ZYZZYVA EventsAugust 11, 2018
ZYZZYVA Fiction Workshop with Anthony Marra
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA offices, 57 Post Street, San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Marra, award-winning author of "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" and "The Tsar of Love and Techno." Class size is very limited. Applications are due June 15. For more information, visit https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/111999/fictionAugust 18, 2018
ZYZZYVA Poetry Workshop with Dean Rader
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA Offices, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Rader, author of the poetry collections "Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry," "Landscape Portrait Figure Form" and "Works & Days." Class size is very limited. Application are due by June 18. For more information, visit https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/106864/poetrySeptember 22, 2018
ZYZZYVA Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Caille Millner
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA Offices, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Millner, author of the memoir "The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification" and a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. Class size is very limited. Applications are due by July 23. For more information, visit https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/106865/creative-non-fiction
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In this issue:
The first American to win the Man Booker Prize, Paul Beatty talks with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about his novel “The Sellout,” Los Angeles, literature, and satire.
What Emerges from the Fog: Essays on the faded traces of a life spent in the City (Joshua Mohr’s “San Francisco Loved Us Once”), and on the incredible challenges of making a life here—and of just choosing to live (Suzanne Rivecca’s “Ugly and Bitter and Strong”).
Anticipating the Worst: Stories on the threat of explosions, whether it be at the airport (David L. Ulin’s “Terminal”) or as just part of your job (Tom Barbash’s “Catbird”).
Natalie Serber’s “La Voix du Sang”: A son, becoming a young man, pulls his parents into the spiral of his wobbly future.
Maddy Raskulinecz’s “Barbara from Florida”: The tricks of the pizza-delivery trade: carry a dummy wallet, have plenty of fake IDs, and be ready for anything.
Plus stories from Dawna Kemper, Olivia Parkes, and Michael Zaken.
Christopher J. Adamson, William Brewer, Leah Clare Kaminski, Amy Miller, Pablo Neruda (translated by Katie Lateef-Jan & Dean Rader), John Sibley Williams, Casey Thayer, Robert Thomas, Kristen Tracy, and Devon Walker-Figueroa
Featuring the paintings of Eileen David
ZYZZYVA’s Summer Dance Party 2018 is almost upon us! Do you have your ticket yet?
The event—our annual fundraiser—kicks off on Friday, June 15, at 6 p.m. at the Make Out Room in San Francisco. Besides the chance to hang out with your compatriots and supporters of our literary community, you will also be able to bid on one of our many silent auctions, and test your luck with our first-ever raffle, featuring:
- Tickets to the Asian Art Museum
- Gift cards & certificates to Dynamo Doughnuts, Rustic Bakery, Dandelion Chocolate, Pizzeria Delfina, and Point Reyes Bookstore
- Gift bags from Lo-Fi Aperitifs and Baggu
- A Family Membership to the SF Botanical Gardens
- Membership to the Mechanics Institute Library, and more!
Tickets to the Summer Dance Party start at just $25, but are going fast. So get one now and don’t miss out on a once-in-a-year night of drinks, dancing, and community!
When Matthew Stokoe’s gritty noir High Life (380 pages; matthewstokoe.com) was published by noted indie Akashic Books in 2002, the book, which received very little coverage, managed to attract a fan base, thanks partly to Stokoe’s fearless depictions of upper-crust society at its worst. His novel eventually went out of print, but now that the rights to High Life are back with Stokoe, he has self-published his own edition of his hard-to-find book.
In High Life, Stokoe takes readers on a nocturnal tour of the seediest parts of late ‘90s Los Angeles, while gleefully subverting noir’s most ingrained tropes: there’s a private detective of sorts, but he’s a degenerate vice cop who more often acts as an obstacle to our main character, Jack; there’s a wealthy femme fatale living in a secluded mansion, but in a grim twist Jack might be more of a danger to her than the other way around.
