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Q&A with Ross Gay: ‘The Book of Delights’ and an Essay a Day for a Year

Ross Gay essay collection The Book of DelightsRoss Gay’s The Book of Delights (288 pages; Algonquin Books) is a collection of over 100 short essays. The project began as a type of writing exercise: Gay would write one essay about something delightful every day for a year. While the collection doesn’t contain an essay for every single day of that year, and some of the essays might be called more thought-provoking than purely delightful, the book couldn’t be more aptly named. The pieces read at times like prose poetry or journal entries, and they cover a variety of topics, such as a single flower growing out of the sidewalk or two people carrying a bag together. The Book of Delights brings together aspects of poetry, nonfiction, cultural criticism, and memoir, while keeping with the interests of Gay’s previous works. Gay spoke to ZYZZYVA about some of the overlapping themes that emerged in The Book of Delights, as well as his writing process:

ZYZZYVA: Some essays in The Book of Delights feel incredibly personal, almost more like journal entries than essays. When you wrote these, what audience did you imagine you were writing to?

Ross Gay: That’s such a good question. I mean, there’s a handful of things in terms of audience that I’ve realized over the years. One is that I’m writing to myself. I’m my first audience, and I’m writing to figure these things out and deepen my relationship to these things, and I’m writing to delight and surprise and confuse myself, too, so that’s the first thing. And then, I’m writing very much to the people whose work and lives I feel intertwined with or inseparable from. My dear friends, like Patrick Rosal, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Curtis Bauer, and all these people who I’m in a kind of writing community with…and my neighbors, too! The Book of Delights especially is so rooted in where I live. I’m writing for my neighbors and for other people who are reading the books I’m reading, and for people who are interested in art criticism, because in some ways I think this book is criticism. And I’ve realized I’m also really writing to my brother.

Z: Could you talk a bit about what it’s like for you to move from poetry to prose—or perhaps between poetry and prose? How is your process different for each?

RG: Well, with these essays—because I did give myself the task of writing them every day for a year—I knew I’d write them quickly and daily, so I probably knew pretty early on they would not do the work the way a fifteen- or twenty- or fifty-page essay would.

Someone asked me, “Why’d you write essays instead of poems?” and I said, because I just couldn’t write a poem every day! There’s some relationship to unknowing that poems have to me. For this task of writing each day for a year about something, the poem as a form wouldn’t even occur to me, and I just can’t explain it more than that. It’s just something about it.

Z: I left a few of the essays in The Book of Delights feeling kind of un-delighted. For example, “Hole in the Head” is one that was almost completely absent of the delight and lightness many of the essays bring. I’m curious about how concepts like death and violence collide and overlap with delight in this collection.

RG: I think what’s interesting about The Book of Delights is there’s a pretty regular tension where the practice of attending to delight feels like a kind of labor. And the essay you mention tries to begin this one way [with delight], but the gravity of this ongoing brutality we live with takes the essay. So, I think that tension is what’s interesting to me about the book because it’s true to the way I experience life. Which is to say, I am witness to and beneficiary of profound kindness and tenderness and sweetness, and I am also living amid great sorrows, and that sorrow includes and means violence and brutality and the whole thing.

There’s that longish essay, “Joy is Such Human Madness,” where I do that little false etymology of “delight” meaning “of light” and “without light,” and that maybe joy is both at the same time. That’s a long and wandery way of saying that that’s how I think and understand the world and my own life.

Z: Is that the same tension that’s carried through your poetry as well, when you discuss joy and beauty alongside death and violence?

RG: I think so. I recently was looking at that first book [Against Which] and had occasion to look at some of the poems I really had forgotten about, and it was like, oh, this is something I’ve been thinking about hard for a long time, that things reside right next to each other or on top of each other. And in a certain kind of way, I’m interested in it, because I feel like that’s life. But I also feel like there’s a way that understanding brings us closer together, the understanding that the beautiful and the brutal exist. And one of the brutalities of [our way of life now] is that it makes us forget our dying. That’s one of our first commonnesses.

You and I, we’re both going to die. And there are all sorts of apparatuses we could use to avoid or deny that, but I suspect that if we were to just sit with that fact, I think there’s some kind of understanding or knowledge between us that would be allowed to happen.

Z: The Book of Delights seems like a midpoint between your poetry and your other nonfiction. Was writing this latest book of essays then an entirely different process from other essays you’ve written, like “Loitering Is Delightful” in The Paris Review?

RG: I think the essays in The Book of Delights have some of the spirit and the sound of some of my poems, for sure. It’s also the case that I drafted them all in 30 minutes. That loitering piece, though, it took a long time. And it took conversations with people and asking people to read a paragraph or certain parts that were really sticky for me and saying, “I have this wrong, don’t I? How do I get this right?”

