ZYZZYVA EventsSeptember 7, 2017
In Conversation with Ellen Ullman
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Ullman, the author of the novels "By Blood" and "The Bug," and of the memoir "Close to the Machine," discusses her new book, "Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology" (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux), with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/2v4vWLgSeptember 26, 2017
In Conversation with Matthew Zapruder
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Zapruder, the award-winning author of three collections of poetry, "American Linden," "The Pajamaist," and "Come On All You Ghosts," discusses his new book, "Why Poetry?" (Ecco), with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/2tKf88l
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Victoria Patterson is the author of the novels The Peerless Four, The Little Brother, and This Vacant Paradise, and the story collection Drift, a finalist for the California Book Award and the Story Prize. She teaches at Antioch University’s MFA program.
Enjoy an excerpt from “Appetite” by Victoria Patterson, then be sure to read the short story in its entirety by purchasing a copy of ZYZZYVA No. 109.
So often, the problem with words is their yielding to the things in our lives that don’t make sense or don’t want to make sense. In her new book, Meet Me in the In-Between (320 pages; Grove Press), Bella Pollen takes on the daunting task of containing her life in words even as she acknowledges that the self cannot be contained. Author of five novels, including the critically acclaimed The Summer of the Bear and Midnight Cactus, as well as a contributor to Vogue, Bazaar and the Times (UK), Pollen ventures into the realm of memoir with an account of her life as a Transatlantic writer and mother.
Pointedly astute, she carefully deploys every word so they serve as tiny twigs to build the nest of her story. Beginning with tales of her youth in New York City, including her vengeful harassment of a rental car clerk and her courtship with the manically violent son of a Mafia leader, the memoir follows Pollen’s whims both indelicate and tender. Ultimately stuck between her desperation to belong to someone and somewhere, and an obsessive yearning to escape from the banality of an ordinary life, Pollen finds herself haunted by the disparate junctures of the self.
This haunting becomes literal when, in what seems a fictive touch, Pollen is visited at night by a sexually dominating incubus who forces her to return to her past. With this hint of the surreal, Pollen recounts her life in a way that both mocks the gravity of events and magnifies her sincere quest for self-discovery. This divergence from the traditional form of a story becomes even more interesting when we learn about her obsession with other people’s stories, which itself mirrors readers’ attraction toward memoir.
Pollen’s need to fabricate narratives for other people—whether it’s the Tijuana parking lot attendant called “El Ganso” or the Hollywood agent she contacts to sell the story of her travels to Mexico—and her awareness of that need ultimately reveal how the search for meaning in our own lives can lead us to construct it for others. It’s as though Pollen finds that inventing stories for those around her allows a brief respite from the claustrophobia of constant introspection. But as Pollen discovers, this habit of projecting meaning onto others often causes one to neglect the work required to find her inner peace.
As the memoir whips us from place to place and time period to time period, Meet Me in the In-Between displays the disjointedness of a life, how whims and flings don’t make existence—or a woman—any less meaningful. It’s in the spaces among all these things that something magical breathes and resists capture. As Pollen illustrates in her sharp, nearly wry voice, it is not our memories that will lead us to an understanding of the self, but the act of maneuvering among them, as though they are a crowd blocking the self from view.
As “zyzzyva” makes its overdue arrival in the OED, recent articles from The Washington Post and USA Today are helping to spread the word as to what the word even means (a tropical weevil, of course, as our readers already know), but also shed some light on why a San Francisco literary journal in 1985 would have chosen the word for its name. As the Oxford English Dictionary’s blog notes, “[The word] Zyzzyva owes much of its currency in English to its notoriety as the last entry in various dictionaries.” That is, to claim “zyzzyva” is to make known one has the final word.
The Post was good enough to report that the word doesn’t just exist as a lexical curiosity, noting our publication “certainly seems to be connected to the bug, images of a weevil with a ‘Z’ slapped on its fat abdomen appear across the journal’s website.” For the record, we consider the abdomen pronounced. (The weevil doesn’t overeat.)
To celebrate this coronation of sorts of “zyzzyva,” this holiday weekend—only through July 4th—we’re offering a four-issue subscription plus a T-shirt featuring our weevil for only $50! What a great way to let the world know you have the final word.
