ZYZZYVA EventsSeptember 18, 2015
Fall Issue Celebration
Location: 7 p.m., Diesel, A Bookstore, 5433 College Ave., Oakland.
Description: An evening of readings from Issue No. 104 contributors, including Caille Millner, Mauro Javier Cardenas, Molly Spencer and Joseph Di Prisco. And featuring past contributor and special guest Kathleen Alcott, author of "Infinite Home." Free.September 22, 2015
In Conversation with Lori Ostlund
Location: 7:30 p.m., The Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Francisco
Description: Ostlund, an award-winning author and contributor to ZYZZYVA, discusses her novel, "After the Parade" (Scribner), with ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. More info: http://bit.ly/1Js5VkLSeptember 30, 2015
Dashiell Hammett: From Detective to Detective Writer
Location: 6 p.m., Mechanics' Institute, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: A conversation about Hammett with "The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett" author Nathan Ward, private investigator David B. Fechheimer and The Dashiell Hammett Tour's Don Herron; Moderated by ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free to ZYZZYVA subscribers. RSVP here: http://bit.ly/1ERg09UOctober 19, 2015
In Conversation with John Freeman
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talks to author and ZYZZYVA contributing editor John Freeman about the launch of his new literary journal, Freeman's. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/1Oe2rH1
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
Issue No. 104 continues our 30th anniversary celebration with a portfolio of art by the late, great artist Jay DeFeo, a new story by best-selling author Glen David Gold (his first piece of fiction in more than five years), and much more, including:
April Ayers Lawson’s “Vulnerability”: The married artist comes to New York to visit two interested men, unclear about her intentions.
Anthony Marra’s “The Last Words of Benito Picone”: A Buick sends him high above Market Street, and he lands in the everlasting company of a Soviet émigré and a young addict.
Patricia Engel’s “Ramiro”: Are there second chances for a slum kid and a teen girl working with the priests at San Ignacio?
Mauro Javier Cardena’s “Dora and Her Dog”: Meeting for ice cream in the Hayes Valley, his ex-girlfriend asks, What would you endure jail for?
And fiction from Spencer Seward, Caille Millner (a besieged instructor finally ditches her philosophy department), and David L. Ulin; an essay from poet Andrew David King on a series of “bone” art by Jay DeFeo, Patrick Brice and Sammy Harkham’s “Hang Loose,” a screenplay about an older surf bum’s desultory homecoming; and poetry from Karen Leona Anderson, Sally Ashton, Joseph Di Prisco, Cecelia Hagen, Jennifer Richter, and Molly Spencer.
Eileen (260 Pages; Penguin Press), the new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, examines the moment of change in a life marred by self-hate, servitude, and isolation. Eileen Dunlop is a twenty-four year-old woman who plays caretaker to her alcoholic father, for whom “the worst thing [Eileen] could commit … was to do anything for [her] own pleasure, anything outside of [her] own daughterly duties.” A gun toting retired cop, he is harassed by imagined “hooligans” day and night. The gun thus established in the first act, we await its discharge in the third. But in the meantime, Moshfegh ekes out the dark family history of the Dunlops and presents the inner workings of unsympathetic characters filled with loathing.
In Eileen, stalking, verbal abuse, criminal compliance, prison visitations, and pregnant silences masquerade as love. Eileen works at a boys’ prison, and in order to placate the restless visiting mothers, she hands out innocuous (and in fact meaningless) polls to “create the illusion that their lives and opinions were worthy of respect and curiosity.” She does this to “fend off her own hard feelings,” but what we are seeing is an unconscious attempt at compassion. Continue reading
By any estimation, writer Lucia Berlin led a full life. As a small child growing up in 1940s Texas, she fended for herself against an abusive grandfather while her mother remained a distant figure. Her glamorous teen years were spent in Chile among wealthy expatriates, attending dances and other high society functions after her father struck it rich in the mining industry. As an adult, Berlin frequently moved across the United States and Mexico, including a lengthy stay in the Bay Area. Along the way, she married three husbands, mothered four sons, and held an array of jobs–from cleaning woman to emergency-room staff member to high school teacher. For much of this time, her greatest struggle was with alcoholism. Berlin chronicled these facets of her life in her highly autobiographical stories, ones she produced intermittently over several decades of writing—some theorize perhaps too intermittently for Lucia Berlin to ever gain the wide recognition she deserved.
