ZYZZYVA EventsNovember 3, 2018
ZYZZYVA Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Caille Millner
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA Offices, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Millner, author of the memoir "The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification" and a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. Applications are closed.November 6, 2018
Election Night with ZYZZYVA
Location: 6:30 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Follow the election results from across California and the country, and enjoy short readings through the night by Nestor Gomez, Matthew Zapruder, Caille Millner, Dean Rader, Ismail Muhammad, Vanessa Hua, and D.A. Powell. Hosted by Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. For more info: https://bit.ly/2CRQXhe
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
Strawberry Fields (Fence Books; 224 pages), the breathtaking new novel from Hilary Plum, and winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose, opens with what might be the common denominator in humanitarian crises around the world: a nameless American at a refugee camp in a nameless country. “The children’s suffering has been unimaginable,” the American begins—as if we did not already know this.
But soon, one of the children is telling the gathered reporters and NGO representatives at the camp what he learned in school: the towns of his country, the names of its leaders, even the locations of rebel supply camps. “Who is your teacher?” the reporters ask, “is she still alive?” The child does not respond. A camp administrator shakes her head. “You don’t think he made her up,” the Swedish journalist says to her, aside. “No,” the administrator says, “but children are easy to fool.”
Within this short scene Strawberry Fields opens its focus, which is not children but adults—namely, journalists, and the virulent scenes of their information. Each three-to-ten-page chapter takes the perspective of a different person reporting on or investigating or sometimes even participating in some event around the world, from the torture of prisoners of war to the calm interior of an eating-disorder clinic. Many of the scenes are tragic, some viscerally so, but none feel out of place. Together they form one of the most astonishing reading experiences to be had in recent years.
Since the summer is a time especially suited for travel, we’ve put together a collection of the ZYZZYVA team’s favorite works centered on the subject. Ranging from books thematically concerned with journey to ones that are simply perfect for reading in transit, we hope these picks will transport you––from an armchair at home or from one exciting locale to another.
Caleigh Stephens, Intern: A word of advice to those embarking on road trips or other travels this summer––give a second thought before hurtling down that seemingly abandoned dirt path in rural Georgia at the behest of a grandmother’s nostalgia. However, don’t hesitate to pay a visit to the Southern gothicism of Flannery O’Connor’s first short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. Containing such stories as the titular piece, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and “Good Country People,” O’Connor depicts the deep South with her distinctive religious symbolism and apocalyptic commentary on the human condition. Though offering disparate vignettes, the stories are all grounded in the landscape they inhabit, infused with a strong sense of place. Her fiction binds the familiar with the foreign, adding a deep feeling of unease as appearances turn to deceptions. Thanks to masterful irony, the scattered violence and emphasis on the grotesque often add to the dark humor of the collection. The bizarre and comic nature of the collection also arises from a cast of characters who are as flawed as they are compelling. Caught up in their own hubris and naïveté, characters often find themselves in tragic and ironic situations of life or death. The book is imbued with O’Connor’s Catholicism as it often broaches questions of salvation, yet it also resides in a state of moral complexity. What is clear––O’Connor is a masterful storyteller, and her work is as enthralling as it is eerie.
Angela Yin, Intern: Culture and travel, two things central to the summertime, are also central to Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. In it, Jane Takagi-Little travels all over America, filming episodes for the Japanese show, My American Wife! In each episode, an upper-middle-class “wife,” typically white, teaches the audience a recipe for preparing meat while her two-point-five well-adjusted children play at her feet. Unsurprisingly, this layering of desires intended to create a desire that transcends a simple hunger for meat is sponsored by an American beef exportation company seeking a wider consumer base in Japan. When Jane rises in the ranks of the production crew, she alters the show’s direction, filming more diverse and non-traditional (though no less American) families. As she uncovers more of the dubious practices of the meat business, Jane must reckon, not with what she knows and doesn’t know, but with what she knows and has chosen to forget or ignore. In these days following the Fourth of July, with the smell of barbecue lingering in our backyards and American flags flapping in front of our houses and streaming from the backs of our cars, we need books like Ozeki’s My Year of Meats to remind us to question the history of these symbols, our voluntary ignorance, and what, exactly, it means to be an American.
