word and song, not speeches, though we are given rules: No aggressive language, no F the police. No leafletting, no soliciting, no outside organizations. We’re here, said a speaker to “promote healing, peace, and love in order to process pain and anger and turn it into effective action.”
I wish Laurie could see this. I can see 3.5% now within reach.
We set off, chanting, and I think I’ve gone about this all wrong, looking for excitement, adrenaline. Having fun is just one way to feel alive. There’s something about fun and games–purposeless frivolity–that breaks through the constraints and tedium that weigh us down and trap us in so much of daily life. But purpose–being engaged and interested, committed and active–is every bit as enlivening.
Hands up! Don’t Shoot!
Millions March LA.
I used to imagine people marching in silence. Yes, we want to raise our voices and be heard. But I always thought if you could get a mob of people to stay silent, that would be an extraordinary show of discipline and power. That would send a message of serious, unwavering intent. I never thought I’d see it till we stopped and observed 4-1/2 minutes of silence to mark the 4-1/2 hours that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street. At the end of the almost 3-hour march, we stood together, no chants, no shouts, no drums, no bullhorns, no words. We stood together sharing a powerful silence.
When you play a game, I think, anything can happen. Same with being part of a Movement. You can’t predict the outcome but you play to win.
—Diane Lefer .
Diane Lefer‘s latest book is the novel, Confessions of a Carnivore, an antic romp through the minefield of recent US history. With her colleague Hector Aristizábal, she wrote and produced Second Chances, a play in which torture survivors and their family members, now rebuilding their lives in Los Angeles, performed their own stories. She is currently posting survivors’ oral histories–as they give permission and remove details that could put them or their families in danger–and she invites readers to visit http://secondchancesla.weebly.com/
IN THE BEGINNING WERE THE WORDS. And the words were double from the word go: the cool black on white words in the book, & the loud, fast & hot words on the radio. To begin with the word on the radio let me cold, while the word on the page was what asked me to light up my nights with a flashlight under the covers. This happened, age 5: I remember the room – it was dark & thus I do not remember what was in it except for the bed in which I lay with covers drawn up, trying to read. Later on, in daylight, this room became or had become a living room, & I sat on the daybed & I watched the green eye of Nordmende, the box from which the hot words came. But first the cool ones, black on white, a book grabbed from my parents’ shelves maybe because it also had drawings in it, ink drawings in a multitude of lines that made up faces, scenes, thin, scraggly ink lines, like very square handwriting writing a picture, “modern” in a fifties sense (& this was 1951). The book I took I could read the title of: The Idiot. I am sure I could not read the name of the author: Feodor Dostoiwski. But I wanted to read & read I did or just looked at the first page of print & eventually taught myself the letters with whose help I don’t remember. Parents too busy running a small hospital called St. Pierre’s, my name, my patron saint as I was to inherit it later, be, like father, a surgeon in the capital. But I had already started on the road downhill or elsewhere: lying on the bed reading The Idiot, teaching myself to read. And I did manage a few sentences, a paragraph, half a page, maybe, before my parents discovered me & took this precocity as a good sign & hired a retired school teacher to teach me to read a year before I could officially go to grade school.
I read laboriously no doubt, and in secret to begin with, this book I remember only physically: a white hardcover with black print & black ink drawings. The Idiot. Chapter One, paragraph one – so this are the first sentences I deciphered, the first silent written language that traversed me:
Towards the end of November, during a thaw, at nine o’clock in the morning, a train on the Warsaw and Petersburg railway was approaching the latter city at full speed. The morning was so damp and misty that it was only with great difficulty that the day succeeded in breaking; and it was impossible to distinguish anything more than a few yards away from the carriage windows.
Some of the passengers by this particular train were returning from abroad; but the third-class carriages were the best filled, chiefly with insignificant persons of various occupations and degrees, picked up at the different stations nearer town. All of them seemed weary, and most of them had sleepy eyes and a shivering expression, while their complexions generally appeared to have taken on the color of the fog outside.
But these were not the words I read – the book I had with me under the covers was in German, was a translation, i.e. something I would spend the rest of my life getting in & out of.