A new collection seeks to rectify Berlin’s absence from the canon of all-time great short story writers. A Manual For Cleaning Women (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 403 pages) compiles forty-three of Berlin’s finest pieces, assembled from across her entire career. Featuring a foreword by Lydia Davis, who maintained a friendly correspondence with Berlin, this literary “mix tape” of Berlin’s writing is the perfect way for new readers as well as for existing fans to experience her work in a new context.
Naomi J. Williams’s first novel, Landfalls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 336 pages), follows the Lapérouse expedition, whose two ships and nearly two hundred sailors left France in 1785 on a global trek to explore and fraternize in the name of science, God, and country. Although they never made it back, vanishing in the Pacific several years later, firsthand accounts and historical scholarship of the voyage remain. From the available facts, Williams has fashioned a smart, surprisingly hilarious, unusual, and moving story less concerned with maritime adventure—although Landfalls is an exciting and enjoyable read—than with carefully imagined dynamics of petty squabbles and momentous encounters alike.
Williams’s reimagining of the expedition and its participants is deeply compassionate even as she acknowledges and incorporates the mission’s staunchly imperialist spirit, and she is careful not to let a tragic end completely overwhelm this fact, or vice-versa. Her characters are at once neurotic, courageous, stubborn, spiteful, gentle, and human. And the novel itself is a meditation on colonialism, nationalism, the frailty of ego, the durable potency of friendship, and more. We spoke via email to Williams (whose story “Sunday School” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 82) about her approach to writing fiction and her interest in exploring the personal drama and quotidian humor that is lost in maps and historical records.
ZYZZYVA: You dedicate the novel to your grandmother, “who also loved maps.” How did your love of maps inform the strong sense of place in your writing? How many of the “landfalls” did you visit, if any, and how does visiting a place, or not visiting it, affect the way you write about it?
Naomi J. Williams: I’m so delighted you’ve mentioned my grandmother. She was Japanese, and one of my early memories is of sitting on the tatami floor in her tiny apartment in Fukuoka, a city in southern Japan, and poring over a map of the city. I remember being fascinated by the notion that you could have this logical, colorful paper representation of where you lived.
I’ve loved maps ever since, and indeed, the whole idea for Landfalls came from a misidentified antique map my husband bought for me about fifteen years ago. I tell that story in some detail in a recent blog post, but briefly, it’s a map from the Lapérouse expedition, of Lituya Bay, Alaska, the setting for two chapters in the novel.
The End of the Tour, the recently released drama directed by James Ponsoldt and starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg, is based on interviews with the late author David Foster Wallace, conducted by Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky, who joined Wallace during the last five days of the Infinite Jest book tour in 1996. Segel, an actor generally known for his comedic roles in movies such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Muppets, portrays Wallace, opposite Eisenberg (The Social Network, ) who plays Lipsky. The film itself draws from Lipsky’s 2010 memoir, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.
The film has already managed to generate some level of controversy, mostly from fans of Wallace’s work (and his literary estate, according to Wikipedia), who argue that the writer would be opposed to the idea of an actor portraying him onscreen. ZYZZYVA asked its blog contributors Zack Ravas and Henri Lipton to attend an advanced screening of the film. Both Ravas and Lipton went into this film with different perspectives, in the sense that Ravas was familiar with David Foster Wallace but had not yet tackled the tome that is Infinite Jest, whereas Lipton was already well versed in Wallace’s published works. The following is a conversation between them about the movie.
Henri Lipton: First of all, Jason Segel did an admirable job. I suppose one could view this particular casting as a disservice to the monstrous intellect and complexity of Wallace and his writing-–it seems like many did. But casting a biopic is always a fraught thing. Particularly because Wallace’s appearance in some ways belied his intellectual gifts, this must have been even more difficult than usual. It’s easy to pick among a stable of old white men with wispy hair to play Leo Tolstoy, but not many people who look like David Foster Wallace can get their mouths around his verbiage, let alone act.