Ingrid Vega, Intern: In transit, journals always have room in my carry-on; but their svelte size does nothing to diminish the amount of erudition they can pack in one read. Other than ZYZZYVA (of course), The New Criterion has made its way to my travel bag. In 1982, this journal was born out of Matthew Arnold’s quote, “the best has been taught and said.” That statement challenged art critic Hilton Kramer and pianist Samuel Lipman to “experiment in critical audacity.” The journal brings in critics — both new and established — with the homologous aim of delivering the sharpest criticism of today. I especially adore The New Criterion for its music criticism. In the June 2018 issue, music critic Jay Nordlinger wrote “classical music is a minority taste,” in his article “New York Chronicle.” His writing — engaging and replete with the consistent sharpness that The New Criterion cultivates — also displays a satiating humility not commonly attributed to the intellectual community.
Throughout the “New York Chronicle,” Nordlinger expresses his admiration for Mahan Estefani, lauding him as an evangelist for the harpsichord; shares who he feels should succeed James Levine as the director of the Metropolitan Opera; and enlightens us concerning several recitals he recently attended by Russian pianists, Argentine cellists, and Latvian conductors. I harken back to Matthew Arnold’s philosophy while reading this journal: The New Criterion, for me, provides guidance as a young writer, as well as a satisfying consciousness of that “minority taste” and a reminder there are still people who care to disseminate it.
Claire Ogilvie, Intern: Whenever I am in transit (house moving, on vacation, or even during a long bus ride), I find comfort and connection in reading memoirs; in experiencing a journey in tandem with an author. One of my favorite and most repeated reads — especially for those summer months when reading becomes all the more languorous — is eminent rock critic Richard Goldstein’s 2015 cultural tour de force and crash-course in Sixties pop, Another Little Piece of My Heart. Goldstein’s memoir introduces readers to his lifelong love of rock music and counter-culture by way of his early twenties, when he spent his days traveling the country, pioneering of the art of rock criticism for the Village Voice. Goldstein is, refreshingly, most critical of himself; covering his early blunders and deep insecurities, as he elbowed his way backstage to conduct slapdash interviews with the likes of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and just about every other pop culture icon of the Sixties. Goldstein’s journalistic prose is peppered with self-effacing humor, filled with poignant recollections of the toll fame and drugs takes on an artistic soul, and brimming with the sincerity and wisdom of hindsight:
“What sticks in my memory is the way he looked. Hendrix was stupefied, his shirt stained with what looked like caked puke. I listened to him mumbling for several minutes before leaving as graciously as I could. There was no publicist to make excuses or even wipe him up. I was tempted to put that meeting into print, but by then I had lost my distance from the musicians I wrote about. I’d learned to honor the feeling of empathy that they often aroused in me. There were two kinds of rock stars, it seemed: the survivors, such as Dylan and Jagger, who hid behind their personas, and those whose precarious egos marked them for ritual self-destruction. No way would I perform the journalistic equivalent of that nasty spectacle by blowing Jimi’s cover.”
My copy is rightfully in tatters (the pages dog-eared and the cover faded from sun
exposure) after becoming a carry-on and poolside staple. Just as visceral after every reread, Goldstein chronicles the chaos of the Summer of Love, the Civil Rights movement, and Vietnam through the reactionary violence and poetry of the rock ’n’ roll revolution.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: At the risk of being thunderingly obvious, Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 suspense classic Strangers on a Train stands out to me as a must-read while on the go. Sure, we’re all familiar with the Alfred Hitchcock film, which –– no doubt propelled by the ingenious hook of two men “trading” murders –– arrived in theaters only a year after the book, but it is Highsmith’s novel that is allowed to go even deeper and darker in both its psychological complexity and violence. With this, her debut work, Highsmith introduces many of the themes she would explore throughout her career, including morally dubious protagonists, homoerotic subtext, and noir-ish murder plots.
