- April 12, 2014
Publishing: Inside the Literary Magazine
Location: 2 p.m., Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, USC, Los Angeles
Description: Panel featuring Jon Christensen (BOOM), Tom Lutz (Los Angeles Review of Books), Robert Scheer, and ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Moderated by Bruce Bauman (Black Clock). For more info, visit http://events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks/
- April 28, 2014
Tess Taylor and DA Powell at City Lights Books
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: An evening of poetry with Taylor ("The Forage House") and Powell, hosted by ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. For more info, visit http://bit.ly/1dzyukA
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
Considering Alfred Hitchcock’s early movie The Lodger in light of his complete oeuvre—a task that can happen only anachronistically—gives us the old master minus two elements that furnished his films with the trappings of modernity amid an otherworldliness: color and sound. Where scores and palettes might have made reliable signposts, into this silent black-and-white film step in cinematography, action, tone, and shadow, drawing up a London that has more affinities with the cramped darkness of the theater than any brick-and-mortar city. Forced to eschew [musical?] crescendos—then a fact of the format, but an active exclusion in later films like The Birds—Hitchcock, in his self-declared stylistic debut, stakes out the obsessions that would define his career. They appear regularly and with an absurd reliability; almost everything about the director’s later films that snags viewers, critics, and scholars—sexuality, formality, urbanity, banality, perversion, off-kilter sensibilities, those vertiginous qualities Roland Barthes spoke of as the un-locatable “third meaning” of films—makes an appearance. Each is as interesting for what it says about the man as it does about the libraries of reels he left us, and more so for the way in which each tic is quietly rehearsed and unveiled. Nothing in The Lodger reeks of a checklist; nothing has the comfort of a formula. If, to enlist a dead metaphor, the beginning of a career is the opening of a door, then behind that door stands the film’s title, that ominous figure: his eyes as sharp as his demeanor, his knife-like shadow slicing through the frame, wrapped not just in scarves but in the fog that peels voices from bodies.
Hitchcock didn’t dynamite through a mountain to make the first film he would characterize as his own (“you might almost say,” he told François Truffaut, “that The Lodger was my first picture”—though it was the third film he had directed); he stepped through a tunnel someone else had bored. The Lodger, like so many of his works, is an adaptation of a novel, in this case Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 psychological thriller. For its focus, Belloc Lowndes would look back ten years before she started writing, to the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 that left a chain of butchered women across London. Even in Hitchcock’s version of her story—and is it really her story, after all?—the sense of repetition is strong, even dizzying, despite his decision to reverse the fate of the titular character. The film opens with the mechanical heartbeat of industrialization, the programmatic flashing of a sign that reads TO-NIGHT: GOLDEN CURLS, enticing the murderous as much as the lecherous to the vaudeville theater where the naïve Daisy Bunting, the film’s sweetheart, makes a living off her locks. Against a suitably black background, the credits hover, led by an animation of a detective’s silhouetted against a swath of creamy light. What happens next is predictable enough, and after the scream, the objectifying shot of terror on the woman’s face as her life ends, we see the murderer’s cloth-wrapped face as he departs. A ring of citizens and police beleaguers her, none too startled to pass up the opportunity to ogle a corpse. Hitchcock gives us no sense of where these Samaritans were when during the murder; the harsh lamplight slathers everything with a morgue-like quality.
I was a bit suspicious as I approached Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 212 pages). It’s not that Ms. Lesser—founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, author of nine previous books (including one novel, The Pagoda in the Garden), and a prolific literary critic herself—lacks the credentials to write a long, meditative study of the passion she has made her career. (Quite the contrary; I can imagine few more qualified than her.) Rather, I was worried that, by virtue of her position vis-a-vis books and the Professional Writing Life, such a study would be rendered too cloistered, too pedantic—too, in a word, unpleasurable—to appeal to anyone but those lucky enough to get paid to read. A cursory flip through the contents only added to my qualms: chapter titles such as “Novelty,” “Authority,” and “The Space Between”; paragraphs full of pithy descriptions of often unfamiliar texts. How could any of this hope to capture, much less add to the undefinable, the ineffable, the complex yet simple joy we feel when we read a good book?
