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In this issue:
Acclaimed poet and critic W.S. Di Piero in conversation: on Shakespeare, the art of translation (the translator inhabits “The house of a language, an imagination, a culture.”), and on being a good citizen.
Sallie Tisdale’s essay “The Hinge”: “My worst regrets,” she writes, “are not big and dramatic; they are as tiny and sharp as glass ground into my palm.”
Nick Lane’s “So You’re Thinking of Becoming a Despot”: It’s easier than you think (and it’s a great way of getting that one village girl to finally notice you).
Louis B. Jones’ “Ever Since the Cloverleaf”: Two old friends having lunch—and a conversation that flirts with the criminal—at a near-shuttered Trader Vic’s.
Victoria Patterson’s “Appetite”: The wife of an author begins a fraught friendship with an aspiring writer.
Ben Greenman’s “Right Angles”: snippets from the inner life of Fearless Leader.
Plus more fiction from Christine Sneed, Kristen Iskandrian, and Andrew Martin, and introducing Andrew Mangan.
Laton Carter, W.S. Di Piero, Ru Freeman, D.A. Powell, sam sax, Melissa Stephenson, Cynthia White, and Paul Wilner.
A portfolio of stunning still life photography from Paulette Tavormina
In her first collection of poetry, What It Done to Us (66 pages; Lost Horse Press), Essy Stone writes about an early life spent immersed in a Southern culture she deems toxic, where oppression and tradition are rooted in the collective mentality, often at the expense of women and minorities. She describes a landscape that is as suffocating as it is unsettling, where mountains have “heavy hands” and the valleys lie “cursed by generations of sunburned famers.” Her poems address the unstated yet generally understood rule that if you are born in the South you are somehow fated to stay there, to follow in the footsteps of the generations that came before. Although much of her work focuses on how she fought against this expectation, she does not shy away from speaking frankly about her painful past, or the physical and emotional toll it takes to depart from the world one was raised in.
What It Done to Us reads as a memoir in verse, ordered chronologically from her troubled childhood and teenage years to her adulthood. From her earliest days, we sense she already possessed the rebellious spirit that would serve her well when she made the harrowing but necessary decision to leave the constraints of her hometown. She describes herself as a “teenage delinquent with eyes like black heaps/of coal that no great prophet could lift from their depths,” here also touching on her various confrontations with the “Devil,” a reappearing presence throughout the collection that alternates between being an external force she is helpless against and an undeniable part of herself.
What stands out in the book is the camaraderie between Stone and the other women who reside in her town; she observes their navigation of Southern life with both skepticism and sympathy. These women steel themselves against their various struggles and tragedies, acting tough rather then demure as they “growl through lipsticked teeth at the unseen hand that holds us here./Raise our chins to meet its invisible fist.” While Stone doesn’t minimize their strength of character, she criticizes the way they appear to have surrendered to the unfairness of their situation. Despite its occasionally defeatist language, there is still an undercurrent of resistance running throughout What It Done to Us, with lines such as “We never relax, our muscles ready, tensed/against this dense pressure waiting to erupt from within” and “you spend evenings/at the dam, praying for it to break. Something must burst,/must loose, must free itself & carry you.” The tension between Stone’s desire to follow her path and the pressure to abandon it nears its breaking point as she grows closer to realizing her escape.
What It Done to Us is a sharp and honest reflection of the East Tennessee town she was raised in, of her wounds manifested in the ongoing inner-conflict between guilt and religion, family and self-preservation, and of the pain of one’s memories and the desire to be rid of them. Stone eventually leads us to understand how an environment so shocking, so disturbing can maintain such a powerful hold on those who call it home.
It’s that time of year when some people hit the beach while others hit the bookshelves. Here’s a look at what the ZYZZYVA team has been reading these last few months in order to beat the “heat” of summer in San Francisco:
Laura Cogan, Editor—What is it about summer that makes a thriller especially enticing? Is it the contrarian in me, looking perversely for some shade to counteract the sunny aesthetic of the season? There may be some anecdotal evidence to support this theory, at least in my case: I was visiting the preternaturally well-appointed Marin Country Mart a few weeks ago—a place radiant with fine weather, fresh produce, happy children, and an overall sense of well-being—when I stopped in at DIESEL, and left an hour later with several fairly dark titles.