Is there life before reading? I am not certain — & grow less certain as time passes, as I grow old & memory, like nostalgia, isn’t what it used to be. So if you ask me what it was like to be a child, I will have a hard time answering — and not just because I do not remember it as being the best time of my life. Not that I wouldn’t be interested in finding out for myself. But how to be a historian of one’s own past, if istorin — the Greek word for history — means for the one historian I trust (because I love to read him) to find out for oneself. How can I go there from now? Maybe I can write myself there, i.e. activate dreaming and reading and come back forward?
And thus the earliest state of childhood — supposedly paradisiacal, even if, or maybe exactly because, forgotten — I cannot help but associate with non-reading, so that “prelapsarian” always rhymes with preliterate in my mind. Where was I? Rue Glesener, in the southern quartier de la gare of Luxembourg (the capital city of the eponymous country). When was I? Not yet, not yet. I lack photos of that time, cannot see myself, and the google map doesn’t get me closer than 200 meters for an inch. The street was maybe 300 meters long, that much I can make out; it started from the Avenue de la Liberté and ended in the rue Adolphe Fischer.
We lived — but this I was shown later, it is not my memory, just something I was told — we lived for awhile in the last house on the North side of the street, the one giving onto the large open space used by civil engineering company Karp-Kneip as depot for its construction materials and as parking lot for its caterpillar tractors, steam rollers, and asphalt laying and paving machines. I must have looked down on that machinery from an upstairs window, or tried to get glimpses through slits in the wooden barrier surrounding the site. But I do not remember the specific occasion of doing this, or, better, all I remember is the shared fondness of children and grown men to peek with mouths agape through any available opening into construction sites where big machinery moves about.
The only thing I do remember from that house — because in the next house we lived in I already remembered it and its location in a room I furthermore remember every detail of, especially the daybed in the corner upon which I taught myself to read — the only thing I do remember from that first house is a large Mahogany radio set with built-in record-player on top and box to keep the old shellacked 78s and later the first “long-playing” 33-rpm records at the bottom. A Nordmende, I think, but who knows, it could just as well have been a Phillips, Telefunken, Grundig or Saba. Sleek, elegant, probably taller than I was the year my father bought it. It stayed that size, I kept growing. I like to think that for some time we saw eye to eye — for what has remained with me always was the magic green eye that, cat-like, would widen or narrow its pupil in relation to how good the signal was. I would press my blue eye to its green & with one hand play with the tuning button to make the eye twitch.
But I would have my hand gently slapped for playing with the tuning button because father didn’t like me to un-tune the one station he listened to — long-wave Radio Luxembourg. Not much stays with me beyond the fascination of the green eye, except for two auditory memories, though these must be from the second house. The first of these is the opening soundtrack and half-screamed title of the 12:50 p.m. radio-drama: Ça va bouillir, Zappy Max! Although French was always an available language, I don’t remember anything of the story lines, except for Zappy Max’s breathless voice, and the fact that the weird nasty bad guy was called “le tonneau” — the barrel. What made the show for me were the incredible variety of noises, screams, screeches & other sound-effects that pushed whatever story line there was ahead at breakneck speed.
What has stayed with me more essentially was something else: a sequence of sound I couldn’t make sense of but were the most seductive, the most wondrous and mysterious language-sounds I had ever heard. And that inscribed itself immediately and forever in my brain. This sound sequence would come over the radio in the program my father listened to after Zappy Max, the one o’clock news. Later on I translated the music the vocables made into semantic meaning: it turned out to be a name, much in the news at that time: Krim Bel Kacem. I can still hear it in the singing French inflections of the news announcer – returning, repeated, over and over: Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem.
With no semantic referent to attach to the sound sequence, I was utterly seduced by its sheer musicality, from the repetition of which I drew an immense pleasure I recall to this day: first, the initial hard, nearly explosive consonantal rub of “r” after “k” followed by the elongated high vowel sound of the “i” and down into the calm “m” — a peaceful “om” after the crime-evoking sounds of the first three letters. Then the high bell-sound of “bel” a clear peel, short but echoing loudly and in its very clarity hiding or making me forget the reference to the obvious (but misplaced) French semantic meaning. This was followed by the alliteration of the “k” sound, though this time with the variation of the “a” vowel replacing the “are” of krim, a descent in pitch from the “e” of “bel,” but a widening of the scope of sound, a deepening into that initial and initiating sound of human language, the long “a” that can carry pain, pleasure, surprise, exhilaration and so on. After the “c” planes down and alleviates the harshness of the two initial “k”s, the sequence finishes on a second alliteration, that of the final “m,” easily drawn out to bring it even closer to the calmness of the seed syllable “om.”
