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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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‘On the Road’ by Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch: ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring

The thing you’d think she would’ve been good at
was sitting still but Madame Tussaud
spent thirty-six years touring the country
in a horse-drawn cart packed with wax
effigies of the nearly-dead, the long-dead
and those whose heads were freshly off the block.
Hers was both travelling newspaper and a show
whose cast stayed motionless at all her gigs. Alone
but for her set of replicas jolting at every pothole,

she’d take each face between her hands
and kiss it sweet goodnight in Leicester, Sheffield,
Inverness, give talks on wax: the facts
(don’t model outside). For those who’d fallen
out of favor she’d chisel off their heads.
In Marylebone Road right now people are
standing in lines to pay to file past people standing in lines
who’ve been dead for years but made to look alive.
To make the dead appear living, the living dead

without quite meaning to, is a skill I cannot
yet take in and one that started life in death
masks where she’d reanimate the guillotined.
Before you go, did you know Madame herself
was shipwrecked once off the west of Ireland
and all her wax companions dived wide-eyed
to the seabed only to pop to the surface one
by one when the vessel rotted away and startle
the fish who’d thought this lot already dead?

Order your copy of Issue No. 106 here.

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In the Spring/Summer Issue

Issue No. 106 offers for your enjoyment more of the country’s finest stories, poetry, essays, and visual art:

Ariel Dorfman’s “Amboise”: A long-time couple’s trip to France, in which perhaps only one of them will return from.

Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s “Clutter”: A riot of memories and thoughts pulls a stroke victim through the past and the present.

Lou Mathew’s “Last Dance”: Can a widower find it in himself to grant his annoying neighbor (who makes a mean tamale) a beseeched courtesy?

Ashley Nelson Levy’s “Auntie”: A teen daughter makes room in more ways than one for her mother’s dying friend.

And introducing our newest feature: author interviews and profiles. We begin with John Freeman on poet Kay Ryan.

Plus, nonfiction from Rivka Galchen (on ronin, Keanu Reeves, and having a newborn) and Andrew D. Cohen (Hemingway on the way to dropping off the kids at school), and fiction from Dallas Woodburn, Gregory Spatz, Ron Carlson, and the late Alan Cheuse (“The Burden”: on a boy’s first acquaintance with hard liquor).

Also, work from artists Stephen Albair and Jonathon Keats, and poetry from Ruth Madievsky, Paul Wilner, David Hernandez, Jeff Ewing, Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, and First Time in Print writer Etan Nechin.

You can get a copy of No. 106 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring/Summer issue.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell (whose story “Love Story, With Cocaine” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 92) is the award-winning author of several books, including the story collection God Lives in St. Petersburg, the memoir The Father of All Things, the essay collection Magic Hours, and Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. His newest book is Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve (Pantheon). Kirkus (in a starred review) described Apostle as a “rich, contentious, and challenging book …  a deep dive into the heart of the New Testament, crossing continents and cross-referencing texts.”

ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon spoke with Bissell about his new book at Green Apple Books in the Park in San Francisco in mid-March.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: David L. Ulin & Gary Kamiya

David L. Ulin (whose work has appeared in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 100 and 104) is the author or editor of eight previous books, including The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the former book critic of the Los Angeles Times.

ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon, along with Gary Kamiya—executive editor of San Francisco Magazine and author of Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco—discussed Ulin’s latest book, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles (University of California Press), at the Mechanics’s Institute in San Francisco in January. The conversation explored how we understand cities, what makes a place “authentic,” and the similarities between Los Angeles and San Francisco—two major cities in a state of flux.

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Lucia Berlin: The Art of Phantom Pain

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

I met Lucia Berlin in 1977, the year her first small book appeared, but it wasn’t till I published her collection Phantom Pain that we became great friends (Tombouctou Books, Bolinas, 1984).

Lucia was working at Alta Bates Hospital then, in Berkeley, at the switchboard and in the waiting rooms. Hospital work suited her. She was interested in extremities, in gossip, in contrary people with serious complaints, who also felt relieved to be alive. It was hard, low-paying work. She would have preferred to be writing, but she almost never said so. She did produce several new hospital stories (“Emergency Room Notebook”, “My Jockey,” “Private Branch Exchange,” “Temps Perdu,”) during this time. I imagine her composing them at night and on the weekends, and then stealing time at work to edit. We often spoke of stealing time, as though it were a necessary concomitant of creation. All but one of these pieces went into the new book of 15 stories and a play.

The title, Phantom Pain, refers to the haunting ache an amputee feels for a missing limb. The phrase neatly sums up Lucia’s work for me. Many of her best stories transform life’s fleetingness and loss into deeply felt—yet comedic—memories, more real than life, without coloration or emotional distortion. The haunting ache they deliver to the reader is tempered by tenderness and bemusement. Her style may appear to be offhand, an accretion of detail. It is anything but.

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