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Zack Ravas

Clear Blue Skies: ‘Ghost Guessed’ by Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs

Ghost GuessedGhost Guessed (156 pages; Mesæstándar) is an exquisite meditation on grief, loss, and family ties in a world increasingly given over to technology. A combination of prose and photography, the work takes a unique approach to creative nonfiction by telling a highly personal story through the blended voice of co-authors Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs. The book opens in the spring of 2014 as our unnamed narrator finds himself traveling to Malaysia with his wife just three weeks after Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 vanished over the South China Sea. The plane’s mysterious disappearance triggers the narrator’s memories of his cousin, Andrew Lindberg, who similarly vanished in 2009 while flying a single-engine plane near the town of Staples, Minnesota. It’s worth noting that Lindberg is Tom Griggs’ real life cousin, and Ghost Guest features a host of what appears to be authentic family photographs. The ambiguity as to which author can be attributed for the story lends to the spectral quality of the work and blurs the line between truth and non-truth. “The boundaries of reality became fluid,” the narrator states, “and while we knew they would reset, we didn’t know what form they would take.”

These twin disappearances create dual timelines in the book––one in which the narrator recalls his malaise following the financial crash of 2008-09 and the discovery of his cousin’s downed plane in the White Earth Indian Reservation, and the other chronicling his trip to Malaysia as he becomes increasingly unmoored by memories of the past. Threading these moments together is the omnipresence of technology in our lives, as well as the far-reaching absence the death of a loved one can create. “Today it is no longer a question of whether there are images of an event,” the narrator muses, “but a question of what to show from all we have and how to show it to the largest possible audience.”

When we can spend all day scrolling through “an aggregation of social media posts and crime-scene pics, ISIS propaganda and high-end real estate listings, surveillance stills and police bodycam footage,” one might expect we’d find it easier to parse truth from the world around us. Instead, we find “mountain digital archives that hem us in,” and we are left to ponder the same questions the writer does when he reluctantly takes a job photographing foreclosed houses in the Midwest during the financial crisis: “How do you make meaningful work amidst endless images? How do you make shapes from the sea?”

In Ghost Guessed, the ominousness of the Information Age––with its “Predator drones making civilians fear clear blue skies, and the shifting satellite and radar grids recording our lives as they unfolded,” as well as what seems to be the increased occurrence of aviation accidents during the last decade––is set in contrast with the bonds of family. Home photographs from before and after Andrew Lindberg’s death capture stray moments of intimacy among kin, as well as the visible sense of loss seen upon the faces of bereaved relatives. The book’s sparse prose underscores this state with its quiet, humane details, as when the narrator reflects on a mundane occurrence during the search for Andrew’s downed plane: “I remember pulling a sandwich from a cooler and immediately feeling the banality of the moment, the lack of reverence of everyday events amid catastrophe.”

Most of the photographs in Ghost Guessed possess the texture of analog media, a clear reminder of how previous generations used to document their lives on film, compared to the increasing digitization of this era, our memories now reduced to Facebook feeds, Instagram photos, and the ambiguity of “The Cloud.” The narrator observes, “A triangle emerged: camera, society, and sky bound in a system of infinite visible relationships, increasing the probability of finding a pattern we could grasp.” But what happens when no such pattern emerges? Ghost Guessed is frank about the harsh truths of middle age, of finding yourself no more grounded or certain than when you were young. “…I wondered if I’d ever live up to my own expectations,” the narrator reflects, “I could start over and still never get past the beginning.”

It’s fitting then that Ghost Guessed ends exactly as it starts: in uncertainty as murky and grey as the roiling clouds that adorn its back cover. In tracing the lingering hold of technology on us, from disasters in the skies to social media feeds, and the devastating losses that can impact a family for years, Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs have crafted the rare multimedia work that one can declare profound.

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I Have No Formula: Q&A with ‘The Secret Habit of Sorrow’ Author Victoria Patterson

The Secret Habit of SorrowVictoria Patterson’s eye is trained on Southern California. But she’s not only writing about the Los Angeles we know from cinema and television screens. Her stories trace tales of disappointment and regret across the senior living centers, grocery stores, and backyards of cities like Long Beach, Newport Bay, Costa Mesa, and others. Much like the work of Alice Munro, each of the stories in her latest collection, The Secret Habit of Sorrow (224 pages; Counterpoint), read as though they could be the start of a novel, with a breadth of complexity to her characters and the trying situations they find themselves in.

We come to Patterson’s cast of flawed protagonists at particularly vulnerable moments in their lives. Whether they’re attempting to raise a child apart from the instability of a drug-addicted partner or reeling from the mistake of  sleeping with a parent’s new boyfriend, Patterson approaches their stories with a generosity that doesn’t belie the poor choices they’ve made or the unfair hand they’ve been dealt, and a keen level of detail that makes their victories –– however minor –– feel earned.

Victoria Patterson recently spoke to ZYZZYVA about her writing process, the delicate balance of drawing material from real life, and more.

ZYZZYVA: You are one of the few contemporary writers whose short stories suggest for me a life beyond their page count, to that point that I’m halfway surprised when I reached the end of many stories in The Secret Habit of Sorrow –– as it seems to me that the characters and their struggles could continue on. As someone who is also an accomplished novelist, do you know whether a project will be a short story or novel right from the start?

Victoria Patterson: The writing process is still mysterious to me. I like to let stories take me where they want to go, so in that regard I have no specific page count in mind.

But I do usually know early on whether the material will manifest itself as a novel or a short story. With both, there’s an enormous amount of note taking and daydreaming before I begin to attempt words on the page.

Z: The stories in The Secret Habit of Sorrow span from a period that includes 2006 to the present. I noticed in the Acknowledgements that many of the stories are listed as appearing in slightly different form in their original publications. Is that a valuable part of the creative process for you, being able to revise stories when they are ultimately put together for a collection?

VP: I like to think that I’m getting better as an artist as time passes, so it’s only natural for me to revise stories that have already been published. At some point, I have to leave them alone. At some point, a story is done. But why not go back and improve them, if I can? Especially from a distance of years, which gives me a better perspective and a detachment, so I can ideally be more ruthless.

Z: Tone is such a delicate thing to control on the page. But the details you select really speak to the mood of your stories; for instance, I love the kind of dismal description we get when serial philanderer Nick watches his new girlfriend sitting at the end of a dock in “Paris”: “Nick likes how she looks casual and sexy. She could be in an advertisement for Viagra or mutual funds. The sun is down but it’s still light, a long pink spray across the skyline, and overhead a mottled half moon the dirty white of cauliflower.” Those lines tell me everything I need to know about Nick’s midlife existence, without any dialogue or internal monologue. How much is tone on your mind as you’re writing?

VP: Wasn’t it Michelangelo Antonioni who said that life is made up of small moments, not major ones? Life is also in the details, the ones that a writer’s eye catches. No one can teach this. So much of tone comes from an accretion of details lurking in the background. I think for me this comes intuitively and with practice and revision. I have no formula. Sometimes I luck out; sometimes it just takes time and revisions.

Z: Just as much as Nick or any of the other individuals who populate your stories, Southern California itself feels like a character in this collection. What is it about Southern California that continues to be an influence on your work?

VP: Southern California is my terrain. It’s in my blood. It’s what I know best.

ZYZZYVA Volume 33, #1, Spring 2017Z: “Appetite” first appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 109. It’s a story that deals with writers and motherhood, yet neatly sidesteps any of the clichés associated with stories about both. One frequently hears about writers who get in trouble with their family members for writing about them, but “Appetite” is unique in that it explores the perhaps predatory nature of the writer who draws from their personal life: at one point the narrator, a writer, reflects on her intimate relationship with her friend Claire and remarks, “For a moment I imagined myself as a parasitic, ballooning animal sucking off Claire’s shrinking body.”