When architect Guy Haines encounters charismatic playboy Charles Anthony Bruno on a train ride to Metcalfe, Georgia, he has no idea he’s about to be plunged into his own personal hell. The smooth-talking Bruno has a talent for quickly worming his way into strangers’ confidence, and soon learns of Guy’s unhappiness with his straying wife. Conveniently, Bruno himself is looking to get out from under the thumb of his domineering father, and suggests he and Guy swap murders, as the seemingly motiveless crimes would surely leave the authorities baffled. Guy is quick to rebuff his fellow passenger, but Bruno is not so easily deterred, and the budding psychopath becomes a long shadow darkening the step of Guy’s life as soon as he departs the train.
I’d wager much of the reason both the original book and Hitchcock’s adaptation continue to linger in the public imagination (Gone Girl director David Fincher has teased a remake as recently as 2015) is the way the concept underscores the inherent randomness and risk involved in travel. As soon as we set foot out our door, we give ourselves over to chance –– and the knowledge that the strangers we pass on the road, brush past on the train, or sit next to on a flight could just as easily be our next great love as our most insidious enemy; the particular brilliance of Highsmith’s novel is how Guy and Bruno’s obsessive game proves sometimes they can be both.
Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor: You couldn’t narrowly define the late Sergio Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory” as just travel books. Yet the three volumes in his genre-defying series—The Art of Flight, The Journey, and The Magician of Vienna (translated into English by George Henson, and published by Deep Vellum)—are nonetheless invigorating travelogues
Pitol, who died in April at 85, was awarded both the Juan Rulfo Prize (in 1999) and the Cervantes Prize (in 2005, which he won for The Journey), making him one of the most acclaimed Spanish-language writers, as well as Mexican authors, of his era. The “Trilogy of Memory” describes, through what Henson aptly describes as a “collage technique,” Pitol’s formation as a writer, the blueprints of his novels and stories, and, for me, most enjoyably, his wanderlust. He finds himself in Central Europe, the Caucasus, and Russia, in Western Europe and China, sharing the company of an array of writers and poets, steeping himself in the literature of whatever nation he happens to be. (Pitol was also a translator, bringing into Spanish the works of Witold Gombrowicz, Jerzy Andrejewski, Henry James, Jane Austen, Giorgio Bassani, and many others.) Those meetings and relationships are winningly infused with an appreciation for the wonder of his vocation, and for the joys of culture and thought.
(Fortunately for Pitol, finding work in Mexico’s diplomatic corps gets him across the
globe niftily, as does having handy a valuable painting or a rare book to sell; any
writing about distant sojourns can’t help but remind, once again, that it’s incredibly
useful in life to have either a surfeit of money or of youth, which is to say time.)
But the travel in these books happens as much in the mind as on forlorn docks.
Pitol’s discursions on novels and stories are transporting. In fact, the distances
covered and worlds inhabited in his head are indistinguishable in their tangibility
from the streets and the rooms he inhabits abroad. The “Trilogy of Memory,” then,
conveys that other amazing aspect of travel, of time traversed. That’s a one-way
journey, of course. But if you’ve been looking behind and around you before the last
station comes into view, the scenery can be amazing.
guns and roses,
what’s the point.
left out standing in the cold.
If I had a thought, I’d tell you,
bow my head if there’s a prayer.
no such luck,
no such mercy
i am waiting, I am old.
give us this day our daily bread,
maybe we’ll feed it to the dead.
The Japanese word “Irrashaimasse” is an honorific expression used most often as a stock welcome in places of business. The spirit of the word is reflected throughout award-winning author Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori; 176 pages; Grove Press), which invites readers to re-examine contemporary society’s absurdities through the idiosyncratic worldview of its narrator, 36-year-old Keiko Furukura. Murata perfectly portrays this unconventional woman who has been leading a stagnant life working at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart since its opening 18 years ago. In the meantime, her friends are getting married and having children.
Furukura has never even been with a man, until an unlikely solution presents itself in the form of her new co-worker, Shiraha. Unfortunately, Shiraha is viewed as a societal parasite, a close-minded man who believes that the world is still “basically the stone age with a veneer of contemporary society,” and only took a job at the convenience store to find a wife. To little surprise, not only does he perform poorly, but he is eventually fired for his stalker-like behavior toward some of the female customers and employees. Furukura crosses paths with him again when she sees him outside the store and realizes he has been evicted from his place and is now homeless. She proposes a convenience marriage, which to Shiraha wasn’t ideal initially, but it is beneficial for both of them; this turns in to a quid-pro-quo situation as Shiraha only agrees to live with her if Furukura allows him to stay in the apartment. She can talk about him all she wants, but he doesn’t wish to be seen in public where he believes society will berate him for his choices.
