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Zack Ravas

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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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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