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Zack Ravas

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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A Shared Madness: ‘The Grip of It’ by Jac Jemc

The Grip of ItThe idea of the “haunted house” novel is at least as old as the Gothic genre itself, dating back to the late 18th century with The Castle of Otranto. But it wasn’t until Anne Rivers Siddons published her cult favorite The House Next Door in 1978 that readers learned a haunting, much like real estate, is all about location, location, location. While urbanites who migrated to the suburbs may have thought they were leaving behind the crime and blight of the inner cities for a more tranquil existence, the horror novels of the Seventies were there to teach readers that America’s pastoral regions had their own share of maladies—and often the supernatural variety.

It’s a lesson that continues to reverberate in the latest novel from Jac Jemc, The Grip of It (288 pages; FSG Originals), as young married couple Julie and James flees the temptations of city life (namely James’ gambling habit) to settle in a low-cost fixer-upper in a more rural part of the state. A welcome twist on this familiar set-up is how Julie and James react upon learning of their new house’s hidden compartments and hideaways: “I squeeze James’s hand and he squeezes back because we have this way of feeling the same about the unexpected, and I know, like me, he is excited about the secret passages…” Genre connoisseurs may find themselves thinking, now here’s a couple I can relate to.

It doesn’t take long for the duo’s excitement to fade, however, as the otherworldly occurrences pile up: local children play a strange game called Murder in the woods; painful bruises sprout upon Julie’s skin, seemingly without cause; Julie and James’ inexplicably keep waking up in their neighbor’s house; and worse. The stress, understandably, puts a strain on the couple’s relationship, each partner wondering if the other’s outsized behavior is merely retaliation for some perceived slight:

“There’s a room behind that wall, but it’s gone now.”

He looks at me strangely. “That can’t be. It’s the guest room on the other side. There’s not enough space.”

I’m too tired to convince him. “Well, I didn’t make it up.”

I can tell he wonders if this is all a bid for attention, if I was ever even trapped. “Talk to me, Julie. What’s going on? Are you mad at me? Are you trying to get back at me?”

I don’t know.

Despite an ominous tone, The Grip of It proves a brisk read thanks to Jemc’s punchy, to-the-point chapters, each one typically alternating between Julie and James’ perspectives. Because Jemc never roots us in a stable point-of-view, she is able to foster in us the same sense of paranoia her characters are experiencing—how can we be certain what Julie or James are up to when they’re off camera? This selective vision creates the suspicion we may be witnessing a case of folie à deux, a shared psychosis between a stressed husband and wife pushed to the brink by home ownership, managing addictions, and keeping up appearances for friends and neighbors. “The inability to trust ourselves is the most menacing danger,” James muses. “What is worse? To be confronted with an obvious horror, or to be haunted by a never-ending premonition of what’s ahead?”

The novel deliberately blurs the line between the supernatural and the mundane, but as with any great horror novel the genre-trappings are merely a framework employed to discuss the pressures of modern life. The looming horror doesn’t just rest in the child-like drawings Julie and James discover on a cave wall near their property, or within the secret journal entries they find in the house. There is also their real fear that their relationship can’t survive the lure of addiction and the anxiety of becoming bourgeois and out of touch in the suburbs, and that their work life will suffer as a result. Even as possible explanations for the surreal happenings surface—a rare disorder of the nervous system, an extreme reaction to fungal mold—the reader is left to contend with the remaining mysteries that aren’t so conveniently solved. “We experience our fear privately,” James remarks. “When I see an errant shadow, I tell myself it’s nothing. When I notice a row of photos turned facedown on the shelf, I right them.” Perhaps that is all we can do when faced with the myriad of experiences that unsettle, that linger without explanation: a quiet resolution to fix the crooked frame.