Even so, Stokoe’s terse and evocative narration lets us know how much he appreciates the genre, especially the debt owed to the work of noir pioneer Raymond Chandler:
“My eyes felt charred and the cigarettes had eaten into my throat. I bought a cold coke from a machine outside a motel and chugged it until my eyes watered. Coke and damp night air, and the slowed pulse of the city around me. For that moment, for that snapshot, micron-thin slice of time, I was free of the past, free even of the present –– just the sweet caustic singe in my mouth and the loose quietness of being up and alone when most people were asleep.”
As High Life opens, Jack is just one of the millions living on the periphery of Hollywood, working a thankless job at a doughnut shop while secretly hoping to land a gig as an Entertainment Tonight-style television host. When his estranged wife (herself a drug addict) turns up murdered, organs removed with surgical precision, her grisly death serves as a catalyst for Jack to hit the streets and search for clues as to her killer’s identity––as well as quit his day job and begin to pursue his dreams of stardom.
The drive for celebrity quickly takes precedent, however, and after his friend Rex persuades him to take a stint as a male escort for the rich and famous of Beverly Hills, Jack more or less drops his amateur investigation. He rarely looks back on his journey to “lights, camera, action,” even as each inner circle of fame he achieves introduces new and more depraved behavior from Los Angeles’ wealthiest denizens. By the time he attends an Alice in Wonderland-themed party at the Bradbury Building (the iconic L.A. locale from the end of Blade Runner), the metaphor is clear: Jack’s lust for “the steamroller exposure necessary to become part of [people’s] desires” will send him tumbling down a rabbit hole to a place where traditional morality no longer seems relevant.
“I woke thinking about Daryl Hannah, about how her mornings must be. How she’d lie on a king-size bed in a pure white room the size of a tennis court with sunlight cutting swaths across the carpet. And just a short distance beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows, a matter of yards perhaps, the sea would roll under blue sky and fat white clouds. The maid would come in with a light breakfast of coffee and croissants and the aroma of freshly roasted beans and the delicate pastry would mix with the ocean salt air and just that, just those three simple smells and the ocean breeze against your skin would remind you that you were a god.”
Although the idea of Hollywood using up and ultimately discarding the wide-eyed souls who head there seeking fortune and glory has been a noir standard since at least Sunset Boulevard in 1950, High Life is perhaps worth revisiting in the wake of the industry’s numerous sexual harassment accusations, as well as the NXIVM cult and its alleged involvement in human trafficking. Stokoe offers a glimpse of an industry where backroom power brokers indulge their most lurid predilections, and those on the lower rungs of society ––drug addicts, sex workers, and the homeless––are too often the victims of horrific violence.
Jack, while far from being a likable protagonist, does hold up a mirror to a certain part of our culture: the many who share his utter obsession with obtaining wealth, status, and media coverage, and his lack of compassion for anyone who is hurt along the way, no matter if they’re a lover or friend. Blackmail and murder become part and parcel of Jack’s world as he struggles to keep his footing on the slenderest ledge of celebrity he’s managed to obtain: “The taste of the high life I’d had made it impossible for me to give up the chance at becoming someone special without a fight.”
Not surprisingly, the novel’s graphic content ensures it may put off readers unfamiliar with transgressive literature, though it should be said this is a label Stokoe –– who cites Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn as a major influence –– actively resists. “More and more I’m coming to think that labeling certain writers as transgressive, or ‘outside traditional writing,’ is a construct perpetrated by reviewers and editors,” he said in an interview with Full Stop. “I really believe that the reading public is far more accepting of the so-called extremes in literature than the gatekeepers of taste give them credit for. In fact I think a good portion of readers actually want the extremes…For me, the violence and sex were necessary to tell the stories I wanted to tell.”
When Jack finally achieves an on-camera role as a presenter on a Hollywood chat show, his success brings him closer to discovering the identity of the mysterious, silver-haired surgeon whose sleek black Jaguar patrols the Hollywood Strip in search of hustlers and vagrants to operate on, and who may have been responsible for his ex-wife’s murder. Along the way, Stokoe ratchets up the Grand Guignol to nearly unbearable levels –– every ghastly detail hammering home the author’s indignation for the dehumanizing culture that encourages people to idolize stardom above all else.
