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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

Under a Spell: Cavolo & McClanahan’s ‘The Incantation of Daniel Johnston’

the-incantations-of-daniel-johnston-front-cover_2048x2048Artist Ricardo Cavolo and writer Scott McClanahan have created an intimate portrait of one of their heroes—cult-famous indie musician Daniel Johnston—in their recent graphic novel, which serves as “an affectionate thanks and a hug for Daniel.” The Incantations of Daniel Johnston (101 pages; Two Dollar Radio) is more than a look at Johnston’s picaresque life; it is also a critique on fandom and an investigation of the ways an audience interacts with art and mental illness. While Cavolo and McClanahan refuse to skip over the tragic aspects of Johnston’s mental health, or skirt around the troubling things the self-proclaimed “curse upon the land” has done, they also lovingly dream up different paths Johnston’s life could have taken. There is a wonderful yet occasionally unsettling strangeness that permeates this book. It stems from acknowledging “the devils inside” all of us, as depicted in Cavolo’s colorful illustrations and in the dark humor in McClanahan’s language.

To combat the mythologizing of Daniel Johnston as an artist, Cavolo and McClanahan continuously remind us he is human. At the beginning, Cavolo draws Daniel on an embryonic level, still inside his mother’s womb. McClanahan writes, “Everyone was someone’s child once. Remember.” This sets the tone for the rest of the book. As Cavolo and McClanahan bask in the bizarreness of Johnston’s story, they also instruct us to acknowledge he is real. We are transported to Johnston’s childhood bedroom, where he grew up in a religious household in West Virginia. Within the room, Cavolo illustrates the drawings Johnston is known for: frogs, eyeballs, skulls, and superheroes. McClanahan writes, “There is nothing more amazing than the bedrooms of our childhood or the room we are sitting in right now.” These details of Daniel’s youth are given as much weight as the darker incidences that occurred later on in his life once drugs, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder afflicted his life.

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The Push and Pull of Forming an Identity: ‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith

Swing Time If it weren’t for the prologue in Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time (464 pages; Penguin Press), a reader might be confounded by the many undulations the narrative takes as it kicks off in the present then looks back upon a past traumatic incident, excavating it. What could have been off-putting proves to be an adventure zig-zagging from public housing to brownstones, from England to Senegal, from 1982 to 2008, filling in the gaps in time and place and creating a definitive arc, albeit one completely warped.

Relationships, and the action that subsequently alters them, form the novel’s backbone, cementing the nonlinear action nicely. When we meet Tracey in the book’s opening, she’s another mixed-race girl whom the unnamed narrator has dance class with. Their friendship and fated falling out is the stuff of tragedy in the classical sense; our narrator muses, “there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.” Tracey is, indeed, the narrator’s sole object of obsession, one she returns to at varying points, often by way of other characters, illustrating their karmic inseparability—a lodestar by which she tracks her own success or failure. Tracey is the more talented of the pair, but her talent quickly dissipates when she falls prey to the socioeconomic odds stacked against her, eventually railing to bring the narrator down with her.

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Possession of the Wheel: ‘The Red Car’ by Marcy Dermansky

The Red CarMarcy Dermansky’s newest novel, The Red Car (206 pages, Liveright/Norton), moves much like the car it features: fast and unpredictable. It covers three stages and sixteen years of narrator Leah Kaplan’s life, beginning with her as a college freshman, then leading to her bumbling entry into adulthood, and finishing with her early thirties, when she’s a writer living in Queens with a possessive husband whom she does not love. Through it all Leah is a mess of contradictions; sexually open though terrified of affection, in earnest pursuit of her dreams but displaying a tendency for self-sabotage, “floating in unexplainable melancholy” yet always able to find humor in the bleakest situation. Leah is a puzzle that can’t be pieced together.

The red car of the title arrives when Leah, now an aspiring writer just out of college, works an administrative assistant job in San Francisco. She despises the mundaneness of the office, and her boss, Judy, only encourages her loathing, taking her out for long, boozy lunches and allowing her to write stories during work. She listens to Leah about her roommate woes and unromantic hookups with a boyfriend who isn’t really her boyfriend. Judy tells Leah she will do incredible things, and advises her not to marry because it would only confine her; she even threatens to fire Leah if she doesn’t apply to grad schools. Perhaps it is this ambition that Judy instills in her that causes Leah to resent her boss’s fancy new car as soon as she sees it. The car immediately becomes a symbol of the common—“Of fifteen more years at the office. A life sentence.”—but Leah also detects something more. “I feel like something sinister has happened in this car … Or could happen. I don’t know. Something bad,” she tells Judy. Judy insists the car is perfection, a “dream come true.”

