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Obsessions: Wish List

“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.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Mauro Javier Cardenas

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.

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‘Divination’ by Ann Cummins, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Winter Issue

When the government opened the Ute Reservation for homesteading, John Mason stood ready. He hightailed to a scrappy lot of sagebrush and weeds just twenty miles from the New Mexico territory. He was done mining for the Syndicate Mine. He was ready to be a farmer.

So he started to build his Sunnyside farm there in the foothills of the Rockies. He and his boys dug a mud hut into a hillside, a temporary home until they could build a house, and John sent for Eli Burnham, the diviner. Eli came with a forked branch he’d taken from below his own fertile peach tree. He held the branch loosely, palms down, thumbs turned in, and walked the acreage John Mason had cleared. Mason’s younger kids tagged along.

Eli’d been at it an hour when the branch gave a decisive jerk. He was at the far edge of the property, just pivoting for return. “Here’s water,” he said. The branch fairly writhed.

“Doodlebug, doodle, doodlebug,” one of the littles sang.

“How does it work?” another said.

“Won’t work if he tells you.”

“Go tell your pa. Tell him only ten feet down.” They scampered off.

It had been a wet spring. Three miles west, the Animas was still breaking its banks, and beyond it, snow capped the La Platas. To the east, Eli could see the silvery threads of John’s good luck in the patchy ice on Florida Mesa, where the government had put the Utes. The underground streams would run high, an auspicious beginning for John Mason and for those who would follow, because John surely wouldn’t be the only land grabber. He was just the first.

“Mr. Burnham.” Eli turned to see Dave Mason, John’s weedy fourteen-year- old, loping toward him. Dave was the fourth born of eight living children, the third son. “Pa wants to know can’t you find anything closer?” Dave said.

A shadow crossed the diviner’s face. He could see John across the field, standing in the shade of a cottonwood tree. “Who’s John Mason to ask for more when many get none?” Eli thundered. Dave stared at his feet. If John heard, he made no sign.

Eli took off his hat. He wiped his forehead then put the hat back on.

It was the children who gave him pause. It would be a trek from here to the hut, and it would be the littlest kids hauling water. So Eli palmed the branch and started again.

Dave thought the diviner looked like an out of work undertaker, dressed as he was in a dirty white shirt and a swallow-tailed coat. He wore no collar. His pants might once have been black but were road weary and dung colored now, and he wore his hat turned down all around.

John’s wife, Ziphora, did not come out to watch the witching. A devout Methodist, she believed what the Old Testament said—that divination was the devil’s art. In the hut, she prayed, “Keep us free from sin, protect us in the hour of temptation,” while she knotted rope to lengthen Dave’s hammock. Dave had sprouted this year and was as tall as his father. He slept outdoors in the hammock. Dave wouldn’t sleep in the hut. When the boy was five, John locked him in a closet to cure him of whining. Now he had a terror of closed spaces.

In the heat of the afternoon, Eli’s branch shook again. He had been half asleep, dragging his feet. He stood still and let his eyes confirm what  his hands doubted. A tiny shiver. He was just a stone’s throw from the hut.

“Twenty-one feet down,” he called.

John Mason stepped into the soddy doorway, his shirt untucked. Eli saw whiskey’s gloat in the tilt of John’s head.

“Not twenty-two?” John said smiling lazily.

“Twenty-two, maybe.” Eli slipped the branch into his saddlebag. “No more.” He swung up and tipped his hat.

Hearing him go, Ziphora bit her tongue and did not offer him something to eat, as she ought.

It would be a busy year for the whole family. To hold the claim, either John or Ziphora had to stay on the farm, but somebody had to work for pay, so they divided up. For the rest of the summer, Ziphora, her oldest girl, Liz, and the littles went back north to Rico, where they rented a house and Ziphora laundered miners’ shirts, a nickel apiece. John kept the boys with him. He put his eldest,Will and Jim, to digging an irrigation ditch. It would be all pick and shovel work through rough-side hill out to the river. Dave and ten-year-old Edison he put to grubbing sagebrush and harvesting cedar. By September they had thirty cedar logs, enough to timber both wells, because by god they’d dig two. The far one they’d rent out to tenant farmers. “We’ll play baseball while they work,” John told his boys.