Their relationship bears positive fruit in Furukura’s life: her co-workers invite her out for drinks, and her friends finally display some excitement instead of judgment toward her. She slowly tries to assimilate into society’s standards of a normal life—for instance, she considers bearing children with Shiraha—but the idea is stopped by a phone conversation with Shiraha’s sister-in-law. “Please don’t even consider it,” she tells her. “You’ll be doing us all a favor by not leaving your genes behind. That’s the best contribution to the human race you could make.”
Muriel Sparks wrote in A Good Comb, “There is nothing like work to calm your emotions,” and Furukura not only turns to work to calm her emotions, but to give her a sense of having some role in society. “I just come in every day,” she declares, “because I am accepted as a well-functioning part of the store.” She believes her very cells exist for the store, and so can never hope to leave her position.
Convenience Store Woman is a novel that proves sylphlike; spare in its contents, with a masterfully deceptive comic veneer that keeps the reader turning the page. Even with peculiar and macabre elements aplenty (as when a young Furukura wants to grill and eat a dead bird she finds on the ground), Murata has penned an unlikely feminist tale that unflinchingly depicts the social constructs of being a single woman.
Published in a year defined by women’s activism, Rupert Thomson’s new novel, Never Anyone But You (368 pages; Other Press), succeeds in reimagining the lives of two of the most intriguing, elusive, and under-appreciated figures of the Parisian Surrealist movement, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. As lovers, anti-fascist activists, and even step-sisters, the two were an inseparable creative force during their more than forty years of partnership.
Originally born Lucy Schwob (Cahun) and Suzanne Malherbe (Moore), the pair hailed from two affluent and, well educated families that encouraged their artistic pursuits; introduced as teenagers in 1909, they began an artistic partnership that led to romance. The artists’ families became close, resulting in the 1917 marriage of Malherbe’s widowed mother to Schwob’s divorced father. Ironically, the marriage made it easier for the pair to continue their romantic relationship and live together in Paris, helping them navigate their eras barriers around gender and sexuality. It was around this time in their artistic careers, that they adopted the more gender-fluid identities they would become best known for — Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.
Outside of Cahun’s writing and the pair’s collaborative photography, which captured their avant-garde view of gender and renunciation of the patriarchy, there is little work to substantiate the motivations of Moore and Cahun’s eccentric and electric lives. This is largely because the Nazi’s destroyed their home in Jersey in 1944, when they were arrested and sentenced to death for the creation and distribution of anti-Nazi propaganda. This lack of physical records, coupled with the secrecy necessary to maintain their bohemian and forbidden romance, has left much of Cahun and Moore’s private lives to the imagination.
Interestingly, while the couple’s art and writing have been exhibited and published since the 1920’s, achieving them cult-figure status in gay community and the art world, Cahun continues to receive the majority of praise, despite Moore’s intrinsic involvement in their photography and Cahun’s writing. (David Bowie said of Cahun’s work, “You could call her transgressive or you could call her a cross dressing Man Ray with surrealist tendencies. I find this work really quite mad, in the nicest way.”) Unlike some of their Surrealist contemporaries, Cahun and Moore did not use their work to achieve fame or notoriety. Their artwork was boundary breaking, self explorational, and deeply personal. It was not until decades after their deaths that Moore and Cahun’s photography resurfaced. Nearly a hundred years later, the pair’s androgynous photography continues to be breathtakingly mysterious.
The ingenuity of Thomson’s novel is its focus on the relationship from Moore’s perspective, fleshing out her identity as a person and an artist in her own right. In this way, Never Anyone But You imagines a tender and, at times, volatile love story for Cahun and Moore. He explores the couple’s forty-five-year relationship from beginning to end; twisting and turning through the uncertainties of young love, the security and maturity of lifelong partnership, and the atrocities and violence of two world wars. The book reads as the confessional diary one wishes Marcel Moore had kept. Thomson elucidates Cahun as a prolific artist vacillating between stability and self-destruction, but primarily focuses on the toll this takes on Moore as her life-long confidante and caretaker—a role Moore simultaneously cherishes and fears: “Sometimes the person you’re closest to is the one you understand the least. Sometimes, when you’re that close, everything just blurs.”
