ZYZZYVA EventsSeptember 27, 2016
ZYZZYVA Fall Issue Celebration
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco
Description: Readings from Issue No. 107 contributors Lori Ostlund, Austen Leah Rosenfeld, Ann Cummins, and Christopher Adamson, plus recent contributor Heather Altfeld. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/2b8t3O2October 5, 2016
In Conversation with Vanessa Hua
Location: 7:30 p.m., The Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Francisco.
Description: Hua, the award-winning writer and author of the story collection "Deceit and Other Possibilities," discusses her work with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/2auWKLhOctober 15, 2016
ZYZZYVA Fall All-Stars at Litcrawl
Location: 6 p.m., Dolores Park Cafe, 501 Dolores Street, San Francisco.
Description: Readings by contributors Earle McCartney, Caille Millner, Dominica Phetteplace, Octavio Solis, and Deb Olin Unferth, hosted by Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. For more info: http://sched.co/7vp4
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
Our Fall issue, replete with fiction, nonfiction, and poetry:
A wide-ranging and revealing conversation between Andrew Foster Altschul and Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff, on writing, memory, and the craft of memoir.
Lori Ostlund’s “A Little Customer Service”: A waitress questions the value of services rendered when she finds herself in the bed—and the distressed home—of a rich, carefree customer.
Ann Cummin’s “Divination”: The burden of a brother toiling the land, serving his no-account father.
Adrienne Celt’s “Big Boss Bitch”: They were certain they’d found the perfect female candidate for president. Then she started thinking on her own.
Mark Chiusano’s “The Better Future Project”: Even amid the work of political protest in the YouTube age, unrequited love can’t be ignored.
A trio of poems from a striking emerging voice, Kaveh Akbar; as well as new stories from Kathleen Alcott, Earle McCartney, and Fatima Bhutto; and nonfiction from Peter Orner (on encountering the work of Alvaro Mutis in Zapatista Chiapas) and Brad Wetherell (on his complicated relationship with a woman he tutors in English in Prague).
Plus a portfolio from artist Kota Ezawa, and poetry from Christopher J. Adamson, Mary Cisper, Mallory Imler Powell, Austen Leah Rosenfeld, Adam Scheffler, and Judith Skillman.
Kaveh Akbar founded and edits Divedapper. His chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, will be published in January by Sibling Rivalry Press, and his first full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is forthcoming from Alice James Books next fall. He is the recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.
Three of Akbar’s poems appear in the Winter issue, including this one, “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy.” We provide the poem in full, but you can read Akbar’s other poems—”Against Idleness” and “You Came to Feel the Fur But Didn’t Expect the Snout” in Issue No. 107, which you can buy here.
“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We continue with this piece by Vanessa Martini. Martini is a bookseller at City Lights Books. She lives in San Francisco.
My saved eBay, Etsy, and Craigslist searches, with commentary on what late capitalism’s insidious grasp makes me believe each item will do for my life or say about it:
Honda CB450 Four
If I get this it means at some point I actually got my driver’s license, which means I figured out how to schedule beyond what I already do, so there’s something totally implausible already. I’ll have my driver’s license and have gotten my M1 certification, and I’ll have a sweet little zippy bike, classic looking, red preferred, black or silver acceptable, even something like turquoise could be considered, but not yellow, not bright green. It will be mine. I won’t be sitting on the back anymore. It will be mine, and I will ride wherever I want, whenever I want. Because of this I will go to the beach more often than I do, and up to Marin more than I do, and maybe my dad will even get back on his BSA sitting in the garage, the one that’s silver with a purple stripe—dreamy—but, alas, too tall for me. We could ride together. Maybe at least he can teach me how to fix it because he’s best when he’s teaching me things, even though I get bratty and sassy, and we piss each other off, he has something to focus on, the teaching part, and he’ll have to show me how to change my brake fluid or whatever it is instead of not saying anything at all or saying something that upsets me and then he gets upset that I’m upset and the way he tries to tell me he’s upset upsets me more, and then he feels somehow infringed upon or uncomfortably pressed into feelings he doesn’t understand so he resorts to this clipped anger, this weird clipped anger, and I retreat and cry and am sullen. Things are better when he has something to teach me, like how to change brake fluid. I will also look extremely cool when I take off my helmet and shake out my hair.