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My American Self: Q&A with ‘Human Interest’ author Valerie Bandura

Human Interest“When the Kardashians talk/at once at each other/I hear an aria/to the first-person pronoun, an icon/as sleek as the four-inch stilettos,” Valerie Bandura writes early in her latest poetry collection, Human Interest (Black Lawrence Press; 75 pages). As a poet, her lens is trained on the America where millions live paycheck-to-paycheck and dream of game-show winnings even as television and our social media peddle visions of unobtainable celebrity. Bandura’s poems are not removed from the daily experience of most people, rather they are our experience, whether we’re wondering in traffic about the life of the driver who proudly displays his “Take the Migrant out of Immigrant” bumper sticker, are irritated that our latest Facebook post didn’t attract more “Likes,” or are concerned about our family and their woes.

Bandura, whose poetry has appeared in ZYZZVA No. 100 and teaches creative writing at Arizona State University, talked to us about Human Interest and her startlingly personal verse.

ZYZZYVA: In your poetry, you never fail to implicate yourself in the strange circus that is American society: 

“I’m with you, but it’s all me, baby/the irresponsible babysitter, the pregnant grandmother/the felon, the pervert, the hot mess/in the reality show I film/in a desperate darkroom of the mind.” 

Of course, the “I” in these poems is not necessarily the author, but I find your poems constantly interrogate the ways all of us—even liberal-minded writers and artists—are complicit. Is this self-criticism important for you as a poet?

VALERIE BANDURA: A speaker who admits failure is more approachable, less threatening, and allows the reader to more easily enter his or her own failures and shortcomings. This is the democratic experience of poetry (my American self, perhaps), to seek to equalize, egalitarianize, the power struggle within the poem, and the people in the poem the reader is asked to judge. No one wants to read about a speaker who’s flawless any more than we want to watch people on TV who are perfect. We crane our necks to see who’s being arrested when we see the red and blue lights of the police. We retweet stupid tweets. If the reader’s entrance into the balance of power presented in the poem is through the speaker, and the speaker is complicit, the reader, too, should, theoretically, more readily admit to failure and weakness.

Art is not an artifact. Beyond the craft and formal considerations of the poem, poetry for me serves a moral and social obligation to deepen and broaden public discourse. This attitude may originate in my being raised in a Russian household, where literature, like other art forms, is integral to a culture’s identity and politics. Where Matthew Arnold may have seen the function of poetry to console or rejoice—what Natasha Sajé calls the “separation of aesthetics and morality” in her essay “Poetry and Ethics”—I see the function of poetry as political engagement, “political” understood in the broadest sense of the term. Self-deprecation is, on the one hand an ethical choice, an effort to enter public discourse.

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L.A. Story: ‘Cake Time’ by Siel Ju

Cake TimeIn 1985, Lorrie Moore announced her arrival on the literary scene with “How to be the Other Woman,” the provocative opening salvo that began her first story collection, Self-Help; she has since gone on to become one of the most revered voices in literary fiction. For writer Siel Ju (who appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 81) to start her novel-in-stories Cake Time (192 pages; Red Hen Press) with the similarly titled, and similarly told-in-second-person story “How Not to Have an Abortion” is a bold move, to say the least. Yet Siel Ju’s voice rings clear as her own, thanks in part to her specificity of detail (“The clinic accepts only money orders, so you stop at Bank of America for your eighty dollars, at Wells Fargo for his eighty dollars, then at Ralph’s, the busy one on Third and Vermont, to buy the money order”), and the uniqueness of her perspective—the story’s protagonist must contend with her stern Korean immigrant mother while trying to navigate the fast-paced, surface-obsessed landscape of ‘90s Los Angeles.

From there, Cake Time follows our unnamed narrator on her journey through young adulthood, relaying her various temp jobs and love affairs in a series of interconnected short stories. In the titular piece, the narrator and her college roommate Carrie persuade Carrie’s brother to drunkenly fornicate in front of them after a birthday party; in “Easy Target,” she hesitantly joins the dating website Match.com only to find herself paired with a callous womanizer who takes her to a swingers club. Yet most of the stories in Cake Time are hardly so risqué; instead, Ju focuses on the quiet disappointments and lingering sense of dissatisfaction that can follow us through our careers and relationships. She displays an uncanny knack for revealing the complex thought processes of her main character, depicting the way emotions often change from moment to moment when making love or peering into a partner’s eyes: “I got that tense, fraught feeling again, like I needed to act quickly, I needed to figure it out before I lost my chance for good…and for some reason that suddenly brought into focus the hilarious absurdity of our night, my life. For a second I had the urge to burst out laughing, though the feeling faded, and I didn’t.”

