ZYZZYVA EventsOctober 19, 2015
In Conversation with John Freeman
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talks to author and ZYZZYVA contributing editor John Freeman about the launch of his new literary journal, Freeman's. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/1Oe2rH1
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Set primarily in Detroit, Angela Flournoy’s riveting and acrobatic first novel, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pages), flips among several points of view and timelines: principally between the Great Migration of the mid-1940s—when Francis Turner leaves his young wife, Viola, and their infant son behind in Arkansas to prepare a new life for the family in Michigan—and 2008, when Viola is near the end of her life and about to lose the family home. This spells potential tragedy, as both mother and house are the last points of connection among the couple’s thirteen children.
In the story’s central timeline, Francis has already died and Viola’s advanced age and ill health have forced her to move in with her eldest son, Cha-Cha. With thirteen kids, Viola should be spending her last hours holding loved ones’ hands, surrounded by the noise and activity that was the soundtrack to her life. But each son and daughter has such complicated and all-consuming struggles, that it’s just as likely Viola will die alone, at night, held only by the chemical grip of morphine under the crackling blue light of an infomercial.
Even if Tolstoy was right about happy families, unhappy families in Western literature often bear striking resemblances to one another. The unfaithful, existentially-tormented husbands; the beautiful, unfulfilled wives; the precocious yet emotionally unformed children caught up in family affairs far beyond what they are capable of properly assimilating into their senses of self—we recognize these tropes partly because they are, sadly, representative of many actual families, but mostly because, also sadly, they make for instantly recognizable and compelling dramatic structures. It is, perhaps, unfair to levy such a generalization against the many writers who choose to tackle dissolute spouses and dissipating family units, but it is certainly incumbent upon these writers to bring something new to the table, if only for the reason that it is one heavily laden with offerings. Mary-Beth Hughes’s new novel, The Loved Ones (Grove/Atlantic; 289 pages), is in many ways a familiar portrait of a family tearing itself apart through avarice and ennui. But its contribution to the genre is its unflinching and intelligent exploration of the ways in which the characters—particularly the women—attempt to keep their pain from spreading to those around them.
Readers of British author David Constantine’s In Another Country (Biblioasis; 277 pages) may identify in his stories certain hoary elements of style and material that have been all but abandoned by contemporary U.S. writers seeking to depict modern life in all its fragmented complexity. Absent are the ingratiating narrative voice, the frenetic observation, the satirical punches to the gut dealt to unworthy characters. Constantine’s characters have souls, and do such un-ironic things as write long letters to one another, which they send via mail. The stories are simply plotted, harrowing, and enduringly powerful; the prose is uncompromisingly lyrical yet rarely overwrought. Constantine’s old-world sensibilities imbue his stories with grace and seriousness, and his characters seem to exist not in any recognizable world, but in their own personal Limbos, wherein ancient forces and quotidian difficulties converge to create an immense pressure threatening to tear them apart. There is a pronounced fatalism through many of the stories, yet Constantine’s great skill lies in his ability to create moments that feel not like authorial intrusions but rather fleeting recognitions, whether of insurmountable loneliness or inchoate hope.
Eric Bennett’s first novel, A Big Enough Lie (285 pages; TriQuarterly Books), is fiction within fiction. The novel opens with best-selling author John Townley sitting in a studio green room, waiting to discuss his war memoir, Petting the Burning Dog, for the second time on the Winnie Wilson Show. There’s just one problem. The memoir is a fabrication, written under the name Henry Fleming, who happens to be a real second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Fleming is missing in action in Iraq and was the leader of the “Babylon Seven”—a platoon captured and executed on video. Townley suspects his second appearance will expose his lies on national television; the show’s second guest is Antoine Greep, the platoon’s sole survivor.
