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Zack Ravas

‘A Student of History’ by Nina Revoyr: A Term Among High Society

Nina Revoyr novel A Student of HistoryIn 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.

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‘Diary of a Murderer’ by Young-ha Kim: Offbeat and Darkly Rewarding

Young-ha Kim novel Diary of a MurdererWith a title like Diary of a Murderer (200 pages; Mariner; translated by Krys Lee), the latest English release of Young-ha Kim’s work might attract some strange looks while you’re holding it on the subway. But it’s a feeling more adventurous readers will be used to by now, and this story collection boasts precisely the kind of offbeat and darkly rewarding fiction that should appeal to such readers.

An award-winning author in his native Korea, Young-ha Kim has already seen several of his novels translated into English, though Diary of a Murderer is his first story collection to be published in the United States. The book opens with the titular novella, told from the point-of-view of a “retired” serial killer with an unusual predicament: right as he begins to suspect his adopted daughter’s new boyfriend might be a killer himself, he receives a grim Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Suddenly every day becomes a struggle to preserve his memories as he races to collect proof that his unsuspecting daughter’s suitor is not who he claims to be.

The idea of a protagonist attempting to solve a mystery while dealing with short-term memory loss no doubt brings to mind Christopher Nolan’s influential 2000 thriller Memento. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Young-ha Kim’s story was brought to the silver screen in Korea. 2017’s Memoir of a Murderer proved a box office hit in there, despite the fact that the screenplay deviates from the source material by turning protagonist Byeong-soo into a more likable, Dexter-esque vigilante who only preys on the worst of society.) But Kim’s story makes no such commercial considerations and, as a writer, he seems uninterested in the genre or pulp potential of his premise. Instead, he employs the idea of an unrepentant killer with a rapidly deteriorating mental state as a means to ruminate on the nature of memory, familial responsibility, and evil.

Throughout the story, Byeong-soo resists others’ attempts to psychoanalyze his behavior; he seems to suggest that the mere impetus to investigate evil––to try and study its root or cause––is tantamount to courting self-destruction. The most chilling exchange comes late in the novella when a journalist arrives to interview Byeong-soo about his past crimes:

A man who said he was a journalist visited me. He said he wanted to understand evil.

What he said was so clichéd, it amused me.

I said, “Why are you trying to understand evil?”

“I’d have to understand it in order to avoid it.”

I said, “If you can understand it, then it isn’t evil. Just stick to praying, so you can stay out of evil’s way.”

 The rest of the collection features three shorter works that leave behind thriller trappings for more existential and absurd territory, which proves even more satisfying. “The Origin of Life” follows the hapless Seojin, who begins a love affair with a childhood sweetheart named Ina, now trapped in an abusive marriage. Their romance soon leads to terrible consequences for Ina but, fortunately for Seojin, he is able to extract himself from the situation before any harm comes to him; thus, the story serves as both an examination of emotional cowardice as well as the all-encompassing sense of relief one experiences upon narrowly avoiding a disastrous fate:

“He was suddenly overjoyed. He was the only one intact, now and in the future. Happiness overwhelmed him. He had resisted temptation, and even felt proud that he had protected himself from a crisis. Fanciful ideas like the origin of life didn’t matter; being alive was what really mattered. Only then did he feel he had truly grown up, as he proudly let go of the sentimental kid who’d read biographies and harbored useless dreams.”

Possibly the highlight of the collection, “Missing Child,” chronicles the devastating fallout that occurs when a young married couple’s small child is abducted in a department store and, far stranger, the radical new domestic life that forms when the boy is returned to his parents many years later, after the husband has quit his job and the wife developed schizophrenia. The family unit finds themselves unable to rectify the truth of their biological relation with the unease they now experience in each other’s company––too much time has passed and too much has been lost to ever go back to the way things were. Although the story is told from the third-person perspective, Young-ha Kim briefly enters the father’s consciousness during a crucial moment with his son:

“I started considering genes only after we lost you, after I’d crawled on all fours searching for strands of your hair. I believed that it would help us find you. And because of the test results, you’re sitting in front of me right now. But you’re a real stranger to me, just like I must be a stranger to you. If the DNA from the hair I finally found on your baby clothes matches the cells scraped from the inside of your mouth, it means that you’re the same person, and we have to believe it, we must believe it, we’ve got no choice but to believe it, but why can’t we see it with our own eyes?”

Diary of a Murderer ends on a meta and comically surreal note: “The Writer” follows a middle-aged novelist faced with writer’s block and a looming deadline, even as his ex-wife may or may not be sleeping with his new editor. Young-ha Kim clearly derives glee here from poking fun at the notion of the writer with a capital “W” as enshrined by popular culture. The narrator of “The Writer” is constantly trying to devise ways to get out of his literary contract, with little consideration given to the integrity of his work or his audience of loyal readers. When he realizes he could be sued for breach of contract if he doesn’t eventually turn in a book, he receives some advice from his friend, a philosophy lecturer:

“Then how about this instead?”

“What?”

“Write an unintelligible, chaotic book that’s unpublishable. Write something like James Joyce’s Ulysses. A difficult book, one around a thousand pages long, without a clear plot line or a recognizable subject.”

Ulysses has a plot and a concrete subject.”

“To be honest, I haven’t read it. What’s it about?”

Unconventional and acerbic, Young-ha Kim’s stories possess a knack for black humor as their protagonists find themselves in increasingly degrading situations. Diary of a Murderer feels like a stellar entry point into the writer’s distorted world, and makes clear why his examinations of contemporary urban life and its many contradictions have earned him comparisons to the likes of Albert Camus and Haruki Murakami.

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‘King of Joy’ by Richard Chiem: Millennial Malaise

Richard Chiem novel King of JoyKing of Joy (176 pages; Soft Skull Press) floats out from under a narcotic haze. The first novel from Richard Chiem follows the recent reissue of his story collection, You Private Person, and expands on that book’s knack for exploring millennial ennui. As King of Joy opens, lead character Corvus finds herself in a purgatorial place; on the run from a painful past, she’s spent the last year residing in a secluded woodland manor with a host of other young women and their employer, a pornographer named Tim. Her days are loosely spent in a druggy stupor, socializing with her cast-mates and performing for Tim’s camera:

“The poise and happiness of her years are gone but she owns a slowness no one could take from her, a rock no one could dare budge, drinking cold milk straight from the carton, more in her head than anywhere else…The lie she tells sometimes is that she’s doing okay, that there is nothing wrong. Most days, there is nothing to say.”

Early on, we witness Corvus’ arrival at the mansion on a pitch-black night; she watches a half-naked woman use a torch to light a tree on fire as others dance and pop champagne bottles. It’s a surreal moment, one inherently cinematic; Chiem has appropriately cited Harmony Korine’s 2013 movie Spring Breakers as a primary influence on the novel. Just as in that film, there is an undercurrent of menace throughout King of Joy, creating the sense that violence could erupt at any moment. Both Tim’s intentions and Corvus’ future appear as ambiguous as the past Corvus remains determined to put behind her.

The novel utilizes a cyclical structure as Corvus’ departure from the house in the woods ultimately leads her to a different isolated mansion, this one protected by a moat full of man-hungry hippopotami. The strange events that unfold there trigger Corvus’ memories of her former husband, a successful but tortured playwright, and the modest life they once shared together. It’s here we develop a sense of the tremendous cloud of grief Corvus has been living under for more than a year now—but also an understanding of how that same grief can be channeled into a source of strength:

“In story books, in movies, and in pop songs, Corvus has always loved the stubborn characters the most….the loser getting kicked in the teeth and choosing to smile, mouth full of blood, instead.”

King of Joy possesses a funereal tone, shifting through events in a nonlinear fashion that suggests a consciousness in Corvus attempting to reckon with the trauma of her past. There’s a dream-like quality to the situations Chiem invents, and animals in the book are often attributed more admirable human qualities than the humans: people let Corvus down but pit bulls, cats, and hippopotami alike display loyalty, adoration, and a fierce protective spirit.

The novel tends to take on the same languid energy as the lives it depicts. In that sense, Chiem was likely wise not to extend the story past two hundred pages. But there is something refreshingly ordinary about the author’s milieu. His characters are disaffected urbanites, not academics or precocious wunderkind. They listen to Elliot Smith, work menial jobs, and look forward to the end of the day when they can self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. King of Joy finds Corvus occupying a bleak fork in the road. Through her struggles, she doesn’t reach any hard-fought truth; she doesn’t emerge from her suffering with a greater appreciation for life, she simply emerges, and in her world, that’s enough.

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‘Trump Sky Alpha’ by Mark Doten: President Troll

Mark Doten novel Trump Sky AlphaFor many Americans, the phrase “The Man with His Finger on the Button” has never registered as so ominous and disturbing as with a President as ill-tempered and braggadocios as Donald Trump in the White House. As Mark Doten’s latest novel, Trump Sky Alpha (288 pages; Graywolf Press), opens, those fears are realized when a crippling cyber-attack on America’s infrastructure prompts President Trump to unleash the country’s nuclear arsenal upon its perceived enemies. “The loss of life, it’s always tragic,” Trump intones from his massive zeppelin-like fortress, the titular Trump Sky Alpha. “But it’s been incredible. The results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life. We have little Rocket Man and the crazy disrespect and Iran and China and it’s all been contained beautifully.”

Doten then jumps a year later, after roughly 90 percent of the world’s population is eradicated in the ensuing nuclear warfare on January 28, with the survivors residing in heavily monitored, sterile government shelters. Our protagonist, Rachel, is a journalist and widow given her first assignment as a writer for the fledgling New York Times (now based in Modesto): a piece examining Internet humor before the end of the world. Rachel makes the case that there are other, more important stories to be telling––for instance, just who launched the cyber-attack that precipitated the events of 1/28, and how many civilians are still alive out there in the apocalyptic wasteland––but her editor assures her this story, about the memes and jokes that comprised Internet culture shortly before Trump launched the nukes, is the only story their government handlers are comfortable with her writing at the moment.

Just as the remnants of civilization have survived, albeit in a controlled environment, so, too, has the World Wide Web; in order to write her story, Rachel is permitted access to the last cache of the Internet before 1/28. Rachel’s investigation sends her tumbling down the rabbit hole of web humor in the early 21st century, from Pepe the Frog to the Distracted Boyfriend meme. Her study throws in sharp relief the difference between the way the tech giants of Silicon Valley envisioned their social media landscape—

“…the men who saw the internet as a new utopian space that would dissolve the old industrial giants, the obsolete monsters, those countries and corporates of unfreedom, and usher in new forms of being, or restore the old ways we’d lost…”

—and how quickly that naïve vision was perverted by users who resorted to the kind of virulent trolling, misogyny, and racism that can be found in almost any corner of the Internet:

“The sense that it was this, it was the structure of the internet, that had amplified the stupid and the evil, and at the same time flattened them, made them impossible to distinguish. Or made distinguishing them somehow beside the point.”

Trump Sky Alpha draws a direct line from the poisoned well of Internet culture during the Aughts to the rise of Trump as both cultural icon and President––our Troll-in-Chief––as if to say one would not be possible without the other. “From Watergate to Gamergate, from Pizzagate to Trump. A line, perhaps, or lines,” Rachel writes.

Despite her article’s seemingly frivolous subject matter, Rachel’s stake in it proves personal: if she turns in a satisfactory draft, the government has promised to take her to Prospect Park, the site of the mass grave most likely to contain her wife and daughter. The story ultimately leads Rachel on a strange journey to uncover the identity of the mysterious hacker, known only as Birdcrash, who may have launched the cyber-attack just before 1/28, as well as their ties to a Filipino-immigrant writer named Sebastian de Rosales and his obscure novel The Subversive. By the time Rachel comes face to face with Birdcrash, the pop culture-obsessed computer genius references everything from The Legend of Zelda to Moonraker, all while holding Rachel hostage with a power drill:

“Did you see The Matrix. The real truth––the reason Neo can stop the squids in the real world, otherwise barely acknowledged––is that there is no outside the system in The Matrix, they’re all in there all the time, it’s bedtime stories or lullabies, this dream of resistance. The metalevel, the outside of the real matrix, in that, their head jackets aren’t removable…But here we can. We can do something about it here. We are drilling in your head.”

Though Birdcrash’s ramblings are clearly the product of a disturbed mind, his rumination on the impossibility of true “resistance” echoes another of the book’s arguments: that in the end, as our country lies in smoldering ruins, armchair activists and impassioned tweets will have done little to stem the ride toward ruin. “There’s no magic hashtag resistance position right now for journalists,” Rachel states. “There’s no democracy dies in darkness or the fucking news fit to print. Just accomplices to whatever this is.” Though Rachel makes this declaration from the other side of a nuclear Armageddon, it’s easy to make the case she speaks for us in the moment, echoing the helplessness many Americans feel each day when they turn on the news.

Unlike the would-be “disruptors” of the tech world, Trump Sky Alpha proves genuinely disruptive literature, taking readers on an often violent and unsettling ride, told in a form that feels as fluid and ever-shifting as Internet culture itself. Doten draws ample influence from his science-fiction forbearers, particularly cyberpunk icons such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, but by setting his novel only a year or two from our present time, Doten removes the sometimes-reassuring barrier of genre and presents us with a novel that is uncomfortably and hideously now.

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‘Mothers’ by Chris Power: The Fragility of Connection

Chris Power Mothers story collectionThe characters in Mothers (287 pages; FSG), the debut story collection by London writer Chris Power, occupy tenuous positions in their personal lives. Many of the ten stories here hone in on the bitter resentments and petty debates that arise when a romantic relationship has barely formed or, alternately, reached its breaking point. In “The Crossing,” protagonist Ann comes to regret her backpacking weekend with recent lover Jim:

“Several times, in the weeks since she had met him, Ana had thought Jim was telling her what she had wanted to hear. Even before she agreed to this weekend away the trait had been irritating her…She had wanted to sleep with him as soon as she saw him, leaning against the kitchen counter at a party in a big, dilapidated house in Chalk Farm. And she had slept with him, but now she wished she had left it at that.”

As one might expect, the backpacking excursion doesn’t end well for Jim; his attempt to restore some of his masculine pride and put himself back in Ann’s good graces leads to disaster at a swift-moving river crossing.

Stephen, the narrator of “Portals,” visits Paris to stay with an old acquaintance, a charismatic Spanish dancer who invariably wins the affection of the men who cross her path (including Stephen). As various would-be gentlemen callers vie for Monica’s attention, the brewing rivalry among them sets the stage for a violent altercation at a French drum ‘n bass club:

“Michael went down so fast it was like I made him disappear. A space cleared around us. Monica–– who I never saw or spoke to again –– looked at me like she didn’t even know me. Which she didn’t, I realized. I laughed. It was so ridiculous and sad.”

And in perhaps the collection’s strongest piece, “Above the Wedding,” a young Englishman named Liam travels to a destination wedding in Mexico City for the purposes of confronting the husband-to-be, with whom he shared a brief physical tryst and still nurtures feelings for:

“As the security light above the garage flicked on, frosting the driveway white, Liam called his name.

Miguel stopped, turned.

‘You’re going to have to talk to me some time,’ Liam said.

Miguel smiled, not unkindly. ‘No I am not, Liam,’ he said, and turned and walked into the darkness.”

It is the “unkindly” in that last sentence that hurts the most, and throughout Mothers Power exhibits a similar knack for detail in his depictions of the way people navigate disintegrating relationships, whether due to fading sexual chemistry or the barriers put up by mental illness. An eponymous sequence of stories appears at the beginning, midpoint, and end of the book, each installment focusing on the life of the troubled Swedish native Eva. The opening story relays her childhood outside of Stockholm, while later pieces touch on her struggles with depression and failed attempts at maintaining a family. Power lets some of the connections among the stories reveal themselves slowly, and each one can comfortably stand on its own, though the final two chapters are united by the imprint of Eva’s physic pain: “When it comes it’s like all the rules change,” she explains. “You feel everything falling apart and coming back together in new shapes, shapes you can’t understand. You lose the ability to make sense of anything.”

A couple of the stories in Mothers register as outliers: “The Colossus of Rhodes” ruminates on the nature of storytelling itself, as the narrator admits to exaggerating the details of an uncomfortable incident from his childhood in order to express the anxiety of being a parent in a world where it is often impossible protect one’s children (“…I can’t help but wonder if the same thing happened to them, would I want to know? And if I knew, what then?”). Elsewhere, “Johnny Kingdom” follows the hard luck of an English stand-up comic and family man attempting to make a living by impersonating the fictional comedian Johnny Kingdom (a clear stand-in for the late Rodney Dangerfield). Power cleverly utilizes the concept of a comic recycling a deceased comedian’s material to examine writer’s block and the struggle to find a creative voice that is uniquely one’s own:

“Sometimes he was asked, with genuine puzzlement, why he was doing someone else’s bits –– a crime in comedy, but complicated in this case by the fact that he wasn’t trying to pass someone else’s line off as his own, he was only performing someone’s entire act…He was as uncomfortable with what he was doing as anyone else was.”

Mothers proves an elegant collection, touching on a host of issues deeply ingrained in our modern experience: the fragility of human connection, the impulse to travel, and the painful ramifications of mental illness, among others. Power’s prose is spare and exacting, excising the needless word in pursuit of emotional truth. Mothers proves a rewarding experience for the lover of quiet short stories that speak volumes.

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Rock ‘n Roll Suicide: ‘Destroy All Monsters’ by Jeff Jackson

Destroy All MonstersTo the young, music can be a religion. Destroy All Monsters (357 pages; FSG), the latest novel from Charlotte-based author Jeff Jackson, trades in the kind of punk fervor that inspires teenagers to thrash in mosh pits, raid merch booths, and obsessively listen to the same album. The power of what a few kids and some amped instruments can do is clearly a subject near to Jackson’s heart; not only does he perform in the self-described “weirdo pop band” Julian Calendar, but he’s allowed the vinyl single format to influence the design of the novel itself: Destroy All Monsters features an A-Side­­––which constitutes the novel proper­­––and a reverse B-Side, an alternate follow-up to the main story that follows some of the same characters in radically different incarnations. The novel contends frankly with both the difficulties of maintaining youthful passion for loud, distorted noise as one grows older and how the resentments and obligations of adulthood begin to accrue.

Destroy All Monsters centers on the music scene in a “conservative industrial city” called Arcadia. The prologue opens with a memorable performance by hometown heroes the Carmelite Rifles at a show attended by a motley assortment of locals:

“The strip-mall goths, the mod metalheads, the blue-collar ravers, the bathtub-shitting punks, the jaded aesthetes who consider themselves beyond category. Everyone in line has imagined a night that could crack open and transform their dreary realities.”

Also present at the show are two of the characters who will drive the rest of the novel: budding musician Florian and the forlorn but enigmatic Xenie. Not long after the Carmelite Rifles show, which ripples through the audience’s lives with the impact of an early Velvet Underground gig, a mysterious plague grips the entire country. All around the United States, club patrons are being transfixed by some unknown spell that causes them to gun down or otherwise attempt to murder the bands onstage:

“The noise duo at the loft party in the Pacific Northwest. The garage rockers at the tavern in the New England suburbs. The jam band at the auditorium on the edge of the Midwestern prairie. The blue grass revivalists at the coffeehouse in the Deep South. There was never any fanfare. The killers simply walked into the clubs, took out their weapons, and started firing.”

Although the killers’ motives remain largely ambiguous (most of them appear to be in a trance-like stupor as they go about their attack) the parallels to recent events are chilling. After terrorist attacks on music venues in Manchester and Paris in the last few years, it is all too easy to imagine the same violence occurring on this side of the Atlantic. The threat of danger feels heightened for the young people at the heart of Destroy All Monsters, to the point that the question of whether or not to perform a scheduled show becomes a matter of life and death for Arcadia’s local acts.

When tragedy ultimately does strike (“The band is heading for the [song] bridge when the first shot is fired”), Florian and Xenie are left to figure out how to privately mourn the loss of a close friend when seemingly everyone in town is doing so in a very public, outsized way. The spat of murders across the country also force Xenie to reckon with the fact that so much of the music playing at local venues and taking up space on her hard drive is, in a word, mediocre. “I used to have a huge music collection,” Xenie relates. “I was obsessed and even saved my concert stubs in a red cardboard box. Sometimes I’d open the box, and just touching the tickets was enough to give me a rush…These days I crave silence.”

Her statement is a lament for an age that has come to be defined by noise, much of it meaningless. Xenie and others in Arcadia’s music scene must grapple with the difficulty of conveying authentic expression in a world drowned out by sound. As Florian contemplates after the last show he’ll ever play: “It’s too easy to transform a moment of truth into a cheap performance.”

Destroy All Monsters understands the impetus to pick up a guitar and strum a power chord, perhaps out of the misguided notion that the result could lead to some change in the world. And the novel understands the disheartening fact that the country is full of numerous small towns like Arcadia, with its dive bars, shuttered factories, and hobo camps, each of them with their would-be punk rockers like Florian. Amid the story’s nationwide epidemic, Jackson’s characters display crucial growth: what ultimately comes to matter––more than selling out concert halls or recording a promising demo––is remaining true to the memory and last wishes of their friends after they’re gone. “Not everything has to be a performance,” Xenie concludes. “Some things should stay pure.”

Jackson, whose prose registers as punchy and acerbic, leading the reader through multiple act breaks and perspective changes with ease, is sincere in his depiction of provincial youth yearning for an escape. In the 21st century, rock ’n roll might not mean as much as it once did, but Jackson has written a fitting tribute to its lingering spirit.