As we experience their world, from the extravagant Parisian parties (where they met and befriended Robert Desnos, Henri Michaux, and other Modernists who happened through Paris) to their brutal imprisonment, Thomson’s writing brings into being the secret, profound, and determined love Moore and Cahun shared, asking introspective questions in the process:
“Is physical love bound to decay, just as everything in the physical world decays? Is it natural for love to change and deepen into something that feels almost spiritual? Had I altered or had she?”
“Can the love somebody has for you be tangible like that, there one moment, gone the next? Does it take up space inside you? And when it evaporates, does it leave a gap where it once was?”
One of the strengths of Never Anyone But You is that it doesn’t shy away from the plentiful uncertainties of Moore’s life and her sorrowful end. The final passages, some of the most striking in the novel, parallel the final scenes of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; exploring the character’s resolved final moments in a haze of tranquil dreams and reflections.
It could very well be that our best attempt at understanding Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun’s love and art is through Thomson’s psychologically mesmerizing re-imagination of their lives, coupled with viewing their art (some of which you can see at SFMOMA’s current exhibit, Selves and Others, on display until September 23).
This Independence Day week, champion vision and perseverance with a subscription to ZYZZYVA—one of the nation’s few independent literary journals.
Your subscription will include a FREE copy (a $15 value) of our acclaimed Art & Resistance Issue (No. 111), featuring essays, poetry, and stories by T.J. Stiles, Dana Johnson, Robin Romm, Victoria Chang, Krys Lee, Dorthe Nors, Dean Rader,Ruth Madievsky, Jenny Xie, David Hernandez, and many more. (A subscription starts with our current issue, Spring/Summer, which will be delivered to you with the Art & Resistance Issue.)
Subscribe before July 9th, and see for yourself why ZYZZYVA is so widely enjoyed.
And have a Happy Fourth of July!
Tony Hoagland’s books probably have the most intriguing titles of any contemporary poet. The newest one, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God (74 pages; Graywolf Press) follows hard on Recent Changes in the Vernacular, from Tres Chicas Books, out late last year.
What Hoagland does better than any other poet is select the exact details to throw the cognitive dissonance inherent in contemporary American life into stark relief. Never sentimental, often fond, and always accurate, his lines cut through to the essence of experience. Yet they are leavened by tenderness and longing, a wry acceptance of the human condition. There is an elfin quality that is particular to Hoagland’s work that tempers the sharpness of his vision. And it’s impossible to read a book of his poems without laughing out loud at least once. Humor is his weapon of choice.
It’s hard to capture this in a few lines from a poem, because Hoagland’s technique layers the detail, stanza by stanza, to create the whole. He builds image after image, the furniture of the everyday x-rayed and deconstructed and reassembled, offset with the ever present, fragile beauty of the natural world, like a blossom on a chain link fence. But here are a few examples that can at least give a taste of the unique Hoagland flavor:
In Hollywood, fifty movie stars have pledged
not to use their swimming pools
until world thirst is ended.
Meg Freitag’s Edith (83 pages; BOAAT Books), winner of the inaugural Book Prize from BOAAT Press, comprises a series of vivid, voice-y lyrics addressed to a pet parakeet—the titular Edith—who dies halfway through the book. It turns out speaking to a pet bird makes a certain kind of affectionate disclosure possible; the experience of reading these poems is often one of overhearing an earnest speaker struggling to explain herself to a tiny, mute beloved. But the speaker’s love for her pet is also inextricable from her tenderness toward the world, and her mourning for Edith is bound up in other losses, too, including the end of a relationship, a transcontinental move, and the deaths of friends and idols.
