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In the Fall Issue

In this issue:

Interview:

City Lights Books bookseller Paul Yamazaki in conversation with Point Reyes Books owner Stephen Sparks about the responsibilities of bookselling (“For me, it boils down to conversation”) and the Bay Area’s literary community (“I forget sometimes how lucky we are”).

Nonfiction:

Jesse Nathan on the perhaps the most impressive tool behind Bob Dylan’s artistry: his singular voice.
Peter Orner on the final brief moments of a couple slain on an isolated beach.

Fiction:

Arrival and Immigration: stories from Michael Jaime-Becerra (“¡Dale, Dale, Dale!”), E.C. Osundu (“Alien Visitors”), Christine Ma Kellems (“The Children of Dissidents”) and Greg Sarris (“Citizen”).

Liza Ward’s “The Shrew Tree”: a young woman abandons the bookish world of her father to chase an uncertain future with the son of a local farmer.

Christian Kiefer’s “Ghosts”: the survivor of a car accident is haunted by the lingering visage of a woman who may not have survived the pile-up.

Plus stories from Adam Schorin, Annie DeWitt, Molly Giles, and more.

Poetry:

Kelly Cressio-Moeller, Melissa Hohl, Amanda Moore, Jennifer Moss, Andrew Murphy, and Adam Scheffler.

Art:

Featuring the acrylic on canvas paintings of Samantha Fields

You can purchase a copy of No. 110 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA now and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring/Summer issue.

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Experience and the Writer: Q&A with ‘River Under the Road’ Author Scott Spencer

(photo by Plain Picture)

(photo by Plain Picture)

Over the course of eleven novels, Scott Spencer has earned an incontestable place as one of the major novelists of our time. Best known as the author of Endless Love, an incandescent narrative of youthful passion and obsession that became the subject of two unfortunate film adaptations, Spencer has chosen to stay out of the limelight since its publication in 1979.

In works such as Waking The Dead (1986), also adapted into a (more credible) film, A Ship Made of Paper (2003), The Rich Man’s Table (1998), and Willing (2008), he has covered fictional territory ranging from an American activist gone missing in Chile, to the illegitimate son of a cult music icon’s search for his absent parent—even the seriocomic adventures of a freelance writer who takes an all-expenses paid trip to a sex tour to get over a bad break-up.

Love, and its complicated consequences, is at the heart of his fictional explorations, but he has an uncanny ability to switch gears, from hopelessly romantic to high (and sometimes low) comedy, without seeming to break a sweat or lose the reader in the process.

His new novel, River Under the Road (384 pages; Ecco), is Spencer’s strongest achievement yet, the work of a mature artist who understands his craft and how to control his narrative. With an epigraph from Lincoln—“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history…’’—he turns his lens on a wide cast of characters as seen through thirteen scene-setting parties, from 1976 to 1990, and from Chicago, where his protagonist, Thaddeus Kaufman, was raised in the fulcrum of leftie parenting, to New York and then the Hudson Valley, (where Thaddeus repairs to after surprise success as a screenwriter), with pit stops in Hollywood and even Plato’s Retreat (or “Nero’s Fiddle,’’ as it is called here).

The demands of keeping his marriage together with Grace Cornell, the struggling artist who has accompanied him on the ride from the Midwest to what is laughingly called “success,’’ are chronicled here, along with the class struggle between the townies of Leyden (the fictional town he has moved to) and the couple’s nouveau riche friends. The temptations of La-La Land—the real thing, not the movie—are shown in living color, as Kaufman tries to fend off the blandishments, and the bullshit, that goes with the territory.

It’s a rich emotional landscape that is about as far from modish post-modernism as you can travel. These are real people, not poster children for a post-irony age. Literary comparisons are probably a mug’s game, but, for my part, the author’s seriousness about the wayward ways of the human heart puts him far beyond perennial Nobel Prize-bridesmaid Philip Roth’s often cartoonish depictions of sexual politics (or politics, period).