J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River (Graywolf Press) is a terrifically satisfying entry in the too-often elusive category of literary thriller. As with any good thriller, the plot is propulsive—but, as with any work of literary fiction, the plot is also, ultimately, not the most intriguing or memorable aspect of the book. The murder mysteries of Broken River are layered with mediations on narrative and storytelling, including a wonderfully eerie, developing entity Lennon calls the Observer. Brooke Gladstone’s slim nonfiction volume The Trouble With Reality (Workman) is subtitled “A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time”—a predictably seductive framing to those of a certain mindset in this summer of 2017. It’s a slight book, both in heft and in depth (after all, there is much, almost too much, to be said on the subject), but it does offer a pleasingly pared-down distillation of important ideas—chief among these the concrete threat that the lack of a shared reality (or, put differently, lack of agreement on “the terms of the debate”) poses to the basic functioning of democracy. I enjoyed having it in my purse for a week, and found myself reading a few pages while commuting or waiting in line rather than looking at the news on my phone—a most welcome change. It was Charles Simic’s latest collection, Scribbled in the Dark (Ecco), however, that spoke most directly to my troubled mind in this uneasy season. “All Things in Precipitous Decline” is the perfect title of one especially perfect poem. Each exquisite poem seems to inhabit the same haunted village, and the characters and ghosts and abandoned courtrooms and libraries and stray dogs all have the sense of both a memory and a premonition. And now, as July draws to a close, I’m looking forward to Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (MCD/FSG, August 8). I’ve been anticipating this collection of essays reflecting on technology and culture for ages. In the meantime, I’m dipping back into my long-term reading project: Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Which, with its arch interrogation of the decay of culture and society leading up to World War I, feels only superficially ill-suited to the literal season, while astonishingly, painfully relevant to the political and cultural season.
Libbie Katsev, Intern—In Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, UC Berkeley anthropologist Alexei Yurchak explores why Soviet citizens found the USSR’s collapse both unthinkable and inevitable. Hoping to avoid the binary thinking that dominates language about the Soviet Union, (“official public” and “hidden intimate”; “truth” and “falsity”), Yurchak analyzes interviews, personal writings, jokes, newspaper articles, speeches, and more to examine the paradoxes of late socialism in the words of those who lived it. Though academic, Yurchak’s lively prose and vivid anecdotes make this ethnography an entertaining as well as illuminating read.
Aya Kusch, Intern—W.S. Merwin’s final collection of poems, Garden Time (Copper Canyon Press), offers new insights into the classic Merwin themes of loss, aging, memory, and the beauty of the natural world. In this conclusion to his extensive body of work, there is a comforting consistency to his voice, which maintains both a lyrical quality and lightness no matter how difficult the subject matter. His poetry is not so much about a surrender to the passage of time as it is an acceptance of it, even as life’s harsher aspects inevitably ebb and flow. Despite his impending blindness and the loss of loved ones, Merwin never gives way to a sense of bitterness. Rather, Merwin praises the serenity of the moment, while expressing a deep gratitude for the cherished memories that remain meaningful in the face of their growing distance.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant—When French author and filmmaker Emmanuel Carrère collaborated on the acclaimed television show The Returned, about a small mountain town in which the dead return from the grave and try to resume their prior lives, his thoughts kept returning to the Apostle Paul and his expectation that the deceased would one day be called back to life for judgment day. His musings led to The Kingdom (FSG) — part memoir, part fictional interpretation of the early Christian church, this conversational novel imparts Carrère’s varied thoughts on art, life, and love in that charmingly droll and erudite way that seems intrinsically French. Whether comically discussing his children’s nanny and her resemblance to Kathy Bates in Misery, or espousing his love of all things Philip K. Dick (“the Dostoevsky of our time”), Carrère’s voice registers as warm and intimate as a close friend. At the book’s heart is a man grappling with the illogic of his beliefs in an age that has traded faith for reason.
Samara Michaelson, Intern—I keep returning to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Of all the novels I’ve read this summer, this is the book I’ve been most keen on savoring. I enter it like a dimly lit room. It’s not as though most people are unfamiliar with Joyce’s canonical work, but this year I find myself cracking the door to see how much of myself I can fit in it. I like to travel into all those dark little crevices that Joyce is such a master at shining just a touch of light upon, so that one may see but never touch. As in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, there is a certain tenderness that accompanies the often melancholic and agonizing candor of a mind consumed by itself, as we see with the character of Stephen Dedalus. Jocye’s semi-autobiographical antihero seems to lead a life that is at once lonely and yet full. Full of what, I’m still figuring out. Everything is plainly there — but how can it be translated? Joyce makes me wonder at the immensity of life and just how much of it is unreachable through language. He crafts his web of words stitch by tiny stitch, though he utilizes this fabric to point to something that cannot be grasped, for to grasp it would be to obstruct its truth, to spoil its inherent intimacy. Maybe it’s the difference between feeling and knowing, and only an artist can stun you with the conviction of feeling.