Maybe father did tell me that it was a name, no matter, I don’t remember if he did, and if he did do so, I must have forgotten instantly, or else willfully worked on forgetting, as I do remember that “Krim Bel Kacem” was my favorite word sequence for that marvelous childhood play consisting in repeating a sequence of words without pause or interruption until any semantic meaning is rubbed out and all that’s left is the pure jouissance of a sound that now arises from the very chora of language.
Now you may say that the foregoing answers my initial question: clearly, there is life before reading, and it is the life of sound….But how do I know? Much of the time listening to Radio Luxembourg in that room with the green eye gleaming were spent on the daybed at the other end of the room with … a book in my hand. The first such book was a tome grabbed from my parents’ shelves maybe because it also had drawings. I could read the title: The Idiot. I am sure I could not read the name of the author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But I wanted to read & I read or looked at the first page of print & taught myself the letters, with whose help I don’t remember. A year later I was put immediately into second grade, given that I could read — & just as immediately proceeded to exchange the Dostoyevsky for the first fifteen issues of “Akim,” the Tarzan wanna-be character created in 1950 by the script-writer Roberto Renzi, with artwork by Augusto Pedrazza in the handy Piccolo strip-series. They were the perfect size to read in school under the desk, or on the daybed out of the parents’ sight and under the protection of the cool, unphased green eye of the Nordmende, while “Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem” would eventually echo through the other words, “Akim, Akim, Akim” and I would make up new names for new heroes I dreamed I would later write about or draw strips for or put on the radio and I could already here the announcer in Zappy’s voice breathlessly screaming: “Ça va bouillir, Kim Akrim Bel Kacem.”
Pierre Joris has published some 50 books of poems, essays & translations, most recently Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press 2014), Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan (FSG 2014) & A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (coedited with Peter Cockelbergh, Contra Mundum Press 2014). Previous books include Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press and The University of California Book of North African Literature (volume 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour. Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited, introduced and translated by Joris (Black Widow Press), & Cartographies of the In-between: The Poetry & Poetics of Pierre Joris, edited by Peter Cockelbergh came out in 2012. When not nomadizing, he lives in Sorrentinostan, a.k.a. Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife, multimedia performance artist and writer Nicole Peyrafitte.
Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila, where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003; rereleased in Spain by Vaso Roto publishing in 2014); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism.
His English language debut came in February 2014, with the publication of “Mama Leukemia” (trans. Brendan Riley), a chapter from his novel Canción de tumba, which has been translated into Portuguese and Italian. 2014 also saw the publication of Jesus Libt Dich Nicht / Cristo no te ama (Christ Doesn’t Love You), a bilingual Spanish-German anthology of his poems translated and compiled by Timo Berger.
In January 2015 Julián Herbert completed his novel La casa del dolor ajeno. Crónica de un pequeño genocidio en La Laguna. (The House of Someone Else’s Pain. Chronicle of a Minor Genocide in La Laguna ).
La casa del dolor ajeno revisits a shameful event from Mexican history: the worst massacre of Chinese immigrants to have occurred in the Americas, which took place in the city of Torreón de Coahuila, in northern Mexico, between May 13th and 15th, 1911. As Herbert describes it:
“The Chinese community that settled in that area were merchants. They even had their own bank. Part of the massacre had to do with resentment from the local people, but also envy from the Mexican businessmen. It was carried out at the behest of the bourgeoisie. After the Chinese were killed, their bodies were thrown into a common grave.”
Herbert points out that some things have not changed in over a century:
“Mexico is full of pits filled with the bodies of people who disappeared. A few years ago in Coahuila, a whole town disappeared: 300 people were found buried in a common grave. And none of these cases ever get solved.”
This includes the tragic events of September 2014, in which 43 Mexican student-teachers disappeared from Iguala, in the state of Guerrero.
“In the case of the 43 students,” Herbert says, “the response from politicians shows an egregious level of cynicism and indifference,” and, in mordant summation adds, “I’m starting to get depressed.”
Set in a hellish, crumbling Mexico City that refuses to die, Herbert’s story “Z” offers a wry psycho-sexual twist on the ever-popular zombie motif. The story, whose narrator might be the last sane man in Mexico, focuses on the tenuous trust between analyst and analysand, and ponders the problem of whether we are the engineers or willing victims of our own languid apocalypses.