“So far, being dead is about as much fun as a barbed-wire G-string.” Thus opens Richard Kadrey’s The Kill Society (Harper Voyager; 416 pages), the ninth installment in his bestselling Sandman Slim series revolving around the half-human, half-angel anti-hero James Stark, a.k.a. Sandman Slim, one of the few souls to have escaped from Hell. He’s a scrappy boozehound who’s skilled in black magic and always fights dirty. He’s feared by demons, and considered an abomination by angels, but he may be the only one who can save creation from itself.
Throughout the series, he has faced off against vampires and zombies, biker gangs and white supremacists, murderous cults and mutant angels. He’s clashed with shadowy government agencies, fought all manner of monsters in Hell’s gladiatorial arenas, and even served a stint as Lucifer himself (a job which changes hands over eternity). This time around, Kadrey exchanges the dark corners of Los Angeles for uncharted territory. Sandman Slim is dead. Really dead. And he’s trapped in the Tenebrae—an endless desert of spiritual limbo scarcely populated by souls hiding from the torments of Hell. Here he links up with a group of motorized marauders led by a self-styled autocrat known as “the Magistrate.” This motley crew of dead souls and hell–beasts sustains their travel across the unforgiving hardpan of the Tenebrae with murderous destruction. Survivors of their wrath are given an ultimatum: join us or die again. (Souls unlucky enough to die twice end up in Tartarus—a Hell below Hell where the doubly dead are kindling for the furnace that fuels creation.)
In Australian author Carys Davies’ latest story collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike (176 pages; Biblioasis), Davies’s deadpan voice and morbid sense of humor lend a surreal twist to otherwise ordinary interactions and relationships. Each of these stories in the collection, which won the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, features unlikely encounters between people with seemingly little in common, encounters which ultimately lead to unexpected self-discovery or empathy.
The title story perhaps illustrates this best. As it opens, a woman who regularly visits inmates to offer solace is assigned a prisoner whose violent crime she finds particularly despicable. Her job is made even more challenging by his utter indifference to her role. Even though their relationship doesn’t appear to warm much, we later learn how much her visits mean to this prisoner, and the woman discovers compassion for a man she initially thought irredeemable. In “Jubilee,” a festival worker senses the boredom of the widowed queen, and tries to entertain her with a story about his wife’s Sapphic love affair. This confidence turns out to be exactly what the queen needed (“‘Nobody tells me anything,” she admits). As in many of Davies’ stories, “Jubilee” shows how ostensibly inconsequential gestures or incidents can make a monumental impact on a person’s life.
In “Bonnet,” a writer who always wears a grey bonnet whimsically decides to upgrade her drab headwear with a touch of pink trimming. This flourish, which would seem quite trivial, shocks her publisher to the core—“the worst imaginable thing, when he looks up, for him to see it; for him to see this small plain woman, his friend, with this unexpected bonnet on her head”—and in turn fills the writer with a deep shame. One infers that their relationship is more than simply professional, and the whole scene is tinged with a sense of embarrassment that borders on terror. A small act also takes on vast importance in the story “First Journeyman,” in which the town’s vegetable provider experiences an overwhelming sadness when his ailing Master recovers and no longer has need of his carefully selected peas.
Carys Davies displays a penchant for the ridiculous, detailed in an unwaveringly dry and matter-of-fact tone capable of rendering events as shocking. One of her strengths as a writer is her ability to recount situations that are wildly unlikely yet ring true to human nature—the ways in which we try to entertain people in their grief, our tendency to develop affection for those who are particularly helpful, or the extreme lengths we go to maintain relationships even when they appear doomed. These stories embrace humanity’s darkness and its compassion, making for a haunting and fascinating collection. Though readers may find many of the stories in The Redemption of Glane Pike to possess a morbid streak, they’re sure to recognize truth in Davies’ exploration of the potential for even the most basic human actions to lead to something grand.
Jess Arndt’s Large Animals (131 pages; Catapult) traps its characters in self-constructed cages and puts them on display, presenting a bevy of cultural concerns about identity, sex, and the human body. Ranging from the 19th century to contemporary San Francisco and New York, the twelve stories in Arndt’s first book prove startling in their variety and verisimilitude, and challenge our notions of gender and the binary divides that too often fail to define us.