Ann Beattie’s career began, auspiciously, 40 years ago with the joint publication of her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Distortions, a short story collection. It was an almost unheard of debut for a writer whose career had previously consisted largely of short stories in The New Yorker and a few other publications.
But she immediately captured critical attention with her pitch-perfect depiction of the lives of her contemporaries, shellshocked by political changes, struggling with the problems of dysfunctional relationships and trying to find a way to make sense of the senseless.
It didn’t hurt that she was also hip, strewing pop and drug culture references through her work like bread crumbs leading to an imaginary cottage. The startling directness and present-tense presence of her voice did not escape the attention of her peers, either.
“You figured out how to write an entirely different kind of story,’’ John Updike told her, at their first meeting.
Although Beattie’s formidable formal innovations are remarkable, it’s no disservice to her work, which now encompasses 19 books, to say she is working in the same arena as such contemporaries as Alice Munro, and predecessors from Mavis Gallant to Chekhov, or Maupassant.
She may not be squarely in their fictional lane – her style is uniquely her own – but they populate the same neighborhood of experience, and no doubt would find a way to successfully communicate over the garden fence. There has recently been an outpouring of work from Beattie, including the publication last year of The State We’re In: Maine Stories. (She and her husband, the painter Lincoln Perry, divide their time between Maine and Key West). Her newest, just-released collection, The Accomplished Guest (288 pages; Scribner), is stunningly successful – reading it is like being hit by successive waves of emotion recalled – not so much in tranquility as in the vertiginous heat of a summer afternoon. The title pays homage to Emily Dickinson’s poem, which she chooses as an epigraph:
An umbilical cord that cannot be cut –– even after death –– turns out to be less of an impediment than one might think in Knots (176 pages; FSG), Gunnhild Øyehaug’s eccentric collection of short stories. Emotional and mental knots are as binding and problematic as physical ones in these surreal and memorable stories, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson.
Øyehaug’s stories run brief as they oscillate between the bizarre and the everyday. In the opening story “Nice and Mild,” a man suffering from anxiety ventures to IKEA to buy curtains for his son, while in “Grandma is Sleeping,” a woman refuses to let in her family inside her home. And the story “The Object Takes and Exalted Place in the Discourse” reads about as theoretical as it sounds.
These vignettes are windows not only into the tangled lives of Øyehaug’s characters, but the possibilities of the short story form: some feel like scenes from a play, others contain footnotes that introduce a new character’s perspective. No matter how experimental, the stories benefit from Øyehaug’s skill at creating fully realized characters. She treats these individuals with compassion, humor, and occasional severity—and they in turn ensure the stories in Knots are consistently surprising and memorable.
While most of the stories in Knots are not overtly connected, repeated elements—allusions to Rimbaud, themes of longing and compulsion, and the motif of knots— give the collection a sense of cohesion. At times, plotlines from one story will resume later: “Take Off, Landing” follows protagonist Geir until he watches his acquaintance Asle, stone in hands, jump off a dock—a hundred pages later, the story “Air” picks up from that very moment. “Deal” follows a young runaway as she receives a ride home from a local source of scandal, a man whose story continues in “Two by Two.”
In this way, Øyehaug utilizes the short story form to reveal how some things in life will always remain out of frame and out of focus. Later, Geir’s perspective of Asle cuts away, via footnote, to a “brilliant explanation” for why Asle is carrying a stone—yet we never explicitly learn just why Geir spends his days watching others from a van.
Knots begins with a quote from poet Christophe Tarkos: “One of two things: either the spiral/Or to be sent out into the air,” and Øyehaug fittingly embraces a lack of resolution, oftentimes leaving things unsaid. At the end of several pieces, an authorial voice enters to offer glib asides or lessons. After a conflict unfolds between two aliens in “Meanwhile, on Another Planet,” a clinical voice sums up the story’s moral: “What can we learn from this? That impossible situations can arise on other planets too. We don’t need to think that we’re the only ones who struggle and fight. Another striking feature is that they communicate through pictures.” These rare moments of authorial intrusion are unsettling precisely because the rest of the stories, no matter how surreal they may become, feel genuine and earnest. Even with the presence of floralh-patterned UFOs, the most unexpected surprise in Knots is how moving the stories prove.
