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The Extremities of Human Experience: Q&A with ‘I Met Someone’ Author Bruce Wagner

BRuce Wagner The fact that the dust jacket for Bruce Wagner’s latest novel, I Met Someone (Blue Rider Press; 384 pages), carries blurbs from award-winning author Sherman Alexie as well as acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh reveals how adroitly Wagner has been able to navigate both the literary scene and the world of Hollywood. Over the last several years, Wagner has been at work on what he calls the Inferno series, starting with 2012’s Dead Stars, a sprawling and densely packed novel about life on the fringes of stardom, which Tom Bissell dubbed “the Ulysses of TMZ culture.” In 2015, David Cronenberg directed Wagner’s screenplay for Maps to the Stars, a pitch-black tour through the darker side of the film industry that earned Julianne Moore a Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Inferno series culminates with this year’s I Met Someone, which tells the story of 53-year-old Dusty Wilding, a screen actress with a loving wife and the kind accolades typically reserved for Meryl Streep. Upon the death of her mother, Wilding begins a journey to locate the daughter she gave up as a teenager, a journey that leads her to shattering discoveries. The novel is at turns haunting and heartbreaking, not to mention wickedly funny, as Wagner touches on everything from the Hollywood movie-making machine to Children of God-style cults and Internet message board trolls. The book is propelled by Wagner’s virtuosic style; only Wagner could write a tender sex scene thusly: “They lay in a field of golden land mines that went off one after the other, leaving them eyeless, limbless, heartless – dead and alive all at once.”

Recently, Bruce Wagner talked to us via email about I Met Someone and its potent themes of motherhood, grief, and rebirth.

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In the Spring/Summer Issue

Issue No. 106 offers for your enjoyment more of the country’s finest stories, poetry, essays, and visual art:

Ariel Dorfman’s “Amboise”: A long-time couple’s trip to France, in which perhaps only one of them will return from.

Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s “Clutter”: A riot of memories and thoughts pulls a stroke victim through the past and the present.

Lou Mathew’s “Last Dance”: Can a widower find it in himself to grant his annoying neighbor (who makes a mean tamale) a beseeched courtesy?

Ashley Nelson Levy’s “Auntie”: A teen daughter makes room in more ways than one for her mother’s dying friend.

And introducing our newest feature: author interviews and profiles. We begin with John Freeman on poet Kay Ryan.

Plus, nonfiction from Rivka Galchen (on ronin, Keanu Reeves, and having a newborn) and Andrew D. Cohen (Hemingway on the way to dropping off the kids at school), and fiction from Dallas Woodburn, Gregory Spatz, Ron Carlson, and the late Alan Cheuse (“The Burden”: on a boy’s first acquaintance with hard liquor).

Also, work from artists Stephen Albair and Jonathon Keats, and poetry from Ruth Madievsky, Paul Wilner, David Hernandez, Jeff Ewing, Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, and First Time in Print writer Etan Nechin.

You can get a copy of No. 106 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring/Summer issue.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell (whose story “Love Story, With Cocaine” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 92) is the award-winning author of several books, including the story collection God Lives in St. Petersburg, the memoir The Father of All Things, the essay collection Magic Hours, and Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. His newest book is Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve (Pantheon). Kirkus (in a starred review) described Apostle as a “rich, contentious, and challenging book …  a deep dive into the heart of the New Testament, crossing continents and cross-referencing texts.”

ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon spoke with Bissell about his new book at Green Apple Books in the Park in San Francisco in mid-March.

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Aftermath of Greek Crisis: ‘Something Will Happen, You’ll See’ by Christos Ikonomou

Something Will Happen, You'll SeeIn the aftermath of Greece’s 2010 debt crisis, amid the hardship in his country, Christos Ikonomou wrote Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Archipelago Books, 250 pages, translated by Karen Emmerich). A recipient of some of Greece’s highest literary honors, as well as praise from across Europe, Ikonomou’s collection of interconnected stories focuses on people with barely a hope for attaining something better than what they’ve been given: a son stays up all night to watch the streets so his neighbors can get some sleep; a group of elderly industrial workers, recently laid off, huddle around an oil-drum fire outside the gates of their old job; fathers are forced to ask—forced to lie to—their children for money; whole communities are broken up like concrete foundations in an earthquake.

