Contributors Archives

Laura Cogan

A Layered Portrait of a Mind at War with Itself: ‘Viviane’ by Julia Deck

viviane“The cry of the mind exhausted by its own rebellion”—Albert Camus

The slim spine of Julia Deck’s first novel, Viviane (The New Press, 149 pages), expertly translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, belies its intellectual heft. Deck’s crystalline language, too, appears innocently transparent, offering up on a silver platter events just as they transpire and thoughts just as they emerge from the narrator’s troubled mind. But this, too, is delightfully deceptive, as the hidden influences of language, and the impossibility of knowing or telling exactly what happens, appear to be part of Deck’s central concern.

On the first page, Deck flatly introduces us to Viviane Élisabeth Hermant’s excruciatingly uncertain perspective: “You are not entirely sure, but it seems to you that four or five hours ago, you did something that you shouldn’t have.” Her predicament is stark. At forty-two, Viviane is a new mother and newly single: her husband, Julian, has left her for another woman, declaring one day, “I’m leaving, it’s the only solution, anyway you know that I’m cheating on you and that it isn’t even from love but from despair.” Utterly alone, Viviane now believes, though she cannot be sure, that she may have killed her therapist. As Viviane tries to determine what she may have done, she is both detective and, perhaps, culprit in this psychological thriller. She delves into the “hole [her] memory has become,” trying to remember what she did. But she conducts her investigation in the external world, too: following and even interviewing witnesses in a series of increasingly bizarre and chilling encounters. It is a captivating and puzzling story, and it is refreshing to see a new work of literature explore the ways narrative can both bend perception and reflect a psychologically troubled mind without allowing the narrative itself to lose all sense. This is a literary thriller with aspirations, one with a well-developed understanding of the literary and theoretical traditions of modernism and post-modernism.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Absurdity of War, the Absurdity of the Media: Robert Perisic’s ‘Our Man in Iraq’

Our Man In IraqOriginally published in Croatia in 2007, Our Man In Iraq (Black Balloon; 202 pages), Robert Perisic’s finely crafted and witty novel, is now the first of his books to be translated into English (with translator Will Firth). American readers should delight in discovering Perisic’s work, while lamenting this inexplicable delay.

The novel opens in 2003. Toni has patched together a promising life: the Economics editor for PEG, an independent local newspaper, he lives in Zagreb with his beautiful girlfriend, Sanja, an actress who has just landed her first major stage role. Marriage seems to be on the horizon, and perhaps a move to a grander apartment as well.

But trouble simmers beneath the slick surface. Sanja’s big break gradually but inexorably draws her into another world and another echelon of fame. The new apartment Toni views as a way to keep their lives and relationship evolving will require taking out a massive loan. And most urgently of all, there is the matter of his man in Iraq. Despite his determined efforts to break free of the family he considers pre-modern and all its associated tribal encumbrances, Toni has nevertheless become a kind of fixer for his extended family. His latest improvisation in that role has far-reaching consequences: to provide his cousin Boris with gainful employment, he has set up the veteran in a correspondent’s role, covering the American-led invasion of Iraq for PEG. For reasons that are never entirely clear, Toni seems to believe he can keep his employers from discovering that Boris has no training as a journalist. Inevitably, the reports Boris sends from the field are not fit to print: rambling and pensive, they are elliptically insightful about war in general while devoid of factual information about this war in particular. But they betray far more disconcerting traits than amateurism—Boris’s most distraught missives suggest he may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When the reports cease altogether and Boris seems to disappear, Toni observes, horrified, as his life unravels rapidly on all fronts.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Personal Essay Elevated to Art: Aleksandar Hemon’s ‘The Book of My Lives’

The Book of My Lives In the first of the linked essays in Aleksandar Hemon’s new book, he begins by remembering how his sister’s birth changed his childhood; how life would always thereafter be divided between before and after her arrival, how nothing would ever be the way it used to be. And then he reminds us, “But nothing has ever been—nor will it ever be—the way it used to be.”

It’s a fitting admonition for the fraught work of memoir writing. Memory, of course, betrays us incessantly, and the creative impulse of the fiction writer is somewhat at odds with the rigors of telling the non-fiction tale of one’s own biography. In The Book of My Lives (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 214 pages) Hemon collects fifteen essays about his life, all but one of which has been previously published. In gathering them, a nuanced picture of Hemon’s life emerges, yet it is not the singular, master narrative imposed by the standard memoir format.