Fortunately, even through the thorny tangle of Jack’s increasingly emotionless narration, Stokoe’s empathy for those lost along the way still comes through: there’s Jack’s friend Rex, who becomes an empty shell after a drug-fueled road accident leaves a small child dead (“We were in the same room, but he was million miles away,” Jack observes. “At that moment I knew I could spend the rest of my life trying to reconnect and I’d never do it. The guy was gone”); and Lorn, Jack’s co-host, whose disciplined work ethic and pragmatic view of Hollywood can’t save her from the harm that befalls everyone in Jack’s orbit. These lost souls are just a few whom Jack sacrifices at the altar of fame. Perhaps most chilling of all is Jack’s epiphany near the end, as he pauses to survey the physical and spiritual carnage he’s wrought. It’s a warning of sorts that Stokoe leaves with us: “I’m not that different from a lot of people.”
Here’s a sampling of some of the writing in Issue No. 112, which you can get today with a subscription to ZYZZYVA:
San Francisco Loved Us Once, an essay by JOSHUA MOHR: We stampeded to this magnificent speck known as San Francisco because we were too queer, too punk, too arty. We were the wrong color or born with the wrong genitalia. We were too fat or too tattooed or too sick or our own family simply despised us. Other places, we were easy targets. We were gristle trapped in a bully’s teeth. So we flocked here because it called to us, San Francisco summoning, saying, “All are welcome. All are loved.” And we basked in that affection. And we found ourselves. Granted, that San Francisco is now dead, dismantled in the name of Tech. Our surrogate mother has pushed pushed us away, allowing only the wealthiest into her arms. The whitest. No black or brown skin. No artists. A place once synonymous with prodigals and immigrants is now a country club. But for a long time, this place was a sanctuary of misfits. It was my home. I moved here when I was seventeen and came of age on its streets.
La Voix Du Sang, a short story by NATALIE SERBER: There’d been an incident. Vince was in custody. They drove in silence, each lost in his or her own version of what had happened to their sweet and eager boy. In Trina’s version things came too easily to Vince. Sure, he did fine in school, was satisfied with his effortless B’s, handsome and athletic enough. Vince loved the drums, weed, and girls. All things his father had loved, still loved. But unlike his father, who rose to every challenge, Vince gave up things he couldn’t master quickly. Their garage was cluttered with his expensive jetsam; lacrosse sticks, an empty aquarium, amps, a guitar. Friends, too, had been tossed aside. Whenever he felt bored or a slip in status, Vince resorted to teasing with a cruel edge. Trina had witnessed it in her own living room. Adept at discovering weakness (perhaps he’d be a politician), he had mocked a good-looking boy, a talented guitar player, calling him Corn Niblet, all with his arm slung around the boy’s shoulder. In Lewis’s version of what had happened, their boy took no risks, surrounded himself with mediocrity. He was the best house in a middling neighborhood. “Breaking and entering?” Trina said.
Casa Nirvana, a short story by OLIVIA PARKES: “Edgar, in God’s name, why? They’ll have you playing Yahtzee, or finger-painting, and say you’re suicidal if you opt out. Even convalescing is a group activity in those places. And you’re fine, we’re fine.” Edgar lowered the paper and shrugged. “I’ve always liked hotels. There comes a time in a man’s life when he would like to see a buffet at breakfast.” His bowl of Fiber One cereal had gone soggy at his elbow. “Every day?” she asked. Edgar nodded, and in six days he was gone. Now, almost a year later, Mitzy wanted to move back down to their old room. It sweltered upstairs in the summer and the nights spent navigating a dark corridor in the abandoned hours, her bladder like a burning drum, had led her to appreciate the luxury of an ensuite bathroom. Alone, however, the house still felt strange to her, and it was easier to sleep if she could pretend it belonged to someone else. Edgar, she knew, would not be coming back, so Mitzy moved back downstairs into the master bedroom and set about converting it.
In his first nonfiction collection, award-winning novelist, poet, and journalist Alexander Chee offers a reflective look at his life in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (288 pages; Mariner Books). From his time in Mexico learning high school-level Spanish to his undergrad days at Wesleyan, and later the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, as well as his AIDs activism in San Francisco, the book is a well-orchestrated chronicle of a life well-lived.