We talked to Spencer about River Under the Road. Our electronic conversation follows:

ZYZZYVA: River Under the Road feels like a “big’’ novel—large in scope, ambition and range—a portrait of class conflict and the never-ending war between the sexes over time and geography. Although very different in some ways, in others it seems like a return to the emotional roller coaster of Endless Love, with the distance of life experience and artistic maturity. Do you see any parallels—or significant differences—between the two books?

SCOTT SPENCER: Like everyone else, writers grow older and we have more opportunities to measure what we somehow believe to be true and important against what our experience has taught us. Don’t we sometimes feel that life is continually trying to grab us by the shoulders and give us a vigorous shake, imploring us to revise or abandon altogether half of our assumptions? I don’t write novels as a means to self-improvement or self-analysis, but if you work as I do, and create narratives in which characters deal with the consequences of their actions, you cannot escape continual confrontation with your own thoughts and feelings. Endless Love was the third novel I had published, and it is not a book that I would or could write now. Because it was more successful than my other novels, it is used often as a benchmark in discussing a new book I have written. This is probably useful to someone attempting to evaluate a writer’s oeuvre, but I don’t believe many writers think too much about previous work when they are engaged in the labor of creating a new fictional universe. Aside from never using the word “endless” again, I don’t write into or away from what I have already written.

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Summer Reading ZYZZYVA Staff Roundup

ZYZZYVA Summer ReadingIt’s that time of year when some people hit the beach while others hit the bookshelves. Here’s a look at what the ZYZZYVA team has been reading these last few months in order to beat the “heat” of summer in San Francisco:

Laura Cogan, Editor—What is it about summer that makes a thriller especially enticing? Is it the contrarian in me, looking perversely for some shade to counteract the sunny aesthetic of the season? There may be some anecdotal evidence to support this theory, at least in my case: I was visiting the preternaturally well-appointed Marin Country Mart a few weeks ago—a place radiant with fine weather, fresh produce, happy children, and an overall sense of well-being—when I stopped in at DIESEL, and left an hour later with several fairly dark titles.

J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River (Graywolf Press) is a terrifically satisfying entry in the too-often elusive category of literary thriller. As with any good thriller, the plot is propulsive—but, as with any work of literary fiction, the plot is also, ultimately, not the most intriguing or memorable aspect of the book. The murder mysteries of Broken River are layered with mediations on narrative and storytelling, including a wonderfully eerie, developing entity Lennon calls the Observer. Brooke Gladstone’s slim nonfiction volume The Trouble With Reality (Workman) is subtitled “A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time”—a predictably seductive framing to those of a certain mindset in this summer of 2017. It’s a slight book, both in heft and in depth (after all, there is much, almost too much, to be said on the subject), but it does offer a pleasingly pared-down distillation of important ideas—chief among these the concrete threat that the lack of a shared reality (or, put differently, lack of agreement on “the terms of the debate”) poses to the basic functioning of democracy. I enjoyed having it in my purse for a week, and found myself reading a few pages while commuting or waiting in line rather than looking at the news on my phone—a most welcome change. It was Charles Simic’s latest collection, Scribbled in the Dark (Ecco), however, that spoke most directly to my troubled mind in this uneasy season. “All Things in Precipitous Decline” is the perfect title of one especially perfect poem. Each exquisite poem seems to inhabit the same haunted village, and the characters and ghosts and abandoned courtrooms and libraries and stray dogs all have the sense of both a memory and a premonition. And now, as July draws to a close, I’m looking forward to Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (MCD/FSG, August 8). I’ve been anticipating this collection of essays reflecting on technology and culture for ages. In the meantime, I’m dipping back into my long-term reading project: Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Which, with its arch interrogation of the decay of culture and society leading up to World War I, feels only superficially ill-suited to the literal season, while astonishingly, painfully relevant to the political and cultural season.