As a writer, do you find there’s a balancing act in taking inspiration from real life relationships without veering into that more predatory category?

VP: That’s always something I’m considering.

I was listening to a Maggie Nelson interview with Brad Listi on his Otherppl podcast, and they were discussing this very thing. Listi quoted Norman Mailer as saying–and I’m paraphrasing everything here – that a writer who is afraid to offend people is like a surgeon who is afraid to cut. Maggie made the point that expectations are gendered and especially with mothers, saying that no one likes to imagine mothers as surgeons cutting anything.

There’s pressure on female writers. We’re supposed to be nice, not brutal truth-tellers, especially if we’re mothers. It’s culturally frowned upon to do otherwise. I’m working against this.

Ugly is ugly, though. Bad behavior is bad behavior – it doesn’t matter who it comes from. There’s a fine line. I’m not saying go all out and be a vulture. But at the same time, it’s imperative that I be willing to challenge those archetypes.

In my work, I’ve tried not to censor myself, and I’ve lost a few relationships and burdened others. But so far, I don’t regret it. My current thinking goes: If I’m going to be uncompromising with others, I have to be willing to be even more uncompromising with myself.

Victoria Patterson is the author of the novels The Peerless Four and This Vacant Paradise, a 2011 New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her story collection, Drift, was a finalist for the California Book Award, the 2009 Story Prize, and was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The San Francisco Chronicle. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches at Antioch University’s Master of Fine Arts program. You can read her story “Appetite” in ZYZZYVA No. 109.

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Burn It All Down: ‘Days of Awe’ by A.M. Homes

Days of AweA.M. Homes first made her mark on the literary scene with 1990’s The Safety of Objects, a dark and dynamic collection that established her as one of our foremost chroniclers of suburban dysfunction. Even more astonishing was the fact that Homes wrote most of the stories while still in graduate school. A movie adaptation followed in 2001, but its tacked-on ending––featuring the book’s assortment of characters all grinning warmly for the camera at a backyard barbecue–-felt disingenuous. Homes’s stories are rarely the kind where troubles can be resolved with group therapy sessions or summer cookouts; her method is much closer to the couple who set their house ablaze at the start of her novel Music For Torching: sometimes in order to free yourself from the trappings of modern life, you have to burn it all down.

Despite recent accolades, including the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013, Homes’s output has become less frequent as of late, and perhaps hasn’t achieved quite the same impact as her earlier work. Thus, the time seems right for her latest story collection, Days of Awe (304 pages; Viking), as it presents a chance for readers new and old to check in with this prominent voice in transgressive literature. The book gathers from a wide range of material, opening with “Brother on a Sunday,” which first appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, and includes “The National Cage Bird Show,” the only story original to this book. Coincidentally, those are two of the strongest pieces in the collection.

“Brother on a Sunday” is a case study in the elements Homes does so well, from the crisp minimalism of her prose to her off-kilter depiction of suburban ennui. The story concerns a successful plastic surgeon named Tom and his wife’s vacation to the Hamptons with their wealthy friends, the impending arrival of the protagonist’s uncouth older brother serving as an ominous storm gathering over the weekend. Homes mines this material for both dark comedy––Tom’s friends are constantly backing him into corners at parties, asking for his medical opinion of their unsightly rashes or moles––and an unexpectedly poignant commentary on aging. Tom’s musings on the recent death of a friend prove doubly effective due to Homes’ measured tone:

“The men seem oblivious to the inevitability of aging, oblivious to the fact that they are no longer thirty, to the fact that they are not superheroes with special powers. He thinks of the night, a year ago, when they were all at a local restaurant and one of them went to grab something from the car. He ran across the road as though he glowed in the dark. But he didn’t. The driver of an oncoming car didn’t see him. He flew up and over it. And when someone came into the restaurant to call the police, Tom went out, not because he was thinking of his friend but because he was curious, always curious. Once outside, realizing what had happened, he ran to his friend and tried to help, but there was nothing to be done. The next day, driving by the spot, he saw one of his friend’s shoes––they had each bought a pair of the same kind the summer before––suspended from a tree.”

“The National Cage Bird Show” hones in on the unexpected friendship that develops between a troubled 13-year-old girl in New York and a U.S. soldier deployed in the Middle East. The two of them converse exclusively through a chat room for parakeet lovers, the transcript of which comprises the entirety of the story. This form allows Homes to examine both the harrowing, Hurt Locker-esque experience of soldiers in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan (“I am the local EOD, explosive ordinance disposal specialist, basically the Maytag Man for bombs. I’m good with my fingers. I can thread a needle in the dark. Anything with a detonator, I’m your man”) as well as the particular sadness of being a teenage girl: “Is it weird to say I just wish things could be the way they were? I wish I didn’t know that a dad could fall out of love with his family. Part of me refuses to believe it––does that make me a romantic?”

The combination of the two proves oddly touching, and maintains a sense of innocence for the duration of the story, despite Homes’s longstanding penchant for the taboo. The backdrop of a bird lovers’ chat room provides the story with a humorous grounding, but also underscores how the Internet has increasingly become the main outlet of personal connection for those, likes Homes’ characters, who identify as outsiders.

“A Prize For Every Player,” another standout from Days of Awe, originally appeared in a book of photographs by acclaimed Bay Area artist Bill Owens. Homes may feel a kinship with Owens, as his work similarly traces the lives of everyday Americans, capturing the candid moments in their kitchens or yards. The surreal “Player” follows a nuclear family on their weekly shopping trip, only this family has turned such consumerist ventures into their own little game show, with the husband and wife scanning the aisles with dual shopping carts in search of the best deals.

The absurdity reaches almost Kafka-esque levels once the family stumbles upon an infant left abandoned in the store (“Can I get it?” the daughter asks. “Can I, can I? It can be for my birthday and Christmas and everything else, too”) and later when the husband is nominated as a presidential candidate by the crowd in the electronics department. Though the story is a decade old, his impassioned speech brings to mind the populist rhetoric that has become increasingly prevalent in Western politics:

“The point is, I remember America. I remember when politicians had a vision, a dream for the people of this country, and didn’t run their campaign based on a tax rebate if elected––essentially attempting to buy the vote. Are we that gullible that we thought George Bush’s three-hundred-dollar rebate would cover it? Think of what that vote cost, think of your retirement account, your health insurance, your mortgage, and your cost of living versus your salary. How much did you lose, and how much did you make?”

Not all of the stories in Days of Awe tap such a rich vein of social commentary­. “Hello Everybody” and “She Got Away” trace the trials and tribulations of the same well-to-do Southern California family, territory well-trod by Bret Easton Ellis in the Eighties. (“What kind of doctor wants a pregnant woman to lose weight?” “A Beverly Hills doctor” is a representative exchange.) But the book still frequently finds Homes at her best. Her fiction ushers our American landscape into a literary funhouse, commenting with acerbic wit and deft characterization on the distorted reflection that appears. Days of Awe is a reminder that we are lucky to have her singular talent.

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A Tacit Acceptance of Unknowability: Experimental Philosopher Jonathon Keats and His Alien Instruments

Alien Instruments 1Recent years have seen tribal lines drawn across the globe, with an increasingly divisive and xenophobic political climate both in the United States and abroad. It’s a change in tenor we perhaps should have seen coming, but many of the most strident political analysts have been taken aback by the “Us vs. Them” rhetoric that has become so prevalent since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, known for past endeavors such as the Pangaea Optima and Superego Suits, has proposed one idea for alleviating the current culture of hate: to turn our eyes – and ears – to the stars.