In this way, her novel-in-stories proves not unlike Mary Gaitskill early collections Bad Behavior or Because They Wanted To. Siel Ju is similarly candid and often unflattering in her portrayal of her female narrator’s psychology. Ju’s protagonist drifts from lover to lover—a sea of indistinguishably handsome young men with interchangeable, all-American-sounding names like Sam, Matt, Christian, and Jeff—without ever finding the elusive something she appears to be searching for. “‘Good luck,’ [Jeff] said. ‘With everything.’ I wished him the same. Then we let go, I gave him a little wave, and we went our separate ways, he to his car, I to mine.”

Through this tapestry of short stories, we watch as the narrator slowly ages before our eyes and characters reappear over the course of her life. In doing so, Ju displays how self-discovery is seldom about arriving at some grand epiphany, but rather interrogating how we feel in the moment. She expertly taps into the existential malaise of many thirty-something urban dwellers, who find themselves feeling strangely adrift despite their respectable careers and “fit, clean, and exact” apartments.

“I thought about how nothing was fixed, that everything—songs, events—held only the meanings affixed to them,” the narrator muses after learning her closest friend will be leaving L.A. “I wondered if my mind had been perpetually stuck in one spot, dissolutely clinging to the uncertainty it was familiar with, adding that scrim to everything I saw. For a few seconds I saw myself as floating in a limpid, amniotic darkness that was comforting, but also keeping me in an ineffectual fetal state.”

For Siel Ju’s narrator, there are no easy answers or tidy morals to unpack after a relationship fizzles—that’s just life. Cake Time concludes abruptly, leaving us without a concrete sense of where her character might be headed, no promise of a “Season 2” in which her existential doubts will be banished and the right choices revealed. We know she will be okay, if only because we know, most likely, we will be okay. Though it begins in the Nineties, Cake Time is a great story collection for our present moment; an exploration of love, morality, and contentment that proves such concepts can be as murky and uncertain as a wisp of cigarette smoke outside a chic bar.

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Shadows That Take the Shape of Men: ‘Entropy in Bloom’ by Jeremy Robert Johnson

Entropy in Bloom by Jeremy Robert JohnsonIt’s the rare writer who is able to straddle the line between literary and horror fiction. For every author like H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson who has since been adopted into the canon, there are countless others who remain on the outskirts of the literary scene. Of course, working in the fringes of any genre allows one to take creative risks and make provocative choices. Readers who find themselves drawn to the new story collection Entropy in Bloom (252 pages; Night Shade Books) by Portland writer Jeremy Robert Johnson will likely believe that the author has indeed gotten away with something.

One of the pleasures of reading any collection that culls together stories produced over a span of time is witnessing a writer’s preoccupations and obsessions emerge on the page. With stories written between 2004 and 2011, Entropy in Bloom reads like a tableau of Johnson’s pet themes. Despite their Lovecraftian titles, stories such as “When Susurrus Stirs” and “Cathedral Mother” explore Johnson’s fascination with the way microscopic entities like parasites and tapeworms can alter human physiology for their own purposes. The idea of an invisible passenger in our bodies (“…I imagine the fibers of my spinal cord stretching out towards him like feelers”) has long been a potent theme in the genre, particularly in the body mutations conjured by filmmaker David Cronenberg, but in these tales Johnson tends to go for the gross-out rather than generate the lingering psychological effect of the best literary horror.