“It’s not a question I can completely answer,” Lesser writes, beginning her prologue as if in anticipation of my worries, inviting us into what she hopes will be a conversation between our ideas and hers: “You are my silent partner in this enterprise. As I make observations and assertions, you give your assent or withhold it, according to your own opinions. Sometimes I may persuade you, and sometimes you may resist. In either case, the conversation continues for as long as you are reading this book, and possibly after.”
In the Japanese folktale Tsuru no Ongaeshi, upon which Patrick Ness’s wondrous new novel, The Crane Wife, is loosely based, a young rice farmer rescues a beautiful white crane that has crashed into his rice paddy. The crane’s fall is caused by an arrow still jutting from its wing; the farmer carefully extracts the arrow and bids the crane take care as it flies away. When he returns to his house, the farmer is shocked to find a young woman waiting for him there. She tells him she has come to be his wife and ignores his protestations of poverty. They begin a happy life together; soon the new wife barricades herself in her weaving room, alone with her loom. At her request, the farmer swears never to look inside, and she stays locked in the room for seven days. At the end of the seven days, she emerges, skinny as a rail, and presents her husband with the most beautiful piece of cloth he has ever seen. Sell it at market, she commands him, and there it fetches a high price. She returns to her weaving room and shuts the door. Curious as to the source of his wife’s skill, the farmer breaks his promise and peeks in. There, in place of his wife, sits the great white crane, weaving its feathers on the loom. When the crane sees the farmer, she sadly tells him she is the crane he saved, and that she had wished to repay him by becoming his wife. But now that he knows her true form, she can no longer remain with him. The crane removes the cloth from the loom and gives it to the farmer, then takes to the sky.
“Ask me whether / what I’ve done is my life,” writes William Stafford in the title poem of the recently released Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems (Graywolf Press; 128 pages). Published a century after his birth and twenty-one years after his death, the new collection includes 100 of Stafford’s “essential poems,” anthologized and introduced by his son, Kim. These poems repeatedly pose questions of individual and collective identity, challenging those false equivalences between our behaviors and our selves, and positing alternative relationships between the personal and political, the poetic and the vernacular. Ask Me suggests that Stafford’s life is larger than the sum of its actions—larger enough that it keeps speaking, years after it is over.
Alexander Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift (Knopf; 222 pages), boldly repudiates the old chestnut that a writer must write what he or she knows. Jacqueline, Maksik’s protagonist, is a young woman from one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Liberia— and now a refugee who has fled to the Greek islands in the aftermath of Liberia’s second civil war. As an undocumented immigrant, Jacqueline ekes out a painful existence on Santorini’s tourist-filled beaches. The novel’s opening thrusts us directly into Jacqueline’s narrowed existence—there is no backstory granted us (yet), only the immediacy of Jacqueline’s hunger and desperation following her escape, and the potency of the memory of her mother, which follows Jacqueline everywhere she goes. As the novel progresses, Maksis carefully lays out pieces of Jacqueline’s history, giving us only the essential. (We discover that Jacqueline is Liberian, for instance, when she tells a curious tourist so; that she was once well-off when she eats a vacationing family’s leftover scraps of food even as the memory of her mother cautions her that “to be elegant, to be graceful, to be beautiful, we must do everything slowly.”)
It seems clear Maksik chose Jacqueline’s name carefully. Like Jackie Kennedy, she, too, is a witness to brutal murder, the survivor left to reassemble her life amid tragedy. Fittingly, Maksik’s touch is light yet searing when it comes to shaping Jacqueline’s narrative. Never resorting to melodramatics or cliché, Maksik grounds her story in clear prose and demonstrates an equally clear handle on Jacqueline’s physicality and emotional state.