Of course, NASA and other space programs around the world have long since abandoned manned missions to deep space, but Keats has another notion entirely in mind, one that employs the universal language of music. The San Francisco artist has composed a Universal Anthem to be performed by several new constructions he has come to call alien instruments. “The Universal Anthem really is about inclusiveness at every level, which requires that beings other than humans have access to it,” Keats says, detailing the necessity for creating these instruments. “Therefore, all assumptions about sensory organs need to be called into question, and we need this much larger, more expansive view of what music can be made of, and what sorts of implements can be used to precisely modulate qualities of frequency and amplitude.”

The idea of utilizing music to achieve unity has been employed before, at least on a planetary scale. In 1971, the UN Secretary General U Thant commissioned a “Hymn to the United Nations” as an alternative to patriotic national anthems, but the hymn still relied on classical music structure and English lyrics—neither of which Keats finds ideal for achieving interstellar contact or fostering a sense of global unity. “What I care about in very tangible terms are the interactions happening on this planet right now, and those interactions are extraordinarily perilous at the level of geopolitics and the environment,” Keats explains. “I could go on and on as far as all the ways in which our tribalism and xenophobia are toxic, are ruinous. We need mechanisms for encouraging and facilitating inclusiveness in every possible way.”

As a result, Keats began his composition of the Universal Anthem by thinking about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that everything in the universe must follow the rules of entropy, becoming more disorderly over time. Keats describes entropy as “the quality you would most trust to be universal.” Keats’s Universal Anthem “requires no knowledge of Wagnerian leitmotif, for instance,” and instead follows these same rules of entropy, with each voice gradually decomposing.

Alien Instruments 2Keats has created a visual transcription for the Universal Anthem, using – of all things – Adobe Photoshop and its noise generator. The resulting images resemble nothing so much as the static on an analog television or even the popular style of Internet art known as pixelart. But Keats insists this visual depiction is only one way to transcribe the Universal Anthem, and as with many popular forms of music, such as jazz, “it’s all open to interpretation.”

Keats suggests there is great potential for entropy to be used as the basis for music; even songs by popular artists like Taylor Swift could be transcribed using his method. While Keats acknowledges that Swift could strike him with a potential lawsuit for disseminating her music into space, he argues that in helping her reach a potentially interstellar audience, she could be the first artist to go beyond Platinum sales to Universal—and, so, “Swift shouldn’t sue me, she should thank me.”

Composing music based on the law of entropy, Keats argues, could make music emotional on a galactic level, as all known creatures share a will to live and a fear of death. This style of music could “broaden the gamut of what we know” and allow those of us on Earth to “become a small part of something greater.” Keats hopes “this de-centering might help counteract some of the xenophobia that is rampant in the United States and Europe,” and bring about “the kind of massive generalized introspection that is going to be necessary to overcome this tribalism.”

Alien Instruments 3But, how then, best to perform these compositions? It’s difficult to imagine strumming a guitar onstage and expecting those same notes, no matter how amplified, to reach extraterrestrial ears. To that end, Keats has devised several quite beautiful and intricate “alien instruments,” which are currently viewable upon appointment at the Modernism Gallery in San Francisco. These instruments include Gravitational Rattles, which appear to be standard variety potatoes you could find at your local Trader Joe’s – and, indeed, they are. But these potatoes also allow the performers to alter their gravitational mass at will, depending on how many they hold in their hands (or juggle, as one man did to the delight of onlookers at the opening night of Keats’ exhibit). “If we’re going to make instruments that include not only what is audible to humans but also gravitational waves, it makes the distance between us and those south of the border seem all that much more minimal,” Keats says. He hopes a renewed musical understanding could ultimately help foster “the sort of cooperation we need in order to get on as a society, as a species, and as a planet.”

On the off chance these aliens boast superior hearing ability to humans, Keats has created the Ultrasonic Organ, which replaces conventional organ pipes with dog whistles. Most humans cannot hear past 20,000 hertz on the audible spectrum; dogs can hear as high as 45 kilohertz, making the Ultrasonic Organ ideal for reaching distant beings with hearing more in line with our canine companions. Much like a traditional organ, the Ultrasonic Organ’s airflow can be modulated by a foot bellow.

Keats has also constructed the Gamma Ray Bells, whose gamma ray exposure can be controlled by the performer simply by lifting the bell’s lead casing. It’s worth mentioning that gamma rays fall outside the normal human sensory range, but their type of electromagnetic radiation might just be the ideal vehicle to reach certain species currently unknown to us. One has to wonder, then, if the ideal instrumentation for the Universal Anthem might be one that human beings can’t even experience?

Alien Instruments 4Keats argues such an idea goes entirely against the Universal Anthem’s goal of inclusiveness and harmony: “We desperately need humans to be part of this interaction, part of this communication, part of this musical phenomenon, as well as any other organisms,” he states. “First of all because we only know of us, so it makes sense to include us, and secondly because, well, I happen to be human –– as far as I know.”

Despite creating this attractive array of intergalactic instruments, Keats freely admits he approaches this project with little to no musical training. “I studied recorder in fourth grade,” he says. “One semester I learned how to play and then over break I forgot, and so for the second semester I simply didn’t blow into the instrument. That was my first and last experience with any instrument at all.” Even so, Keats has put a great deal of time into informally studying musical theory, as well as astrophysics and the various other components of this endeavor.

Keats does not see his lack of formal proficiency as a hindrance or liability: “I think in everything that I do I rely on the fact that I am ultimately a generalist, a dilettante, a charlatan,” he relates. “I am not bound by any rules, though I certainly make myself aware of the rules in the process of exploring ideas.”

In many ways, Keats’ insistence that a lack of musical training should serve as no detriment to playing these instruments brings to mind the punk rock movement of the late ’70s, which encouraged passionate neophytes to pick up a second-hand guitar or bass and bash their way to a connection with a live audience. “I like the idea that this is a kind of punk tradition that we’re talking about here, when we talk about making music with aliens,” he says.

He also cites post-war avant-garde musician John Cage, whose work utilized a sense of chaos and order not dissimilar to entropy, as a major influence. “I once composed a ringtone that was a remix of John Cage’s 4’33.” My version was a 4-minute-and-33-second long silent ringtone, such that you never knew when your phone was ringing,” he explains. “As a result, you might imagine that it was ringing even when it wasn’t, and you would have this sort of phantom silence, which might even be more pure than the digital silence I generated for the ringtone. We need more silence in the ever noisier world in which we live.”

Keats’ appreciation of Cage reiterates that these instruments are meant to be as accessible as possible. “Certainly some musical training could be helpful,” he states, “but it also might get in the way.” Instead, performers could “enter into a tacit acceptance of unknowability” and experience “a state of not knowing together,” which could actually be “a great basis for a dialogue that doesn’t have any of the power dynamics or structure that typically informs the conversations we have.”

Alien Instruments 5While Keats has composed the Universal Anthem as a starting point, he insists these instruments lend themselves freely to improvisation. “Improvisation is probably more powerful, ultimately,” he states, “and maybe the practice of composing is really practice for improvisation.” Improvisation proves so integral to Keats’ view precisely because “that’s where you have true interaction.” Interaction being a potent remedy to the culture of hate we have become mired in: “The Trumpian strategy is maybe undermined when there are so many ways in which communication is happening, ways that are so complex and so intertwined and so rich that any attempt to pit ‘us’ against ‘them’ is made impossible, and, in fact, ‘us’ and ‘them’ become indefinable.”