“Z” was originally published in Spanish in October 2014 in the multi-author collection Narcocuentos (Narco Tales) (Ediciones B).
I SPEND THE MORNING talking on the phone with my analyst. My analyst’s name is Tadeo. Tadeo pretends to be an impartial judge but I think that he’d really prefer that I let him take a bite out of me. It couldn’t be any other way: they started slowly devouring him almost five months ago.
“This really isn’t a question of ethics,” he says. “This is about loneliness. What your increasing isolation means for you at an existential level.”
I almost burst out laughing: he talks about existentialism as if he were really alive. He’s a nice guy from UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. I change the subject simply to avoid laughing about his condition.
“Y’know, it might be better if you come over and we can talk face to face. Or at least mouth to ear.”
“We’re already talking mouth to ear.”
“Through the door, I mean.”
“No, my friend,” he responds in a very sober tone, with the hypocritical tranquility instilled in him by his studies. “I’ve acquired the discipline of not sniffing my patients.”
“Except for Delfina,” I say, to rile him.
Tadeo guards a brief silence, then answers:
“Delfina doesn’t smell anymore. And she’s no longer my patient.”
For more than a year I’ve lived in a room on the fourth floor of the Majestic Hotel, overlooking the Zocalo, the great central square of Mexico City. Once a week, Tadeo comes over to my place and guides me through a session of psychoanalysis. At first he always came up to my room. We’d make ourselves comfortable ––he’d sit on the badly upholstered little armchair, I’d recline on my bed–– and chat with the television on low to make some background noise and to muffle the bloody carnivorous chomping sounds coming from my next-door neighbor’s room.
Tadeo was the most sensible man I’d ever met until Delfina (I’ve never seen her: I imagine that she’s quite pretty) seduced him and took, by way of tribute, several bites from his left forearm, infecting him and thereby destroying for me (without meaning to, I’m clear about that) six months of therapy.
Since then we’ve had to conduct our sessions through the insipid tones of the phone downstairs in the hotel vestibule.
“Human,” I say.
“You mean that Delfina no longer smells like a human. Wouldn’t it be just the same if you phoned me from your office?”
“Human, yes . . . As far as coming over here, I swear I’m not doing it out of desperation. It’s a question of professionalism. Besides, who else was going to give you the message? There’s not a single soul left down here.”
He talks about professionalism but he’s had sexual relations with a number of his patients, and eventually fell for one of them. And now, for the sake of love, he’s let himself be transformed into a beast. Well, not entirely a beast: a transitional cannibal. I’ve said as much to him and he’s admitted it. Now he adds sadly:
“Maybe I should be your patient instead.”
It’s a polite thing to say. We both know that I’m a rotten person, a selfish and frightened master of ceremonies, incapable of helping anyone at all; never mind that half the world is currently mutating towards death or depression.
Tadeo says that it’s not a question of ethics but rather loneliness. What’s certainly true is that, lately anyway, it’s a question of food. I’ve been slipping out at night to look for some. That’s when there’s less of a chance of bumping into the ones I call mature sleepwalkers: they prefer to hunt by day, although their favorite time is sundown.
(There are no precise facts but it seems that the prolonged consumption of human flesh ends up destroying –among other things– their retina: the intense light damages them, and in the dark they’re as blind as moles. When they become completely blind they turn into carnivorous flowers: groaning invalids writhing about on the ground. They continue to be dangerous but being almost completely sedentary they’re relatively easy to avoid.)
At first I was frightened of going outside, so I lived on stale foodstuffs from the hotel kitchen: semi-rotten cutlets, rancid cheese, chocolate, frozen soups, dried fruit . . . . As the months went by, however, I gathered my courage, not only to undertake excursions in search of food in nearby stores, but also to have something resembling a social life. My greatest success in this area has been serving as master of ceremonies at the skateboard tournaments in Eugenia Alley.
My quests for food manage to provide me with everything from Pachucan empanadas to granola bars. From gallons of purified water to all the bottles of booze I could drink. The other day I found a bag of marijuana and another one stuffed with pills stashed behind the counter in an old printing shop. I put them back where I found them: I’m strongly opposed to any kind of illegal substances.