When Ziphora came back, John soldiered up for one last winter in Rico’s Syndicate mine. He took Dave along to do for him.

They caught the train in Durango, rode boxcar class. In Rico at their rented house,Dave hung his hammock between two aspen. His father said, “You ain’t sleeping outside. Freeze your ass up here.” Rico was 9,000 feet high, and anyway, they’d be living in a house, not a hole in the ground. But Dave acted deaf, like he knew better. “Suit yourself,” John said, then laughed that night when the blue-faced child came shivering in.

What Dave did for his father? Got up at five every morning to build the fire and grind the coffee and start the mush and get the wash water ready. Get the pit clothes from in back of the stove where they were warming, and put them right beside his father’s chair. Get beer, get wood, get coal, chop wood to fit the stoves. Peel the taters, fry the taters, get more beer. Sweep the floors,make the beds,wash the dishes, dig out bats. In November, they’d caught two wild burros pulling siding off the house to suck out hibernating bats.

He befriended the burros and called them Deck and Salon. He’d never known burros to eat bats, but Deck and Salon went wild for them. Dave started prying the bats out so the burros wouldn’t tear the house down. Then they got lazy and wanted to be served. They’d stand at the window and bray for bats. Dave felt sorry for the bloodsuckers, all rolled up in little furry balls, but Deck and Salon had to eat.

At night, Dave fell bone-tired into bed. John sat up sipping hooch and talking to himself. “Best thing the government ever did, opening up the Indian land… Two underground springs! Leave this bat-ridden house, don’t look back. Leave everything… Furniture, not worth a dime. Buy a coach seat home. Buy one for the boy.”

John generally felt well disposed toward Dave that winter. He often told him that he kept the house so well he would’ve made a good girl. A couple of times, thinking he’d give the kid a holiday, John closed Dave’s bedroom door at night, planning to get up quietly in the morning and make the fire, though John never woke up first.

Those nights, Dave startled awake when he heard his door close. Suddenly, his breath came hard, his head began to pound, and then would come those suffocating thoughts. He was almost a man, not a little girl, and this was not a coffin, it was just a room. He would tell himself, turn over, go to sleep, but he stared into the darkness until he heard his father’s snores through the tarpaper wall. Then, in shame, he’d open the door again.

Spring brought the news that the Syndicate was closing down. Bad news for many, not John. It seemed fitting that as he left the mine for good, it left, too. John bought himself that coach seat on the Durango train. Dave he put on a borrowed horse. The boy had showed surprising initiative. Got hired to herd the Syndicate’s unemployed burros down the mountain. The job filled Dave with joy and fear. It would be his first paying job.

In Durango, John took a turn at the saloons, then continued on to the farm, picking his way along the river, though he didn’t recognize the path. Somewhere, he’d lost his coat and hat, and the leather on his right boot had pulled from its sole—pulled from its sole on the River of Lost Souls, the Animas. He laughed when he thought of that, and coughed and coughed, black Syndicate phlegm pouring out of him and leaving him on his knees in the mud, staring under bushes, wondering how much time he’d lost. Certainly, the days were longer now than when he got off the train.

When the taste of water no longer made him vomit, he began drinking from the river. Holy water. He believed in God, but he did not care about him because God didn’t care about him, never had. If God cared about him, why was he walking home hatless under the hot sun?

He came upon a fisherman. The fisherman took pity on him and gave him a fish. He came upon a wolf eating the carcass of a deer. The wolf sneered and John sneered back, and they both went about their business.

He began to recognize the landscape. The flattening of the land as the mountains fell away. A cottonwood grove. At the Sunnyside wagon trail, he left the river and started the three miles home. A ways up the slope he saw an overturned wagon. Its whippletree was busted, and there were empty water barrels strewn all about. The picture was like part of the walking dream he’d been having. Thinking back on it after he passed, he recognized that wagon as his own.