The hybrid conception of The Book of My Lives places it neatly at the nexus of a recent surge of creativity and interest in the essay, and a protracted period of interest in the personal memoir. The force of Hemon’s writing is undeniable, and several of these pieces are exceptional; yet the collection is at times ungainly, with instances of repetition that give it a restless quality, a sense, if read straight through, of pacing in concentric circles around the book’s core subjects. This is not entirely for the bad: it’s interesting to see Hemon working and re-working his material, approaching the material of his experience from varying angles (much as he’s done in his fiction), and seeking narrative arcs in that material. This may be an unintended consequence of grouping pieces which were written separately and as stand-alone essays, but the effect is also an honest message about how we tell ourselves the stories of ourselves, revising and reflecting as we go along.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Letting Go of Their Dreams for Whatever Might Come Next: Jim Gavin’s ‘Middle Men’

Middle MenFrom time to time we may ask ourselves, what is a short story? To be sure, length is a defining characteristic, but it is not enough. Can we trace certain recurring threads throughout the now expansive history of the form: a constant set of concerns, a type of character, a type of plot? The form is, to its credit, too nimble for such decrees; what Alice Munro does with a short story is dramatically distinct from what George Saunders does, and both use the form with exactness and brilliance. But perhaps we can observe, in general, that there are particular things the short story can do especially well: for example, it may be exceptionally well-suited to capturing a type of character at a critical moment of transformation. It is felicitous, then, when the form’s aptitudes meet squarely with an author’s material and intent, as in Middle Men (Simon & Schuster, 224 pages) by Jim Gavin.

Frank O’Connor famously observed that, in lieu of a hero, the short story more often concerns itself with submerged population groups, a term he acknowledged as awkward, but one that served his purpose: “That submerged population changes its character from writer to writer, from generation to generation. It may be Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape.” Jim Gavin’s first story collection is populated with his brand of such outsiders: dreamy young men, intelligent but lacking exceptional talent in their chosen fields or, sometimes, missing the cunning wherewithal to capitalize on the assets they do have. Gavin frames his stories as his characters reach a breaking point while seeking their way in an unforgiving contemporary landscape of corporate sales, Hollywood apprenticeships, tenuous relationships, and irksome and impermanent living arrangements.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Editor’s Note #92

Dear Readers,

Welcome to the new ZYZZYVA. After 26 years we’ve given the journal a new look, even a new heft.

Over the past months we’ve worked on a redesign with Three Steps Ahead, the same California firm behind our new website. ZYZZYVA’s original print design, created with care by Thomas Ingalls & Associates in 1985, was elegant and restrained. We kept in mind the clarity and the spare beauty of their vision as we sought to add other elements speaking to the pleasures of print, to the craft of bookmaking, and to the stimulating quietude of reading. We considered paper weight and tone, typesetting and titles, mingled serifs with sans-serifs, discussed the old-fashioned whimsy of endpapers—always with a view toward presenting stories, poetry, and art in the best way possible.

Perhaps the most dramatic shift is in our cover design. This new presentation of cover art evokes how a work is thoughtfully displayed in a gallery or museum; the shadowing effect playfully reproduces the quality of a piece hanging on a wall. This nod to gallery exhibitions reflects our intent: to present the artwork we curate with the same attentiveness we bring to the literature we publish.

This issue features yet another vital development in our commitment to the visual arts: the journal’s first-ever full-color art spread. We are thrilled to inaugurate this new feature by showcasing stunning photographic portraits by Katy Grannan and striking paintings by Julio Cesar Morales.

Our primary focus is, as always, on publishing the highest quality art and literature; design is secondary, and must serve the content. But in this digitally driven age, it is incumbent on any publisher to consider all aspects of a print product, including the physicality of the object, and to answer fully a book reader’s implicit (sometimes explicit) query: why should I spend time with this journal?

Our implicit (now explicit) answer to you: because it offers a feast of contemporary poetry, prose and art. Because each issue seeks to be unexpected, fresh and affecting. Because your time is rewarded with our vigorous attention to every detail of the reading experience.

And not least of all: because this journal is also a beautiful object—one that, we hope, is pleasing to the eye, pleasing to the touch, and takes a place of pride and enjoyment in your home. We imagine ZYZZYVA on your coffee table, your bookshelf, your nightstand, there in a stack of other books by the bed or on the desk. And we hope that every time your gaze falls upon it you’re reminded anew of the sensory and cerebral pleasures of print.

L.

Posted in Editor's Notes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gladly Going Anywhere Crosley’s Witty Voice Wishes to Take Us

In a recent interview with FiveBooks, Woody Allen lamented the current scarcity of outlets for comic writing in the grand tradition of James Thurber and Dorothy Parker. It’s an absence most readers may not usually feel until, that is, we run into a snort out-loud, serio-comic, utterly enthralling collection of essays by Sloane Crosley. At which point we have to ask, How have we managed without a weekly dose, and where can we find more?

Crosley’s second book of essays, How Did You Get This Number (now available in paperback), picks up on some of the themes (life in Manhattan, childhood in suburbia) from her first collection, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, and broadens the scope of experience and observation to Paris, Alaska, and Portugal, all told in the same engaging voice — wry, honest, eccentric — that charmed us before. While traveling alone in Portugal, she observes that “While the emotional sum total of my trip would eventually add up to happiness, … hidden between the cathedral and castle tours was the truth: I have never felt more alone than I did in Lisbon. A human being can spend only so much time outside her comfort zone before she realizes she is still tethered to it.” When Crosley writes in the next essay about her temporal-spatial deficit, her willingness to be alone and lost in Lisbon takes on greater significance. The willingness to persevere and move forward into the unknown has meaning for travelers, for readers, and for anyone charting their own course in life. “I have never outgrown that feeling of constant disorientation,” she writes. “Rather, the feeling has followed me around like a homing device.” Yet in her essays Crosley is deft and sure-footed, charting a confident course and delivering satisfying layers of comedy and observation in every piece.

