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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 sense 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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Bumbling Along, But Full of Heart: ‘Wait Till You See Me Dance’ by Deb Olin Unferth

Wait Till You See Me DanceWait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press, 186 pages) marks Deb Olin Unferth’s second collection of stories, following Minor Robberies (2007). The author of the novel Vacation and the memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the Sandinistas, Unferth displays a smart and snappy application of the short-short form in this volume of 39 stories—29 of which are fewer than three pages long (and four of which appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 108).

Wait Till You See Me Dance is filled with concise, meaningful sentiments that both entertain and engage the reader in commentary surrounding what it means to survive in today’s world. Touching on topics as varied as gun violence, the unpredictability of success, the complexity of family dynamics, as well as the not-so-complex ideas of privilege, Unferth gravitates toward an array of nuanced subjects.

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History and Poetry as Unending Things: ‘Whereas’ by Layli Long Soldier

WhereasWhereas (120 pages; Graywolf) is Layli Long Soldier’s first book of poetry, and what an exquisite book it is. Gathered in one volume, Long Soldier’s poems clearly expose the ways language—either English or Lakota/Lakȟótiyapi—is used to create and destroy opposing politics. She does not shy away from political speech in Whereas, and indeed, she can’t—not as long as Native people continue to suffer under continued settler colonialism, or as the various languages and traditions of the thousands of indigenous ethnic groups are continually stomped out yet revitalized in specific Native spaces.

Divided into two parts, the book begins with “These Being the Concerns,” a section comprised of seventeen poems, some previously published and some new. The last section, “Whereas,” consists of three poems titled “Whereas Statements,” “Resolutions,” and “Disclaimer.” “Whereas” considers many different scenarios where Long Soldier examines her relationships with other poets, with “emptiness” in American Indian poetry, with religion, with history (cultural, state-approved, or otherwise). Each poem also considers physical posture: bodies curled in fetal positions, crouching, teetering down a hall, kicking at another person out of anger. Like a number of poems in “These Being the Concerns,” “Whereas” unfurls across several pages, filling the spaces on each page, connected only by the telltale semicolon at the end of each line on every page.

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Home Story Delivery Service

Faith Adiele reading in the home of Susan Ito.

Faith Adiele reading in the Oakland home of Susan Ito.

On a cool weekday night, I rushed home from my job in San Francisco to my Oakland bungalow to quickly arrange chairs and put out cookies and wine before the guests arrived. They weren’t coming to see me, but rather were going to be there for a reading by an author/actor they had heard me rave about. I copyedited John Mercer’s 2013 collection of memoir pieces, Swearing in English: Tall Tales from Shotgun (a reference to Shotgun Players, the Berkeley theater company he belonged to for 10 years), and his second, The Long Arm of Lunacy: More Swearing in English, which came out in November, both published by 125 Records.

By the time his latest book came back from the printer, it was too late to secure nights at most bookstores in the busy fall season. So Mercer came up with the idea of a Home Story Delivery Service. He asked various friends to organize a crowd in their homes and he’d come deliver a reading—and bring a box of books to sell and sign. He ended up moving more books at my house than he had two weeks before at a retail gig.

Taking art directly to the people is a trend that’s growing among writers, musicians, and even fashion industry folks, who stage trunk shows in people’s homes. Without the support of deep-pocket publishers, authors these days have to do what they can to get their books in the hands of readers.

“Unless you’re in the 1 percent [of sales] at the publishing house,” says P.R. and lifestyle guru Susan MacTavish Best, “little marketing goes to your book, so authors need to be way more creative than before.” Best has been hosting writers and musicians in her homes in San Francisco and New York for years. “Fortunately,” she adds, “with social media and whatnot, they can be.”

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Meditating on Evil under Paradise’s Sun: ‘After the Blue Hour’ by John Rechy

After the Blue HourIn his new novel, After the Blue Hour (212 pages, Grove Press), John Rechy offers a hybrid erotica-mystery that he labels as “true fiction.” The author of seventeen books and praised by such great American writers as James Baldwin, Edmund White, and Gore Vidal, Rechy achieved literary fame with his first novel, the international bestseller City of Night, published in 1963. In his new novel, set in the ’60s, the narrator, a 24-year-old writer and ex-hustler also named John Rechy, receives an invitation to join an admiring fan, Paul Wagner, for the summer on his private island.

Upon arrival, John finds himself at a gorgeous yet strangely tense and mysterious paradise, alongside the extraordinarily rich and charismatic Paul, his soft-spoken mistress Sonja, and his relatively unstable 14-year-old son, Stanty. Here, in Gatsby-esque fashion, John spends each day in complete isolation with his new companions, sharing drinks, beliefs, and stories that come to reveal each character’s sense of moral depravity and grit.