Order your copy of Issue No. 107.

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In Conversation with Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Winter Issue

Andrew Foster Altschul: Well, gentlemen, I said I would toss out something to get us started. I was thinking about that story that’s in both of your memoirs—The Duke of Deception and This Boy’s Life—about the summer in San Diego when, Geoffrey, you had just graduated from Princeton, and Toby, you were still in high school, you were maybe sixteen, and it was supposed to be a family reunion, the two of you and your dad. It didn’t quite work out as planned. Your dad ended up in an institution, and Geoffrey took his job at a defense contractor. The part of the story that’s so enjoyable is that you’ve both described how you had this writer’s colony of two going— Geoffrey was assigning Toby books to read and papers to write; Geoffrey had written a novel (that his professor had told him to destroy), and Toby was dead set on becoming a writer.Thinking back to that time, and to what you imagined for yourselves—did it look anything like the lives and careers the two of you have led?

Geoffrey Wolff (Photo: © Michael Lionstar)

Geoffrey Wolff (Photo: © Michael Lionstar)

Geoffrey Wolff: Well, first, if I may, I just want to correct a possible misapprehension about the nature of the “institution” my father was in. It was not like the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton! Not at all like that. He’d been conveyed to this institution by the police.

It’s quite wonderful, the beginning of all writers—anybody who’s decided that’s what they want to do. Nobody has any idea what it means. Not the vaguest idea what it means, except that they read books and they want to make them. And Toby and I both had spent, under quite different circumstances, a lot of our youth in libraries. Our mother borrowed books for us from the time we were very young, and that’s kind of what we had in common. I hate to think now what our lives might have become had there been television to watch.

Tobias Wolff (photo by Elena Seibert)

Tobias Wolff (photo by Elena Seibert)

Tobias Wolff: That was a great summer, in its way. I was fifteen and I was about to go back east to a boarding school, where I’d gotten a scholarship. I was completely unprepared for this school. Geoffrey took me under his wing and taught me, really gave me the beginnings of an understanding of what it is to write—because I had none, really. I had some very nebulous idea of writing, but nothing that I was actually fastened on. I liked to read a lot. I wrote knock-off stories of things that I was reading.But I think it had everything to do with the fact that Geoffrey encouraged me to think of this as a serious way of living—the way he taught me to read and open things up and think about them, and the kind of care that you brought to the writing of sentences. It became not just a kind of academic thing but—how can I put it?—a kind of exercise of the spirit.

By the time that summer was over, I wanted to be a writer, and I’ve never really wanted to be anything else since then.

You know, it is what you’ve talked about, Andrew, the unimaginability of where you might end up in the future: Geoffrey and I for years sat around talking about books and writing, and about our hopes as writers—always, I have to say, somewhere in the pit of my stomach I thought, “We’re building castles in the air—or I’m building castles in the air.” The fact that somehow I was able to dredge some books out of myself and actually be up here talking to my brother as a writer seems miraculous to me.

GW: I think something that is too seldom emphasized is the way teaching works, particularly in English and literature, the extent to which it’s this wonderful alchemy which is really monkey-see-monkey-do. I’d just graduated from college, where I’d had great professors—one in particular, R.P. Blackmur, a poet,who was my advisor and was very deeply read and had very high expectations. He was a so-called New Critic, and he was a close reader and insisted that we be very close readers. And when I graduated and joined Toby within a couple of weeks out in  California, I had just left being under his influence. I’m certain if I could record our conversations I’d be mortified to find transcripts of R.P. Blackmur’s lectures in there.