Growing up as a Korean American, Chee often struggled with his identity and felt awkward in public, as when his long hair caused him to be mistaken as a girl, or when a stylist nonchalantly remarked he could pass for white. But Chee stood out in other ways: in the essay “The Curse,” he was the first among his classmates to achieve fluency in Spanish; and in “The Querent,” he was the only one to pass a test for psychic abilities. These were the times when he was visible in the “right” ways, and Chee conveys the validation he felt when he was finally recognized for his individual strengths rather than his outward appearance.
Chee’s realizations read as personal, yet universally contextualized. His essays form a triumphant and evocative narrative about youth and a hankering for the power found in beauty. One recalls philosopher Benedetto Croce’s notion of aesthetics while reading “Girl,” in which Chee portrays the elation of taking on a new identity, that of a woman. Aesthetics, as Croce points out, are ascendant; and although aesthetics are both the highest and the most challenging domain of human behavior, it is also the most base form, the one from which all others derive:
“This beauty I find when I put on drag, then: it is made up of this talismans of power, a balancing act of at least two cultures, an act I’ve engaged in my whole life, here on the fulcrum I make of my face. That night I want this beauty to last because it seems more powerful that any beauty I’ve had before. Being pretty like this is stronger than any drug I’ve ever tried.”
Chee graciously shares advice from his beloved professors at Iowa, such as Deborah Eisenberg and Frank Conroy, as well as Annie Dillard, who taught him at Wesleyan. Each of these mentors offers sound reminders that talent cannot be nurtured without hard work, making the book a helpful guide for young writers: “‘I started with writers more talented than me,’ Annie Dillard had said in the class I took from college. ‘And they’re not writing anymore, I am.’”
Chee also narrates his writerly journey through the hobby of gardening in “The Rosary.” Using gardening as a metaphor for his development under his teachers, he concludes, “I was not their gardener. They were mine.” The parallels of how a garden can initially be a “disaster in need of reckoning,” and how Chee eventually turned it into a blossoming rose garden, helped him visualize his own success. In chronicling his personal and creative struggles, Chee produces a cathartic primer for treading through the challenges of life with the same grace he displays as a writer.
Diligent readers of ZYZZYVA will have noticed Dean Rader’s dazzling poems in numerous issues of the journal, most recently in our Art & Resistance-themed Issue 111. We’re pleased to announce that Rader will also be leading a ZYZZYVA Writer’s Workshop in Poetry on August 18th, which is currently accepting submissions. The deadline to enter is June 18th –– so do not delay! The poet recently took time out of his busy schedule, which includes teaching writing at the University of San Francisco, to discuss the merits of the Workshop format, writing hurdles he’s overcome, recent poetry collections he’s read, and much more.
ZYZZYVA: Do you feel the communal aspect of a writing workshop, in which participants receive critical feedback from both the instructor and other attendees, can help improve the quality of a poem – or is it more about the discussion a poem can generate among the group?
Dean Rader: This is my professor (and my poet) answer but both things are valuable—especially in a one-day workshop. As a full-time professor and as someone who reads a lot of poems for contests and publication, I feel like I know what elements make a poem really sing. I also think it is important for writers to get feedback from other writers who are engaged in a common pursuit. One of the most critical things for any writer is learning what advice to take and what advice to ignore—these kinds of workshops are great for this.
One last thing—immersive workshops do both short term and long term work. There are immediate benefits that might make the poem under discussion stronger, but conversations and techniques and strategies learned in the workshop have long lasting benefits that can make future poems stronger than they might have otherwise been.
Z: In your collaboration with fellow poet Simone Muench in ZYZZYVA No. 101, known as the Frankenstein Sonnets, the two of you devised a new form for constructing poetry, one that saw you both piecing together a poem stanza by stanza. Do you ever instruct your students to experiment or devise new forms like this to break them out of their usual patterns?