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The Inexhaustible Power of Fairy Tale: Q&A with ‘A Moral Tale’ Author Josh Emmons

Josh EmmonsThe past is never past in Josh Emmons’ new story collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales (184 pages; Dzanc Books). In each of these stories (of which the title one appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 102), the reader can feel the lingering effect of humanity’s fabricated history – the assemblage of folktales, parables, and lore that have helped shape our collective consciousness over time, from Noah and his Ark (“Haley”) to Aesop’s talking animals (“Arise”).

The narrator of one piece claims, “What came next hardly warrants retelling, so familiar is the story…” but nothing could be further from the truth, as Emmons possesses an uncanny gift to make the distant, half-remembered folktales of our childhoods feel both present and unexpected. In “Nu,” we observe a woman who is afraid of cats, in part because of what they represented to the ancient Egyptians, and characters throughout the collection frequently compare their lives to fables (“…real life is less frightening than fairy tales. And less exciting. And there’s no way to know which is better”). These drifting souls search for meaning and connection across a variety of settings, whether it’s modern day France (“A Moral Tale”) or medieval England (“Humphrey Dempsey”). The result of their foibles comprises one of the most dazzling and assured story collections of the year.

Emmons talked to ZYZZYVA about A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, as well as what draws him to fairy tales and his mix-tape-making process.

ZYZZYVA: In A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, you have several stories that take place in current settings in which one can feel myth and fables pressing upon contemporary events. I sense that, as a writer, you believe the fables and fairy tales many of us grew up with continue to be relevant to our lives. What drew you to incorporating or referencing fables in your work?

Josh Emmons: I stopped thinking about fables and fairy tales and myths in my late teens—When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things—and came back to them in my twenties because they were inescapable. There was Kafka’s “The Burrow” casting animal stories in a new light, for example, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books redeeming nursery rhyme tropes, and “Ulysses” and “East of Eden” and “Master and Margarita” showing that repurposed myths could be fascinating. I think fairy tales get a bad rap because they deal with radical innocence and radical evil—melodrama, basically—and so lack subtlety. Also they’re overfamiliar and crudely written and outrageously plotted, but for many of those same reasons they’re fun to rethink and reconfigure. And they address deep, elemental, archetypal phenomena, which is appealing for a Joseph Campbell fan like me. And despite all the fairy tale revisionists out there, humorless Angela Carter and careless Salman Rushdie and frantic mash-up writers at Disney and Dreamworks, they’re inexhaustible. Folk traditions might be barbaric, but they’re malleable and never dull.

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Making the Case for Hidden Wonder: ‘In Defense of Monsters’ by B.J. Hollars

In Defense of MonstersB.J. Hollars’ short essay collection, In Defense of Monsters (Bull City Press; 40 pages), opens on a world with no mysteries left. Now that seemingly every corner of the globe has been charted, and Google Earth allows one to zoom in on any coordinate one desires, the encroachment of human civilization on the natural world leaves us with little to explore. It wasn’t always the case: in the 20th century, even as horror spread across Europe and a racially divided America, the World’s Fairs promised a tomorrow full of discovery, and pulp novels sold readers on the idea of lost cities and forbidden jungles. Unsurprisingly, it was during this time that mythic figures such as Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster, which began as local rumors, developed into tourist attractions and subjects of international study. The Earth seemed like a place of wonder.

That sense has arguably since been stamped out, due in no small part to the scourge of war, the advance of technology, and a more skeptical populace. But in his essays, Hollars reminds us that “while three-fourths of Americans live in suburban and urban areas, only 2% of America is defined as such. The remaining 97% is considered rural.” Perhaps in those overgrown forest trails, lonely woods, and far-off mountain ranges, some domain still exists for these folklore creatures to flourish unseen by man. For Hollars, it’s not so important that scientists eventually prove the existence of a creature like Sasquatch (in fact, it’s immaterial), merely that our collective unconscious leave room for the possibility of their existence.