So a lot of it was not experience so much as that I’d been inspired by somebody. When Toby and I were together that summer, I was about to go teach at the end of that summer, my first teaching job—my first real job—and I’m sure I used Toby as practice, as a sort of batting cage. When I left Toby, I went to Turkey to teach. And the students that I taught all spoke English. But the things we taught them in the English department were the things we were interested in. So it was Alexander Pope, it was Milton, it was Keats—it was completely arbitrary. And they’d come out of eastern Turkey, and suddenly were told, “You’re going to have Pope down by the end of the week!” A lot of them went forth…I know some of these kids are teachers now. God knows what they’re telling their kids about Alexander Pope.

I think this is the most wonderfully wholesome act of either ripping off, or mimesis, in the way Aristotle means it. Something that I know now registered on Toby must have been much less deeply understood by me at the time than we seem to understand it now.

AFA: There’s a famous story about your mother, when she was asked to comment after This Boy’s Life came out, maybe six or seven years after The Duke of Deception, she was asked what she thought about it all. And she said something to the effect of, “I feel as though I got run over by a train that was headed south, and then it came north and ran me over again.” I was wondering about the two of you, seeing yourselves in each other’s work—maybe even turning up in the fiction sometimes—what has that experience been like? Have you had conversations about this?

GW: Oh, yeah, we’ve had lots of conversations. And I have to say they’ve only been an absolute joy for me, because the more we talk the closer we understand each other. But our experiences in childhood only rarely overlapped, so there are very few things that we could recollect in common or even dispute: was the collie named Shep or Shepard?, for example. So I learned about not only my mother and the people she was close to after she and my father were separated, but I learned about Toby, too. And I also learned what their point of view was on my life and my father’s.

So Toby and I have really educated each other in family history. And what we had in common most was our mother, and our mother, about these two books, was just amazing. She was so smart in her response, at least to me—there were many things in my book that must have been hurtful to her, that I know were hurtful to her. But she never argued about the integrity of my memory, although she may very much have disagreed with it. She only corrected me on facts that she knew when she read the manuscript: “That isn’t the address where we lived,” or “We didn’t live there at that time,” or “It didn’t cost that much to rent.” And she was right about seventy percent of the time, as it turned out. But she said in this stunning end of a letter that she wrote me when she returned the manuscript, she said, “I wish it were”—using the subjunctive—“I wish it were a portrait of a perfect mother, but then I wasn’t a perfect mother, but then who was?” And I cannot tell you how much I admired that prose, and the sentiment behind it.

TW: She was pretty unsentimental in her way of reading these books. My heart was in my throat when I gave her my manuscript. I didn’t want her to be hurt by anything in there. But, on the other hand, if you’re telling a story like this you have to tell it as you remember it. And I certainly wrote it in love—andshe got that, she got that it was written in love. And she said once, “Well, if I’d known that both my sons were going to be writers I might have lived a little differently.” Well, again: Who wouldn’t?

She was kind of feckless. She had terrible taste in men. Oh, my God: blowhards! We were laughing a couple of days ago about one of our step-fathers, Frank. I mean, he claimed that he was on the Bataan Death March—while he was also fighting in Europe! And winning the war there. He claimed that he’d been tapped to be head of the CIA at one point. I’ll never forget when he said, “Well, I woke up one morning, and goddamn if they hadn’t elected me mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, and I wasn’t even running!” He’d say anything, it was just amazing. There was a parade of these guys. So I had a heart-to-heart with my mom about all this and she said, “I would have felt funny if you’d prettied up the portrait”—that wasn’t her term, but, kind of airbrushed her portrait. She said, “I would have felt like you didn’t really accept me the way I am.” And I thought, “Boy, I hope I have that kind of sophistication when my writer daughter turns me into a public disgrace.”

She was very honest, she was very direct. She did have a very factual kind of memory. She did call me out on a couple of things. I didn’t agree with her—I have a pretty good memory, too. I often just stuck to my own memory of things, because that’s what a memoir is: your memory of things.