There’s a moment in that loitering essay where I say something like, “laughter is kissing cousin to loitering,” and it was my friend Pat who said that laughter is like loitering. He was like, you can’t consume while you laugh because you’ll choke, and that’s where that line came from. Which is to say, I do not write these things on my own. And the ones [in The Book of Delights] that I just really love in a different kind of way are the ones I just couldn’t figure out on my own. And they probably took longer to write, and in that way they were probably more like my relationship to poems.

Z: I love that you’re expressing that you are helped by friends and fellow writers to craft these pieces, because so often writers—young writers, especially—are afraid to harness and wield other people’s language or ideas.

RG: There is this fabrication—it’s a lie—that we need to write these things entirely on our own, and it’s a violence against the truth of our lives, which is that we live in communities.

And that’s what I want to study: radical collaboration—which is constantly happening! It’s all the ways we have the capacity to [share with each other and] love each other, but there is such a profound interference to that capacity. That’s why we need to study the ways we do have those capacities, and that we do it despite these intense institutional and structural pressures that try to impede us from simply being together.

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ZYZZYVA & Ploughshares Subscription Bundle!

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Get the best literature from coast to coast this Memorial Day Weekend with ZYZZYVA & Ploughshares!

Subscribe now and get two great literary journals –– ZYZZYVA & Ploughshares –– for one low price of $49.99. That’s 35% off the cover price!

Beginning with the next issue of both Ploughshares and ZYZZYVA, subscribers will receive:

  • 4 issues of Ploughshares (print and digital)
  • 4 issues of ZYZZYVA
  • Free submissions to the Ploughshares regular reading period

Don’t delay –– subscribe now before this offer ends!*

*Offer valid though May 28th, 2019.

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‘What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About,’ edited by Michele Filgate: A Complex Bond

Michele Filgate editor What My Mother and I Don't Talk AboutIn What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About (288 pages; Simon & Schuster; edited by Michele Filgate), fifteen writers grapple with the unexpected developments and shortcomings of their relationships with their mothers. In her introduction, Filgate explains that while each individual essay is an achievement in itself, together they work to address the ways we tend to idealize our mothers, as well as reflect honestly on the imperfect relationships we forge (and sometimes end) with them over the course of our lives:

Acknowledging what we couldn’t say for so long, for whatever reason, is one way to heal our relationships with others and, perhaps most importantly, with ourselves. But doing this as a community is much easier than standing alone on a stage.

The essays range in both tone and subject matter: some authors have been estranged from their mothers for years, having suffered abuse and neglect throughout their childhoods, while others are only beginning to understand their mothers as they become parents themselves or think deeply about their family dynamics. This collection engages with tough questions about holding accountable the people we’ve been taught to revere, recognizing the impression our mothers’ greatest strengths and flaws have left on us, and the importance of putting oneself first. At the center of that conversation is the difficulty all children face as they try to understand their parent as a person and not simply a mother.

In “16 Minetta Lane,” Dylan Landis tells an episodic story about her mother’s friendship with noted artist Haywood “Bill” Rivers that taps into the curiosity many of us have about our mothers’ lives before they gave birth to us:

Tell me, what did you do with your glittering mind? Did you make the right choice? Marry the right man? Would you have studied at the Sorbonne, Erica? Laughed with writers at Les Deux Magots?

Did you lock up that dazzling wit of yours, or did you write a book?

Did you get to stroll in Paris? Would you care if your daughter were a perfect doll of a brown baby?

Who would you love, Erica?

Who would you be?

Others writers in the collection show us how, as Filgate writes in her introduction, mothers can be set up to fail. In “Xanadu,” Alexander Chee explains how he survived things his mother couldn’t shield him from: the difficulties of growing up queer and Asian, the traumas of sexual abuse, and the death of his father. Chee unpacks the complications of trying to protect one’s protector:

It is the night before my first novel’s publication in the fall of 2001, and my mother is about to travel to New York for my launch at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. If I don’t make the call, I will read from the novel in front of her, a novel about surviving sexual abuse and pedophilia, inspired by events from my childhood—these autobiographical events, events I have never described for her—and she will find out the next evening in a crowded room full of strangers. And she will never forgive me if I do…Our family had passed through a season of hell, and this was what I’d done to survive it. I know at last: I never told her about this because I was sure I was protecting her.

Careful not to omit moments of love and tenderness, these fifteen writers also reach striking realizations that could potentially alter or destroy their connection with their mothers. What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About captures the complexity of the bond between mother and child, each of the authors conveying their relationships in a way that seems both universally understood and uniquely experienced. Readers are likely to express gratitude to these these writers for diving headfirst into the mental health issues, feelings of loss, and constant learning we all go through, mothers included.

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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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‘Floyd Harbor’ by Joel Mowdy: Harbor Lights, Suburban Sights, and Mean Streets

Joel Mowdy story collection Floyd HarborThe inhabitants of Joel Mowdy’s Long Island spend their days and nights far from the affluent Hamptons, let alone Fitzgerald’s East Egg. Floyd Harbor (256 pages; Catapult Press), Mowdy’s debut collection of twelve interlinked stories, pays pitiless homage to youths trapped in dead-end jobs, killing time with video games and petty crime, blotting out the boredom with cheap liquor and designer drugs.

