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In the Fall Issue

In this issue:

Work Stories

“Mrs. Sorry” by Gabriela Garcia: The young woman tending a luxury cosmetics counter knows of ravages beyond the aesthetic.

“Wilshire and Grand” by Dagoberto Gilb: A construction worker’s coffee date with an old flame picks at knotty threads of memory.

“Session Drummer” by Tommy Orange: More than the studio gigs, it’s managing an unstable father that’s truly challenging.

“Todo Se Acaba” by Michael Jaime-Becerra: Working at the same supermarket chain that employs his father fuels Jaime-Becerra’s longing for other ways of being in the world.

“Hospitality” by Michelle Latiolais: Every aspect of providing service at a restaurant, Latiolais recalls, can turn into a beatitude.

Jim Gavin on lower middle-class Southern California, television writing, the taboo of money, and his TV show Lodge 49.

Other Prose
Andrew Altschul’s “They Hate Us for Our Freedom” (an ex-pat in South America refuses to reckon with being American), William Hawkins’s “Swing-Truss” (a father-and-son trip to Alaska gets upended by an interloper), E.K. Ota’s “Lockstep” (a former pastor’s deep pain and its lasting consequences), and Micah Stack’s “Locket” (“I don’t remember yesterday like it was yesterday.”).

Cedar Brant, Rage Hezekiah, Major Jackson, Hanae Jonas, and Carl Phillips.

Featuring the work of Jake Scharbach.

You can purchase a copy of No. 116 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA now and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring issue.

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‘Home Remedies’ by Xuan Juliana Wang: Perfect Worlds

Xuan Juliana Wang collection Home Remedies“Family,” “Love,” and “Time and Space” comprise the three sections of Xuan Juliana Wang’s first story collection, Home Remedies (204 pages; Hogarth). These categories describe this book better than much else could: Wang conjures an incredibly wide range of characters and plotlines, all tied together through notions of familial bonds, love, and temporality. There are no broad strokes or homogenizing glances in Wang’s work. These stories, concerned with Chinese young people and their engagements with culture, curiosity, and identity are complicated and specific, personal and detailed, messy and absurd. Each story Wang creates is so perfectly and wholly its own world; the only moment of disappointment they offer is in their brevity. It’s hard not to feel a sense of loss at the close of each universe, so vivid, full, and necessarily affecting.

The book’s opening story, “Mott Street in July,” centers on a Chinese family living in the U.S. over the course of a very hot summer, one marked by the national “Asian carp crisis.” The three children of the family, Walnut, Pinetree, and Lucy, watch as their parents leave their small apartment to join the “Fish Generation,” those who presumably have gone to kill the carp, which “could be lured with moon cakes and rice noodles to swim alongside chartered boats across the ocean, back to the waters where the carp belonged… to guide them back to their rightful home.” Political and surreal, this story is as heartbreaking as it is subversive, able to touch upon intergenerational trauma, abandonment, and love under systematic exclusion through almost mythic prose:

The fish followed the river, the father followed the fish, the mother followed the father, and the children, holding their arms out, did not have a past to chase. Love could be a burden, too… The fish themselves must be confused, too. The carp hadn’t done anything wrong… They lived for more than a hundred years in these American waters and felt a lot of anguish and confusion, which they passed down to their own fish children… They had come so far and done what was asked of them; now they were unwanted.

“Days of Being Mild” (likely a reference to Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai’s 1990 film Days of Being Wild), by contrast, features a group of young people who have recently moved to Bejing, or Bei Piao, young adults out “to prove that the Chinese, too, can be decadent and reckless.” The group of roommates that the story recounts more than live up to this promise, filling their days with erotic fashion photography shoots and experimental filmmaking, punk shows, and new lovers. Visually, the story is a far cry from the crowded apartment on Mott Street where three children learn the limits of love. But both stories find their characters in orbit, albeit a precarious one, around family making; the difficulty of defining oneself in opposition to one’s parents, or the special kind of dependence that forms among young people when they no longer feel held by those who were meant to protect them.

It feels rare for a single book to do so many things, and to do each of them so well: an unrequited queer Olympic love story, a woman transformed by the designer clothes of a dead model, an aging machine, teenage violence, sexual yearning, unwanted marriages. Each vignette is magical, and critically real. It’s a gift to read something so attentive, able to traipse across time and space with the utmost care for each life brought into focus.

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‘The Churchgoer’ by Patrick Coleman: The Limits of Doubt

Patrick Coleman novel The ChurchgoerEven if Patrick Coleman’s first novel, The Churchgoer (354 pages; Harper Perennial), was not prefaced by a quote from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, the story’s noir flavors would be unmistakable. Mark Haines, a former youth pastor turned burned-out security guard and amateur surfer, lost his faith and more than a step when his beloved sister committed suicide years ago. In his rearview are a wife and a teen daughter who can barely swallow their bile to speak to him on the phone every so often. Meanwhile, always close at hand is the alcohol addiction he fights to keep a lid on. (“Alcoholics, like pastors maybe, are never recovered but always recovering,” he notes.) Mark spies a chance to do some minor good in the world –– a shot at redemption would be too much to hope for –– when he happens across Emily, a young woman by the side of the road, trying to thumb her way from Oceanside to Seattle.

Mark offers to buy her a meal at the local greasy spoon, an act of generosity he must shamefully admit is at least somewhat motivated by his attraction to Emily, but little does he know his good deed will go far from unpunished. Emily isn’t a femme fatale, but she might be that other noir staple, the Woman in Trouble:

She wrapped the leash around the tail of the board and walked up the beach, a classic California profile in nearly full shadow, her features existing only in a burned, golden shade, like the saints on Renaissance altarpieces that seemed to be inwardly self-illuminated. But Emily couldn’t be the surfer girl the Beach Boys sang out, the girl half the young (and not so young) men around her lusted for, laughing through evenings at bonfires and ukulele sing-alongs. That was just her darkened profile, a corresponding outline. And if she was in shadow, my face was catching the light, and she was coming my way.

The further Mark becomes enmeshed in Emily’s life, the further he enters a world of violent drug dealers, underhanded evangelicals, and powerful real estate magnates. “San Diego’s a small town,” Mark notes, “and the evangelical scene is even smaller.” Mark is far from a seasoned private detective like Phillip Marlowe, but his own self-loathing and guilty conscience will prove all the motivator he needs to dig deeper into the conspiracy once Emily vanishes without a trace.

The Churchgoer is populated with the kind of hard-boiled monologues one associates with the noir genre (“Time and perspective,” Mark muses, “two unrelenting, changeable assholes –– but not without a sense of humor”), and its cast of pistol-wielding drug peddlers wouldn’t be out of place in your average detective novel. But Patrick Coleman’s background is in poetry (his poems previously appeared in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 94), a background that’s revealed not only in The Churchgoer’s lush language –– even the seediest and most squalid neighborhoods of San Diego County are rendered with great care –– but in the way Coleman is far more interested in Mark’s crisis of faith than a conventional plot.

As Mark’s amateur investigation (which includes impersonating a police officer when necessary) sends him undercover to one of Southern California’s most successful “mega-churches,” he comes face to face with what he views as a mirror of his former hypocrisy. He ultimately can’t resist the opportunity to ruffle the church’s Santa Claus-esque pastor:

He was a good actor, a professional preacher, face muscles that could bench three-hundred and open a beer bottle with nothing but a dimple. Speaking was his way of control, his lifeblood. I didn’t want to let him have it, kept taking it away.

Even so, Mark must eventually acknowledge that his quest to “save” Emily might merely be an attempt to make up for all the ways he’s let down his daughter –– assuming Emily needs any saving at all. In the end, Mark’s lot in life stems from one decision: the moment he turned his back on his religion and family when the foundation for his faith crumbled. But the numerous close calls he encounters while searching for a trace of Emily will cause him to question the dogma of hatred –– hatred for himself, hatred for the world –– that has served as his bitter fuel in the intervening years.

The Churchgoer is at once a cracking noir yarn and an introspective examination of the limits of belief and doubt. Late in the novel, Mark experiences his own “dark night of the soul”; with Mark trapped and in the dark, quite literally, this section allows Coleman to dive deep into Mark’s sensory experience and mental battle as he struggles for air. It’s a test of will as great as any faced by a Biblical hero (like Daniel tossed in the lion’s den), and Coleman renders the scene with language that recalls the opening of Genesis:

The silenced filled the darkness and the darkness filled the silence. Then the terror rose up.

Nothing. I was adrift in nothing. Nothing to see. Nothing to do. Nothing to hear, except my own breathing and whispered profanity.

Back against the wall, Mark finally encounters a situation that his quick wits and smooth tongue can’t get him out of. Like so much of The Churchgoer, this moment serves as a reminder: no matter how far we think the past is behind us, no matter how self-reliant we claim to be, there always comes a reckoning. In this case, the reckoning packs a punch, but so does Coleman’s unsentimental prose in this stellar debut.

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‘Stubborn Archivist’ by Yara Rodrigues Fowler: The Preciousness of a Moment

Yara Rodrigues Fowler novel Stubborn Archivist

The task of organizing one’s life experiences into a comprehensible narrative is a universal one—why else do so many of us go to therapy? Through our internal dialogue we create stories, or perhaps allow ourselves to live according to the stories that best help us cope. This is a work of inclusion and omission, of unearthing and rearranging:

But there were good times
There were good times. Come on. Be honest with yourself.
Yeah the sex had been good sometimes…
And she had loved him…
And there were other things. But she’s a stubborn archivist.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s first novel, Stubborn Archivist (378 pages; Mariner Books), is constructed through this sorting of memories. The book that emerges is funny, painful, and healing. It reads like opening up someone’s journal, as if the never-named narrator stopped to jot down pieces of her story as they burst into view. The novel has the intimate quality of a narrative not yet organized, straddling prose and poetry through its ambiguous dialogue and internal monologue. Rodrigues Fowler refuses to undermine the preciousness of a moment, allowing singular thoughts and actions to take up room, while never shying away from blank space on the page.

Stubborn Archivist follows three generations of women in Brazil and London. There is the unnamed narrator, a young Brazilian-British woman struggling with her digestive health and reckoning with residual trauma from her first relationship. Then there is her mother, Isadora, a doctor from Brazil who moved to London with her British husband as well as with her younger sister, who lives with the married couple and grapples with depression. And finally, there is Cecília, grandmother and matriarch, who resides in Brazil with the narrator’s grandfather. In their own ways, each of these women experience the impact of life under Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Stubborn Archivist roots the personal in the political, as the legacy of the dictatorship trickles through the characters’ experiences of romance and family. The narrator recounts her early relationships and her brave confrontation of an ex-boyfriend regarding his acts of assault. Her sexual experiences frequently cross boundaries, both cultural and consensual:

Something I don’t talk about and I regret
I can talk in Portuguese in bed
Okay yes do it

Quiet moments like these give Stubborn Archivist a singular intimacy. Rodrigues Fowler uncannily captures that home-alone feeling when one has complete privacy: as the saying goes, the true measure of our character is what we do when no one is watching. Rather than evaluating her narrator, however, Rodrigues Fowler seems to question how she grows through these private moments, and how they reflect her interior life. The reader watches the narrator rewriting and revising an email to her boss while bedridden with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, waxing fastidiously before flying to Brazil, and biking through the streets of London at night. Stubborn Archivist, even as it spans decades, is built from these solitary moments. Layers and layers of experience accumulated through generations are ultimately embodied in the characters’ daily routines. Rodrigues Fowler writes a story of multicultural identity as it is impressed upon the physical bodies that live it. The subtle power of the novel’s ending lies in the narrator taking ownership of her body, despite the ways it has been fetishized, other-ed, and assaulted:

Caetano sings tinny music into the night. He says, you don’t know me at all. You move your body.

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ZYZZYVA Issue 116 – Now Available for Pre-Order!

ZYZZYVA Issue 116 cover artDear friends, the newest issue of ZYZZYVA is here! Issue 116 is now available for pre-order, and you won’t want to miss what we have in store for you. You can look forward to a collection of writing on the subject of labor, including fiction by Tommy Orange and Dagoberto Gilb; an interview with Jim Gavin, the creator of AMC’s Lodge 49 (catch the the premiere of Season 2 tonight at 10pm!); and essays by Michael Jaime-Becerra and Michelle Latiolais.

You’ll also find poetry by Cedar Brant, Rage Hezekiah, Major Jackson, and Carl Phillips; and more prose by Andrew Altschul, E.K. Ota, Micah Stack, and others.

Pre-orders are live now, so don’t delay!

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ZYZZYVA Recommends August 2019: What to Read, Watch, & Listen to

We’re officially in the Dog Days of Summer now (speaking of which, have you seen the literal Dogs Days on our Instagram?). We’ll be sad to see the summer go, but before the season departs—here’s a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

Sabrina Orah Mark story collection Wild Milk

Scout Turkel, Intern: Wild Milk (166 pages; Dorothy, A Publishing Project), the first work of fiction from poet Sabrina Orah Mark came out in October of last year. Fall seems almost too appropriate a season to mark the birthday of this haunting collection of short stories. Surrealist, creeping, and piercingly sweet, Mark’s stories unfold like incantations: each so arresting and vivid, it must conjure something. But what? Concerned with painful histories, trauma, political malfunction, and intergenerational connectivity, Wild Milk represents through distortion. In “For the Safety of Our County,” the book’s seventh story, “a new batch” of Presidents are brought into the White House in a sequence both quite funny and nightmarish:

The Presidents come from all over. Perishable Presidents in thinning sweaters. Presidents bent like moons. Thirsty Presidents. Humming Presidents. Thick, winterish Presidents. Sick Presidents. Beautiful Presidents. See-through Presidents…
None of the Presidents smile.
They go through the turnstiles. Entrance is free.

The dreamlike motion of Mark’s prose here is indicative of how Wild Milk approaches both story and critique: not from the position of revelation through explanation or uncovering, but rather by seeing what wells-up when image, language, and cadence are privileged over drawing conclusive conceits. The method seems, to me, undeniably poetic, which makes sense; I first discovered Mark through her verse, specifically her 2004 debut collection The Babies, which is as profoundly beautiful and deeply ominous as Wild Milk. I think this flirtation with verse and distinctly poetic methodology is why I love Wild Milk so much—the book is categorized as fiction, but so much of it feels like a love letter to poetry, be it highly aware of the latent and explicit histories and violences which lurk around the form. In “Clay,” Mark writes:

I was wrong. The man / in the flowers is looking around. He is rising up. / Maybe he would like to share / your colored clay? I’m sorry, Son / I’m just a poet. I hope this is enough.

I didn’t add slashes to denote line breaks, that’s exactly how Mark wrote it. Even in its structure, Wild Milk plays with, and challenges, the distance between poetry and prose. I love the moment of apology too, as if the work itself knows that its stories can be, frankly, confusing, at least when measured against the expectations for commercial fiction. If you want to try something genre defying, radically awake toward the world around us, and earnestly tender, pick up Wild Milk. If it is fiction, it’s fiction that listens very, very well, which is an endlessly special thing to witness.

Bill Murray and Jan Vogler album New World

Julia Matthews, Intern: I almost wish I wasn’t making this recommendation, because the experience of stumbling unexpectedly onto Bill Murray and Jan Vogler’s theatrical album New Worlds is just shy of magical. In what began as a live show, Murray—alongside a trio consisting of cello, violin, and piano—performs recitations and songs. The album, which came out in 2017, feels too impossibly timeless to have been produced only 2 years ago. New Worlds is a carefully curated experience—musical and literary discoveries and pairings are transferred into a visceral impression of Americana in its contemporary relevance. The palpable energy of the classical trio lifts Murray’s beautiful, paternal, chameleon voice, and occasionally drowns him out in favor of the swell of music.

The album’s first track, “The Carnival of The Animals, R.125: The Swan / blessing the boats,” was my first encounter with New Worlds. As I listened, I felt its blessing was intended for me, in all the particular ways I needed one, even as Lucille Clifton’s words address anyone, or everyone. With this piece enters the motif of water that glides throughout the album. In “Song of the Open Road / Song of Myself,” Murray reads Whitman’s poetry unaccompanied, slowly and with great thoughtfulness. The words urge transience, bridging the tranquil opening blessing with the coming adventurous journey. In “Piano Trio No.1 In B Flat, Op.99 D.898: 2. Andante un poco mosso / The Deerslayer,” Murray reads James Fennimore Cooper’s text as an inquiry into the place of humans with respect to nature. The narration looks upon undisturbed wilderness as a relic in the age of the frontier. Murray’s renditions of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from George and Ira Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess and Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God” introduce the complicated nature of doubt and instability in faith alongside the simple joy of making noise. Murray’s brilliant voice acting features prominently throughout the album, particularly on one of its most powerful tracks, “Moon River / Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which asks: Where does individual consciousness live in an unjust system, and what do we expect of those who dwell within this system?

In New Worlds, find replenishing comfort in art that is plainly earnest. However, consider not only the content of the texts and music that Murray and Vogler bring to life, but the historical American realities that informed the original artists’ intentions as well.

Netflix series The OA

Laura Cogan, Editor: Back in March I mentioned to Josh Korwin (our production designer) that I was searching for a new show to watch. I had a vague and impossibly specific idea of what I wanted: something immersive that would require a degree of focus. Something serious, but not gritty or violent. Something invested in ideas about contemporary life, but not play-acting with the same frayed topics of the daily news, chasing headlines. He helpfully suggested The OA, and I promptly forgot all about it. Until a couple months later when the dreariness of the TV landscape combined with the anxiety of a particularly dreadful news cycle somehow brought it back to mind. Through the first episode, I was skeptical: although hard to tell where the show was going, or what story would unfold, it seemed ominously tethered to familiar and (to me) exhausting themes: conjuring the alarming specters of kidnapping, abuse, trauma. But the show was, also, immediately, sort of strange, and I was intrigued enough to stay with it. As the first season unfolded, it became increasingly unusual and interesting. I’ll admit, however, that it’s Season Two that I truly enjoyed, and now when I recommend the show to others, that’s what I’m truly recommending.

In part it’s because the distressing captivity aspect largely fades away; in larger part it may be because the show shifts location to the Bay Area, which seems significant to how dramatically and imaginatively the story opens up. It is relatively uncommon to see the Bay Area explored and showcased onscreen—and The OA takes us not only around San Francisco in pleasing noir style, but also revels in the mystical beauty of West Marin, and dramatically amplifies the eerie quality of Treasure Island. I am always interested in looking at the role that place plays in shaping drama in literature, and Season Two offers (among other things) an interesting examination of that idea, with the intersecting themes of tech and mysticism and ethical questions.

But those are details, really. What made The OA special was its extraordinary imagination and ambition, and its infatuation with the power of story-telling itself. The questions it asks are sometimes intellectual, sometimes emotional—but always stripped of cynicism. Watching it offered relief from the fatigue not only of the news, but also from the numbing sense of the same stories being told in the same ways, following the same patterns. So of course this week I was disappointed to hear that Netflix will not make the additional seasons that the show’s creators planned. But I’m honestly more surprised it was ever made in the first place (that’s my own cynicism showing up). I do think that what they were able to produce stands on its own, and the open-ended quality of the de facto ending actually works in the context of the show’s kaleidoscopic infinity-gazing. I can’t wait to see what they create next. Though I know it will likely surprise me in new ways, I can’t help but hope it will also include parallel universes, giant squids, and layered references to “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In the meantime, I’m glad I have Season Two of Lodge 49 to look forward to on Monday.

Orion Lake music

Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Orion Lake’s Twitter bio reads, “in a bedroom with a soft voice…” and there’s perhaps no better description for the music that 22 year-old Christina Hernandez makes under the moniker. The New Jersey-based musician has already accumulated an EP and a series of singles on Bandcamp and music streaming services that feel entirely cohesive and of a piece: dreamy and forlorn, carried aloft by her ethereal vocals and innate gift for melody.

Orion Lake first appeared on my radar after she collaborated with L.A.’s MIRSY on the haunting “Big Eyes” (“Never made sense to me/Love is only memory/All I want is to fall asleep”). But I quickly took to Orion Lake’s back catalog, a series of tracks she’s been steadily releasing since Fall 2017, each one like a quiet capsule of the artist’s melancholy reflection in front of a rain-streaked window.

In an interview with UK music blog A Lonely Ghost Burning, Hernandez stated, “I’d say I’m more of a writer than anything,” and it’s a notion that bears out in her gently bruised lyrics and concise song structure (most tracks don’t run much longer than two minutes), a style exemplified by the closing track on her first EP, the acoustic duet “The Future is Not That Scary”: “Who were you/when you walked right in/to my head, to my heart/You left it open/It’s kerosene/left in a time machine/Kissed you once/Now I want it forever.”

Hernandez cites The Cure and Bjork among her musical influences, and describes her songwriting process thus: “Most of the time it’s me in my room, and I’m usually alone. I like to make it atmospheric with the lighting, and I just make sounds and start writing.” That DIY quality—the sound of just an artist and her laptop or guitar—is there in the closely mic’d intimacy of Orion Lake’s voice, and the quiet backing of synthesizers and acoustic guitars. It’s the kind of dark bedroom pop that should resonate with anyone who can relate to the feelings of depression and anxiety Orion Lake poetically conveys (“I cry hard on the drive home/I only laugh when I’m alone”), and marks Hernandez as an artist to watch closely in the coming years.

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Q&A with Homeless: ‘This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far’ and a Vague Reality

Homeless novel This Hasn't Been a Very Magical Journey So farThis Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far (257 pages; Expat Press) is a difficult novel to categorize. It isn’t often that a crushing romantic tragedy unfurls in a universe so absurd. The book’s biting dialogue, irrational laws of physics, and buddy-comedy dynamic recall Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Beneath the story’s self-deprecating charm, however, lies a relationship that, in both its gentle initiation and passionate conclusion, raises questions about caring for one another and caring for oneself at the crossroads of love and mental illness.

This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far is the first novel from poet and artist Homeless, who displays his work publicly on the streets and subways of New York City. At its center is Hank Williams, who has fallen in love with Patsy Cline, both characters endowed with the names of famed country musicians who died tragically young. Hank Williams leaves a mental hospital with the help of a man-sized cat clad in a leather jacket. The two embark on a destination-less journey as they grapple in tandem with the irreversible reality of romantic partnerships lost.

At times obscene and at others deeply emotional, This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far is a thoroughly surprising read. Homeless talked to ZYZZYVA about the novel.

ZYZZYVA: The characters in This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far range from people to cats to owls to gophers. What inspired you to blend the animal and the human?

Homeless: My initial idea when beginning This Hasn’t Been… was to write a children’s fiction book –– but for adults. To this day, I’m still a huge fan of Roald Dahl, especially James & the Giant Peach (which I give a nod to in my novel), so I wanted to do something like that. I wanted to have a story where a character goes on what’s supposed to be a magical journey with characters that are supposed to be magical. So combining human characters in a world with animal characters was just to give it that children’s fiction feel.

Z: The novel frequently jumps around in time, which I found very engaging. In writing the novel, did you work chronologically? What was your understanding of time within the world you created?

H: Honestly, I was all over the place when writing it. I had no idea where it was going, kind of like the way the characters have a destination in mind but they really have no idea where they’re going. I didn’t do that on purpose, but once I made that correlation I kind of let myself off the hook and just began writing these two separate storylines with no real end in sight. And so then I kept my eye open along the way for chances to connect them. It was an exciting way to write at times when it worked, but also insanely frustrating when it didn’t. I’d probably never it do it that way again.

Z: Reading the novel gave me the feeling of attempting to recall a dream—full of strange detail but often with vague chronology, boundaries, and stakes. Did you attempt in your prose to represent such a dream state –– or perhaps even psychosis?

H: While I don’t try to represent a dream state in all my prose, in this novel specifically I was aiming for a hysterical, fever-like dream, but one that was layered over a vague reality. In my head, Hank Williams actually goes on some kind of journey in the real world, but he’s so consumed with grief that he’s practically lost his mind, and so the way the book reads is how he perceives the world around him during this insanely troubling time in his life.

Z: I adored the romance at the novel’s core, and was both fascinated and frustrated with your depiction of the character Patsy Cline, who Hank Williams is mourning. At times she seems to exist only within Hank Williams’s sense of love and loss, but she can also be read as an autonomous character who makes decisions according to her own needs. Can you help me make sense of her?

H: I’m fascinated with people and characters who are in immense pain from simply being alive. People and characters who seemingly hurt for no reason. It’s like they don’t know how to exist on this planet, like every single moment of their life is a struggle. An example of a couple like that would be Sid and Nancy. And that’s where Patsy Cline came from — a Nancy Spungen type. The idea of this person who is out on control, and who knows they’re out of control, but can’t seem to navigate the pain of living. And people like that can be hard to make sense of. They do what they want to do. They live irrationally. They make drastic decisions. They seem to feel things stronger than most people –– but the appeal to that is, when you’re with them, you also feel things stronger, both good and bad, which is what Hank Williams experiences when he’s with Patsy Cline, and why he’s so desperate to find her after she leaves. I have no idea if I’ve answered your question, but…

Z: What drove your shift from the frank vignettes of your poetry to your first novel?

H: I wrote a novel because I needed to purge myself of a girl who had a hold on me. This book was really just a way of working through that. Poems can help, too, I guess, but only in smaller ways, in little bits and pieces. Whereas dedicating 200+ pages to this loss you’re going through really seems to allow you to work a lot more out. Even find some sense of closure.

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‘Stay and Fight’ by Madeline ffitch: Living Off the Land

Madeline ffitch novel Stay and FightBuilding family in the face of capitalist-driven environmental collapse might look something like Madeline ffitch’s first novel, Stay and Fight (304 pages; FSG), at once indulging fantasies of reclusive living outside the gaze of the State, while simultaneously narrating the impossibility of such an existence. This is not to say Stay and Fight denies the prospect of, or human capacity for, crafting alternative, distinctly non-traditional ways of surviving. On the contrary, ffitch’s characters sustain themselves, maintain a home, and even raise a child, all miles outside the comforts and confines of urban or otherwise familiar civilization. And yet, even in the wilderness of Appalachian Ohio, systems and their effects creep in: child protection services, energy companies, public schools. Even while off-the-grid, the grid watches.

A uniquely comprehensive and necessarily tangled understanding of what it means to live under normalizing forces and rapid climate degradation is present throughout Stay and Fight, though the plot pays these matters little explicit concern, and for good reason: it doesn’t have to. Told from four distinct perspectives, each character’s understanding of one another and themselves is fundamentally mediated by their conditions; ffitch doesn’t need a manifesto to demonstrate Anthropocenic stakes. The novel’s first narrator, Helen, a young college-educated woman from Seattle, arrives in Appalachia with her boyfriend Shane, looking to make it on their own on twenty acres of empty land. It doesn’t take long for their plan to collapse: put off by his girlfriend’s chattiness and their highly isolated life, Shane leaves after just a few months of “roughing it” in a small trailer and trimming trees with Rudy, a helpful but abrasive local drunk. Helen is alone, but doesn’t mourn for long. She soon takes over Shane’s job as Rudy’s assistant and is introduced to the rest of her neighbors, namely Lily and Karen, a lesbian couple living on “The Women’s Land Trust,” a separatist community. When Lily gives birth to a baby boy, Perley (the novel’s fourth narrator), the couple knows their days in the woman-only community are numbered, prompting Helen, eager to find company and purpose, to offer the new parents a place to live on her land. Lily and Karen have lived in Appalachia for years and know that Helen is clueless and, to make matters worse, thinks she knows everything. Despite their concerns, the allure of living rent-free is too good to pass up. They set off to build a house, unsure of what their life will look like inside of it. A happenstance family forms.

Stay and Fight is built on such moments of unlikely and nearly coincidental intimacies. Soon, the women begin to care for, feed, and shelter one another every day. ffitch, however, avoids the glossy, familiar narrative of feminist utopia this story could have easily reproduced. Life is primarily unpleasant and usually rife with conflict. Helen embraces “the great outdoors” with the gusto of someone who romanticizes fleeing conventional society, and, despite having almost no practical survival skills, tells Lily and Karen what to do and how to do it at every turn, obsessed with “best practices” for living off the land.

Helen’s overbearing behavior founds one of the novel’s most engaging and humorous critiques, that of liberal-arts-flavored elitism. While sparing no attempt to make herself seem native to the poverty-stricken area, Helen lives in Appalachia voluntarily. She loves the hardship, even, or perhaps especially, when it seems most unbearable. Yet Helen also feels fundamentally separate from those who were raised there, proud of her B.A. in liberal studies and overwhelmed by her felt obligation to share knowledge with those around her:

“I think you’re using the word yuppie incorrectly,” I said. The men looked at me, “Young urban professional, right?” I said. I looked at Aldi for confirmation, but Aldi, so ebullient with Rudy, gazed at me like the stranger I was. I pressed on. “That principal may be a professional, but he’s definitely not young or urban.”

“Helen’s from Seattle,” Rudy said. “She’s just mad because she’s a yuppie too.”

We all know a Helen. She is easy to dislike, and disdain toward her is merited. But like everything else in ffitch’s story, it’s complicated. Helen is the only one with a steady job, and she helps care for Perley, becoming an integral part of the toddler’s life. Even when they don’t want to, Helen, Lily, Karen, and Perley come to need each other: no one goes to the doctor, and rather than letting Perley play with toys, they teach him how to use tools. They share a skepticism of social structures, nationalism, and institutions that speaks to a well-founded distrust of government and Western-sanctioned ways of doing things, a distrust which, as a reader, resonates profoundly.

They might not enjoy it most of the time, but staying together is the only way this family can fashion a life that looks the way they want it to. This is not want in the pleasurable sense, but rather want as it relates to need. Amid fighting and hunger and a relentless snake infestation, they retain the power of self-actualization, straddling the hard-to-measure distance between agency and adversity. Each choice—such as not wanting Perley addicted to Western medicine and sugar, or brainwashed by patriotism in school—involves the hardship necessitated by doing everything without help, outside the rules of the State. No matter how strenuous, it seems the only way to make real their collective intent, one born out of love as much as principle. The impulse is utopian, even if reality proves less so.

Stay and Fight is smart and self-aware enough to refuse any confident solution toward forging intimacy and independence under our current sociopolitical circumstances. It knows that such a solution does not exist. Rather, there is staying, there is fighting, and there is fighting to stay. There is trying to protect your child from harm, and there is producing unforeseen harm as a result. There is State intervention, normalizing forces that (as always) refuse to let live those who try and turn away from its authority. There are pipelines slicing through the land, there is inadequate healthcare, there is hateful speech and addiction and hunger. Stay and Fight touches upon the most central, tender, and violent conflicts of our time without opting for simplicity, allowing the sadness and humor of family to guide its reader toward a more generative understanding of all the ways there are to stick around for something you believe in.

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‘The Wind That Lays Waste’ by Selva Almada: A Long and Humid Afternoon

Selva Almada novel The Wind that Lays WasteA devoted man of God and his sullen teenage daughter are on the road to a church in a remote village when their car breaks down. They soon find themselves at the mercy of a grizzled mechanic who has sworn off religion and runs a garage alongside his wide-eyed son. Though the setting may be Argentina, the setup for Selva Almada’s latest novel, The Wind That Lays Waste (124 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Chris Andrews), feels as though it could be plucked from the pages of revered Southern author Flannery O’Connor. But while Almada shares some of O’Connor’s subject matter and spiritual concerns, this is largely where their similarities end. O’Connor’s stories are well known for their frequently doom-laden endings –– the personal violence building to almost apocalyptic proportions in the lives of her characters. Almada tends to take a gentler and more introspective tract.

The slender tome focuses on the tentative connections between Reverend Pearson, his daughter, Leni, and the sparse crew at the garage they find themselves marooned at: the elder Gringo Brauer and his progeny, Jose, nicknamed Tapioca. As Gringo works on the broke-down auto, and as a storm begins to brew over the countryside, Almada steadily reveals the characters’ backstories in alternating chapters.

As a young boy, Pearson was baptized in a river by a traveling preacher and has since taken to his role as Reverend with a zeal his disaffected daughter does not share. She still bears the emotional scars from the day her father abandoned Leni’s less-believing mother by the roadside. Regardless, Pearson clearly holds sway over his congregation, which Almada wonderfully depicts in an expressive passage:

When he lifts his head, he takes two steps forward and looks at his audience. The way he looks, you know he’s looking at you, even if you’re sitting in the back row. (It’s Christ who’s looking at you!) He begins to speak. (Christ’s tongue is moving in his mouth!) His arms begin to perform their choreography of gestures, only the hands moving at first, slowly, as if they were caressing the listeners’ heavy brows. (Christ’s fingertips on my temples!) Gradually his forearms and upper arms begin to move as well. The torso remains still, but already you can sense a movement in his stomach. (It’s the flame of Christ burning inside him!)

In contrast to the Reverend, Gringo Brauer is a practical, “salt of the earth” type whose days of hard-drinking and womanizing are far behind him; he’s since settled into a contented middle-age, satisfied with a life fixing cars and looking after his collection of stray dogs, as well as another kind of “stray” –– the son he never knew he had until the boy’s mother dropped him off at Brauer’s doorstep.

As the Reverend’s auto troubles lead to a long, humid afternoon of repairs and conversation, Brauer is none too pleased when Pearson begins saying grace over their meals and speaking of spiritual concerns. He tolerates the Biblical talk the best he can, but when Pearson takes a shine to Tapioca –– seeing in the boy a reflection of himself as a younger, untainted child –– conflict between the two men threatens to boil over. Almada proves adept at depicting the religious fervor that takes hold of Pearson when considering Tapioca; there’s an unnerving intensity and single-mindedness to his passion:

Tapioca, on the other hand, was as clean as a newborn child; all his pores were open, ready to take Jesus in and breathe him out again.

Together they would turn the Reverend’s work, which was still just the sketch of a long-cherished dream, into something concrete and monumental.

Tapioca, Jose, would not be his successor, but what the Reverend had failed to become. Because Reverend Pearson had a past, too, as he knew better than anyone else, and in that past there were mistakes, and those mistakes came back now and then to haunt him like a vague but persistent cloud of buzzing flies. There had been no Reverend Pearson to guide him. He had fashioned himself as best he could. But the boy would have him. With Reverend Pearson on one side and Christ on the other, Jose would be invincible.

The climax to The Wind That Lays feels appropriately Biblical: we watch these two very different men come to blows in the mud as rain pelts the earth and thunder cracks the sky. In the grim, often fatalistic world of Flannery O’Connor, this violent confrontation would have likely led to an irrevocable tragedy. But here there is a path forward for these characters, one in which they might learn to let things go and develop as individuals. Alamada’s nuanced approach leaves room to explore her characters’ pasts in some detail, but, crucially, these individuals –– even the Reverend Pearson –– are not defined by their mistakes.

No doubt there will be consequences for their actions, as Pearson’s determined quest to convert Tapioca against Brauer’s wishes only further drives the wedge between the Reverend and his daughter. But their mission will not end here, at this wayward garage in the country. For them, the road stretches far ahead; Almada’s novel offers but a brief glimpse of a moment in their journey, but it is one she renders with great and deliberate meaning.

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‘Lanny’ by Max Porter: A Farewell to Childhood Innocence

Max Porter novel LannyIn came the sound of a song, warm on his creaturely breath, and he snuggled up against me, climbing up on my lap, wrapping himself up around my neck.

So begins Lanny (216 pages; Graywolf Press), the latest novel by Max Porter, author of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Lanny takes place in a village outside of London, where there lives a being known as Dead Papa Toothwort—a formerly mythic figure among the townspeople, now reduced to a popular Halloween costume and a warning for schoolchildren. After napping for an indeterminate amount of time, Dead Papa Toothwort wakes at dusk to embark on his favorite pastime: listening to the music of chattering voices drifting from the village. He listens especially for the voice of an eccentric young boy who has recently moved to the village with his parents. Porter’s description of this boy, Lanny, is ethereal:

His eyes are like spring hornbeam, a very fresh green.

…his little golden downy-hair knees, his bruised and grass-stained boy’s knees.

…he is growing up, shedding his fairy skin…I can’t imagine this boy becoming a man.

Lanny cycles through passages from the perspectives of Dead Papa Toothwort, Lanny’s mother, Jolie, and father, Robert, and their neighbor Pete. While Robert adjusts to a new commute from the village into London and often struggles to understand his son, Jolie, an actress and crime fiction author, adapts to their rural lifestyle and loves Lanny unconditionally. She arranges for Pete, a famous and aging artist, to give Lanny art lessons. The two quickly form an unlikely and joyful friendship, tromping through the forest together to sketch, climb trees, and discuss life, in scenes reminiscent of A.A. Milne’s Hundred-Acre Woods.

Lanny is constantly flitting off to locations unknown, much to the concern of the adults around him, but always turns up with delightful questions and singular insights. That is, until he disappears entirely, and the novel—until now a quiet reflection on nature, childhood, and familial relationships—slips into a harrowing page-turner. The scope of the story grows from the village to the entire country as reporters and investigators descend on Lanny’s family and his case makes headline news. Lanny’s absence is filled with chaos, pain, and scandal, as his parents scramble to find him and their fellow villagers attempt to assign blame. At last, enter Dead Papa Toothwort, who conducts a surrealist performance in order to confront Jolie, Robert, and Pete with hard truths about themselves and Lanny’s whereabouts.

With Lanny, Porter accomplishes very much with so few words. Dead Papa Toothwort’s passages—akin to concrete poetry—illustrate the point-of-view of a true outsider, living beyond human consideration, while Lanny’s Mum and Dad represent an incredibly honest and unromantic portrait of family life. Their perspectives unmask the unkind thoughts humans experience and endure even during times of stability, or perhaps in their efforts to preserve such stability—the necessities of maintaining marriage and family. Lanny and Pete’s friendship, on the other hand, is outside of the domestic, situated in the natural world, and explores the poles of youth and age.

The novel is an ultimately optimistic rendition of the loss of innocence and an examination of growth, but it’s a growth that requires burying uninhibited, elfin childhood. Lanny, who embodies the impossibility of timeless youth, gives and gives to others, but must lose his young self. With time, as Dead Papa Toothwort knows, the forest remains the only constant:

By the time he gets to the edge of the woods he has crumpled into nothing more than a whiff or a suggestion, he is only silent warm crepuscular danger, and the badgers and owls have seen this before, and they know not to greet him, but to hide.

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‘The Paper Wasp’ by Lauren Acampora: Truer Than Life

Lauren Acampora novel The Paper WaspIt’s easy to conceive of the world of celebrity as a modern day pantheon, populated by figures as remote and untouchable as the gods. But how often we forget that those who fill the pages of Us Weekly are, in fact, people, too –– with family, old flames, and, yes, former classmates tucked away in their distant pasts. As Lauren Acampora’s first novel, A Paper Wasp (289 pages; Grove Press), opens, Abby travels to her ten-year high school reunion in Western Michigan in hopes of making contact with Elise, a former childhood companion now on her way to Hollywood stardom. Although the two only share a few fleeting words at the rather dismal event –– the mentally ill, artistically inclined Abby is dismayed to find most of her classmates have settled for a more conventional life of marriage and childrearing –– Abby takes Elise’s tossed off invitation to visit her as an excuse to steal her parents’ credit cards and a book a flight to L.A..

Unbeknownst to Elise, the decade since graduation has not been kind to Abby: she’s manic-depressive, lives in her parents’ house, works the cash register at grocery chain Meijer’s, and the scar along her abdomen serves as a memento of a failed suicide attempt. If Abby thinks a sudden venture to Los Angeles and the possibility of rekindling her friendship with Elise will solve all of her problems, including a stunting case of artist’s block, she is sorely mistaken. Her psychological issues are as tightly packed as the luggage she takes on the long flight to California.

A Paper Wasp almost dares readers to see how long they can occupy Abby’s truly dark and tormented mind. Abby is clearly obsessed with her grade-school friend:

After you were tucked into bed, breathing loudly through your mouth, I stood in the room for a few moments, watching you. I remembered those everlasting slumber parties, those torturous nights when I’d stare at your face in the dark –– your profile like that of an illustrated girl in an English children’s book, the fine articulations of an Alice or a Wendy, the curl at the nostril, the vermillion of the upper lip –– before you turned away, in slumber, and the hair fell across your face, screening me out.

Before long, Abby has ingratiated herself into Elise’s life, and secured a position as the starlet’s live-in personal assistant. Abby soon begins to fantasize about both Elise’s lover, the Argentinean actor and polo player Rafael, and the possibility of collaborating with experimental film director Auguste Perren, who hovers around Elise’s social circle. If A Paper Wasp were following a more cliché or expected route, one might expect Abby to ultimately usurp her friend’s position in the movie industry, leading to a tale of sisterhood turned to professional and romantic rivalry. But Acampora is true to her characters: Abby is simply too damaged and toxic to ever make inroads in show business. She comes to alienate nearly everyone she meets, and even her appraisals of Elise absolutely drip with disdain, despite their supposed friendship:

I was an observer, a tagalong, a pet. It didn’t bother me to be left in waiting rooms during dress fittings, to sit in the parking lot during script workshops. I didn’t mind not being introduced when you ran into an acquaintance at Nobu. I was admittedly lost by the politics of the film industry, useless as a strategic adviser. I was simply there to listen, to groan in sympathy and glow with pride. And listening was what I did best, what I was grateful to the heavens to be able to do. I loved the sound of your voice. Whatever its petty grievances or vacuous prattle, I would have been happy to hear it forever.

Acampora’s 2015 story collection, The Wonder Garden, displayed a Cheever-esque talent for depicting suburban dysfunction, and she brings that same flair for middle class despair to her characterization of Abby, particularly when describing her dreary college days in Michigan, which stand in sharp contrast with Elise’s sunny existence in California:

When the leaves flipped their colors that first September, it was a personal betrayal, sleight of hand. Rather than slowly fading into gold and umber, the trees burned red. They surrounded the quad in a satanic circle. I sat on the grass and tried to quietly read the newspaper. A terrorist siege in Russia, children taken hostage with their parents. I turned the page. The Janjaweed, burning up villages. Students threw frisbees around me and laughed on their way to the dining hall.

Living with Elise, Abby gains access to the Rhizone, a Scientology-esque creative compound overseen by the enigmatic Perren. It’s there she partakes in guided dream workshops in order to access the Spring, the Rhizone’s concept of the creative unconscious as influenced by the works of Carl Jung. “It’s very important that you listen to these dreams,” her guide at the Rhizone instructs her, unaware of just how unstable Abby is. “Their messages can be truer than life.” This sets Abby on a dangerous course.

Despite the often-vapid nature of Hollywood and Elise’s solipsistic worldview, it’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for the actress, especially as Abby weaves a destructive path around her. The novel nears its conclusion as Abby reaches the crescendo of her latest manic phase, and we have to fear for those caught in the young woman’s machinations. A Paper Wasp is a dark fable on the nature of friendship, fame, and the way dreams can influence our waking life. It’s also a reminder of the consequences of mental illness when, as in Abby’s case, it goes unchecked and untreated for too long.

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‘As One Fire Consumes Another’ by John Sibley Williams: Each Poem a Sermon

John Sibley Williams poetry book As One Fire Consumes AnotherThe 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.

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