ZYZZYVA EventsJanuary 24, 2017
In Conversation with Shanthi Sekaran
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Sekaran, the author of "The Prayer Room," discusses her new novel, "Lucky Boy" (Putnam) with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/2iRDgE4January 26, 2017
ZYZZYVA Winter Issue Celebration, East Bay
Location: 7 p.m., Diesel Bookstore, 5433 College Ave., Oakland
Description: Come celebrate ZYZZYVA's Winter issue with a reading featuring contributors Kathleen Alcott, Ella Martinsen Gorham, Matthew Zapruder, and Scott O'Connor. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/2ghs4gtFebruary 15, 2017
In Conversation with Min Jin Lee
Location: 7:30 p.m., The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., San Francisco
Description: Lee, the author of "Free Food for Millionaires," discusses her new novel, "Pachinko" (Grand Central Publishing), with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/2ilCU4PFebruary 22, 2017
In Conversation with John Darnielle
Location: 7 p.m., The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., San Francisco
Description: Darnielle, the author of "Wolf in White Van," discusses his new novel, "Universal Harvester" (FSG), with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Ticket required. More info here: http://bit.ly/2jtVhIE
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
Our Winter issue features fiction, nonfiction, and poetry:
“Throwback Thursday” by Joshua Mohr: online, it’s the appearance of happiness that matters most.
“Revision” by Mar Colón-Margolies: on assignment covering Texas’s abortion laws, a journalist considers the line between his humanity and his profession.
“Wild Kingdom” and “World Away” by Octavio Solis: the tenacity of adolescent memories reveal themselves in a father’s explosive anger and in a school production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“Operator, Information” by Glen David Gold: picking up from Issue No. 100’s “The Plush Cocoon,” we offer another installment from Gold’s forthcoming three-volume memoir.
“Flood Control,” an essay by Rebecca Thomas: in Southern California, amid the drought, the concrete channels tell us people have reckoned with deluges there, too.
Short short fiction from Amy Tan, Elizabeth Rosner, and Deb Olin Unferth.
A wide-ranging conversation with acclaimed author and feminist Susan Griffin.
Plus more fiction from Mick LaSalle, Catherine Sustana, Scott O’Connor, Rolf Yngve, and Eric Severn; a translation of Italian author Giuseppe Zucco’s disquieting tale “The Wallpaper,” and introducing First Time in Print fiction writer Ella Martinsen Gorham.
Poetry from Matthew Zapruder, Jenny Qi, Matthew Dickman, Gary Lark, Abigail Carl-Klassen, Jesse Wallis, and Emily Benton. And featuring art by Annie Galvin.
César Aira’s books often shrug off the shackles of genre, tradition, structure, or sense. They’re also often short. Usually around 100 pages, these novellas are complete in and of themselves. However, readers will most likely leave an Aira text in a completely different mental state than from the one they entered with—such is the challenge and the pleasure of reading him.
Aira’s latest book, Ema, the Captive (128 pages; New Directions; translated by Chris Andrews), is fairly straightforward in substance and story. A 19th-century Western set in Argentina is probably the most succinct way to describe it but to box this book into neatness would be dishonest to its intent. Aira goes to great lengths to paint a living portrait of a time and place replete with war, struggle, brutality, community, and hope. Yet that portrait questions the veracity of the history it presumes to be a part of. (In an author’s note included as a postscript, Aira refers to the book as a “historiola,” and claims to have been struck with the inspiration for it when translating long gothic novels while on vacation.) Irony aside, the novel has been steeped in a kind of mythic dye.
Rolf Yngve’s short fiction has recently appeared in Kenyon Review, Fifth Wednesday, Glimmer Train, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Coronado, California. His somewhat holiday-themed story—a lone traveller driving along snowy roads—”Three Wishes” appears in the new issue of ZYZZYVA.
In “Three Wishes,” the aforementioned traveller stops to pick up a stranded motorist and her dog. As they drive along, the protagonists’s cell phone may or may not be guiding the trio in ways beyond simply giving directions. The following is an excerpt, but you can read the story in its entirety by getting a copy here.
Ella Martinsen Gorham is writer in Los Angeles and is at work on a collection of stories. “The Urban Forest,” which appears in the new issue of ZYZZYVA, is her first work in print.
Dan, the protagonist, is a young single man who tries to keep his life as orderly as possible. His efforts to stay in control are challenged when he buys a house and realizes the tree that comes with it constantly splatters his property with “rank-smelling berries.” The huge tree is also home to the neighborhood’s feral parrots. The following in an excerpt of “The Urban Forest.” You can read it in its entirety in Issue No. 108, which you can get here. (Ella Martinsen Gorham will also be reading with Matthew Zapruder, Kathleen Alcott, and Scott O’Connor at ZYZZYVA’s Winter Issue Celebration at Diesel in Oakland on Thursday, January 26.)