But one thing that Geoffrey does that I certainly tried to do in the writing of my book is: the points of anyone’s life that are most interesting and telling and significant are points of intersection with the lives of other people. And so you necessarily are exposing other people, who may not and almost certainly do not wish to have that kind of exposure, in the writing of a memoir. And you can either accept that condition or not write one. If you are going to accept the condition, I do think that the debt you take on is to put yourself under the same kind of lens that you put everybody else under, that you do not see yourself as some angel flying above this fallen creation. You’re in it. You’re part of this foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart, you’re complicit in the stories that you’re telling. You also have to be careful that you don’t overload that, too, and say, “Look what a good person I am to tell you what a bad person I used to be,” that kind of thing. You have to be as honest as you can about the person you were when you’re telling a story of that kind.

Order your copy of Issue No. 107.

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The Opportunity to Understand What’s Different: Q&A with Christine Sneed

Christine Sneed (photo by Adam Tinkham)

Christine Sneed (photo by Adam Tinkham)

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.

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An Era, and Its People, Shaped by a Plague: ‘Christodora’ by Tim Murphy

Christodora 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.

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In the Fall Issue

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.

You can order a copy of No. 107 here, or purchase a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Fall issue.

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A Reading List for These Dark Times

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.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life 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

Parable of the SowerIt’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

Tuchman 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

9780996421805_p0_v1_s192x300In 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

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A World of TV Eyes: ‘The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe’ by D.G. Compton

MortenhoeFrom Google Glass to drone warfare and genetic modification, it’s fair to say that our contemporary world bears more than a passing resemblance to the science-fiction novels of yesteryear. Originally published in 1974, English writer D.G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, recently reprinted by New York Review Books Classics, is a vintage piece of speculative fiction that feels of the here and now, and startlingly so.

Mortenhoe opens on a society that could very well be our own in another fifteen years: a culture rife with economic disparity, where most diseases have been eradicated and the populace is sated by reality television programs that chronicle the lives of their subjects in unnerving detail. It’s an era when middle-class life resembles a “bland, painless, deathless advertiser’s dream.” Enter Katherine Mortenhoe, an average woman who finds herself unexpectedly stricken with a rare terminal illness. Her brain is literally shutting down from its inability to cope with the nonstop rush of sensory information that defines 21st century life.

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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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A Profile of Kay Ryan by John Freeman: ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

It’s 1 p.m. on a fall afternoon and sunlight has been clobbering San Francisco all day. Kay Ryan is on a roll. We’re seated outside the Presidio Social Club, oysters have just arrived, the spread excellent. I wonder aloud if the creatures might still be alive, which sets Ryan—surely the funniest serious poet since Philip Larkin—onto a new riff. “It’s ending right between my teeth, probably,” she says, biting down. “I mean, they open them up when they serve them to you.” She points at the plate. “Those could still be hoping, Maybe this is just a bad dream.”

We chuckle darkly at this, but, of course, it isn’t a bad dream. The temperature in San Francisco is pushing eighty, and it’s a reminder that the planet is getting hotter, sea levels are rising. Ryan is not the Rachael Carson of our time, but she has written a poem, “Help,” which hints at what days like this might be saying to us, if we can hear them. The poem asks what pitch of help is necessary, what do the stakes have to be, to  make us listen. It finishes: “It’s hard, / coming from a planet / where if we needed something / we had it.”

This is a classic Ryan landing: a line that forks into two meanings several times, never collapsing. Perhaps the planet, and not just us, is saying help, not us. Then, moments after you’ve read the poem, the past-tenseness of “had” makes itself felt and the poem transforms into a kind of pre-elegy. Things can get used, and we might just have consumed the greatest—the only resource—of value, ever: life itself. All of that in fifteen lines.

For Ryan, though, this is just the tip of a majestic iceberg. In hundreds of poems, stretching from the 1960s to this past year, when she released Erratic Facts, her first new collection in six years, she has created a body of work of intellectual rigor and joy unmatched in her time. Her neatly carpentered verse, with its disassembled rhyming couplets and floating rhetorical questions, are the poetry world’s neutron stars. You can read around and through them endlessly and they never lose their luminosity or virtue. The more you read them the greater their pull becomes.

She begins in the natural world. From plate tectonics to genetics and species migration, fluid mechanics and gravitational vectors, her poems bring the elemental forces of the earth to bear—as metaphors and simply as themselves—on a series of ideas she has been obsessed with since she began to write. How do things work, and why aren’t we more in awe of how they do? Is life folly when evidence of temporality is all around us? Does it matter if we are tricked into believing our arrangements matter? What does greed mean in these contexts, and is this greed related to our capacity for consumption, to use things—and people—right up? And why aren’t we more struck by how destruction and creation sit so neatly together?

You read through Ryan’s work, and the whole animal world comes tumbling out like a bestiary she has unleashed down the gangplanks of her poetry. These creatures are not characters, not decoration; they bear with them all their spooky strangeness. Horses, birds, big cats, salamanders, zebra, goslings, herring, alligators (with their “three-foot-grin”), octopus, fox, osprey, crow, camel, bison, jellyfish, and more traipse through her short, skinny, perfectly made poems. Her poems can be funny, too, which is another way of saying they feint and throw you off their scent. They don’t toss melancholy over you like a blanket or a mist; their sadness sneaks up after the laughing ends. The effect is mesmerizing, even entertaining, but dark and strange. Ryan fell in love with poetry through Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, and Emily Dickinson, and her work unfurls from these influences with the odd ghoulish bounce of early American scripture, but with the spatial arrangements and unfussy atheism of someone raised in the desert. Want proof everything ends? Just look around you.


In person, she downplays this steeliness of vision with unaffected good cheer. The paradox of Ryan, as a poet and a person, is how brightly she delivers her bad news, because maybe it’s not all that bad. As oysters are consumed, we move on to one of her favorite topics—how everything ends—and then something new begins. Does she still run? Ryan never ran a marathon but she’s spent a lot of time on the roads. Now, her back is shot, so she has had to stop. “I got to run for forty years, most people don’t get to run that long.” Swimming didn’t work for her; “I’m not a water person,” she says, sounding, again, like a stand-up comic, “I’m more of a sand person.” Now she’s back on her bike three times a week after having a bad accident with a car that left her with a broken pelvis, collarbone, and ribs. You wouldn’t know it from looking at her. She looks like a sun-blasted fifty, if that. Her eyes alive through her spectacles, her ears snatching puns out of thin air.

The effect is that in person Kay Ryan appears to be more awake and alive than is normal or, perhaps, is natural. I wonder to what degree this is the best defense against nothingness, something her poems look at, against the way it can, if contemplated too closely, engender a smug gloom. Perhaps there is warmth in endings—think of starlight and the like. In fact, there’s a Ryan poem about that, too: “Not proximity / but distance / burns us with love,” she writes in “Star Block.” What if you got right up close to nothingness, but did so with a huge amount of energy. Later, I take a short cut and suggest doom as a kind of theme of hers, and she gently deflects the question. “I am not pro-doom; everything is not on the slippery slope to doom. And on the next occasion the experiment may miraculously work! The eggs may quicken!”

I have a few theories as to why Ryan can maintain this seemingly improbable position of poise, and one of them has to do with how she experiences time, which makes it difficult to write a profile of her with any kind of intellectual integrity. Unlike most people, she doesn’t believe in narrative, at all. Not as a restorative tool, and certainly not in the scale of her life. “Do you know this guy Galen Strawson?” she asks, by way of explanation. “He’s a British philosopher. His idea is that most people are of the narrative persuasion. But there is a minority, an important minority, that is completely overlooked. And these people are constructed in a different way. They have an episodic way and aren’t really convinced by chronology. They see in another way.”

Pause for a moment to consider all the baggage from which this way of seeing liberates Ryan. Her poems don’t have to tell her story, don’t have to reveal anything. They don’t even have to sequence in quite the same tidy way so much poetry does today. For Ryan, it’s not that every moment has the same weight. Rather, she views existence as moments that can be followed by a better one, or a different, or even a worse one. “If these poems have any kind of independent life,” Ryan says, “it’s certainly not as little snapshots of me.” At lunch, as the sun reaches its zenith, this narrative-free capacity makes her exceptionally good company. She’s a kind of Zorro of small talk and big ideas. There’s a speedy, tense feeling to being with her.

