Latest Posts from the Blog

Writing the Novel as He Simultaneously Narrates It: Ben Lerner’s 10:04

10:04Ben Lerner’s new novel, 10:04 (244 page; Faber and Faber), is at once nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, a rumination on the relation of the three, a work flickering in the liminal spaces among these forms. It asks of its readers that they allow the traditional structure of the novel—including the presence of plot—to momentarily leave center stage and that they make room for a form perhaps more engaging, one that sings “existential crisis!”

Lerner, who is first and foremost a poet, is a writer’s writer. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, came out to great acclaim in 2011. He is constantly experimenting with form and the limits of plausibility—and breaks these literary conventions by fictionalizing nonfiction—frequently employing apostrophe to blend fiction and nonfiction and to reveal the mechanisms at the writer’s disposal. It is as if we have been invited into a space much more intimate than the writer’s studio: In 10:04, we observe his relationships, his travel to shameful fertility appointments in which he must provide a “sample” for testing in order that his best friend Alex be able to move forward with intrauterine insemination. We are with the writer as he washes his hands again and again after worrying that his pants (which have touched the D-line train seats) and the remote used to navigate the clinic’s digital library of “visual stimuli” will contaminate his sample. We pass through his life in New York, his residency in Texas, back in time to meet his mentors, and even leap forward into multiple projected futures. So while the novel is largely defined by its lack of unity of plot, the scenes, however far removed they are from each other, stand alone, and are striking in their humor and wit.

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In the Fall Issue

Issue No. 101 offers for your enjoyment more of the country’s finest stories, poetry, essays, and visual art:

Vauhini Vara’s “We Were Here”: Betwixt the fancy turkey meatballs and Ava Gardner (no, not that one) dying down the hall, there exists in an apartment building all that could ever matter.

Matt Sumell’s “Gift Horse”: Break into mom’s house, make sure you see Grams at her nursing home, and please, please try to keep it together.

Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s “Mr. Chompers”: Honey, the single mother asks her hypothetical husband, why can’t it be enough that her young daughter’s smart? Why does she need her to be smarter?

Jim Krusoe’s “Traffic”: The author tries to fit the puzzling memories of his parents, his father’s drinking, and the accidental death of a child into some kind of truth.

And a portfolio from artist Ana Teresa Fernandez, whose featured paintings and photographs document scenes from performance art.

Also, fiction from Earle McCartney (a family farm gets unsettled by the constant presence of the teen son’s girlfriend), Ricardo Nuila (on a doctor’s spectacular crack-up), Elena Mauli Shapiro (the repo men come to take away a home), Peter Rock (incorporating the photography of artist Shaena Mallett) and Emily Fridlund.

Nonfiction from Jill Logan (“A Daughter’s Letter to Tamsen Donner”), and poetry by Kelly Cressio-Moeller, Joseph Di Prisco, Jeff Ewing, John Freeman, Casey Fuller, Troy Jollimore, Genevieve Kaplan, Alyse Knorr, Katie Peterson, Charles Harper Webb, and the Frankenstein Sonnets of Simone Muench and Dean Rader.

You can get a copy of No. 101 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the 101st issue.

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Green Shirt: ZYZZYVA No. 100

David L. Ulin is the book critic at the Los Angeles Times, as well as the author of the books The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith and The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, the novella Labyrinth, and the editor of the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology. He is also a ZYZZYVA contributing editor.

For the 100th issue, Ulin contributed “Green Shirt,” a riveting essay about (ostensibly) a deep-seated fear of flying and how the writer preps himself for boarding a plane. Erudite, roving, and surprising, “Green Shirt” touches upon Death Cab for Cutie and Elvis Costello, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth, Gretel Ehrlich and Twiggy. “What are the rituals,” he writes toward the end, “… that contain us, even (or especially) if we cannot be contained? This is why stories are important; yes, they may be contradictions, but contradictions are what we have.”

The following is an excerpt from “Green Shirt.” The piece can be read in its entirety in the 100th issue, which you can get here.

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Hacks: ZYZZYVA No. 100

Jim Gavin, the author of the critically acclaimed story collection Middle Men (which was long-listed for the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize), first appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 63 (“Recommendation”). For the 100th issue, he contributed a hilarious piece of nonfiction, the stinging “Hacks.”

The story of Gavin’s stint as a young man in the world of community newspapers, “Hacks” recalls the grubby lifestyle that comes with being a grunt on the sports desk: attending endless high school meets, living off of Mountain Dew and Del Taco, working with colleagues who could stand a shower. But it is also an early glimpse into what the writing life can mean—a calling of shabby nobility, a difficult vocation in which one tries to “record and instill with grandeur the lives of people who will never be famous.”

The following is an excerpt from “Hacks.” You can read the piece in its entirety, of course, in the 100th issue, which can order here.