DR: Oh yes. It’s a regular assignment in all of my writing classes. In fact, I have even begun assigning the very same system Simone and I used for our own poems. Often, they result in some of the best work of the semester because most people are capable of writing two interesting stanzas. One of the hardest things is writing a flawless poem from beginning to end. But, without the pressure of having to write a perfect poem, you would be amazed at how creative people get. Plus, you never want to let your collaborator down. Greatness rises to the surface…
Z: If a student comes to you and says, “This poem I wrote is bad,” what’s typically your first response?
DR: I usually quote this great passage from Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Most of our poems begin badly. There is nothing wrong with writing a bad poem. I have written many. I have written bad poems this month. Typically, I ask my student if there is a way to save the poem, and we sometimes look for one line or one image or one moment that contains the energy or the edge of the poem. I ask the student to cut everything but that one part and start from there.
But, beyond that, I also believe that we sometimes have to write a series of failed poems in order to write the one that succeeds. What if the successful poem can only have been written because of multiple failures?
As I suggest above, poetry is about playing the long game.
Z: Early in your writing career, was there a specific hurdle you were able to jump over, whether it was a way to unlock your creativity or simply begin viewing yourself as a poet? How did you overcome it?
DR: That is a great question. The answer is yes, absolutely. Probably two main hurdles.
The first was simply wondering if I have what it takes, if I have the talent and the commitment to devote my life (or at least the professional part of my life) to poetry. There are two components of that fear—talent and dedication. I remember Edward Hirsch telling me one time that he came to a realization at one point in his career that he would rather fail at poetry than succeed at anything else. I too came to that realization, perhaps a little later than some, but it made all the difference in my work. There are other poets out there with more natural gifts than I have—Terrance Hayes is a better poet than I am. Jorie Graham – way better. W. S. Merwin – so much better it’s like Kevin Durant and my 6-year old son playing horse. But, I’m playing the long game – I believe my best poems are to come. I’m committed to being courageous about my work.
The second hurdle was believing in that choice—believing that if I gave myself to poetry that poetry would return that gift. Like most poets, early on I was confused about my voice and/or what I wanted my voice to be. I both wanted to sound like poets I admire and did not want to sound like poets I admire. Somehow, that involved letting go of past voices of restrictive ideas about what a poem should look like or sound like or do and let my poems embody poetry’s flexibility, its nimbleness, its openness.
Z: What are some poetry collections you’ve recently read and would whole-heartedly recommend to prospective Workshop attendees?
For me, the most impressive collection of the last decade or so is Lighthead by Terrance Hayes. A very different book but one which I like and I think students will like is Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón. King Me by Roger Reeves is great, as is Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang. If folks have not read W. S. Merwin’s The Lice, now is a great time to do so. Copper Canyon just issued a 50th anniversary edition of it – that book changed contemporary poetry. Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire is a must. I also recommend a book many people may not know – Simone Muench’s Lampblack with Ash. Lastly, if folks are interested in the ways in which poems can take on controversial political issues, I urge readers to check out Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence—with poems by Juan Felipe Herrera, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, Danez Smith, Robert Hass, Natalie Diaz, Dana Levin, Yusef Komunyaaka, Jane Hirshfield, Martin Espada and 40 others. Each poem is paired with responses by survivors of mass shootings, parents of children killed in shootings, and other activists. Often, contemporary poetry can feel like it is facing inward, but these are all poems looking outward.
A decade after the publication of his first novel, Harry, Revised, Mark Sarvas returns with Memento Park (288 pages; FSG), the chronicle of one first-generation Hungarian American’s journey to retrieve a family painting believed to have been looted by the Nazis. The protagonist, Matt Santos, is an aspiring actor and current background extra living in L.A. at the tail-end of his thirties when he receives a strange call from the Australian Embassy concerning a painting from their database of unclaimed war paintings: the fictional “Budapest Street Scene” by tortured artist Erwin Kàlmàn. The piece belonged to Matt’s family in Hungary during the Second World War, and its current value is estimated at two to three million dollars. Desperate for transit documents, his grandfather traded the painting to a member of Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross Party. Unfortunately, the papers did not arrive in time to save his grandmother’s life,
This revelation leaves Matt puzzled; the story of his family’s escape “had always been a closely guarded secret,” and his “repertoire of gesture was too limited.” Matt also believes his father is the type of guy who “reveled in getting something for nothing,” and finds it strange his father doesn’t want anything to do with the painting, at least according to the embassy. Perhaps the story behind the painting could unlock why his family’s flight was shrouded in such mystery.