Rick Owens leather jacket, size S
This will make me look like my job pays a lot more than it does. It will make me look like the sort of person who buys bottles of wine she will not drink for at least ten years so as to “let the tannins soften,” who has a white cat despite an all-black wardrobe, who regularly visits the dry cleaners, who has bookshelves that fit everything, no stacks required. The sort of person who has enough space. More than enough. An excess of space, with minimal stuff in it (a place for everything and everything in its place). A person who does not sweat, with immaculate hair the wind seems not to bother. A person people take seriously. A person who is left alone on the bus at night—who probably does not even take public transit, yes, this jacket will make me look like someone with the luxury of privacy, who can envelop herself in solitude and lambskin with equal ease. Sometimes the looking-like is enough to push past what really is.
Japanese tansu chest
There is a house where I live, alone, no roommates. There is enough room for the tansu chest. Aside from a bar cart, it is the only piece of storage furniture in the house not used for books or that does not have books somewhere on its surface. I keep many generously-sized towels in there, the kind that really cover up everything when wrapped around your body, chest to knees nearly. There are also sheets that are soft from years of washing but show no signs of wear beyond a faded tag. They seemed expensive at the time, but hey, you get what you pay for, right? There are smaller towels, too, for the hands and faces of visitors who stay on a squashy sofa or in my bed, depending. They come frequently and from all over, and I am glad to have them. I bring them to the best coffee in my neighborhood, the best Thai, the small store selling lovely things. They think it all charming and tell me they’re glad I’ve found a place for myself, they mean it, too, I can see them meaning it somewhere in their eyes, and they are the type of friend whose word I trust implicitly after many years of different kinds of friendship all layered together like many-colored glass to form one distinct hue for our friendship now. We go out for breakfast and then on a long walk. One of us brings an apple or a pear in a bag and we stop and share it somewhere with a nice view. I picked this walk just for the view, and I point out landmarks. There is the theater, there is the grocery store open twenty-four hours and never seeming quite real inside, there is a house where I used to live. We lapse into not talking very much but it feels soft together. Eventually we get back to my house. I give them a glass of water and then they want to take a shower, so I open the tansu chest for a towel. While they shower I nap accidentally on the couch (it’s just so soft). It is quiet and cool in the house, my house, my house alone. Soon it gets dusky. Candles are lit, the windows open. My friend makes dinner as a thank-you for hosting. Fresh pasta with shrimp. Some bread to get the sauce up. A green salad, sharp with lemon and cracked pepper. White wine, cold from the fridge. Somehow there is always more to discuss.
Mauro Javier Cardenas (whose story “Dora and Her Dog” was published in Issue No. 104) is the author of the new novel The Revolutionaries Try Again (Coffee House Press). Harper’s Magazine has described his first novel as “a high-octane, high-modernist” work “from the gifted, fleet Mauro Javier Cardenas.” And in its starred review, Publishers Weekly said “Cardenas dizzyingly leaps from character to character, from street protests to swanky soirees, and from lengthy uninterrupted interior monologues to rapid-fire dialogues and freewheeling satirical radio programs, resulting in extended passages of brilliance.”
Cardenas spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about his book at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco earlier this month.
Ann Cummins is the author of the story collection Red Ant House (2003) and the novel Yellowcake (2007). A former Lannan fellow, her work has been published in The New Yorker and McSweeney’s and in Best American Short Stories 2002.
Her story “Divination” is set in the Southwest region in which Cummins was born, but takes place in a distant era, one that places the narrative in the category we would call a Western (and as anybody who has read Stegner, Cather, McCarthy, or Oakley Hall knows, what a wide and rich category it is). A story about the uncompromising realities of family and laboring from the land, “Divination” is another welcome example of Cummins artistry. The following is an excerpt from her story. It can be read in its entirety in Issue No. 107, which you can order here.
The following is the introduction from a conversation between our contributing editor Andrew Foster Altschul and Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff. You can read an excerpt of their conversation following the introduction, and, of course, can read the conversation in its entirety in Issue No. 107, which you can buy here.
It’s hard to think of a pair of writer-siblings as celebrated, or as prolific, as Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff. Between them, they’ve written nineteen books, including novels, short-story and essay collections, and a travel narrative. But it was their acclaimed memoirs Geoffrey’s The Duke of Deception (1979) and Tobias’s This Boy’s Life (1989)—that first earned them wide readerships. The brothers’ parents split up when Geoffrey was twelve and Tobias was five, and they grew up separately: Geoffrey with their father and Tobias with their mother. The memoirs deal with their unusual childhoods, from perspectives that overlap only occasionally—the brothers did not really get to know each other until they were young adults. Over their careers, both have won numerous accolades and have risen to positions of prominence in academia—Geoffrey as the director of the graduate writing program at the University of California at Irvine, Tobias as professor of English at Stanford University. I am one of only a few writers lucky enough to have studied with both Wolffs. In 2012, I invited them to the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University for a public conversation about memory, family, and the precarious art of writing one’s own life.
In her novel Angel of Oblivion (289 page; Archipelago Books), Maja Haderlap depicts a dilapidated, Slovenian-speaking valley in Austria following World War II. During the war, the Nazis identified this area in the south of the country as one riddled with partisans. Many were hunted down and killed, while others were taken away to the camps. (Among the survivors, it is debatable which fate was worse.) Now it’s the 1960s, and fragmented families people the valley, farmers who repeat the stories of their neighbors’ and kins’ annihilations like chants. Haderlap’s story focuses on one particular group of survivors, the Zdravkos, a family preoccupied by food and death, just like everybody else in the valley.
Pulling from her own family history, and narrating the story through the Zdravkos’ daughter, Haderlap introduces each member of the clan through his or her relation to food. When we meet Father, he is working with the cattle. “You can read Father’s moods from the cowpat’s flight. If he tosses the manure in a high arc to the back of the heap, he’s feeling confident. If he flings the cowpats hard against the front of the manure pile, he’s irate.” Father’s past colors the entire novel, never allowing us to forget his nightmare of hiding from the Nazis, alone in the mountains as a boy of 12. Thus his irate moods can burn toward the suicidal. One of the novel’s most striking scenes happens early on when Father locks himself in the apiary with his gun. We sympathize with his pain, and continue to do so afterward, even as he later threatens the rest of the family with the same gun.
Over the course of a relatively short but extremely productive literary career, Christine Sneed has already achieved a substantial, and enviable, body of work. Her first story collection, 2009’s Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, was awarded the AWP Grace Paley Prize and long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story prize.
Both for its attention to detail, and its close, caring, but unsentimental attention to the complicated lives of women (and men), Portraits is in Paley’s spirit at the same time as it honors the tradition of what O’Connor called “the lonely voice’’ that characterizes the under-respected story form.
Sneed, who is the faculty director of the MA/MFA in Creative Writing Program at Northwestern, followed that success with an ambitious novel in 2013, Little Known Facts, about the hidden costs, and familial complications, of Hollywood fame. In a glowing front-page review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Curtis Sittenfeld wrote, “Christine Sneed has written a novel just for us: Little Known Facts is just juicy enough to appeal to our prurience but smart enough not to make us feel dirty afterward.”
Nothing daunted, Sneed next spread her wings further with Paris, He Said, a novel about a struggling artist who moves to Europe at the urging of an older gallery owner who sets her up in his apartment. Robin Black’s notice for the Times said, “With clever and graceful prose, Sneed deftly guides a story that explores whether satisfaction follows when one’s deepest wishes come true.’’
In her newest book, the just-published The Virginity of Famous Men (320 pages; Bloomsbury), she returns to her favored form of the short story, with deepening psychological explorations and a commitment to sympathetic, knowing understanding of the spaces between us—how we punish each other, and often ourselves, because of these missed connections.
Sneed took time to talk with us via email about the new collection, and her career:
ZYZZYVA: In a sense, The Virginity of Famous Men seems like a coda to Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry. Apart from the fact that they both have great titles, what similarities—or differences—do you see in the two works?
Christine Sneed: I suppose most writers would have to say this, but I’m most interested in relationships—whether they’re between spouses, siblings, parents and children, friends. The tensions that arise in everyday life have always been a source of inspiration, and I suppose that even with the stories that are a little more out there (with on-the-verge characters who count a ghost as a close friend, or another who is applying for a job in a manner that probably won’t get her too many offers), I’m most interested in how people connect with each other, or else the opposite—how we alienate each other. That dominant theme is the same here as it was in Portraits.
Tim Murphy’s latest novel, Christodora (432 pages; Grove Press), arrives in the middle of a cultural yearning for the seedier, more affordable, which is to say “idealized” Manhattan of yesteryear. Novels like Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire and television shows like Netflix’s The Get Down have embraced nostalgia for the cultural ferment of New York City in the ’70s and ’80s, its sense of an expansive and generative squalor. Superficially, Christodora bears this same stamp. Titled after a run-down East Village apartment complex two of Murphy’s protagonists buy for dirt cheap, the novel lovingly renders New York at its nadir. In the midst of that era’s decrepit neighborhoods, social upheavals, and myriad health crises, Christodora locates pleasure in the interstices of seemingly multiplying apocalypses. Whether it’s describing the dark ecstasy of a gay club or the contradictory pleasures of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, the scenes here ripple with a so much life they prevent Murphy’s novel of the early years of the AIDS epidemic from being reduced to a 400-plus-page tome of human suffering. Covering six decades (even stretching into the 2020s), the novel deftly navigates an interconnected cast of Dickensian intricacy, as well, resulting is a convincingly rendered portrayal of the textures and rhythms of New York City, past and future.
“Being unemployed feels like being in The Sims’ Build Mode, but with less soothing music.” So declares the nameless narrator at the heart of Mickey (200 pages; Curbside Splendor), the new book from Chelsea Martin. As Mickey opens, its main character – a struggling young artist – impulsively breaks up with her long-term boyfriend and is soon fired from her job. These events springboard our hapless protagonist into ruminations on grand existential concerns like the struggle to pay rent, the inherent loneliness of the human condition, and why cheese and crackers are so damn important at gallery showings.
Mickey is one of this summer’s literary gems, a book that bummed me out and made me laugh in equal measure. It’s no exaggeration to say the novel represents a benchmark for Martin, with Mickey delivering the fullest realization of her signature style, one that is droll and detached, and yet offers uncanny insight into the nature of our closest relationships, whether they be with our lovers, friends, or parents. It’s a book Martin will continually have to refute is autobiographical simply because she imbues her narrator with a voice so real it feels as though it must be born of lived experience. Chelsea Martin was kind enough to talk to me about Mickey and her creative process, including how to write without censoring yourself and producing art from a place of malaise.
ZYZZYVA: I was thinking about Mickey in the context of your last book, Even Though I Don’t Miss You, which came out in November 2013. For me, Mickey seems like a major artistic development for you as a writer and, based on reviews I’ve read, I’m not the only reader who feels this way. When you’re working on a new book, how much do you think about it as an evolution or follow-up to your previous release?
Chelsea Martin: Early on in the process of writing Mickey, I remember feeling panicked that I had not “finished” Even Though I Don’t Miss You, because in Mickey I was still processing some of these same themes and feelings and had more to say on these topics and was making similar stylistic choices. I was worried I was writing the same book again. But Mickey evolved into something completely different. I think there is definitely a through line, probably several, connecting the two books, and I feel good about that.
The project I’ve recently started also shares many of the same ideas as Mickey (and is even further from Even Though), but I feel much less panicky about it this time, because I know it will change and develop. Finishing a book doesn’t necessarily mean you’re done processing something or are going to stop thinking about it or being interested in it.
When Donald Trump announced his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination last June, the whole production had a farcical air. The surreal sight of his too-long descent down an escalator, magnified by the hired actors awkwardly cheering him on the entire way, elicited ridicule. His baldly racist nativism was beyond the pale even for dog-whistle Republican politics, and immediately earned him the ire of the GOP establishment. His speech, generally incoherent even as it gave voice to legitimate grievances, didn’t do him any favors; if he couldn’t even articulate a platform, how was he going to run a serious campaign? Pundits laughed at the suggestion that Trump might win the nomination, and media organizations such as CNN were content to exploit his campaign for ratings. In short, Trump’s candidacy seemed dead on arrival.
But his triumph over Republican rivals tells us that if Trump’s campaign is absurd, then there’s something equally absurd about our current moment. It’s difficult to know what to make of an election season where political institutions are failing and all of presidential politics’ truisms are inadequate to understanding our nation.
So what to make of all this? ZYZZYVA’s Dark Days Syllabus looks to fiction, history, economic theory, and other sources to make sense of Trump’s prominence (despite his declining poll numbers). While these readings range from the allegorical to the historical, they all examine the cultural and political forces latent in American society that combined to make Trump’s nomination possible. Also, feel free to suggest a title you’d like to see included in our syllabus in the comments section.
If we hope to understand what is happening in the world around us, we require more than knowledge of current events; we require, too, historical context, and then a leap of imagination. For the former, I’ve recently returned to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life; for the latter, Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America. If Hofstadter could write a present-day sequel, what might he say? Certainly there is much to be said about how anti-intellectualism has been wielded as a political tool in our current era. I suspect, wearily, that there may also be something to be said about the compounding effects of the Internet age, how it is now easier than ever to sequester oneself among only like-minded opinions, well insulated from facts that do not suit us. And with Roth’s Plot in mind, I suggest that imagination is vital, too, because when we say, in a casual way, “history repeats itself” we do not mean that it does so precisely, identically. What we might mean is that certain themes endure, though periodically rearranged in unfamiliar forms. To perceive fascism, nativism, and anti-Semitism as they manifest in the present day we must be well enough versed in history to remember that these ages-old tendencies take different form each time they erupt; and to perceive them as they flourish in previously unseen forms requires, too, an imagination alert to possibilities (the possibility, for example, that our institutions may break down and fail us to an unprecedented extent, and that, if we are not vigilant, we may succumb again to our worst impulses). Lastly: if the presidential debates do, in fact, happen, I’ll brace myself for a deluge of misogyny with Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, which I am often tempted to carry with me like an amulet, or to distribute as a helpful parting gift after particularly trying meetings. —Laura Cogan
It’s impossible to understand the eruption of nativist racism in this election cycle without thinking about its relationship to our increasingly stratified economy. As Barbara and Karen Fields argue in their study of American race relations, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, American racial and class inequalities have defined one another since our democracy’s earliest days. This isn’t to suggest that racism is a function of economic inequality, but that racism is often one of the insufficient vocabularies in which American express economic suffering. Racecraft suggests that part of what makes the white working class so vulnerable to Trump’s demagoguery is the lack of a language to talk about poverty, inequality, and the erosion of the middle class. Resisting the intolerance that Trump represents means crafting a better language in which to diagnose and address these processes. David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism is an accessible—but still rigorous—text that puts a name to the ideology that powers globalization. In the process, Harvey helps us imagine what a better political vocabulary might look like. While political vocabularies are necessary, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents show us we also need personal vocabularies so we can better understand each other’s subject positions. Butler’s novels are prophetic allegories of life in a resource-scarce American future. Set in Los Angeles, the Parable novels center on Lauren Olamina, a woman burdened with an ability called “hyperempathy”—the ability to feel others’ pain as if it were her own. While Butler tackles the issues of white supremacy, misogyny, and exploitative capitalism that climax in a post-apocalyptic America, her real concern is the novel’s empathic protagonist. Lauren turns her burden into the foundation for a religious community based in empathy; in doing so, she lets us imagine what a society organized according to human need might look like. —Ismail Muhammad
Several works immediately come to mind: Robert Caro’s four-volume (and counting) LBJ biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and The Proud Tower (both of her books are conveniently packaged in a single Library of America volume, should you be interested). Why the Caro? Because I can’t think of a better written, extensively reported work of nonfiction that shows you exactly how the sausage got made when it came to 20th century American politics. How do ruthless ambition and public service co-exist? How did a reactionary minority manage to control the U.S. Senate? How can altruism and decency checkmate corruption and duplicity? These all-too-relevant questions are addressed at length. And Tuchman? Her rightly lauded books—a history on World War I, and an essay collection on the U.S. and Europe in the decades leading up to that war—show us just how compromised civil society can be. We witness the discontent raging through various nations during the supposed Belle Epoque, knowing the abyss awaits them. You read her books these fifty-odd years later and are frozen by descriptions and insights bearing an uncomfortable relevance to our current predicaments. Lastly, Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All the King’s Men. Ostensibly about the populist Huey Long, it lays bare (among many other things) how just about no one—and certainly not a governor nor a senator nor even a beloved judge—gets through this life without some mud on his or her hands. The novel ties in beautifully with the dualities and contradictions Caro explores, I think, and its story captures a fact of life we are seemingly incapable of understanding outside of a simplistic binary (immaculate-equals-good, blemish-equals-evil), which may be partly the reason we cannot effectively mitigate this difficult truth: Power corrupts. —Oscar Villalon