As long as nobody kills me, it’s all mine. The country has become a minefield of fangs and grinding molars but also a vast open air bargain. Thanks to the vain imaginings of some, whose willful denial impels them to keep performing their daily duties, I enjoy certain services formerly taken for granted, tasks that once made life with other humans unconsciously pleasant. For example, fresh milk in Tetra Briks in the morning. The truck keeps showing up, dropping off its deliveries and invoices at the 7-11 on the corner of Moneda and Callejón de Verdad; maybe they don’t notice that the store, which was looted four times in the last week alone, is a mere shadow of its former self. It has no regular workers anymore, only the occasional looters posing as cashiers. With their face like junkies and their backsides all bitten and gnawed away, they stand there, trembling like old boxers stricken with Parkinson’s, ringing up my selections even though they’ve only come around to steal the little that’s left on the shelves.
A few nights ago I found some excellent spoils: some nice packages of moldy falafel and humus, nearly two pounds of pistachios seasoned with garlic and chile de árbol, half a strip of Coronado caramel lollipops, a bottle of Appleton Estate, and an iPod that included –among some tolerably dark gems– Smetana’s From My Life string quartet… I waited until sunset on Friday to celebrate my discovery. My plan was to have a little picnic in the open air: I put on my headphones and, loaded with goodies from my raids, I went up to the Majestic’s observation deck.
When I relate all this to him, Tadeo returns to the line of analysis he’s been trying to use on me for the past month.
“Have you thought about why you did that?”
“I already told you why, to celebrate.”
“And you don’t think there’s any other reason? Some stubborn strain buried deep in your need to put yourself in danger?… You know that sunset is your riskiest time of day.”
I try to change the subject again but he insists:
“How do you think your neighbors took it? Have any of them followed you to the terrace?”
“A couple of them came up to catch a whiff of me, of course. It always happens. But they did it politely: they sat down several tables away from me.”
Except for Leah, a Jewish woman ––still perfectly human and healthy–– who lives on the second floor, and who only leaves the hotel to scrounge for pirate DVDs around the Bellas Artes Metro station, all my neighbors in the Majestic are bi-carnal. Although they’ve not yet decided to attack me, they’ll follow me anywhere with a desperately transparent look, the very look that used to belong exclusively to the brain-fried crystal meth smokers on the street.
Tadeo just keeps insisting:
“Did you say anything to them?”
He’s really starting to bug me.
“I didn’t really pay much attention to them. I was keeping my eye on the soldiers.”
“The ones who show up every afternoon to take down the flag.”
Every day it’s the same routine: just before sunrise, a military squad marches along the esplanade of the Zocalo, unfolding an immense green, white, and red flag. They open it to its full size and then, after attaching it to a thick rope, they raise it up a giant metal and concrete flagpole, perhaps one hundred-fifty feet tall. This accomplished, they depart, marching away with the same gallantry as they arrived. The flag hangs there all day, fluttering and waving in the wind, magnificent, floating above thousands of shambling cadavers and hundreds of hungry carnivorous plants crammed together around the Metropolitan Cathedral. In the afternoon, shortly before sunset, the soldiers return to take down the gigantic flag: they perform their martial ballet in reverse motion, lowering, unhooking, and folding the linen of the motherland with exasperating solemnity. Part of their ordinance is to show up perfectly armed. It’s not just for show: almost every day they experience the tedious obligation of executing a few creatures that, completely out of their minds, attack the squad despite their uniforms. The soldiers usually fire at point blank range, directly above the temple: the .45 caliber slugs strike the flagstones with a dull crack, and the heads of the flesh-eaters, splitting wide open, rehearse the final Grand Slam of Mexico City. Even so, the soldiers find it quite difficult to completely avoid getting bitten; they rarely all escape unscathed. That must be why, invariably, more than one of them stumbles or tries to hide his stumps by readjusting the dirty bandages that cover his flaking, peeling flesh.
Almost the entire army suffers from some phase of the contagion. Who knows if this is due to their ceaseless patrols or their long, lonely nights in the barracks. While it’s true that the best vaccines are destined for the armed forces, it’s also true that on a daily basis (or at least that’s what CNN says: our own national media is completely extinct) cells of deserters appear, serving as security for roving bands of wormoisseurs. That’s how anything works that still works around here: corrupting everything in its orbit until it all becomes an allegorical mural of destruction.