Naturally, the notion of jamming out with interstellar beings conjures so many moments from science-fiction movies, whether it’s the iconic cantina band from Star Wars or the blue-skinned opera singer in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, but Keats insists that no aliens yet depicted on film come close to his perception of hypothetical extraterrestrials. “In some cases, like Plan 9 from Outer Space, [the alien is] more hostile or intimidating, and in others, like E.T., it’s more sympathetic, but it’s always Other. It’s always about the difference as opposed to the similarities.” Keats’ project doesn’t hone in on these perceived differences, but rather imagines all the ways we could be alike: embracing a depiction of aliens “where you can’t tell who is who, or where the differentiation is the least of it rather than the most if it.” Given the gorgeously crafted aesthetic of Keats’ instruments, it comes as little surprise that Keats is willing to loan out the instruments as props in film productions. “I would love to see how these instruments and this kind of music might bend the assumptions of science fiction,” he admits.

Beyond appearing at a theater near you, Keats hopes his instruments may one day come closer to achieving their intended purpose by being standard issue equipment onboard future space shuttle launches. “Any mission whatsoever to space, amongst the other equipment that should be onboard the spacecraft, certainly these musical instruments should be part of the gear,” he says. “You never know, you want to be prepared.” And Keats is nothing less than prepared for a potential day in the future where the human voice and mass will intermingle and perform with beings whose experience of music and the universe might, in truth, be closer to our own than we ever imagined.

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Bending Towards Instinct: Q&A with ‘Invitation to a Bonfire’ author Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a BonfireAdrienne Celt’s Invitation to a Bonfire (256 pages; Bloomsbury) is a novel delightfully unconcerned with passing literary trends. Celt has her eye trained on the past, on both the esteemed literary works that have influenced her and the massive social upheaval that was the Russian Revolution. Invitation to a Bonfire opens on the young Zoya Andropova, an orphan of the Revolution who makes her way to safety in the United States only to become the victim of petty cruelties at New Jersey’s prestigious Donne School. Zoya observes the strange customs and practices of American culture while finding solace in tending to the school’s greenhouse.

As the years pass, Zoya finds herself at the center of a bitter love triangle between a bestselling Russian writer and his wife, a couple who may or may not bear a passing resemblance to Vladimir Nabokov and his partner, Vera. This shift in the book’s storyline does not go unnoted, as Celt transitions from boarding school bildungsroman to the high suspense of a vintage Patricia Highsmith novel. Recently, Celt, whose story “Big Boss Bitch” appeared in Issue No. 107, talked to ZYZZYVA about her literary influences, including Nabokov, as well as her interest in Russian history and what it means to “be American.”

ZYZZYVA: So much of the style and milieu of this novel, from its period setting and incorporation of epistolary elements, put me in mind of classic works of fiction rather than any contemporary peers. Both the writing and life of Vladimir Nabokov register as a clear influence, and I was also reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Perhaps you could talk about some of the novels that inspired Invitation to a Bonfire. Did you envision this novel in conversation with those works?

ADRIENNE CELT: Remains of the Day is one of my favorite books, and although I can’t say it was an intentional influence on Invitation, I’m gratified to be considered in conversation with it. And I can certainly see the resonance: both are steeped in yearning for a time gone by, and both offer narrators whose unreliability comes less from a desire to mislead, and more from a desire to cling to their fracturing past, the things they once knew to be true. So maybe it was there without me knowing. God knows a lot of books must have left that kind of subconscious impression.

In terms of novels I turned to specifically, you’re right that the spirit and tone of this book are first and foremost inspired by Nabokov, particularly Lolita, Pale Fire, and Pnin (and of course the title is a hat-tip to Invitation to a Beheading.) I also re-read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which is maybe more contemporary than your question suggests, but arguably just as haunted by romantic notions of the past. Mostly, with that book, I was interested in how much personal history a narrator could offer, especially early on, without causing the plot to drag—Tartt does an incredible job of folding Richard’s backstory into his motivations and his moral character, and I definitely had him on my mind.

Beyond that, maybe some Patricia Highsmith? Maybe some Jean Rhys? I read both those writers while working on my early drafts, and I borrow a sense of propulsion and atmosphere from both of them.

Z: The first part of the novel is largely concerned with Zoya’s journey to America following the violence of the Russian Revolution, which you capture in particular detail. What kind of research was involved in writing about that period of history?

AC: One of my college majors was Russian (the other was philosophy), which meant I had a basic understanding of the Russian Revolution already at my fingertips when I began—and I think it’s worth mentioning that some of that education took place in St. Petersburg, so I wasn’t drawing purely on American attitudes and culture. I hope that makes a difference. Of course I didn’t remember all the dates and specifics perfectly, so I went back and made an outline of the various smaller revolutions that finally led to the collapse of the aristocracy and the rise of the Soviet Union, which I cross-referenced with a calendar of my character’s birthdates and major life events. Honestly, a lot of my research for this book was purely checking dates, and making sure I wasn’t being too anachronistic—which is as true for events that took place in America as in Russia.

People who have never written historical novels, I think, might be surprised which pieces actually have to be deeply researched: it’s so often the little things. There were big patches I could sort of feel my way through by instinct, but when I wanted to figure out what kind of flooring would plausibly be in a Russian apartment, I checked with my college Russian professors, because a guess didn’t feel good enough. There are also, of course, historical novelists who get much more into period-specific detail than I do: I work from a place of character first, and fill in the details as necessary.

Z: As much as Zoya’s struggle is rooted in her experiences as an orphan of the Russian Revolution, a great deal of her story felt universal to me; she is the quintessential outsider, and I think anyone who has ever felt ostracized or different from others would relate to her experiences in boarding school. “Things can go ugly fast,” her confidante Hilda states. “People can be ugly,” and we see this at the Donne School. The first part of the book follows Zoya as she observes her fellow students in an attempt to her learn what it means to “be American.” What made you want to write about the concept of “being American” from the perspective of an outsider to the American experience?

AC: I wanted to write about “being American” from an outsider’s perspective because I think we often don’t understand that there is an “outside.” We think that the American point of view is all there is. (Not that provincialism is unique to our country, but we’ve always been a little extra about it.) When you have an outsider looking at something—a culture, a philosophy, a way of life—you’re forced to recognize that it’s not inevitable. America, as it exists, is not inevitable. That’s kind of a radical thought, but also totally natural and obvious.

Zoya is a wonderful avatar for exploring this, because she’s rarely been an insider in any system. So, while her alienation is sincere, her use of cultural norms becomes a kind of game, or experiment. After a while, she realizes that if an arbitrary system of rules is deciding what’s “morally good”—and different systems decide to attribute “good” to different things—then maybe “moral good” doesn’t have any inherent meaning. Maybe satisfaction can be a moral good. Maybe love can.

Z: Speaking of the parts of the novel, there is a distinct shift that occurs as we move into the second part, in which the novel takes on some suspense leanings, almost operating in the genre of Highsmith. Was there a conscious decision to change the tone and direction of the novel halfway through, or was that something that seemed to happen organically during the writing process?

AC: Ha! So my name-check of Patricia Highsmith has come back around.

The shift was organic. In the original drafts, the first section was shorter, because I wanted to get to the suspense more quickly. But I’m always fascinated by how people come to themselves—how identity is formed over time, through experience and decision-making—which means I’m always going to be invested in giving my characters fleshed-out lives.

I also think that the two parts need each other: the second half wouldn’t operate the same way without the slower burn of the novel’s first section. Learning who Zoya, Lev, and Vera are as people teaches you a lot about what they truly want, and what they might be willing to do to get it. Once you understand someone’s desires, you can see the stakes of their actions more clearly. Plus you attach to them with greater tenderness.

