ZYZZYVA EventsAugust 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." CLOSED FOR REGISTRATION.September 7, 2018
In Conversation with Obi Kaufmann
Location: 7:30 p.m., Pegasus Books Downtown, 2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley.
Description: Kaufmann, the author of "The California Field Atlas" and contributor to ZYZZYVA Issue No. 113, discusses his work with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. For more info: https://bit.ly/2nDnNrKSeptember 11, 2018
In Conversation with R.O. Kwon
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Booksellers, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Kwon, the author of the novel "The Incendiaries," will be in conversation about her book with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. For more info: https://bit.ly/2nEtgyFNovember 3, 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 September 3. For more information, visit https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/106865/creative-non-fiction
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
In this issue:
Of & About the Environment
Héctor Tobar on living in Los Angeles, before and after air quality regulations; Lauret Edith Savoy traces “the geology of us”; Juli Berwald on “the blob,” the mysterious oceanic phenomenon that left destruction in its wake; Obi Kaufmann on the importance of reframing the language of conservation.
Arundhati Roy discusses with John Freeman her work as an activist and a writer, and examines the great danger before us all.
Poems by Jane Hirshfield, John Sibley Williams, Rebecca Foust, Daniel Neff, Maggie Millner, Sophie Klahr, and Emily Pinkerton.
Fiction by Ben Lasman (ceding the field of work to the robots), Manuel Muñoz (the vulnerability of those who work our fields), and Louis B. Jones (the tea compost isn’t the only rancidness found living off the grid).
And More Fiction and Poetry:
Stories by Emma Copley Eisenberg, Elena Graceffa, and, marking his First-Time-in-Print, David Paul; poetry by Ruth Madievsky, Jennie Malboeuf, and Paul Wilner.
Art: Featuring Obi Kaufmann’s watercolors of California’s fauna and flora.
Don’t miss our Creative Nonfiction Workshop with ‘The Golden Road’ author Caille Millner on November 3rd!
Apply for our Creative Nonfiction Workshop on November 3rd and experience a craft-intensive masterclass with Caille Millner, followed by conversation with ZYZZYVA’s editors. Millner is an essayist and author of the acclaimed memoir The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification as well as a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Don’t delay – the deadline to apply is approaching!
A ZYZZYVA Workshop is an opportunity you don’t want to pass up. Here’s what some past Workshop attendees have to say:
“Everything was great, from the location to the [instructor] to the other writers in the room. I enjoyed our post-Workshop conversation and seeing the ZYZZYVA offices too, which have a great atmosphere. I left the whole experience feeling inspired to keep writing and grateful for the work of ZYZZYVA in supporting writers and their craft.”
“I felt like I had entered an oasis where paying attention, language, books, literature, relationships, and excellent communication and connection were the main priorities…I’m still thinking about all the novels-in progress and stories and vivid characters.”
“The workshop was one of the best I have attended. Like many serious writers, I need and value the interaction with other writers and instructors. I am also careful about which workshops to which I apply. This day exceeded my expectations and I came out of it energized. The attention to the organization of the day was excellent, the instructor was insightful and nurturing, and the other students were equally so.”
Adrienne Celt’s Invitation to a Bonfire (256 pages; Bloomsbury) is a novel delightfully unconcerned with passing literary trends. Celt has her eye trained on the past, on both the esteemed literary works that have influenced her and the massive social upheaval that was the Russian Revolution. Invitation to a Bonfire opens on the young Zoya Andropova, an orphan of the Revolution who makes her way to safety in the United States only to become the victim of petty cruelties at New Jersey’s prestigious Donne School. Zoya observes the strange customs and practices of American culture while finding solace in tending to the school’s greenhouse.
As the years pass, Zoya finds herself at the center of a bitter love triangle between a bestselling Russian writer and his wife, a couple who may or may not bear a passing resemblance to Vladimir Nabokov and his partner, Vera. This shift in the book’s storyline does not go unnoted, as Celt transitions from boarding school bildungsroman to the high suspense of a vintage Patricia Highsmith novel. Recently, Celt, whose story “Big Boss Bitch” appeared in Issue No. 107, talked to ZYZZYVA about her literary influences, including Nabokov, as well as her interest in Russian history and what it means to “be American.”