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Under the Volcano: ‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was’ by Sjon

MoonstoneSjon’s latest novel, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Books, 145 pages), set in Reykjavik in 1918, is the story of sixteen-year-old Máni Steinn (a.k.a. Moonstone). The boy’s guardian is “the old lady”—his grandmother’s sister who took him in after his mother died when he was just six. They live with “the landlord,” a man she raised as a nanny and who lets them stay in his garret space rent-free. To the concern of the old lady, Máni is “such a loner that rather than go out and play with his classmates he preferred to hang out at home, smoking cigarettes with her.” Besides smoking in the attic, he splits his time between trips to the cinema and prostituting himself.

Early on in the novel, we witness the eruption of Katla, a large Icelandic volcano. The ash coats Reykjavik’s skies, wrapping the city in a hazy cloud that’s reflective of the island country’s seclusion from the rest of the world, as well as Máni’s isolation. While Sjon does not dwell on the pain of being gay in a place where queerness may be unfathomable, the moments that we do get access to Máni’s inner torment cut deep. Much of the boy’s distress is shared through what he dreams; graphic and horrific nightmares that pull from his real-life troubles. He escapes his situation by going to the cinema. He watches every movie imported into Iceland, and each film as often as it is screened. “And now the boy lives in the movies. When not spooling them into himself through his eyes, he is replaying them in his mind.” The boy’s cinephile-like view of life is reflected in the way Sjon tells Máni’s story, often focusing on situations frame-by-frame, and cutting abruptly to other scenes.

Máni pays for all these movies by servicing “gentlemen,” some of whom are foreign (like the Danish sailors docking in the port or the wealthy tourists visiting from Copenhagen) and some of who are prominent townspeople, local men living in the closet. One of them is the scholar, Dr. Thordeal, who refers to himself as the Atlas of the Icelandic literary world. He exists as a hermit, hiding in his basement with his books. The boy sometimes performs sexual favors for this “genial hunchback” for two kronur. One of the many tragic elements of Máni’s situation is that discrete prostitution is the only outlet for him to express some semblance of queer love. A local poet, whom Máni does not charge for his services, whispers to him, “Had we but another world and time/ Our passionate embraces were no crime.”

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A Valley of Phantoms: ‘Angel of Oblivion’ by Maja Haderlap

Angel of Oblivion 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.

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‘Conjectures Based on What You Know About Yourself’: Q&A with Chelsea Martin

Chelsea Martin (photo by Catlin Snodgrass)

Chelsea Martin (photo by Catlin Snodgrass)

“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.

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‘We Can Work Harder to Mourn’: Q&A with ‘Grief Is the Thing …’ Author Max Porter

Max Porter (photo by Lucy Dickens)

Max Porter (photo by Lucy Dickens)

Max Porter’s experimental novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (128 pages; Graywolf) follows a father and his two sons as they come to grips with their wife and mother’s sudden death. They do so with the help of an unusual houseguest: Crow, an anthropomorphic projection of the father’s obsession with Ted Hughes’ 1970 poetry collection Crow. Part mythic trickster, part grief counselor, Crow leads the family through an idiosyncratic and irreverent mourning. His air of mischievousness colors the entire novel, lending it a kaleidoscopic tone that renders the mourning process unrecognizable.

For Porter, who works as an editor at Granta, this unrecognizability is precisely the point. In giving his audience a mythologized, unfamiliar representation of grief, Porter intends for his readers to rethink mourning’s generative possibilities and private grief’s relationship to public life. Via email, I spoke with Porter about his novel and about grief, vandalism, and new languages of crisis.

ZYZZYVA: A lot has been said about how Ted Hughes’ shadow looms over this novel, but less has been said regarding Emily Dickinson and how she informs the novel’s exploration of grief. I’m particularly intrigued by the amended poem you include as the novel’s epigraph. That poem is about the myopia love engenders in us, the way we can’t perceive it as anything other than an undifferentiated totality. Your insertions of “crow” heighten that myopia, so that the poem doesn’t even give us the ambiguous comfort of proportioned freight. Instead, we get the all-encompassing image of crow. What is the relationship of those edits, if any, to how the novel depicts the grieving process? Is the epigraph implying there is a relationship between love and mourning?

Max Porter: I hope the implication is there, yes, that the generative possibilities of mourning are comparable.

The epigraph is a key to the book inasmuch as all my intentions are made visible by the vandalism. If Crow did it, then, yes, it is a statement of his all-encompassing symbolic stature, and a symptom of his hubris, his manic ego. If Dad did it, then it’s a comment—made in hindsight—about the possibility of gamesmanship with the poets we read or become obsessed with, a statement that the vertical axis of influence (Say, Whitman, Dickinson, Hughes/Plath, Dad. Or indeed Canon-Reader via biography) is to be messed with, lovingly. The word “love” is pointedly not obscured; Dickinson’s devastatingly exact repetition is visible, and Crow’s vandalism is hand-written, i.e., an engagement through craft, a note, a doodle, a thought in process.

My relationship with Dickinson is simple. I think she’s the far reach, the inexhaustible, especially if one’s subjects are death, love, faith, sink holes, ecstasy.

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A Sunset You Don’t Want to Miss: ‘Slow Days, Fast Company’ by Eve Babitz

babitz.Slow_Days_hi-res_1024x1024“I am quick to categorize and find it saves mountains of time,” writes Eve Babitz in her superb autobiographical novel Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, And L.A. (184 pages; NYRB). Matthew Spector is right when he writes in the introduction to the New York Review Books Classics’ reprint that what sets Babitz’s 1977 novel apart is “the strength and radical compression of its thought.” Although Babitz paints with a broad brush, the resulting images ring approximately true. (And what is there but approximate truth?) Many of her generalizations concern women and men. From the tragedy of Janis Joplin’s death, Babitz reasons that “women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have ‘everything,’ not success-type ‘everything.’ I mean, not when the ‘everything’ isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince (where even if it falls through and the prince runs away with the baby-sitter, there’s at least a precedent.)” At least once, Babitz claims to be giving up on her own “happily ever after,” but she’s the kind of person who can’t help falling in breathless, cinematic love.

The preface opens with this strange warning: “This is a love story and I apologize; it was inadvertent.” She’s referring to the story of her love of Los Angeles, which, like the city itself, is sprawling and seemingly chaotic: “You can’t write a story about L.A. that doesn’t turn around in the middle and gets lost.” Of course, to love a place means to love the places it comprises. The first time she goes to a restaurant called Ports, she thinks, “I have got to get into this movie.” So she starts waitressing there for free. Of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, she writes: “Forest Lawn is an example of eternity carried to its logical conclusion. I love L.A. because it does things like that.” Even when she leaves L.A., she can’t go long without thinking about it. In Bakersfield, she notices the rows of grapes are “manicured like Beverly Hills.”

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‘If You’re Going to Tell the Story of Slavery, I’m Going to Listen All Day’: Q&A with ‘Homegoing’ Author Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi (photo by Michael Lionstar)

Yaa Gyasi (photo by Michael Lionstar)

Yaa Gyasi’s recently released and critically acclaimed first novel, Homegoing (320 pages; Knopf) moves from late 18th century West Africa to 21st century California, tracking the repercussions of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Gyasi, a graduate from Stanford and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and whose book was just named to the longlist for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, illustrates how slavery and white supremacy shaped life in the African diaspora by exploring the history of a single family—one branch of which remains in what eventually becomes Ghana, while the other experiences the turbulent history of African America.

By drawing direct lines among the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, British colonialism in West Africa, and institutional racism in the United States, Gyasi makes a powerful statement about how slavery’s impact continues to reverberate in our contemporary moment. A moving exploration of trauma, survival, and perseverance, Homegoing provides a portrait of the African diaspora with unprecedented scope. I sat down with Gyasi in her south Berkeley apartment to discuss how she constructed the novel, the necessity of telling stories of slavery, and how black narratives push the boundaries of realism.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start by talking about how you put this book together. I’m intrigued by how you did so—a lot of it resembles a collection of interlinked short fictions. Did it at any point begin as a short story cycle

Yaa Gyasi: Actually, no, it didn’t. It began as a more traditionally structured novel. It was originally set in the present and focused on the last two characters, [Marcus and Marjorie], and then it flashed back to 18th century Ghana. I wrote about 100 pages that way until I got to Iowa. Then I realized that I was interested in tracking how slavery, colonialism, and institutionalized racism work over a very long period of time—not just the beginning and end, but the movement from the beginning to the end. Then I thought that I might as well try a structure that allowed me to stop along as many historical moments as possible, which is how I came up with the structure you see now. But it took me three years to arrive there, and I never thought of it as short stories, perhaps because I’d been working on this novel idea and just pivoted in the middle of the process. But also, the long arc of the book was more important to me. The accumulation of all of the chapters was more important to me than the individual chapters.

Z: Would you say that that pivot toward the long historical arc was a pivot away from a character-based narrative and toward the historical novel?

YG: I think it’s still very character-based. I wanted each chapter to focus on character and not whatever historical event was happening in the background, though obviously, those events very much informs each of the characters’ lives. I guess maybe it was me coming to the realization that a lot of the themes I was thinking about were better suited to a structure that allowed me to follow a longer through line than just having the beginning and the end. So maybe it was a transition, not away from a character-based novel, but into an understanding of the themes that are important in this book.

Z: It sounds right that it’s still character-driven, but because of the nature of the structure, many of your characters’ stories end right before major narrative arcs resolve themselves. As a reader, I found myself wishing I could continue following characters like Akua and Willie. Did you as the author ever wish that you could revisit some of these characters?

YG: Not really while I was writing, because, again, I had that long arc in mind, so I really wanted to get there. But I think as a project of thinking, I’m always wondering, for example, what would happen if we followed Robert’s family down the line, this lineage of people who think they are white and have always been white? That’s always fascinated me. I could have definitely followed any of the characters in this book and ended up in an entirely different place. That’s really interesting to me.

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A Terrible Twist of Fate, the Birth of a Writer: ‘Will & I’ by Clay Byars

Will & I Clay Byars’ memoir, Will & I (192 pages; FSG Originals), could have opened on the car crash that changes Byars’ life at 20. It could have opened nine months after the crash when surgery that is supposed to fix the nerve damage in his shoulder results in a stroke that leaves him paralyzed and near death once more. It could have even opened on the stroke itself, the dizziness and life receding “to a dreamlike distance.” It could have opened on any one of the many dramatic circumstances punctuating Byars’ life, but instead it opens on a singing lesson.

After his stroke, Byars not only loses the ability to move but also the ability to speak. Gradually, he regains a limited mobility and a shaky, barely intelligible version of his old voice. With the help of his singing coach, Dewin, he learns to control it, or rather he learns how to trust sound waves to do their work. At the end of one of his first lessons, Byars feels his voice come in tune with the piano. “The sound,” he writes, “no longer had a ceiling.” The rest of the memoir follows the author slowly and painstakingly removing the ceilings fate keeps thrusting over him. And he does believe in fate, in a writerly way: “The notion of fate only appears when we consider ourselves as unified consciousnesses moving through time, but such an identity is merely a role—or at least that’s how I’ve come to see it.”

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‘Language to Swarm and Eat’ the Hopelessness: ‘A Bestiary’ by Lily Hoang

A BestiaryLily Hoang’s new book, A Bestiary (156 pages; Cleveland State University Poetry Center), proves why a healthy amount of skepticism—at times bordering on distaste—for the self is an undervalued trait in literature. Throughout her collection, Hoang blurs the line between personal essay and prose poetry as she takes stock of her life and often comes to some unflattering conclusions. Reflecting on an unsatisfying, on-and-off-again relationship with her lover, she writes, “I feel like a feminist poser, talking a big game about empowerment but living a reality of passivity and self-contempt.”

A Bestiary offers a snapshot of a turbulent time in Hoang’s life, one in which she’s still grieving her sister’s unexpected death from a brain aneurysm while trying to provide a home for her nephew, a recovering drug addict. Her aging parents also offer a point of concern, with her mother using iPad games to escape from reality and her father needling her about her weight. As a writer, Hoang is refreshingly comfortable with balancing contradictions—the self, after all, contains multitudes. This is why she can remark on Page 107, “I want my sadness to be legitimized,” when earlier in the text she came to the conclusion, “Real sadness does not need a performance.”

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Looking for Life After Death: ‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo

Zero KDon DeLillo’s seventeenth novel, Zero K (288 pages; Scribner), has all the trappings of a typical DeLillo novel. It opens with the protagonist Jeffrey Lockhart arriving at the Convergence, a techo-utopian compound erected in the midst of a central Asian desert. The compound is a staging ground for a series of experiments, led by the mysterious Stenmark Twins (or, at least that’s what Jeffrey calls them), into the possibilities of cryogenics. These experiments are meant to prepare their participants—including Jeffrey’s terminally ill stepmother, Artis, and estranged father, Ross Lockhart—for a future where death has ceased to exist and life may be everlasting. There’s little plot beyond this initial setup. Rather, DeLillo performs an elliptical investigation of the tensions between skepticism and belief, alienation and community, subjectivity and relationality.

In this sense, Zero K sometimes seems like less of a novel and more of a philosophical treatise. Jeffrey aimlessly wanders the Convergence. Occasionally he encounters screens that descend at random to depict epic scenes of human suffering, as if to remind him of the mortality he might leave behind in the compound. A skeptic amid the Convergence’s utopian promise, he refuses to take the Stenmark Twins’ vision seriously. He’s convinced the entire project is a prank, a cosmic joke on gullible believers. To register his incredulity, he knocks on doors at random, certain no one is behind them, that the Convergence is a stage created for the purpose of an elaborate fiction. For the most part he’s confirmed in his suspicion—until someone answers and topples Jeffrey’s assumptions.

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