In “Beside Myself,” we witness the austere life of a woman attempting to impregnate her wife by using her brother’s sperm. Here, as in many of the stories, the reader inhabits the aching body of the protagonist, and empathizes with her while questioning one’s own physical insecurities as the narrator morosely remarks, “among all life-forms, humans alone [are] defenseless-vulnerable blobs clothed solely in skin.” A blend of the bizarre and believable, every story in Large Animals is voiced by individuals battered by the daily toil of living as outsiders. No story captures this motif more than the title story, wherein the narrator’s mundane life is disrupted by recurring nightmares of animals in her bedroom. As the animals become a burgeoning obsession, they develop an order in her dreams, a kingdom with a bestial hierarchy in which the “massive, tube-shaped” walrus reigns. When the walrus speaks, its words are obscene but devoid of context. The narrator’s nocturnal encounters rapidly deteriorate her life, revealing her dormant sexuality and animalistic lust towards a fast-food worker even as she struggles through a vicious divorce.
And in its short shorts like “Containers,” where a decision to stay home and smoke weed rather than party with friends compartmentalizes an identity crisis in less than three pages, Large Animals proves wickedly entertaining. These are modern fables of the body exposing a naked perspective on femininity, masculinity, and the need — or lack thereof — for human relationships.
Carnal and experimental in tone, expressed in Arndt’s beguilingly casual and frequently colloquial prose, Large Animals is equally vivid in its depiction of human vulgarities as in its exploration of the body. It prowls through our preconceptions of the sexes, paring back its fallible, idiosyncratic character to render a raw and unnerving portrait of the self. “Animals are only animals because they are observed,” one character says, and here Arndt observes the largest animal, exhibiting our fears and our instincts.
The past is never past in Josh Emmons’ new story collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales (184 pages; Dzanc Books). In each of these stories (of which the title one appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 102), the reader can feel the lingering effect of humanity’s fabricated history – the assemblage of folktales, parables, and lore that have helped shape our collective consciousness over time, from Noah and his Ark (“Haley”) to Aesop’s talking animals (“Arise”).
The narrator of one piece claims, “What came next hardly warrants retelling, so familiar is the story…” but nothing could be further from the truth, as Emmons possesses an uncanny gift to make the distant, half-remembered folktales of our childhoods feel both present and unexpected. In “Nu,” we observe a woman who is afraid of cats, in part because of what they represented to the ancient Egyptians, and characters throughout the collection frequently compare their lives to fables (“…real life is less frightening than fairy tales. And less exciting. And there’s no way to know which is better”). These drifting souls search for meaning and connection across a variety of settings, whether it’s modern day France (“A Moral Tale”) or medieval England (“Humphrey Dempsey”). The result of their foibles comprises one of the most dazzling and assured story collections of the year.
Emmons talked to ZYZZYVA about A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, as well as what draws him to fairy tales and his mix-tape-making process.
ZYZZYVA: In A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, you have several stories that take place in current settings in which one can feel myth and fables pressing upon contemporary events. I sense that, as a writer, you believe the fables and fairy tales many of us grew up with continue to be relevant to our lives. What drew you to incorporating or referencing fables in your work?
Josh Emmons: I stopped thinking about fables and fairy tales and myths in my late teens—When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things—and came back to them in my twenties because they were inescapable. There was Kafka’s “The Burrow” casting animal stories in a new light, for example, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books redeeming nursery rhyme tropes, and “Ulysses” and “East of Eden” and “Master and Margarita” showing that repurposed myths could be fascinating. I think fairy tales get a bad rap because they deal with radical innocence and radical evil—melodrama, basically—and so lack subtlety. Also they’re overfamiliar and crudely written and outrageously plotted, but for many of those same reasons they’re fun to rethink and reconfigure. And they address deep, elemental, archetypal phenomena, which is appealing for a Joseph Campbell fan like me. And despite all the fairy tale revisionists out there, humorless Angela Carter and careless Salman Rushdie and frantic mash-up writers at Disney and Dreamworks, they’re inexhaustible. Folk traditions might be barbaric, but they’re malleable and never dull.