Oh yeah, it’s not really a “harbor,’’ as the narrator of a story titled “Stacked Mattresses’’ explains. “There were all kinds of cars in the diner parking lot. From this vantage point, I also had a view of the infamous WELCOME TO FLOYD HARBOR sign. The story was that back in the mid-eighties, members from the Historic Society and Property Owners Association formed a committee to change the Mastics and Shirley to Floyd Harbor … to attract business and wealthier residents.” The measure got passed, but didn’t go over with everyone—the non-gentrifiers “put bumper stickers on their car that said WHERE’S DA HARBOR?’’

The rest of the story is about Michael, a wheelchair-bound guy who gets talked into a scam by his buddy Grady that involves changing the pricetags on double mattresses, and exchanging them to other outlets for full queen-size refunds. (Don’t ask.) When Grady gets busted, his pregnant girlfriend, Princess, stashes the mattresses at Michael’s place. The plot thickens as she warns him ominously about Grady’s accomplice, Kit-Kat. “I don’t want anything to do with anyone called Kit-Kat,’’ Michael responds, witnessing his world cave in. It’s dark comedy, beautifully rendered, somewhere between Raymond Carver and Richard Price.

In “Far-Off Places,’’ Jeff takes some blotter acid with his buddy Rob down by the 7-Eleven to try to block the memory of his girlfriend Corinne, and why she dumped him. When the drugs kick in, false profundities abound:

As they entered the blinding store like fluttering moths, Rob saw a bigger picture of life as most people live it. Everybody has a light they strive toward. Corinne is Jeff’s light, and having a great time is Rob’s. That man and woman: the beer they carry out of 7-Eleven is their light, and they were drawn to 7-Eleven to get it.

After drunk dialing and breaking Corinne’s window to get in to see her at her parent’s place, Jeff “took a dive, swam across the bay, turned up naked at the gas station on Neighborhood Road and was wrestled into the back of a police cruiser.’’

Mowdy is clear-eyed, but not without compassion, and humor.

“Animal Kingdom’’ recounts a chance meeting between the narrator and a woman named Rose at the wedding reception for a friend who doesn’t know his bride is pregnant by another man. “The next morning I told Rose she looked more like a Betty,’’ he muses. “It was all the tattoos, stamped here and there like cargo tags on a well-traveled suitcase.’’

The course of true love is interrupted, sadly, when a cat falls out of a tree onto Rose’s chest. (Stay with me here.) While the narrator hails a cab to get advice at the pet store, he’s idistracted by a nearby jogger “in red lifeguard shorts’’ who was “being a wonderful neighbor to Rose by washing some of the fleas off the cat in a disposable baking pan of warm water and dish soap suds. Rose stood by with a towel. They were drinking cold beers the man had brought over. What else they did, I don’t know.’’

According to Mowdy’s biography, he grew up in Mastic Beach with twelve siblings and now splits his time between homesteading in the forest of Lithuania with his wife and son and teaching in Bali.

It’s a long way from Long Island, but clearly, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Neither will you, after reading this indelible account.

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Q&A with Namwali Serpell: Recipe for Revolution—Brief and Contingent Solidarity in ‘The Old Drift’

Namwali Serpell novel The Old DriftNamwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (566 pages; Hogarth/Penguin Random House) is nothing short of a feat. The novel, which unfolds over several generations, is an alchemy of Zambian history, Afrofuturism, science, and fantasy. It is a triumphant and tragic retelling of the country’s birth and a sage forecast of what the future might hold for Zambia. Featuring a cast of memorable characters, Serpell’s narrative follows the lives of several generations of indigenous Africans, as well as Brits, Italians, and Indians—some colonists, some immigrants—who eventually become citizens of Zambia. Wittingly and unwittingly, many of Serpell’s characters contribute to Zambia’s technological and political “progress” (including by collaborating, albeit ambivalently, with Chinese and American investors). In the novel, Serpell, who won the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, lovingly and vividly portrays the pluralistic Zambia she knows; undermines the reader’s ability to pinpoint blame for conflicts small and large; and compels us to consider how moments of contingent and brief solidarity might bring about socioeconomic equality.

I sat down with Serpell last April in Berkeley to talk about her latest work. Below are some of the highlights from our conversation.

ZYZZYVA: The book is incredibly sad. Would you agree with that?

Namwali Serpell: A through-line across the entire novel is the rage that underlies mourning. So there is a sadness—not a depressive sadness, but a sublime grief.