Z: You raise such a fascinating idea in this novel––both Zoya and Vera seem to argue that sometimes an artist needs to be saved from themselves; that perhaps custodians of an artist should prevent certain works from being let out into the world in order to preserve an artist’s legacy. As someone who often finds himself drawn to the messy, more personal films or novels that lead to artists receiving a critical drubbing, this is a thought I love pondering. Have you ever wished, even fleetingly, that an author’s readership could be the guardians of their body of work?

AC: Really, who is the guardian of an author’s legacy if not their readers? I’m not saying I agree with the lengths that Zoya and Vera go to, as an example for the average person—they definitely take “protecting someone from themselves” to new heights. But all books become, in a sense, the property of their readers once they’re published.

On the other hand, if you’re asking whether writers should allow their readers and critics to direct the course of their career, I would say no. I do believe in having sensitivity to the reader’s experience while you write, but not in trying to please everyone. It’s a losing battle, for one thing, and—as you point out—it can scare artists away from making their most personal, groundbreaking work. 

In the end, it’s more important to bend towards instinct than popularity.

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Original Sins: ‘Animals Eat Each Other’ by Elle Nash

Elle NashElle Nash’s first novel, Animals Eat Each Other (121 pages; Dzanc Books), opens with a pair of quotes from Wal-Mart’s Vice President and shock rocker Marilyn Manson, offering readers their first clue as to what kind of milieu Nash is about to immerse them in. It’s one where big box stores encroach uncomfortably on property lines, where meals are more often microwaved than cooked, and teenagers rifle through their parents’ medicine cabinets in search of opioids. The setting is Colorado Springs, a predominantly white town in a county where the majority of voters cast their lot with Donald Trump in the 2016 election; but Animals Eat Each Other’s lens is trained on a different era.

The story opens in 2005 as it’s unnamed nineteen-year-old narrator (who will come to take the name Lilith) feels somewhat adrift in life, sleeping with the manager at her strip mall job, casually partaking in drugs and alcohol, and quietly moving around her trailer at night to avoid her mother, who hasn’t been the same since the death of her husband. “My hobbies included touching myself, drinking cough syrup, and flirting with boys at RadioShack,” she observes. “Could I be anything else?”

Circumstances change when her co-worker Jenny introduces her to a young couple named Matt and Frances, who manage to maintain a hedonistic lifestyle of metal shows and raves despite having an infant at home. The slightly older duo quickly take to our narrator, and dub her Lilith, after the figure in Jewish folklore said to be Adam’s first wife and made from the same dirt as him rather than his rib. Lilith soon learns Matt and Frances are self-professed Satanists, for whom traditional Christian mores hold little significance; Matt declares their beliefs, “A rejection of the puritanical world that is always pulling you outside of yourself and asking you to serve others shamefully. Always asking you to turn the other cheek.”

As Matt and Frances initiate a sexual relationship with Lilith, the trio forms a fragile unit in which jealousy and possession are constantly shifting scales. Though the book is less a coming-of-age tale than a brief and blurry look back at Lilith’s wild teenage days, our narrator nevertheless comes away from this emotionally-charged experience with hard-won observations about intimacy and gender dynamics. She is constantly forced to question if her relationship with Matt and Frances is the liberating middle finger to “family values” it feels like during their headiest moments (“I wonder if in the past, people lived like this,” she muses. “Sometimes it felt tribal to be this way, as if we were a group of degenerates, isolated but entwined”) or if she is merely a pawn the couple has deployed in an attempt to gain dominance over one another. Telling her tale from a place of hindsight, Lilith acknowledges she may have merely represented something new and unspoiled to a pair combating the doldrums of monogamy: “When you don’t live with someone, you don’t get to see their imperfect facets. The mean side of them. The impatient, ungrateful side.”

Along the way, Nash peppers the novel with rich details, from her description of Lilith taking Special K at a party (“I felt like a bag of marshmallows, plastic and all, expanding and melting inside of a safe, hot microwave”) to the catalog of less than nutritious meals comprising Lilith’s diet: pizza Hot Pockets and Hamburger Helper, Doritos, and ranch-flavored sunflower seeds (“After a few dozen, the ranch dust started to taste like vomit”).

The novel’s brevity works in its favor since the narrative’s fleet-footedness reflects Lilith’s lack of deliberation. She often operates on impulse, which tends to create a briar patch of her closest relationships. While Matt and Frances’ Satanist beliefs may be more informed by Marilyn Manson lyrics than any religious text, they nevertheless leave the couple prone to pursuing self-pleasure no matter the emotional cost. “Everyone has this demi urge to destroy and to create…wanting to serve yourself isn’t a bad thing,” Matt advises. Before long, Lilith comes to recognize her own destructive power. “I could feel the manipulative part of myself light up like a highway at dusk,” she declares as she continues to lie and toy with the people closest to her, including Matt’s friend Patrick, who has a newborn of his own.

Lilith’s choices bring an inevitable reckoning, but it is her bond with her best friend, Jenny, that creates a pocket of human warmth amid the wreckage of Lilith’s fizzled hook-ups. “I felt ashamed and jealous that she could know so much about me when I didn’t understand why I was doing what I did at all,” Lilith says when Jenny reads her Tarot cards. Their relationship may have its complications, but it ultimately provides Lilith with an anchor of stability during the fallout of her experience with Matt and Frances. “When she looked at me it was different than how Matt saw me,” Lilith observes. “Jenny seemed to leave herself and move into me.”

Early in Animals Eat Each Other, Nash briefly takes us to what is ostensibly the present moment, to Lilith in front of her computer and scrolling through Matt and Frances’ Facebook feed. The two are now married and smiling in picture after picture. Lilith laughs ruefully, noting it’s “as if nothing I’m about to tell you ever actually happened.” It should be a familiar scene for anyone who’s ever spent a late night basking in the glow of a laptop as they explore an ex-lover’s digital footprint, searching for some indication of where things went wrong. “There is a way people damage you, a way they’ll change the structure of your DNA, the way your brain is wired,” Lilith says. But her story proves that even among the soured memories, we might “retrace the constellation of every event” and find a reminder of our resilience.

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Babylon Burning: ‘High Life’ by Matthew Stokoe

High LifeWhen Matthew Stokoe’s gritty noir High Life (380 pages; matthewstokoe.com) was published by noted indie Akashic Books in 2002, the book, which received very little coverage, managed to attract a fan base, thanks partly to Stokoe’s fearless depictions of upper-crust society at its worst. His novel eventually went out of print, but now that the rights to High Life are back with Stokoe, he has self-published his own edition of his hard-to-find book.

In High Life, Stokoe takes readers on a nocturnal tour of the seediest parts of late ‘90s Los Angeles, while gleefully subverting noir’s most ingrained tropes: there’s a private detective of sorts, but he’s a degenerate vice cop who more often acts as an obstacle to our main character, Jack; there’s a wealthy femme fatale living in a secluded mansion, but in a grim twist Jack might be more of a danger to her than the other way around.

Even so, Stokoe’s terse and evocative narration lets us know how much he appreciates the genre, especially the debt owed to the work of noir pioneer Raymond Chandler:

“My eyes felt charred and the cigarettes had eaten into my throat. I bought a cold coke from a machine outside a motel and chugged it until my eyes watered. Coke and damp night air, and the slowed pulse of the city around me. For that moment, for that snapshot, micron-thin slice of time, I was free of the past, free even of the present –– just the sweet caustic singe in my mouth and the loose quietness of being up and alone when most people were asleep.”

As High Life opens, Jack is just one of the millions living on the periphery of Hollywood, working a thankless job at a doughnut shop while secretly hoping to land a gig as an Entertainment Tonight-style television host. When his estranged wife (herself a drug addict) turns up murdered, organs removed with surgical precision, her grisly death serves as a catalyst for Jack to hit the streets and search for clues as to her killer’s identity––as well as quit his day job and begin to pursue his dreams of stardom.

The drive for celebrity quickly takes precedent, however, and after his friend Rex persuades him to take a stint as a male escort for the rich and famous of Beverly Hills, Jack more or less drops his amateur investigation. He rarely looks back on his journey to “lights, camera, action,” even as each inner circle of fame he achieves introduces new and more depraved behavior from Los Angeles’ wealthiest denizens. By the time he attends an Alice in Wonderland-themed party at the Bradbury Building (the iconic L.A. locale from the end of Blade Runner), the metaphor is clear: Jack’s lust for “the steamroller exposure necessary to become part of [people’s] desires” will send him tumbling down a rabbit hole to a place where traditional morality no longer seems relevant.

“I woke thinking about Daryl Hannah, about how her mornings must be. How she’d lie on a king-size bed in a pure white room the size of a tennis court with sunlight cutting swaths across the carpet. And just a short distance beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows, a matter of yards perhaps, the sea would roll under blue sky and fat white clouds. The maid would come in with a light breakfast of coffee and croissants and the aroma of freshly roasted beans and the delicate pastry would mix with the ocean salt air and just that, just those three simple smells and the ocean breeze against your skin would remind you that you were a god.”

Although the idea of Hollywood using up and ultimately discarding the wide-eyed souls who head there seeking fortune and glory has been a noir standard since at least Sunset Boulevard in 1950, High Life is perhaps worth revisiting in the wake of the industry’s numerous sexual harassment accusations, as well as the NXIVM cult and its alleged involvement in human trafficking. Stokoe offers a glimpse of an industry where backroom power brokers indulge their most lurid predilections, and those on the lower rungs of society ––drug addicts, sex workers, and the homeless––are too often the victims of horrific violence.

Jack, while far from being a likable protagonist, does hold up a mirror to a certain part of our culture: the many who share his utter obsession with obtaining wealth, status, and media coverage, and his lack of compassion for anyone who is hurt along the way, no matter if they’re a lover or friend. Blackmail and murder become part and parcel of Jack’s world as he struggles to keep his footing on the slenderest ledge of celebrity he’s managed to obtain: “The taste of the high life I’d had made it impossible for me to give up the chance at becoming someone special without a fight.”

Not surprisingly, the novel’s graphic content ensures it may put off readers unfamiliar with transgressive literature, though it should be said this is a label Stokoe –– who cites Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn as a major influence –– actively resists. “More and more I’m coming to think that labeling certain writers as transgressive, or ‘outside traditional writing,’ is a construct perpetrated by reviewers and editors,” he said in an interview with Full Stop. “I really believe that the reading public is far more accepting of the so-called extremes in literature than the gatekeepers of taste give them credit for. In fact I think a good portion of readers actually want the extremes…For me, the violence and sex were necessary to tell the stories I wanted to tell.”

When Jack finally achieves an on-camera role as a presenter on a Hollywood chat show, his success brings him closer to discovering the identity of the mysterious, silver-haired surgeon whose sleek black Jaguar patrols the Hollywood Strip in search of hustlers and vagrants to operate on, and who may have been responsible for his ex-wife’s murder. Along the way, Stokoe ratchets up the Grand Guignol to nearly unbearable levels –– every ghastly detail hammering home the author’s indignation for the dehumanizing culture that encourages people to idolize stardom above all else.

Fortunately, even through the thorny tangle of Jack’s increasingly emotionless narration, Stokoe’s empathy for those lost along the way still comes through: there’s Jack’s friend Rex, who becomes an empty shell after a drug-fueled road accident leaves a small child dead (“We were in the same room, but he was million miles away,” Jack observes. “At that moment I knew I could spend the rest of my life trying to reconnect and I’d never do it. The guy was gone”); and Lorn, Jack’s co-host, whose disciplined work ethic and pragmatic view of Hollywood can’t save her from the harm that befalls everyone in Jack’s orbit. These lost souls are just a few whom Jack sacrifices at the altar of fame. Perhaps most chilling of all is Jack’s epiphany near the end, as he pauses to survey the physical and spiritual carnage he’s wrought. It’s a warning of sorts that Stokoe leaves with us: “I’m not that different from a lot of people.”

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Endless Fascination: Q&A with ‘L.A. Man’ Author Joe Donnelly

L.A. ManYou can’t accuse Joe Donnelly of taking it easy. In a decades-spanning career, the Los Angeles writer has profiled the “who’s who” of Hollywood––from America’s sweetheart Drew Barrymore to iconoclast filmmaker Werner Herzog––in the pages of publications like L.A. Weekly, where he served as deputy editor for a number of years. During that time, his short stories have earned him an O. Henry Prize (“Bonus Baby,” from ZYZZYVA No. 103) and have been adapted into short films. Donnelly also co-founded and co-edited Slake, a short-lived but highly acclaimed journal that gathered journalism, fiction, poetry, and art, all with a distinctly L.A. feel.

L.A. Man (284 pages; Rare Bird Books) represents a carefully curated selection of Donnelly’s journalism. The book includes profiles of actors as disparate as Carmen Electra and Christian Bale, as well as the madmen and outsiders that capture Donnelly’s imagination: the Z-Boys who skated rings around the empty pools of 1970s SoCal; ex-hippie turned international drug smuggler Eddie Padilla; eccentric comedian and dramatist Lauren Weedman, whose solo theatrical shows Donnelly likens to witnessing The Who perform for the first time; and many more.

Donnelly talked to ZYZZYVA about some of the famous names that appear in L.A. Man, life in the sphere of the filmmaking industry, and the enduring allure of Los Angeles.

ZYZZYVA: Throughout L.A. Man, you have a tendency to profile filmmakers, actors, musicians, and other artistic figures at moments when they’re either established icons (Lou Reed, Werner Herzog)—or alternately right when they’re at the precipice of fame. For instance, you met with Wes Anderson just before Rushmore put him on the map, and you note that even when you spoke to Christian Bale pre-Dark Knight he wasn’t quite a household name yet. When you meet someone at the start of their career, does that tend to make you feel more invested in their career trajectory and want to keep up with their artistic development? 

JOE DONNELLY: Not really. I feel like I tend to go all in when I’m doing the pieces, or a lot of them anyway. There’s a desire to make them definitive even if they come at transitional points in the subjects’ lives, and I don’t tend to feel much invested in their trajectories afterward unless, of course, they are figures whose lives and art will continue to relate to my life in a tangible way. Those are few and far between. I don’t have many heroes in that way, though Lou Reed was certainly one of them. Of more interest to me than the super famous figures such as Herzog, Barrymore, Bale, or Penn, etc. are the continuing stories of artists such as Craig Stecyk and Sandow Birk, or Eddie Padilla, the subject of “The Pirate of Penance,” and the wolf OR7, whose life and story has more implication to me than whether or not Wes Anderson makes another good movie.

Continue reading

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Takeoffs and Landings: ‘Blue Self-Portrait’ by Noémi Lefebvre

Blue Self-PortraitAir travel has long been depicted in fiction as a venue for potential transition and transformation (even if only metaphorical); we take off from one place and land in another, and there is no guarantee we will be the same person upon our arrival—no telling what chance encounter may occur on our flight or what dreamy epiphany those long hours might inspire.

Blue Self–Portrait (143 pages; translated by Sophia Lewis; Transit Books), a 2009 first novel by French author Noémi Lefebvre, occupies this same liminal space; the entire book unfolds during a plane trip from Berlin to Paris, as our unnamed narrator obsesses over a brief romantic encounter with a German pianist, who is haunted by the Arnold Schoenberg painting from which the book derives its name.

Not unlike her characters, Lefevbre studied music, as well as political science; despite the dry image her academic credentials might conjure, Lefebvre displays a mordant wit. Her narrator is burdened with the kind of all–consuming self–consciousness and existential anxiety that have become hallmarks of a certain type of intellectual. Lefebvre utilizes page after page to pile on her narrator’s neurosis to frequent comedic effect: a trip to a salon means “…letting myself be shampooed, then snipped and styled and sent to the dryer to wait under that hood and finished off with hair spray, it destroys me every time”; her restless leg syndrome is “a long–standing problem that I’ve never managed to fix and which damages my social position, tarnishes my public image, and makes me unfit for all cultural integration.”

Lefevbre finds clever ways to disrupt her narrator’s solipsism. Any traveler knows that more often than not one’s agenda for the flight––whether it’s turning over the minutia of an ill–fated romance or making progress in a good book––can be dashed by the inconvenient realities of air flight: the screaming children or the choppy air. Lefebvre does well in reminding us her narrator is first and foremost a body at the mercy of a high-altitude cabin: “I looked for another tissue to mop up my capital and dorsal dripping, in other words my general dripping due to poor adaptation to the pressurized environment.” The narrator’s sister is along for the journey, her presence a welcome addition that serves to retrieve the narrator’s head from the clouds at opportune moments. Despite similarities in education and demeanor, the sister stands in frequent contrast to our protagonist: “You are not intellect alone,” she advises at one point, “you have to relax.”

In the end, the narrator seems to conclude that the defining difference between her sister and herself is her own suspicion in the very notion of a collective happiness—the idea that if each of us simply do our part then society as a whole will function for the betterment of all. “Collective happiness, in my sister’s case,” she explains, “depends fundamentally on universal niceness.” If the narrator is not dubious of the entire enterprise of striving for collective happiness, she is at minimum certain her ingrained anti–social behavior means she has no place in the endeavor: “…I mean I serve myself without restraint or consideration, I take what interests me and use it to fill my own void, my void is all I care about.”

Blue Self–Portrait contains thoughtful ruminations on classical music composition, the Third Reich’s persecution of the arts, and the impact of globalism on culture, among other far–reaching topics. Contemporary Berlin proves a rich setting, allowing Lefebvre to contrast the city’s towering artistic achievements against the lingering memory of fascism and the pervasive presence of consumer capitalism. (The narrator can’t help but remark on the ironies of her meeting with a pianist trained in classical German music to view an American film at the Sony Center movie theater: “composition and consumption fundamentally incompatible.”) Given how immersed in the notion of creativity and art the novel is, it is little wonder that at times Blue Self–Portrait takes on some meta qualities, such as when the pianist of our narrator’s affection muses, “…composing a piece with the stole aim of pleasing my audience was not my intention either, would have been impossible,” perhaps a reference to Lefebvre and the ways in which her novel categorically ignores the traditions of the form––resisting the straight narrative path from A to B, such as an airplane must follow.

“Flying only makes you melancholy,” the narrator’s sister tells her as their plane nears its descent, “…from the moment we reach the airport you’ll start to feel different and as though you’re glowing.” At times we long for this state of renewal at the end of a long journey, a revitalization upon arriving at our destination, no matter the wear-and-tear to get there. This kind of rebirth isn’t always possible, of course––some voyages leave us irrevocably altered and not for the better. But in Blue Self–Portrait there is at least the hope for change. “I’ll take some time at home quietly putting my pieces back,” our narrator assures her sister. “I’ll eat well and sleep well, I’ll take outdoor walks, that’s what I’ll do…I too shall be radiant.” We want to believe this is possible for our high-strung narrator, not only because we sense she deserves a reprieve from her constant self-introspection (and persecution), but because in her we see a reflection of our own desires.

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Faith in the Void: ‘Fire Sermon’ by Jamie Quatro

Fire SermonT.S. Eliot once stated, “The last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world,” a status quo which has more or less come to pass. (It seems as though one could count on both hands the number of mainstream contemporary novels that grapple with the Christian faith.) As such, Jamie Quatro’s first novel, Fire Sermon (208 pages; Grove Press), which references the above T.S. Eliot quote, often registers as something different and exciting. Here is a smart novel for adults that deals honestly with the difficulty of nurturing faith in the midst of a world that frequently resists our attempts to prescribe it meaning –– a world full of complications such as infidelity, despair, and disease that undermine the tidy proverbs of a Sunday morning sermon.

On the surface, Fire Sermon’s narrator, Maggie, possesses the ideal life: a long-running marriage to her college sweetheart, Thomas, who provides her the room to cultivate her faith in God, even if he doesn’t share it; two beautiful children; and a cozy home with a dog and a yard in Nashville. Yet as the book opens, Maggie finds herself at something of an impasse. The stresses and strains of child rearing have left her feeling displaced in her own body and therefore disinterested in sex with her husband, while his lack of understanding in her beliefs continues to increase the emotional distance between them. This martial strife creates an opening for Maggie to begin a written correspondence with an acclaimed poet named James.

Through a series of intimate e-mails and handwritten letters, many of which appear throughout Fire Sermon, the two of them form an intellectual connection that soon grows into an undeniable attraction. After meeting at several lectures and conferences, Maggie and the poet (himself married with two children) finally consummate their relationship during a stay in downtown Chicago. This night sends Maggie spiraling into an existential crisis, as she wonders how God could condemn an act she views as an expression of true feeling between two people, married to other people though they may be; and she struggles to rectify the momentousness of her beliefs with the constant torment she experiences from attempting to live up to them:

“What if you woke up one day to discover the corpse of Christ had been identified definitively? Or that an irrefutable, airtight scientific study had been devised to disprove the existence of God, and the study had –– beyond any conceivable doubt –– proved he did not exist? What would you feel?

Relief.”

Maggie’s interior life serves as the focus of much of the novel as she probes her convictions, revealing they may not be as ironclad as she would prefer to think. Her thoughts are laid bare through sessions with an unnamed Counselor (who may or may not be an imagined stand-in for God), as well as in letters –– largely unsent –– to James. Refreshingly, these interrogations of the self don’t shy away from tackling the contradictions of religion head-on; rather than reflect the shiny, copacetic surface of so-called megachurches (“Her parents’ church is an embarrassment to both of them: drums and electric guitars, flashing laser lights and images projected onto screens during the sermon…”), Maggie’s musings reaffirm the Kierkegaardian notion that maintaining one’s faith should be excruciating work. (“Job is bullshit,” Maggie declares, “Job lost everything”). In a journal entry, Maggie sums up these struggles to hold onto meaning by writing, “God of God, Light of Light, Very Void of Very Void,” a line that recalls Hemingway’s famous passage, “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name.”

This mention of the Void also precipitates Maggie’s philosophical ruminations on the similarities and differences between Christianity and Buddhism. In contrast to an eternity spent worshipping God with loved ones, the Buddhist afterlife proposes the annihilation of both suffering and the self –– an attractive proposition to a woman torn by her heart’s conflicting desires: “One ends in Nirvana, nonbeing…Extraction from the talons. What relief there would be in no longer to feel, again, your whiskers on my inner thigh.”

One could perhaps criticize Maggie for her somewhat solipsistic view of the world, but her character is discerning enough to call herself out and at least entertain the possibility that what she feels for her distant poet is not love, but merely the inevitable result of martial doldrums; that after years of monogamy, what she finds herself yearning for is not this man James but the idea of someone new. She pointedly asks herself if James is simply the next in “a litany of men I draw toward myself not out of loneliness or unhappiness, but out of one desire, to be fucked by someone besides my husband,” and comes to the conclusion that “…unless something is forbidden, I cannot want it with any intensity.”

These are provocative questions, and questions without easy answers, certainly not answers that could be doled out by a laser lightshow and projector screen on a Sunday morning. Their complexity rings true to the difficulties of maintaining any relationship over the span of a lifetime. To that end, Fire Sermon deserves to find an audience beyond only those who will see Maggie’s faith as a reflection of their own.

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The Symphony of Life: ‘Hybrid Creatures’ by Matthew Baker

Hybrid CreaturesMatthew Baker’s characters nurture obsessions. In his story collection Hybrid Creatures (126 pages; Louisiana State University Press), each of his protagonists carries a passion for a particular field, whether it’s mathematics or music, to the point that their fixations bleed through into the text of their stories. The narrator of “Movements” is so buoyed by his love of the symphony he can’t wake up to a morning cityscape in Nashville without experiencing it in musical terms:

“…a shopkeeper in cowboy boots heaved a security shutter up with a crash {piano}, somewhere a jackhammer was slugging {mezzo-forte} pavement, a sheet of metal covering a pothole in the street clapped {pianissimo} when run over by a taxi, somebody was periodically flinging objects made of glass, maybe bottles, into an empty dumpster, where the glass would shatter {staccato}…”

Tryg, the young boy and math prodigy at the heart of the story “The Golden Mean,” processes the emotional fallout of his parents’ divorce, and the ensuing time he must divide between both family members, through the unfailing laws of mathematics: “On average, 4.3 days per week with Family A, 2.7 days per week with Family B.”

These and other more unusual (and complicated typographic) ways of illustrating his characters’ preoccupations appear throughout the collection, such that Baker takes the time in the Acknowledgements to thank the crew at the printer, who “worked spiritedly and tirelessly to accommodate all of the special formatting and symbols in this book.

Baker’s stories read as crisp and minimalist, dictated to the page with a precision not unlike those same mathematical principles Tryg is so fond of. The opening piece, “Coder,” re-contextualizes computer hacking for the martial arts genre, as a younger hacker goes in search of his mentor—or “Sensei”—who has gone missing, ramping up the mood of paranoia so prevalent in stories about data and surveillance.

“Coder” contains more action than the rest of Hybrid Creatures in that the activity moves from one location to another; more often, Baker places his characters in a static milieu—locked on a hotel rooftop overnight or wandering the hallways at a crowded family gathering—as they face some kind of internal dilemma: The narrator of “Movements” must rediscover the meaning behind life’s cacophony of sounds after the death of his long-term partner, while Tryg tries to savor the last few hours with his mother and her new family in the suburbs before being shuttled back to his father’s farm.

The centerpiece of Hybrid Creatures, and arguably its most accomplished work, arrives last with “Proof of the Century,” a story that follows a curmudgeonly grandfather, Willis, navigating a party where his large family has gathered. The character, who has made a career in industrial agriculture, comes to the painful realization he may be suffering from dementia, and that he has not only lost some of his mental faculties but perhaps his beloved wife as well. Refreshingly, Baker treats this revelation not as a dramatic plot twist, but as a quietly devastating unveiling. He displays further deftness in how he weaves overheard conversations throughout the house into the story, often to add humor or to contrast the guests’ self-absorbedness with Willis’s determined mission to locate his wife.

His lifelong belief in the overriding Logic of the universe hinges on finding her, but that belief is threatened by not just the possibility of his wife’s absence but by a dawning understanding that Willis’s work may have had a disastrous effect on the environment. Again and again in Hybrid Creatures, we see that the pursuits in life that edify and elevate us, which help shape our daily routines and provide a sense of purpose, rarely prepare us to face life’s greatest hardships. That we must do, like so many things, on our own.

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Urban Hymns: ‘You Private Person’ by Richard Chiem

You Private Person“I smoke a cigarette, imagine flocks of birds in the blue sky, and realize I am always going to be a sad person.” So begins Richard Chiem’s You Private Person (125 pages; Sorry House), a reprinted and revised edition of the Seattle author’s first collection of stories. Often in the form of sparse and slender vignettes, Chiem’s stories offer muted portraits of existential malaise among young urbanites. Originally published in 2012 by Scrambler Books, the stories and their running order have since been updated by Chiem, who has already garnered praise from alternative literature luminaries such as Dennis Cooper and Kate Zambreno.

The stories in You Private Person are, by definition, quiet; they appear to take place in a pocket universe comprised entirely of those still and unremarkable moments that make up most of our waking hours, whether it’s watching the clock tick by at work (“I have twenty-two minutes left until I get to go home, she says. That’s like one Simpson’s episode”), or silently listening to the car radio with your partner (“I like that we wait in the car for songs to end before we get out”). These empty minutes are frequently extended for the duration of entire stories, lulling the reader into a false sense of security as You Private Person interrogates the unfeeling stupor of contemporary existence, so that when something momentous does occur—a man falling to his death from a hotel rooftop, a car colliding with a semi-truck on the freeway—the violence has a shattering effect.

In a series of interconnected stories titled “sociopaths,” the narrator contemplates acting out the murder of the man who sexually abused his girlfriend during her childhood. In the icy, Raymond Carver-esque “what if, wendy,” a man derails what could have been an after-bar hookup with a conversation about his own moral failings. “The thing is, I don’t know how to be good anymore,” he confides. Elsewhere, the arresting “how to survive a car accident” details Chiem’s 2008 automobile crash, a traumatic experience that the reader senses must have been life-altering for the author. Each of these stories capture characters arriving at moments of reflection—instances when they are inspired to pause, drink in hand, and contemplate how they managed to go so astray in life. Chiem doesn’t judge these characters, and instead allows them to draw their own conclusions: taking stock of the mess her personal life has become, the long-suffering wife of an ill-tempered boxer muses, “I think I just wanted everyone to be happy.”

Chiem’s prose matches his steely characters turn for turn. His style is stripped down, minimalist but poetic, with frequent pop culture references (the 2003 suicide of Hong Kong superstar Leslie Cheung looms over one story). Recognizable indie acts like Rilo Kiley and Broken Social Scene play in the background of many scenes. Unsurprisingly considering its original publication date, You Private Person does feels like a document of the mid-Obama years, a time of relative societal calm when the primary concern of these characters’ lives would have indeed likely been the struggle to pay bills and maintain a steady relationship.

Chiem proves adept at examining our obsession with the notion of The Other; many of these stories find their perspective pulling away from their ostensible male narrators in order to consider the interiority of the women they love: “Sometimes she cannot tell whether or not she is being cruel or sarcastic or playful on purpose, especially when she doesn’t have anything clever to say. Inside her head, intentions misfire.” When asked in an interview about his tendency to empathize more with the female characters in his work, Chiem stated, “For me it was about giving particular characters a voice, even though they don’t really say much. It’s about having their lives lived.”

These lives and the quiet tremors they create help form the bedrock of Chiem’s stories; they’re why he’s swiftly becoming one of our great chroniclers of urban melancholy. You Private Person understands that sometimes, when faced with the weight of the decisions we’ve made, both good and bad, and the consequences they’ve wrought in our lives, the only choice we really have is to start the next shift at work.

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