“Don’t ask where the teeth are / you exchanged for coins as a child,” advises Emilia Phillips in the opening poem of Signaletics, her first full-length poetry collection (University of Akron Press, 72 pages). But Phillips goes on to do exactly that: to root out the relics of childhood, and to recover systematically the physical residues of the estranged and the deceased. While the poems of Signaletics vary stylistically from dense prose sequences to neat series of couplets or tercets (including a sonnet), all address the material narratives we inscribe on our surroundings—with our fingerprints and possessions, lipstick stains and letters.
The book takes its name from a system of anthropometry conceived by Alphonse Bertillon at the end of the 19th century to identify criminal suspects. A signaletic assessment comprised measurements of the head, body, ears, eyebrows, and mouth, as well as scars, tattoos, and birthmarks. It is no wonder Phillips chose to base her collection on this method of bodily measurement—while she is obsessed with the body, her descriptions are usually more forensic than erotic, her narrator more coroner than esthete. In “Cross Section,” she writes, “One o’clock & B.’ s body / is now in the chamber where a magnet // will skim her ashes for screws, bone / fasteners, & crowns.” Like B.’s, the bodies that populate these poems are mostly absent, evinced only by what they have deliberately or inadvertently left behind. In her best poems, Phillips treats these remnants not as ontological byproducts but as autonomous bodies, possessed of secrets, stories, and spiritualized inner lives.
There’s a great moment in Lou Reed’s “Take No Prisoners’’ album in which Reed, after taking aim at the rock critic Establishment of the day, decides to go after the literary elite, too. “I met (Norman) Mailer at a party, and he tries to punch me in the stomach to show me he’s a tough guy,” Reed riffs. “The guy’s pathetic, you know. I said, ‘Come on, man, you’ve got to be kidding. Go write a Bible.’ ”
Well, Mailer tried.
The publication of two new books on Mailer’s life and legacy serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come from the days in which he appeared to be a central literary figure and of the limits of hagiography.
Mind of An Outlaw (Random House; 656 pages), a collection of selected essays edited by Phillip Sipiora, with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem (perhaps to appeal to the younger demographic; if so, the next edition should include an appreciation from Tao Lin), seemed the more promising, if only because of Mailer’s journalistic verve.
“You’re the kind who stands still / in front of awful things and squints / as though you could see into / the god chambers of every atom in every / drop of water,” writes Didden in “Pleasure Milker.” It’s one of the opening poems in the collection (which won the Lena-Miles Weaver Todd Poetry Prize) and a useful primer to Didden’s poetic mode. At her best, Didden’s poetic voice relates to the reader as a kind of guide and teacher, a fellow traveler who points out the sights and provides the proper scope for what is seen. The poems of The Glacier’s Wake are often set in Arctic regions that few call home, and one of the enduring themes of the work is geologic time and how we might construct a personal, Romantic appreciation of it. “You’re slick / with rain and heat and lift your feet / into the fragile air,” ends “Pleasure Milker,” “But there’s a record here, / under the white veils of the river.”
In a 1917 appraisal of Siegfried Sassoon’s first collection of war poems, The Huntsman, Virginia Woolf lauded the poet for revealing all those things about the present war that are “sordid and horrible.” To Woolf, Sassoon’s poetry surpassed mere reportage to offer civic value by underlining the tacit complicity of a silent British home front. Sassoon is able to produce in his poems, Woolf writes, “an uneasy desire to leave our place in the audience.”
Pity, it would seem, is what Woolf admires in Sassoon’s war realism; pity is the impetus of this “uneasy desire” to leave the audience. Wilfred Owen, who stopped imitating Keats for working in the shadow of Sassoon’s realism, famously expressed the primacy of this quality in a preface he drafted to his poems (before dying in battle): “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
But poets Ivor Gurney, David Jones, and Isaac Rosenberg cultivated a poetics of individual experience around the Great War, as well, one in which poetry is not a melodramatic witness meant to upend glorified depictions of war (such as with the work of Sassoon and Owen) but a site of imagination, trying to carve a space for humanity in reaction to depraved and destructive forces. In Gurney’s words from a 1916 letter to Marion Scott, the artist is a point of crystallization wherein later generations can learn “what thoughts haunted the minds of men who watched the darkness grimly in desolate places.”