Z: I noticed that the children in the book seem to be destined to follow their parents or grandparents in some way (for better or worse). For example, Jacob takes after his grandmother. When he finds out his grandmother’s history, it seems to him his obsession with fixing or engineering things makes sense. Joseph pursues the profession of his father in an even more literal way, and Naila seems to seek to right the wrong that her grandfather committed against native Zambians. This coupled with the instances in which the wrong people are blamed for bad things make me ask if this is perhaps a metaphor for some form of reparations on the African continent—that the children of those who have done wrong should, to some extent, right those wrongs?

NS: Reparations isn’t a language I use to think about how to address the injustices of colonialism. There has been on the continent a really interesting movement to do something analogous to reparations. So getting Germany to formally apologize to Namibia for the genocide of the Herero. Or the descendants of the Mau Mau rebels whose family members and who themselves were tortured by the British—they had a court case in England where they were given compensation.

There is the question of how we reclaim justice. How do we, for example, get full ownership of the copper mines in Zambia, which even at the moment of independence, the British managed to hold onto? There are attempts like that, which seek restitutive justice, but I wouldn’t use the language of reparations, which more often applies to slavery in the U.S. and the Caribbean. I’d say these are analogous struggles.

What I was thinking about more broadly is the larger question that the swarm of mosquitoes that narrate the novel raise continuously, which is about error and contingency and agency. So there’s a kind of cycle of unwitting retribution happening between these three families, whereby one family is harming the other, which is harming the third, which is harming the first, and this keeps going throughout the generations. I triangulated that relationship, instead of having two families at war like the Montagues and the Capulets, in order to render this kind of oblique quality of relation that undermines our ability to pinpoint blame.

So, for example, the first collision between three family members that are ancestors of the three major families, which happens at Victoria Falls Hotel—it would be hard to pinpoint the blame for the acts of violence that take place in that context. Because you could say Lina reaches out and hits N’gulube because she’s upset that her mother, Ada, has left her side. Ada has left her side to attend to her husband, Pietro, who has just had hair snatched off his head. And Pietro’s hair has been snatched off his head because Percy was trying to grab his hat as a joke. And Percy accidentally hurt him because he was feverish with malaria and so not fully conscious of what he was doing. So really the creature to blame for all this is a mosquito!

This sort of thing happens throughout the novel. Everyone’s responsibility for any particular complication is always mitigated. Agency emerges in relation rather than as something we each possess deep inside of us (like “I did something wrong”). It’s very rare in the novel where someone actively does something wrong to someone else. Most of the time, there’s some set of contingencies that draw people into some kind of collision.

And that is, I think, one way of reconceiving colonialism—as a set of forces that interact and create these really arbitrary and strange acts of violence that will change the entire fate of the rest of the nation. Don’t get me wrong. There is power behind this. There is structural violence. Imperialism does have that kind of force. But to pinpoint it as one person or another’s fault is very difficult. And I think it’s a seduction to think that we can blame single agents for structural violence in that way. So if we think about the borders that got drawn in Zambia, the upper left-hand corner is orthagonal, literally because the king of Italy took a pen and drew this border at a right angle. To me, that kind of arbitrariness is just as important to understand about colonialism as all of the force and power behind it.

Z: What does your novel say about what it means to be African?

NS: I wanted to subvert expectations of what it means to be African. So the idea of “being Zambian” gets contested at various points in the novel. One important figure for this is Agnes, who comes into Northern Rhodesia just as it’s turning into Zambia. Her marriage to her black, Zambian husband is illegal until after independence. So anyone who was in the country at the moment of independence became Zambian. That was the rule. So she stays and becomes Zambian. By the end of the novel, she’s spent most of her life in Zambia.

So this is very similar to my father, who came to Zambia in the late 1960s and, when the country became independent, became a Zambian citizen; married a Zambian (my mum); and stayed. So, to me, he’s Zambian even if he’s white. He speaks a Zambian language. So I was interested in the question: what do you do with that kind of assumption of identity? Sir Stewart Gore-Browne is another example—he came as a British settler and he was violent to his Zambian workers, but he also then became involved in the fight for independence from the British. He helped Kenneth Kaunda become our first president. Browne was one of the first people to represent black Africans in parliament at all.

So it’s very hard to separate out the racial question and the cultural question and the national question. And it’s also very clear to me that characters like Agnes and historical figures like Gore-Browne and people like my father in my own life still retain a vestige of Britishness that means they will never fully be accepted into Zambian society in certain ways. And they still have white privilege. But they’re Zambian, too. So to be Zambian is a very complicated term, one I wanted to throw into contestation. Even someone like Naila in the contemporary generation, she’s born in Zambia to an Italian mother and an Indian father—she considers herself Zambian, she considers herself black . . .

Z: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that.

NS: Yes, this is why her friends are like, “Uh, black how?” They laugh at her. But that claim to solidarity with other Zambians is itself the basis of her sense of her identity. I wanted to point to the multiracial and multiethnic, multi-linguistic roots of my country and see it as a place for syncretism. President Kaunda, when he said, “One Zambia, one nation,” this was our mantra when we became independent from the British. He was trying to lasso all of these different people together. Because it’s not just people from outside. There’re also seven different main tribes within Zambia. So a sense of unity that still acknowledges differences is very important to Zambian identity.