ZYZZYVA: So much of the style and milieu of this novel, from its period setting and incorporation of epistolary elements, put me in mind of classic works of fiction rather than any contemporary peers. Both the writing and life of Vladimir Nabokov register as a clear influence, and I was also reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Perhaps you could talk about some of the novels that inspired Invitation to a Bonfire. Did you envision this novel in conversation with those works?
ADRIENNE CELT: Remains of the Day is one of my favorite books, and although I can’t say it was an intentional influence on Invitation, I’m gratified to be considered in conversation with it. And I can certainly see the resonance: both are steeped in yearning for a time gone by, and both offer narrators whose unreliability comes less from a desire to mislead, and more from a desire to cling to their fracturing past, the things they once knew to be true. So maybe it was there without me knowing. God knows a lot of books must have left that kind of subconscious impression.
In terms of novels I turned to specifically, you’re right that the spirit and tone of this book are first and foremost inspired by Nabokov, particularly Lolita, Pale Fire, and Pnin (and of course the title is a hat-tip to Invitation to a Beheading.) I also re-read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which is maybe more contemporary than your question suggests, but arguably just as haunted by romantic notions of the past. Mostly, with that book, I was interested in how much personal history a narrator could offer, especially early on, without causing the plot to drag—Tartt does an incredible job of folding Richard’s backstory into his motivations and his moral character, and I definitely had him on my mind.
Beyond that, maybe some Patricia Highsmith? Maybe some Jean Rhys? I read both those writers while working on my early drafts, and I borrow a sense of propulsion and atmosphere from both of them.
Z: The first part of the novel is largely concerned with Zoya’s journey to America following the violence of the Russian Revolution, which you capture in particular detail. What kind of research was involved in writing about that period of history?
AC: One of my college majors was Russian (the other was philosophy), which meant I had a basic understanding of the Russian Revolution already at my fingertips when I began—and I think it’s worth mentioning that some of that education took place in St. Petersburg, so I wasn’t drawing purely on American attitudes and culture. I hope that makes a difference. Of course I didn’t remember all the dates and specifics perfectly, so I went back and made an outline of the various smaller revolutions that finally led to the collapse of the aristocracy and the rise of the Soviet Union, which I cross-referenced with a calendar of my character’s birthdates and major life events. Honestly, a lot of my research for this book was purely checking dates, and making sure I wasn’t being too anachronistic—which is as true for events that took place in America as in Russia.
People who have never written historical novels, I think, might be surprised which pieces actually have to be deeply researched: it’s so often the little things. There were big patches I could sort of feel my way through by instinct, but when I wanted to figure out what kind of flooring would plausibly be in a Russian apartment, I checked with my college Russian professors, because a guess didn’t feel good enough. There are also, of course, historical novelists who get much more into period-specific detail than I do: I work from a place of character first, and fill in the details as necessary.
Z: As much as Zoya’s struggle is rooted in her experiences as an orphan of the Russian Revolution, a great deal of her story felt universal to me; she is the quintessential outsider, and I think anyone who has ever felt ostracized or different from others would relate to her experiences in boarding school. “Things can go ugly fast,” her confidante Hilda states. “People can be ugly,” and we see this at the Donne School. The first part of the book follows Zoya as she observes her fellow students in an attempt to her learn what it means to “be American.” What made you want to write about the concept of “being American” from the perspective of an outsider to the American experience?
AC: I wanted to write about “being American” from an outsider’s perspective because I think we often don’t understand that there is an “outside.” We think that the American point of view is all there is. (Not that provincialism is unique to our country, but we’ve always been a little extra about it.) When you have an outsider looking at something—a culture, a philosophy, a way of life—you’re forced to recognize that it’s not inevitable. America, as it exists, is not inevitable. That’s kind of a radical thought, but also totally natural and obvious.
Zoya is a wonderful avatar for exploring this, because she’s rarely been an insider in any system. So, while her alienation is sincere, her use of cultural norms becomes a kind of game, or experiment. After a while, she realizes that if an arbitrary system of rules is deciding what’s “morally good”—and different systems decide to attribute “good” to different things—then maybe “moral good” doesn’t have any inherent meaning. Maybe satisfaction can be a moral good. Maybe love can.
