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Realism and the Fantastic as Very Much the Same: Q&A with Kathryn Davis

(photo by Emma Dodge Hanson)

(photo by Emma Dodge Hanson)

In Kathryn Davis’ novel Duplex (Graywolf Press, 195 pages), the suburban mundane is interrupted by the magical, the mythic, and the bizarre. In a neighborhood of duplex housing, kids play on the street as robot neighbors fly past them, sorcerers and Bodies Without Souls drive by in Mercedes, and teddy bears become human babies. Two coexisting narratives alternate from chapter to chapter, as two worlds slide past each other and often overlap. The intimacy between these worlds is such that the particularities of each echo the other, the realities of both merging into one.

The novel, recently published in paperback, follows such characters as Miss Vicks (who is described as “a real woman; you could tell by the way she didn’t have to move her head from side to side to take in sound”) and her neighbor, Mary, who happens to marry a sorcerer; robots who look like people, a baseball player who sells his soul for success. The narrative of this cast alternates with that of the narrative of Janice and the neighborhood girls, who, as though at a sleepover, listen to their cooler, older peer,as she tells them stories about the phenomena of their world. Janice’s stories, many of which could stand alone as fables, do more than just interrupt the more linear narrative of Miss Vicks and those around her. These stories ground the world of the novel as one with a long history of bizarre occurrences that are perceived as both mystifying and entirely ordinary by its characters.

One way of allowing yourself to experience the brilliance of Duplex is by accepting that the novel thrives in its departure from logic; the text is not there to hold your hand. The reader instead treads through the thickets of the strange, often leaving one scratching her head. Those wishing to follow a story whose plot has a traditional structure, with a clear climax and conclusion, might not find what they expect, but they will find themselves bedazzled and delighted with the narrative’s unconventionality. We spoke with Davis via email about Duplex and the uses of plot and genre in her work.

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The Complex Truths of a Disturbing Relationship: ‘Excavation’ by Wendy Ortiz

EscavationIn her memoir, Excavation (Future Tense Books; 244 pages), Wendy Ortiz looks to her journal entries and memories to piece together a narrative of her adolescent traumas. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Ortiz was seduced by her 8th-grade English teacher who instigated a relationship that would last five years. Now a registered sex offender, “Jeff Ivers” (as he is called in the memoir) is described in both flattering and disturbing terms, Ortiz’s attraction to him having as much to do with his charisma as with the danger his love promises. Now married, and with a child of her own, Ortiz digs into her past so as to fight her demons, revealing with utter honesty and unrestrained prose the vicious details of her ordeal. But rather than point fingers or give a moralizing depiction of a taboo story, she instead shows us the intimate spaces and the blurred lines of the relationship—as seen by a girl who doesn’t fully believe herself to be the victim of an older man’s predation.

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The Persistent Strangeness of the Ordinary: ‘See You in Paradise’ by J. Robert Lennon

See You in ParadiseCompiled from fifteen years of work, the stories in J. Robert Lennon’s new book, See You in Paradise (Graywolf Press; 256 pages) dwell on quotidian fears and dissatisfaction and on the strange nature of contemporary American life in modern suburbia, which can be found here in run-down mountain communities, lakeside cabins, and college towns. In this collection, ordinary people find themselves straddling mundane reality and its bizarre or magical undercurrents. Drawing elements from science fiction, horror, and the surreal, several of Lennon’s stories manifest these undercurrents in more literal ways than others. But the disaffection of their characters, the often absurdist butterfly effect triggered by their plots’ movements, and the feeling that anything can and will happen, are what unite all these pieces.

The opening story, “Portal,” sets the tone with its unceremonious appropriation of magic into an ordinary setting. A family discovers a portal in their backyard that sends them to alternate universes, but the device soon becomes overused and lackluster, falling into disrepair like an abandoned piece of furniture. When the portal falls into a “senile,” nonsensical state, it sends them to dimensions that reveal each of their hidden—and unnerving—desires, and they soon lose interest altogether in their family trips. As each family member begins to escape into his own psychic landscape (without help from the portal), the story offers a sincere depiction of the cold dissatisfaction and solitude felt in a deteriorating family.

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The Philosophical Novel Couched in a Tale of Marriage: Q&A with Jenny Offill

Dept of SpeculationIn Jenny Offill’s most recent novel, Dept. of Speculation (now out in paperback), a writer’s marital life and motherhood are traced through a series of short, brilliant segments, creating a narrative collage of moments marked by references to outer space, scientific facts, or Buddhist teachings. The unnamed narrator’s Brooklyn life consists of bed bugs and trips to Rite Aid, philosopher and almost-astronaut friends, and preschool supplies. In this domestic setting, we piece together the book’s fragments of prose to emotionally engage with the protagonist as she navigates her personal chaos, all while she wishes to find the time and solace to engage more fully with her art.

One of Offill’s talents is in creating a feeling of wholeness in the narrative—creating a suggestion of what is there—by not giving an explicit telling of the story. Each of Offill’s short sections is so precise in its language it’s as if she’s using a scalpel to extricate the right narrative moment, the right external reference to give life to the plot and characters. Though shaped like a puzzle, the novel engages with the reader: when you’ve all but forgotten something, Offill provides moments that unify and shape the narrative for you. And as the gifted but conflicted narrator tries desperately to piece together the beautiful and difficult moments of her life, the book suggests that these spaces between what is ugly and what is incandescent are where the art of human experience is to be found. We spoke with Jenny Offill about Dept. of Speculation via email.

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Fleeing from Ruin to Fringes of Barcelona: ‘Street of Thieves’ by Mathias Énard

Street_of_Thieves-front_largeSet during the revolts of the Arab Spring and the collapse of Europe’s economy, award-winning French author Mathias Énard’s new novel, Street of Thieves (265 pages; Open Letter, translated by Charlotte Mandell), follows the life of a young Moroccan man living in the lower fringes of society, always working toward a future that remains a bit out of reach. “Men are dogs,” Énard writes at the beginning, “they rub against each other in misery, they roll around in filth and can’t get out of it…”  Amid that grime and grit, we witness the transformation of his narrator, from boy into man, from cowardice to courage, a change shaped by both the animality and the pressure of a society where people, like beasts, do whatever it takes to live.

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On the Novel and the Novella, and Writing About Russia: Q&A with Josh Weil

The Great Glass SeaJosh Weil, author of the 2009 novella collection The New Valley (Grove Atlantic) and a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” Award recipient, saw his first novel, The Great Glass Sea (Grove Atlantic), published this summer. Moving away from the stark landscape of the Appalachian Mountains valley of his novellas, Weil’s The Great Glass Sea takes place in a near-future Russia, one where giant stretches of farmlands are covered by an ever-expanding greenhouse lit by space mirrors, keeping the crops beneath in perpetual daylight for the sake of productivity in Russia’s new capitalist scheme.

In this alienating and unforgiving setting, twin brothers Yarik and Dima, who were once inseparable in childhood, find themselves taking vastly differing paths in adulthood, growing increasingly distant as they navigate antithetical ideologies and lifestyles. Steeped in Russian folklore, the novel reminds the reader of the pressure of nostalgia on the present and the future, and draws a breathtaking picture of familial conflict, moving with ease between the haunting richness of the mythic and the piercing clearness of realism. We spoke to Weil via email about his work.

ZYZZYVA: To start, let’s talk about your writing process with The Great Glass Sea. What do you find yourself working toward in a novel that you don’t find yourself doing in a novella? Is it merely a question of length—a looking further and wider in your scope of the narrative, character development, etc.?  Or is there some particular element in its craft that you believe can be achieved in one form and not the other?

Josh Weil: I feel very strongly that the experience of writing a novel is different from writing a novella and vastly different from writing a short story. All the forms offer their specific challenges, of course, and, with the novel, there were a couple difficult ones for me: First, how hard it is to hold the story—the whole dang thing—in your head at once; it’s nigh impossible. It’s very hard to know the story well enough (because of all the shifting and complicated threads) to get from the beginning to the end without going far astray.

Because I’m a writer who values the first draft tremendously (I feel that’s where the heart of the thing lays) rewriting is especially tough for me. Not revising or editing; I have no problem shaping what’s already there. (I love to tighten up a scene, pare out what’s not working, finesse a moment, hone a sentence.) But I feel like I’m losing something essential when I have to wholly rewrite a scene or even entire story arc. Still, the complexity of narrative (and its long arc) in a novel makes getting it generally right on a first draft nearly impossible.

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A Hard Swim Toward Redemeption: ‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas

BarracudaIn Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel, Barracuda (429 pages; Hogarth Press), we get an enormous book with enormous themes, and a surprising narrative form featuring a protagonist who can be shockingly unlikeable. A contemporary Bildungsroman set amid a vast landscape of social and political issues, Barracuda nonetheless centers around one man—a sports hero—whose personal respect and dignity are what truly are at stake.

Danny Kelly is a talented teenage swimmer from a working-class neighborhood outside of Melbourne. His life is uprooted once he enrolls in an elite private school (which he refers to as “Cunts College”) on a swimming scholarship. There he instantly becomes the victim of bullying from his peers, and a target of jealousy from his swim squad. To spite his classmates’ elitism, Danny protects his ego by outperforming them all in the pool, reminding himself constantly that he is “better, faster, stronger” than everyone. This mantra becomes deeply embedded within him, and we watch as he becomes much like a barracuda—a “psycho,” monstrous, unsympathetic, competitive, and violent.

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The Twisting Paths of Survival: ‘Wolf in White Van’ by John Darnielle

Wolf in White VanWolf in White Van (224 pages; Farrar, Straus & Giroux) marks a tremendous literary achievement by the artistically and lyrically inclined John Darnielle, guitarist and lead singer of the Mountain Goats. Darnielle is already praised for the writing in his songs, so his fans may not be surprised to see him succeed in his more literary pursuits. But the novel—given its complexity of craft, its deftness, and movement of prose—is not something to be taken for granted by anyone.

In Wolf in White Van, we follow the life of Sean Phillips, who lives an isolated life due to an injury that disfigured his face, and we witness his day-to-day experiences and thoughts that often morph into psychological digressions and memories. Over the course of this non-linear novel, we move backward in time as we progress deeper into the complexities of his ailments, his strained relationships, always moving into his younger self, until everything unfurls around the climax on the novel’s final page.

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