MB Caschetta’s recent story collection, Pretend I’m Your Friend (Engine Books; 200 pages), explores what one of its characters calls “terrible love.” In eleven entwined stories, Caschetta examines confusing and often painful friendships, romances, and familial bonds: a set of parents who share a sexual desire for their kids’ babysitter, a dying mother who wishes cancer on her daughters instead of herself, a clairvoyant whose visions the end of her marriage. Just when you think you have wrapped your head around the root of a character’s issues, Caschetta will offer a different perspective in a later story. One problem bleeds into several others. A name mentioned in passing in one tale will attain its emotional weight in a much later piece.
The heart of the collection is the three stories in which Caschetta focuses on the rats’ nest of pain that is the Wojak family. In “Hands of God,” we zoom in on one moment of Alice-James (A.J.) Wojak’s life, as she takes a trip to Florence with her high school friend Helena Frankel, “the most beautiful girl in all of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, place of their birth, and exactly nowhere.” It is 1973, and the girls have saved up for two years for the trip. Two days before their departure, Helena discovers her boyfriend having a threesome with another couple.
Rebecca Thomas, who is currently working on a novel, has had her work appear in Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Gulf Stream and other publications. Her essay, “Flood Control,” appears in the new issue of ZYZZYVA.
An English instructor at West Virginia University, Thomas grew up in Orange County. Though known as a region afflicted by drought, Southern California has long had to contended with deluge, too. “Flood Control” is Thomas’s examination—personal and historical—of a place’s fraught relationship with water. The following in an excerpt but you can read the essay in its entirety by getting a copy here.
Matthew Zapruder is editor-at-large for Wave Books, the poetry editor for The New York Times Magazine, and an associate professor in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College. Next August, his book Why Poetry? will be published by Ecco. Two of his poems—”Poem for Noguchi” and “Stari Trg”—appear in the new issue of ZYZZYVA, which you can get here.
The following is “Poem for Noguchi” in its entirety. You can hear Zapruder read from his work, along with ZYZZYVA contributors Kathleen Alcott, Scott O’Connor, and Ella Martinsen Gorham, at the Winter Issue Celebration at Diesel in Oakland on Thursday, January 26.
Mar Colón-Margolies is a former editor at Nation Books. Her reporting has appeared in The Nation, the Columbia Journalism Review online, and on Rhode Island Public Radio. Her story “Revision” appears in the new issue of ZYZZYVA.
Set in Texas, “Revision” is the tale of a journalist on assignment writing about that state’s draconian abortion laws. In the course of his work he faces questions of professional and even personal ethics as he re-connects with a past love. The following is an excerpt, but you can read the story in its entirety by getting a copy here. (Also, Mar Colón-Margolies will be reading from her work at ZYZZYVA’s Winter Issue Launch at Greenlight Bookstore on January 12.)
Meantime (288 pages; Black Cat/Grove) is an absorbing novel, the second from author Katharine Noel, whose first book, Halfway House, received widespread acclaim. Meantime seems to be on a similar track, as reviewers praise its humor and emotional depth—especially as found in its narrator, Claire Hood. Claire is dry and amusing, and her voice and reactions are engaging and convincing. The main plot points—Claire growing up with her bohemian “Naked Family,” her varied boyfriends and failed relationships, her marriage to Jeremy, and Jeremy’s illness and recovery, et cetera —are all fascinating; the characters and their dialogues drive the novel. There is not one character, however small, that doesn’t seem fully realized. (Claire’s judgments about them notwithstanding). And none is entirely despicable or lovable, but all are undeniably real.
But what sets Meantime apart is how Noel’s beautiful prose renders contemporary San Francisco. Her San Francisco is not some overblown mythical city promising rebirth or “finding yourself,” and it certainly isn’t overly romanticized, either. The San Francisco of the novel, from its descriptions of the views of the Bay or the litter and garbage lining the streets, are recognizable to anybody familiar with the city (thankfully, the novel has no references to the Golden Gate Bridge or fog). Noel’s San Francisco is the same San Francisco that I myself am familiar with, one that has been facing rapid gentrification and staggering income inequality—that in recent years seems like it’s been dialed up to 11.
The following Letter from the Editor appears in the Winter issue. It was originally written a few days before Election Day.