Claire and I met at a party to celebrate the launch of her husband’s second book. My husband and I had moved from Colorado Springs to Los Angeles two years earlier, and an unsophisticated aura surrounded us, having both been raised in conventional middle-class Republican families. There was a certain type at parties like this: intellectual, vocally liberal, slightly bohemian, creative and with good taste, and quietly and mysteriously moneyed. I was watchful and impressed.
My husband, Jeff, taught history at a high school, most of his time consumed by a yearbook commitment he’d been pressured into taking, and I was on maternity leave from a secretarial position, though I’d quit soon to stay home with our newborn son, David. Jeff had heard about the party through a friend who hadn’t shown, and there was no one else we knew.
Displayed on a stand at a table where the book was being sold, Material Promises was more than 700 pages long, the cover a profile photograph of a somber and bearded and younger Richard, fist at his chin. Published by an academic press associated with the private college where he taught, his books were classified as experimental fiction. At that time I admired anyone who’d crossed that impenetrable threshold to publication and I hoped to meet him, though I didn’t yet want to think of myself as ambitious.
Richard sat at the corner of the living room, and I passed David—less than one month old—to Jeff. I made myself walk over. Though Richard gazed in the other direction, an almost imperceptible tug at his mouth led me to believe he knew I was there. I opened my mouth to speak, but in near synchronicity his head went back and his eyes closed and then he touched his eyelids with his fingertips as if in distress, so I retreated.
“Did you talk to him?” Jeff said.
I grimaced, letting him know he was no better at networking than me, and I took back our fussing son.
“Over an hour left,” I whispered, shaking my head no, wide-eyed, as Jeff gestured to the front door. We’d agreed to last at least two hours at the party.
Later I was breastfeeding David on a couch in a private den, his little leg poking out from the blanket that enclosed him at my chest, listening to his mmm-hmm-mmm sound, when I saw Claire studying a small landscape painting near the open door. She wore a simple black dress and absentmindedly fingered her jade choker, her hiccupping daughter facing her chest in a Baby Björn, splotchy legs and arms wobbling with each hiccup. Claire looked closer—and closer still—until it appeared her nose might touch the painting.
I knew she was married to Richard because I’d watched them earlier. She was affected with him and vice versa: they seemed to encourage it like a performance, both using the words “my love” with a condescending edge and an unnerving frequency. (“Pass me my drink, my love.” “Of course, my love. Here you are, my love.” “Thank you, my love.”) She was pale, elegant, and younger than Richard. I wondered how she remained so passionately thin—her figure like a boy’s—when like me she’d recently given birth.
Even before she turned and saw us—with a surprised step back and a smile—I knew she and her daughter would join us at the couch. And she did, unhooking Lily from her carrier and propping her forward on her lap, one hand at Lily’s chest and neck, tapping her back with the other. “Beautiful,” she said, glancing back at the painting. “The rest”—she gave a dismissive hand wave, while still supporting her daughter.
“Isn’t this your house?” I said.
“Oh, hell no,” she said in amusement and then added seriously, “It belongs to a colleague of Richard’s.”
For a long while we silently watched Lily bobble with each hiccup, a bubble of saliva forming at her bottom lip. The only other sound was the rhythmic patting of Claire’s palm against Lily’s back and David’s breastfeeding hum. Then Lily’s hiccups stopped and soon her head drooped in sleep.
Claire placed her at the couch between us, with Lily’s tiny arms and legs splayed. Claire and I shared notes: ages of babies (Lily three weeks older than David), our ages (both of us in our late twenties), and our birthing experiences (still viscerally recent and traumatic).
Then David drifted to sleep, his mouth barely tugging at my nipple, little ticklish nibbles. His leg shook outside the blanket, a convulsive twitch, and then he stilled, his mouth fully releasing my nipple and his leg and body leaden against me.