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Normal Problems: ZYZZYVA No. 100

Erika Recordon’s work first appeared in ZYZZYVA back in Issue No. 91 (Spring 2011), with the publication of two of her charmingly off-kilter yet genuinely serious stories, “Evolution” and “Our Brave Little Soldiers.” The elan that characterizes those short works is evident once again in her new (and much longer) story for our 100th issue, “Normal Problems.”

The tale—or perhaps even a fable?—of a woman trying to make her relationship work with a great guy who’s only fault is a long past as a serial killer (a literal “lady killer”), “Normal Problems” revels in dark humor. Incredibly, the story goes much deeper than this set up might lead one to believe is possible, freshly evoking the anxious rationalizations we make for wanting to stay with someone, for wanting to see what we so badly need to see.

 

The following is an excerpt from “Normal Problems,” which, of course, can be read in its entirety in Issue No. 100.

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The Pull of Another’s Obsession: ‘Preparing the Ghost’ by Matthew Gavin Frank

Preparing the GhostMatthew Gavin Frank retells the thrilling tale of the first photograph taken of a giant squid in Preparing the Ghost (Liveright; 282 pages). In his unique and captivating work, Frank incorporates memories from his own life with the unlikely story of Moses Harvey, the Newfoundland reverend who captured a giant squid on film in 1874.

Among the personal threads Frank weaves throughout the book is that of his Poppa Dave, his maternal grandfather who was born prematurely and small, so was force-fed by his mother, eventually becoming a chronically obese and diabetic adult. As a grandfather,  “perhaps the sequence of words Poppa Dave uttered most frequently,” Frank writes, was the most beloved of phrases grandchildren everywhere want to hear: There’s always room for ice cream. Of his great grandmother, Frank writes, “Though he was obese at age four, Dorothy continued this practice believing she was doing the right thing,” and although she established a lifestyle that would lead to Poppa Dave’s eventual death, her actions are presented as motivated by pure motherly kindness.

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We’re Going to Need More Than Bake Sales: Lewis Buzbee’s ‘Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom’

Blackboard Lewis Buzbee uses his experiences in education—as student and professor—as the backbone for his newest book, Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom (Graywolf Press), which formulates a critique of the current state of the California public school system.

The book is divided into two sections: “Orientation” and “Matriculation,” the first presenting us with the “simple” years—kindergarten to sixth grade—and the second focusing on seventh grade and beyond. Though each chapter is built upon Buzbee’s own experiences in each grade, the histories of the school system in the U.S.—such as the beginnings of kindergarten in 1837—as well as the histories of the schools the author attended are laced throughout, making Blackboard more than just a recounting of Buzbee’s school days and instead serving as a lesson on how school here came to be. For example, he breaks down methods of teaching, examining why students in kindergarten are free of desks and can sit crisscross in classes of open space and “play sections,” but by the next year they are tamed and situated neatly rows of desks in rooms with math and science areas instead of ones for playing house and rowboat.

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Everything Contained in a Small Moment: ‘Saint Friend’ by Carl Adamshick

Saint FriendSaint Friend (64 pages; McSweeney’s Poetry Series), the newest collection by Carl Adamshick, is massive, not in length, as the collection clocks in at well under 70 pages, but in quality. The poems Adamshick presents us with are expansive thought projects. Even the shorter poems occupy a space that is difficult to comprehend—yet they are so readable, like all the poems here. The fact that Adamshick can write with such variance, that he can be in tune with society and with the incredible poets of the past and present, makes his work impressive and enjoyable.

In the opening poem of the collection, “Layover,” the speaker is in an airport musing as “They keep paging Kenneth Koch.” He follows up with a beautiful existential thought that sprouts throughout the lengthy poem: “Someone should let the announcer know / he is dead, that there is no city he can go to, / that no one is expecting him.” It seems so simple; of course Kenneth Koch has nowhere to go. But Adamshick continues his line of thought: “I want to be paged once a day in an airport / somewhere on this earth, so people / will think I am just running late or lost.” The fear of mortality is perhaps the most relatable theme a poet can tap (that and love, which Adamshick touches on, too), but here the poet examines the anxiety surrounding our legacy, our curiosity about what people will say when we are gone.

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Paths Untrodden: ‘Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit’

Minow WhiteShortly after World War II, Minor White (1908-1976)—a photographer of some repute before the war—was in New York, freshly discharged from the Army intelligence corps, and speaking to Alfred Stieglitz in Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place. In an often-quoted exchange between the two men, White, who felt the war had sapped some of his former verve, asked Stieglitz whether he could still take photographs. “Well, have you ever been in love?” Stieglitz said. White answered yes, and the elder artist explained, “Then you can be a photographer.” The conversation had a profound effect upon White. Indeed, whatever the immediate subject—the swirling figure of a tree trunk, the geological minutia of shoreline rocks—White’s photographs seem exceptionally intimate. Unknown to many at the time, however, was that as a gay man of that era, White struggled his entire life with love. Later, he would say his photographs were merely “reflecting the loneliness, the frustrations, the search for intimacy without embarrassment, and not much more. I am merely letting the camera visualize my inner-wishes—a lazy way of working.” It was Stieglitz who used to say, “When I photograph, I make love,” but that may have been far more true of White.

Still, the photographer was correct to note elsewhere that “Sexual expression is only the foundation on which the cathedral is built.” So much is clear from the work reproduced in Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit (Getty Publications, 200 pages), which accompanies the current retrospective that opened July 8 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. (It’s the first big retrospective of White’s work since 1989, and runs till October 9.) An unblinking, no-frills biographical essay by Paul Martineau, an associate curator of photography at the Getty, lucidly surveys White’s career as an artist, educator, and co-founding editor of Aperture. While he presents judicious commentary throughout the book, Martineau generally lets White’s life and work speak for themselves. He reveals White as an extremely lonely individual; a student of Catholicism, Christian mysticism, and Zen Buddhism; and an eccentric proto-hippie with, according to one photographer, “the persona of a guru,” who was worshiped by his pupils as a creative visionary. White was, writes Martineau, somebody who “believed that photography would help him to balance his natural tendency for introspection with his need to be engaged in the world.”

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From ‘Strange Attraction’: ‘Black Dress’ by Elizabeth Tallent

Dipping into our anthology Strange Attraction: The Best of Ten Years of ZYZZYVA (338 pages; $20), we first excerpted for you Po Bronson’s story “Tracking the Family Beast.” We now offer an excerpt from Elizabeth Tallent’s story “Black Dress,” which originally appeared in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 25 (Spring 1991). (Most recently, Tallent’s story “Mendocino Fire” appears in our 100th issue.)

Tallent, who is a professor of English at Stanford and the author of several books, including the story collection Time of Children and the novel Museum Pieces, tells the story of Caro, a young pregnant woman getting ready to attend the funeral of her stepson’s teen girlfriend, who overdosed on pills. “She had taken the pills from their hiding place under her mother’s tissue-wrapped lingerie, snapped off the child-proof caps, and eaten them in handfuls. It can’t have been easy swallowing so many times; wouldn’t her body have been on the verge of refusing? Wouldn’t nausea have entered in? Ah, Caro thinks, and places her own nausea: with no sense of linear time, no conviction that things that have happened are irrevocably over, her own body is mimicking the girl’s nausea, the nausea she wishes the girl had felt. Caro’s pregnant body wants the girl to throw up. Caro’s secret sense, which she has not mentioned to her husband, is that death has alarmingly little respect for boundaries, that once tipped out it can spill through entire families. That she should stay away.”

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The Disquiet of a Marriage Amid the Apocalypse: ‘California’ by Edan Lepucki

Lepucki_California-660x1024It can be argued that the post-apocalyptic science fiction novel was invented in California. Although there had been such end-of-days precursors as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man or E.M. Forster’s story “The Machine Stops” (and even the novel The Scarlet Plague by Oakland’s own Jack London), it was Earth Abides, published in 1949 by University of California English professor George R. Stewart, that established many of the tropes associated with doomsday novels, ranging from Stephen King’s The Stand to The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Stewart’s novel follows geography grad student Isherwood “Ish” Williams after he recovers from a snakebite-induced coma in the Sierra and returns to Berkeley, only to find the human population decimated by a plague. Over the course of the narrative, Ish embarks on a cross-country reconnaissance mission, returns to California, raises a family there, and observes the further, perhaps unstoppable, deterioration of civilization.

Consciously or otherwise, Edan Lepucki’s first novel, California (Little, Brown; 394 pages), owes a debt to Stewart’s West Coast apocalyptic masterpiece. Her characters, however, forsake the So Cal flatlands for the wilderness to the north, and their concerns for the future are as much domestic and existential as global and philosophical.

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E-remorse and Writers

“E-mail,” snorted Molly Young, in the New York Times last December. “A medium I associate with cowardly ex-boyfriends and offshore Viagra vendors.”

On the face of it, yes. Social media scorn the e-mail habit: a sad old grandfather, smelling of camphor and oatmeal.

But I’m still waltzing—more like, locked in a tango—with Grandpa. I depend upon e-mail, check it obsessively, prefer it over real-time, physical confrontations for the same reasons I turned to writing in the first place: leisure to think deeply (or stall for time), speak from the heart in shiniest prose, curry favor and influence—all this accomplished either as subterfuge during day jobs, or in pajamas.

I sense, too, that I’m in a big club.

A writer’s love for the form dies hard. It’s our last remnant of old-fashioned letter-writing, a ritual most of us adore. E-mail’s as malleable, swift, and cheap as air. Sometimes it lets us discover what we think. But because e-mail is also how most writing business is now conducted, we’ve no choice but to learn (and re-learn) the etiquette, the rhythms.

Whom to bury, whom to praise.

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