These are beautifully crafted essays that often happen to be outrageously funny, but can also be achingly sad. Crosley invites us to laugh at the curve balls life throws, but she allows the small tragedy of some moments to arrive naked in their sadness, refusing to cloak them immediately in the armor of comedy. Therein lies the winsome honesty of her writing, sacrificing neither a dark underside nor an inappropriate laugh to any particular cause.

Unlike a sitcom-writer or stand-up comedian, Crosely is not obligated to deliver a particular number of laughs per half hour or set. And this is in part what distinguishes the comedy of humorous non-fiction from that of other genres. Each essay, though peppered with funny one-liners, holds a larger humorous story whose unfolding cannot be rushed. The great test of comic narrative non-fiction is whether the writing can bring us along in the process. Sustained by the intelligence of the author’s voice, we would gladly go anywhere with Crosley, as we allow the landscape — unpredictable, heart-wrenching, and hilarious – she creates to unfold around us.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Francine Prose and the Crushing, Comic Discontent of American Life

As My New American Life (HarperCollins, 306 pages) opens, twenty-six-year-old Lula stares out the window of the suburban New Jersey home where she works as a nanny, waiting without much hope for something, anything, to happen. If life was simple and humans were well-engineered for happiness, Lula might well be content. Yet she’s miserable. It’s not only because Lula is far from her home in Albania and without friends or anybody who shares her history that’s she’s unhappy. In Francine Prose’s new novel, it’s because Lula has begun to experience a uniquely American mode of discontent.

Lula has left her shattered family and come here on a tourist visa in the ages-old hope of building a better life in America. With her best friend, Dunia, by her side, Lula forges ahead in Manhattan, waiting and hoping for something to work out. Eventually Lula feels they must take some initiative to secure their immigration status, but Dunia suggests that if they do nothing, something good will happen. Unconvinced by this logic, independent Lula takes the initiative to answer a personal ad on Craigslist and lands a gig working for Mister Stanley, a well-intentioned middle-aged man who needs someone to look after his son, Zeke, now that his wife has suffered a nervous breakdown and left them to fend for themselves.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Before Goldman Knew of Great Loss There Was First Knowing Great Love

On a hot, bright July day in 2007, author Francisco Goldman waded into the Pacific surf off Mazunte, Mexico. His wife, Aura Estrada, watched him bodysurf, catching a wave and riding it twenty yards back toward the shore, and decided she’d like to do the same. As the next wave approached, she called out, “This one’s mine!” That powerful wave left Aura unconscious, floating in the shallow waters near the beach, and although she regained consciousness and fought for her life in the hours that followed, she did not survive.

Say Her Name (Grove; 350 pages) is Goldman’s wrenching but also warm and often funny novel about a middle-aged professor and writer named Francisco Goldman, who finds a passionate and enduring love with Aura Estrada, a talented young academic and promising fiction writer from Mexico. She dies just two years after they marry, catching her first wave bodysurfing off the coast of Mazunte, Mexico.

The book begins with the stark and true information of Aura’s accident. Part of the immense impact of Goldman’s work is how he renders this heavy foreknowledge: It becomes the spark that ignites the relentless engine of the narrative. As Aura comes alive on the page, the knowledge of her death becomes agonizing; our growing attachment to her creates tension and significance to that singular event around which the book restlessly orbits. Yet Say Her Name blossoms with the story of Aura’s life opening up — a young writer breaking out on her own, struggling to develop and define her work and to meet her own high expectations.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Naomie Kremer: The Vocabulary of Obsession and Obsessiveness

Naomi Kremer (photo by Dennis Letbetter)

Naomie Kremer has been described as “a remarkable and innovative colorist, with a subtle mastery of intimating interior meaning.” Her current exhibition, “Multiverse Part I,” at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco through April 23, showcases 12 of her densely layered oil-on-linen paintings, all characterized by Kremer’s sensuous use of color, her energetic and meticulous brushwork, and a complex, detailed sense of structure. Yet her work in black and white is integral to her craft, and equally compelling. ZYZZYVA sat down with the Bay Area artist in her bright and inviting studio in Oakland on a recent stormy day. As the rain poured down outside, Kremer discussed the inspiration behind her current show at Modernism, the important role that drawing has played in the development of her craft as a painter, and her innovative collaboration with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.

Continue reading

Posted in Archive, Interviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Strangeness of Loss Imbues ‘Widow’

A collection of 17 short pieces, Widow (Bellevue Literary Press; 160 pages) is, as the title suggests and the opening story firmly establishes, concerned with a particular loss — that of the beloved partner. Though several of the book’s stories were written after the death of California author Michelle Latiolais’s husband, and the impact of that loss is felt on every page, Widow is not a memoir, yet neither is it entirely fictional. Drawing on a variety of genres (meditations, stories, and poetic vignettes) and points of view, Widow offers a kaleidoscopic view of the world from deep within the mourning mind. (One of the stories in the book, the haunting “Breathe,” first appeared in ZYZZYVA.) Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment