ZYZZYVA EventsJuly 17, 2019
In Conversation with Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Location: 6 p.m., Koret Auditorium, Main Library, San Francisco
Description: Rojas Contreras, the author of the novel "Fruit of the Drunken Tree," recently released in paperback, will discuss her work with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. More info here: https://www.facebook.com/events/2360638860885338/July 24, 2019
In Conversation with Peter Orner
Location: 7:30 p.m., The Bindery, 1727 Haight St., San Francisco
Description: Orner, the author of the novel "Love and Shame and Love" and a contributor to ZYZZYVA, will discuss his new story collection, "Maggie Brown & Others" (Little, Brown), with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. More info here: https://www.booksmith.com/event/bindery-peter-orner-maggie-brown-and-others-stories
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
In this issue:
Sallie Tisdale on touring the antiquities of Rome, Glen David Gold on tracking down a Gorey original, Heather Altfeld on the enduring gaze of John Berger, Paisley Rekdal on erasure and Paul Klee.
Ben Greenman’s “Polyptych” (a divorced man and a painting that must be observed just so), Toni Martin’s “Director’s Cut” (a woman’s life as reconfigured through a foreign filmmaker’s sensibilities), and Peter Orner’s “Pacific” (an elderly couple—a sculptor and a potter—and the very end of things).
Dan Alter, Denver Buston, Troy Jollimore, Rusty Morrison, Mira Rosenthal, and Alexandra Teague.
Dean Rader and Jordan Kantor on the visuals of poems and the textual of artwork.
Further Stories & Poetry
Rebecca Rukeyser’s “Pirates and Cowboys,” and Susan Steinberg’s “Machines” (“Parts of my brother’s brain, these days, don’t connect with other parts of his brain.”), poems by John Freeman, Molly Spencer, and Cate Lycurgus, and debut fiction from Min Han and Matthew Jeffrey Vegari.
Art: Featuring the work of Diana Guerrero-Maciá.
The poems in John Sibley Williams’ latest book, As One Fire Consumes Another (82 pages; Orison Books), are verbs: they implore and demand, they connect and recall, they cry out and they quietly walk away. The collection, winner of the 2018 of the Orison Poetry Prize, maintains a generational sense of story — an understanding of family that is dense in time and broad in scope as it considers both the immediacy of human relationships and the distance of the natural world. Williams is as acutely focused on the wide arcs of historical violence and injustice as he is on everyday detail, lending each poem a sermon-like quality.
Williams’ meditations on some of life’s greatest questions take form as he relates honest perceptions of the world around him. There is a sense that the poet is exercising restraint — each poem is something like a paragraph, constrained within margins of identical width. The sentences themselves are spare, presenting each thought without superfluous explanation:
In the dark of a man’s fist pressed to chest.
Couch clothed in ghost-white sheets like a fishing village in winter.
Next time, use a Sharpie when listing your demands to god.
The collection reads as a sort of offering, inviting the reader to find connection and understanding where they might. And there is a sense throughout these poems that fragments form a whole –– in Williams’ frequently staccato use of language, and in his choices to revisit themes from multiple perspectives and leave visible his edits and revisions. Here are some choice examples:
To tell a body you are not my house, then to furnish it with walls & fire anyway
There is a breeze here that carries a hint of smoke from older crosses
Love feels out of context among so many dead & thirsting things.
What he heard reply from deep within the absence the night before he leapt, unbirdlike, isn’t much use to us now, the dead or the living.
In that last fragment, the seemingly despairing sentiment that often permeates this collection is tangible. But it’s not desperation but rather frankness that characterize Williams’ confrontations with death, loss, and communal pain. Moreover, the titles of the three series he divides the collection into –– Harm, Keeping the Old World Lit, and We Can Make a Home of It Still––suggest a possibility of rectification, or at the very least a forward momentum. Like the smoking aftermath of fire, Williams leaves room for renewal. His poetry itself is part of this project. The poem “Fallow as That” begins, We are out divining fish from dried riverbeds again. With this line Williams encapsulates every poet’s task, and in this collection he sets to work.
In an age of instant reactions and hair-trigger controversy, Peter Orner is a writer who slows things down, living up to Susan Sontag’s admonition that “the writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth…and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation.’’
Born in Chicago, he graduated from the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. A former professor and department chair at San Francisco State University, he is now a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth.
Orner’s eclectic body of work includes the novels The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love; an essay collection/memoir, Am I Alone Here? Notes on Reading to Live and Living To Read, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; and three short story collections: The Esther Stories, Last Car Over The Sagamore Bridge, and the just published Maggie Brown & Others: Stories (Little, Brown and Company).
He’s also somehow found the time to edit three non-fiction books for the Voice of Witness Series: Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (co-edited with Annie Holmes), and Lavil: Life, Love and Death in Port-Au-Prince (co-edited with Evan Lyon). If you need something done, ask a busy man.
The new book’s title story, “Maggie Brown,’’ about the narrator’s lost romance with a college girlfriend, is vintage Orner. “A few years ago I saw her at a Minneapolis airport,’’ he writes. “She looked right at me, didn’t know me from Adam, and marched onward. Maggie Brown in a business suit…You end up forgetting the people you shouldn’t and remembering the people who’ve forgotten all about you.’’
Peter Orner answered questions about Maggie Brown & Others (and other matters) via email:
ZYZZYVA: I was struck by the ambition of Maggie Brown & Other Stories. It seems like a quantum leap forward, given the five separate sections, linked by mood but not subject, and the ambitious closing novella, “Walt Kaplan Is Broke.’’ Did you feel a special urgency as you were writing the pieces, and putting them together, given the times we live in and your own sense of where you are as a writer?
PETER ORNER: Did someone once say, ‘Write each book like it’s your last?’ I’ll say it: Write each book like it’s your last. I’m not sure I was responding to our strange life and times, but maybe I was without quite knowing it. I’ve always tried to see stories as somehow floating above my present day concerns. Or maybe floating above isn’t the right phrase. Existing separate? A kind of alternate reality, one that has more to do memory than it does the present?
Though many of these stories I’ve been working on for many years, I wrote and re-wrote much of this book while living in Namibia for two years between 2016-2018. It helped to be away from the circus, and maybe this helped me concentrate a little better. If there was urgency, it was informed by a particular Namibian kind of urgency. In Namibia, when someone says they are coming now, they might come in a few hours, maybe a few days. But when they say they are coming now now, then they’ll be right there. I guess I wrote this book under the spell of now now.
Z: You dedicate the book to your family, and to the late African-American novelist and essayist James Alan McPherson (author of the short story collections Hue and Cry and Elbow Room), a writer who is too often overlooked these days. Can you talk about your relationship and his influence on you?
PO: Jim McPherson was a professor of mine at the University of Iowa. An essential American writer, and we overlook him at our peril. He was also among the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. He didn’t so much teach as guide. And he was less interested in writing than in what connects us and make us human – together.
I’ve told this before in greater detail, most recently in an essay about McPherson in The Believer, but he once taught a class that revolved around Richard Jewell, the security guard who was wrongly accused (by the FBI, I believe) of bombing the Atlanta Olympics. The theory was that he planted the bomb in order to rush in and save people because he had a hero complex. Turned out: he was just rushing in to save people. He was a goddamn actual hero. Jim was fascinated by this story, and what it said about us as a society. He couldn’t get enough of examining what makes us do humane, and inhumane, things.
Z: You’re from the Midwest, but like many self-driven exiles, you were pulled West. The epigraph to the first section of the book is from Jack Spicer, another too-neglected poet:
“Come back to California, come back to California / every mapmaker, every mapmaker is pleading.’’ Now you’re back East as a professor at Dartmouth, after teaching for years at San Francisco State. But I’m wondering if you think it’s even possible to connect to this complicated state. Or is it just a state of mind?
PO: I lived nearly twenty years in California, in both San Francisco and Bolinas. Funny, I always felt like a Midwesterner misplaced in California. Now I feel like a Midwestern Californian misplaced in New England. (If I went home to Chicago again, I’d feel like a Chicagoan displaced in Chicago.) What I love about this beautiful line of Spicer’s is the idea of the mapmakers pleading for one’s return to California…
I’m not entirely sure what he means, but I love it anyway. We know that mapmakers aren’t exactly unbiased, right? Is there something about the way California looks to us on the map that pulls us there? This idea spoke to me as I was working and pining away for the Pacific.
Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9—Fog (128 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) is short and sweet — to be read in one afternoon, then reread many afternoons over. Existing somewhere between fiction, collage, and found poetry, Scanlan’s book is composed of sentences the author pulled from a stranger’s 1968 diary, which she won in an Illinois estate auction. As Scanlan’s authorial voice blends with that of the diary owner, the two meditate together on the passage of everyday life. While reading Aug 9—Fog, I was reminded of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in the effortless way Scanlan glazes the mundane with meaning. Scanlan forms a collage out of the diary, which was kept by a woman in her eighties, and turns it into a series of slim vignettes that trace the seasons of a year. The book’s perspective is akin to looking out a kitchen window, observing the changing weather and the coming and going of characters:
Mildred papering. Vern took a fish down to Bayard for his birthday. Daffodils and pussy willows out pretty.
Sure pretty out. Sure grand out. D. making a new piecrust. All better.
There are certain works of poetry or prose that carry such an irresistible mouthfeel that I have to whisper along with the words as I read them, and this book offers a perfect example. The abbreviated voice of the diary’s author does not elaborate for the sake of explanation or grammar, and begins to give the impression of a lovably stylized character. Her words are almost childlike in their simple colloquialism, proving irresistibly relatable:
Jar broke, she canning tomatoes. Our apples not a bit nice. So spotted.
Scanlan’s arrangement of the author’s words render a tender and human portrait of old age, relating daily experiences of illness, hobbies, care from family members, and loneliness. One of the book’s most salient themes is the physical body and the fragility of its health. There are delicate passages in which family members wash the aging author’s head, and there are oppressive passages in which characters grieve disease and death. Scanlan’s authorial focus on seasonality and emergence suggest the hope of turnover, but it is difficult to shake the author’s uncanny details of daily life after loss.
Ever where glare of ice. We didn’t sleep too good. My pep has left me.
Aug 9—Fog is fascinating, particularly to young writers still making sense of form and genre, since Scanlan’s authorship is editorial: the words are not her own, and yet the book and its plot are her artistic creation. Her prose pursues an object of fascination and presents it with the language most fitting, regardless of convention.
Open Me (275 pages; Grove Press), Lisa Locascio’s debut novel just re-issued in paperback, is a politically charged and erotic story that fearlessly tackles race, xenophobia, and female sexuality. Immersed in the mind and body of a young woman living abroad in Denmark, the novel seethes with passionate descriptions of both sex and emotions. It shamelessly details something often hidden and rarely discussed –– female sexuality in its rawest form.
The narrator, Roxana Olsen, is an 18-year-old American girl spending her summer in Denmark — a summer meant to have seen her studying abroad in Paris with her best friend. However, a logistical error on behalf of her school counselor lands Roxana alone in Copenhagen, eating strange meats on single slices of rye and drinking beer in dimly lit punk bars. As Roxana arrives, she is still coping with the shock of her parents’ divorce, and coming to grips with her transition into adulthood. Almost immediately, she falls into a relationship with Søren, an unhappy, 28-year-old student advisor. Soon she leaves Copenhagen with Søren for Farsø, a small town in Jutland:
“Outside, the sky and everyone and everything under it was white and low to the ground: the curving cobblestone roads, the narrow buildings that lined them, and the Danes themselves, whose shapes somehow receded rather than grew as we approached. I followed Søren down a sloped sidewalk and around a corner. Signs I couldn’t read and one-story houses with small square yards. Farsø.”
Here, Roxana spends her days in a classically Scandinavian apartment: all white and minimalist. She scrubs and cleans, maintaining the image of domestic bliss for Søren while he works on his masters thesis everyday at the library. The apartment in Farsø becomes a white haze for Roxana, and time blurs into itself as she is kept locked inside its walls by Søren. Slowly, her idealistic vision of Søren fades, and Roxana realizes the prejudices and unhappiness heavily present in the older man, as well as in Danish society. Roxana begins to embody her dissatisfaction: she refuses to shower and basks in her filth, seeing it as proof that she is still alive after being trapped in an apartment with little social contact. Her dissatisfaction eventually leads her to another, vastly different man named Zlatan, a Bosnian Muslim refugee of the Balkan War and, in many ways, Søren’s opposite.
Through her relationships with these two men, another important layer of the story emerges: the eroticism of feminine sexuality. With careful observation and lush details, Locascio distills the experiences of the body and the pleasure sex brings, which become an important means through which Roxana feels alive. Daring and flawless in her depiction, Locascio locates the desire at the root of this sensuality. In Roxana’s relationships with Søren and Zlatan, she undergoes a metamorphosis before the reader and becomes open to and absorbed by the people and places around her. Most importantly, she discovers a different form of love –– a sense of closeness and compassion. Locascio poetically describes it:
“Everyone cloud icons, the floating notes of a surah in the sky. I resisted the beauty. Even as a calm descended, I insisted to myself that I loved him, that this was a reason for the sadness I felt. I pressed my face into his chest.
‘Sweet heart,’ he said. Two words. ‘You feel love, Roxana, a terrible openness, so open that it injures you. The pain that tells us that we live, that we have not yet gone into the earth.’”
Open Me is an intimate story of self-discovery in a foreign land. Laced with politics and sexuality, Locascio’s novel plumbs a deeper place of love and understanding, toward oneself and others.
Stephen van Dyck’s People I’ve Met From the Internet (151 pages; Ricochet Editions) is the ultimate memoir for the Information Age: a series of extraordinarily personal vignettes derived from a data spreadsheet. The book spans 11 years and takes place in multiple states, mostly roaming the arid space between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California. It reads like a grand road trip in the age of dial-up Internet.
The book’s earliest pages take the form of a table divided into columns like “REAL NAME,” “SCREEN NAME AT THE TIME WE MET,” and “X=TIMES MET OR DAYS SPENT.” When starting the memoir, you might assume these would be pages to skim, a visual stunt to bring the reader into a digital headspace. However, the data becomes a form of narration unlike any you may have encountered before. The reader becomes a detective and decoder: the simple entry “x99+” under “X=TIMES MET OR DAYS SPENT” reveals a long-term relationship, and entries like “watched Survivor at his apartment” clues you into the context of the early aughts.
Van Dyck’s memoir proceeds as a repetition of this list, but this time with annotations, and each successive entry generates a jarringly precise depiction of coming into one’s sexuality at the advent of the social web. Throughout the annotated entries, the men and women van Dyck meets online often play as much of a role in his adolescent development as his father and mother, guiding him into his burgeoning sexual identity. After the loss of his mother, and aided by the sometimes inept but unfailingly kind support of his father, van Dyck sets out on his own, following a connect-the-dots map from AOL user to AOL user around the country. Exploring glowing gay landscapes—in the blue light of computer screens and beneath the rosy warmth of Southwestern sunsets—van Dyck meets tops and bottoms, otters and bears. He acquaints himself with adulthood in strangers’ apartments. Throughout, van Dyck’s writing is unnervingly relatable; his explicit depictions are vulnerable, candid, and human:
When we started to have sex, Luke asked if I had wiped…As I lay on my side, Luke wiped my ass. Luke told me I needed to wipe properly. Inspired by Luke’s bowl of lubes, I filled my pockets each time I went to MPower or the Under 21 Group, and slowly amassed a collection of my own.
Van Dyck’s prose mirrors the dataset the book begins with: a linear presentation of facts. The details he includes are both mundane and mosaic, and as he lists them the story coalesces. In this way, through frank snapshots of the people around him, a dynamic portrait of an evolving artist is rendered.
When the memoir catches up to the present and entries start to occur in real-time, alongside commentary on van Dyck’s self-doubt regarding his writing project, the text becomes something like conceptual art:
I wondered later if I met Robbie because I knew it would be a good story. I was starting to have this question about many of the guys I was meeting. Or was the list project giving me an excuse to do what I already wanted to do?
In People I’ve Met From The Internet, we share in van Dyck’s struggles at the bleeding edge between life and art, and wonder what to make of the man behind the experiment. Perhaps the point of it all, his book seems to suggest, is simply to delight in the details
We’d be lying if we said the highlight of June 2019 wasn’t our Annual Fundraiser & Celebration on the 21st! Thanks again to everyone who came out and made it such a memorable evening. But there were some other memorable experiences in June — so here’s a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:
Arianna Casabonne, Intern: I’m midway through You’ll Grow Out Of It, The New York Times Bestseller by Jessi Klein, and I find myself absorbed with Klein’s raw and relatable writing. The book, a collection of twenty four essays, is as much about how Klein navigates the cultural norms of femininity as it is about making fun of them (and herself). In these revealing stories, Klein dissects her feelings growing up as a late bloomer, and the many awkward and cringe-worthy moments of figuring out womanhood. Immediately, the novel’s first essay, “Tom Man” delivers a heart-felt and funny recount of her transition from a “Pippi Longstocking-esque tomboy to are-you-a-lesbian-or-what tom man.” In this story, Klein admits to looking “like a mess during college,” and that it “didn’t even occur to [her] to eat anything other than breaded chicken patties on Wonder Bread buns followed by a piece of cake” for all four years of school. With a humorous self-awareness, Klein takes readers along as she describes her attempts at transitioning from a “Tom Man” to a “Grown Woman.”
Along this journey are many embarrassing pitfalls, devastating heartbreaks, and a continuous unveiling of what it means to be a woman. In You’ll Grow Out Of It, womanhood seems to be a combination of the authentic, cringey, and heartfelt moments of navigating the dating scene, going to therapy, seeking advice from girlfriends, and finding love. At the same time, womanhood is swathed with pressure to participate in typically feminine activities, like lingerie shopping and barre classes. Klein critiques how the seemingly effortless perfection women radiate comes at a physical, emotional, and monetary cost. In “Bar Method and The Secrets of Beautiful Women,” Klein is shocked to find how hard women work in order to maintain their image. In New York City, Klein attends a barre workout class where each class costs $32 with a recommended five classes a week for the best results. Therefore, the women spend $180 a week on having toned bodies. In addition, there is what Klein describes as “taking a class where you are in horrible pain and hate your life and might lose your lunch at any moment.” Klein finds the class ridiculous and annoying, yes, but she is not immune. She sees the Bar Method instructors with their LuluLemon leggings and butts “like the very best of the produce section,” and she is swayed into continuing the class.
While Klein provides important critiques on hyper-femininity, she humorously highlights how she is still roped into it and affected by its ridiculous standards. Her stories intertwine humor with significant insights, creating a truly fun and compelling read. You’ll Grow Out Of It poignantly captures the uncomfortable and hilarious experience of becoming a woman, in a world where femininity and womanhood hold a multiplicity of meanings. In her own stories, Klein delivers wisdom with a humorous, self-deprecating edge. Reading You’ll Grow Out Of It feels like every long conversation with a best friend. It’s soul-barring, funny, and strikingly real.
Julia Matthews, Intern: Only a year after its 2018 Sundance premiere, Mandy seems on its way to cult classic status. I saw it for the first time last weekend when I caught a showing at Oakland’s (wonderfully strange) New Parkway Theater. Directed by Panos Cosmatos and starring Nicholas Cage, Mandy is cinematic sensory overload. It is fearsome from its opening moments as cinematographer Benjamin Loeb and late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson plunge the viewer into a heavy metal universe drenched in staggering displays of color and light and scored by perpetually moaning electric guitar.
Mandy is the story of Red (Nicholas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), a couple living an idyllic, if remote, life of domestic bliss in a Pacific Northwest forest. Their intimacy is palpably conveyed through shimmery scenes of rowboat afternoons, pillow talk about the universe, and nights on the couch with dinner and a B-Movie. When a quasi-religious, Manson Family-esque cult roll into town –– followed later by a vampiric biker gang –– Red and Mandy’s quiet life together is excruciatingly and irrevocably destroyed. Red then embarks on a quest for revenge that plays out like a feverish nightmare (fueled by an entire bottle of liquor, a fistful of cocaine, and one drop from a horrible batch of liquid LSD). The film is purely psychedelic: saturated with deep, consuming blues, poisoned greens, and smothering reds, and steeped in the continuous synth rumble of Jóhannsson’s score. It’s Eighties metal from start to finish.
Although deliberately and at times painfully slow, Mandy is punctuated with unforgettable scenes, including a literal chainsaw duel. Cosmatos has pulled off an appalling feat of reversal: creating a film so tense and emotionally destructive that the climax’s unbearable violence actually brings the viewer tangible relief when it finally arrives (the whole theater even erupted into laughter at a few choice moments). Credit must also be given to Jóhann Jóhannsson; after so many minutes of liquid ambient sound left me yearning for a downbeat, the pounding drums that kick in to accompany Red’s march towards vengeance lifted me out of my seat. Above all, Mandy represents Nicolas Cage unleashed –– his raw, maniacal performance takes this from a slasher film to an Odyssean romance. Go see Mandy…but only if you have a strong stomach, a big screen, good speakers, and a hand to hold.
Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor: Gabriela Gárcia Márquez’s The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings has been sustaining me in dribs and drabs, its pleasures neatly delivered in various pieces the maestro wrote for Spanish-language newspapers and magazines from the ‘50s through the ‘80s. They’re not really columns or articles; they’re more like feuilletons, those newspaper pieces shaped by their authors’ sharpened cultured and literary acumen to where the fact-based article you’re reading assumes the guise of belle-lettres. (That is to say, writing that is sorely missing from American newspapers.)
He weighs in on many things, and the judiciousness in what was selected by editor Cristóbal Pera for this book (50 pieces plucked from the five-volume Obra periodística) is borne out in how Gárcia Márquez’s writings on Venezuela and Cuba and (of course) Colombia read as fresh—and relevant—these many decades later. The same is true of his pieces on the literary world (1980’s “The Specter of the Noble Prize”: “The bad thing is that the final result does not depend on the candidate’s own right, and not even on the justice of the gods, but on the inscrutable will of the members of the Swedish Academy.”) and the writing life (1966’s “Misadventures of a Writer of Books”: “Personally, I believe that the writer, as such, has no other revolutionary obligation than to write well. Nonconformism, under any regime, is an essential condition that can’t be helped, because a conformist writer is most likely a bandit, and most definitely a bad writer.”)
There’s an old saw that there’s a novel in progress in the desk drawer of every reporter. Gárcia Márquez would be an apotheosis of this maxim. “I am basically a journalist,” Pera quotes him as having said. “All my life I have been a journalist. My books are the books of a journalist, even if it’s not so noticeable.” What a marvel, then, to read these works, written under deadlines, presented to a mass audience, and see both in advance of his fame and after its establishment an immutable and rare greatness.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Over the last several years, A24 has made a name for itself as the premiere independent film distributor, with titles like Lady Bird and Hereditary to their name; so it came as a surprise when the label delayed the theatrical release of Under the Silver Lake, director David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to his 2015 breakout horror film It Follows, not once but twice, only to then unceremoniously dump the film on Video on Demand services four months later. I suppose I can’t blame A24 for not knowing what to do with Under the Silver Lake: I’ve seen the film twice now and I still don’t entirely know how I feel about it. Although rumors swirled that the distributor had prodded Mitchell to deliver a new edit based on negative test screenings, the movie’s weighty 140 minute runtime –– and indeed the film itself –– suggest that not a moment has been trimmed from Mitchell’s L.A. slacker neo-noir. For both better and worse, Under the Silver Lake registers as David Robert Mitchell’s unfiltered creative vision.
The story follows the jobless and perpetually-behind-on-rent Sam, played by The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield, as he grows convinced the sudden disappearance of his new neighbor (Riley Keough) is not a random occurrence, but rather evidence of a vast conspiracy involving the Hollywood elite and the deeply coded messages they weave throughout pop culture. Under the Silver Lake possesses style to spare –– cinematographer Michael Gioulakis brings the same visual flair he exhibited earlier this year in Jordan Peele’s Us, and Disasterpiece’s knockout soundtrack deliberately channels Bernard Herrmann’s thundering scores for Hitchcock thrillers such as Vertigo and Psycho.
The swooping camera movements and evocative music place us in a familiar genre context: as we watch Sam pull at every disparate thread of this Hollywood mystery, we anticipate a shadowy cabal will ultimately be uncovered. No doubt The Powers That Be will be dragged reluctantly into the light, albeit for a brief moment, and Sam will suffer some kind of punishment for upsetting the status quo, before things continue exactly as they were before. It’s Chinatown. Right?
But Under the Silver Lake does something unexpected, and it’s the reason I find the film –– for all its faults –– difficult to shake. As Sam begins to penetrate the cover-up at the heart of the story, we realize the “conspiracy,” such as it is, is fairly innocuous and not all that grand. Furthermore, as Sam ferrets around Silver Lake literally assaulting anyone who upsets his worldview or refuses to indulge his paranoid questioning, a realization sinks in for the viewer: this insecure young man and his rampant sense of entitlement are more of a danger to the citizens of L.A. than the purported masterminds he’s attempting to reveal.
Like so many men of his generation, Sam has surrounded himself with analog detritus: his apartment is a catalog of old video game consoles, VCRs, vintage pornography, and Nintendo Power magazines. His desperate search of their contents for increasingly arcane codes has less to do with unraveling a conspiracy and more with an inherent need to attach these artifacts with some meaning beyond an empty consumerism. It’s telling that Sam reserves his harshest punishment for the one person who dares to insist the pop culture that means so much to Sam does not, in fact, serve any purpose beyond a means to make someone else money. It must be said that Andrew Garfield has rarely been better than he is here, successfully subverting his boyish and handsome persona with Sam’s nervy, manic energy and a barely repressed misogyny disguised as lovesickness.
There’s a menace plaguing Los Angeles, the film tells us; but rather than lurking in the shadows or the halls of power, its face might be as familiar as the boy next door. Under the Silver Lake is a challenging, frequently unpleasant viewing experience. It’s also one of the most interesting artistic statements of the year.
Gottfried Leibniz may have discovered calculus, but really he had the soul of a novelist. You might be forgiven for thinking so, anyway, after reading Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s first novel, The Organs of Sense (227 pages; FSG), which tells the story of a young Leibniz, hungry to understand the world, its inscrutable rules, and its even more inscrutable inhabitants. You might also see the novelistic sensibility in Leibniz’s philosophy. Calculus offered a neat method for the world and its rules, but neat methods aren’t all that useful unless you’re trying to ace the SATs or go to the moon. It’s a genuine boon to human thought that Leibniz’s groundbreaking work in mathematics did not get in the way of his inventing a rather batshit metaphysics of his own, the Monadology, which basically posits a simple substance—the monad—endowed with intention and appetite, busy at work acting as the substrate of the universe. Luckily for Sachs, it’s quite possible, probably even necessary, to be a world-historical genius with an innate understanding of the underlying structure of the universe and a weirdo with a crackpot theory.
Here’s some Monadology:
“Since the world is a plenum all things are connected together, and every body acts upon every other, more or less, according to their distance, and is affected by the other through reaction. Hence it follows that each Monad is a living mirror, or a mirror endowed with inner activity, representative of the universe according to its point of view.”
It’s just about the perfect metaphor for human interaction and, even though it doesn’t appear in the novel, it’s the kind of deep background that might have made Leibniz an especially appealing investigator into unusual phenomena. The Organs of Sense opens with word reaching a young Leibniz, fresh off a failed attempt at a law degree, of a mysterious astronomer’s prediction:
“At noon on the last day of June 1666, the brightest time of day at nearly the brightest time of year, the Moon would pass very briefly, but very precisely, between the Sun and Earth, casting all of Europe for one instant in absolute darkness, ‘a darkness without equal in our history, but lasting no longer than four seconds,’ the astronomer predicted, according to Leibniz, an eclipse that no other astronomer in Europe was predicting…”
Note the coiled sentence structure, slightly parodic academic tone, and nested narration—all constant features of the novel. Leibniz’s every thought and action is mediated by a conjectural scrim, and the narrator sometimes draws on extant writings or other, more spurious, attributed language. This narrative voice does, in fact, belong to a character—there is an “I” attached—but the absence of a locus of narration or any identifying clues (except that he is a translator, which is mostly a recurring half-joke) makes it hard not to make your inner novelist queasy by throwing up your hands and saying it’s probably just Sachs himself.
The astronomer, who claims to possess “the longest telescope known to man, and therefore the most powerful, a telescope said to stretch nearly two hundred feet,” is not merely scientifically gifted but possibly oracular, “not merely completely blind…but in fact entirely without eyes.” Being “an assiduous inquirer into miracles and other aberrations of nature,” Leibniz sets off at once, and before too long he finds himself in the astronomer’s tower, somewhere in Bohemia, trying to figure out whether this eyeless man is off his rocker. How is he to know?
“The problem of getting inside another head, and seeing what that head was seeing (or not seeing) and what it was thinking (or not thinking), now struck Leibniz as a profoundly philosophical problem. Neither cradling it nor cracking it open would do it, for the barrier involved not only bone but also a thick layer of philosophy. The human skull consists, one might say, Leibniz wrote, of a quarter-inch-thick layer of bone and a quarter-inch-thick layer of philosophy. Of course the brain is also cushioned by various membranes and fluids. A skilled doctor can penetrate the skull with a drill, and he can cut through the membranes with a knife, and he can drain the cerebral fluids with a pump, but his instruments are utterly useless for penetrating that solid, condensed layer of philosophy. ‘Even the most state-of-the-art medical instrument wielded by the best doctor in Paris will simply bounce off the cerebral-philosophical membrane,’ Leibniz wrote. That left language.”
Anyone who’s ever been stuck at a party trying to have a meaningful conversation with a philosophy student knows that a quarter inch can seem awfully thick, and language is itself an imperfect instrument. What follows is a self-consciously tangled pattern-building exercise, as the narrator relates the astronomer’s tale, as told to Leibniz, of how he lost his eyes—basically the story of his life as an aspiring chronicler of the cosmos in Bohemia. His father hopes to curry royal favor by presenting a showstopping mechanical head to Emperor Rudolf, King of Bohemia, descendent of the august Habsburg lineage, and holder of sundry other titles. In the first great Greek tragedy of the astronomer’s life, he betrays his father in order to be installed as the Emperor’s Imperial Astronomer. There is genuine movement and pathos to this part of the story, but it mostly sets up a suspended preamble to the astronomer’s sudden turn into eyeless-ness, meaning it’s an opportunity for copious riffing. To wit:
“Then his father went to bed and the astronomer—by the light of a single candle lit only after he heard his father’s sixth snore, for one snore could of course be faked, as could two snores or three, even four simulated snores is not unthinkable if his father had suspicions, and the idea of feigning five snores to catch your son in some verboten act is, if absurd, not impossible, whereas after six snores his father was probably asleep—read, for example, the portions of Friar Bacon’s Opus Majus concerning the physiology of vision or his Letter on the Secret Workings of Art and Nature with its depictions of those ingenious devices of antiquity that according to legend made distant things seem near or near things distant…”
The same structure occurs later, when the astronomer slowly recognizes that a room containing a glockenspiel is actually a room containing many glockenspiels, in fact it is lousy with glockenspiels, basically a plenum of glockenspiels. Once the glockenspiel situation has been sorted out, the story continues.
Sachs runs these perspectival recursions often, and while all are smart and some very funny, many only have the tone of being funny, and don’t really work. When they do, though, they follow an absurd and exuberant logical momentum and accrete surprising valences, like a cartoon snowball rolling downhill. In one riff, a ditty about a butcher chopping a pig into limit-approaching sections (quarters, halves eighths, sixteenths, etc.) turns out to be an ode to the beautiful insanity of the infinite: “The song, [the astronomer] realized, had taken a mathematical turn.”
What is the point of all this? One of Sachs’s characters conveniently offers an explanation on his behalf, telling the astronomer that “the true artist walks straight toward the insignificant, while slyly keeping an eye on the significant, and moving at all times away from the gorgeous…” Indeed.
The astronomer finds himself caught up in some palatial intrigue having mostly to do with the Habsburg brats, whose names I couldn’t keep straight. Here, as the novel sprints toward the insignificant, it begins to wobble a bit. It’s not clear whether we’re supposed to care about this submerged plot, or even to follow it. The problem is not necessarily that these sections are syntactically convoluted or demanding. It’s that, as the voice luxuriates in its own convolutions, it teaches you to pay less attention, to gloss. I suspect Sachs knows where the reader’s attention is likely to ebb and flow, and, again, he suggests a larger reason: “One wants above all to understand the Sun,” says the astronomer, “but one cannot aim one’s telescope right at the Sun!” The “sun,” in this case, might also be the thing we want to communicate. Sachs knows that seeing into someone’s head requires their head to do a lot of work with language in order to produce a series of gestures back toward some always-inarticulable idea. Not every utterance is worth paying attention to, unless you’re the one talking.
We are periodically re-situated in the tower, where the clock is ticking on the astronomer’s prediction. A cat, Linus, stalks the room. (A perfect syllogism, courtesy of the astronomer: “A man delighted by a cat is discomfited by existence, a man delighted by existence is discomfited by a cat.”) The astronomer occasionally presses socket to telescope and writes down long strings of numbers, a refrain that mostly works to remind us that Sachs is in control.
But his is a fine control, and it’s surprisingly propulsive, this mystery of whether the forecasted event will occur—at once banal (four seconds in the dark, big deal) and galactically meaningful (the sun occluded for four seconds is a very big deal for those of us who rely on its warmth and light for our survival). It’s a kind of structural suspense, reading to see whether Sachs will pull it off, wondering which threads will be tied neatly, which left frayed. Wondering what, for God’s sake, happened to the astronomer’s eyes! Happily, the dénouement of the novel is excellently wrangled, and its grotesquerie depends in part upon a demonstration of the horrors of a vacuum, which made me wish that more inventors had shown up in its pages to blow everyone’s minds. (To be fair, there’s also the aforementioned mechanical head, a perpetual motion machine, and more.) Sachs’s chosen historical moment bristles with so much metaphysical weirdness in large part because discovery and mysticism are not yet at cross-purposes. Cutting-edge scientific discoveries are intimations of reality’s as-yet-unexplained properties and thus, in their uncanny mixture of the mechanical and the unimaginable, seem tinged with magic.
The Organs of Sense, too, turns out to be more than the sum of its parts. Sachs has written a misdirecting novel about the pleasures and perils of misdirection, and the contraption works exquisitely, proving that it is impossible to be a person on whom nothing is lost. I must be one of those cat-lovers discomfited by existence, because after uncountable moments of frustration, by the novel’s end, I was actually charmed to feel that I, like Leibniz, was the butt of some cosmic joke. The Organs of Sense invites us to wander around in Sachs’s head; of course it’s messy and annoying. On the verge of throwing the book across the room, I would reach an unanticipated reprise or an incredible morsel of history or the end of a deftly completed feedback loop, cackle gleefully, and fall back in love. The people around me might have felt their constituent monads twinge and wondered, if only for a moment, what was going on in my head.
“I don’t know,’’ my father used to say
when I offered the conversational tic,
an adolescent affectation.
He liked to put people on the spot.
When they said they loved reading
he’d ask, “What was the last book
you read?’’ Uncomfortable silences
ensued, he rather enjoyed it.
Or if we were sitting around at
dinner and referred to him in third person,
the matriarchal duet, my mom and
sister emotionally outweighing the
two of us. I had divided loyalties
at best, anyway. “Who’s he?’’ my
dad would say, countering the
implied lack of respect, deference.
He wasn’t a martinet, or much of
a disciplinarian, though. When we first met
my in-laws, in deepest New Jersey,
he offered, “So this is suburbia.
Is there a lot of wife-swapping going on?”
The living room was an oil painting.
Forever after, he called
them the “Jewish Babbits.’’
Still, he wasn’t a jerk.
At least I don’t think so.
Smart-aleck, I guess, and not averse
to trying to get a rise, stave off boredom.
Do I know, even now, what he was really after?
I can’t say, couldn’t try. It’s complicated.
I don’t know. Neither did he. Do you?
The Grand Dark (423 pages; Harper Voyager), the new book by New York Times-bestselling author Richard Kadrey, best known for his ongoing supernatural noir series Sandman Slim, is an urban fantasy that both satisfies and defies genre conventions. Looking the horror of war dead in the eye, The Grand Dark is also a moody, multi-layered mystery about human conflict, politics, and artistic expression, as well as an ambitious feat of world building.
The Great War has left the fantastical country of High Proszawa in ruins. The survivors live in Lower Proszawa, a coastal city where the wealthy and poor are stratified by cleanliness. “City silver” from coal plants dirties every neighborhood, and affluent areas are constantly scoured clean. Those less fortunate live where the soot accumulates, and are left to suffer the health consequences. Coal dust is a powerful metaphor for characters who live, both literally and figuratively, in the gray.
The novel’s dystopian setting is reminiscent of interwar Germany—a time when political parties went to their extremes. The Grand Dark takes place in a time of propaganda, suppressed speech, and the oppression of the Secret Police, when vice is a last refuge for a populace whose collective unconscious senses doom. Like “the invader” in John Steinbeck’s classic novel of resistance, The Moon Is Down, the enemy in The Grand Dark is never named. Instead, Kadrey uses newspaper articles, book quotes, and diary entries to capture his setting’s cultural zeitgeist, including excerpts like: “Everything was fun and nothing mattered because everyone knew that sooner or later the cannons would boom again and nothing would be fun and everything would matter.” Living at the mercy of a totalitarian war machine, the notion of self is obliterated, yet The Grand Dark still questions if the enemy comes from within.
Traversing this strange world is twenty-one year old bicycle messenger Largo Moorden. During his childhood in the slums, Largo learned the back alleys and shortcuts of Lower Proszawa by outrunning bullies. His familiarity with the city makes him the ideal choice for chief courier after a co-worker is arrested by the Secret Police. More important deliveries bring higher risk but better tips. Largo quickly learns that information is currency, and begins selling stories to a tabloid—aptly named Ihre Skandale (Your Scandals)—for large payouts. However, Largo’s naivety of Lower Proszawa’s sociopolitical situation makes him blind to the danger of trading in secrets. Soon he draws the attention, and ire, of the Secret Police.
Hooked on a drug called morphia, Largo has thought little about the future outside of feeding his addiction and spending time with his girlfriend, Remy. His evenings are often spent watching her perform at The Theater of the Grand Dark, the novel’s narrative centerpiece, which “specialized in Schöner Mord, little productions of violence and depravity performed by life-size puppets controlled by actors backstage in galvanic suits.” On the surface, these productions appear to be first-act sex and violence for the groundlings, but each performance actually serves as a microcosm of the story world. Characters are presented with truths they fear to speak of offstage—the coming war, the day-to-day violence in Lower Proszawa, and the threat of a deadly plague known as “the Drops.” The puppets also reflect one of the novel’s major themes: trans-humanism: What is the appropriate gap between technology and humanity? And what happens when the line blurs?
Automatons called “maras” already complete many jobs in Lower Proszawa—from cleaning to construction to crowd control. The Schöne Maschinen (Beautiful Machines) armaments factory also manufactures “chimeras,” which are “custom-made mutant creatures favored as work animals by the municipal services and pets by the well-heeled of Lower Proszawa.” The chimera display a human-like consciousness but are also capable of great violence, which makes them a sort of mascot for Lower Proszawa’s warfare economy. They are also a powerful allusion to Nazi eugenic experiments. The reader is left to ponder if the chimera are technically alive, or only technological marvels. And if the characters accept that the chimera are less than human, what are the limits to their treatment?
When Largo is presented with an opportunity to apprentice at Schöne Maschinen, he begins to think seriously about a future for himself and Remy. Standing in as a human counterpoint is Largo’s friend Rainer, who is a veteran of the Great War. Rainer is one of many wounded veterans known as “Iron Dandies” who wear leather-and-steel masks to conceal their injuries. These masks hide the individual cost of war, leaving the Iron Dandies largely ignored by the public and relegated to the shadows. Rainer is a man who has suffered much, but is still passionate about understanding the world through science and spiritualism, and he provides Largo with a unique perspective.
The Grand Dark is a thematic buffet. Wealth, addiction, and censorship are only a few of its social and political layers. Foremost among its concerns are mankind’s relationship to technology, the treatment of veterans, and how a society handles its “undesirables.” The Grand Dark is a fast-paced fantasy read filled with contemporary resonance that new readers and loyal fans of Sandman Slim will enjoy.
San Francisco is mourning the loss of one of its greatest writers. Kevin Killian was not only a tremendous talent –– as a poet, a novelist, a playwright, an art critic, and more –– but one of the most gregarious and giving souls one could hope to meet. The following is his poem “Who” from ZYZZYVA No. 45 in its entirety:
Who, I didn’t love him enough
ninety thousand names for the government
to gamble on, to conjure, out of a hole
so big it could be only
Who said to me look at my lesions, no,
Kevin, really look, don’t look
at the stars
enough of your avoidance behavior
His body, in state, or tumbled through
a rinse cycle drying in the feathery wind
lint on your net, your intersticed
I loved so long but not enough
Who gave Steve Abbott the “AIDS Award
for Poetic Idiocy” seven years before he died?
Who, rather than waiting
seized his little liver in a
silver thimble, the man I mistook for a moulting
hen, I, reigning the roost, the big cock of 1983,
impenetrable safe of steel, those
tiny fingers made me look like a monkey
Who on the plush row
of velvet embroidery, Joni Mitchell sobbing
in the pew behind me, “I wish I were a river
I could float away on,” a thirst so deep
confession doesn’t cover it
I wanted him to live
to fill his throat with Mella, mella peto
In medio flumine, but who
was it told me
They are moving his body
into the memorable room of a long love
Who was the madman who took him back,
while we watched indignant such a man could go
in the front row with Lisa and Dan
watching David Wojnarowicz scream
his spittle on my chin
at the gay bookstore in San Francisco
marvelling at, comparing him,
who did this to me, that I
lived and did so little to be clear
always the quaint uppermost in my mind,
my mad strive for personality,
always the quaint peppermint misread
made the little tiger the big lamb on Sunday,
broke my will, gave me to the boy
following him down to the grave
holding back, something
who launched this rocket into space,
that burst into earth, one death at a time,
its rockets a flare of red and pink pinspots,
livid bouquet in the night sky
over beautiful city
whose garden did I pick this death from?
Zing, zing, a phone insistent
as kismet, the fate that brought me to
a dark reply, hello, is Kevin Killian
home, I’ve got a message, and
who is this, I whisper into the phone,
who did you say was calling
for him, the straight black mouth
of the plastic phone,
I’ll see if he’s in
and who did you say, if you did say
and I don’t think you did say
who, who took me to this
date in my history, who made my
feet scatter like the burnt leaves of
the oak seedlings, while I walk to
the phone as though nothing
under the sky, under the rain, in San
Francisco, home of the birds and the
sun and the big bottle of dilaudin and
morphine I gave to him Sunday
and leaving him, quietly, I closed
the door on my nation
Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing (278 pages; FSG) is the haunting story of a year in the life of a Taiwanese immigrant family living in rural Alaska. The novel, told through the eyes of ten-year-old Gavin, observes the disintegration of the family after tragedy leaves them raw. With prose as stark and spare as the Alaskan shores and forests she precisely details, Lin conveys an intimate and understated account of trauma, beautifully rendering the internal world of each person affected by a shared loss.
Gavin has a sister who squirms away from her background by changing her name from Pei Pei to Paige; his father, who was an engineer in Taiwan, works as a plumber and stashes liquor in the corners of the house; his dissatisfied mother fishes like a bear in the river by moonlight; and younger brother Natty openly struggles to comprehend what’s happened to them. Lin’s depiction of poverty and dysfunction is as unflinching and sincere as only a child’s perspective could render it.
The Unpassing is a penetrating narrative on the difficulty of finding footing in a new country and how a family scatters in the wake of this change. Lin, whose short story “Hinterland” appeared in Issue No. 95, spoke with ZYZZYVA about the novel and her process as a writer.
ZYZZYVA: The novel revolves around the experience of loss and the attempt to make sense of absence. Does the title, The Unpassing, refer to this theme? Since this word doesn’t appear in the dictionary, what does “the unpassing” mean to you?
Chia-Chia Lin: Absences have always called out to me. Something was once here, and now it is not. What is left behind? It’s not merely an empty space or a void. There is something real and tangible enough that it’s able to muscle into your daily life and crowd out other concerns, or consume air and attention and change the dynamics of the room. I wanted a title that reflected this contradiction—that something or someone who has left your life (passing away, passing out of it) could also, at the same time, re-enter your life with a brute, overwhelming force.
Linguistically, “un” words are also just fascinating to me. Unknowing something or unspeaking something is essentially impossible. These words are often accompanied by the word “can’t”; you can’t unknow something, you can’t unspeak something. You can’t go back to the place where you started from. The word itself takes up more room than it used to, now that it’s got this appendage. But it’s not a mere negation or an undoing. It’s a different creature altogether.
Z: The novel is framed around the Challenger disaster, as well as other events like the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What inspires you to incorporate such landmark events into your fiction? Do they help to ground your narrative in a time period, or do they serve more as symbolic elements?
CL: When I was writing The Unpassing, I was interested in interiors. So the book’s attention is directed inward, at the insides of things: at the connective tissue of this family, at the contents of this rickety house on the edge of a spruce forest, at the private thoughts and bodily experiences of a child. Altogether, this can make for a rather claustrophobic reading experience, and I recognized during the writing of this book that I needed to provide a little breathing room. Although it’s not my natural mode, I decided to go big not only in the setting (Alaska) but also in the markers of where we are in time. So we have these events that rock not just the family but the whole country. It was a way for me to provide just a touch of balance—to give a little context but also to break up the intense introspection here and there and to give glimpses of a larger world.
I never intended to make these events symbolic; that’s the sort of thing that happens almost against my will when I write. Side by side—the Challenger explosion, the family’s implosion—resonances just start to appear. My efforts are usually in the other direction, actually: to make things less overtly symbolic. I have a fear these days of being heavy-handed.
Z: You capture the voice and perspective of your main character Gavin as a young child so effectively that it is often difficult to remember he is recounting the events of the novel from adulthood. Who can we imagine he is speaking to?
CL: That’s a really interesting question. The events Gavin recounts take place mostly over the course of a year, and he is much older when he tells this story—several decades older. What I imagined was that he was rather lonely in his adulthood—at one point I had very precise details worked out about his age and profession and living situation, which I later cut from the novel—and that he viewed this particular year (1986) as a kind of turning point for his family. So he’s telling the story with a heightened intensity and awareness that every decision, every event, has long-term repercussions for his life and for his family. But whom is he telling? I’m not sure. Sometimes I think it might be the single person in his life he feels close to (someone we have not met). Other times I think it’s really anyone who will listen.
Z: ZYZZYVA previously published your short story “Hinterland,” which is also set in rural Alaska. Your description of this liminal geography in both pieces is sparing yet vivid, and always detail-oriented. What draws you to this setting in your work?
CL: I wrote that story nearly 15 years ago. I had just finished an internship in Anchorage, Alaska. The story is set in the interior—specifically Denali National Park, where I went backpacking several times. I tend to think of that story as being set in a different world from my novel, which takes place in South-Central Alaska—a more populated, more temperate, and less wild landscape, where the house is as much a setting as the outdoors. On the other hand, I do think I was using both landscapes to explore ideas that felt especially urgent during the time I spent in Alaska, such as the challenges of navigating the outdoors and self-reliance. There’s also an elusive quality I was trying to put my finger on—the feeling of your everyday concerns falling away, or being pared back to just a few vital ones, and the way aliveness resounds in that setting. I hope I gestured at these notions in my novel—it’s hard to know what you’ve created. I suspect I was much clumsier in my attempts in the short story (which I have not reread in the years since—I find it impossible to return to old work), but I am glad to hear you felt that some of the landscape’s singularity was evoked.
I suppose I was also fascinated, in both works, by the fact that Alaska has so much mythology associated with it, and the strangeness of writing one’s own story against that huge backdrop, and how small and large one can feel at once.
Chia-Chia Lin graduated with an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she received the Henfield Prize. Her short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, and other journals. Her first book, The Unpassing, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in May 2019. She currently lives in Northern California. You can read her short story “Hinterland” in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 95.
In Los Angeles, there exists a rarified social echelon known as the Street People. These are not, as their moniker might suggest, the many who find themselves without shelter (much like San Francisco, L.A. is currently dealing with a staggering increase in its homeless population). Rather, the name refers to the wealthy landowners and developers who saw prominent streets named after them: the Crenshaws, the Chandlers, the Van Nuys. The descendants of these 20th century tycoons move in a world of power and privilege, the kind that isn’t even whispered about in the society pages. It is into this hermetically sealed environment that the protagonist of Nina Revoyr’s latest novel, A Student of History (238 pages; Akashic Books), finds himself thrust after he takes the job of transcribing the diaries of one of Los Angeles’ most wealthy heiresses.
In his early thirties, Richard Nagano is a graduate student at USC, still reeling from a recent breakup and struggling to make ends meet. At first, he looks at the gig working for Marion W– (the book censors her last name as though to protect the family’s privacy and prevent litigation) as merely a way to supplement his meager income. But as the elderly Marion takes a shine to Richard, going so far as to update his wardrobe with far more stylish (and expensive) attire, and employ him as her escort to various social clubs and galas, Richard realizes the shrewd older woman might be his entry into the upper class. What’s more, he begins to suspect her youthful diaries contain the kind of compelling historical gossip that could revamp his currently stalled graduate thesis.
Both of Richard’s motivations dovetail when he becomes infatuated with Fiona, a well-to-do socialite who quickly develops an interest in Richard, despite the ring on her finger. At her urging, he continues to investigate the tragic secrets hidden in Marion’s past, secrets that once uncovered could potentially put Richard’s good standing with his employer at risk.
With her past novels carrying titles such as Lost Canyon and Southland, it’s clear Southern California has long represented a preoccupation for Revoyr. Her style is both elegant and pleasurable to read; she juggles geographical detail, context, and plotting with a deceptive ease. Revoyr’s L.A. is a city teeming with contradictions, one where the world of everyday concerns and that of the elite class co-exist but rarely intersect until, that is, a random stroke of luck or fate sees a person travel from one world to the next. But even as Richard rubs elbows with the city’s rich and powerful, there remains something to remind him of his origins: his mixed heritage means Marion’s largely white social circles tend to exoticize his good looks; and while Marion may invest in Richard’s clothing, she’s not about to buy him a new car. And so, Richard must head from one soiree to the next in his broken down Honda, the shocked looks of the valet parking attendants a constant echo of his working-class roots.
At the heart of A Student of History, and what prevents the novel from merely serving as a takedown of the scandalous ultra-rich, is Revoyr’s complex characterization of Marion W–. At times, Marion doesn’t seem to have a good word to say about any of her peers; she frequently speaks out of both sides of her mouth, and doesn’t exactly tow the line of political correctness. Yet she is kind to those who work for her, she is fiercely protective of her family, and she absolutely dotes on Richard. While Richard serves as the audience identification character and our entry point into an unfamiliar domain, it’s Marion who proves the most memorable in the drama that unfolds. Her contradictions are exemplified by the fact that she donates generous sums of money to charitable causes, yet does so anonymously, in large part to upstage and frustrate other donors:
“You gave that money?”
“Why, yes. Several years ago. No one there has any idea. They all think I’m a stingy old bitch.”
I let this news sink in. Of course she had given it. That was the reason she’d wanted to attend. “But…why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you want people to know?”
“I have no use for all this fuss,” she said. “People groveling and then wanting more. It’s better they think that you won’t given them anything.”
When Marion ultimately comes to feel as though Richard has betrayed her trust, it registers as a betrayal for the reader as well, even though Richard has far more to lose than Marion with his expulsion from the Hollywood high life. Through their time together, Richard reaches some understanding of Marion’s contradictory nature:
“She was a misanthrope who gave generously to causes she claimed to despise; an aesthete who welcomed people who didn’t share her sensibilities; a professed hater of the social niceties that she performed with such grace.”
In many ways, A Student of History adopts the familiar structure of the bildungsroman; like other classic novels before it, such as Sentimental Education and Great Expectations, we witness an earnest young man enter a hitherto unexplored sphere of luxury and privilege. Indeed, part of the pleasure of reading the novel is inhabiting that familiar structure, knowing all the while Richard will likely end his term among high society with a sense that perhaps he has lost more than he has gained. Yet by placing the novel in so specific a milieu––Los Angeles in 2019, an era where Americans are feeling the class divide more than ever––Revoyr forges a work that stands on its own. If the book’s ambitions prove modest, it feels entirely appropriate, considering Richard’s ultimate discovery that sometimes a modest life lived well––far from society luncheons and award ceremonies––is good enough.