This intimate address is only part of what makes Freitag’s speaker so endearing. She’s also winningly imaginative, once comparing heartache to an elaborate pinball game, and standing beneath a glowing sky to being “inside / A plum … some needful giant / Was holding a flashlight to.” In a scene typical of Freitag’s dizzying dream sequences, the speaker is “walking around Costco / Without any skin on while a throng of people / Followed [her], clicking those little devices / Which are meant for training dogs / Every time [she] touched something.” The book is also carefully, almost novelistically structured; while we know from the get-go Edith is doomed, the events of her death reveal themselves with suspenseful, dilatory slowness.
Long before the book’s publication, my friends and I read and circulated all the poems of Freitag’s we could find online, gushing about their luminous nouns, their surprising swerves, and their unspooling epic similes, which manage to precisely characterize our mushiest, most interior experiences. Who hasn’t watched their lover from across the room “like a snake / With its eye on a prairie dog’s / Hole?” Who hasn’t, in the throes of dread, felt “all the blood / Moving through [them] with great / Effort, like it was full of seeds?” In the following interview, conducted over email, Freitag discusses how exactly images like these occurred to her, as well as mirrors, dreams, and writing by ear.
ZYZZYVA: The majority of these poems are addressed to Edith, who we learn is the speaker’s pet parakeet. Over the course of the book, I feel like Edith evolves from a mourned pet to a sort of emissary from the afterlife; speaking to Edith becomes a way of speaking to the dead, or to the void, or to an indifferent god. What drew you to this kind of highly lyrical, odic apostrophe?
Meg Freitag: I’ve always been really interested in recurring characters in poetry collections. John Berryman’s Henry, Bill Knott’s Naomi, Herbert Zbigneiw’s Mr. Cogito, for instance. At the time when I started the Edith poems, I was reading Josh Bell’s No Planets Strike, which is a wonderful and bewildering book. He uses the name “Ramona” like a touchstone in his poems. No matter how wild they get, he’s able to pull the poem back to its center with just three syllables.
When I first started writing to Edith she was still very much alive. I had no idea the turn things would take. The Edith poems started as a kind of exercise, a way to lighten up my writing a bit and hopefully generate more material for workshops. Edith and I had been through a lot together over the years, and I was taken with this idea that she’d been passively complicit in it all through witness. I was still searching for my “voice” at that time. When she died about six months into the project, the whole project immediately took on a new significance. I don’t know that at any point during the writing process I thought about the Edith poems as eventually comprising a book with a cohesive emotional arc, with a sort of composite narrative. This is something that only really revealed itself to me when I was putting the book together. During the writing of the poems, I just had this feeling that I followed through its evolution and eventual natural conclusion. It was all very organic for me.
To: All Quest Industries Employees
From: President Bryan Stokerly, Esq.
Subj: Staying the Course
Please ignore any and all rumors you might be hearing in these hallways about the financial health of Quest Industries. Everything is fine, ladies and gentlemen. It really is.
Take my word for it.
One other matter before I conclude:
Whoever has been sticking wads of chewing gum on the underside of my office
doorknob, here is a warning, just for you: Stop this evil, puerile business immediately or I will be forced to hire an unscrupulous acquaintance of mine who will beat you until your face resembles a cube steak the next time you attempt to put your disgusting wad of Juicy Fruit on my fucking knob.
After you are beaten to within an inch of your sorry life, you will be fired and blackballed throughout these 48 contiguous states, and the other 2 states, along with the rest of the Western world, parts of the Orient and various third-world countries too.
Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.
Elle Nash’s first novel, Animals Eat Each Other (121 pages; Dzanc Books), opens with a pair of quotes from Wal-Mart’s Vice President and shock rocker Marilyn Manson, offering readers their first clue as to what kind of milieu Nash is about to immerse them in. It’s one where big box stores encroach uncomfortably on property lines, where meals are more often microwaved than cooked, and teenagers rifle through their parents’ medicine cabinets in search of opioids. The setting is Colorado Springs, a predominantly white town in a county where the majority of voters cast their lot with Donald Trump in the 2016 election; but Animals Eat Each Other’s lens is trained on a different era.
The story opens in 2005 as it’s unnamed nineteen-year-old narrator (who will come to take the name Lilith) feels somewhat adrift in life, sleeping with the manager at her strip mall job, casually partaking in drugs and alcohol, and quietly moving around her trailer at night to avoid her mother, who hasn’t been the same since the death of her husband. “My hobbies included touching myself, drinking cough syrup, and flirting with boys at RadioShack,” she observes. “Could I be anything else?”