With both our babies asleep, our conversation became deeper, freighted, based on the profundity and strangeness of new motherhood and our mutual need for companionship. We talked about how we’d been mothered (hers a competitive intellectual Episcopalian, mine an anti-intellectual born-again Christian), and how long buried memories of our childhoods now came unbidden and unwanted. She paraphrased Germaine Greer, saying that once a woman has a child, her capacity for suffering deepens. We agreed that what we felt for our newborns was larger and more passionate than any love affair. Our marriages, our first loves, and our closest familial relationships paled. And how after we’d given birth, we’d both felt an uncanny awareness as if we were, as she phrased it, “at the center of an abyss.”
So often, the problem with words is their yielding to the things in our lives that don’t make sense or don’t want to make sense. In her new book, Meet Me in the In-Between (320 pages; Grove Press), Bella Pollen takes on the daunting task of containing her life in words even as she acknowledges that the self cannot be contained. Author of five novels, including the critically acclaimed The Summer of the Bear and Midnight Cactus, as well as a contributor to Vogue, Bazaar and the Times (UK), Pollen ventures into the realm of memoir with an account of her life as a Transatlantic writer and mother.
Pointedly astute, she carefully deploys every word so they serve as tiny twigs to build the nest of her story. Beginning with tales of her youth in New York City, including her vengeful harassment of a rental car clerk and her courtship with the manically violent son of a Mafia leader, the memoir follows Pollen’s whims both indelicate and tender. Ultimately stuck between her desperation to belong to someone and somewhere, and an obsessive yearning to escape from the banality of an ordinary life, Pollen finds herself haunted by the disparate junctures of the self.
This haunting becomes literal when, in what seems a fictive touch, Pollen is visited at night by a sexually dominating incubus who forces her to return to her past. With this hint of the surreal, Pollen recounts her life in a way that both mocks the gravity of events and magnifies her sincere quest for self-discovery. This divergence from the traditional form of a story becomes even more interesting when we learn about her obsession with other people’s stories, which itself mirrors readers’ attraction toward memoir.
Pollen’s need to fabricate narratives for other people—whether it’s the Tijuana parking lot attendant called “El Ganso” or the Hollywood agent she contacts to sell the story of her travels to Mexico—and her awareness of that need ultimately reveal how the search for meaning in our own lives can lead us to construct it for others. It’s as though Pollen finds that inventing stories for those around her allows a brief respite from the claustrophobia of constant introspection. But as Pollen discovers, this habit of projecting meaning onto others often causes one to neglect the work required to find her inner peace.
As the memoir whips us from place to place and time period to time period, Meet Me in the In-Between displays the disjointedness of a life, how whims and flings don’t make existence—or a woman—any less meaningful. It’s in the spaces among all these things that something magical breathes and resists capture. As Pollen illustrates in her sharp, nearly wry voice, it is not our memories that will lead us to an understanding of the self, but the act of maneuvering among them, as though they are a crowd blocking the self from view.
As “zyzzyva” makes its overdue arrival in the OED, recent articles from The Washington Post and USA Today are helping to spread the word as to what the word even means (a tropical weevil, of course, as our readers already know), but also shed some light on why a San Francisco literary journal in 1985 would have chosen the word for its name. As the Oxford English Dictionary’s blog notes, “[The word] Zyzzyva owes much of its currency in English to its notoriety as the last entry in various dictionaries.” That is, to claim “zyzzyva” is to make known one has the final word.
The Post was good enough to report that the word doesn’t just exist as a lexical curiosity, noting our publication “certainly seems to be connected to the bug, images of a weevil with a ‘Z’ slapped on its fat abdomen appear across the journal’s website.” For the record, we consider the abdomen pronounced. (The weevil doesn’t overeat.)
To celebrate this coronation of sorts of “zyzzyva,” this holiday weekend—only through July 4th—we’re offering a four-issue subscription plus a T-shirt featuring our weevil for only $50! What a great way to let the world know you have the final word.
“So far, being dead is about as much fun as a barbed-wire G-string.” Thus opens Richard Kadrey’s The Kill Society (Harper Voyager; 416 pages), the ninth installment in his bestselling Sandman Slim series revolving around the half-human, half-angel anti-hero James Stark, a.k.a. Sandman Slim, one of the few souls to have escaped from Hell. He’s a scrappy boozehound who’s skilled in black magic and always fights dirty. He’s feared by demons, and considered an abomination by angels, but he may be the only one who can save creation from itself.