ZYZZYVA Summer Reading 2

Libbie Katsev, Intern—In Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, UC Berkeley anthropologist Alexei Yurchak explores why Soviet citizens found the USSR’s collapse both unthinkable and inevitable. Hoping to avoid the binary thinking that dominates language about the Soviet Union, (“official public” and “hidden intimate”; “truth” and “falsity”), Yurchak analyzes interviews, personal writings, jokes, newspaper articles, speeches, and more to examine the paradoxes of late socialism in the words of those who lived it. Though academic, Yurchak’s lively prose and vivid anecdotes make this ethnography an entertaining as well as illuminating read.

Aya Kusch, Intern—W.S. Merwin’s final collection of poems, Garden Time (Copper Canyon Press), offers new insights into the classic Merwin themes of loss, aging, memory, and the beauty of the natural world. In this conclusion to his extensive body of work, there is a comforting consistency to his voice, which maintains both a lyrical quality and lightness no matter how difficult the subject matter. His poetry is not so much about a surrender to the passage of time as it is an acceptance of it, even as life’s harsher aspects inevitably ebb and flow. Despite his impending blindness and the loss of loved ones, Merwin never gives way to a sense of bitterness. Rather, Merwin praises the serenity of the moment, while expressing a deep gratitude for the cherished memories that remain meaningful in the face of their growing distance.

Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant—When French author and filmmaker Emmanuel Carrère collaborated on the acclaimed television show The Returned, about a small mountain town in which the dead return from the grave and try to resume their prior lives, his thoughts kept returning to the Apostle Paul and his expectation that the deceased would one day be called back to life for judgment day. His musings led to The Kingdom (FSG) — part memoir, part fictional interpretation of the early Christian church, this conversational novel imparts Carrère’s varied thoughts on art, life, and love in that charmingly droll and erudite way that seems intrinsically French. Whether comically discussing his children’s nanny and her resemblance to Kathy Bates in Misery, or espousing his love of all things Philip K. Dick (“the Dostoevsky of our time”), Carrère’s voice registers as warm and intimate as a close friend. At the book’s heart is a man grappling with the illogic of his beliefs in an age that has traded faith for reason.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManSamara Michaelson, Intern—I keep returning to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Of all the novels I’ve read this summer, this is the book I’ve been most keen on savoring. I enter it like a dimly lit room. It’s not as though most people are unfamiliar with Joyce’s canonical work, but this year I find myself cracking the door to see how much of myself I can fit in it. I like to travel into all those dark little crevices that Joyce is such a master at shining just a touch of light upon, so that one may see but never touch. As in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, there is a certain tenderness that accompanies the often melancholic and agonizing candor of a mind consumed by itself, as we see with the character of Stephen Dedalus. Jocye’s semi-autobiographical antihero seems to lead a life that is at once lonely and yet full. Full of what, I’m still figuring out. Everything is plainly there — but how can it be translated? Joyce makes me wonder at the immensity of life and just how much of it is unreachable through language. He crafts his web of words stitch by tiny stitch, though he utilizes this fabric to point to something that cannot be grasped, for to grasp it would be to obstruct its truth, to spoil its inherent intimacy. Maybe it’s the difference between feeling and knowing, and only an artist can stun you with the conviction of feeling.

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It’s Official: Zyzzyva Is the Last Word, So Let’s Celebrate with a Special Offer!

ZYZZYVA T-Shirt and Subscription BundleWhat’s worth up to 73 points in Scrabble and is now officially the last word in the Oxford English Dictionary? We are!

As “zyzzyva” makes its overdue arrival in the OED, recent articles from The Washington Post and USA Today are helping to spread the word as to what the word even means (a tropical weevil, of course, as our readers already know), but also shed some light on why a San Francisco literary journal in 1985 would have chosen the word for its name. As the Oxford English Dictionary’s blog notes, “[The word] Zyzzyva owes much of its currency in English to its notoriety as the last entry in various dictionaries.” That is, to claim “zyzzyva” is to make known one has the final word.

The Post was good enough to report that the word doesn’t just exist as a lexical curiosity, noting our publication “certainly seems to be connected to the bug, images of a weevil with a ‘Z’ slapped on its fat abdomen appear across the journal’s website.” For the record, we consider the abdomen pronounced. (The weevil doesn’t overeat.)