However much these events resemble any other major epidemic, our situation began with a pair of isolated cases, indistinguishable from the furor usually caused by the sensational and now disappeared (or, depending how you see it: omnipresent) red line journalism. First, a construction worker murdered his lover and co-worker in the area near a building site. The authorities found fragments of intestines and human hearts roasted on a piece of sheet metal over some coals. During the trial, the suspect committed suicide. A year later, a young poet and professor from the University of Puebla was sent to jail when the authorities searched his refrigerator and found pieces of his dead girlfriend, which he used for masturbating. Although no one demonstrated that he’d killed her or consumed her flesh, the symptoms that this individual presented in the months to come left no room for doubt: he was ground zero for a new reality breaking out along the border, beyond the animal species and the plant and animal kingdoms: a walking virus.
The first person to come to Mexico to study the phenomenon was the English scientist Frank Ryan, a virologist whose theory proposed, in general, that humanity’s tremendous evolutionary leap forward was not owing to our DNA connection to other mammals but to the great percentage of viral information absorbed by the human genome. What at first seemed a polemical intuition capable of explaining sicknesses like AIDS or cancer turned into Ryan’s Evolutionary Law or the Clinamen of the Species: all organic entropy will eventually lead to the triumph of an entity neither alive nor dead, whose only activity will be to feed and reproduce itself by invading host organisms.
The most atrocious thing about our epidemic, and what makes it distinct from any other, is its irritating slowness. Once the sickness is contracted, the organism is defined by two characteristics: first, the unstoppable anxiety of having to feed on human flesh ––an impulse heightened by olfactory stimulation––; second, a gradual multiple sclerosis directly proportional to the quantity of human flesh consumed. It’s here where the individual willpower affects the processes, because one’s capacity for restructuring gluttony and administering consumption (such ridiculous but actual socioeconomic similes are issued daily by the Secretary of Health) define the speed at which the transformation will take place.
So far no formal catalog exists to describe the exact phases of the entity’s devolution. In my hours of leisure (which are many) I’ve derived four categories that I’ll here offer for the consideration of future carnivegetal realms:
The Transitional Cannibal: this refers to the phase in which my psychoanalyst currently finds himself. It can last from a week to a year, depending on the victim’s previous health, dietary habits, and experimental drug usage (“Retroviral and antipsychotic drugs have proven effective,” Tadeo told me the other day with a professorial thrill in his voice). In this phase, the infected person loses many of their vital functions, which allows them to stay alive while eating very little. Their interaction with his surrounding environment doesn’t change very much; for example, this group includes the President of the Republic and all his prominent detractors, opposition party leaders, many doctors and teachers, and almost all the business people that remain active. The only trait that distinguishes them from someone like me is that they show withdrawal symptoms ––nausea, dizziness, hyperventilation–– when they detect the smell of normal, healthy human beings.
The Bicarnal Beast: the individual suffering this phase is nearly unable to resist the temptation to take a bite out of you but, still governed by shame, delivers their overture with the classic exaggerated politesse of the well-bred Mexican: “Would you kindly allow me to accompany you, sir?” or some such courtesy. They turn out to be the most repulsive ones. I call them bicarnal because, to soften their anxiety, they deceive themselves by eating pounds and pounds of beef, pork, or lamb. I’ve come upon them in shattered minimarts, wolfing down frozen hamburgers straight out of the box. Once I even saw, from the terrace at the Majestic, the way in which a group of them sacrificed a fighting bull in the Zocalo (God knows where they managed to find it) and then devoured it’s raw flesh right there on the flagstones. I also call them junkies or wormoisseurs: their principal post-human activity is the buying and selling of cadavers. They are the lords and masters of what was once the Historic Center of the nation’s capital city.
The Mature Sleepwalker moves a little clumsily, with a crooked shambling gait, and is always filthy with bloodstains from eating any living thing that happens to cross its path. It’s blind and weak and doesn’t utter a single word; beyond its terrifying aspect, it’s simply a depressing creature. Not really very interesting. Relatively scarce, its condition represents the shortest stage of the infectious process.