“There was something formidable about him, about his adherence to adamantine standards that I could neither meet nor shake free of,” Matt says of his father. Sarvas is an expert at depicting the dualities of the immigrant experience. When speaking in English, Matt’s father is laconic and rigid at best, belligerent at worst. But in Hungarian he becomes “like an aria transposed in another key,” an amiable, card-playing jokester when around his comrades from the Hungarian Social Club.
Matt’s other key relationships––his professional one with Rachel Steinberg, the striking, young lawyer from the World Jewish Congress; and the romantic one with Tracy, his supermodel girlfriend––are also complicated by his quest. Rachel travels with Matt to Budapest to aid him in his search for the painting, leading to amorous feelings that will create problems for Matt’s relationship with Tracy. “It often seems to me that the stories of our lives are too easily reduced to single moments of decision, whether to stay or to leave,” Matt says. “I suppose The Clash had it right, after all, but the wisdom of punk notwithstanding, I am consumed with this question.”
As Matt’s journey takes him from Los Angeles to New York and Hungary, Sarvas develops each setting with admirably unique language: “I had missed the spiced metal spell of the ocean,” he says of Los Angeles, “missed the gentle curves of the coast highway where the glass-flecked green and blue sheet shoulders up against pale, windswept beaches.” And throughout the novel, Sarvas allows his characters moments of self-reflection, ultimately asking if one can continue life’s dance when one has failed to learn the steps. (Witness the awkward encounter with Rachel’s father during a Sabbath dinner where he questions Matt’s lack of Jewish education.) As its protagonist puzzles over his identity, his relationships, and the painter Erwin Kàlmàn’s troubled past, Memento Park assembles these pieces into a satisfying whole.
You can’t accuse Joe Donnelly of taking it easy. In a decades-spanning career, the Los Angeles writer has profiled the “who’s who” of Hollywood––from America’s sweetheart Drew Barrymore to iconoclast filmmaker Werner Herzog––in the pages of publications like L.A. Weekly, where he served as deputy editor for a number of years. During that time, his short stories have earned him an O. Henry Prize (“Bonus Baby,” from ZYZZYVA No. 103) and have been adapted into short films. Donnelly also co-founded and co-edited Slake, a short-lived but highly acclaimed journal that gathered journalism, fiction, poetry, and art, all with a distinctly L.A. feel.
L.A. Man (284 pages; Rare Bird Books) represents a carefully curated selection of Donnelly’s journalism. The book includes profiles of actors as disparate as Carmen Electra and Christian Bale, as well as the madmen and outsiders that capture Donnelly’s imagination: the Z-Boys who skated rings around the empty pools of 1970s SoCal; ex-hippie turned international drug smuggler Eddie Padilla; eccentric comedian and dramatist Lauren Weedman, whose solo theatrical shows Donnelly likens to witnessing The Who perform for the first time; and many more.
Donnelly talked to ZYZZYVA about some of the famous names that appear in L.A. Man, life in the sphere of the filmmaking industry, and the enduring allure of Los Angeles.
ZYZZYVA: Throughout L.A. Man, you have a tendency to profile filmmakers, actors, musicians, and other artistic figures at moments when they’re either established icons (Lou Reed, Werner Herzog)—or alternately right when they’re at the precipice of fame. For instance, you met with Wes Anderson just before Rushmore put him on the map, and you note that even when you spoke to Christian Bale pre-Dark Knight he wasn’t quite a household name yet. When you meet someone at the start of their career, does that tend to make you feel more invested in their career trajectory and want to keep up with their artistic development?