“What is essential is the intense presence of the viewer in the intense presence of the art.”—Edward Albee
For eight years I lived in New York, and during that time I took in a reasonable amount of theater, on, off, and off-off Broadway, whenever and wherever I could get tickets. There was, as you can imagine, a great deal of serious and experimental work to choose from, which was particularly fortuitous because my graduate work was in part on Samuel Beckett. One memorable evening, my father and I saw a brilliant production of Endgame at the Irish Repertory Theatre starring Tony Roberts as Hamm (you may best remember Roberts as Woody Allen’s patient and much taller friend Rob in Annie Hall). In Endgame he was confined to a dilapidated wheelchair for the entire play, his eyes shielded from the audience by sunglasses, his body shrouded in piles of rags—and from this disadvantaged position Roberts captivated in every moment. Another fine evening of theater was also had well off Broadway, in a production juxtaposing three short pieces by Beckett (including Not I) with, after an intermission, Counting the Ways, a one-act by Edward Albee. Albee became another playwright I sought out, and over the years I saw Sally Field in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and Kathleen Turner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Both productions featured the always excellent Bill Irwin.) After each show I left the theater feeling drained, as though I myself had been through an extended bout of personal reckoning. Yet I returned to see both productions a second time. What is it about Albee’s work that seems so essential? What makes his work such a complementary pairing with the stylistically distinct Beckett?
I think it has something to do with Albee’s unsparing examination of who we are, and how we allow ourselves to become such mysteries to ourselves: this kind of investigation is demanding, but speaks directly to how art can craft meaning from the raw material of life. It has a personal dimension (his plays often examine intimate and long-term relationships), as well as a social and a political one. Albee’s work calls for us to wake up, to take stock, to challenge ourselves to confront who we’ve become. It asks us to see how we’ve wounded the ones we love, intentionally or otherwise, how we’ve drifted from our intentions and our better selves; to stop skating along complacently and consider the complexities of identity, relationships, and society, in all their tangled, gnarled glory. It’s an exhausting but profound journey we take. In other words, his work delivers on the promise of art.
Beckett is, still, literally incomparable. He plumbs essential questions about existence by relentlessly discarding all excess: the staging is spare, and speakers are often confined in one manner or another so that distraction is minimized and the dialogue can then do its work of relentlessly circling and closing in on the matter at hand. Through rhythm, repetition, a deliberate kind of digression, and a concentration on language itself, Beckett drills below the noisy, stubborn surface of daily life. “Absurd” is a word that often gets thrown around in discussing Beckett’s work, but the work is more stripped to a core (the voice that speaks, the mind that thinks) than it is simply absurd.
Albee’s work does something different but related. He, too, works to shatter the tough shell of the quotidian and to burrow into the difficult subject matter underneath. He presents material in what appears to be a more familiar setting (with the trappings of home and family), and then proceeds to make the familiar deeply strange. He uses crisis and excessive drink and elements, yes, of the absurd to crack the polite surface and to push his characters, and the audience, past delusion and into painful confrontations. Like Beckett, he uses language, humor, and extreme situations to dissolve our complacency.
There was an unpleasant dissonance in learning of Albee’s death in September within the same week I read about Tom Wolfe’s inexplicable new book in which he claims evolution cannot account for the human development of language: a thesis he supports with flawed logic and an exuberant obtuseness. We are in a time of real resistance to the facing of facts and hard truths that Albee championed. (How discouraging that evolution itself must still be counted among these.) This seems, indeed, to be a time of minimal respect for facts, for science, and for hard truths. Evolution (and its deniers) seemed to be of interest to Albee through the years; his 1975 play Seascape is in part a meditation on evolution. In one scene, a character attempts to explain evolution to a mated pair of man-sized lizards, with little success. In 1998, Albee clarified these needlessly muddied waters: “I hold that we are the only animal who has invented and uses art as a method to communicate ourselves to ourselves. And I am convinced that this has a great deal to do with evolution; again, my apologies to the creationists.”
Today, many of the trends and tics in American culture that most worried Albee seem amplified. In Stretching My Mind, a 2005 collection of essays, interviews, and reflections spanning his career, Albee laments critics who, instead of seeking to shape public opinion and guide public reception for art that may be difficult, try only to reflect existing opinion back to the public in a kind of self-congratulating hall of mirrors. “It is not enough to hold the line against the dark,” he wrote in 1989. “It is your responsibility to lead into the light. People don’t like the light—it reveals too much. But hand in hand with the creative artist, you can lead people into the wisdom…simply, that it is the dark we have to fear.” This concern endures, and a parallel abdication of duty in politics and political coverage—with too many members of the media shaping their work around public feelings about issues rather than the issues themselves—confronted us in this election season. Too many demurred when presented with an opportunity to call out a lie, retreating instead to the now familiar defense that the public can decide for themselves—evidently without the benefit and expertise of those whose job it is to analyze, contextualize, and fact-check.