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Testaments to Our Will to Live: ‘Objects From a Borrowed Confession’ by Julie Carr

Objects from a Borrowed ConfessionSomewhere along the way, confessional poetry developed a bad rap. Perhaps it was the result of ubiquity: by 2003, every other turn of the radio dial delivered a soul-baring lyric to one’s ears (“On the way home this car hears my confessions,” went a lyric from a band literally called Dashboard Confessional), and college freshman creative writing classes were inundated with impressionable students expressing their angst through pen and paper. (You may have sat next to one, you may have been one yourself.) These days, mediums such as Facebook, Tumblr, and, well, Medium allow us to broadcast our inner lives to close friends and complete strangers alike—these digital walls can talk.

Considering the way modern technology has made the act of confession an almost thoughtless and arbitrary pastime, academic circles may have felt they had no choice but to turn their noses up at this ever-growing portion of the poetry world. But it’s a corner that clearly has long fascinated celebrated poet and author Julie Carr: “I wanted to think about what the Language Poets and the Conceptual Poets had against ‘confession,’ but I also wanted to see why confession was so important to our broader culture,” she writes in the Author Statement of her newest book, Objects From a Borrowed Confession (Ahsahta Press; 149 pages), a collection of pieces that tackle the notion of confession from a unique angle. “I wanted to explore that impulse and the attraction we have to one another’s secrets…I wanted to understand what the act of confession has to do with intimacy, empathy, and subjectivity.”

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Augmenting Reality Through Fashion: Jonathon Keats and His Superego Suits

Prototype of Interoceptive Eyeware  (photo by Elena Dorfman)

Prototype of Interoceptive Eyeware (photo by Elena Dorfman)

Clothing advertisements have long called for consumers to “try on a new you!” – as though a simple change in wardrobe can unlock previously untapped wells of confidence and charm, leading to a makeover not just of one’s style but of one’s inner self. While this brand of hyperbole is standard in the retail industry, a new range of products from experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats may finally deliver where fashion has failed. Keats’ Superego Suits, which can now be tried on by appointment at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco, are a line of apparel designed to augment—or alter—your personality at will.

Keats, who made headlines last year with his attempts to convince the United Nations to tectonically rearrange the world’s continents in the interest of achieving global harmony, found inspiration for the Superego Suit after reading about recent studies in neuroscience at Harvard and Florida State University and EPFL in Switzerland, including their research into interoception—loosely defined as one’s sense of the physiological condition of their body. “I’m interested in what happens when neuroscience escapes the lab and enters the world,” Keats declares.

To that end, the ever industrious Keats has devised several pieces of apparel designed to put neuroscience’s theories into practice, including Interoceptive Eyewear with irises that open and close in time with the user’s breathing; Ego Boost Bracelets that position the wearer in a testosterone-releasing “power pose” (perfect for the board room); Body Schema Extension Rings which extend the wearer’s reach, therefore increasing their presence in the world; and, perhaps most impressively, Free Will Footwear, battery-based elevator shoes that can adjust the wearer’s height and posture as desired.

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Stories We Tell When We Won’t See What’s in Front of Us: Q&A with Emily Fridlund

(photo by Doug Knutson)

(photo by Doug Knutson)

Dark, haunting, and arresting, History of Wolves (279 pages; Grove/Atlantic) announces Emily Fridlund as a literary voice to watch. The book’s story opens as an isolated, woodland community in northern Minnesota confronts a scandal involving a predatory high school teacher. The sullen and introspective narrator, fourteen-year-old Linda, watches the tumult unfold from a distance, as she does most things in life.

That is, until the self-sufficient ninth-grader gets drawn into the lives of the young Gardner family who move in across the lake. Linda takes to the Gardners’ precocious four-year-old, Paul, but begins to notice peculiarities about the child, like the strange Scripture-like verses he seems to quote and his frequent bouts of fatigue. Though History of Wolves builds to a tragic series of events, the novel never trades in empty shock; part of its strength is in the way Fridlund adroitly explores the ways in which we reckon with tragedy—as individuals, as family units, as communities.

This auspicious first novel probes the terrible limits of faith, the responsibilities of motherhood, and the secrets beneath the surface of small towns. “I was intrigued, I was repulsed,” remarks one of the characters, and the reader is likely to relate. Fridlund understands the precariousness of youth, how “coming of age” is seldom about reaching a new plateau of maturity but more often like what Linda experiences standing under a scalding hot shower: “some feeling of woe, some feeling of desolation I hadn’t known I’d felt. A capsized feeling, a sense of the next thing already coming.”

Fridlund talked to ZYZZYVA about History of Wolves and some of her influences as a writer, as well as her story “Lock Jaw,” which appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 101.

ZYZZYVA: One of the aspects of a novel that draws me in, perhaps before anything else, is its milieu. The setting here feels so tied to the book’s events, with details about the oppressiveness of winter and the isolation of this wooded community creating the kind of environment where Paul’s story could so easily happen. Like with Linda’s dogs and their chains, I think their mere presence adds a certain texture to the novel, in a similar way the scandal with Linda’s teacher, Mr. Grierson, compliments the main story of the Gardner family. How much of the novel began with, say, the character of Linda or Paul versus the woods themselves? 

Emily Fridlund: I’m so glad to hear that you were pulled in by the milieu. The woods and Linda, setting and narrator, were always inextricably linked in my mind. I began with Linda’s voice, and the first scene I wrote was the one in which she approaches Mr. Adler, after he collapses in front of his class, and tentatively takes his hand. I was intrigued by the boldness of such a gesture, and also by the longing for human contact that might inspire it. As I tried to understand both these qualities in this peculiar teenage girl, it began to make sense to me that she would be a person forced into independence at a very young age, a kid schooled by woods and lakes—and that this very same background would also make her wretchedly solitary.

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Nightmarish Existence of The Child: ‘The Impossible Fairy Tale’ by Han Yujoo

The Impossible Fairy TaleThe dichotomies of childhood—children’s capacity for both guileless love and extreme cruelty—make our earliest years ripe material for storytelling; fairy tales, in particular, have long traded on the contradictions of youth: Hansel and Gretel narrowly escaping an evil witch’s clutches only to burn her alive in her own oven, Red Riding Hood fending off the appetite of a ravenous wolf disguised as her grandmother before filling his stomach with stones. It’s through this lens the reader approaches The Impossible Fairy Tale (214 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Janet Hong), the first novel from Korean author Han Yujoo and her first work to be translated into English.

The book opens on a bleak grade-school world (“Do you know you can kill someone with a fountain pen?” is one of the first lines spoken) and quickly establishes the novel’s central parallel: the charmed life of the angelic Mia—who wants for nothing and receives lavish gifts from both her biological father and her mother’s paramour (as the novel opens it’s a set of seventy-two German watercolor pencils, perhaps a nod to the Germanic origins of the Grimm fairy tales)—presented in sharp relief against a classmate’s known only as the Child, an unfortunate girl who experiences a constant torrent of abuse from her mother: “She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker.”

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Our World Without Any Memory of Itself: ‘NK3’ by Michael Tolkin

NK3Michael Tolkin’s 1988 novel, The Player, remains a note-perfect send-up of late Eighties Hollywood excess, a paranoid neo-noir told from the point-of-view of the murderer himself—a creatively and morally bankrupt Hollywood executive. Now the acclaimed author, screenwriter, and director returns with NK3 (300 pages; Grove), his first novel in more than a decade. Tolkin has long specialized in satire so shrewd and well-observed that it barely registers as satire; NK3, in which a memory-erasing biological weapon creates a power vacuum for the working classes to seize control from the rich and elite, couldn’t have arrived at a more apropos time.

Initially, the biggest shock of NK3 is how much it reads like a post-modern take on the airport bestseller. The opening chapters leap from place to place and character to character with each flip of the page like the Michael Crichton thrillers of yore. These early passages are burdened by exposition as Tolkin works to establish his near-future world of 2020, a society that—like the best speculative fiction—looks radically different and yet eerily similar to our own.

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