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Ismail Muhammad

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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‘We Can Work Harder to Mourn’: Q&A with ‘Grief Is the Thing …’ Author Max Porter

Max Porter (photo by Lucy Dickens)

Max Porter (photo by Lucy Dickens)

Max Porter’s experimental novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (128 pages; Graywolf) follows a father and his two sons as they come to grips with their wife and mother’s sudden death. They do so with the help of an unusual houseguest: Crow, an anthropomorphic projection of the father’s obsession with Ted Hughes’ 1970 poetry collection Crow. Part mythic trickster, part grief counselor, Crow leads the family through an idiosyncratic and irreverent mourning. His air of mischievousness colors the entire novel, lending it a kaleidoscopic tone that renders the mourning process unrecognizable.

For Porter, who works as an editor at Granta, this unrecognizability is precisely the point. In giving his audience a mythologized, unfamiliar representation of grief, Porter intends for his readers to rethink mourning’s generative possibilities and private grief’s relationship to public life. Via email, I spoke with Porter about his novel and about grief, vandalism, and new languages of crisis.

ZYZZYVA: A lot has been said about how Ted Hughes’ shadow looms over this novel, but less has been said regarding Emily Dickinson and how she informs the novel’s exploration of grief. I’m particularly intrigued by the amended poem you include as the novel’s epigraph. That poem is about the myopia love engenders in us, the way we can’t perceive it as anything other than an undifferentiated totality. Your insertions of “crow” heighten that myopia, so that the poem doesn’t even give us the ambiguous comfort of proportioned freight. Instead, we get the all-encompassing image of crow. What is the relationship of those edits, if any, to how the novel depicts the grieving process? Is the epigraph implying there is a relationship between love and mourning?

Max Porter: I hope the implication is there, yes, that the generative possibilities of mourning are comparable.

The epigraph is a key to the book inasmuch as all my intentions are made visible by the vandalism. If Crow did it, then, yes, it is a statement of his all-encompassing symbolic stature, and a symptom of his hubris, his manic ego. If Dad did it, then it’s a comment—made in hindsight—about the possibility of gamesmanship with the poets we read or become obsessed with, a statement that the vertical axis of influence (Say, Whitman, Dickinson, Hughes/Plath, Dad. Or indeed Canon-Reader via biography) is to be messed with, lovingly. The word “love” is pointedly not obscured; Dickinson’s devastatingly exact repetition is visible, and Crow’s vandalism is hand-written, i.e., an engagement through craft, a note, a doodle, a thought in process.

My relationship with Dickinson is simple. I think she’s the far reach, the inexhaustible, especially if one’s subjects are death, love, faith, sink holes, ecstasy.

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‘If You’re Going to Tell the Story of Slavery, I’m Going to Listen All Day’: Q&A with ‘Homegoing’ Author Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi (photo by Michael Lionstar)

Yaa Gyasi (photo by Michael Lionstar)

Yaa Gyasi’s recently released and critically acclaimed first novel, Homegoing (320 pages; Knopf) moves from late 18th century West Africa to 21st century California, tracking the repercussions of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Gyasi, a graduate from Stanford and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and whose book was just named to the longlist for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, illustrates how slavery and white supremacy shaped life in the African diaspora by exploring the history of a single family—one branch of which remains in what eventually becomes Ghana, while the other experiences the turbulent history of African America.

By drawing direct lines among the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, British colonialism in West Africa, and institutional racism in the United States, Gyasi makes a powerful statement about how slavery’s impact continues to reverberate in our contemporary moment. A moving exploration of trauma, survival, and perseverance, Homegoing provides a portrait of the African diaspora with unprecedented scope. I sat down with Gyasi in her south Berkeley apartment to discuss how she constructed the novel, the necessity of telling stories of slavery, and how black narratives push the boundaries of realism.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start by talking about how you put this book together. I’m intrigued by how you did so—a lot of it resembles a collection of interlinked short fictions. Did it at any point begin as a short story cycle

Yaa Gyasi: Actually, no, it didn’t. It began as a more traditionally structured novel. It was originally set in the present and focused on the last two characters, [Marcus and Marjorie], and then it flashed back to 18th century Ghana. I wrote about 100 pages that way until I got to Iowa. Then I realized that I was interested in tracking how slavery, colonialism, and institutionalized racism work over a very long period of time—not just the beginning and end, but the movement from the beginning to the end. Then I thought that I might as well try a structure that allowed me to stop along as many historical moments as possible, which is how I came up with the structure you see now. But it took me three years to arrive there, and I never thought of it as short stories, perhaps because I’d been working on this novel idea and just pivoted in the middle of the process. But also, the long arc of the book was more important to me. The accumulation of all of the chapters was more important to me than the individual chapters.

Z: Would you say that that pivot toward the long historical arc was a pivot away from a character-based narrative and toward the historical novel?

YG: I think it’s still very character-based. I wanted each chapter to focus on character and not whatever historical event was happening in the background, though obviously, those events very much informs each of the characters’ lives. I guess maybe it was me coming to the realization that a lot of the themes I was thinking about were better suited to a structure that allowed me to follow a longer through line than just having the beginning and the end. So maybe it was a transition, not away from a character-based novel, but into an understanding of the themes that are important in this book.

Z: It sounds right that it’s still character-driven, but because of the nature of the structure, many of your characters’ stories end right before major narrative arcs resolve themselves. As a reader, I found myself wishing I could continue following characters like Akua and Willie. Did you as the author ever wish that you could revisit some of these characters?

YG: Not really while I was writing, because, again, I had that long arc in mind, so I really wanted to get there. But I think as a project of thinking, I’m always wondering, for example, what would happen if we followed Robert’s family down the line, this lineage of people who think they are white and have always been white? That’s always fascinated me. I could have definitely followed any of the characters in this book and ended up in an entirely different place. That’s really interesting to me.

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Looking for Life After Death: ‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo

Zero KDon DeLillo’s seventeenth novel, Zero K (288 pages; Scribner), has all the trappings of a typical DeLillo novel. It opens with the protagonist Jeffrey Lockhart arriving at the Convergence, a techo-utopian compound erected in the midst of a central Asian desert. The compound is a staging ground for a series of experiments, led by the mysterious Stenmark Twins (or, at least that’s what Jeffrey calls them), into the possibilities of cryogenics. These experiments are meant to prepare their participants—including Jeffrey’s terminally ill stepmother, Artis, and estranged father, Ross Lockhart—for a future where death has ceased to exist and life may be everlasting. There’s little plot beyond this initial setup. Rather, DeLillo performs an elliptical investigation of the tensions between skepticism and belief, alienation and community, subjectivity and relationality.

In this sense, Zero K sometimes seems like less of a novel and more of a philosophical treatise. Jeffrey aimlessly wanders the Convergence. Occasionally he encounters screens that descend at random to depict epic scenes of human suffering, as if to remind him of the mortality he might leave behind in the compound. A skeptic amid the Convergence’s utopian promise, he refuses to take the Stenmark Twins’ vision seriously. He’s convinced the entire project is a prank, a cosmic joke on gullible believers. To register his incredulity, he knocks on doors at random, certain no one is behind them, that the Convergence is a stage created for the purpose of an elaborate fiction. For the most part he’s confirmed in his suspicion—until someone answers and topples Jeffrey’s assumptions.

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