JOE DONNELLY: Not really. I feel like I tend to go all in when I’m doing the pieces, or a lot of them anyway. There’s a desire to make them definitive even if they come at transitional points in the subjects’ lives, and I don’t tend to feel much invested in their trajectories afterward unless, of course, they are figures whose lives and art will continue to relate to my life in a tangible way. Those are few and far between. I don’t have many heroes in that way, though Lou Reed was certainly one of them. Of more interest to me than the super famous figures such as Herzog, Barrymore, Bale, or Penn, etc. are the continuing stories of artists such as Craig Stecyk and Sandow Birk, or Eddie Padilla, the subject of “The Pirate of Penance,” and the wolf OR7, whose life and story has more implication to me than whether or not Wes Anderson makes another good movie.
A quick summary of Moon Brow (464 pages; Restless Books; translated by Sara Khalili), Shahriar Mandanipour’s newest novel to be translated into English, reads like the stuff of fable. Our main character, Amir Yamini, returns from the Iran-Iraq War saddled with amnesia and bereft of his left arm. Ostracized from his family and community as a head case, crippled by shrapnel, he is repeatedly haunted by the image and piecemeal memories of a beloved. With the help of his sister, Reyhaneh, he searches Tehran for signs of his past, and potentially for the love he no longer recalls, save only in his dreams. In a brazen attempt to rediscover a portion, both imaginative and literal, of what was lost, his journey eventually leads him back to the battlefield where his arm was severed.
From a lesser writer, one might expect numerous pinholes to develop within this complex and twisting storyline, not to mention a sentimentality found in gone-off-to-war pseudo heroic narratives. Instead, Mandanipour treats us to a new kind of story by filtering his novel through the dual personas of the angel of virtue and the angel of sin perched on Amir’s shoulders. Not only that, but Amir himself, at times, converses with each scribe, encouraging one or reprimanding the other. (“Write on my right shoulder that I like the old man. Not on my left, you jerk! The old man has memories of my childhood.”) We’re often shuttled smoothly from one point of view to another, and to yet another, as the past is recast—not so much as fact or history, but as a feeling or moment, transitory and unsettled.
It’s true that much energy is devoted to the playfulness between our sometimes-capricious narrators and Amir and their interpretation of events. (Not to mention the atmosphere of playfulness and carefreeness found in Amir’s playboy lifestyle pre-war, which others relate to him.) Yet Moon Brow is indeed a war story, and takes deliberate steps in describing the horrors of battle
By the time he makes his way to the soldiers, the pleas and howls of three of them have stopped. Like a snake, an intestine has slithered under a rock. A lacerated red mask on a face. One man, sitting on his knees, his forehead on the ground, silently trembles. His uniform is soaked with blood. Is it his blood or another soldier’s?
Amir’s memories of the violence of the front are almost hallucinogenic, a consequence both of the precise language used to conjure such awfulness as well as the already established shifting narrative. The sometimes-brief recollections that spool into one another continuously in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner heighten the drama. Images of war and beauty exist in close proximity, and the sudden turn from idyllic to grotesque mirrors the precariousness of human life in wartime.
To truly appreciate Moon Brow one must embrace a mindset that maintains the world is not black and white, but in fact gray. Amir’s world is one where something can both be and not be in the same breath:
There are and there are not clouds in the sky. There is and there is not the perfume of wintersweet flowers in the air. There is and there is not the tick tock of a clock. There is the smell of dead leaves fermenting and there is no cuckoo of a cuckoo bird.
This is complicated, enjoyably, by the ongoing disagreements between the raconteur scribes. “The account on his left shoulder is faulty,” says the scribe on Amir’s right shoulder. “Not that it is untrue, but it has been written from Abu-Yahya’s perspective. This should not be done.” We inhabit the area between the two, listening to both sides, trying to piece together, alongside Amir, an accurate account of his life before the war. After a while, a certain vertigo permeates the text.
It’s quite remarkable, and should be counted as a tremendous success, then that Shahriar Mandanipour sustains this tightrope act for well over 400 pages, both rewarding and delighting those who make the journey with Amir.
Air travel has long been depicted in fiction as a venue for potential transition and transformation (even if only metaphorical); we take off from one place and land in another, and there is no guarantee we will be the same person upon our arrival—no telling what chance encounter may occur on our flight or what dreamy epiphany those long hours might inspire.