Through several books of fiction, Lidia Yuknavitch has developed a reputation for playing with language and confronting what a novel can be, both in form and purpose. In her work, plot steps aside for meditations on brutality, passion, lust, agony, and hope, all of which she ruminates on until, as if by magic, they approximate something like an undeniable narrative. Using characters and singular events to flesh out her more abstract points, she has the ability to dig into the more painful and at times disturbing aspects of feelings, resulting in rewarding books.
In her new novel, The Book of Joan (288 pages; Harper), Yuknavitch tries her hand at crafting a Heinlein-esque epic with a feminist twist, a political fable in which the protagonist Joan of Dirt—an unabashed stand-in for Joan of Arc—does her best to take down the misogynistic dictator Jean de Men. de Men has all but depleted Earth’s resources and created CIEL, a space station (and what he believes to be a utopia) for the wealthy who supported and aided his horrific rise to power. While it might seem unclear what his ultimate goal is (or what drove him to it), what is clear is that his designs threaten art and nature.
Emil DeAndreis’s memoir, Hard to Grip (310 pages; Schaffner Press), is delivered in five stages, which is fitting, because in many ways this book of baseball and chronic illness is a grief memoir. DeAndreis begins jubilantly with his story of a promising high school career, becomes absurdist when he arrives at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, and then takes a sharp, dark turn as he is confronted with an unlikely diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. DeAndreis, 23 and preparing to pitch professionally in Belgium, must reckon with the end of his career because of a disease that most commonly affects middle-aged women. The writer, who is now a College of San Mateo professor as well as the author of a novel, must break down and rebuild his value system—he can no longer find his self-worth in toughness or physical strength; it hurts to even make a smoothie at Jamba Juice. The second half of Hard to Grip is about denial, anger, and eventual acceptance as DeAndreis mourns the loss of the game that defined his life.
I met DeAndreis when he was 17, and I was 14—a freshman at the same high school of which he was the star baseball player. San Francisco’s public school league is far from elite, and DeAndreis accurately portrays himself as a big fish in a small pond. But at 14, that pond was an ocean for me. DeAndreis, like many other ex-players, seemed destined for greatness—and then, like almost every other player, returned home. I understood, vaguely, that his arm had failed him. I never knew the failing was a chronic illness that altered his life far beyond sports.
Though DeAndreis’s career was unexpectedly taken from him so early, the fact is that every athlete faces the moment he or she can no longer play. DeAndreis writes at one point about a conversation he has with the players he coaches today. They ask him what it’s like to not play baseball anymore. He tells them “it’s like a disease you learn to live with.” They understand, as does the reader, that everyone eventually loses the game.
ZYZZYVA spoke with DeAndreis about the way chronic illness pushed him from the pitcher’s mound to the classroom and the world of writing.
ZYZZYVA: I know you started to work on Hard to Grip right when you were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. A lot of the book is about accepting this nasty twist of fate, but what was it like to write about the experience right as it was happening?
Emil DeAndreis: Writing after the diagnosis was all I could do—I just lied to everyone about the disease at the time. I was not honest about it, because I didn’t want the sympathy. As a 23-year-old, that was the last thing I wanted. You are now weaker. You are helpless. You are harmless. You are all these things. Now it’s been so long that I don’t even care. But finishing the book was that closure.
The narrative arc of this book is the narrative arc I experienced. I was writing this since 2011 when I was 24 and when I turned 30 I was still writing the book. In the course of a life, it’s a small window of time. But so much change happens for anyone in that time.
“My fear is the common one, that her poetry should be lost,’’ Rodney Jones writes in the introduction to Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems (100 pages; Salmon Poetry), a posthumously released collection by his friend and fellow Southerner, Diann Blakely.
“There are ample reasons for a poet to be neglected, temporarily submerged in a trend, or permanently effaced, for poetry is a cold media and the music that the claim of poetry rests on may not always be acknowledged,’’ he adds. “This book is proof against forgetting.”
Indeed. Blakely, who died in 2014, had a light that burned brightly, but the questionable benefits of self-promotion, let alone branding, were alien to her spirit. (In addition to this volume, her longstanding project, Rain In Our Door: Duets With Robert Johnson, is to be published by White Pine Press and another collection, Each Fugitive Moment; Essays, Memoirs and Elegies on Lynda Hull, is forthcoming from MadHat Press.)