Z: Speaking of the parts of the novel, there is a distinct shift that occurs as we move into the second part, in which the novel takes on some suspense leanings, almost operating in the genre of Highsmith. Was there a conscious decision to change the tone and direction of the novel halfway through, or was that something that seemed to happen organically during the writing process?
AC: Ha! So my name-check of Patricia Highsmith has come back around.
The shift was organic. In the original drafts, the first section was shorter, because I wanted to get to the suspense more quickly. But I’m always fascinated by how people come to themselves—how identity is formed over time, through experience and decision-making—which means I’m always going to be invested in giving my characters fleshed-out lives.
I also think that the two parts need each other: the second half wouldn’t operate the same way without the slower burn of the novel’s first section. Learning who Zoya, Lev, and Vera are as people teaches you a lot about what they truly want, and what they might be willing to do to get it. Once you understand someone’s desires, you can see the stakes of their actions more clearly. Plus you attach to them with greater tenderness.
Z: You raise such a fascinating idea in this novel––both Zoya and Vera seem to argue that sometimes an artist needs to be saved from themselves; that perhaps custodians of an artist should prevent certain works from being let out into the world in order to preserve an artist’s legacy. As someone who often finds himself drawn to the messy, more personal films or novels that lead to artists receiving a critical drubbing, this is a thought I love pondering. Have you ever wished, even fleetingly, that an author’s readership could be the guardians of their body of work?
AC: Really, who is the guardian of an author’s legacy if not their readers? I’m not saying I agree with the lengths that Zoya and Vera go to, as an example for the average person—they definitely take “protecting someone from themselves” to new heights. But all books become, in a sense, the property of their readers once they’re published.
On the other hand, if you’re asking whether writers should allow their readers and critics to direct the course of their career, I would say no. I do believe in having sensitivity to the reader’s experience while you write, but not in trying to please everyone. It’s a losing battle, for one thing, and—as you point out—it can scare artists away from making their most personal, groundbreaking work.
In the end, it’s more important to bend towards instinct than popularity.
Marina Perezagua’s masterfully written novel The Story of H (281 pages; Ecco/HarperCollins: translated by Valerie Miles) follows the agonizing lifelong journey of an unlikely heroine, H, an intersex woman mutilated in the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima. The bombing is a paradoxical catalyst in H’s life, giving her the freedom to pursue the surgeries she needs to become anatomically a woman; but with this comes the loss of her family, home, and most important to her identity, her ability to conceive a child. H faces ostracization after the bombing and her transition, and leaves Japan to travel the world in search of love, family, and an understanding of the atrocities experienced by survivors like herself.
When she moves to New York City, H meets the love of her life, Jim, a former prisoner of war. Over the course of their partnership she becomes obsessed with helping Jim reunite with his long lost Yoro, a Japanese girl who was left in his care and whom he loves like a daughter. The search takes them across the world, spans decades, and eventually drives H to commit murder. As she relays her life to readers and the police, H experiences the phenomenon of psychological pregnancy, which she occasionally acknowledges as a manifestation of her impossible wish to become a mother and her all encompassing love for Yoro and Jim.
Perezagua’s novel, which was published in Spanish in 2015 as Yoro, tells not just H’s story but the stories of other victims of Hiroshima, as well as that of the slave laborers who built the Burmese Railroad and mined uranium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the victims of the sexual abuse carried out by UN peacekeepers in the Congo so many years later. It is not written for the faint of heart. Perezagua disbars no details in elucidating readers to the terror experienced by people across continents and throughout history. The lesser-known traumas Perezagua revisits, in acknowledgement of the continued suffering caused by World War II, are repulsive, terrifying, but necessary the novel does not relish in these atrocities but rather uses them to demand culpability. In her note to the reader Perezagua describes most eloquently the importance of her work:
“Just as pieces of broken pottery can be put back together by covering their cracks with a varnish of gold dust, so could I both in my day-by-day life and in what I write try to protect the historical and aesthetic value of scars. When I see a wound, I admire it because there, and not in our unbroken flesh, do I find the nature of being human: its vulnerability, but also the enormous energy that it requires to pick up our pieces from the ground, reunite them, and be born again.”
While The Story of H reads as a confession of a murder it could more adequately be described as a fictitious memoir, peppered as it is with historical accounts, supplemental research, and anecdotes. Perezagua’s writing oscillates from pithy and fierce on one page—to swirlingly poetic the next. It is difficult to come up for air when reading the novel because H’s account is so unrelenting, her telling impassioned and coded, full of hidden meaning and etymology that necessitate a second read.