Scott McClanahan’s new novel, Hill William (Tyrant Books, 162 pages), is a slim, dark but funny coming-of-age story set in West Virginia. The narrator and protagonist, Scott, is an ill-adapted adult trying to keep a lid on his issues for the sake of a pretty girlfriend. When things between them get rough, he can’t help cursing, rendered inarticulate, bashing in his own face in an attempt to relieve inner turmoil. When his girlfriend asks him to mow the lawn, he refuses. When she threatens to do it herself, he goes out to throw the lawnmower over a hill, but when even that end is frustrated, he settles for throwing a Mountain Dew on the ground. “You make me want to hit myself in the face, but I’m not hitting myself in the face, and this shows I’m doing better,” he says. “I was the winner. I was better now. There was Mountain Dew everywhere.”
Hill William can take some getting used to. After the first of many short chapters made up of action-driven vignettes, the book takes a long look back, toward Scott’s childhood and adolescence. There’s a brand of violence here similar to what one would encounter in a Dennis Cooper novel. At the center of Hill William is the young Scott’s relationship to a slightly older boy named Derrick, and it’s the twisted adventures and sexual education of the pair that makes up much of the first half of the novel. Initially, it’s difficult not to see the pair as relatives to Solomon and Tummler, the toothy, cat-shooting boys from Harmony Korine’s film Gummo.
Cooper and Korine are some possibly obvious influences, but there are other currents running through Hill William. It’s an unruly, in-your-face brand of storytelling that McClanahan employs, but once you get past some of the shock tactics, the novel can read deceptively sentimental. Though the story is set in Rainelle, West Virginia, amid the roar of chainsaws steadily logging away the mountain, McClanahan isn’t after the sort of farm-boy Romanticism that sneaks into the stories of Breece D’J Pancake. He does, though, create a sort of mixed ode to the place—an ode that, up until the end, seems devoid of any real connection to the disappearing land and is more about the pleasantly fucked-up community of what is, for better or for worse, home.
The most distinctive aspect of McClanahan’s voice is its humor. That humor doesn’t redeem the violence, but it grounds it, and makes the book palatable in a way that Cooper—for all his mastery of art and craft—simply isn’t. McClanahan writes short, adjective-avoidant sentences. They aren’t so much terse in the ultra-masculine, Hemingway style as cleverly pithy. When McClanahan uses them for comedy, he will make you laugh hard. One particular episode has Scott, beginning to notice girls, dragging his height-adjustable basketball hoop over to a wooden fence as a trio of giggling teens watches: “An 8 foot tall basketball hoop and a wooden fence meant only one thing: impressing girls.” Scott tries to knock the ball off the backboard, jump off the fence, do a 360 spin and slam-dunk into a set of pull-ups from the rim. Obviously, that’s not quite what happens. But the embarrassing fiasco you might be imagining won’t be anywhere as good as what McClanahan perfectly renders.
The end of Hill William brings us back to the present, to the grown Scott refusing to go see a therapist (“Talk to someone who wears turquoise jewelry”). With his life story nearly all told, his self-harming state is a lot easier to understand. The magic trick of McClanahan’s novel is that you end up rooting, somehow, for the big lug.
Great Guns (Canarium Books, 73 pages), the first poetry collection from California native Farnoosh Fathi, is a bold example of the sonic power of verse, and its simultaneous capacity for creating images with philosophical questions at their core.
Nature is the basis for many of the poems in Fathi’s collection. She amplifies the natural world, populating her poems with snails, butterflies, and birds, animals so small that they have different color registries, different views of the world. By changing the perspective with which the world is viewed, she’s instructing the reader to examine how large and beautiful the world is, beyond what we are used to seeing.