Lastly, The Blossom: the immortal aspect of what we will all soon become: nascent vegetative man-eaters in a perpetual and pestilent state of putrefaction. As the sclerosis overtakes them, Blossoms, with their last remaining shreds of instinct, search for some place where they can drop down undead. Although I’ve occasionally seen these flesh-eating flowers on their own, you usually run into groups of them, almost as if the need for socialization was the last human trait to die. Once I saw one of these living cadavers remain standing on two feet. But normally they end up stretched out on the ground, whether it be in the street or locked inside rooms, or sometimes on benches, planter boxes, fountains, the hoods of cars . . . . More than actually moving about, they suffer from spasms. They clamber over one another, biting each other, snapping at anything that moves near them, ceaselessly opening and closing their jaws clack clack clack clack clack all night and day, the sound of a teletype in an insane asylum. At first it kept me from sleeping, and later gave me long nightmares, but lately it has become a sweet lullaby.
The largest garden of flesh-eating flowers that exists grew spontaneously around the Metropolitan Cathedral, along one side of the Zocalo, facing the patio of my hotel . . . . Could it really be any different in a Catholic country? Not only do the terminally ill in this epidemic keep arriving at all hours: every day also delivers an almost industrial quantity of the nourishment they require. Every morning finds rows of buses parked around the Zocalo. The buses disgorge groups of fervent pilgrims who pray to God for the world’s salvation and, as a test of their faith, try to pass through the bramble rows of teeth separating them from the doors of the cathedral. Nobody ever even makes it halfway through the atrium: they’re all devoured alive in just a few minutes. That keeps the garden well watered with fresh blood. If Mexico weren’t already the vast cemetery that it is, this perilous garden would be considered the country’s most peculiar tourist attraction.
As my session comes to a close, Tadeo asks:
“So, are you going to come over to install it? . . . . I live in La Condesa, really close to Avenida Amsterdam, a block and a half off Insurgentes, along Iztaccíhuatl. Just get off the metro at Chilpancingo. It’s on the sixth floor. You can’t miss it.”
I think it over a bit.
“You don’t even need to come see me,” he insists. “We can do the whole thing over the intercom.”
“It’s not about you. I just never go that far.”
“Come on, man. Nothing’ll happen. I go out every day and nothing happens.”
“Sure, but you have a car.”
“Consider it an exercise in socialization within the frame of therapy: one way or another you’ve got to go on living in our world.”
In the end he convinces me and we agree that next Monday (today is Thursday) I’ll go by his apartment to install a satellite television hookup.
“On one condition,” I clarify: “None of this shit about doing everything over the intercom. I want to see you. I want to see your house. And Delfina, too, of course.”
“What for?” he asks, suspicious.
“I don’t know . . . . To see what kind of beauty could get you to agree to become a human sirloin steak.”
Now it’s Tadeo who’s unsure. But 142 TV channels and 50 different music stations, as well as 10 hardcore porn sites and an all-access password for Pay Per View––all for free––is the kind of high quality blackmail that nobody, not even a Lacanian psychoanalyst and cannibal, could ever resist.
“It’s a deal,” he says.
He hangs up the phone.
I consider myself the ruler of this realm but once, up north, I was the ruler of a different one: regional maintenance manager for one of the most important satellite television companies in the world. For years I accumulated a huge assortment of things in my desk drawer: all kinds of keys, serial numbers, computer chips, cards, code numbers. After the first outbreaks of the epidemic, I moved to Mexico City and brought with me masses of tools and toys and doodads. These small bunches of talismans represent the multitasking treasure that I sometimes spend in place of money: for example, I can use them to place bets in the skateboarders’ casino on Eugenia Alley, where young skaters leap over long rows of the bodies of full-blossom cannibals lying side by side on the ground; the kind of thing you used to see at monster truck shows. We spectators bet to see who can jump the most bodies on their skateboard. Some, the best skaters, survive. Most of them end up with their calf muscles chewed to raw meat from the strong, virulent bites. I’m not complaining. Sometimes, in that hippodrome of cadavers and imbeciles, I win enough money to rent myself a toothless whore. And when things don’t go quite so well, I pay off my bets by installing residential satellite service in some building in the neighborhood: the worst thing that can happen in a day is that I end up having to scale a wall and cross over twenty yards of rotting flesh without a safety harness.
The thing is, everybody wants to keep on zapping: surfing a never-ending wave of 140 different channels even as they’re being ripped to pieces by the love of their life. Everybody, including the dead.
—Julián Herbert; Translated from the original Spanish by Brendan Riley, 2015
Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico.
Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuente