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In the Winter Issue

In this issue:

Tales of the Uncanny

“Shelter” by Kate Folk: the concrete vault in the basement of a rented house exerts a strange pull on the woman living above it.

“Take the Water Prisoner” by Shawn Vestal: when the sins (and pains) of the father are visited upon the son.

“The Canyon” by Jim Ruland: the struggle for sobriety leads Lindsay to a confrontation she couldn’t have imagined.

“The Lake and the Onion” by David Drury: “There once was a lake who fell in love with an onion. This is merely what we 100 percent know.”

Interview

Michael Ondaatje on character, plot, West Marin, and diaspora.

Nonfiction

Fabián Martínez Siccardi on revisiting his family’s stoical estancia (“Patagonian Fox”) and Teresa H. Janssen on relief work and refugees (“Adrift at Sea”)

And More Fiction and Poetry:

Meron Hadero’s “The Street Sweep” (a young man’s future may be decided at a hotel gathering in Addis Ababa), Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “The Golden Age of Television” (the particular tyranny of the writers’ room), Jane Gillette’s “Ten Little Feet” (a less-than-innocent tradition at a tony school for boys), plus new work from Jessica Francis Kane and Olivia Clare.

Poems by Bruce Snider, Austen Leah Rosenfeld, Flower Conroy, Ryanaustin Dennis, Heather Altfeld, Allison Adair, Moriel Rothman-Zecher, and Heather Christle

Art: Featuring photographs from Kate Ballis’s “Infra Realism” series.

You can purchase a copy of No. 114 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA now and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Winter issue.

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Refusing to Flinch: ‘Rag’ by Maryse Meijer

RagThe final and eponymous story from Maryse Meijer’s newest collection, Rag (144 pages; FSG), is written from the point of view of a rag stuffed down a woman’s throat, slowly killing her. Reading Rag feels a bit like this, as the fourteen unsettling stories leave you gasping for air. With terse, dark prose, Meijer has created a cohesive set of stories which seem to delight in exploring taboos and destroying expectations.

These stories are unsettlingly honest, with the most twisted inner thoughts of each principal character laid bare for the reader. Rag is at its strongest when delving into the minds of its uniformly flawed narrators, which include a college student living in self-imposed isolation, a high school teacher consumed by an unhealthy obsession with his student, and a pizza shop worker who develops feelings for a woman who has a miscarriage in his store’s public bathroom.

Many of the stories focus on themes of self-injury, dubiously consensual sex, and disordered eating, Meijer refusing to flinch from their alarming details. One of the collection’s most compelling stories follows a father serving on the jury for a murder trial while attempting to reconcile with his estranged daughter. Another focuses on a homicide detective who, over the course of an investigation, becomes convinced being decapitated by his principal suspect would be the only fitting end to his life. In a particularly powerful passage, Meijer reflects on the detective’s perceptions of the case and his work:

“The detective keeps a photo of the dead man’s head; there it is, intact, stuck to a bulletin board. You’re going to die, the detective thinks every times he looks at the ugly happy face…He strokes the glossy photo and thinks of all the women he has known, all the meat inside a man. How often it is the other way around: the woman in pieces, and every man a murderer.”

Twelve of the fourteen narrators are male, allowing Meijer to explore their varyingly warped perceptions of women. In deconstructing the many forms of the male gaze, she grants insight into the roots of each character’s neuroses and fixations, skewering the most extreme manifestations of toxic masculinity. The haunting, beautifully horrific stories in Rag linger long after finishing the collection, and subtly answer almost as many questions as they raise about what it means to interact with and be a man in the modern world.

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“Summer at the Baltic Sea, 1958” by Kelly Cressio-Moeller, ZYZZYVA No. 110, Fall Issue

Summer at the Balctic Sea, 1958Kelly Cressio-Moeller is an associate editor at Glass Lyre Press. Her work has previously appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 101. Her poem “Summer at the Baltic Sea, 1958” from ZYZZYVA No. 110 is presented in its entirety below:

The sepia-toned man & woman
sit together in a Strandkorb
an arched canopy pushed back
their heads turned toward
each other eyes smiling
she wears a strapless swimsuit
her body leaning forward
arms mid-motion
as if brushing away sand
he wears a striped beach robe
one hand wrapped around
his raised knee on the footrest
the other holding the side of his neck
considering her measuring his words
in two years they will marry
forgetting seastorm days
no one remembers
who took the photograph
it does not matter
that it was captured at all
a wind-borne miracle
ephemeral as summer
her bare shoulders
glowing bright as amber
found along the strand

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Interspecies Conflict: Q&A with ‘Half-Hazard’ author Kristen Tracy

9781555978228One of two epigraphs for Kristen Tracy’s debut collection of poetry, Half-Hazard (94 pages; Graywolf Press), advises that, “when a bear attacks, the victim who fights back is likely to fare better than the one who plays dead.” Although this is useful information to have in case of a rogue bear attack, it’s not as helpful when considering how to read the stunning assortment of poems included in the book. Readers might be better served if, rather than attempting to fight the sweeping flow of Tracy’s fantastic lines and vivid imagery, they “play dead” and allow it to wash over them. Tracy, who is also a prolific author of many young adult novels, brings her understanding of the youthful psyche to the page as she describes her experiences growing up in a Mormon farming community and explores themes of loss, sexuality, and leaving home in sharp, playful verse. The winner of 2018 Emily Dickinson First Book Award, Half-Hazard practically overflows with a diverse array of animals, including bears. Recently, Tracy, whose poems were published in ZYZZYVA No. 112, spoke to us about the writing process, family history, and interspecies seabird warfare.

ZYZZYVA: A zoo’s worth of animals appear throughout your poems in Half-Hazard— tigers, lions, and bears (oh my!) pop up within the first few pages. What draws you to animals, and do you have a favorite?

KRISTEN TRACY: I grew up in a small Mormon farming community near Yellowstone Park. Animals were everywhere, even in the nightly news where reports of bear attacks and buffalo gorings dominated the summer news cycle. So I’ve been captivated by animals since my childhood. Bears are probably my favorite animal. A few years ago I went to Transylvania and toured a bear preserve with my three-year-old, and I kept enthusiastically pointing to all the bears and he finally said, “Let’s go home. This place is boring.” So I pointed out more bears and he said, “Mom, those bears are boring.” And so I fear bear adoration is not a hereditary trait.

Z: Two of your poems, “Goodbye, Idaho” and “Taming the Dog,” appeared in ZYZZYVA Issue 112. “Goodbye, Idaho” and many other poems in the collection are very grounded in place, ranging from San Francisco to Alaska to the moon. Where do you consider home?

KT: I live in Los Angeles County right now and I’m really happy here, so it feels like home. For me, the place where everything started is Idaho. It held my whole childhood, so I’m still pinned to it. A few years ago my dad was doing his estate planning and asked me to sign off on things. He owns a propane company in Idaho, and I realized in signing the paperwork that he’d made me vice president of the propane company, and so I called him and said, “I can’t be vice-president of a propane company.” And he said, “Sure you can. And you can come back every year for the company Christmas party.” So I do make it back at least once a year for that. I feel like it was a pretty sneaky move on his part, to keep me coming “home.”

Z: There were so many lines in the collection that made me laugh out loud. How do you balance humor and disaster in your work?

KT: So I have a sad backstory. I’ve lost both a brother and a sister in separate car accidents. My family was overwhelmed by grief, and I realized that somebody had to be funny. So at seven I became the funny one. I basically view it as my job. And as I got older and became a writer, I started writing funny things. My children’s books are funny. I like making people laugh, so now I have my poetry do some mood-lifting work. I think that suffering those twin losses altered my lens on how I see the world. I notice tragedy, accidents, disaster. But I don’t want my readers to sit in sadness. I want everybody to be okay.

Z: You mention volunteering as a gardener on Alcatraz. What was that experience like, and what was the most surprising thing you learned?

KT: I spent several years volunteering as a gardener on Alcatraz, where I learned a tremendous amount about seabirds, particularly sea gulls, because they are brutal beasts who will destroy anything. I once watched a group of seagulls tear a line of goslings apart in front of stunned tourists who pleaded with me to stop the carnage. I wasn’t allowed to intervene, because one of the first rules I learned on Alcatraz was that when it came to the birds I wasn’t allowed to get involved in interspecies conflict. The savagery overwhelmed me. I didn’t realize I’d witness so much bird-on-bird violence. But I loved working to restore the gardens, and if I ever live close enough to the island I’d go back and garden there again.

Z: When did you start writing, and what led you to poetry?

KT: I didn’t start writing poetry until I was in college. I decided my best chance of escaping my tiny Mormon upbringing was to apply to a school far away from it. So I only applied to one college, Loyola Marymount University, and that’s where I went. My freshman year I became good friends with a rebellious Jehovah’s Witness who suggested I take a poetry class with her. I did, and my teacher, Gail Wronsky, really encouraged me and told me I had real talent. I didn’t get a lot of exposure to art growing up, or encouragement. So I really clung to this. Following a path in the arts became a way to rebel against my faith system. I spent years reprogramming myself to value something other than the Mormon belief system I’d been fed as a child. Studying and writing poetry really helped me form my identity.

Z: You also write books for young readers. What books influenced you the most growing up?

KT: I wish I’d read better books growing up. My library had a bunch of Disney books in it. Stone Soup retold as Button Soup with Daisy Duck. So I read a lot of folk tales, but they had Chip and Dale in them. Lots of Bible stories. Lots of Book of Mormon stories. I didn’t become a big reader until college.

Z: In your acknowledgments, you mention that Half Hazard has been in the works for almost two decades. What kept you going, and what was your revision process like?

KT: I can’t believe it took twenty years for this book to exist. It was all the small encouraging accomplishments along the way that motivated me to keep at it. I’d place poems in journals I truly loved. I’d win fellowships to conferences. I’d been a finalist for the Yale Younger Poet Prize and a semifinalist for the Walt Whitman Award and Sarabande Books Kathryn Morton Prize. So I figured if I kept writing poems, eventually luck would find me. And it did!

Z: Half-Hazard is your first book of poetry. What has the experience of publication been like for you, and are you working on a second?

KT: I’ve never felt so thrilled or vulnerable. Working with Graywolf has been amazing. And everybody at the Poetry Foundation has been so supportive and kind. I’m definitely working on a second book. I’m revising a poem about the propane company right now.

Read Kristen Tracy’s poetry in ZYZZYVA Issue 112, which you can order from our Shop page.

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Sacrificed to History: ‘Ghost Wall’ by Sarah Moss

Ghost WallIn Sarah Moss’s novel, Ghost Wall (130 pages; FSG), seventeen-year-old Silvie embarks on a trip to rural northeastern England with her family and a university archaeology class. Silvie’s father, Bill, earns a living as a bus driver, but his true passion is for the history of the Iron Age and its “bog people,” the ancient Britons who were sacrificed in this region centuries ago. Over the course of the two-week trip, the small group attempts to reenact the lifestyle of 1000 B.C., wearing scratchy tunics and hunting and foraging for their meals. For Bill, the trip is a chance to live exactly like the ancient Britons –– down to the dated and ritualistic behaviors that let him indulge in his own violent and misogynistic tendencies.

Silvie narrates the story, moving fluidly between related observations and internal monologue. The narration transitions so smoothly, in fact, that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish what is being said aloud and what are simply Silvie’s thoughts weaving themselves into the moment. Interestingly, perhaps because of the stream-of-consciousness style, the distinction doesn’t feel very important.

As the story goes on, it becomes obvious to the characters and reader alike that Silvie, desperate for independence and an end to her childhood, harbors real fear of agitating her father. Silvie’s narration suggests her mother, Alison, spends the trip (and her life beyond the trip) cooking and cleaning, obedient to Bill’s demands. Bill physically abuses his family more than once during the reenactment, but always out of sight of the others. It’s a well-kept secret until, as the trip brings their dynamic to light, a student named Molly concludes something simply isn’t right:

He hits you, she said, your dad. He’s been hitting you here. You’re scared of him. No, I said, no, I’m not, of course I’m not, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I stopped. Maybe you’re jealous because your dad left you, I thought, because he doesn’t love you, because he doesn’t care enough to teach you a lesson. Haven’t you been listening, people don’t bother to hurt what they don’t love. To sacrifice it.

While Molly and Silvie forage each day, the archaeology professor and Bill feed off of each other’s enthusiasm for the historical period. Their excitement turns dark following the reconstruction of a “ghost wall,” which was used during the Iron Age to ward off the Romans during times of war. After rebuilding it, the pair considers it an almost spiritual gateway into the past. They become carried away and eventually insist that Silvie play the part of the human sacrifice in a ritual the following night:

Silvie, said Dan, Silvie, you sure you don’t mind this? The ropes and everything? Of course she doesn’t, said Dad, she knows we won’t hurt her, she’s not stupid.

Silvie, said Dan.

I nodded. Yeah, it’s OK.

You lead her, Bill, said the Professor, after all, she’s your sacrifice.

Ghost Wall is a short and cogent book highlighting the dynamics of one family through the lens of a rather bizarre and unsettling family trip. Bringing the distant past together with issues faced by women today—most of them rooted in history themselves—Moss’ novel asks readers to consider what we might stand to gain from history, and what we must leave behind.

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Staff Notes: What We’re Reading, Watching, and Listening to this Month

We are firmly entrenched in 2019 now and, as such, the staff here at ZYZZYVA thought we would stop to take note of what we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to this month:

Three PoemsKatie O’Neill, Intern: This holiday season, one of the best gifts I received was Hannah Sullivan’s debut collection Three Poems.  The winner of the 2018 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the collection is comprised of three long poems – “You, Very Young in New York,” “Repeat Until Time,” and “The Sandpit After Rain.”  Quoting from and referencing Phillip Larkin, Claude Monet, and Joan Didion, among many others, the collection is grounded in the modern experience while deftly honoring those who came before.  Each poem is distinct and could easily stand alone, but together they allow the book to feel like a revelation.

As someone who is “very young,” I am especially drawn to the first poem, “You, Very Young in New York,” which traces the experiences of a young woman in New York City and meditates on the nature of love and intimacy in the modern world.  Containing gems of lines like, “Your friends wear flannel and McDonald’s name badges…You think the great American novelist is David Foster Wallace,” the poem skewers the pretensions of young, self-described “literary” types without being unkind.  It is addressed to an unclear “you,” who might be her younger self, or perhaps to all young people, and ranges between the conversational, the descriptive, and the profound.

“Repeat Until Time” is significantly more opaque in its meaning. Sullivan is an Associate Professor at Oxford and her varied research interests include, “how writers write and revise, particularly the process of innovation, in ways of classifying and interpreting style, and…the relationship between local and major form.”

“Repeat Until Time” explores this interest in the relationship between form and content by examining philosopher Heraclitus’ famous observation that, “On those who step into the same rivers, different and different waters keep on flowing.”  She rephrases this as, “There is no stepping twice in same or different rivers” and continues down this path to consider the difficulty of originality. References to San Francisco are scattered throughout the poem, alternately celebrating and criticizing its offbeat nature and rampant inequality.

The final poem, “The Sandpit After Rain,” is the most clearly personal, comparing the birth of her son to the death of her father.  She compares herself to a stuffed chicken and a caged eel, references Tolkien and yoga, and explores the beauty of a children’s sandpit made dirty with litter after a storm.  In a particularly striking moment, she observes that, “there is no necessary season for things/and birth and death happen on adjacent wards,/that both are labour, halting and starting:/that women are always the middlemen/finding the coins.”  Moments and phrases like these are frequent occurrences throughout the collection, which is well deserving of the praise it has won for balancing precise details with larger reflections on the challenges and joys of modern life.

Catalog of Unabashed GratitudeCasey Jong, Intern: I always like to start a new year with books that will help me look to the future with positivity. That’s why, as January came and started to go, I picked up an older favorite of mine, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. This little collection of poetry is aptly named, both for its title poem, which is literally a catalog of things for which he is grateful, and for the overall tone of the book, which pours out color and thanks from every page. In this book, Gay often uses his love for gardening to discuss life and to speak openly, not dejectedly, about death and some of life’s hard questions, highlighting the cyclical nature of the world we are in, and the care we can give to the lives around us.

Despite this, the collection’s message is not simply one of positivity, but of reflection. Gay’s poems find existential weight in even the simplest of things. “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt” begins with the simple joy of the act of buttoning a shirt and eventually ends with

for I must only use

the tips

of my fingers

with which I will

one day close

my mother’s eyes.

Gay’s poetry often addresses the reader directly and seriously, but also with humor and real personality, as he interrupts himself or poses questions that it seems he truly has no answers for. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is accessible and honest, and asks us to act with care, to count our blessings, and to challenge our linear understandings of the world around us.


EaracheZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: 
South London’s The Field Mice released three albums between 1987 and 1991. Though championed by UK tastemaker John Peel, they never broke into the mainstream; even so, their dreamy and introspective brand of indie pop –– what The Smiths would sound like if Morrissey really was the agoraphobic shut-in his lyrics described –– earned them a devoted cult following. Thirty years later, their influence continues to be felt: it’s there in the hushed vocals and melancholy tinge of Australian two-piece Earache, who recently put out their debut album Last on Sydney-based label Black Wire Records.

It is exceedingly difficult to find information on Earache (their Facebook page informs me I am one of 175 fans), but Last is an album that speaks for itself. Here is the first indie pop gem of 2019. Last’s eight tracks are comprised of simple but effective drum loops, sinuous basslines, and jagged guitars. Forlorn-sounding vocals from band members Gemma Nourse and David Fenderson often lie buried in the mix; one strains to catch pieces of lyrics like “I sit, drifting/Looking for reasons,” but the gorgeous melodies ring clear.

As the weather grows cold in the early months of the year, one naturally reaches for warm sweaters, steaming coffee mugs, and, if you’re like me, the kind of album that rewards multiple listens on a long night. Earache’s dreamy bedroom pop conjures fond memories of early New Order, The Cure, and other new wave acts. Most of the songs on Last run brief and lend themselves to repeat plays, including standout track “Upside Down,” in which Nourse takes the lead to sing, “When I’m with him/Everything turns upside down.” It’s precisely this kind of liminal state, caught between the rapture of love and the uncertainty of the future, that so often seems best expressed by a three-minute pop song. Earache may be an up-and-coming act, but they already have the essentials down.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor: There are many things about Can You Ever Forgive Me? that recommend a viewing, but it’s an especially important movie for anybody considering the literary life or already entrenched in it. I can imagine it being screened at every MFA on orientation day, an unvarnished depiction that directly addresses what we already know but may need reminding of: the writing life can be a deeply unfair pursuit. As with so many other fields, the best rarely rises to the top; there is much toiling amid lack of recognition (which is to say compensation)—and a glaring absence of social skills will only make things worse, unless, of course, you sell a million copies of your book, in which case, as the agent in the movie (played by Jane Curtin, and how nice is it to see Jane Curtin again?) puts it, you can be as awful as you want. The flip side to this bitter wisdom is, as the movie suggests, that quality should still nonetheless matter, and that the writing life can be noble, no matter the cruel circumstances pushing a few toward things they’d never imagined themselves doing. For as bad, morally and legally, the crimes of Lee Israel, it’s the bloviating of a self-satisfied Tom Clancy at a lux cocktail
party that’s as much a cautionary tale as Lee’s. That’s perhaps what’s so appealing about Can You Ever Forgive Me?, it evokes empathy for the afflicted, but presents shameless self-regard as unredeemable.

The End of the End of the EarthLaura Cogan, Editor: There is an expansive tree outside my window, whose branches often tap or trace the glass, according to the direction and force of the wind. I’ve long appreciated the dense shade and privacy it provides. But one day last spring as I stood at the open window daydreaming, observing the slice of visible sidewalk below, a breeze shook the branches just inches from my arm and I saw, with a start, that the branch and indeed the entire tree was blossoming with countless curled green pods. For years I’d seen this tree without actually seeing it. I had no idea it blossomed, or what kind of tree it was. I’ve been thinking about this kind of environmental blindness lately, and trying to shake it off.

Even for those of us living in a city there is so much of the natural world living all around us and being ingenious and remarkable every day. My own neighbors include bats (of which I have other, more unnerving stories), crows, geese, herons, egrets, hummingbirds, coyotes, turtles, bees, and raccoons, among many others. And nearly anywhere we look there are local environmental issues calling out for attention.

There’s an inescapably obvious irony in the fact that I care about the environment and the creatures with whom we share this planet, and yet am often so immersed in such concerns in a macroscopic way that I am blind to their most local manifestations.

Two books I’ve been reading address this idea directly and persuasively, in quite different ways. The End of the End of the Earth collects Jonathan Franzen’s recent essays, nearly all of which (and certainly the best of which) are preoccupied with birds in one way or another. Franzen tries to clarify his concern (which has previously landed him in controversy, perhaps because he was partially misunderstood—or perhaps not) that by focusing exclusively on the emergency of climate change, we risk overlooking other, smaller scale environmental issues. Such issues can be efficient to address and can affect substantial, lasting change with striking results for individual species, a specific ecosystem, and a local economy (as he describes in a few inspiring examples). Franzen’s perspective on climate change, understood in full, is devastating—which may be the underlying reason for the backlash. Many of these essays are exquisitely well-crafted, poignant, and painfully sad. I find I don’t always agree with Franzen, but both his perspective and my own occasional internal arguments with him sharpen my perception of the landscape.

download (8)The Overstory by Richard Powers is a doorstop of a novel peopled by characters both human and plant, where the trees are just as important, and just as interesting, as the humans. If this sounds odd or tedious, it isn’t. With masterful storytelling and a confident use of poetic license, Powers tells a story that shifts perspective and directs our gaze toward the slow moving and ingenious creatures busy living their own lives right alongside and amid all our family dramas, our spiritual awakenings and failures, our loves and losses.

The tree outside my window, I’ve learned, is a Blackwood Acacia, a species from Australia considered invasive.

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Young and Out of Control: ‘Last Night in Nuuk’ by Niviaq Korneliussen

Last Night in NuukNiviaq Korneliussen’s first novel, Last Night in Nuuk (288 pages; Grove Press), is first and foremost a character study. (In an immediate indicator that the book is primarily driven by its multiple protagonists, it opens with a literal “Cast of Characters.”) Korneliussen, who is from Greenland, explores in distinct sections the perspectives of five different people and in the process shows us what it means to be young and queer in her homeland. The characters are all handled tenderly and with obvious care, and each stream of consciousness narrative can stand alone but fit neatly into this larger work.

Living in Greenland’s largest city, the capital of Nuuk (population 17,000), Korneliussen’s characters run into each other by chance and by design throughout their tiny remote community, ratcheting tensions while simulatenously creating a sense of crushing isolation and stifling familiarity.

Among the protagonists, young journalist Inuk struggles the most with the unavoidable intimacy of Nuuk. After his affair with a male politician is pubicly exposed, he flees to nearby Denmark, where he attempts to come to terms with both his sister Fia’s sexuality and his own. Inuk frequently laments the fact that everyone knows everyone in Nuuk, and even compares the iconic Greenlandic mountains to prison walls. In one of the most compelling passages of the novel, he defines what he feels it means to be a Greenlander:

“You’re a Greenlander when you’re an alcoholic…You’re a Greenlander when you were neglected as a child…You’re a Greenlander when you suffer from self-loathing…You’re a Greenlander when you’re evil. You’re a Greenlander when you’re queer.”

Over the course of his chapter, Inuk’s definition of the Greenlandic identity expands and changes significantly, perhaps serving as the most explicit representation of the conflicted feelings of the rest of the main characters—student Fia, journalist Arnaq, and partners Ivik and Sara—toward their country as it grapples with rampant addiction and abuse.

Perhaps the strongest section of Last Night in Nuuk centers around butch lesbian Ivik as she grapples with her relationships to Sara and Arnaq, with whom she begins an affair, as well as her gender identity. The latter conflict in particular is handled well, and is hinted at early on. (“Ivik” is most commonly a name given to men in her culture.)

For a book so focused on character, it is somewhat disappointing that the protagonists’ voices can blur together at times, with Inuk’s being the exception. Thankfully, the propulsive nature of each individual’s narrative—urgent, tense, and full of intentional rough edges that allow emotions to shine through—largely compensates for this. With Last Night in Nuuk, Korneliussen has crafted a convincing, nuanced depiction of what it feels like to be young and out of control while allowing us to inhabit a world that has been infrequently, if ever, presented to American readers.

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Dreamwalking in the Modern World: ‘The Day the Sun Died’ by Yan Lianke

YThe Day the Sun Diedan Lianke’s latest novel, The Day the Sun Died (342 pages; Grove Press; translated by Carlos Rojas), manages to strike a balance between humor and horror as the world crumbles over the course of one very long night in Gaotian Village, China. The story is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Li Niannian, whose parents own the village funerary shop, and opens with a somewhat chaotic preface in which Li Niannian calls out to the spirit world, asking them to listen as he recounts the night’s bizarre events.

On this night of the great somnambulism, the people of the village and its surrounding region slowly begin to “dreamwalk,” carrying out actions and desires in their sleep that they might otherwise suppress or be consumed by in their waking state. A villager harvests wheat in the fields for fear of the fast-approaching flood season. A man kills another man for sleeping with his wife. Others jump into the river to go swimming and drown. In the midst of the chaos, stores and homes are looted.

Lianke’s prose, partnered with Rojas’ translation, makes a convincing and trustworthy narrator out of Li Niannian, clearly portraying his childlike curiosity and nervous demeanor through an artless vocabulary and blunt inner monologue. Interwoven with occurrences of the great somnambulism is a brief history of Li Niannian’s father, Li Tianbao, and of a relationship that complicates the story, one between Li Tianbao’s funerary shop and his brother-in-law’s crematorium. The story takes place just a few years after the Chinese government has made cremation mandatory in order to preserve farmland. Burial is a traditional and sacred practice, and so Li Niannian’s uncle is hated by many—especially by those whose secretly-buried relatives were disinterred and cremated—and Li Tianbao has secrets of his own to keep on the matter.

The Day the Sun Died peaks when dreamwalkers decide to fight a town battle to restore the Ming Dynasty and Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of centuries ago. The novel uses factual historical anchors (like the Ming Dynasty and the policy on cremation and disinterring bodies) to raise critical questions about China’s clashing traditional and “modern” practices, enforced by rigid familial and state structures, respectively. Just as most of the dreamwalkers insist they are awake, China is dreamwalking, too, Lianke seems to suggest, though it believes itself to be awake—going so far as to outright deny chaos to preserve social order. Li Niannian recalls that there were 539 deaths that night, but finds the official statement reads differently:

In Zhaonan County’s Gaotian Town, there were false rumors about large swaths of dreamwalking-related deaths and social disturbances, and in order to put a stop to these rumors and promote a stable social order, the government sent in a large number of national cadres and public security officers to conduct an investigation and also help the masses to regain a good and productive social order.

Notably, Lianke includes himself as a village person and key character in The Day the Sun Died. Li Niannian knows him as Uncle Lianke, the author neighbor who loans him books from time to time. In this way, The Day the Sun Died makes direct reference to some of Lianke’s most famous works, and follows him through a bout of writer’s block that snatches all meaning from his life. Ultimately, it is while in his dreamwalking state that Yan Lianke’s character finds his inspiration to write again––to write this very story, it seems.

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Some Notes on Salinger

Catcher in the RyeIf you really want to hear about it…”

1. He’s not really talking to you, it’s a ruse. Nor is he someone you want to chat with on the phone. Trust me on this. But don’t let it hurt your feelings. Like most of us, he’s talking to himself. It’s performance art, a term that contains its own contradiction.

He (or his characters, whichever you prefer) is trying very hard not to go crazy.

Holden Caulfield: “I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything. Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddamn curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down and nobody’d ever see me again. Boy, did it scare me. You can’t imagine. I started sweating like a bastard—my whole shirt and underwear and everything. Then I started doing something else. Every time I’d get to the end of the block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, ‘Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie.’ And then, when I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I’d thank him. Then it would start all over again as soon as I got to the next corner.’’

Seymour Glass: “If you want to look at my feet, say so…But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.’’

Teddy: “After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all my acquaintances. I may be a banana peel.”

Don’t get me started on Zooey Glass. He’s actually the most grounded of the group, notwithstanding that bit about having a glass of ginger ale in the kitchen with Jesus when he was eight years old.

Maybe “crazy’’ is the wrong world. It’s actually a search for satori, but these various fictional hothouse flowers each seem to be looking for a way to survive with all his (or her) fa-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

Franny and Zooey2. The preppie thing: Can someone really be a preppie if he keeps getting thrown out of school? Okay, Holden thinks it’s hard to be roommates with someone “if your suitcases are much better than theirs.’’ But even this bit of presumed snobbery is qualified: “You think if they’re intelligent and all, the other person, and have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do. They really do.’’ Here, he’s no different than, say, Fitzgerald or O’Hara noticing class differences, though expressing with “a Good Ear for the Rhythms and Cadences of Colloquial Speech’’ as Seymour, satirically, characterizes his brother Buddy Glass’ prose.

The same counter-argument applies to those who were force-fed “Catcher’’ in high school—something the new Congress should immediately render illegal—and thus conclude (repeatedly) that he was just a whiner. What exactly do people expect here, Studs Lonigan? Still, put this one on the curriculum pooh-bahs, not the stunned students.

3. He writes mainly about white people. True. Draw your own conclusions, but he was a product of his time, upbringing and surroundings, for better or worse.

4. There are self-indulgent spots, clearly.

No one wants to hear J.D. go off on “the middle-aged hot-rodders who insist on zooming us to the moon, the Dharma Bums, the makers of cigarette lighter for thinking men, the Beat and the Sloppy and the Petulant, the chosen cultists, all the lofty experts who know so well what we should and shouldn’t do with our poor little sex organs, all the bearded, proud unlettered young men and unskilled guitarists and Zen-killers and incorporated aesthetic Teddy boys who look down their thoroughly unenlightened noses at this splendid planet where (please don’t shut me up*) Kilroy, Christ and Shakespeare all stopped—before we join these others, I privately say to you, old friend (unto you, really, I’m afraid), please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((( )))).”

The bit about the poor little sex organs is a bit much, as is the closing invocation against pretension. Ah, Jerome…

5But finally, there’s the specificity, which no one of his time (or since?) has quite matched:

“My lips were quivering slightly, like two fools.”—Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters 

Raise High the Roof BeamBessie’s medicine chest: “The shelves bore iodine, Mercurochrome, vitamin capsules, dental floss, aspirin, Anacin, Bufferin, Argyrol, Musterole, Ex-Lax, Milk of Magnesia, Sal Hepatica, Aspergum, two Gillette razors, one Schick Injector razor, two tubes of shaving cream, a bent and somewhat torn snapshot of a fat black-and-white cat asleep on a porch railing, three combs, two hairbrushes, a bottle of Wildroot hair ointment, a bottle of Fitch Dandruff Remover, a small unlabeled bottle of glycerine suppositories, Vick’s Nose Drops, Vicks VapoRub, six bars of castile soap, the stubs of three tickets to a 1946 musical comedy (‘Call Me Mister’), a tube of depilatory cream, a box of Kleenex, two seashells, an assortment of used-looking emery boards, two jars of cleansing cream, three pairs of scissors, a nail file, an unclouded blue marble (known to marble shooters, at least in the twenties, as a ‘purey’), a cream for contracting enlarged pores, a pair of tweezers, the strapless chassis of a girl’s or woman’s gold wristwatch, a box of bicarbonate of soda, a girl’s boarding school ring with a chipped onyx stone, a bottle of Stopette—and, inconceivably or no, quite a bit more.”

Bessie, again, in contrapuntal rhythm with her son: “‘I just don’t know what happened to all you children,’ Mrs. Glass said vaguely, without turning around. She stopped at one of the towel bars and straightened a washcloth. ‘In the old radio days, when you were little and all, you used to be so—smart and happy and—just lovely. Morning, noon, and night. I don’t know what good it is to know so much and be smart as whips and all if it doesn’t make you happy.’ Her back was to Zooey as she moved again towards the door. ‘At least,’ she said, ‘you all used to be so sweet and loving to each other it was a joy to see.’ She opened the door, shaking her head. ‘Just a joy,’ she said firmly, and closed the door behind her.

“Zooey, looking over at the closed door, inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. ‘Some exit lines you give yourself buddy!’ he called after her—but only when he must have been sure that his voice wouldn’t really reach her down the hall.’’’

Nine StoriesThe British critic Martin Green has noted that the Glass’ family apartment is no less emotionally luxuriant than the world of Anna Karenina. (It should quickly be added that it bears little resemblances to the kitschy tropes of Wes Anderson. As Picasso said of Matisse: “First you do something, then someone else does it pretty.’’) Notwithstanding the common, and unhelpful, conflation of the artist’s life with his work, Janet Malcolm’s observation remains true: “The pettiness, vulgarity, banality that few of us are free from, and thus can tolerate in others, are like ragweed for Salinger’s helplessly uncontaminated heroes and heroines.”

As Holden Caulfield watches his sister Phoebe ride on the Central Park carrousel, he forcibly wills himself into non-intervention: “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad to say anything.”

Holden really doesn’t believe it—at heart he’s a Jewish mother, trying to protect everyone and everything—but Phoebe shames him into a semblance of adulthood, by threatening to run away with him, her suitcase is packed if he continues his odd rebellion. Catch-22.

If he were alive now, J.D. Salinger would be one hundred, inconceivably.

January 1st marked the centennial of his birth; he died on January 27th, 2010. He had long stopped publishing – whether or not he continued to write is hotly disputed – but Little Brown has marked the occasion with a boxed hardcover set of The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour – An Introduction. He once referred to Kafka, Kierkegaard, and the like as the “Sick Men” of literature, artist-seers who died not of “Consumption or Loneliness or Suicide’’ but from the “blinding shapes and colors’’ of their own artistic scruples. Hard to conceive, and perhaps ill-advised as a credo, still harder to contain within the shelves of a $100 set of his works. But there it is.

Raise high the roofbeams, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man. One hardly bears imagine what the new dawn may bring.

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‘Invisible Relations’ by Jenny Xie, ZYZZYVA No. 111, Winter Issue

Grape PopsicleJenny Xie is the author of the poetry collection Nowhere to Arrive (Northwestern University Press). Her latest collection, Eye Level (Graywolf Press), won the 2017 Walt Whitman Award, and is currently a finalist for the 2018 Pen Open Book Award. Her poem below, titled “Invisible Relations,” appears in ZYZZYVA No. 111.

There are no simple stories, because language forces distances. The days gummy and without drink. And a question stammers in the mind for weeks, one key aquiver on the piano. In the course of a day, your head will point in all the cardinal directions. It is good to wake and sleep, to scrape jars with spoons. Nights, grape popsicles sew sugar into your mouth. Police sirens clean the air and the TV burns out. Without your knowing, the unseen borders of your hunger are redrawn.

 

Far off, you are being stitched into a storyline in the smooth lobe of another’s mind.

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Against Forgetting: ‘The Barefoot Woman’ by Scholastique Mukasonga

The Barefoot WomanAs a one-and-a-half-generation immigrant, I harbor a fair amount of nostalgia for a country I barely know—my native land of Kenya. Reading Scholastique Mukasonga’s memoir, The Barefoot Woman (146 pages; Archipelago Books; translated by Jordan Stump), heightened those feelings of nostalgia like nothing else even though the stories she tells are set in Nyamata, Rwanda. I suspect most Africans who read this book will have a similar response. Each chapter of the book contains a story or stories about Mukasonga’s family and their community of Tutsi refugees. We encounter them living in the aftermath of colonization and gradually embracing “progress,” which many perceive as adopting Western customs, while staying true to their traditions.

As charming and funny as these stories often are, they are tinged with a great sadness. We fall in love with Mukasonga’s mother, Stefania, and her community, particularly with the women who are the focus of this narrative, but we cannot forget the genocide on the horizon. Mukasonga keeps at the back of the reader’s mind the horror we know will claim the lives of these vivid, real-life characters—the Tutsis of Mukasonga’s community—whose lives grace the books’ pages. Above all, The Barefoot Woman is a fitting elegy from a daughter to her mother.

There’s a striking emphasis on community in the book. Life in Mukasonga’s childhood revolves around relationships bound by complex social rules that dictate etiquette, marriage, and gender roles. It is not that women have no power. On the contrary, the book is chock-full of powerhouse women, including Stefania, to whom many of the women in the village defer on matters of marriage; Suzanne, who is both scorned for her household’s slovenliness and respected because she plays the important role of giving the girls of the village their prenuptial examinations; and the stylish Kilimadame, a Rwandan woman who is notorious for having borne children by several different men and who is nicknamed “the-woman-of-the-white-people.” The business-savvy Kilimadame opens a shop that is famous for selling bread—a status symbol because it is considered a delicacy brought to Rwanda by white people—and is so successful that she is able to expand her shop into a “hotel” or bar.

Despite the power certain women wield in this community, nearly all of them must operate within traditional boundaries in order to secure husbands. However, to further underscore the agency of women in Mukasonga’s village, it is often the older women who orchestrate the girls’ or young women’s marriages. In a somewhat shocking anecdote, the women of the village trick an older, unmarried man into marrying a young woman who is in danger of becoming an “old maid.”

The narrator also recounts how she would spy on, and later report to her mother about, the young women who were seeking partners by looking them over as they bathed in the river, appraising them based on Rwandan beauty standards (which, at that time, were refreshingly healthy). According to Mukasonga, the girls and women of the village considered some of the following questions when assessing a girl’s beauty and suitability for marriage:

Did her manners and her nature bespeak a good upbringing? Was she a hard worker, unafraid to pick up a hoe? . . . . Did she walk with the grace of a cow, as the songs say? Did her eyes have the incomparable charm of a heifer’s? . . . . Could you hear the quiet rustle of her thighs rubbing together as she walked by? Did she have a delicate network of stretchmarks running over her legs?

Traditional rules not only circumscribed gender roles but also the interactions between women. In the chapter on “Women’s affairs,” a short walk home, for example, is made long by the requirement that Mukasonga and her mother stop and visit each hut on the way. (This is not the chore it would seem since gossip is also a means of finding out about potential dangers—in particular, any signs that the Hutu soldiers, who terrorize the community through plunder, rape, and murder, might be planning an attack.) Mukasonga writes:

That day, Mama might have stopped at Veronika’s house. Veronika was in no hurry to answer. Rwandan etiquette dictates that nothing be done in haste. Even if Veronika had been eagerly waiting for Stefania’s visit, it would have been unseemly to come running to meet her. First she began to make a little noise inside the hut, to show that she’d heard the visitor’s call; then, after a suitable delay, she slowly walked out to the junction of the path and the dirt road, where Mama was waiting. They embraced at length, squeezing each other’s backs and arms, murmuring words of welcome into each other’s ears.

Though this is a community in which many traditions are respected, we also find it grappling with which elements of European culture to embrace as “progress” and which to reject in favor of the old ways. In one example, the community is scandalized when a young woman named Félicité “convince[s] her father to build a little house just for her.” Mukasonga writes:

A girl who wasn’t married—who, if she went on following the weird ideas of the white people, might never marry at all—living alone, sleeping alone, without her sisters, yes without her sisters. People found it shocking, an affront to all our traditions, wanting to sleep alone when she had so many little sisters who naturally had a place beside her on the mat.

What’s more, Félicité even has her father build her an adjoining, smaller house. The village is perplexed and wonders what purpose this smaller house might serve. When they learn what it is—a latrine—they quickly adopt this innovation. “Women talked their husbands into digging new trenches so they could install the same facilities as Marie-Thérèse F. It was progress, amajyambere!” This humorous story takes an unexpected and tragic turn in the next sentence when Mukasonga laments, “How could they have known that many of them were digging their own graves?”

There are numerous twists like this one. You are enjoying a well-written anecdote, laughing out loud in one sentence, only to be quieted by the next sentence. This speaks to Mukasonga’s prowess as a storyteller. More importantly, it causes the reader to reflect on how it might have been for so many of the people in this narrative—the people whose names Mukasonga writes and repeats with reverence—to, all of a sudden, disappear.

The short biography on the back of the book states that Mukasonga lost thirty-seven of her relatives in the 1994 genocide. In 2007–2008, the specter of genocide appeared in Kenya though, as in Rwanda, it had been festering for decades through divisions rooted in the eugenics-based hierarchical categorizations that white colonizers had imposed on various African tribes as part of their “divide-and-rule” strategy—categorizations that socioeconomically elevated some tribes over others. As Mukasonga writes of her community:

The white people had unleashed all the insatiable monsters of nightmares on the Tutsis. They held up the distorting mirrors of their untruths, and in the name of their science and their religion, we were made to see ourselves …

The white people claimed to know better than us who we were, where we came from. They’d examined us, they’d weighed us, they’d measured us. Their conclusions were final…

According to Al-Jazeera’s James Brownsell, approximately 1,400 people were murdered by members of warring tribes in Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007–2008. Since then, the community of Kenyan-Americans of various tribes that I was raised in has fallen apart. And when I meet a Kenyan, even here in the States, I can often tell that she or he is attempting to figure out my tribal affiliation: whether I am friend or foe.

During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, approximately 800,000 people, most of whom were Tutsi, were massacred. To put this in perspective, more than 70 percent of the Tutsi population in Rwanda was wiped out. (An estimated 30 percent of the indigenous, minority Batwa community was also eradicated.) Since then, Rwanda has undertaken the monumental task of reconciliation, which, by most accounts, has been largely successful. However, one of the great lessons of The Barefoot Woman is that we must never forget what happened in Rwanda. Mukasonga is right to not let us.

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Catching Up on the Classics: A ZYZZYVA Staff Reading Roundup

Sadly, there are only so many hours in a day. For even the most diligent among us, it can be difficult to stay on top of all the classic books that demand to be read. Here at ZYZZYVA, we took this rainy San Francisco January as the perfect excuse to sit down and finally catch up on some of those iconic works our staff has missed out on (at least until now):

Scarlet LetterLaura Thiessen, Intern: With the New Year comes new resolutions. Unfortunately, most of them fail by the time we turn the calendar page to February. Perhaps it might be better to read about someone else’s resolution instead. Nathaniel Hawthorne uses the idea of resolution, or transformative action, to engage readers of The Scarlet Letter. I recently reread this classic novel about sin, shame, and social stigma and found it a great inspiration towards sticking with one’s resolutions.

A New Year’s resolution is, in a sense, a confession that something hasn’t been working and needs to be changed. In the same way, the Puritan concept of public shame and ostracizing those who did not conform to standard was also a method of transformation.

An old, and now obsolete, definition of resolution is a ‘softening of a hardened mass in the body’. This definition was still around when Hawthorne was writing The Scarlet Letter, and I like to think it was floating in the back of his head while writing. Hawthorne also seems inspired by the adage, ‘confession is good for the soul’. Conceivably, he thought that to soften something hard within a person’s character, confession is a tool towards transformative action.

The contrast between Hester’s forced, public confession and Reverend Dimmesdale’s private, self-tortured one is stark. Hester, though shunned by her community, comes to understand them, and later, they feel understood by her. She is at peace. Whereas, the Reverend keeps his confession to himself and his transformation is to death.

If public confession creates change in a good way, then I ought to confess my addiction to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I can only hope this admission will lead to a resolution that sticks.

The AlchemistM.M. Silva, Intern: I was so excited to finally read The Alchemist. One of my English teachers in high school told me it was her favorite book, and knowing how well-read she was, I thought it might very well become a favorite of mine as well.

The story opens with a debrief of the life of a shepherd boy, Santiago, who possesses a great desire to travel. As he goes about moving his flock to his next destination, he is stuck wondering about a recurring dream. The dream centers on his discovery of a treasure near the Egyptian Pyramids, but never shows him where exactly the treasure is. Eventually, Santiago chooses to go to an old woman who interprets dreams. He ends up leaving having promised to give her one-tenth of the treasure upon finding it, yet he doesn’t feel confident enough to give up being a shepherd and go searching.

As he continues to go about his daily life, he encounters another person that encourages him to seek out the treasure, a King named Melchizedek who initially comes off as a nuisance to Santiago. However after getting to know the King further, Santiago feels enlightened by his words and inspired to seek out what Melchizedek calls a “Personal Legend,” which he defines as “what you have always wanted to accomplish.” This leads Santiago to give in to spontaneity, giving up his life as a shepherd to chase his “Personal Legend” and find the treasure of his dreams.

From that point forward, Santiago has many further encounters and endeavors that teach him about his purpose in life as well as his capabilities. This involves the titular Alchemist of the book, as well as the pastoral roots from which Santiago initially arose from.

The story is quite allegorical and encourages reflection on one’s own “Personal Legend.” It alludes to Biblical stories and phrases often, and might serve as a motivational resource for those who find themselves facing any kind of crisis or challenge.

Winesburg, OhioZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Despite what the author himself claimed in numerous interviews, Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 effort Winesburg, Ohio is likely not the first instance of a short story cycle, or novel-in-stories. The cycle is a form that can trace its origins back to much older works such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and One Thousand and One Nights, with even Winesburg, Ohio preceded by the likes of Anderson’s friend and mentor Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. But there’s little denying Winesburg, Ohio as one of the best examples of its genre, and it was a pleasure to finally visit a story collection I’d heard so much about during grad school.

Our setting, aptly enough, is a fiction small town in Ohio at the turn of the 20th century. Anderson offers each of the book’s twenty-two short stories as slice-of-life vignettes, detailing the everyday struggles of Winesburg’s population. Characters who drive the engine of one story may reappear later as a mere background player. Although Sherwood Anderson denied the Russian writer’s influence, it’s easy to read Winesburg, Ohio as something approximating an American Chekhov. Anderson displays a similar aptitude for honing in on the quiet desperation of those individuals we walk past (and overlook) everyday. In one of the book’s most dazzling passages, he writes of Kate Swift, the town’s local schoolteacher, 30 years-old and still unmarried:

“Although no one in Winesburg would have suspected it, her life had been very adventurous. It was still adventurous. Day by day as she worked in the schoolroom or walked in the streets, grief, hope, and desire fought within her. Behind a cold exterior the most extraordinary events transpired in her mind. The people of the town thought of her as a confirmed old maid and because she spoke sharply and went her own way thought her lacking in all the human feeling that did so much to make and mar their own lives. In reality she was the most eagerly passionate soul among them…” 

Winesburg, Ohio provides further literary proof that all human tragedy great and small can just as easily be found in a town with a population of less than three thousand.

The StrangerPeyton Harvey, Intern: In The Stranger, Albert Camus reflects on the absurdity of existence. The format of the novel allows the reader to engage with the existentialist philosophy on an intimate level.

The tale opens with Meursault’s indifferent account of the death of his mother. He receives a telegram stating, “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” His response: “That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.” He writes with negligible emotion – recounting the logistics of the visit he must make to the house where Maman was staying.

Throughout the novel, the narrator appears to desire the palpable and observable – that which he can sense in his immediate surroundings. He is attracted to his lover Marie when he is with her. He longs to touch her, and be with her. Yet when she is away from him, he does not care about her or if he will see her again. He does not see the purpose of caring for someone if they are not there.

There is a strange series of events, which results in Meursault killing a man. He is arrested and sent to court. He attempts to convince the jury that this act was premeditated. From the perspective of the other characters, Meursault is inhuman. The prosecutor says he sees “nothingness” in the soul of Meursault.

However, as Camus brings us into the mind of the narrator, we see that he does indeed possess desire, and even hope. He longs for what is instinctual, not the contemplation of unknowable ideas or anything he does not sense in his immediate surroundings.

He does not feel remorse, and is sentenced to death.

He concludes, “Everything was happening without my participation. My fate was being decided without anyone so much as asking my opinion.” He cascaded into this crime, with each act aligning with the other to culminate in this absurd murder.

Camus speaks of the guillotine as an absurd occurrence with death. As one approaches the guillotine, he may not wish to be killed, however it is in his best interest for the blade to run smoothly, without a hitch – a perfunctory plunge.

Although, he finds little meaning in questions of God and religion, the narrator finds beauty in immediate moments. When he is in prison, he only desires Marie, the shapes and senses of her. He misses the joys of living:

Smells of summer, the part of town I loved, a certain evening sky, Marie dresses and the way she laughed…. I wanted to squeeze her shoulders through her dress. I wanted to feel the thin material and I didn’t really know what else I had to hope for other than that.

Perhaps The Stranger is so entitled to emphasize the chance of his encounter with this person. Meursault did not know the person he killed- but because of this stranger, he will be killed.

The end may come as a mild relief as the reader has inhabited the bleak mind of Meursault.

Camus wrote in the vein of the absurd, lifting the veil off of artificial meaning. While pondering those questions of faith he does not become despondent, rather he looks to other forms of meaning. He finds them not in the intangibles of God and belief, but in the here and now.

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Getting Out of The Way of the Light: Q&A with ‘Son of Amity’ author Peter Nathaniel Malae

Sons of AmityWe live in a strange, weird country (obviously). We don’t see, or want to see, what’s directly in front of us. Why bother when we have phones?

Oregon author Peter Nathaniel Malae has been chronicling the untold stories of class and race, and familiar, timeless tales of family and heartache, since the publication of his first novel in 2010, What We Are, which depicts a young Samoan-American drifting through conflicts about immigration, identity and meaning. (As his protagonist muses, “I can find beauty in the gutter, as long as it’s empty of another heartbeat.’’)

The former Steinbeck and MacDowell Colony fellow made his debut with Teach the Free Man (2007), a series of linked stories about the California prison system (the title is from Auden: “In the prison of his days, teach the free man how to praise’’), and later wrote Our Frail Blood (2013), about the conflicts of an Italian-American family and their first-generation children.

In his latest novel, Son of Amity (Oregon State University Press; 216 pages), Malae stakes out even more ambitious territory, depicting the interlocking saga of three lives in rural Oregon: Pika, a half-Samoan ex-con bent on avenging an attack on his sister; Sissy, the sister who rises from the ashes of her past (her transformation, and insistent purity, puts me in mind of the Lars von Trier film “Breaking the Waves’’) and Michael, a damaged Iraq War vet who marries Sissy on his return but can’t shake his own demons—or Pika’s reproaches.

It’s a canvas that calls Steinbeck to mind (perhaps the Steinbeck of East of Eden) as well as the sad sagas of Ken Kesey (Sometimes a Great Notion) and Don Carpenter (Hard Rain Falling). This is Oregon, but it’s a far cry from “Portlandia.’’

His dissection of the social cost of unintended consequences is devastating, as when he describes Pika’s arrival in Amity:

“He came out of the head of the town now, thinking on how culturally locked down this place seemed. Not a single brotha or chino but especially not a single hamo in sight … If this place was like Cali at all, they were probably out in the fields already, bent back at the hottest point of midday, grapes on the vine, corns on the husk, beans sewn like tapestry through the diamond holes of the fence…

“And crystal meth. Pika could feel it – the ma’a was here. A few shirtless tweaks with their pants falling off were strewn across the road, speed walking with hummingbird feet, yelling out to one another as if they were football fields away, and not side by side.’’

We recently spoke via email to Malae about his new novel:

ZYZZYVA: You grew up in working-class environments in Santa Clara and San Jose. Who were your literary influences? What set you on this path?

PETER NATHANIEL MALAE: For me, my father was the original story-teller. Although he never showed me any literary novel to read, never pushed lit stories or poems on me, his whole life was an epic novel: Achillean, tragic, and true. I watched, I know.

My first teacher to have brought a lit book into my horizon, though, was Father McFadden, who was something of a legend among Jesuit educators throughout California. The school he taught at was anomalous to my experience, though: I was the first Samoan kid to attend in its 160-plus-year history, and I was definitely the most violent. However, Father McFadden was a hell of a man. He had me reading the fucking Iliad at 13. He forced me, and all the boys, to read, write, and present on our own, akin to a military academy. That year we read Homer, Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, Julius Caesar, and a book called April Morning, about a boy joining up to fight in the Revolutionary War. I was too silent, too angry and macho to tell anyone about it, but McFadden, though he might’ve never guessed, had scored a true devotee: literature was where it was at for me, secretly, and I was a lifer.

Z: How did you keep the different narrative threads in Son of Amity together?

PNM: To a large degree, I believe in writing disinterestedly. It has nothing to do with losing any passion for the story; in fact, in my view, it’s a way to secure the passion for the story by putting distance on something that’s whole already, without you coming in to wreck it.

Getting out of the way of the light, then. That’s [John] Gardner.

So: from the onset, I’m looking for distance, not so much from the characters or from myself, but from the narrative in its entirety, a sort of drone hovering overhead that can hopefully see a hell of a lot, and which, more importantly, won’t miss the vitals of detail: eccentricities and subtleties and nuances and idiosyncrasies that would otherwise get lost from the ground, but which can straight wrap a character for the reader. Being too close is a risk then, myopic, maybe even injudicious, given that any character you presume to write must firstly and thoroughly and lastly be human.

With Son of Amity, this distance helped in another way: three characters have ruined one another before their story with the boy [Sissy and Michael’s son, Benji] actually starts. By keeping distance from their stories—meaning that I didn’t enter the narrative with an overt political or cultural bias—I was conversely freed to write each character commensurate to the weight of their respective experiences. Pika’s story is closer to my own, but if I had weighed in too heavily on his behalf at the story’s beginning the strength and horror and conflict of Michael’s story would never have come off enough to bring these two together equally, and thus believably, since the whole premise of their combat, in a way, is one character saying, “I’m not impressed that you’ve fought five tours in Iraq,” and the other saying, “I’m not impressed that you’ve done five years in Quentin.” That’s good tension, philosophically, culturally, morally, etc.

Z: What were the challenges of moving from California and setting your story in the relatively unfamiliar milieu of the Northwest?

PNM: It took me five years of living in rural Oregon to write about it. Being an urban kid from the brownest and most diverse part of America, I was tripping a little, not getting the place enough to write the place with that kind of authority you got to earn. It’s going to sound highbrow or elitist or whatever, but to me writing “place” is a moral matter, in which if you’re going to presume to write the stories of a group of people, you need to get the stamp of approval of those very people once it’s written—or you’re in the wrong. That’s because they’re the ones who suffered the story. Straight up. They need to confer their blessings. That, in turn, subsumes every other authenticator out there since others would obviously know the story less than the person who’d lived it.

In my county, which was the second poorest in Oregon during the time I wrote the book, the dichotomy between wealth and poverty is startling. Topographically, culturally, politically. When Sissy is running up to Michael’s farm, she “crosses…this divide between money and nothing,” and then re-crosses back into the disaster of her inheritance. The wineries brought in money in the early ‘00s, just as the logging industry was dying out, leaving behind fourth- and fifth-generation working-class Oregonians with nothing to do in these towns except play video games, tweak on meth, or join up [the military]. Oregon, behind Mississippi, had the highest enlistment rate during this same year.

Lastly, Amity is cousinly to the other Yamhill County towns of Gran Ronde, Willamina, Lafayette, Sheridan, parts of Dayton, each of which have been hijacked by a politics it didn’t see coming. I had to live here with the Confederate flags at the end of the street, with dime-dropping snitches living in tweaker houses through the neighborhood, had to fish here with the rednecks and appreciate their “gun culture,” which is a means to get food during hunting season, learn the history of the nomenclature traced to the South (they’re poor Southerners, largely, who’d relocated after Reconstruction, unhappy living with free blacks; some even swore to return “home” for “Dixie”), understand the family farming culture of Oregon (the opposite of big corporate farms of Central Valley), work the fields with both whites and paisas, etc., before I could write anything set in rural Oregon.

I’d thought, for a long time as a Californian, that Drugstore Cowboy (a favorite movie of mine) and the novel Fight Club were Oregon; couldn’t be further from the truth: that’s Portland. And Portland may as well be 2,500 miles away from Amity.

Z: Who, if anyone, is your ideal reader?

PNM: Well, I don’t have one. I want to be able to pull up alongside anyone, and somehow drop into their narrative consciousness. I’ve lived a crazy life, disparate and violent and intense, and seemingly impossible culturally, and while that doesn’t make for an easy story to tell, it means I can see the story in someone else’s eyes, if I look close enough, and back far enough to that point right then, right there. I’m trying to put down stories that matter, in the American tradition of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Baldwin, Faulkner, Bellow; and in the world tradition of Oe, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Sebald, etc. Still, however much I can manage, I want to break out of the tradition, too, put a little stamp of my own on the page. It feels awkward to write that because the long haul—at which point you’ll be lucky if just one person says what you want them to say about your work—is achieved step by step, each day focused on the integrity of a single sentence, and thus far far away from the larger journey itself.

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