Circumstances change when her co-worker Jenny introduces her to a young couple named Matt and Frances, who manage to maintain a hedonistic lifestyle of metal shows and raves despite having an infant at home. The slightly older duo quickly take to our narrator, and dub her Lilith, after the figure in Jewish folklore said to be Adam’s first wife and made from the same dirt as him rather than his rib. Lilith soon learns Matt and Frances are self-professed Satanists, for whom traditional Christian mores hold little significance; Matt declares their beliefs, “A rejection of the puritanical world that is always pulling you outside of yourself and asking you to serve others shamefully. Always asking you to turn the other cheek.”
As Matt and Frances initiate a sexual relationship with Lilith, the trio forms a fragile unit in which jealousy and possession are constantly shifting scales. Though the book is less a coming-of-age tale than a brief and blurry look back at Lilith’s wild teenage days, our narrator nevertheless comes away from this emotionally-charged experience with hard-won observations about intimacy and gender dynamics. She is constantly forced to question if her relationship with Matt and Frances is the liberating middle finger to “family values” it feels like during their headiest moments (“I wonder if in the past, people lived like this,” she muses. “Sometimes it felt tribal to be this way, as if we were a group of degenerates, isolated but entwined”) or if she is merely a pawn the couple has deployed in an attempt to gain dominance over one another. Telling her tale from a place of hindsight, Lilith acknowledges she may have merely represented something new and unspoiled to a pair combating the doldrums of monogamy: “When you don’t live with someone, you don’t get to see their imperfect facets. The mean side of them. The impatient, ungrateful side.”
Along the way, Nash peppers the novel with rich details, from her description of Lilith taking Special K at a party (“I felt like a bag of marshmallows, plastic and all, expanding and melting inside of a safe, hot microwave”) to the catalog of less than nutritious meals comprising Lilith’s diet: pizza Hot Pockets and Hamburger Helper, Doritos, and ranch-flavored sunflower seeds (“After a few dozen, the ranch dust started to taste like vomit”).
The novel’s brevity works in its favor since the narrative’s fleet-footedness reflects Lilith’s lack of deliberation. She often operates on impulse, which tends to create a briar patch of her closest relationships. While Matt and Frances’ Satanist beliefs may be more informed by Marilyn Manson lyrics than any religious text, they nevertheless leave the couple prone to pursuing self-pleasure no matter the emotional cost. “Everyone has this demi urge to destroy and to create…wanting to serve yourself isn’t a bad thing,” Matt advises. Before long, Lilith comes to recognize her own destructive power. “I could feel the manipulative part of myself light up like a highway at dusk,” she declares as she continues to lie and toy with the people closest to her, including Matt’s friend Patrick, who has a newborn of his own.
Lilith’s choices bring an inevitable reckoning, but it is her bond with her best friend, Jenny, that creates a pocket of human warmth amid the wreckage of Lilith’s fizzled hook-ups. “I felt ashamed and jealous that she could know so much about me when I didn’t understand why I was doing what I did at all,” Lilith says when Jenny reads her Tarot cards. Their relationship may have its complications, but it ultimately provides Lilith with an anchor of stability during the fallout of her experience with Matt and Frances. “When she looked at me it was different than how Matt saw me,” Lilith observes. “Jenny seemed to leave herself and move into me.”
Early in Animals Eat Each Other, Nash briefly takes us to what is ostensibly the present moment, to Lilith in front of her computer and scrolling through Matt and Frances’ Facebook feed. The two are now married and smiling in picture after picture. Lilith laughs ruefully, noting it’s “as if nothing I’m about to tell you ever actually happened.” It should be a familiar scene for anyone who’s ever spent a late night basking in the glow of a laptop as they explore an ex-lover’s digital footprint, searching for some indication of where things went wrong. “There is a way people damage you, a way they’ll change the structure of your DNA, the way your brain is wired,” Lilith says. But her story proves that even among the soured memories, we might “retrace the constellation of every event” and find a reminder of our resilience.