In 1968, English author J.G. Ballard managed to predict the cult of celebrity that would develop and perhaps dominate in American politics over the ensuing decades with his ‘cut-up’ novel The Atrocity Exhibition. One of the most fascinating portions of the book remains a late section titled “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” a short piece presented as a log of scientific experiments intended to test the psychosexual appeal of then-Governor Ronald Reagan as a Presidential candidate. Examples: “Powerful erotic fantasies of an anal-sadistic character surrounded the image of the Presidential contender.” In a bizarre turn of events, a group of avant-garde artists and social revolutionaries distributed the pamphlet at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit; despite its provocative nature, many of the RNC delegates took the piece at face value—particularly since it was stamped with a stolen Republican Party seal—and felt the data offered scientific proof of Ronald Reagan’s immense subliminal appeal. Dennis Cooper’s Period, the closing volume of his five-novel George Miles Cycle, explores the apocalypse on a personal scale. A slender tome at a mere 109 pages, Period depicts a backwoods nation of Satanic rock bands, underground Internet message boards, and death-obsessed teenagers. Considering the bile that pours forth from many Trump rally attendees, Cooper’s bleak vision of Red State America rings even more frighteningly true in 2016 than it did upon publication almost twenty years ago. Jarett Kobeck’s 2016 book I Hate the Internet is the rare novel that attempts to capture the zeitgeist and pulls it off with aplomb. Kobeck slings some well-deserved arrows in the direction of social media giants like Twitter, overvalued tech startups, and astronomical rent prices, but at the heart of the novel is the eye-opening notion that—much in the same way the postwar comic book industry built its empire by ensuring writers and artists had no legal ownership of their own creations—we are a culture of users happily providing free content and generating revenue for the companies who own the digital landscape. We may not be students of history but our media masters certainly are. —Zack Ravas
“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We continue with a piece on musician Angel Olsen by Danielle Truppi. Truppi is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at San Francisco State University and has written for Write Club SF and Oatmeal Magazine. She is currently working on a series of stories about insects.
Angel Olsen tried to put the radio show host at ease. She told NPR’s Bob Boilen that her new song “Intern” is “such a lie,” that her next album would not be a synth album, that the song’s trailer video was meant to test her fans. Yes: it’s about performance, expectations: “people are anticipating something, and so you give them a song all about them anticipating something.”
I am a fan feverishly anticipating Olsen’s new album, and have listened to “Intern” upwards of fifty times. I was disappointed Bob Boilen didn’t trust her.
I became acquainted with Angel Olsen two years ago when a man I loved moved away from me the first time. He made me a mix CD with the song “Iota” on it, a devastating song that left me supine and puffy-eyed. On its surface, the song is a list of regrets, of hypothetical conditions that would bring about an elusive happy ending. But the conditions described are not entirely reasonable and the ending not entirely happy. The song hurts you so much because it has unanticipated barbs buried in its tangle of melancholy. It is mournful, but sarcastic, too—“if only all our memories were one,” “if only all our hopes were to be here.” If only things weren’t so complicated, things wouldn’t be complicated. If only this one little thing—this bleak, nebulous thing—then we could settle down. If only we stayed still, we could rot away together.
It was this tonal complexity that had me hooked. I bought Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014) and found myself playing it again and again, a heavy, vintage coat of sadness I never wanted to take off. The album both cradled and scorned me for my broken heart. It told me it’s all important and real and deep, this pain you are feeling, but you are all you actually have and you need to understand that. The song “White Fire” begins with “Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart,” a statement so huge and simply stated it risks seeming ridiculous. Olsen’s beautiful, quavering vocals invite you to sing along, but unlike, say, Adele or Sarah McLaughlin, it is an experience that is broader than catharsis. Olsen’s songs aren’t songs you belt into your hairbrush because love hurts; they are songs you warble along to because other things hurt, too, like condescension and the labor of communication.