On a related note, you know, the question of the naming of Victoria Falls is very interesting to me.

Z: Yes, I love that the book begins with that. I think Mosi Oa Tunya, which translates into “The Smoke that Thunders,” is a much more meaningful and much more beautiful name.

NS: David Livingstone was the person responsible for naming it Victoria Falls, but it was very unlike him. He did not name any other pieces of landscape. People who know about Livingstone know what sorts of preconceptions he brought with him. They know about how he treated his bearers (black workers). He beat them. He shot at one of them once. He was very condescending to them.

He also freed them from slavery. He also advocated to eradicate the Arab slave trade. He literally freed people with his own hands. He brought religion to Zambia, and Zambia is still a very religious country despite our first president having been a “humanist,” not a Christian. There’s still a lot of Christianity in Zambia. So Livingstone is revered as a missionary there.

And we still call it Mosi Oa Tunya, but we also still call it Victoria Falls. So there’s this kind of ambivalence and this kind of double acceptance. It’s a good example of the kind of ambivalence that I want to represent in the book, because I think to pretend otherwise would be to deny the reality of how things are at home, whether or not I agree with it.

Continue reading

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‘The Light Years’ by Chris Rush: The Turbulent Sublime

Chris Rush memoir The Light YearsChris Rush’s memoir, The Light Years (368 pages; FSG), opens during the Summer of Love. In the suburbs of New Jersey, Rush is the sweet yet strange middle child in a family of seven kids. As a boy, he is obsessed with making paper flowers by hand, maintains an enchantment for a pink satin cape described as a “fashion miracle,” and turns the family’s psychedelic basement into his bedroom. To him, his parents are “the most fabulous –– and most happy,” and he is content to play the part of the devout Catholic son. However, at twelve-years-old, Rush’s world is transformed when his bold older sister, Donna, takes him to a “Be-in,” a day in the park filled with hippies and drugs. Here, she introduces him to Valentine, a charming friend who acts as spiritual leader when he doses everyone with acid. Valentine places a tab of “Orange Sunshine” on Rush’s tongue as if giving sacrament, and for the first time Rush experiences LSD:

In silence, everyone stared out across the lawn. Soon, an agitation began to flutter inside me. Or was it outside? As the breeze moved across the park, the shuddering of the trees was mesmerizing; the lawn rippled like the surface of a lake.

I thought: Gods here.

After this life changing experience, Rush begins to sell drugs at his boarding school and eventually ventures out to the Arizona desert to make a big purchase from Valentine. Here begins Rush’s tumultuous journey of growing up, filled with beauty and agony as he becomes deeply involved in the 1970s counter-culture. His search for a home—and fascination with drugs—takes him all across the country; from Tucson to Marin, Los Angeles, the Oregon Coast, and ultimately back to his parent’s home in New Jersey. Along the way he is accompanied by a cast of eccentric characters: enlightened Christian smugglers, a man who believes he was visited by UFOs, and a nudist drug dealer named Flow Bear. Rush also begins to discover his sexuality and falls in love with Owen, a Mormon boy from Idaho. His love interest and unconventional lifestyle causes tension at home as his father turns into an abusive alcoholic and his mother’s sanity frays at the edges. Rush encounters violence so many times it’s a wonder he survived to tell his story.

While Rush’s story is incredibly interesting and thought-provoking on its own, his writing style lends an honest and mind-bending quality. Rush recounts the highs and lows with a clarity that refuses to glorify or ask for pity. He simply presents his adolescence for what it was: a time of infinite magic and joy as well as one plagued by addiction and isolation.

Although the memoir takes the reader to some dark moments in Rush’s life, overall it serves as a recollection of the wonder of his youth:

When we drove to Point Reyes, to see the ocean, I was dazzled. California was the end of America, where the continent slipped under the sea. One could go no further. It was the place to collect one’s dreams and make something of them. The fantasy of Haight-Ashbury had collapsed into violence. But across the bay in Marin, there was peace.

People were getting back to nature. It was a good scene.

In this way, Rush reveals how the 1970s was a sublime yet turbulent time in American history.

And all throughout this story is Rush’s large-hearted compassion for the friends he made along the way. Amid the derangement and pain, there was always a companion at his side; there moves an air of tenderness for all the people who floated in and out of Rush’s life during those years. It’s difficult to come away from The Light Years without an appreciation for the beauty Rush finds in a seemingly harsh world. Seeing through his perspective could potentially leave readers changed for the better.

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‘A Wonderful Stroke of Luck’ by Ann Beattie: Familiar Themes, New Territory

Ann Beattie novel A Wonderful Stroke of LuckNo good deed goes unpunished.