“I don’t want to write just about Greeks and Greece,” said Ikonomou in an interview with Nasslit.com, “I am trying to look beyond the walls of language and my country, I’m trying to reach out to Americans, to whoever is interested in my story, and I’m trying to write about human beings, what it means to be human and what it means to try to be human in an inhumane environment.”

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Fake Autobiography, Genuine Examination: ‘Gone with the Mind’ by Mark Leyner

Gone with the MindIn an interview with The Paris Review, Mark Leyner, author of such postmodern classics as Et Tu, Babe?, said, “I think there has to be some kind of crisis before I really feel there’s a book I should write.” In his new book, the fictional autobiography Gone with the Mind (Little, Brown and Company, 250 pages), Leyner shows us that his biggest crisis is his own life.

Gone with the Mind is an existential, experimental autobiography that covers, with broad absurd strokes, the course of Leyner’s life up to the present. The story begins at a food court, somewhere between Sbarro and Panda Express, where Leyner and his mother, Muriel, are holding a reading for Gone with the Mind. The only attendees, besides Leyner’s mother, are some food court employees on break, who are referred to every now and then throughout the novel. We never make it to the reading, however. Instead, we are given a lengthy introduction by Leyner’s mother (in which she gives us the story of her difficult pregnancy and its culmination in Mark, showing us the sort of household Mark grew up in), followed by a lengthier speech by Leyner, then a Q&A session that has neither questions nor answers.

Leyner’s speech is a long, winding stream of consciousness that begins with how he had initially conceived of his autobiography as a first-person-shooter video game. His narrative weaves in and out of childhood stories and metaphysical treatises on subjects like religion and masturbation. He introduces us to his muse, the Imaginary Intern, who appeared to him on the tile of a bathroom floor and helped him to write this autobiography. Amid these ludicrous vignettes, he talks about the traumas in his life, like his battle with prostate cancer and his complicated relationship with his father.

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When the Only Escape Is Through Fantasy: ‘The Seven Madmen’ by Roberto Arlt

The Seven MadmenRoberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen (New York Review Books, 272 pages; translated by Nick Caistor) is a thriller, a crime drama, a dystopian revolution novel, a metafictional meditation, a tragic romance, and a revenge tale all in one. Julio Cortazar, who provides the introduction in the New York Review Books edition, is correct in saying Arlt’s novel throws off any “literariness”—its schizophrenic characters and arrangement are too emotionally raw, too erratic in theme and direction for it to be a “traditional” novel, especially for when it was written in 1929. (Some of the novel’s formal choices, such as the use of footnotes, and the way its plotting creates a broken narrative wouldn’t be “literary” for decades.)

The story is composed of “The Confessions” of Remo Erdosain, a poverty-stricken, manic-depressive, and hopelessly self-reflective Argentinian. Arlt fronts as if his fiction is real, trying to convince us that he actually met this miserable man and interviewed him over ten days (so say the footnotes). Forged at a young age in humiliation from his father and in pain from destitution, Erdosain constructs an intricate escapism. His intense imagination and its resulting multitude of made-up scenes, stories, and fantasies plunge us deep into the mind of an anguished man.

And “anguish” is the word for it. Erdosain believes he and all his fellow unfortunates live in “The Anguish Zone,” an inescapable layer of existence that curbs their thoughts and actions into unavoidable feedback loops of habit and delusion, keeping them miserable. They live in fantasy instead of reality. Erdosain sees his life almost like a stage drama, one which reality continually crashes, spoiling his idealism.

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Tweeting Ourselves into Oblivion: ‘I Hate the Internet’ by Jarett Kobek

9780996421805_p0_v1_s192x300The last two years have witnessed several novels lamenting the changing cultural landscape of the Bay Area, setting their sights on the runaway capitalism of the tech industry. But few of these books have actually assimilated the language of tech into their critique. This is part of what makes Jarett Kobek’s novel I Hate the Internet (We Heard You Like Books, 288 pages) so potent.

I Hate the Internet is ostensibly the story of Adeline, a middle-aged comic book artist living in San Francisco circa 2013. When Adeline, who purposefully affects a Trans-Atlantic accent a la Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, delivers a guest lecture at a Bay Area art school, she has no idea that her off-the-cuff remarks will be recorded and uploaded to the web by a student, generating a firestorm of Internet outrage in the process. While Adeline’s story remains an anchor throughout the novel, her dilemma is not the main focus of the book. Instead, her story serves as a springboard for Kobek to examine the state of San Francisco in the 21st century.

The narrative transitions from subject to subject at the speed of a mouse-click; a reference to Adeline’s former boyfriend working at LucasArts leads to several digressive paragraphs in which Kobek offers his own explication of the Star Wars property and its billion-dollar acquisition by the Disney corporation in 2012. This technique occurs on nearly every page, creating the impression that the reader has disappeared down a rabbit hole of URLs, following link after link on Kobek’s version of Wikipedia. It also allows Kobek to tie together several disparate threads throughout the book, while maintaining his central thesis that comic book publishers like Marvel and DC Comics—whose artists, such as Jack Kirby, saw almost none of the dizzying profits made off their intellectual properties—were the forerunners of companies like Facebook and Instagram, which earn massive revenues based on the content its millions of users produce for free.

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The ‘Adverse Gift’ Leading to a Full Life: ‘The Child Poet’ by Homero Aridjis

Screen-shot-2015-09-10-at-4.12.48-PM-253x300Homero Aridjis is renowned for his poetry throughout Latin America, his work having received the praise of such titanic contemporaries as Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, and Luis Buñuel, But Aridjis is also known for being one of Latin America’s most distinguished and conscientious environmental activists. In 1985, he founded the Group of 100, gathering together artists and academics to promote environmental justice in Latin America and leading to such accomplishments as legal protection for migratory monarch butterfly communities, gray whale sanctuaries for gray whales, and a reduction in Mexico City’s air pollution. Aridjis served as Mexico’s ambassador to Netherlands, Switzerland, and UNESCO, and was president of countless worldwide organizations promoting sustainable living, cultural diversity, and human rights.

His newest book, The Child Poet (Archipelago books, 153 pages, translated by his daughter Chloe Aridjis), is a brief exploration of where it all began, including a retelling of the tragic event he calls his “second birth” that turned him into the amazingly accomplished man he is today.

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The Voice That Moves You: ‘The Art of Perspective’ by Christopher Castellani

9781555977269When readers think of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita, they’re arguably more likely to recall the silver-tongued wordplay of its narrator, Humbert Humbert, than they are of the machinations of the plot, the character’s verbal gymnastics intended to distract from the horrors of his crimes. As Humbert declares, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” One of William Faulkner’s most revered novels, Light in August, utilizes a complex, impressionistic style, even to the point of incorporating made up words like “sootbleakened” and “childtrebling,” to underscore the psychological complexity of its potentially unsympathetic lead, Joe Christmas. Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is a Vietnam account that constantly casts doubt on its own veracity, its narrator interrogating just what it means to tell a “true” war story.

All of these works prove why who is telling a story is often just as crucial as the story itself, if not more so. As novelist Christopher Castellani states, “There is no more important decision the writer makes than who tells the story.” Castellani is the author of The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story (160 pages), the latest in a collection of books about the craft of writing published by Graywolf Press. While the series may be of most interest to writers, Castellani discusses fiction in such an accessible and engaging manner that the book should prove compelling to anyone who is curious about why some of their favorite novels work the way they do.

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Accept the Flaws to Get to Beauty: ‘Syllabus of Errors’ by Troy Jollimore

9780691167688_p0_v1_s192x300Whenever I open a new book of poems, I am torn by twin currents of hope and dread; hope that there may be something fresh, meaningful, transcendental inside, and dread that it will be more pretentious nouveau pointlessness. Is that too strong a characterization? Not if poetry is the cornerstone of your (with a nod to Forrest Gander) faithful existence.

As C.K. Williams said in “Whacked,” good poems should whack you and “bad poems can hurt you…you know you are, wasting time, if you’re not being whacked.” So it was with deep pleasure that I slowly read through Troy Jollimore’s new book, Syllabus of Errors (112 pages; Princeton University Press). I was thoroughly whacked by these poems, and as Jollimore studied with Williams in the hazy past, I think he’d be proud. From the first lyric, “On Birdsong,” one is captivated by Jollimore’s unapologetic embrace of complex thought, of humor, doubt and praise. Often, the poems move from logic through the fantastic to the affirmative. The poem “On the Origin of Things” starts:

Everyone knows that the moon started out
as a renegade fragment of the sun, a solar
flare that fled that hellish furnace
and congealed into a flat frozen pond suspended
between the planets. But did you know
that anger began as music, played
too often and too loudly by drunken musicians
at weddings and garden parties? Or that turtles
evolved from knuckles, ice from tears, and darkness
from misunderstanding?

After a few more elegant twirls, the poem becomes a love song:

…and that my longing
for you has never taken me far
from that original desire, to inscribe
a comet’s orbit around the walls
of our city, to gently stroke the surface of the stars.

Many poetic and philosophic references infuse these poems. Jollimore’s first book, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award, was at least in part an homage to John Berryman. The series of forty-two linked sonnets shows us a sad, slightly comic everyman, an update to Berryman’s Henry. In his second book, At Lake Scugog (an unfortunate title for an excellent book), Jollimore’s Tom romped though part of the book, but Jollimore also played with other forms—pantuom, terza rima, and rhyme, in general.

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Queen of the Liminal: ‘Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine’ by Diane Williams

unnamedDiane Williams has remained on the edge of American experimental short fiction for the last twenty years. Known for her compact, oblique stories and her extraordinary use of non sequiturs, Williams has written seven books of stories and was an editor at StoryQuarterly before starting the NOON literary annual. She has been lauded by authors Jonathan Franzen, Sam Lipsyte, and Lydia Davis. And her latest book of remarkably potent short fiction, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (136 pages; McSweeney’s), not only keeps her on the forefront of the form, but also redefines its parameters.

In an interview with HTMLGiant.com, Williams said: “The sentence cannot be overemphasized…neither can a fragment of a sentence or any syllable of a word. The writer either exploits the language for maximum effects or she does not.” For the forty stories in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, this sentiment holds true: Williams renders every single word like a prism of implication, and she stretches the space between sentences as wide as chapter breaks, while the sentences themselves somehow read like stand-alone stories. The density of her writing warrants a closer reading than most fiction because it also reads like superb poetry, just casual and fluid and lilting between verse and improvised speech.

Above all, this collection expresses a viciously recursive self-awareness through its narrators and characters (including Williams herself, who shows up by name in at least four of these stories) who attempt to fulfill the stories they tell themselves.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: David L. Ulin & Gary Kamiya

David L. Ulin (whose work has appeared in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 100 and 104) is the author or editor of eight previous books, including The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the former book critic of the Los Angeles Times.

ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon, along with Gary Kamiya—executive editor of San Francisco Magazine and author of Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco—discussed Ulin’s latest book, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles (University of California Press), at the Mechanics’s Institute in San Francisco in January. The conversation explored how we understand cities, what makes a place “authentic,” and the similarities between Los Angeles and San Francisco—two major cities in a state of flux.

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