She is, in many senses, the one who escaped, the one whose family left the Mojave and then who worked her way out of the San Joaquin Valley. (Even though she was living in the agricultural capital of the West, her family didn’t eat fresh vegetables, she points out while relishing our lunch.) Her father—“a big, tall Dane,” “an honest man and a hard worker”—ran a trucking company during World War II, and then, unsuccessfully, tried to grow peanuts in Riverside County. “As soon he got any money he always wanted to go into business for himself,” Ryan says. “And then when he did, it always failed.” Her mother, perhaps coincidentally, pointed her toward the practical. “I asked my mother when I was starting high school, I said, ‘What do you think I should do?’ and she said, ‘Well, I think you should take a secretarial course so that if your husband dies, you’ll have a way to support the children.’”

Instead, Ryan learned at an early age to depend on herself by first being herself. This was before it was clear to her that literature would be her vocation. She can remember, while eating on this sunny deck, the moment she discovered the need to protect that fundamental mote of a self, that something she had yet to externalize in her poetry, but which lays beneath her work as surely as bedrock rests under soil. “Maybe I was a freshman in high school. I remember lying on my bed, and I decided I was going to hypnotize myself. I was going to say something to myself so that I could never ever forget. It would go all the way into my bones. And I had to never forget because I was in danger of losing myself. What I repeated to myself was, ‘Be what you are.’ I think I repeated it to myself for hours.”

Ryan has since developed a way in the world, a radical self-reliance mixed with devotional fervor to seeing clearly how the world is, appreciating all of it. Ryan’s poetry pirouettes so neatly around ideas and vernacular turns of phrase, her way of communicating this, if you will, can hide in plain site, as, for example, in her poem “Least Action.” It’s a paean to paying attention to what is here, to just simply “tinkering with the fit/of what’s available.” She is a problem solver, a riddler, an arranger, and a thinking tinkerer. She’s a holy DIYer: the kind of woman who can keep a ’68 VW bus running into the 1980s and reroof her house (with the guidance of a Sunset book), but also use the vice of her mind to compress the world’s absurdities into poetry as slender and rivet-less as bullets.

Order your copy of Issue No. 106.


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Thwarted Pilgrimage: ‘White Sands’ by Geoff Dyer

White Sands There are a few different types of ignorance at work in Geoff Dyer’s new book, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, a collection of essays that combine travel writing and art criticism. One kind is artificial ignorance as an interpretative tool. Often, when he is ignoring information, sloughing off context on which another critic might lean all his weight, Dyer (or the genre-bending author’s narrator whom I will call Dyer) is at his sharpest. In “Space in Time,” the author travels to Quemado, New Mexico, to see Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, but he holds off telling us this information until the second half of the essay. In the meantime, he makes surprising observations about the experience of viewing the work, the most intriguing of which concern absence. The “abundance of poles and wind” creates “an implied absence of flags.” Another art pilgrim is walking around at twilight holding a champagne glass, which, “for most of that hour, had been empty.” As night falls, the viewers are “in the midst of what may once have been considered a variety of religious experience. Absence had given way to presence.” Even after he tells us what we are looking at, he continues constructing his analysis around a hypothetical lack of data, ignoring De Maria’s “obsessively minute inventory and visionary manifesto, ‘The Lighting Field: Some Facts, Notes, Data, Information, Statistics and Statements,’” in favor of a “subterfuge of inconceivable ignorance”: “So what if we visited the site years hence and had to try to figure out for ourselves what was happening here, what forces were at work with no art-historical context (minimalism, conceptualism, taking work out of the gallery into the expanded field, etc.)?” Not knowing exactly where we are can give us a much clearer idea of where we are.

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