Ann Beattie’s 21st work of fiction, A Wonderful Stroke Of Luck (288 pages; Viking), has been taking a beating in some quarters, notably the New York Times (for, among other capital sins, spelling Spalding Gray’s name incorrectly).

She’s been laboring under the mantle as a voice of her g-g-generation ever since her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, in 1976. It’s a jacket she hates, understandably, but it was refreshing at the time to find fiction about people and places (although usually not politics) of the ‘60s that didn’t read like it was written by Richard Fariña.

The cool, evaluative voice—hip but not ostentatious—of her fiction, then and now, probed the psyches of lost souls struggling to find their place in a world not of their own making. (Chilly Scenes was closer to a portrait of slackers than the counter-culture, but the term had not yet come into use…so much for journalistic generalizations.)

The new novel takes its title from a quote by the Dalai Lama (“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck’’), but rest assured, Beattie has not gone New Age on us. Her characters certainly don’t get what they want, let alone what they need, and most assuredly don’t feel lucky about it.

It’s a portrait of millennials (again with the labels…) at the private prep school Bailey Academy in New Hampshire, under the heavy influence of Pierre LaVerdere, their campy, cryptic instructor. They may bear an outward resemblance to the kids in The Dead Poets Society or A Separate Peace. But the author is stalking bigger game, offering pitiless status details with deadpan reserve.

Setting up a meeting of the Honor Society, she notes, “Today there were also enormous seedless grapes—a nod, perhaps, to their recent discussion of Cesar Chavez.’’

The over-achieving, desperate-to-please students react with scorn when, in an exercise in adolescent “Jeopardy,” someone replies “John Cheever’’ instead of Gatsby after LaVerdere asks a rhetorical question: “Literature. In this twentieth-century novel, a character attends a sparsely populated funeral after the protagonist is found dead in his pools.’’

And so it goes.

It may sound a bit precious, but these kids are no less worthy of attention for being privileged than Holden Caulfield at Pencey Prep. Their angst is real, however unearned it sometimes seems, and Beattie has previously explored this fictional terrain in the portrayal of the funny, troubled teenager, Jocelyn, in the linked tales of The State We’re In: Maine Stories.

Here, the tone changes, abruptly, in Chapter Six, when the main protagonist, Ben, gets unwelcome news. “On 9/11 LouLou was the town crier, banging on her classmates’ doors. It took Ben some time to realize that he hadn’t been awakened from a nightmare. Mrs. Somersworth, the school nurse (rumored to have had a drug problem herself, when she was their age) handed out tissues and herded them into the TV room to look at the shaky footage, the incomprehensible smoke in New York.’’

The personal swiftly becomes political. The father of Ben’s friend Jasper, it is revealed, died in one of the towers, where he was meeting his divorce lawyer. But for these beleaguered kids, the echo chamber reminder, “9/11 changed everything,’’ tolls for a while, but doesn’t fundamentally alter their fates.

After Ben graduates, he skips college, moving to upstate New York for dead-end jobs and dead-end affairs with women he has trouble connecting with. In a section that calls to mind Bret Easton Ellis, if he were (somehow) in control of his instrument, he meets his ex-girlfriend Arly at the Gansevoort, where he spots Cindy Crawford, “her high heels clicking, taking the lobby entrance into the bar. The security thug was an enormous horror movie fly with multi-faceted, glinting pupils. The guy pushed a button as Ben approached to let him on the elevator, indicating acceptance at the same time he indicated contempt.’’

Other troubles await.

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

April feels as though it’s come in gone in a flash (though we did make appearances at the Orcas Island Literary Festival and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books), but we’re taking time out to share what ZYZZYVA recommends this month—a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

306 Hollywood documentaryJosh Korwin, Graphic Designer: “If you didn’t have the physical remains of the past, the question would be whether it existed.” 2018’s 306 Hollywood (directed by Elan & Jonathan Bogarín), billed as a “magical realist documentary,” is otherworldly, yet perfectly ordinary. On the surface, the film revolves around the life and death of the filmmakers’ grandmother, Annette Ontell, and the ramshackle house she left behind. “Messy” would be putting it nicely (“This’ll be a shanda to show all this garbage!” Ontell remarks), but the Hillside, New Jersey house’s significance and inspirational role to the grandkids is contagious when seen through their wondering, childlike perspective. It’s a reminder of how when we’re young, anything can feel magical.

After her death, the Bogaríns decide “we’re turning grandma’s house into an archeological dig” before it is sold. This countdown premise provides a background rhythm for the film, which is otherwise a somewhat wandering meditation on memory, scale, and impermanence. Its rambling at times is forgivable, as a lively raconteur goes off on tangents while remaining utterly captivating. Not every story need be neatly told; along the dirt roads we find buried treasure.