ZR: When I think about Jason Segel as an actor, I generally associate him as a comedic actor thanks to his roles on TV’s How I Met Your Mother, not to mention his affiliation with his former Freaks & Geeks cast members in films like This is the End. I for one was impressed that Segel was successfully able to play down his traditionally goofy persona for what might be called a breakout role here in The End of the Tour. When I expressed this sentiment to my roommate and his girlfriend, who’ve read Wallace’s work, my roommate quipped, “So you mean he actually acts in this one.”
“The moment you buy your drugs, they start to run out.” Such is the dilemma of Chuck, the middle-aged, rundown narrator of Bucky Sinister’s first novel, Black Hole (Soft Skull Press; 181 pages). Perpetually strung out on all manner of narcotic, former punk rocker Chuck is dismayed to find himself “the freak in the corner” at parties where everyone is half his age. He inhabits a San Francisco much like our own—rapidly changing, driven by a booming tech industry—but ever so off-kilter. Bucky Sinister draws influence from the work of visionary science-fiction author Phillip K. Dick in crafting an alternate present where the trendiest nightclubs create their own designer drugs to hook patrons, bio-mechanics and “Zygotic Androids” are a reality, and a man like Chuck can earn a living by taking care of miniature cloned whales for rich techies with money to burn.
Chuck’s world is turned upside down by the arrival of a new marble-shaped drug that supposedly never runs out, but has the unfortunate side effect of causing its users to become unmoored from time itself. Now Chuck must navigate the hazy recollections of his ‘90s punk rock past while he tries to decide what’s more important: returning to the present or obtaining his next fix.
James Stark is a sarcastic, hard-charging brawler who can heal from any wound. Half human and half angel, he still feels pain, and his battered body carries a multitude of scars from shootings, stabbings, and torture. Stark, who goes by Sandman Slim, is so tough he smokes Maledictions, cigarettes you can only get in Hell. He lives off spicy food, donuts, and Hell’s best wine, Aqua Regia. His attitude and appetites are the product of eleven years in gladiatorial arenas in Hell’s capital, Pandemonium (a much hotter version of Los Angeles). In the first book of Richard Kadrey’s bestselling supernatural noir series, Stark escapes Hell, seeking vengeance with a flaming sword and his weapon of choice, the na’at—a malleable, sword-like whip. He possesses Hellion magic, the ability to warp distance via shadow, and a black blade that cuts anything, opens any lock, and starts any car.
Stark’s penchant for violent solutions existed long before his time in Hell. He is a descendant of Wild Bill Hickok, and in previous adventures, Stark has faced off against numerous threats: vampires, mutant angels, necromancers, a zombie plague, and gods as old as God himself. He’s saved the world more than once, served as a bodyguard for Lucifer, and even reigned on the throne of Hell for a time.
In the early twentieth century, a young German named August Engelhardt sailed to Kabakon, a small island in the German territories of the South Pacific. His goal was to establish an outpost from where he could promulgate his ideas, chief among them the belief that the proper way to live, spiritually and practically, was to be naked, to worship the sun, and to eat nothing but coconuts. From Kabakon he managed to disseminate frugivorist and utopian literature to Europe, and to entice to the island numerous followers, some of whose travel he funded. By the end of his life, though, Engelhardt was malnourished, disconnected, and delusional, a leprous skeleton who barely reached middle age and who seemed to prove by his own dwindling health the untenable idiocy of his philosophy. In Christian Kracht’s newly translated novel, Imperium (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 179 pages; translated from the German by Daniel Bowles), Engelhardt is not merely an anthropological subject but “our friend,” and the protagonist not only of the book but of “the new age.”