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Clear Blue Skies: ‘Ghost Guessed’ by Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs

Ghost GuessedGhost Guessed (156 pages; Mesæstándar) is an exquisite meditation on grief, loss, and family ties in a world increasingly given over to technology. A combination of prose and photography, the work takes a unique approach to creative nonfiction by telling a highly personal story through the blended voice of co-authors Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs. The book opens in the spring of 2014 as our unnamed narrator finds himself traveling to Malaysia with his wife just three weeks after Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 vanished over the South China Sea. The plane’s mysterious disappearance triggers the narrator’s memories of his cousin, Andrew Lindberg, who similarly vanished in 2009 while flying a single-engine plane near the town of Staples, Minnesota. It’s worth noting that Lindberg is Tom Griggs’ real life cousin, and Ghost Guest features a host of what appears to be authentic family photographs. The ambiguity as to which author can be attributed for the story lends to the spectral quality of the work and blurs the line between truth and non-truth. “The boundaries of reality became fluid,” the narrator states, “and while we knew they would reset, we didn’t know what form they would take.”

These twin disappearances create dual timelines in the book––one in which the narrator recalls his malaise following the financial crash of 2008-09 and the discovery of his cousin’s downed plane in the White Earth Indian Reservation, and the other chronicling his trip to Malaysia as he becomes increasingly unmoored by memories of the past. Threading these moments together is the omnipresence of technology in our lives, as well as the far-reaching absence the death of a loved one can create. “Today it is no longer a question of whether there are images of an event,” the narrator muses, “but a question of what to show from all we have and how to show it to the largest possible audience.”

When we can spend all day scrolling through “an aggregation of social media posts and crime-scene pics, ISIS propaganda and high-end real estate listings, surveillance stills and police bodycam footage,” one might expect we’d find it easier to parse truth from the world around us. Instead, we find “mountain digital archives that hem us in,” and we are left to ponder the same questions the writer does when he reluctantly takes a job photographing foreclosed houses in the Midwest during the financial crisis: “How do you make meaningful work amidst endless images? How do you make shapes from the sea?”

In Ghost Guessed, the ominousness of the Information Age––with its “Predator drones making civilians fear clear blue skies, and the shifting satellite and radar grids recording our lives as they unfolded,” as well as what seems to be the increased occurrence of aviation accidents during the last decade––is set in contrast with the bonds of family. Home photographs from before and after Andrew Lindberg’s death capture stray moments of intimacy among kin, as well as the visible sense of loss seen upon the faces of bereaved relatives. The book’s sparse prose underscores this state with its quiet, humane details, as when the narrator reflects on a mundane occurrence during the search for Andrew’s downed plane: “I remember pulling a sandwich from a cooler and immediately feeling the banality of the moment, the lack of reverence of everyday events amid catastrophe.”

Most of the photographs in Ghost Guessed possess the texture of analog media, a clear reminder of how previous generations used to document their lives on film, compared to the increasing digitization of this era, our memories now reduced to Facebook feeds, Instagram photos, and the ambiguity of “The Cloud.” The narrator observes, “A triangle emerged: camera, society, and sky bound in a system of infinite visible relationships, increasing the probability of finding a pattern we could grasp.” But what happens when no such pattern emerges? Ghost Guessed is frank about the harsh truths of middle age, of finding yourself no more grounded or certain than when you were young. “…I wondered if I’d ever live up to my own expectations,” the narrator reflects, “I could start over and still never get past the beginning.”

It’s fitting then that Ghost Guessed ends exactly as it starts: in uncertainty as murky and grey as the roiling clouds that adorn its back cover. In tracing the lingering hold of technology on us, from disasters in the skies to social media feeds, and the devastating losses that can impact a family for years, Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs have crafted the rare multimedia work that one can declare profound.

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I Have No Formula: Q&A with ‘The Secret Habit of Sorrow’ Author Victoria Patterson

The Secret Habit of SorrowVictoria Patterson’s eye is trained on Southern California. But she’s not only writing about the Los Angeles we know from cinema and television screens. Her stories trace tales of disappointment and regret across the senior living centers, grocery stores, and backyards of cities like Long Beach, Newport Bay, Costa Mesa, and others. Much like the work of Alice Munro, each of the stories in her latest collection, The Secret Habit of Sorrow (224 pages; Counterpoint), read as though they could be the start of a novel, with a breadth of complexity to her characters and the trying situations they find themselves in.

We come to Patterson’s cast of flawed protagonists at particularly vulnerable moments in their lives. Whether they’re attempting to raise a child apart from the instability of a drug-addicted partner or reeling from the mistake of  sleeping with a parent’s new boyfriend, Patterson approaches their stories with a generosity that doesn’t belie the poor choices they’ve made or the unfair hand they’ve been dealt, and a keen level of detail that makes their victories –– however minor –– feel earned.

Victoria Patterson recently spoke to ZYZZYVA about her writing process, the delicate balance of drawing material from real life, and more.

ZYZZYVA: You are one of the few contemporary writers whose short stories suggest for me a life beyond their page count, to that point that I’m halfway surprised when I reached the end of many stories in The Secret Habit of Sorrow –– as it seems to me that the characters and their struggles could continue on. As someone who is also an accomplished novelist, do you know whether a project will be a short story or novel right from the start?

Victoria Patterson: The writing process is still mysterious to me. I like to let stories take me where they want to go, so in that regard I have no specific page count in mind.

But I do usually know early on whether the material will manifest itself as a novel or a short story. With both, there’s an enormous amount of note taking and daydreaming before I begin to attempt words on the page.

Z: The stories in The Secret Habit of Sorrow span from a period that includes 2006 to the present. I noticed in the Acknowledgements that many of the stories are listed as appearing in slightly different form in their original publications. Is that a valuable part of the creative process for you, being able to revise stories when they are ultimately put together for a collection?

VP: I like to think that I’m getting better as an artist as time passes, so it’s only natural for me to revise stories that have already been published. At some point, I have to leave them alone. At some point, a story is done. But why not go back and improve them, if I can? Especially from a distance of years, which gives me a better perspective and a detachment, so I can ideally be more ruthless.

Z: Tone is such a delicate thing to control on the page. But the details you select really speak to the mood of your stories; for instance, I love the kind of dismal description we get when serial philanderer Nick watches his new girlfriend sitting at the end of a dock in “Paris”: “Nick likes how she looks casual and sexy. She could be in an advertisement for Viagra or mutual funds. The sun is down but it’s still light, a long pink spray across the skyline, and overhead a mottled half moon the dirty white of cauliflower.” Those lines tell me everything I need to know about Nick’s midlife existence, without any dialogue or internal monologue. How much is tone on your mind as you’re writing?

VP: Wasn’t it Michelangelo Antonioni who said that life is made up of small moments, not major ones? Life is also in the details, the ones that a writer’s eye catches. No one can teach this. So much of tone comes from an accretion of details lurking in the background. I think for me this comes intuitively and with practice and revision. I have no formula. Sometimes I luck out; sometimes it just takes time and revisions.

Z: Just as much as Nick or any of the other individuals who populate your stories, Southern California itself feels like a character in this collection. What is it about Southern California that continues to be an influence on your work?

VP: Southern California is my terrain. It’s in my blood. It’s what I know best.

ZYZZYVA Volume 33, #1, Spring 2017Z: “Appetite” first appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 109. It’s a story that deals with writers and motherhood, yet neatly sidesteps any of the clichés associated with stories about both. One frequently hears about writers who get in trouble with their family members for writing about them, but “Appetite” is unique in that it explores the perhaps predatory nature of the writer who draws from their personal life: at one point the narrator, a writer, reflects on her intimate relationship with her friend Claire and remarks, “For a moment I imagined myself as a parasitic, ballooning animal sucking off Claire’s shrinking body.”

As a writer, do you find there’s a balancing act in taking inspiration from real life relationships without veering into that more predatory category?

VP: That’s always something I’m considering.

I was listening to a Maggie Nelson interview with Brad Listi on his Otherppl podcast, and they were discussing this very thing. Listi quoted Norman Mailer as saying–and I’m paraphrasing everything here – that a writer who is afraid to offend people is like a surgeon who is afraid to cut. Maggie made the point that expectations are gendered and especially with mothers, saying that no one likes to imagine mothers as surgeons cutting anything.

There’s pressure on female writers. We’re supposed to be nice, not brutal truth-tellers, especially if we’re mothers. It’s culturally frowned upon to do otherwise. I’m working against this.

Ugly is ugly, though. Bad behavior is bad behavior – it doesn’t matter who it comes from. There’s a fine line. I’m not saying go all out and be a vulture. But at the same time, it’s imperative that I be willing to challenge those archetypes.

In my work, I’ve tried not to censor myself, and I’ve lost a few relationships and burdened others. But so far, I don’t regret it. My current thinking goes: If I’m going to be uncompromising with others, I have to be willing to be even more uncompromising with myself.

Victoria Patterson is the author of the novels The Peerless Four and This Vacant Paradise, a 2011 New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her story collection, Drift, was a finalist for the California Book Award, the 2009 Story Prize, and was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The San Francisco Chronicle. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches at Antioch University’s Master of Fine Arts program. You can read her story “Appetite” in ZYZZYVA No. 109.

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Burn It All Down: ‘Days of Awe’ by A.M. Homes

Days of AweA.M. Homes first made her mark on the literary scene with 1990’s The Safety of Objects, a dark and dynamic collection that established her as one of our foremost chroniclers of suburban dysfunction. Even more astonishing was the fact that Homes wrote most of the stories while still in graduate school. A movie adaptation followed in 2001, but its tacked-on ending––featuring the book’s assortment of characters all grinning warmly for the camera at a backyard barbecue–-felt disingenuous. Homes’s stories are rarely the kind where troubles can be resolved with group therapy sessions or summer cookouts; her method is much closer to the couple who set their house ablaze at the start of her novel Music For Torching: sometimes in order to free yourself from the trappings of modern life, you have to burn it all down.

Despite recent accolades, including the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013, Homes’s output has become less frequent as of late, and perhaps hasn’t achieved quite the same impact as her earlier work. Thus, the time seems right for her latest story collection, Days of Awe (304 pages; Viking), as it presents a chance for readers new and old to check in with this prominent voice in transgressive literature. The book gathers from a wide range of material, opening with “Brother on a Sunday,” which first appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, and includes “The National Cage Bird Show,” the only story original to this book. Coincidentally, those are two of the strongest pieces in the collection.

“Brother on a Sunday” is a case study in the elements Homes does so well, from the crisp minimalism of her prose to her off-kilter depiction of suburban ennui. The story concerns a successful plastic surgeon named Tom and his wife’s vacation to the Hamptons with their wealthy friends, the impending arrival of the protagonist’s uncouth older brother serving as an ominous storm gathering over the weekend. Homes mines this material for both dark comedy––Tom’s friends are constantly backing him into corners at parties, asking for his medical opinion of their unsightly rashes or moles––and an unexpectedly poignant commentary on aging. Tom’s musings on the recent death of a friend prove doubly effective due to Homes’ measured tone:

“The men seem oblivious to the inevitability of aging, oblivious to the fact that they are no longer thirty, to the fact that they are not superheroes with special powers. He thinks of the night, a year ago, when they were all at a local restaurant and one of them went to grab something from the car. He ran across the road as though he glowed in the dark. But he didn’t. The driver of an oncoming car didn’t see him. He flew up and over it. And when someone came into the restaurant to call the police, Tom went out, not because he was thinking of his friend but because he was curious, always curious. Once outside, realizing what had happened, he ran to his friend and tried to help, but there was nothing to be done. The next day, driving by the spot, he saw one of his friend’s shoes––they had each bought a pair of the same kind the summer before––suspended from a tree.”

“The National Cage Bird Show” hones in on the unexpected friendship that develops between a troubled 13-year-old girl in New York and a U.S. soldier deployed in the Middle East. The two of them converse exclusively through a chat room for parakeet lovers, the transcript of which comprises the entirety of the story. This form allows Homes to examine both the harrowing, Hurt Locker-esque experience of soldiers in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan (“I am the local EOD, explosive ordinance disposal specialist, basically the Maytag Man for bombs. I’m good with my fingers. I can thread a needle in the dark. Anything with a detonator, I’m your man”) as well as the particular sadness of being a teenage girl: “Is it weird to say I just wish things could be the way they were? I wish I didn’t know that a dad could fall out of love with his family. Part of me refuses to believe it––does that make me a romantic?”

The combination of the two proves oddly touching, and maintains a sense of innocence for the duration of the story, despite Homes’s longstanding penchant for the taboo. The backdrop of a bird lovers’ chat room provides the story with a humorous grounding, but also underscores how the Internet has increasingly become the main outlet of personal connection for those, likes Homes’ characters, who identify as outsiders.

“A Prize For Every Player,” another standout from Days of Awe, originally appeared in a book of photographs by acclaimed Bay Area artist Bill Owens. Homes may feel a kinship with Owens, as his work similarly traces the lives of everyday Americans, capturing the candid moments in their kitchens or yards. The surreal “Player” follows a nuclear family on their weekly shopping trip, only this family has turned such consumerist ventures into their own little game show, with the husband and wife scanning the aisles with dual shopping carts in search of the best deals.

The absurdity reaches almost Kafka-esque levels once the family stumbles upon an infant left abandoned in the store (“Can I get it?” the daughter asks. “Can I, can I? It can be for my birthday and Christmas and everything else, too”) and later when the husband is nominated as a presidential candidate by the crowd in the electronics department. Though the story is a decade old, his impassioned speech brings to mind the populist rhetoric that has become increasingly prevalent in Western politics:

“The point is, I remember America. I remember when politicians had a vision, a dream for the people of this country, and didn’t run their campaign based on a tax rebate if elected––essentially attempting to buy the vote. Are we that gullible that we thought George Bush’s three-hundred-dollar rebate would cover it? Think of what that vote cost, think of your retirement account, your health insurance, your mortgage, and your cost of living versus your salary. How much did you lose, and how much did you make?”

Not all of the stories in Days of Awe tap such a rich vein of social commentary­. “Hello Everybody” and “She Got Away” trace the trials and tribulations of the same well-to-do Southern California family, territory well-trod by Bret Easton Ellis in the Eighties. (“What kind of doctor wants a pregnant woman to lose weight?” “A Beverly Hills doctor” is a representative exchange.) But the book still frequently finds Homes at her best. Her fiction ushers our American landscape into a literary funhouse, commenting with acerbic wit and deft characterization on the distorted reflection that appears. Days of Awe is a reminder that we are lucky to have her singular talent.

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A Tacit Acceptance of Unknowability: Experimental Philosopher Jonathon Keats and His Alien Instruments

Alien Instruments 1Recent years have seen tribal lines drawn across the globe, with an increasingly divisive and xenophobic political climate both in the United States and abroad. It’s a change in tenor we perhaps should have seen coming, but many of the most strident political analysts have been taken aback by the “Us vs. Them” rhetoric that has become so prevalent since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, known for past endeavors such as the Pangaea Optima and Superego Suits, has proposed one idea for alleviating the current culture of hate: to turn our eyes – and ears – to the stars.

Of course, NASA and other space programs around the world have long since abandoned manned missions to deep space, but Keats has another notion entirely in mind, one that employs the universal language of music. The San Francisco artist has composed a Universal Anthem to be performed by several new constructions he has come to call alien instruments. “The Universal Anthem really is about inclusiveness at every level, which requires that beings other than humans have access to it,” Keats says, detailing the necessity for creating these instruments. “Therefore, all assumptions about sensory organs need to be called into question, and we need this much larger, more expansive view of what music can be made of, and what sorts of implements can be used to precisely modulate qualities of frequency and amplitude.”

The idea of utilizing music to achieve unity has been employed before, at least on a planetary scale. In 1971, the UN Secretary General U Thant commissioned a “Hymn to the United Nations” as an alternative to patriotic national anthems, but the hymn still relied on classical music structure and English lyrics—neither of which Keats finds ideal for achieving interstellar contact or fostering a sense of global unity. “What I care about in very tangible terms are the interactions happening on this planet right now, and those interactions are extraordinarily perilous at the level of geopolitics and the environment,” Keats explains. “I could go on and on as far as all the ways in which our tribalism and xenophobia are toxic, are ruinous. We need mechanisms for encouraging and facilitating inclusiveness in every possible way.”

As a result, Keats began his composition of the Universal Anthem by thinking about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that everything in the universe must follow the rules of entropy, becoming more disorderly over time. Keats describes entropy as “the quality you would most trust to be universal.” Keats’s Universal Anthem “requires no knowledge of Wagnerian leitmotif, for instance,” and instead follows these same rules of entropy, with each voice gradually decomposing.

Alien Instruments 2Keats has created a visual transcription for the Universal Anthem, using – of all things – Adobe Photoshop and its noise generator. The resulting images resemble nothing so much as the static on an analog television or even the popular style of Internet art known as pixelart. But Keats insists this visual depiction is only one way to transcribe the Universal Anthem, and as with many popular forms of music, such as jazz, “it’s all open to interpretation.”

Keats suggests there is great potential for entropy to be used as the basis for music; even songs by popular artists like Taylor Swift could be transcribed using his method. While Keats acknowledges that Swift could strike him with a potential lawsuit for disseminating her music into space, he argues that in helping her reach a potentially interstellar audience, she could be the first artist to go beyond Platinum sales to Universal—and, so, “Swift shouldn’t sue me, she should thank me.”

Composing music based on the law of entropy, Keats argues, could make music emotional on a galactic level, as all known creatures share a will to live and a fear of death. This style of music could “broaden the gamut of what we know” and allow those of us on Earth to “become a small part of something greater.” Keats hopes “this de-centering might help counteract some of the xenophobia that is rampant in the United States and Europe,” and bring about “the kind of massive generalized introspection that is going to be necessary to overcome this tribalism.”

Alien Instruments 3But, how then, best to perform these compositions? It’s difficult to imagine strumming a guitar onstage and expecting those same notes, no matter how amplified, to reach extraterrestrial ears. To that end, Keats has devised several quite beautiful and intricate “alien instruments,” which are currently viewable upon appointment at the Modernism Gallery in San Francisco. These instruments include Gravitational Rattles, which appear to be standard variety potatoes you could find at your local Trader Joe’s – and, indeed, they are. But these potatoes also allow the performers to alter their gravitational mass at will, depending on how many they hold in their hands (or juggle, as one man did to the delight of onlookers at the opening night of Keats’ exhibit). “If we’re going to make instruments that include not only what is audible to humans but also gravitational waves, it makes the distance between us and those south of the border seem all that much more minimal,” Keats says. He hopes a renewed musical understanding could ultimately help foster “the sort of cooperation we need in order to get on as a society, as a species, and as a planet.”

On the off chance these aliens boast superior hearing ability to humans, Keats has created the Ultrasonic Organ, which replaces conventional organ pipes with dog whistles. Most humans cannot hear past 20,000 hertz on the audible spectrum; dogs can hear as high as 45 kilohertz, making the Ultrasonic Organ ideal for reaching distant beings with hearing more in line with our canine companions. Much like a traditional organ, the Ultrasonic Organ’s airflow can be modulated by a foot bellow.

Keats has also constructed the Gamma Ray Bells, whose gamma ray exposure can be controlled by the performer simply by lifting the bell’s lead casing. It’s worth mentioning that gamma rays fall outside the normal human sensory range, but their type of electromagnetic radiation might just be the ideal vehicle to reach certain species currently unknown to us. One has to wonder, then, if the ideal instrumentation for the Universal Anthem might be one that human beings can’t even experience?

Alien Instruments 4Keats argues such an idea goes entirely against the Universal Anthem’s goal of inclusiveness and harmony: “We desperately need humans to be part of this interaction, part of this communication, part of this musical phenomenon, as well as any other organisms,” he states. “First of all because we only know of us, so it makes sense to include us, and secondly because, well, I happen to be human –– as far as I know.”

Despite creating this attractive array of intergalactic instruments, Keats freely admits he approaches this project with little to no musical training. “I studied recorder in fourth grade,” he says. “One semester I learned how to play and then over break I forgot, and so for the second semester I simply didn’t blow into the instrument. That was my first and last experience with any instrument at all.” Even so, Keats has put a great deal of time into informally studying musical theory, as well as astrophysics and the various other components of this endeavor.

Keats does not see his lack of formal proficiency as a hindrance or liability: “I think in everything that I do I rely on the fact that I am ultimately a generalist, a dilettante, a charlatan,” he relates. “I am not bound by any rules, though I certainly make myself aware of the rules in the process of exploring ideas.”

In many ways, Keats’ insistence that a lack of musical training should serve as no detriment to playing these instruments brings to mind the punk rock movement of the late ’70s, which encouraged passionate neophytes to pick up a second-hand guitar or bass and bash their way to a connection with a live audience. “I like the idea that this is a kind of punk tradition that we’re talking about here, when we talk about making music with aliens,” he says.

He also cites post-war avant-garde musician John Cage, whose work utilized a sense of chaos and order not dissimilar to entropy, as a major influence. “I once composed a ringtone that was a remix of John Cage’s 4’33.” My version was a 4-minute-and-33-second long silent ringtone, such that you never knew when your phone was ringing,” he explains. “As a result, you might imagine that it was ringing even when it wasn’t, and you would have this sort of phantom silence, which might even be more pure than the digital silence I generated for the ringtone. We need more silence in the ever noisier world in which we live.”

Keats’ appreciation of Cage reiterates that these instruments are meant to be as accessible as possible. “Certainly some musical training could be helpful,” he states, “but it also might get in the way.” Instead, performers could “enter into a tacit acceptance of unknowability” and experience “a state of not knowing together,” which could actually be “a great basis for a dialogue that doesn’t have any of the power dynamics or structure that typically informs the conversations we have.”

Alien Instruments 5While Keats has composed the Universal Anthem as a starting point, he insists these instruments lend themselves freely to improvisation. “Improvisation is probably more powerful, ultimately,” he states, “and maybe the practice of composing is really practice for improvisation.” Improvisation proves so integral to Keats’ view precisely because “that’s where you have true interaction.” Interaction being a potent remedy to the culture of hate we have become mired in: “The Trumpian strategy is maybe undermined when there are so many ways in which communication is happening, ways that are so complex and so intertwined and so rich that any attempt to pit ‘us’ against ‘them’ is made impossible, and, in fact, ‘us’ and ‘them’ become indefinable.”

Naturally, the notion of jamming out with interstellar beings conjures so many moments from science-fiction movies, whether it’s the iconic cantina band from Star Wars or the blue-skinned opera singer in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, but Keats insists that no aliens yet depicted on film come close to his perception of hypothetical extraterrestrials. “In some cases, like Plan 9 from Outer Space, [the alien is] more hostile or intimidating, and in others, like E.T., it’s more sympathetic, but it’s always Other. It’s always about the difference as opposed to the similarities.” Keats’ project doesn’t hone in on these perceived differences, but rather imagines all the ways we could be alike: embracing a depiction of aliens “where you can’t tell who is who, or where the differentiation is the least of it rather than the most if it.” Given the gorgeously crafted aesthetic of Keats’ instruments, it comes as little surprise that Keats is willing to loan out the instruments as props in film productions. “I would love to see how these instruments and this kind of music might bend the assumptions of science fiction,” he admits.

Beyond appearing at a theater near you, Keats hopes his instruments may one day come closer to achieving their intended purpose by being standard issue equipment onboard future space shuttle launches. “Any mission whatsoever to space, amongst the other equipment that should be onboard the spacecraft, certainly these musical instruments should be part of the gear,” he says. “You never know, you want to be prepared.” And Keats is nothing less than prepared for a potential day in the future where the human voice and mass will intermingle and perform with beings whose experience of music and the universe might, in truth, be closer to our own than we ever imagined.

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Bending Towards Instinct: Q&A with ‘Invitation to a Bonfire’ author Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a BonfireAdrienne Celt’s Invitation to a Bonfire (256 pages; Bloomsbury) is a novel delightfully unconcerned with passing literary trends. Celt has her eye trained on the past, on both the esteemed literary works that have influenced her and the massive social upheaval that was the Russian Revolution. Invitation to a Bonfire opens on the young Zoya Andropova, an orphan of the Revolution who makes her way to safety in the United States only to become the victim of petty cruelties at New Jersey’s prestigious Donne School. Zoya observes the strange customs and practices of American culture while finding solace in tending to the school’s greenhouse.

As the years pass, Zoya finds herself at the center of a bitter love triangle between a bestselling Russian writer and his wife, a couple who may or may not bear a passing resemblance to Vladimir Nabokov and his partner, Vera. This shift in the book’s storyline does not go unnoted, as Celt transitions from boarding school bildungsroman to the high suspense of a vintage Patricia Highsmith novel. Recently, Celt, whose story “Big Boss Bitch” appeared in Issue No. 107, talked to ZYZZYVA about her literary influences, including Nabokov, as well as her interest in Russian history and what it means to “be American.”

ZYZZYVA: So much of the style and milieu of this novel, from its period setting and incorporation of epistolary elements, put me in mind of classic works of fiction rather than any contemporary peers. Both the writing and life of Vladimir Nabokov register as a clear influence, and I was also reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Perhaps you could talk about some of the novels that inspired Invitation to a Bonfire. Did you envision this novel in conversation with those works?

ADRIENNE CELT: Remains of the Day is one of my favorite books, and although I can’t say it was an intentional influence on Invitation, I’m gratified to be considered in conversation with it. And I can certainly see the resonance: both are steeped in yearning for a time gone by, and both offer narrators whose unreliability comes less from a desire to mislead, and more from a desire to cling to their fracturing past, the things they once knew to be true. So maybe it was there without me knowing. God knows a lot of books must have left that kind of subconscious impression.

In terms of novels I turned to specifically, you’re right that the spirit and tone of this book are first and foremost inspired by Nabokov, particularly Lolita, Pale Fire, and Pnin (and of course the title is a hat-tip to Invitation to a Beheading.) I also re-read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which is maybe more contemporary than your question suggests, but arguably just as haunted by romantic notions of the past. Mostly, with that book, I was interested in how much personal history a narrator could offer, especially early on, without causing the plot to drag—Tartt does an incredible job of folding Richard’s backstory into his motivations and his moral character, and I definitely had him on my mind.

Beyond that, maybe some Patricia Highsmith? Maybe some Jean Rhys? I read both those writers while working on my early drafts, and I borrow a sense of propulsion and atmosphere from both of them.

Z: The first part of the novel is largely concerned with Zoya’s journey to America following the violence of the Russian Revolution, which you capture in particular detail. What kind of research was involved in writing about that period of history?

AC: One of my college majors was Russian (the other was philosophy), which meant I had a basic understanding of the Russian Revolution already at my fingertips when I began—and I think it’s worth mentioning that some of that education took place in St. Petersburg, so I wasn’t drawing purely on American attitudes and culture. I hope that makes a difference. Of course I didn’t remember all the dates and specifics perfectly, so I went back and made an outline of the various smaller revolutions that finally led to the collapse of the aristocracy and the rise of the Soviet Union, which I cross-referenced with a calendar of my character’s birthdates and major life events. Honestly, a lot of my research for this book was purely checking dates, and making sure I wasn’t being too anachronistic—which is as true for events that took place in America as in Russia.

People who have never written historical novels, I think, might be surprised which pieces actually have to be deeply researched: it’s so often the little things. There were big patches I could sort of feel my way through by instinct, but when I wanted to figure out what kind of flooring would plausibly be in a Russian apartment, I checked with my college Russian professors, because a guess didn’t feel good enough. There are also, of course, historical novelists who get much more into period-specific detail than I do: I work from a place of character first, and fill in the details as necessary.

Z: As much as Zoya’s struggle is rooted in her experiences as an orphan of the Russian Revolution, a great deal of her story felt universal to me; she is the quintessential outsider, and I think anyone who has ever felt ostracized or different from others would relate to her experiences in boarding school. “Things can go ugly fast,” her confidante Hilda states. “People can be ugly,” and we see this at the Donne School. The first part of the book follows Zoya as she observes her fellow students in an attempt to her learn what it means to “be American.” What made you want to write about the concept of “being American” from the perspective of an outsider to the American experience?

AC: I wanted to write about “being American” from an outsider’s perspective because I think we often don’t understand that there is an “outside.” We think that the American point of view is all there is. (Not that provincialism is unique to our country, but we’ve always been a little extra about it.) When you have an outsider looking at something—a culture, a philosophy, a way of life—you’re forced to recognize that it’s not inevitable. America, as it exists, is not inevitable. That’s kind of a radical thought, but also totally natural and obvious.

Zoya is a wonderful avatar for exploring this, because she’s rarely been an insider in any system. So, while her alienation is sincere, her use of cultural norms becomes a kind of game, or experiment. After a while, she realizes that if an arbitrary system of rules is deciding what’s “morally good”—and different systems decide to attribute “good” to different things—then maybe “moral good” doesn’t have any inherent meaning. Maybe satisfaction can be a moral good. Maybe love can.

Z: Speaking of the parts of the novel, there is a distinct shift that occurs as we move into the second part, in which the novel takes on some suspense leanings, almost operating in the genre of Highsmith. Was there a conscious decision to change the tone and direction of the novel halfway through, or was that something that seemed to happen organically during the writing process?

AC: Ha! So my name-check of Patricia Highsmith has come back around.

The shift was organic. In the original drafts, the first section was shorter, because I wanted to get to the suspense more quickly. But I’m always fascinated by how people come to themselves—how identity is formed over time, through experience and decision-making—which means I’m always going to be invested in giving my characters fleshed-out lives.

I also think that the two parts need each other: the second half wouldn’t operate the same way without the slower burn of the novel’s first section. Learning who Zoya, Lev, and Vera are as people teaches you a lot about what they truly want, and what they might be willing to do to get it. Once you understand someone’s desires, you can see the stakes of their actions more clearly. Plus you attach to them with greater tenderness.

Z: You raise such a fascinating idea in this novel––both Zoya and Vera seem to argue that sometimes an artist needs to be saved from themselves; that perhaps custodians of an artist should prevent certain works from being let out into the world in order to preserve an artist’s legacy. As someone who often finds himself drawn to the messy, more personal films or novels that lead to artists receiving a critical drubbing, this is a thought I love pondering. Have you ever wished, even fleetingly, that an author’s readership could be the guardians of their body of work?

AC: Really, who is the guardian of an author’s legacy if not their readers? I’m not saying I agree with the lengths that Zoya and Vera go to, as an example for the average person—they definitely take “protecting someone from themselves” to new heights. But all books become, in a sense, the property of their readers once they’re published.

On the other hand, if you’re asking whether writers should allow their readers and critics to direct the course of their career, I would say no. I do believe in having sensitivity to the reader’s experience while you write, but not in trying to please everyone. It’s a losing battle, for one thing, and—as you point out—it can scare artists away from making their most personal, groundbreaking work. 

In the end, it’s more important to bend towards instinct than popularity.

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Original Sins: ‘Animals Eat Each Other’ by Elle Nash

Elle NashElle Nash’s first novel, Animals Eat Each Other (121 pages; Dzanc Books), opens with a pair of quotes from Wal-Mart’s Vice President and shock rocker Marilyn Manson, offering readers their first clue as to what kind of milieu Nash is about to immerse them in. It’s one where big box stores encroach uncomfortably on property lines, where meals are more often microwaved than cooked, and teenagers rifle through their parents’ medicine cabinets in search of opioids. The setting is Colorado Springs, a predominantly white town in a county where the majority of voters cast their lot with Donald Trump in the 2016 election; but Animals Eat Each Other’s lens is trained on a different era.

The story opens in 2005 as it’s unnamed nineteen-year-old narrator (who will come to take the name Lilith) feels somewhat adrift in life, sleeping with the manager at her strip mall job, casually partaking in drugs and alcohol, and quietly moving around her trailer at night to avoid her mother, who hasn’t been the same since the death of her husband. “My hobbies included touching myself, drinking cough syrup, and flirting with boys at RadioShack,” she observes. “Could I be anything else?”

Circumstances change when her co-worker Jenny introduces her to a young couple named Matt and Frances, who manage to maintain a hedonistic lifestyle of metal shows and raves despite having an infant at home. The slightly older duo quickly take to our narrator, and dub her Lilith, after the figure in Jewish folklore said to be Adam’s first wife and made from the same dirt as him rather than his rib. Lilith soon learns Matt and Frances are self-professed Satanists, for whom traditional Christian mores hold little significance; Matt declares their beliefs, “A rejection of the puritanical world that is always pulling you outside of yourself and asking you to serve others shamefully. Always asking you to turn the other cheek.”

As Matt and Frances initiate a sexual relationship with Lilith, the trio forms a fragile unit in which jealousy and possession are constantly shifting scales. Though the book is less a coming-of-age tale than a brief and blurry look back at Lilith’s wild teenage days, our narrator nevertheless comes away from this emotionally-charged experience with hard-won observations about intimacy and gender dynamics. She is constantly forced to question if her relationship with Matt and Frances is the liberating middle finger to “family values” it feels like during their headiest moments (“I wonder if in the past, people lived like this,” she muses. “Sometimes it felt tribal to be this way, as if we were a group of degenerates, isolated but entwined”) or if she is merely a pawn the couple has deployed in an attempt to gain dominance over one another. Telling her tale from a place of hindsight, Lilith acknowledges she may have merely represented something new and unspoiled to a pair combating the doldrums of monogamy: “When you don’t live with someone, you don’t get to see their imperfect facets. The mean side of them. The impatient, ungrateful side.”

Along the way, Nash peppers the novel with rich details, from her description of Lilith taking Special K at a party (“I felt like a bag of marshmallows, plastic and all, expanding and melting inside of a safe, hot microwave”) to the catalog of less than nutritious meals comprising Lilith’s diet: pizza Hot Pockets and Hamburger Helper, Doritos, and ranch-flavored sunflower seeds (“After a few dozen, the ranch dust started to taste like vomit”).

The novel’s brevity works in its favor since the narrative’s fleet-footedness reflects Lilith’s lack of deliberation. She often operates on impulse, which tends to create a briar patch of her closest relationships. While Matt and Frances’ Satanist beliefs may be more informed by Marilyn Manson lyrics than any religious text, they nevertheless leave the couple prone to pursuing self-pleasure no matter the emotional cost. “Everyone has this demi urge to destroy and to create…wanting to serve yourself isn’t a bad thing,” Matt advises. Before long, Lilith comes to recognize her own destructive power. “I could feel the manipulative part of myself light up like a highway at dusk,” she declares as she continues to lie and toy with the people closest to her, including Matt’s friend Patrick, who has a newborn of his own.

Lilith’s choices bring an inevitable reckoning, but it is her bond with her best friend, Jenny, that creates a pocket of human warmth amid the wreckage of Lilith’s fizzled hook-ups. “I felt ashamed and jealous that she could know so much about me when I didn’t understand why I was doing what I did at all,” Lilith says when Jenny reads her Tarot cards. Their relationship may have its complications, but it ultimately provides Lilith with an anchor of stability during the fallout of her experience with Matt and Frances. “When she looked at me it was different than how Matt saw me,” Lilith observes. “Jenny seemed to leave herself and move into me.”

Early in Animals Eat Each Other, Nash briefly takes us to what is ostensibly the present moment, to Lilith in front of her computer and scrolling through Matt and Frances’ Facebook feed. The two are now married and smiling in picture after picture. Lilith laughs ruefully, noting it’s “as if nothing I’m about to tell you ever actually happened.” It should be a familiar scene for anyone who’s ever spent a late night basking in the glow of a laptop as they explore an ex-lover’s digital footprint, searching for some indication of where things went wrong. “There is a way people damage you, a way they’ll change the structure of your DNA, the way your brain is wired,” Lilith says. But her story proves that even among the soured memories, we might “retrace the constellation of every event” and find a reminder of our resilience.

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