The filmmakers have a peculiar fascination with the aesthetic of yesteryear, explicitly ogling type and lettering specimens from the past (swoon!). The opening and interstitial title cards primarily consist of hand-set letterpress prints by the talented designer/printers at Hammerpress, plus hand-lettering, foil stamped faux book covers, etc. They’re newly made artifacts in their own right, “imprints of time pressed into” the film itself.

Most spectacularly, the Bogaríns commissioned a tiny replica of their grandmother’s 1936 cottage, complete with its mid-century tacky-chic patterned wallpaper, wood paneling, and rose-pink tiled bathroom, all perfectly miniaturized. The exquisitely placed dollhouse toilet paper rolls and Saltines boxes add to the film’s Wes Andersonesque twee vibe, with a soupçon of I Like Killing Flies.

Can you bring someone back to life by examining their worldly possessions? Not entirely. But the Bogaríns’ elevation of household objects as archeological artifacts, shot reverently as though plinthed in the Metropolitan Museum, help us to remember, and to feel. Macro-lens textures of floral terry cloth and plastic CVS shopping bags are surprisingly gorgeous, and moving. Their Knolling and color groupings of office supplies into archaeological “catalogues” is bound to set off some ASMR for the obsessive compulsive designer types among us.

The film captures the specific cocktail of pain, joy, curiosity, learning, and grief that accompanies rummaging through a loved one’s house after they pass away, and the immense weight of all the stuff we carry around with us until it’s left to someone else to figure out.

This film hits particularly close to home for me. Ontell, in interviews filmed by Elan Bogarín over ten years, was a gem; she reminds me of my own sorely missed Jewish grandparents. As a people ever dispersed, our roots on this continent are extremely shallow. Our ancient heirlooms are lost, so Band-Aid tins full of pennies carry history in their place.

Conversations with an archaeologist, a fashion conservator, and an archivist at the Rockefeller estate contrast the lives of the important, famous, and wealthy from the lives of the anonymous and modest. Privilege leads to preservation (“we’re the winners so we get to tell the story that we want to tell”). But humanity transcends class. The Rockefeller archivist is asked, “is documenting your family’s history as important as documenting the history of the Rockefellers?” “Yes of course,” he replies, “my grandparents were hugely important. To make a qualitative judgment that they somehow didn’t have value, and so we’re not going to save a record of their existence, tells a kind of story that we don’t want to tell about this nation, which is that it’s only great and wealthy people who have value.”

Claudia Rankine play The White CardCasey Jong, Intern: Claudia Rankine’s The White Card is a concise and captivating two-scene play that begins at a dinner party for an artist, and ends in her art studio a year later. Rankine uses the creation and collection of fine art as a metaphor for the interrogation of our relationships with race and consumption of blackness.

The play has only five characters, including artist Charlotte, a black woman in her forties being courted by a wealthy white art collector and his family. Rankine seamlessly and quickly crafts white characters who don’t fit the mold of overt racists or smug wealthy conservatives, and who, for that very reason, consider themselves to be on the “right side” of the racial injustices of history and of today. These collectors of “black death”, as Charlotte frames it, are able to put political and racialized artwork on their walls without ever engaging with the politics or the humanity of affected black people:

Look, I don’t want to think of the officer as a monster of Hulk Hogan or a demon or whatever and I don’t think you’re a monster, but his obsession with black people as criminals and yours with black people as victims are cut from the same cloth. Neither is human.

The dynamics between Charlotte and the collectors are complicated by both the transactional nature of their interactions, and also by the family’s fascination with Charlotte and other black figures like Venus and Serena Williams, Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others. Their first conversations gesture at misplaced guilt and a fundamental misunderstanding of what they believe they’re fighting for. Their activist son also plays an interesting role, one that may feel familiar to and critical of many readers, as he understands much of what is wrong with America but continuously overlooks the nuance of the issues he is fighting.

By the end of the play, Charlotte’s experience at the dinner has changed her art and perspective dramatically, and she clearly plans to continue shifting the perspective of others with her own work. One of Charlotte’s greatest insights comes when father and son are fighting at the dinner table, each of them insisting on one specific dimension of the larger conversation: “All things can be true at the same time.” The power of this simple line, to me, is in the tough questions it invokes in the context of this play: How might we face the realities of racialized violence without commodifying and numbing ourselves to the harm done to black people? How can whiteness, not just blackness, be addressed?

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‘Little Key’ by Joshua Rivkin: National Poetry Month

April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each week we will be taking a look back at ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For our final installment, we present “Little Key” by Joshua Rivkin from Issue No. 103:

Joshua Rivkin poem Little Key

Hopes are shy birds flying at a great distance, seldom reached by the best
of guns, Audubon wrote in his journal thinking

not of the hawk or the wren but of course the sparrow. An animal throat
untwists the shadow of your name. Song replying to song replying to
song.

You stand in a clearing beside a frozen lake. Here, years ago, you found
a whale’s collarbone washed clean to shore, lightened by hard weather,
ounce less ounce, its castle walls cracked and caved

and consider this a warning we’re free to ignore about ravishing
possession or bodies in time. Think of lemons asleep on a windowsill;
think the isthmus of a man’s collarbone.

Hope, we say, and mean not bird but his call, echoing hill to tide, the
rattle, the relay, the soul’s ready radio. How many calls to count. You
could count and never stop. You could try.

Joshua Rivkin’s poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, VQR, and elsewhere. You can read more of his poetry in Issue No. 103.

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‘Instructions for a Funeral’ by David Means: A Location of Deeper Grace

David Means story collection Instructions for a FuneralDavid Means’ latest collection, Instructions for a Funeral (208 pages; FSG), further secures his position as a standout writer of short fiction. Featuring Means’ customary idiosyncratic style, with sentences that span halfway down the page—or more—the book’s prose takes you on a trek, one that demands complete attention from the reader, but repays that attention. Through his dense, carefully crafted sentences, Means transports us through time and place, interweaving action with his characters’ inner ruminations and flashbacks, and in the process touching on the most tender and enigmatic parts of existence. In a section titled “Confessions,” the author discusses what these stories mean to him:

Theres simply no way to distill or describe whats in the stories, except to say I attempt, to say the least, to respect whatever each story seems to wantnot only want to be, but to say in its own wayeach one, as far as I can see, an expression of a particular axe I must grind, particular souls in particular situations, and in some cases a voice that needs to say what it says or else (and I feel this, really, I do) itll be lost forever to the void.

Several of the stories here take place in upstate New York, near the Hudson River, while others are set in California or the Midwest. In one, a psychiatric patient believes he is a butler, and in another, the death of a close friend turns out to be not what we think. In “The Chair,” a stay-at-home dad contrasts his wife’s exciting career in New York with the “deep solitude” he feels at home, as well as the subtle rewards of fatherhood that come with it:

Love isn’t in the actual grab and heft of body when he comes out of school and runs into my arms, crying with glee. No. Love is the moment just as he comes out the school-house door, standing amid his friends, and searches for my eyes. Love is the second he sees me, and I see him

In “The Mighty Shannon,” we are dropped in the midst of a marriage plagued by loneliness and shame. The narrator strikes up a relationship with his son’s teacher after sensing his wife is being unfaithful. The story follows the couple through therapy sessions and the moments of affection that come from having a long-time companion. The narrative sheds light on some of the more unattractive yet also sacred parts of the marriage bond, ultimately arriving at a place of forgiveness.

In the collection’s titular story, the narrator gives precise instructions on how he would like his funeral to occur. Written as a list with obscure, sometimes comedic details, the story explores feelings of betrayal and, again, the meaning of fatherhood. Other works, such as “El Morro” and “Carver & Cobain,” focus on characters on the outskirts of society (a drug addict, and a homeless sibling), providing a personal and empathetic view of them.

In fact, Instructions for a Funeral gives voice to those who often remain voiceless, delivering portrayals of raw vulnerability and urgency that compel one to keep reading. In the collection’s final story, the narrator comments on a need to turn “the harsh limitations of reality…into a story of some kind” and “bring the banality of sequential reality to a location of deeper grace.” Arguably, Means has done just that.

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‘Lost Boy’ by Matthew Dickman: National Poetry Month

April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each week we will be taking a look back at ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For our fourth installment, we present “Lost Boy” by Matthew Dickman from Issue No.108

Matthew Dickman poetry Lost Boy

I’m standing behind the 7-Eleven
moving a crushed-up can around with my foot.
I’m maybe twelve blocks away
from the house I grew up in. I could walk
there right now if I wanted. See who’s living
there and if the house is the same or not the same.
There’s a streetlight washing across the cars
parked back here. Out of the little dark left over
by the light my older brother steps out.
He’s wearing boots and leather pants, a V-neck T-shirt
and a black overcoat. His hair is bleached
and slicked back behind his ears. Under his skin
I can see his veins, all of them, blue like a raspberry Slushy
is blue. Hey, he says, like you might say to someone
you don’t know but might be unsafe.
I’ve been waiting so long for this
but all I can manage to say is you’re supposed to be dead.
You’re supposed to be dead, I say.
I am, he says, but only kind of, and lifts the collar
of the trench coat away from his neck
so I can see the two puncture wounds, two holes kind of
dried up but shiny. Does it hurt?
No, he says, but I feel really sick all the time,
I keep crying and can’t eat anything, some of my hair has been
falling out but I don’t know why. But you’re alive!
I know, that’s why I’m here.
He looks up at the moon and it’s like he’s not looking at anything.
I just wanted to see you, he says, some clouds moving
slowly above us, I just wanted to see the person who did this to me.

Matthew Dickman is the author of the poetry collections Wonderland (2018), Mayakovsky’s Revolver (2014), 50 American Poems (co-written with Michael Dickman, 2012), and All American Poem (2008). 

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