Imperium is funny and short, but vigorous in its exploration of ideas and ambitious in its scope. Fiercely erudite, it is clearly the work of a man who has ingested all sorts of philosophies and literary traditions. While comparisons to classic adventure and maritime tales are inevitable, Kracht’s narrative sensibility echoes the self-conscious playfulness of 19th century French and Russian tale-tellers, and his obsessive focus on coincidences and ostensibly dissimilar yet interrelated phenomena reminds one of Pynchon’s intricate cataloguing of stories-within-stories, regardless of whether they are germane to the plot. (A digression, for example, concerning the alleged creation of the yeast by-product Vegemite under the aegis of the Kellogg brothers is particularly Pynchon-esque in its interpretation of corporate hegemony as a mechanizing force guiding individual wills.)
Set primarily in Detroit, Angela Flournoy’s riveting and acrobatic first novel, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pages), flips among several points of view and timelines: principally between the Great Migration of the mid-1940s—when Francis Turner leaves his young wife, Viola, and their infant son behind in Arkansas to prepare a new life for the family in Michigan—and 2008, when Viola is near the end of her life and about to lose the family home. This spells potential tragedy, as both mother and house are the last points of connection among the couple’s thirteen children.
In the story’s central timeline, Francis has already died and Viola’s advanced age and ill health have forced her to move in with her eldest son, Cha-Cha. With thirteen kids, Viola should be spending her last hours holding loved ones’ hands, surrounded by the noise and activity that was the soundtrack to her life. But each son and daughter has such complicated and all-consuming struggles, that it’s just as likely Viola will die alone, at night, held only by the chemical grip of morphine under the crackling blue light of an infomercial.
Even if Tolstoy was right about happy families, unhappy families in Western literature often bear striking resemblances to one another. The unfaithful, existentially-tormented husbands; the beautiful, unfulfilled wives; the precocious yet emotionally unformed children caught up in family affairs far beyond what they are capable of properly assimilating into their senses of self—we recognize these tropes partly because they are, sadly, representative of many actual families, but mostly because, also sadly, they make for instantly recognizable and compelling dramatic structures. It is, perhaps, unfair to levy such a generalization against the many writers who choose to tackle dissolute spouses and dissipating family units, but it is certainly incumbent upon these writers to bring something new to the table, if only for the reason that it is one heavily laden with offerings. Mary-Beth Hughes’s new novel, The Loved Ones (Grove/Atlantic; 289 pages), is in many ways a familiar portrait of a family tearing itself apart through avarice and ennui. But its contribution to the genre is its unflinching and intelligent exploration of the ways in which the characters—particularly the women—attempt to keep their pain from spreading to those around them.
Readers of British author David Constantine’s In Another Country (Biblioasis; 277 pages) may identify in his stories certain hoary elements of style and material that have been all but abandoned by contemporary U.S. writers seeking to depict modern life in all its fragmented complexity. Absent are the ingratiating narrative voice, the frenetic observation, the satirical punches to the gut dealt to unworthy characters. Constantine’s characters have souls, and do such un-ironic things as write long letters to one another, which they send via mail. The stories are simply plotted, harrowing, and enduringly powerful; the prose is uncompromisingly lyrical yet rarely overwrought. Constantine’s old-world sensibilities imbue his stories with grace and seriousness, and his characters seem to exist not in any recognizable world, but in their own personal Limbos, wherein ancient forces and quotidian difficulties converge to create an immense pressure threatening to tear them apart. There is a pronounced fatalism through many of the stories, yet Constantine’s great skill lies in his ability to create moments that feel not like authorial intrusions but rather fleeting recognitions, whether of insurmountable loneliness or inchoate hope.
Eric Bennett’s first novel, A Big Enough Lie (285 pages; TriQuarterly Books), is fiction within fiction. The novel opens with best-selling author John Townley sitting in a studio green room, waiting to discuss his war memoir, Petting the Burning Dog, for the second time on the Winnie Wilson Show. There’s just one problem. The memoir is a fabrication, written under the name Henry Fleming, who happens to be a real second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Fleming is missing in action in Iraq and was the leader of the “Babylon Seven”—a platoon captured and executed on video. Townley suspects his second appearance will expose his lies on national television; the show’s second guest is Antoine Greep, the platoon’s sole survivor.