Is loneliness the de facto spiritual condition of the Information Age? This is the central question that seems to loom over All This Life (Soft Skull Press; 294 pages), the latest novel from Bay Area author Joshua Mohr. In the book, Mohr trains a scathing lens upon our 21st century culture, one that craves personal connection and yet seems to have forgotten the value of face-to-face interactions, opting instead for a constant stream of YouTube videos, live Tweets, and Facebook status updates. “All that matters is content. New content. More content.” The setting is San Francisco circa 2013, a city where zealous Apple employees “swarm like Jehovah’s witnesses” and promise “video quality that looks better than the real world,” a place where a booming tech industry has driven rent prices up toward Manhattan levels and has dismantled “every bit of strangeness that once made San Francisco extraordinary.”
In our continuing series of interviews and readings with our contributors, we talked to Glen David Gold about his nonfiction piece “The Plush Cocoon,” which appeared in ZYZZVYA No. 100. Gold is the author of the best-selling novels “Carter Beats the Devil” and “Sunnyside.” In “Cocoon” he explores his family history, particularly that of his mother’s. Gold discusses this piece as well as other topics, including how life has changed in San Francisco.
To hear Gold read from “The Plush Cocoon,” click on “Continue Reading” below.
It takes a skilled writer to make us see the familiar as something new. In her first book of fiction, The Wonder Garden (Grove; 386 pages), Lauren Acampora turns an anthropologist’s discerning gaze on the everyday sights and sounds of suburbia. In doing so, she creates the impression these commonplace scenes and images are imbued with some hidden meaning, whether it be a foreign girl visiting for the first time a mall, where she “touches the clothing in Aeropostale as if it were powdered with gold dust,” or the markings on a “wooden coffee table that still bears the scars of children’s homework.”
The Wonder Garden began as a novel until Acampora realized her story’s central protagonist was too passive of a character to carry the weight of hundreds of pages. Thankfully, she discovered that several of the novel’s supporting players possessed fascinating interior lives worth exploring. Acampora ultimately resurrected the project as a series of interwoven stories set around the affluent Connecticut community of Old Cranbury. These are characters who appear “stuck,” paralyzed by indecision while at the crossroads of middle-age, young adulthood, or new parenthood. The pleasure of reading The Wonder Garden comes not from watching these people escape the traps they may or may not have set for themselves, but in witnessing their struggle and seeing, despite the extreme wealth on display through the book, a mirror of our own lives.
Gallagher Lawson’s first novel, The Paper Man (261 pages; Unnamed Press), opens with a scene you might expect in a coming-of-age tale: a sheltered young man has just arrived by bus to an unfamiliar city, eager and more than a little anxious to start the next chapter of his life. The difference here is that our protagonist, Michael, is a walking and talking paper mache’ construction. Given his unusual appearance, Michael is dreadfully concerned with fitting in his new surroundings. Fortunately for him, he might not be the strangest resident of the novel’s unnamed seaside province: his arrival in town is heralded by the appearance of a dead mermaid in the middle of the road. The sight proves an ill omen as Michael soon finds his belongings stolen by an eye-patch-wearing talk radio host and his paper form marred by a sudden rainstorm. Early in the novel, Michael reminds himself that “he was the stranger here,” and, given the existential horror prevalent in The Paper Man, one senses Gallagher Lawson would hardly be unpleased if this phrase brings Albert Camus to mind for his readers.
When Karl Ove Knausgaard was in San Francisco to promote the U.S. release of the fourth book in his six-volume My Struggle series, he was quietly and generously discussing a project that had been completed several years ago, but whose trajectory among English speakers is still tracking with a fervor rarely seen in the literary world. My Struggle: Book Four (Archipelago; 485 pages; translated by Don Bartlett) deals primarily with the eighteen-year-old Knausgaard’s time as a schoolteacher in northern Norway; as in each of the first three volumes, he painstakingly chronicles tiny yet unendurable humiliations, fleeting moments of elation and revelation, and the abiding shame and existential dread that, for Knausgaard, are the costs of being alive. He employs a flatness of style, an insistence on detail, and an overwhelming candor to produce an effect few authors have ever been able to achieve, and whose qualities I can only compare to the experience of reading as a child: total immersion in a story, and the sense that the rhythms of writer and reader have been synced, producing a cosmically unlikely pleasure that hits like a fierce wave of energy.
