On a recent Monday evening at the Chapel, a gabled music venue built last year in San Francisco’s Mission District, a crowd gathered beneath the venue’s bejeweled chandeliers and curved stacks of speakers to hear the Oakland folk-indie act tUnE-yArDs. It was the band’s first stage appearance in over a year and a half, as well as the debut performance of their highly anticipated third album, Nikki Nack, and the excitement was evident. Cheers rose and fell and hands stretched out and waved as the house music blared above. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, and the audience began shuffling under lights switching vigorously between green and blue and red, but nobody left. If the band was intentionally prolonging their entrance, then the crowd felt confident they were worth the wait.
David F. Young
In his introduction to Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Severina (Yale University Press, 112 pages), poet and translator Chris Andrews writes that for readers expecting the “baroque exuberance” of fellow Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias, Rey Rosa’s fiction will come as a surprise. Not only does Rey Rosa eschew the colorful language of his predecessor for more restrained and economical prose, he allows dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations to regularly puncture his character’s worlds. In this respect, Andrews observes, the writer who Rey Rosa remains the most in debt to is Jorge Luis Borges.
Reading Severina—only the fifth of Rey Rosa’s many works to be translated into English thus far (a task begun by Paul Bowles)—one cannot help but also draw comparisons to more contemporary Latin American authors, such as Roberto Bolaño, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and César Aira. Like them, Rey Rosa enjoys using the forms of genre fiction (particularly mysteries) to mask stories whose real subjects aren’t their tantalizing series of events, but the subtler, more inscrutable themes hidden within.
In 1997, in hopes of recreating the experience of swapping stories with his friends on long summer nights in Georgia, poet and novelist George Dawes Green founded The Moth. Since its first event, held in the living room of Green’s New York City apartment, The Moth has grown into an influential organization known for bringing out original and affecting stories from everyday people around the world. The stories can be funny, or sad, or dramatic, or light, but, above all else, they must be true. The rules are simple: start with the theme for the night, come up with a story drawn from your own authentic experience, hone it until the stakes are real and the consequences apparent, and keep it within the constrained time. Then, if you are picked and get to climb up on stage, no notes are allowed.
This basic, but fundamental, formula has spawned multiple iterations of The Moth. There’s The Moth Mainstage, which invites well-known artists, scientists, and celebrities (Salman Rushdie, Malcolm Gladwell, and Dan Savage have all spoken), as well as anyone with anything interesting to say, to tell their story, many of which are available to watch online. There’s The Moth Radio Hour and The Moth Podcast, both of which collect the best Moth stories and sometimes even dig deeper, exploring how those stories came to be. There’s a book that features adaptations of stories that have previously been performed, as well as several Moth community and education programs. But on a recent Monday night at the Rickshaw Shop, an event space decorated with bicycles and drab couches in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, I had come to what was perhaps their most inclusive, interactive, and widespread program of all: the open-mic Moth StorySLAM.
Over the past several years, the transgender perspective—once a marginal voice even within the LGBT community—has gradually emerged into the mainstream. In 2003, Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex helped raise awareness of gender identity issues when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Elsewhere, transgender actress Laverne Cox has found acclaim on a popular show, and actor Jared Leto recently won an Oscar for his depiction of a transgender woman. Recognition is not tantamount to acceptance—for this, a long road still lies ahead—but Kim Fu has chosen an auspicious time for her first novel, For Today I Am a Boy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 242 pages).
Ben Marcus is a man who prefers not to put things too easily. Since his first book was published almost twenty years ago—The Age of Wire and String, a collection of stories that could have also been prose poems or even guides to some other plane—Marcus has carved a career out of writing complex, formally inventive fictions that seem to confuse just as many readers as they impress. In 2005, after Harper’s published an essay in which Marcus defended difficult and experimental fiction from the likes of Jonathan Franzen and the Atlantic Monthly’s B.R. Myers, Marcus became an unofficial spokesperson—some might even say a symbol—for writing that was innovative, demanding, and different from the mainstream. “If you happen to be interested in the possibilities of language,” Marcus wrote, “if you appreciate the artistic achievements of others but still dream for yourself, however foolishly, that new arrangements are possible, new styles, new concoctions of language that might set off a series of delicious mental explosions—if you believe any of this, and worse, if you try to practice it, you are an elitist. You hate your audience, you hate the literary industry, and you probably hate yourself. You stand not with the people, but in a quiet dark hole, shouting to no one.”
This said, many were surprised when, in 2012, Marcus came out with his most accessible work to date, The Flame Alphabet. Adhering mostly to the rules of linear narrative, complete with a cast of characters and a suspenseful plot, it marked a stylistic shift away from his earlier books. Marcus’s usual themes (family, language, metaphor) are still present, as is the particular strangeness of his world, but both the fierce experimental wordplay and the emphasis on an unconventional structure were tamped down. So with the release of his latest story collection, Leaving the Sea (Knopf, 271 pages), a question lingering among his fans was, will Marcus continue down this path, or will he return to his more experimental roots? The answer, as it turns out, is, Yes.
I was a bit suspicious as I approached Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 212 pages). It’s not that Ms. Lesser—founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, author of nine previous books (including one novel, The Pagoda in the Garden), and a prolific literary critic herself—lacks the credentials to write a long, meditative study of the passion she has made her career. (Quite the contrary; I can imagine few more qualified than her.) Rather, I was worried that, by virtue of her position vis-a-vis books and the Professional Writing Life, such a study would be rendered too cloistered, too pedantic—too, in a word, unpleasurable—to appeal to anyone but those lucky enough to get paid to read. A cursory flip through the contents only added to my qualms: chapter titles such as “Novelty,” “Authority,” and “The Space Between”; paragraphs full of pithy descriptions of often unfamiliar texts. How could any of this hope to capture, much less add to the undefinable, the ineffable, the complex yet simple joy we feel when we read a good book?
“It’s not a question I can completely answer,” Lesser writes, beginning her prologue as if in anticipation of my worries, inviting us into what she hopes will be a conversation between our ideas and hers: “You are my silent partner in this enterprise. As I make observations and assertions, you give your assent or withhold it, according to your own opinions. Sometimes I may persuade you, and sometimes you may resist. In either case, the conversation continues for as long as you are reading this book, and possibly after.”