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James Shrieve

Realism’s Inability to Portray Reality: A Q&A with ‘Man & Wife’ Author Katie Chase

Katie Chase (photo by Calvin Eib)

Katie Chase (photo by Calvin Eib)

An internal refugee crisis in the United States; a modern America that tolerates decades-old, interfamilial vendettas; a city that keeps burning down year after year—these are the kinds of warped worlds captured in Katie Chase’s story collection, Man & Wife (220 pages; A Strange Object). Within these surrealities, Chase exaggerates societal traditions into distended proportions, focusing on the experiences of women at pivotal moments in their youth, examining their family dynamics, and, concurrently, their strange societies’ shifting norms. What’s even more unsettling is how eerily similar these worlds (and all the dramas that exist within them) are to our own.

Chase—a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who’s published in ZYZZYVA, the Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies—grounds her tragic tales of the intricate burden of tradition through the first-person perspectives of her unforgettable characters. Her sentences roil with every moment’s uncertainty, continually rending open the perceived gap between tradition and freedom, the collective and the individual, to peer closer at just how enmeshed those binaries are.
We talked to Katie Chase via email about Man & Wife, and about how language is inextricable from story, how the political is the human, and how to maintain “the play of writing.”

ZYZZYVA: Tradition, in its many forms, seems to stand at the center of Man & Wife; its push and pull, its polarity with complete autonomy, and individuals’ battles to find where they reside between those two extremes. It’s a nondualist view that you exemplify spectacularly in your story “The Hut,” which made me wonder, where do you think your fascination with tradition stems from, and how has writing this collection developed it for you?

Katie Chase: While my upbringing was not particularly conservative, I would say that it was largely “traditional,” in that I was raised by parents who were married—a father who worked and a mother who stayed home—in a small suburb where the norm was to stick around and repeat: find yourself a practical profession and a spouse, buy a house, have kids. My parents made the conscious choice to raise me and my siblings outside of a religion, but we observed Christian holidays in gatherings with extended family members whose rituals and beliefs bound them in actual and symbolic ways from which we were excluded, albeit proudly.

In pursuing writing, I’ve followed a path I had no models for until college, and I’ve never really stopped holding my life’s trajectory against what might have been expected. I cherish outsider status to the extent that I have it, yet at the same time I see in freedom loss as well as gain. Writing this collection made these preoccupations more conscious and allowed an exploration of them that was vicarious. We’re living in a time that is probably not so different from any other for its concurrent progress and clinging. I feel more softness now toward the latter. The clinging and the contradictions strike me as deeply human. I think a lot of people of my generation feel a sort of horror—and absolutely a restlessness—at the range of possibilities; anything is supposed to be possible, yet it still isn’t, and no one can have, or see, or do, or taste everything. I take great, tongue-in-cheek pleasure in nondenominational annual activities such as eating Thanksgiving dinner and watching the Academy Awards simply for the sense that so many other people, with a wide range of feelings, are at the same time participating.

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Aftermath of Greek Crisis: ‘Something Will Happen, You’ll See’ by Christos Ikonomou

Something Will Happen, You'll SeeIn the aftermath of Greece’s 2010 debt crisis, amid the hardship in his country, Christos Ikonomou wrote Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Archipelago Books, 250 pages, translated by Karen Emmerich). A recipient of some of Greece’s highest literary honors, as well as praise from across Europe, Ikonomou’s collection of interconnected stories focuses on people with barely a hope for attaining something better than what they’ve been given: a son stays up all night to watch the streets so his neighbors can get some sleep; a group of elderly industrial workers, recently laid off, huddle around an oil-drum fire outside the gates of their old job; fathers are forced to ask—forced to lie to—their children for money; whole communities are broken up like concrete foundations in an earthquake.

“I don’t want to write just about Greeks and Greece,” said Ikonomou in an interview with Nasslit.com, “I am trying to look beyond the walls of language and my country, I’m trying to reach out to Americans, to whoever is interested in my story, and I’m trying to write about human beings, what it means to be human and what it means to try to be human in an inhumane environment.”

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When the Only Escape Is Through Fantasy: ‘The Seven Madmen’ by Roberto Arlt

The Seven MadmenRoberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen (New York Review Books, 272 pages; translated by Nick Caistor) is a thriller, a crime drama, a dystopian revolution novel, a metafictional meditation, a tragic romance, and a revenge tale all in one. Julio Cortazar, who provides the introduction in the New York Review Books edition, is correct in saying Arlt’s novel throws off any “literariness”—its schizophrenic characters and arrangement are too emotionally raw, too erratic in theme and direction for it to be a “traditional” novel, especially for when it was written in 1929. (Some of the novel’s formal choices, such as the use of footnotes, and the way its plotting creates a broken narrative wouldn’t be “literary” for decades.)

The story is composed of “The Confessions” of Remo Erdosain, a poverty-stricken, manic-depressive, and hopelessly self-reflective Argentinian. Arlt fronts as if his fiction is real, trying to convince us that he actually met this miserable man and interviewed him over ten days (so say the footnotes). Forged at a young age in humiliation from his father and in pain from destitution, Erdosain constructs an intricate escapism. His intense imagination and its resulting multitude of made-up scenes, stories, and fantasies plunge us deep into the mind of an anguished man.

And “anguish” is the word for it. Erdosain believes he and all his fellow unfortunates live in “The Anguish Zone,” an inescapable layer of existence that curbs their thoughts and actions into unavoidable feedback loops of habit and delusion, keeping them miserable. They live in fantasy instead of reality. Erdosain sees his life almost like a stage drama, one which reality continually crashes, spoiling his idealism.

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Queen of the Liminal: ‘Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine’ by Diane Williams

unnamedDiane Williams has remained on the edge of American experimental short fiction for the last twenty years. Known for her compact, oblique stories and her extraordinary use of non sequiturs, Williams has written seven books of stories and was an editor at StoryQuarterly before starting the NOON literary annual. She has been lauded by authors Jonathan Franzen, Sam Lipsyte, and Lydia Davis. And her latest book of remarkably potent short fiction, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (136 pages; McSweeney’s), not only keeps her on the forefront of the form, but also redefines its parameters.

In an interview with HTMLGiant.com, Williams said: “The sentence cannot be overemphasized…neither can a fragment of a sentence or any syllable of a word. The writer either exploits the language for maximum effects or she does not.” For the forty stories in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, this sentiment holds true: Williams renders every single word like a prism of implication, and she stretches the space between sentences as wide as chapter breaks, while the sentences themselves somehow read like stand-alone stories. The density of her writing warrants a closer reading than most fiction because it also reads like superb poetry, just casual and fluid and lilting between verse and improvised speech.

Above all, this collection expresses a viciously recursive self-awareness through its narrators and characters (including Williams herself, who shows up by name in at least four of these stories) who attempt to fulfill the stories they tell themselves.

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