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Will Callan

Internet Terror: ‘Four New Messages’ by Joshua Cohen

In his new collection of stories, Four New Messages (Graywolf, 208 pages), Joshua Cohen portrays lives that are predicated on and destroyed by the Internet’s world of screens and static. Portaging an understanding of his generation’s ethos (the author is 31), Cohen fleshes out young characters struggling with an increasingly electronic lifestyle.

Cohen’s stories, which range from about 30 to 70 pages in length, take some time to get into, but settling into them is something to be relished. His sentences, spare of commas and loaded with improvised structure and vocabulary, have a frenetic yet hypnotic quality. Through layers of narrative and mimicry of various modes of modern communication, Cohen conveys the stress of a society in which one’s reputation can rest in the hands of anyone with access to a computer. In “Emission,” a drug dealer discovers an incriminating personal secret has popped up on a blog when a potential employer explains why he cannot offer him a position: “The internet…are you aware of your internet?”

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A Frank Investigation of Her Family: Q&A with Paula Priamos

Paula Priamos

In her recent memoir, The Shyster’s Daughter (Etruscan Press; 250 pages), which was excerpted in ZYZZYVA 91, Paula Priamos investigates the death of her lawyer father and paints an unapologetic portrait of her family, with characters both perverse and loving.

Priamos peers into the motivations of her family members with a rare and enticing frankness that distinguishes her work from that of other memoirists. Beyond the title, Priamos hints at the type of story she’s about to tell in the first page with a description of her father, who’s phoning her. She can easily imagine him being “somewhere far sleazier” than from where he’s actually calling, a strip club. That call would turn out to be the last one he’d ever make to her.

ZYZZYVA talked with Priamos over e-mail about her memoir and her family.

ZYZZYVA: The hard-boiled narrative of The Shyster’s Daughter does not seek to definitively answer any questions about your father’s death, but your character does not accept the inevitability of this open-endedness until the end of the book. Where do you stand now, in terms of that acceptance? Did writing this memoir provide any catharsis?

Paula Priamos: Completing the memoir enabled me to better understand my father’s life and the mysterious way he died. If you read the book closely, my opinion of what happened is there in the narrative. I just didn’t want to make it so pronounced that it takes away from a reader’s interpretation of the events, because nothing is definitive except that he died hours after he called me one night, which is where I decided to start the book with the prologue.

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Do Not Linger at the Gate: David Shrigley’s ‘Brain Activity’ at the YBCA

David Shrigley's "I'm Dead" (2010), photo by Alexander Newton (courtesy of YBCA)

No one can fully appreciate the comedy and the strangeness of David Shrigley’s work without first becoming acquainted with his drawings. As bizarre as they are funny, these drawings are the Shrigley staple, a primer for his sculptures, photography, paintings, and installations. Rather than simply a display of artistic talent (it seems that anyone witty enough with a black Sharpie and a piece of paper could reach a similar end), they reveal his ability to make comic sense of the absurd and the obvious.

The British artist’s current exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Brain Activity, starts in a room bearing a gate at its entrance, the instruction, “Do Not Linger at the Gate” wrought into the steel. Past this threshold, the walls are covered in drawings. Many bear inscriptions that, without the context of the other illustrations, might be quite disturbing. (“WE ARE RULED BY THE DEVIL” claims one such piece of paper.) Some speak to potentially legitimate truths (a man holds a flag that says, “Ants Have Sex in your Beer”). Because of their sheer number, the drawings contain sentiments that will appeal to anyone who takes five minutes to scan up and down the walls. Shrigley has a talent with words, which he uses to evoke laughter and recognition at those inner sentiments we perhaps would not want to express ourselves.

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Creatures in the Desert: ‘A Million Heavens’ by John Brandon

Probably the most enjoyable theme through all of John Brandon’s novels is his fascination with people in solitude, because it allows Brandon to linger on often-bizarre penchants and lifestyles.

In Arkansas we saw the partnership of Swin Ruiz and Kyle Ribb, two young guys whose utter weirdness in personality lands them in the drug running business. In Citrus County, he focused on the dark longings of his characters, which they ponder on long walks through the forest, or during detention in an undecorated middle-school classroom.

In his new novel, A Million Heavens (McSweeney’s; 272 pages), Brandon maintains his interest in the individual while the desert setting casts their dilemmas in relief. His characters’ lives (and in one case, afterlife) are loosely connected by the inexplicable coma of a young piano prodigy, Soren, whose condition prompts a weekly vigil below his hospital window. Soren’s father, the vigilers, and the other residents of Lofte, New Mexico, are “stranded in the desert,” “above them…a moon that was also a desert.”

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Tucson’s Tragic Dispostion: ‘A Safeway in Arizona’ by Tom Zoellner

At the beginning of his new book, A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America (Viking; 276 pages), Tom Zoellner provides a disclaimer: he admits to harboring “several personal biases” with respect to the book’s subject matter.  We learn, however, that these biases are completely appropriate.  Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a survivor of the shooting at the Tucson Safeway on January 8, 2011, is an extremely close friend of Zoellner, who counts her within the “maybe twenty people” he has loved in his life.  The emotion that Zoellner brings to his journalism does not weaken the execution of his storytelling, but rather improves it.

Zoellner starts with the event, seemingly isolated and singular.  Next, he backtracks to construct a history of the state of Arizona.  Zoellner, who is the best-selling author of five books of nonfiction and has worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and The Arizona Republic, grew up in this dry and often unfriendly place.  He argues, in a way that doesn’t really convince as much as it just makes plainly obvious, that Arizona’s unique character allowed this tragedy to occur.

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