One of the most impressive examples of her mastery of craft is the way Perezagua fills H’s retelling of her journey with amusing narrative, balancing out the horrors we encounter. Also, H often will divertingly expound on an idea she has just happened upon, or a theory she is busy assembling. Her tangents range from painful revelations to fragmented bursts of clarity about herself and others:
“If exorbitant hospital bills left me homeless, I don’t think I’d ever wash up, I’d waltz my stench around all the public places. That’s why I never cover my nose. Of course the smell bothers me, but it’s not offensive, and above all, it opens my sensory canals to a new perception: that smell, whomever it’s coming from, is always the same; it’s a democratic smell. When we’re clean, we all smell different. But when we’re piss-stained and sweaty, we all smell the same. I don’t like our common odor very much, but it nonetheless offers an unusual and mentally satisfying experience. There are things that do make me sick, like seeing some lady hold her nose ostentatiously over a stupid smell. So yes, no question, if I didn’t have a home and lived on the street, I would let layers and layers of stench accumulate too, just to make sure I couldn’t be confused with all those people clutching their noses while kissing any old ass necessary to make the money to buy the perfumes that camouflage their spite.”
Reading Perezagua’s novel (and Valerie Miles hypnotic translation of it) means a traumatic re-visitation of the darker moments of human history, mirrored by H’s own pitfalls. Yet The Story of H is simultaneously a joyful and perceptive recollection of a long and complicated life. Perezagua set out to write a novel that explored the difficulties and triumphs of humanity, and in doing so she wote something equal parts disturbing, visceral, and enchanting.
In his newest book, The Reservoir Tapes (167 pages; Catapult), British novelist Jon McGregor (long-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times) returns to the complex world of his acclaimed 2017 novel, Reservoir 13, which was set in a seemingly sleepy English village. McGregor further explores through this story collection the intricate lives within that community as they begin the agonizing search for Becky Shaw, a local girl gone missing. Told from the same fifteen distinct perspectives of Reservoir 13, McGregor’s stories give readers a candid view of the relationships and transgressions of these private townspeople.
The Reservoir Tapes began as a side project to Reservoir 13, appearing first on BBC Radio 4 as fifteen separate episodes. The “perspectives,” as they’re called, addressed the months leading up to Becky’s disappearance (in Reservoir 13, McGregor focused on the passage of time following that), exploring the tensions and fissures long present in the community, and offering readers more information about the characters while leaving the mystery as unresolved as at the end of the original story.
But The Reservoir Tapes also serves as an enjoyable read or listen (they’re available as podcasts on iTunes, BBC, and Audible) for those unfamiliar with McGregor’s novel. The imaginative and nuanced vignettes McGregor creates are less about the particulars of Becky Shaw’s unnerving disappearance and more concerned with the divergences in morality amongst the villagers.
The book begins with a one-sided transcript of an interview with Becky’s mother about her daughter’s disappearance. The introductory chapter is haunting and strained, as an unknown voice attempts to ask questions, peppered with apologies and words of comfort, in response to Charlotte’s unseen and redacted answers. The conversation generates as many doubts about the ensuing events as it attempts to answer.
While not as stylistically unnerving, the following chapters prove equally absorbing, as they follow each character through his or her outwardly mundane life only to reveal the sordid details of their families, marriages, and friendships. McGregor writes from the perspective of insecure teenagers and the unhappily married, creating distinct narratives articulating a pattern of similarly repressed concerns throughout the village as we’re transported to the kitchens and gardens where they spend their misty mornings contemplating their troubles. The vignettes are succinct and impressively subtle, wavering between a mix of reflective and tangential thoughts, offering brief but revealing portraits of the narrators as they see themselves. Occasionally they will deviate from their own self-absorption and off-handedly gossip about the other villagers, fostering the sense that we’re amid a close-knit community. By taking the story of Becky Shaw’s disappearance from its original long form to a more truncated prologue, McGregor has enriched his story that much more, making the mystery at its center that much more compelling.
Set in the wreckage of a devastating war for independence, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s latest novel examines the impacts of race, class, and gender in post-colonial Zimbabwe. This Mournable Body (296 pages; Graywolf Press) returns us to the story of Tambudzai, the protagonist of Dangarembga’s previous two novels –– the critically acclaimed Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not. The novel opens with Tambudzai barely getting by, living off the remains of her savings from an advertising job and desperately looking for accommodations. Her goal is to move out of the ragged youth hostel she’s stuck in (despite being past the hostel’s age limit).
Even with a college degree and the hope of opportunity following Zimbabwe’s newly achieved independence in 1980, Tambudzai struggles to scrape together a living in Harare. Eventually she finds lodging in the boarding house of a widow and work as a high school biology teacher, though none of this is in line with her personal ambitions. After various incidents, Tambudzai takes an opportunity from a former foe that lands her in the blossoming “eco-tourism” industry. Though Tambudzai’s professional ventures serve as an attempt to run away from her village origins, the inadvertent result of these experiences is a long postponed homecoming.
Tambudzai’s story is one of Sisyphean perseverance in the face of obstacle after obstacle. One imagines Tambudzai would be (justifiably) full of resentment: she quit her professional advertising job after her white colleagues constantly took credit for her work, her circumstance as a poor middle-aged black woman do her no favors, and her every success is narrowly achieved and difficult to maintain.
The resultant portrait of Tambudzai and, by extension, Zimbabwe proves both devastating and haunting. Dangarembga’s prose is viscerally arresting, and her scenes are often disturbing. In the first few pages, Dangarembga goes into graphic detail when Tambudzai finds herself part of a crowd harassing a woman (who turns out to be a hostel-mate) as her clothes are ripped off and she becomes the target of rocks and other “missiles”:
“The sight of your beautiful hostel mate fills you with an emptiness that hurts. You do not shrink back as one mind in your head wishes. Instead you obey the other, push forward. You want to see the shape of pain, to trace out its arteries and veins, to rip out the pattern of its capillaries from the body.”
Dangarembga writes in the second person, and though the reader is aligned with Tambudzai in this manner, it doesn’t always engender sympathy, given her harsh pragmatism and bitter nature. The novel is psychologically tense, and Tambudzai frequently faces dark and difficult choices. She is at times a victim of the culture of violence and at others a complicit perpetrator.
To that extent, she questions her own values and that of nascent Zimbabwe, which in late July held its first elections since 1987 without Robert Mugabe already serving as president. Dangarembga examines what it means to be a Zimbabwean, both the positive and the negative. The culture is one that emphasizes strength and tenacity, but the tough exterior also excuses and allows abuse. When Tambudzai sees her cousin’s emotional reaction to finding out that the teacher is hitting her child, she considers it evidence that Nyasha is no longer a true Zimbabwean woman. “Weeping alongside a first grader–even nearly doing so–is a nauseating act of ghastly femininity,” Dangarembga writes. “You have no desire to expend energy on sympathy for a minor matter of corporal punishment. Women in Zimbabwe are undaunted by such things.”
She searingly comments on the still-felt impacts of colonialism and capitalism on a country recovering from immense turmoil, where, though the war is over, injustice remains and prospects are bleak. Amid the ensuing disillusionment and hopelessness is Tambudzai’s single-minded quest for monetary success –– the idea that to be “somebody” requires leaving one’s heritage in favor of a more Westernized identity, and with that “the constant tension from not knowing whether or not you were as you were meant to be, the brutal fighting to answer affirmatively that question, and its damage.”
Ultimately, This Mournable Body is a reflection on the past, and how it can define us. Reckoning with horrific acts she’d rather push away, Tambudzai is caught in a struggle between the deep urge to forget and the stifling inability to do so. The eventual return to her home village will force her to decide what the value of one’s heritage truly is.
Three years ago, my essay “Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases” approached the border from eight different routes. The years since have only increased the urgency of dealing with the border in a humane and just way.
“The law constitutes a ‘we’ through an official story,” scholar Priscilla Wald wrote in her 1994 book, Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form. But: “An official story of ‘a people’ invariably lags behind the seismic demographic changes and corresponding untold stories that ultimately compel each revision.”
These days, we’re immersed in the conflict that churns beneath the changing text.
When Donald Trump issued his Muslim ban a week after his inauguration, protestors poured into airports around the country. Federal courts issued injunctions, the Trump administration twice revised the ban, and the Supreme Court let it go into effect while it heard the case. Later, the Trump administration began blocking people from seeking asylum at official border points and taking the children of those who do manage to cross. Lawyers filed lawsuits. Protests bloomed. On July 4, sparing no symbolism, seven people dropped an “Abolish ICE” banner from the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Now, in Trump v. Hawaii, the Supreme Court has rubber-stamped the Muslim ban. My printed copy of Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion is marked with angry notes. I was one of the people marching through SeaTac airport a year and a half ago, lifted by the “joy of disobedience,” and I’m one of the people now who’s spent mornings holding a handwritten sign in front of the Seattle ICE office.
In 2018, we know we’re living in history. I imagine a person like me, sitting at a desk one hundred years from now in whatever United States emerges from this catastrophe, reading Trump v. Hawaii. This reader, comfortable but conscientious, peers at the decision as if through a telescope. Distance can make everything smaller, especially if there’s no political and moral crisis bearing down on the reader to bring history to the fore as she sifts through the pages.
In August 2018, we are experiencing a genuine crisis—not just a crisis of intensified border-related brutality but also a crisis of sudden awareness and loss of meaning. Who are we? It’s a double question: who’s included, and what’s the nature of those of us who are? The border touches both sides of this question. Donald Trump so luxuriates in his contempt for the lives connected to the border that many of us who previously could escape or ignore the border—not just as a place but as an instrument of power—can hide no longer; many don’t want to anyway. Ignorance is complicity, and complicity ruins our souls. Continue reading
In Bernardo Atxaga’s autobiographical novel Nevada Days (352 pages; Graywolf Press), the gaudy emptiness of the Biggest Little City stands as an insufficient guard against the encroaching desolation surrounding it. Upon arriving in Reno, the acclaimed Basque author is struck by the suffocating silence of the place. Often enough, Reno appears just as much a ghost town as the actual ones Atxaga visits. To use the Daniel Sada metaphor he frequently invokes, the city appears as a stage-set version of the desert and, by extension, reality.
Nevada Days (which was first published in 2013, but now sees an English translation by Margaret Jull Costa this month) is a fictionalized account of Atxaga’s nine months from 2007 into 2008 as a writer-in-residence at the University of Nevada’s Center for Basque Studies. Written as a series of dated, journal-like entries, the novel intersperses lived moments, such as haunting excursions into the Nevada desert (“I was keenly aware of the world’s utter indifference to us. This wasn’t just an idea either, but something more physical, more emotional, which troubled me and made me feel like crying.”), with meditations on memories from Atxaga’s homeland, so that Basque country feels as near as the alien landscape and culture in which he finds himself.
Though the harsh isolation of the desert will prove to be tempered by the genuine welcome he finds in Reno, danger looms large during Atxaga’s time there. He palpably conveys the sense of fear around him as a serial rapist continues to attack women near his home on College Drive, where he lives with his two daughters, and a college student next door, Brianna Denison, is kidnapped and murdered.
Published earlier this year to respectful notices, Zachary Lazar’s painstakingly crafted novel Vengeance (272 pages; Catapult) takes on the complicated issues of race, the socially constructed questions of guilt or innocence in late stage capitalism, cultural appropriation and redemption. “What ‘Vengeance’ really attempts to unravel is the problem of injustice, although it is not a protest novel,’’ Katy Waldman noted in The New Yorker. Prison reform has been in the air—just ask Kim Kardashian—but news cycles come and go. Regardless, Vengeance merits a more sustained look.
The novel was inspired by the author’s visit to Angola, a Louisiana State Penitentiary (and former slave plantation) where he saw a production of a Passion Play, “The Life of Jesus Christ.” With a friend named Deborah (in real-life, photographer Deborah Luster, whose series “Tooth for an Eye: A Choreography of Violence in Orleans Parish’’ is credited at the end of the book), Lazar’s narrator (and thinly veiled stand-in) attends the rehearsals and ultimate final performance.
More importantly, he befriends a prisoner named Kendrick King, doing life for his alleged role in a drug deal gone murderously wrong. Did he, in fact, do the deed? Or was he paying dues, proudly standing up for his cousin, Mason, who, the narrator finds out through dogged reporting, was most likely the one who was directly involved. But does it matter, ultimately?