Her verse unites respect for form and for precursors like Eliot and Plath with down-home tributes to high and low culture, from Sid Vicious to Foucault. She gives us imagined renderings of the real life meetings between Helen Keller and Mark Twain. In “The Story of Their Lives,’’ she writes:
Dear Reader, spellbound
Or bored with cryptic addresses, bored
With other lives and voices, it’s time to loose
This story, to let Helen float away
From Westport, childhood, Los Angeles: you choose
Her resting place.
In 1994, the Taiwanese writer Qiu Miaojin published Notes of a Crocodile (NYRB Classics; 254 pages), a masterwork of fiction that plumbs same-sex desire while satirizing homophobic society; a year later, she killed herself. An English translation by Bonnie Huie captures the urgent, confessional voice of a lesbian struggling to live with honesty and courage in a society that holds her in its thrall.
The novel’s anonymous narrator, known only by the nonsense nickname “Lazi,” reconstructs from old notebooks and deteriorating memories an account of her time as a college student at an elite university in Taipei in the late ’80s. Her narrative largely revolves around her romantic relationships with women, as well as the same-sex relationships she witnesses among her dearest friends. Punctuating Lazi’s journal entries are chapters from a parable about a green-skinned creature called Crocodile who, despite wearing a “human suit” to blend in with the rest of society, reports on her existence to the media out of a desire for fellowship and acceptance. This announcement touches off a media frenzy that manufactures pseudo-knowledge of “crocodile culture,” as well as clashing political movements to either eradicate or confine all crocodiles. By turns droll and horrific, the parable illustrates how a voyeuristic media can turn lesbian culture into an object for fantasy, mimicry, and oppression.
At first glance, What to Do About the Solomons (256 pages; Grove/Atlantic) by Bethany Ball may seem like just another story about a dysfunctional family. But as you get deeper into Ball’s first novel, it becomes apparent it’s less about a dysfunctional family and more about dysfunctional individuals within a family that—despite the internal dramas inevitable in any large family—have a strangely stable and even loving relationship with one another.
Much of the novel centers on the (arguably) most loveable member of the infamous Solomon family, Yakov Solomon, the family patriarch. He is a force of nature within the kibbutz: he is a successful businessman, a husband to Vivienne, who came to the kibbutz from Algiers and was known as a great beauty during the time of their courtship, and the father of five children whose lives are fuelled by a mixture of travel and minor tragedies that make up the majority of the kibbutz gossip. Yakov is in a constant state of despair over his children, and his non-stop neurosis seems almost ridiculous until the reader realizes Yakov might be onto something.
As you are introduced to the five children and their respective children and spouses, you learn that missteps and bad luck run in the Solomon family tree. There is Marc, the L.A. businessman who gets wrongly accused of money laundering; Dror, the family gossip who goes through a series of questionable wives and girlfriends; Karen, who married the madman/artist, Guy Gever; Ziv, who lives in Singapore with another man; and Shira, a once-aspiring actress who is growing ever-disillusioned both in her personal life and in her career prospects. There is also a smattering of equally eccentric supporting characters, whose lives and issues seem to get caught orbiting around the Solomon family. People in the kibbutz and beyond seem to gravitate toward the Solomons, even as they carry the weight of scandal or failure of varying degrees. The reader, too, feels the gravitational pull of the family’s charm, even when how they handle their individual struggles becomes almost embarrassing to watch. The dramas each endures almost pokes fun at itself, but instead of making the story trite, it reassures us that in the end, everything can and will work out for the Solomons, however much we may share Yakov’s despair.
Throughout her story, Ball subtly integrates to good effect the political conflicts informing the daily lives of the people living at the kibbutz. Many of the men in the Solomon family have served in the Israeli army, and the traumas brought on by what they experienced during war are shown in sporadic flashbacks. Also, Yakov owns a powerful construction business, one that comes with political entanglement, however indirectly.
These political and cultural tensions add complexity to the characters’ pasts and their current identities. But what makes us care about the Solomons is their affection for one another, even during the times they disagree or drift apart and despite however much they may judge each other.