Throughout the series, he has faced off against vampires and zombies, biker gangs and white supremacists, murderous cults and mutant angels. He’s clashed with shadowy government agencies, fought all manner of monsters in Hell’s gladiatorial arenas, and even served a stint as Lucifer himself (a job which changes hands over eternity). This time around, Kadrey exchanges the dark corners of Los Angeles for uncharted territory. Sandman Slim is dead. Really dead. And he’s trapped in the Tenebrae—an endless desert of spiritual limbo scarcely populated by souls hiding from the torments of Hell. Here he links up with a group of motorized marauders led by a self-styled autocrat known as “the Magistrate.” This motley crew of dead souls and hell–beasts sustains their travel across the unforgiving hardpan of the Tenebrae with murderous destruction. Survivors of their wrath are given an ultimatum: join us or die again. (Souls unlucky enough to die twice end up in Tartarus—a Hell below Hell where the doubly dead are kindling for the furnace that fuels creation.)
In Australian author Carys Davies’ latest story collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike (176 pages; Biblioasis), Davies’s deadpan voice and morbid sense of humor lend a surreal twist to otherwise ordinary interactions and relationships. Each of these stories in the collection, which won the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, features unlikely encounters between people with seemingly little in common, encounters which ultimately lead to unexpected self-discovery or empathy.
The title story perhaps illustrates this best. As it opens, a woman who regularly visits inmates to offer solace is assigned a prisoner whose violent crime she finds particularly despicable. Her job is made even more challenging by his utter indifference to her role. Even though their relationship doesn’t appear to warm much, we later learn how much her visits mean to this prisoner, and the woman discovers compassion for a man she initially thought irredeemable. In “Jubilee,” a festival worker senses the boredom of the widowed queen, and tries to entertain her with a story about his wife’s Sapphic love affair. This confidence turns out to be exactly what the queen needed (“‘Nobody tells me anything,” she admits). As in many of Davies’ stories, “Jubilee” shows how ostensibly inconsequential gestures or incidents can make a monumental impact on a person’s life.
In “Bonnet,” a writer who always wears a grey bonnet whimsically decides to upgrade her drab headwear with a touch of pink trimming. This flourish, which would seem quite trivial, shocks her publisher to the core—“the worst imaginable thing, when he looks up, for him to see it; for him to see this small plain woman, his friend, with this unexpected bonnet on her head”—and in turn fills the writer with a deep shame. One infers that their relationship is more than simply professional, and the whole scene is tinged with a sense of embarrassment that borders on terror. A small act also takes on vast importance in the story “First Journeyman,” in which the town’s vegetable provider experiences an overwhelming sadness when his ailing Master recovers and no longer has need of his carefully selected peas.
Carys Davies displays a penchant for the ridiculous, detailed in an unwaveringly dry and matter-of-fact tone capable of rendering events as shocking. One of her strengths as a writer is her ability to recount situations that are wildly unlikely yet ring true to human nature—the ways in which we try to entertain people in their grief, our tendency to develop affection for those who are particularly helpful, or the extreme lengths we go to maintain relationships even when they appear doomed. These stories embrace humanity’s darkness and its compassion, making for a haunting and fascinating collection. Though readers may find many of the stories in The Redemption of Glane Pike to possess a morbid streak, they’re sure to recognize truth in Davies’ exploration of the potential for even the most basic human actions to lead to something grand.
Jess Arndt’s Large Animals (131 pages; Catapult) traps its characters in self-constructed cages and puts them on display, presenting a bevy of cultural concerns about identity, sex, and the human body. Ranging from the 19th century to contemporary San Francisco and New York, the twelve stories in Arndt’s first book prove startling in their variety and verisimilitude, and challenge our notions of gender and the binary divides that too often fail to define us.
In “Beside Myself,” we witness the austere life of a woman attempting to impregnate her wife by using her brother’s sperm. Here, as in many of the stories, the reader inhabits the aching body of the protagonist, and empathizes with her while questioning one’s own physical insecurities as the narrator morosely remarks, “among all life-forms, humans alone [are] defenseless-vulnerable blobs clothed solely in skin.” A blend of the bizarre and believable, every story in Large Animals is voiced by individuals battered by the daily toil of living as outsiders. No story captures this motif more than the title story, wherein the narrator’s mundane life is disrupted by recurring nightmares of animals in her bedroom. As the animals become a burgeoning obsession, they develop an order in her dreams, a kingdom with a bestial hierarchy in which the “massive, tube-shaped” walrus reigns. When the walrus speaks, its words are obscene but devoid of context. The narrator’s nocturnal encounters rapidly deteriorate her life, revealing her dormant sexuality and animalistic lust towards a fast-food worker even as she struggles through a vicious divorce.