Blue Self–Portrait (143 pages; translated by Sophia Lewis; Transit Books), a 2009 first novel by French author Noémi Lefebvre, occupies this same liminal space; the entire book unfolds during a plane trip from Berlin to Paris, as our unnamed narrator obsesses over a brief romantic encounter with a German pianist, who is haunted by the Arnold Schoenberg painting from which the book derives its name.
Not unlike her characters, Lefevbre studied music, as well as political science; despite the dry image her academic credentials might conjure, Lefebvre displays a mordant wit. Her narrator is burdened with the kind of all–consuming self–consciousness and existential anxiety that have become hallmarks of a certain type of intellectual. Lefebvre utilizes page after page to pile on her narrator’s neurosis to frequent comedic effect: a trip to a salon means “…letting myself be shampooed, then snipped and styled and sent to the dryer to wait under that hood and finished off with hair spray, it destroys me every time”; her restless leg syndrome is “a long–standing problem that I’ve never managed to fix and which damages my social position, tarnishes my public image, and makes me unfit for all cultural integration.”
Lefevbre finds clever ways to disrupt her narrator’s solipsism. Any traveler knows that more often than not one’s agenda for the flight––whether it’s turning over the minutia of an ill–fated romance or making progress in a good book––can be dashed by the inconvenient realities of air flight: the screaming children or the choppy air. Lefebvre does well in reminding us her narrator is first and foremost a body at the mercy of a high-altitude cabin: “I looked for another tissue to mop up my capital and dorsal dripping, in other words my general dripping due to poor adaptation to the pressurized environment.” The narrator’s sister is along for the journey, her presence a welcome addition that serves to retrieve the narrator’s head from the clouds at opportune moments. Despite similarities in education and demeanor, the sister stands in frequent contrast to our protagonist: “You are not intellect alone,” she advises at one point, “you have to relax.”
In the end, the narrator seems to conclude that the defining difference between her sister and herself is her own suspicion in the very notion of a collective happiness—the idea that if each of us simply do our part then society as a whole will function for the betterment of all. “Collective happiness, in my sister’s case,” she explains, “depends fundamentally on universal niceness.” If the narrator is not dubious of the entire enterprise of striving for collective happiness, she is at minimum certain her ingrained anti–social behavior means she has no place in the endeavor: “…I mean I serve myself without restraint or consideration, I take what interests me and use it to fill my own void, my void is all I care about.”
Blue Self–Portrait contains thoughtful ruminations on classical music composition, the Third Reich’s persecution of the arts, and the impact of globalism on culture, among other far–reaching topics. Contemporary Berlin proves a rich setting, allowing Lefebvre to contrast the city’s towering artistic achievements against the lingering memory of fascism and the pervasive presence of consumer capitalism. (The narrator can’t help but remark on the ironies of her meeting with a pianist trained in classical German music to view an American film at the Sony Center movie theater: “composition and consumption fundamentally incompatible.”) Given how immersed in the notion of creativity and art the novel is, it is little wonder that at times Blue Self–Portrait takes on some meta qualities, such as when the pianist of our narrator’s affection muses, “…composing a piece with the stole aim of pleasing my audience was not my intention either, would have been impossible,” perhaps a reference to Lefebvre and the ways in which her novel categorically ignores the traditions of the form––resisting the straight narrative path from A to B, such as an airplane must follow.
“Flying only makes you melancholy,” the narrator’s sister tells her as their plane nears its descent, “…from the moment we reach the airport you’ll start to feel different and as though you’re glowing.” At times we long for this state of renewal at the end of a long journey, a revitalization upon arriving at our destination, no matter the wear-and-tear to get there. This kind of rebirth isn’t always possible, of course––some voyages leave us irrevocably altered and not for the better. But in Blue Self–Portrait there is at least the hope for change. “I’ll take some time at home quietly putting my pieces back,” our narrator assures her sister. “I’ll eat well and sleep well, I’ll take outdoor walks, that’s what I’ll do…I too shall be radiant.” We want to believe this is possible for our high-strung narrator, not only because we sense she deserves a reprieve from her constant self-introspection (and persecution), but because in her we see a reflection of our own desires.