Explaining in The Paris Review the meaning of the title of his most famous work, Albee said, “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, who’s…afraid of living life without false illusions.” The answer, if we are honest, is all of us. There is a perennial quality to this challenge at the heart of Albee’s work, but rarely have we been in more urgent need of the courage to dispel our personal and collective false illusions than now. Albee’s voice was singular. His loss is a great one for the arts, for the theater, for those who appreciate a thoughtful and meticulous kind of provocateur.
As we go to press with this issue in early November, we are in an odd position, knowing that it will publish about a month after the presidential election. Whatever the outcome, there will be much to concern us. For this is one of those loaded moments in our history when the tectonic shifts rumbling far below the surface can be easily felt.
No matter where we find ourselves, the motto that appears above the figure in our cover art is apt: be strong. We all have a great deal of work to do—as citizens, as artists, as members of myriad overlapping communities.
A world in crisis demands our full attention—a willingness to dispel our self-protective illusions—and requires the full-voiced efforts of our better selves.
Wishing you and yours a peaceful holiday season, and a bright NewYear.
Artist Ricardo Cavolo and writer Scott McClanahan have created an intimate portrait of one of their heroes—cult-famous indie musician Daniel Johnston—in their recent graphic novel, which serves as “an affectionate thanks and a hug for Daniel.” The Incantations of Daniel Johnston (101 pages; Two Dollar Radio) is more than a look at Johnston’s picaresque life; it is also a critique on fandom and an investigation of the ways an audience interacts with art and mental illness. While Cavolo and McClanahan refuse to skip over the tragic aspects of Johnston’s mental health, or skirt around the troubling things the self-proclaimed “curse upon the land” has done, they also lovingly dream up different paths Johnston’s life could have taken. There is a wonderful yet occasionally unsettling strangeness that permeates this book. It stems from acknowledging “the devils inside” all of us, as depicted in Cavolo’s colorful illustrations and in the dark humor in McClanahan’s language.
To combat the mythologizing of Daniel Johnston as an artist, Cavolo and McClanahan continuously remind us he is human. At the beginning, Cavolo draws Daniel on an embryonic level, still inside his mother’s womb. McClanahan writes, “Everyone was someone’s child once. Remember.” This sets the tone for the rest of the book. As Cavolo and McClanahan bask in the bizarreness of Johnston’s story, they also instruct us to acknowledge he is real. We are transported to Johnston’s childhood bedroom, where he grew up in a religious household in West Virginia. Within the room, Cavolo illustrates the drawings Johnston is known for: frogs, eyeballs, skulls, and superheroes. McClanahan writes, “There is nothing more amazing than the bedrooms of our childhood or the room we are sitting in right now.” These details of Daniel’s youth are given as much weight as the darker incidences that occurred later on in his life once drugs, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder afflicted his life.
Bergman. You know, people said he wasn’t as good as Dreyer. They said it. They said he couldn’t do it. He did it, though. He really went and did it. I mean, people are worried about death. Capital-D Death. They want answers, they’re dying, they’re not happy. So this guy, big handsome-looking Norwegian guy, European guy, you know, he plays chess with Death. Death doesn’t know what to do, he’s like, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” It’s true, folks. Never before—no one’s ever seen this before. They keep playing, they’re on a beach, it’s great. There’s the black plague, and a smith whose wife runs away with a jester, and everybody’s upset. Then this woman talks to the devil, and she gets everybody all upset. Lots of wailing and whining. They don’t have a clue, they don’t know how to win. OK. They get together and escape in a carriage, and, but, before this the guy with the blonde hair, the real Viking guy, gives away his strategy. He’s trying to cheat Death and Death’s trying to cheat him. There’s lots of philosophy, they eat some strawberries. Near the end some of them get away but this guy, he chokes. He chokes, what can I say? Tries to swipe the pieces off the chessboard, but it’s done, it’s over, kaput. And Death gets them in a castle, he gets them good. And they’re brave. They lost, but they’re brave, and they said some nice things. Anyway, it’s a great movie. They lose but it’s a great movie, just tremendous. I’ve always said it and I’ll say it again: don’t skip Bergman if you can help it. He’s at the top of the heap, better than Fellini, better than Godard, all of those stuffy ballerinas—they’re overrated and everybody knows it. This movie doesn’t have time for any of that. It says, OK, Death, let’s play chess. You hop my queen and I hop yours. No settling, no recounts. You know, you know you’ve made it when the Muppets are saying how good you are. Lovely people, the Muppets. The Swedes, too. You’ve made it.