She also juxtaposes the natural world with our lack of understanding of theoretical ideas. In “Worm Rally,” the banal act of watching a worm crawl is pondered by two gardeners with different opinions. “What pleasure in looking,/even at the worm, especially at the living worm one said/ – as long as we know the worm’s whys.” Yet we don’t know the why of the worm, so Fathi asks whether it might be better to opt for contemplating the worm itself, “This pleasure said / another gardener, is analogous to the pleasure / derived from looking at a picture of the worm, that is if we / can aim to understand why that was the best / way to capture the worm: lacquered or unflattered by proof.” The questions asked in her poems demonstrate a keen awareness that in nature, as well as in society, finding the right answer isn’t easy.
“Worm Rally” is representative of the humor—the playfulness with the words themselves—underlying the collection. But Fathi also produces stinging images, ones layered with introspection, encouraging the reader to stop and wonder. (In “Sympathy,” she writes, “If there’s been a mistake it may be / in assuming less vulnerability / as one fills the vase.”) The harshest of the collection’s lines are often the moments when the speakers are brooding about their futures, such as in “Honey/Manila Portfolio” when she writes, “This is not a book. Otherwise, by now / We would love each other.”
The strongest element of Fathi’s collection, though, is the highly technical construction of her poems that complements the beauty of her language. Whether a sonnet or a prose poem, each line is carefully chosen to reflect the lyricism of verse, with each line resonating with the one preceding it. In “Sparrow,” she writes, “Because you will so easily disappear / I think of you as infinitely near”; and in “Banana”: “If there is a nose, it is soft-shaped / In the business of still young foes.” Fathi’s voice is so strong that Great Guns deserves to be read aloud, lest we risk missing her strength for lyricism amid her talent for biting humor and nuanced insight.
I’ve known author and former Granta editor John Freeman since (and I’m guessing here) 1998. At the time I was the deputy book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and Freeman was one of many freelance critics working for the paper’s Sunday Book Review section (which, thankfully, and perhaps miraculously, continues). Freeman is probably the most prolific freelancer with whom I’ve ever worked. (The book critic Martin Rubin would be a close second.) Month after month, it seemed as if his reviews and author interviews appeared in just about every periodical in the country that did any sort of book coverage. In fact, his output was so colossal that you couldn’t help admiringly wonder if here was a person who might be making a living, even if barely, as a non-staff book reviewer.
The extent of Freeman’s work as a journalist covering books (because that’s what he really was before working for Granta, given all the features he produced back then along with the reviews) is impressively displayed in How to Read a Novelist (372 pages; Farrar, Straus, & Giroux). Here we have brief but telling encounters with more than 50 authors, in interviews taking place between 2000 and early 2013. “The only thing an interviewer can do to capture what a novelist truly does,” he writes in his book’s introduction, “is to make them talk and tell stories, and think aloud.” Via email, I talked to John Freeman, who recently joined ZYZZYVA’s roster of contributing editors, about some of the literary greats of whom he got to do just that, about putting together How to Read a Novelist, and about what he’s learned about writing in his literary career.
ZYZZYVA: In your conversation with Haruki Murakami, he told you about the importance of repetition in creative endeavors. What exactly did he mean? And did you see how that could apply to you as a critic?
John Freeman: In person, Haruki Murakami speaks of writing as if he were a miner. Like he goes into a deep hole every morning with a helmet and light and blasts away until he finds a vein. Repetition is important in this metaphor, because there will be lots of failures and rubble, then something gorgeous or useful will glint in the dark. For a critic there isn’t much room for failure. You read quickly and on deadline and then have to write to word count, also on deadline. Your fire should be a refiner’s fire: dependable, always on, somewhat wasteful. It’s why I think critics, daily critics, find it difficult to do much else. You have to use everything you’ve got to keep up the pace and intensity in public, which is what you do when you publish what you write that quickly. It’s like a public performance.