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Our World Without Any Memory of Itself: ‘NK3’ by Michael Tolkin

NK3Michael Tolkin’s 1988 novel, The Player, remains a note-perfect send-up of late Eighties Hollywood excess, a paranoid neo-noir told from the point-of-view of the murderer himself—a creatively and morally bankrupt Hollywood executive. Now the acclaimed author, screenwriter, and director returns with NK3 (300 pages; Grove), his first novel in more than a decade. Tolkin has long specialized in satire so shrewd and well-observed that it barely registers as satire; NK3, in which a memory-erasing biological weapon creates a power vacuum for the working classes to seize control from the rich and elite, couldn’t have arrived at a more apropos time.

Initially, the biggest shock of NK3 is how much it reads like a post-modern take on the airport bestseller. The opening chapters leap from place to place and character to character with each flip of the page like the Michael Crichton thrillers of yore. These early passages are burdened by exposition as Tolkin works to establish his near-future world of 2020, a society that—like the best speculative fiction—looks radically different and yet eerily similar to our own.

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Notes on the First 30 Days

IWillFightForYou_1.21.2017On the morning of Inauguration Day, I met up with a friend in midtown Manhattan, where we rented a car and set out for Washington, D.C. Our plan was to make the drive before nightfall, have a quick dinner, finish making our signs, and get a good night’s rest before the Women’s March. Not only was it less expensive to rent a car than to fly or take a train, but our road-trip had the added benefit of keeping us away from TV all day—a serendipitous media blackout for which we were both grateful. We didn’t turn on the radio, either—we brought a playlist. There was in this avoidance an expression of grief, a turning away or a lowering of the eyes.

***

I have found, at times, only temporary reprieves from the anxiety, persistent since the election, that whatever we do, whatever donations and calls we make, whatever petitions we sign or letters we send—it is not nearly enough. Though I harbor no confusion over the moral obligation to try and keep trying, I know I’m not alone in feeling besieged time and again by the crushing worry that nothing I can do will amount to an adequate response to the moment.

The demands of the moment are urgent, complex, and enormous. What art will suffice for this darkening time, what activism? One way in which the new president and Steve Bannon, his primary advisor, exercise power (however instinctively, however strategically) is through language (the deluge of lies and misdirection), another is through demoralization. (What practical purpose could threatening to defund the already modest National Endowment for the Arts possibly serve, if not to send a chilling message to artists and writers and the organizations that support them?) What power can the resistance harness in language and images to fight back; and what can we do to uplift and inspire each other?

That others have been here before, have felt the pressure of these same questions is saddening, yet also a source of solace and, potentially, guidance and inspiration. Wallace Stevens’ “Of Modern Poetry” echoes frequently in my mind:

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.

Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice.

In just the first month of the Trump presidency we’ve already lived through several extraordinary tests. The deluge of public lies, the ethics violations, the travel ban, the ascendance of Bannon, the ICE raids: as each new event jolts our consciousness, many of us cycle through feelings of helplessness, anger, sorrow, and determination, and sometimes we land on a perch of hope. We find some way to respond. We show up, we make calls, we share information, we make ourselves seen and heard by our representatives. We savor a momentary satisfaction while surveying the landscape—looking for what more to do, and for what may be next around the bend.

***

By mid-morning my friend and I were looking for a restroom and a snack. We stopped at the Clara Barton Travel Plaza along the New Jersey turnpike, and as we pulled into the crowded parking lot I saw women in groups of four and five emerging from dozens of cars and vans, many of them in pink hats. The line for the women’s room was lengthy, and a sense of energy and anticipation radiated from the clusters of women gathering in the small food court. We exchanged nods and smiles with strangers when our eyes met.

We bought a pint of what looked like sugar-coated doughnut holes and a container of caramel dipping sauce and, noting the light rain that had started to fall, decided to eat our snack there and take a short break from driving. We found a spot by the window, but as I sat down I realized I was directly in view of a television mounted from the ceiling, broadcasting the inauguration. Mike Pence was being sworn in. And then Trump. A small crowd gathered to watch, and I watched their faces in profile. No one spoke for some time—as if the room was holding its breath for a moment, waiting to see if something might somehow intervene and disrupt the proceedings. As the new president turned to receive congratulations from his family, the rain picked up, pounding the pavement. Restless and dumbstruck once again, we got back on the road.

Back in San Francisco the following Tuesday, I was heartened to hear from my office the muffled call-and-response of protestors on Market Street. Show me what democracy looks like; this is what democracy looks like. I was even more heartened to learn later on the evening news of multiple protests around the country that same day: in Austin, New York City, Denver, Orlando, Philadelphia; in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; Overland Park, Kansas; Vienna, Virginia; Rochester, Michigan, and many other places. It all felt like a muted answer to the question that had haunted me since the march: now what?

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