Comprising Knausgaard’s admirers are novelists of every ilk and age; respected reviewers; and, judging by the sales, around one-in-nine adult Norwegians. Reckless hyperbole about his accomplishment abounds (such as that in the preceding paragraph), much of it merely in service of figuring out how he achieved what he did, which is to make interesting and appealing 3,600 pages of hastily-written, baldly autobiographical prose about a handsome, intelligent, successful man who describes the birth of his daughters and his bowel movements with equal reverence.
Welcome to the newest feature on our website: the ZYZZYVA Video Series—featuring short readings and interviews with ZYZZYVA’s many contributors. We kick off our series with Vauhini Vara, whose story “We Were Here” appears in ZYZZYVA No. 101. Vara, whose fiction has been honored with an O’Henry Award, is also an award-winning journalist. Having worked at the Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade, she now covers technology and business for the NewYorker.com, where she was previously the business editor. Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked with Vara about “We Were Here,” as well as about her career as a journalist.
And if you click on “Continue Reading,” you can see a video of Vara reading from “We Were Here.” We hope you enjoy!
When I moved to California last year, water was far from my mind. Naturally, upon my arrival I was shocked by the severity of the drought, the messy status of water rights, and the endless bickering over an element that I considered a common occurrence, as well as a natural right. For Californians, however, these environmental threats are nothing new. Beyond the political scope, environmental issues, at their core, reveal the moral grappling of humankind, and yet a surprisingly few number of authors take on the subject.
In light of the current drought, John van der Zee’s “Grassfire,” which appeared thirty years ago in the first issue of ZYZZYVA, remains morally pertinent. The story, detailing a man’s struggle to put out a small wildfire, illuminates the essential crux of California’s environmental issues, which, thirty years later, are just as controversial. A wildfire presents a moral dilemma; though, with its rapid and unpredictable expansion, it ultimately contradicts the old adage that what is one person’s problem is not another’s. “Grassland” begins with gallantry before crumbling again into conflict.
Van der Zee’s prose is evocative and succinct. The wildfire is just as animated as the characters, animal-like, morphing into the irrepressible fears of our protagonist, inserting itself into the politically divided landscape. And though fire poses the greatest immediate peril in this story, the threat of drought looms ominously at its side. The descriptions of the burnt landscape and dry faucets, when read today, resemble the unheeded forewarnings of a prophet. — Sarah Cooolidge
In schools throughout the country, American children and teenagers tend to learn about the Vietman War—and by extension, the country of Vietnam—through the prism of U.S. culture. This is not merely to reaffirm that entrenched ideas and predilections form our understanding of historical events, but also that early conversations about the war often gravitate away from Vietnam-as-place-and-people, and toward what Vietnam-as-idea sparked in the American consciousness. Student-led protests, the creation of the most talked-about countercultural movement in our history, the unthinkable fallibility of the American military—even Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles are all likely to be mentioned before Ho Chi Minh or Saigon. To young Americans, if not most Americans, Vietnam is a jungle in which unlucky youths fought and died before they lost a war, came back home, and started their American families.
Dehumanization is a part of art, war, and life; it can be both a shield and a sword. American art mines senseless loss and unspeakable atrocities for poignant drama, political insights, and moral ironies, and does so expertly. But before a deathly moment of horror, there is a life that has been lived, regardless of the hemisphere in which it was. What does it mean to engage with a subject containing the histories and hopes of an entire people about whom we know so little?
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s complex and compelling first novel, confronts us with that difficult and often discomfiting question. Ostensibly a tale of subterfuge, the novel makes use of an engaging narrator and tackles issues of artistic representation and cultural identity. Its narrator is the half-Vietnamese, half-French (and therefore worthy of scorn and distrust from many of his fellow Vietnamese) aide to a jingoistic, uncompromising South Vietnamese general. He is also a mole, working undercover for the communist regime; we learn on the first page that his story is a confession beginning in April 1975, shortly before the fall of Saigon: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”