And in its short shorts like “Containers,” where a decision to stay home and smoke weed rather than party with friends compartmentalizes an identity crisis in less than three pages, Large Animals proves wickedly entertaining. These are modern fables of the body exposing a naked perspective on femininity, masculinity, and the need — or lack thereof — for human relationships.
Carnal and experimental in tone, expressed in Arndt’s beguilingly casual and frequently colloquial prose, Large Animals is equally vivid in its depiction of human vulgarities as in its exploration of the body. It prowls through our preconceptions of the sexes, paring back its fallible, idiosyncratic character to render a raw and unnerving portrait of the self. “Animals are only animals because they are observed,” one character says, and here Arndt observes the largest animal, exhibiting our fears and our instincts.
The past is never past in Josh Emmons’ new story collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales (184 pages; Dzanc Books). In each of these stories (of which the title one appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 102), the reader can feel the lingering effect of humanity’s fabricated history – the assemblage of folktales, parables, and lore that have helped shape our collective consciousness over time, from Noah and his Ark (“Haley”) to Aesop’s talking animals (“Arise”).
The narrator of one piece claims, “What came next hardly warrants retelling, so familiar is the story…” but nothing could be further from the truth, as Emmons possesses an uncanny gift to make the distant, half-remembered folktales of our childhoods feel both present and unexpected. In “Nu,” we observe a woman who is afraid of cats, in part because of what they represented to the ancient Egyptians, and characters throughout the collection frequently compare their lives to fables (“…real life is less frightening than fairy tales. And less exciting. And there’s no way to know which is better”). These drifting souls search for meaning and connection across a variety of settings, whether it’s modern day France (“A Moral Tale”) or medieval England (“Humphrey Dempsey”). The result of their foibles comprises one of the most dazzling and assured story collections of the year.
Emmons talked to ZYZZYVA about A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, as well as what draws him to fairy tales and his mix-tape-making process.
ZYZZYVA: In A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, you have several stories that take place in current settings in which one can feel myth and fables pressing upon contemporary events. I sense that, as a writer, you believe the fables and fairy tales many of us grew up with continue to be relevant to our lives. What drew you to incorporating or referencing fables in your work?
Josh Emmons: I stopped thinking about fables and fairy tales and myths in my late teens—When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things—and came back to them in my twenties because they were inescapable. There was Kafka’s “The Burrow” casting animal stories in a new light, for example, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books redeeming nursery rhyme tropes, and “Ulysses” and “East of Eden” and “Master and Margarita” showing that repurposed myths could be fascinating. I think fairy tales get a bad rap because they deal with radical innocence and radical evil—melodrama, basically—and so lack subtlety. Also they’re overfamiliar and crudely written and outrageously plotted, but for many of those same reasons they’re fun to rethink and reconfigure. And they address deep, elemental, archetypal phenomena, which is appealing for a Joseph Campbell fan like me. And despite all the fairy tale revisionists out there, humorless Angela Carter and careless Salman Rushdie and frantic mash-up writers at Disney and Dreamworks, they’re inexhaustible. Folk traditions might be barbaric, but they’re malleable and never dull.
Through several books of fiction, Lidia Yuknavitch has developed a reputation for playing with language and confronting what a novel can be, both in form and purpose. In her work, plot steps aside for meditations on brutality, passion, lust, agony, and hope, all of which she ruminates on until, as if by magic, they approximate something like an undeniable narrative. Using characters and singular events to flesh out her more abstract points, she has the ability to dig into the more painful and at times disturbing aspects of feelings, resulting in rewarding books.
In her new novel, The Book of Joan (288 pages; Harper), Yuknavitch tries her hand at crafting a Heinlein-esque epic with a feminist twist, a political fable in which the protagonist Joan of Dirt—an unabashed stand-in for Joan of Arc—does her best to take down the misogynistic dictator Jean de Men. de Men has all but depleted Earth’s resources and created CIEL, a space station (and what he believes to be a utopia) for the wealthy who supported and aided his horrific rise to power. While it might seem unclear what his ultimate goal is (or what drove him to it), what is clear is that his designs threaten art and nature.