To celebrate this coronation of sorts of “zyzzyva,” this holiday weekend—only through July 4th—we’re offering a four-issue subscription plus a T-shirt featuring our weevil for only $50! What a great way to let the world know you have the final word.

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A Wasteland Where the Dead Can Die Again: ‘The Kill Society’ by Richard Kadrey

The Kill Society “So far, being dead is about as much fun as a barbed-wire G-string.” Thus opens Richard Kadrey’s The Kill Society (Harper Voyager; 416 pages), the ninth installment in his bestselling Sandman Slim series revolving around the half-human, half-angel anti-hero James Stark, a.k.a. Sandman Slim, one of the few souls to have escaped from Hell. He’s a scrappy boozehound who’s skilled in black magic and always fights dirty. He’s feared by demons, and considered an abomination by angels, but he may be the only one who can save creation from itself.

Throughout the series, he has faced off against vampires and zombies, biker gangs and white supremacists, murderous cults and mutant angels. He’s clashed with shadowy government agencies, fought all manner of monsters in Hell’s gladiatorial arenas, and even served a stint as Lucifer himself (a job which changes hands over eternity). This time around, Kadrey exchanges the dark corners of Los Angeles for uncharted territory. Sandman Slim is dead. Really dead. And he’s trapped in the Tenebrae—an endless desert of spiritual limbo scarcely populated by souls hiding from the torments of Hell. Here he links up with a group of motorized marauders led by a self-styled autocrat known as “the Magistrate.” This motley crew of dead souls and hell–beasts sustains their travel across the unforgiving hardpan of the Tenebrae with murderous destruction. Survivors of their wrath are given an ultimatum: join us or die again. (Souls unlucky enough to die twice end up in Tartarus—a Hell below Hell where the doubly dead are kindling for the furnace that fuels creation.)

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The Huge Potential of Small Gestures: ‘The Redemption of Galen Pike’ by Carys Davies

RedemptionOfGalenPike-Cover-e1484691193763In Australian author Carys Davies’ latest story collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike (176 pages; Biblioasis), Davies’s deadpan voice and morbid sense of humor lend a surreal twist to otherwise ordinary interactions and relationships. Each of these stories in the collection, which won the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, features unlikely encounters between people with seemingly little in common, encounters which ultimately lead to unexpected self-discovery or empathy.

The title story perhaps illustrates this best. As it opens, a woman who regularly visits inmates to offer solace is assigned a prisoner whose violent crime she finds particularly despicable. Her job is made even more challenging by his utter indifference to her role. Even though their relationship doesn’t appear to warm much, we later learn how much her visits mean to this prisoner, and the woman discovers compassion for a man she initially thought irredeemable. In “Jubilee,” a festival worker senses the boredom of the widowed queen, and tries to entertain her with a story about his wife’s Sapphic love affair. This confidence turns out to be exactly what the queen needed (“‘Nobody tells me anything,” she admits). As in many of Davies’ stories, “Jubilee” shows how ostensibly inconsequential gestures or incidents can make a monumental impact on a person’s life.

In “Bonnet,” a writer who always wears a grey bonnet whimsically decides to upgrade her drab headwear with a touch of pink trimming. This flourish, which would seem quite trivial, shocks her publisher to the core—“the worst imaginable thing, when he looks up, for him to see it; for him to see this small plain woman, his friend, with this unexpected bonnet on her head”—and in turn fills the writer with a deep shame. One infers that their relationship is more than simply professional, and the whole scene is tinged with a sense of embarrassment that borders on terror. A small act also takes on vast importance in the story “First Journeyman,” in which the town’s vegetable provider experiences an overwhelming sadness when his ailing Master recovers and no longer has need of his carefully selected peas.

Carys Davies displays a penchant for the ridiculous, detailed in an unwaveringly dry and matter-of-fact tone capable of rendering events as shocking. One of her strengths as a writer is her ability to recount situations that are wildly unlikely yet ring true to human nature—the ways in which we try to entertain people in their grief, our tendency to develop affection for those who are particularly helpful, or the extreme lengths we go to maintain relationships even when they appear doomed. These stories embrace humanity’s darkness and its compassion, making for a haunting and fascinating collection. Though readers may find many of the stories in The Redemption of Glane Pike to possess a morbid streak, they’re sure to recognize truth in Davies’ exploration of the potential for even the most basic human actions to lead to something grand.

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The Human Creature, Closely Observed: ‘Large Animals’ by Jess Arndt

Large Animals Jess Arndt’s Large Animals (131 pages; Catapult) traps its characters in self-constructed cages and puts them on display, presenting a bevy of cultural concerns about identity, sex, and the human body. Ranging from the 19th century to contemporary San Francisco and New York, the twelve stories in Arndt’s first book prove startling in their variety and verisimilitude, and challenge our notions of gender and the binary divides that too often fail to define us.

In “Beside Myself,” we witness the austere life of a woman attempting to impregnate her wife by using her brother’s sperm. Here, as in many of the stories, the reader inhabits the aching body of the protagonist, and empathizes with her while questioning one’s own physical insecurities as the narrator morosely remarks, “among all life-forms, humans alone [are] defenseless-vulnerable blobs clothed solely in skin.” A blend of the bizarre and believable, every story in Large Animals is voiced by individuals battered by the daily toil of living as outsiders. No story captures this motif more than the title story, wherein the narrator’s mundane life is disrupted by recurring nightmares of animals in her bedroom. As the animals become a burgeoning obsession, they develop an order in her dreams, a kingdom with a bestial hierarchy in which the “massive, tube-shaped” walrus reigns. When the walrus speaks, its words are obscene but devoid of context. The narrator’s nocturnal encounters rapidly deteriorate her life, revealing her dormant sexuality and animalistic lust towards a fast-food worker even as she struggles through a vicious divorce.

And in its short shorts like “Containers,” where a decision to stay home and smoke weed rather than party with friends compartmentalizes an identity crisis in less than three pages, Large Animals proves wickedly entertaining. These are modern fables of the body exposing a naked perspective on femininity, masculinity, and the need — or lack thereof — for human relationships.

Carnal and experimental in tone, expressed in Arndt’s beguilingly casual and frequently colloquial prose, Large Animals is equally vivid in its depiction of human vulgarities as in its exploration of the body. It prowls through our preconceptions of the sexes, paring back its fallible, idiosyncratic character to render a raw and unnerving portrait of the self. “Animals are only animals because they are observed,” one character says, and here Arndt observes the largest animal, exhibiting our fears and our instincts.

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The Inexhaustible Power of Fairy Tale: Q&A with ‘A Moral Tale’ Author Josh Emmons

Josh EmmonsThe past is never past in Josh Emmons’ new story collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales (184 pages; Dzanc Books). In each of these stories (of which the title one appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 102), the reader can feel the lingering effect of humanity’s fabricated history – the assemblage of folktales, parables, and lore that have helped shape our collective consciousness over time, from Noah and his Ark (“Haley”) to Aesop’s talking animals (“Arise”).

The narrator of one piece claims, “What came next hardly warrants retelling, so familiar is the story…” but nothing could be further from the truth, as Emmons possesses an uncanny gift to make the distant, half-remembered folktales of our childhoods feel both present and unexpected. In “Nu,” we observe a woman who is afraid of cats, in part because of what they represented to the ancient Egyptians, and characters throughout the collection frequently compare their lives to fables (“…real life is less frightening than fairy tales. And less exciting. And there’s no way to know which is better”). These drifting souls search for meaning and connection across a variety of settings, whether it’s modern day France (“A Moral Tale”) or medieval England (“Humphrey Dempsey”). The result of their foibles comprises one of the most dazzling and assured story collections of the year.

Emmons talked to ZYZZYVA about A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, as well as what draws him to fairy tales and his mix-tape-making process.

ZYZZYVA: In A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, you have several stories that take place in current settings in which one can feel myth and fables pressing upon contemporary events. I sense that, as a writer, you believe the fables and fairy tales many of us grew up with continue to be relevant to our lives. What drew you to incorporating or referencing fables in your work?

Josh Emmons: I stopped thinking about fables and fairy tales and myths in my late teens—When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things—and came back to them in my twenties because they were inescapable. There was Kafka’s “The Burrow” casting animal stories in a new light, for example, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books redeeming nursery rhyme tropes, and “Ulysses” and “East of Eden” and “Master and Margarita” showing that repurposed myths could be fascinating. I think fairy tales get a bad rap because they deal with radical innocence and radical evil—melodrama, basically—and so lack subtlety. Also they’re overfamiliar and crudely written and outrageously plotted, but for many of those same reasons they’re fun to rethink and reconfigure. And they address deep, elemental, archetypal phenomena, which is appealing for a Joseph Campbell fan like me. And despite all the fairy tale revisionists out there, humorless Angela Carter and careless Salman Rushdie and frantic mash-up writers at Disney and Dreamworks, they’re inexhaustible. Folk traditions might be barbaric, but they’re malleable and never dull.

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Deep, Deep into a Self: ‘Too Much and Not the Mood’ by Durga Chew-Bose

Too Much and Not the MoodToo Much and Not the Mood is Durga Chew-Bose’s first essay collection, though Chew-Bose’s writing has been getting published for many years now. Known for her BuzzFeed Reader essay “How I Learned to Stop Erasing Myself,” Chew-Bose’s name has appeared in the same circles as other feminist hipster writers based in New York like Lena Dunham, Tavi Gevinson, and Jazmine Hughes. She is also one of the founders of Writers of Color, a collective of feel-good-yet-aestheticized-sadness progressive writers out on the East Coast.

Melancholy, nostalgia, wistfulness, wishful thinking, or the lethargy of a warm summer afternoon are constants in Too Much and Not the Mood, although essays in the latter half of the book explore boredom, self-possession, embarrassment, and other emotions that characterize adolescence. Indisputably, the collection’s biggest strength is the richness of its prose. Chew-Bose’s is especially talented in preserving moments of beauty. She’s incredibly attuned to detail, and catches a person’s verbal or physical tics in such a way that they seem authentic. Take, for example, these scenes from the 93-page-long “Heart Museum,” a sprawling, meandering kaleidoscope of an essay that opens the collection:

“Because writing is a grunt, and when it’s good, writing is body language. It’s a woman narrowing her eyes to express incredulity. It’s an elbow propped on the edge of a table when you’re wrapping up an argument, or to signify you’re just getting started. An elbow propped on the edge of a table is an adverb.”

and

“Writing will never be as satisfying as observing someone whom I knew was terrible get caught in a lie; as satisfying as the pop! I anticipate when twisting open a Martinelli’s apple juice or when I pour hot coffee over ice come summer or lace up skates in the winter—the firm tug of hooking the top part of the boot. Writing is a closed pistachio shell.”

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Medea as Something More Than Monster: ‘Bright Air Black’ by David Vann

Bright Air Black With all of the revenge, patricide, and doomed attempts at heroism as one might expect from Greek mythology, David Vann retells the story of Jason and the Argonauts through the eyes of Medea in his new novel, Bright Air Black (250 pages; Black Cat/Grove). Medea is most commonly known for her fierce, self-sacrificial love for Jason, which borders on madness as she is driven to betray her family and abandon her home country to help him rise to power. In this retelling, Vann introduces us to a Medea that goes beyond just her supporting function within another hero’s journey, and who has her own dreams of conquest in mind as she sets sail on the Argo.

The novel begins moments after Medea decides to leave Colchis, her home, with Jason, and steps onto the Argo, where the most of the first half of the book is set. We see her as she is feeds the dismembered corpse of the brother she slaughtered into the sea, for her father, the king of Colchis, to trail after and collect. Although this opening may seem exceptionally horrifying, the reader soon learns Medea is rarely without blood on her hands. Early in her journey, it is revealed her motives for these incredible actions have nothing to do with her love for Jason, and everything to do with a hunger for power. It is not just Jason using Medea here, but Medea using Jason so as to get closer to ruling her own kingdom one day. As she sails on the Argo, she ponders the nature of god (with philosophical questions such as “How can we know when we’re worshipping a god and when we’re worshipping the sign of god?”), how stories of heroism get shaped by biases that obscure their darker, more realistic elements (about Jason: “The stories will reveal nothing about the real man who lived”), and how no one—despite status or title—is invincible.

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Without a Place in the Orphanage: ‘Such Small Hands’ by Andrés Barba

612yB1t2-LLIn Such Small Hands (108 pages, Transit Books), the new novel by acclaimed Spanish author Andrés Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman), childhood abandonment and trauma are examined through the abnormal, ritualistic behaviors of Marina, a seven-year-old girl turned orphan. Following the unexpected deaths of her parents, Marina loses any control she once had over language and emotion. Placed in an entirely unfamiliar world, filled with cartoonish, seemingly identical little girls, Marina grapples with her black-sheep identity as she confronts complicated, and at times, horrific decisions that eventually lead to drastic consequences.

Loosely based on a brutal event that took place in 1960s Brazil, Barba’s twelfth book creates a narrative similar to other bildungsroman such as Oliver Twist and even Pan’s Labyrinth, maintaining a lyrically rich and devastating portrayal of adolescent struggle. Caught between the bookends of trauma, Marina finds herself in limbo as she fails to both perform and to cope with her emotions effectively.

Switching between a collective first person, gang-like perspective of the orphans and a third-person perspective for Marina, a deep sense of longing and tension is formed between the two voices. Despite hopes of finding friendship with her comrades, Marina and her peculiar behavior create a barrier of jealousy and anger that poisons the entire orphanage and ultimately leads to violence.

Meditating on desire and loneliness in an otherwise cold and de-sexualized world, Barba compares Marina to an imprisoned zoo animal. “Inexplicably, we all edged closer, without meaning to. An inevitable attraction made us crave contact with her, seek out her voice, yearn for her to look at us. We no longer cared about the animals, or felt scared of the wolf, or sorry for the elephant, or admired the glimmering grace of the dolphins; we wanted Marina’s contact, and we didn’t know how to cast ourselves into that desert.” Lingering every so often on ideas of physical touch and the young prepubescent body, the novel amplifies the importance of human contact in both a sweet and startling way.

Such Small Hands evokes a sensation similar to the horror of witnessing a child being dragged beneath a riptide. You want to help, scream, bury your face in your hands, but you also can’t fail to notice the poignant valor of an innocent life gasping for air, struggling against forces seemingly greater than us all.

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In the Spring Issue

In this issue:

Interview:

Acclaimed poet and critic W.S. Di Piero in conversation: on Shakespeare, the art of translation (the translator inhabits “The house of a language, an imagination, a culture.”), and on being a good citizen.

Nonfiction:

Sallie Tisdale’s essay “The Hinge”: “My worst regrets,” she writes, “are not big and dramatic; they are as tiny and sharp as glass ground into my palm.”

Fiction:

Nick Lane’s “So You’re Thinking of Becoming a Despot”: It’s easier than you think (and it’s a great way of getting that one village girl to finally notice you).

Louis B. Jones’ “Ever Since the Cloverleaf”: Two old friends having lunch—and a conversation that flirts with the criminal—at a near-shuttered Trader Vic’s.

Victoria Patterson’s “Appetite”: The wife of an author begins a fraught friendship with an aspiring writer.

Ben Greenman’s “Right Angles”: snippets from the inner life of Fearless Leader.

Plus more fiction from Christine Sneed, Kristen Iskandrian, and Andrew Martin, and introducing Andrew Mangan.

Poetry:

Laton Carter, W.S. Di Piero, Ru Freeman, D.A. Powell, sam sax, Melissa Stephenson, Cynthia White, and Paul Wilner.

Art:

A portfolio of stunning still life photography from Paulette Tavormina

You can purchase a copy of No. 109 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA now and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring/Summer issue.

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