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The Bay Area Issue: Editor’s Note

One day in July I ran into a colleague on my way to lunch. We commiserated about the state of the world, briefly, and then he asked me if I’d been to the Flower Piano program at the San Francisco Botanical Garden yet. He said he’d just been, and that after one of the professional performers finished her set, a few of the people milling around took turns playing. One played David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” singing softly under his breath. Another, a child of about ten, played a classical sonata, with astonishing beauty.

There’s still art here, he said with a half smile as we parted ways. We’re still here, I said in agreement.

It was only the second or third time someone had made a remark in that vein to me in the past few weeks.

There’s a palpable sense that the pressure on creative folks in the San Francisco Bay Area is nearly intolerable—a widespread and reasonable feeling that is nevertheless at odds with the exceptional density of people still doing creative work of the highest caliber here. There’s a sense that we’re all hanging on by our fingertips, and maybe only the fingertips of one hand, while the other hand continues writing, continues playing.

Will the region that has always been our home endure as a generative hub of literary and artistic innovation? I want to say, Of course it will. But nothing is a given. If we don’t make deliberate efforts to make the Bay Area a sustainable place for bakers and musicians, teachers and translators, poets and playwrights to live, we could see a major transformation, one that will incalculably diminish the fundamental identity of this place.

In the meantime, the pressure from the sense of transience and the precariousness of it all naturally filters in and shapes the work we’re seeing. As always, remarkable work can emerge from struggle and heartbreak, even from despair. We can celebrate that, but it’s impossible not to worry about the cost. Because on the other side of that coin, the less romantic side, is all the unseen, unknowable work that could have been, but was stifled by lack of opportunity and support.

At a concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland in August, I chatted with a neighbor. The conversation quickly turned to lament, as it so often does: he’s a San Francisco native, and grew up taking the N Judah out to Candlestick (more lamenting) to see the Giants play. He was living with family while searching for housing, he told me, and increasingly widening the search area. He paused and then said, “I’m not sure whether the Bay Area is really a place people live anymore. Maybe it’s more of a temporary place to be for a few years.” He was thinking of leaving the state entirely, maybe moving to Scottsdale, Arizona, so he could visit the Giants at spring training.

At times it seems there’s as much despair about the inevitability of this transformation as there is about climate change: the decline is so far advanced and powerful in its own momentum, and the problem so expansive and multiform, and the leadership necessary to tackle it effectively and efficiently so lacking.

But then I’ll find myself in a certain neighborhood, or in certain company, and somehow all that disruption seems muted or far off, as though the fog had cast a protective spell on that corner of the Bay.

And if it’s not a foregone conclusion, if such pockets of neighborhoods and community persevere, then we have to try to protect the culture that we still have.

With that in mind, and on the cusp of our 35th anniversary next year, we bring you an issue dedicated to this unique place. If for you, too, it sometimes feels that this transformation of home is already a fait accompli, I hope this sampling, drawn from the wealth of our local talent, from all stages of career and across genres, pushes back against that notion—and, in so doing, makes an eloquent case for all we stand to lose, and all we must invest in conserving.

Some of us are still here; others have left. Some are poised to go, reluctantly or bitterly or enthusiastically seeking new terrain. Amid the tension and pressure, amid the injustice and anxiety, art and literature endure and blossom in the Bay Area with uncommon ingenuity, vision, and persistence.

Order ZYZZYVA No. 117—The Bay Area Issue—here.

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

With Thanksgiving nearly upon us, we thought we’d add a special wrinkle to our Staff Recommends this month: alongside our usual selection of films, books, and music, we’re including Thanksgiving recipes (or drink pairings) you might want to give a try this holiday. Enjoy!

Lindsey Pannor, Intern: I can already envision my trip home this Thanksgiving: filing into a huge jet plane, (hopefully) sleeping through the red eye, waking up hovering right over home, and watching the deep orange of the sunrise scatter the thick winter night. I’ll have my headphones on, listening to Lætitia Tamako’s self-titled album by her moniker “Vagabon.”

Since its release late last month, I have amassed an array of reasons to adore Vagabon. Most strikingly, Tamako’s sound traverses genre constantly. The album lies somewhere in between the oozing dream pop of Beach House and the lo-fi buzz of Miya Folick; and despite never settling into one sensibility for too long, I am still able to take comfort in familiar, brief, distinctive moments of indie rock and R&B aesthetics throughout. Tamako distinguishes this album’s style from her last by favoring analog beats over her old guitar melodies, diving into personally uncharted territory.

These new beats combined with her distinctive voice gives rise to a magical transformation, from what used to be an alternative sound typical to countless artists to one uniquely her own. Tamako integrates her crooning vocals alongside gentle blips of synth and slow bass riffs simultaneously and seamlessly. The solemn beginnings of many of the songs, set in a slow 4/4 signature like the heavy cold nighttime air, easily lift into rising upbeats of horn and yearning. They tangle into one another, calling on the liminality of morning’s waking.

Her lyricism mirrors this consistent movement throughout, making apparent both the uniqueness of her prose style and its incredibly specific universality, the kind that seizes up my heart. Particularly timely to the season, songs like “Please Don’t Leave the Table” tap into that familiar pang of betrayal when left to eat alone, as she begins the song with a wavering profession of love, and begs for the addressee not to leave, because, well, she’s still eating. “Home Soon” follows on the album, dragging one simple refrain over soft violin and reverb: “I give it all away / I’ll be home soon.” Pleasant and grounding, this song is among my favorites as it pulls away from the theme of a lover and dedicates space to reconnecting with our origins.

As we return to our nests and are met by the people who know us best this month, we will inevitably be wrapped in the existential fog of the holidays. Reflection and gratitude are integral to the spirit of the upcoming weeks, and instead of settling stagnant into the confusion this brings, I’ll be looking to Vagabon for guidance. As a woman writing and producing all of her own music as well as exploring her sense of self in relation to the love she has for others, Tamako’s new album has given me a forgiving, inspiring roadmap to explorations of my foundations.

RECIPE: Speaking of inspiration, I’ll also be trying my hand at baking Melissa Clark’s recipe for Brandied Pumpkin Pie while I’m back home. There’s truly nothing like a good pumpkin pie in my family, and perhaps I’ll garner some extra affection with such a well-reviewed and unusual variation on the classic. I’m eagerly awaiting a trip to the Fox Theatre upon my return, where, on December 7th, Vagabond will be opening for Angel Olsen. Feel free to join me.

Laura Cogan, Editor: I’m sorry, but all I can really think about at the moment is food. Every year around this time it’s as though my interest in cooking comes lumbering out of a deep hibernation, lured from slumber by the chill in the air and the scent of gingerbread. Still, even at peak interest, I am not a skilled or patient cook, so any recipe that makes it into my folder of favorites can’t be fussy or “fiddly” (as they say on the Great British Baking Show, where most assignments are, in fact, quite fiddly). Here are a couple that I especially enjoy, both preparing and eating.

Years ago, when I proposed shifting to a vegetarian or at least a “pescetarian” Thanksgiving meal, my family was generously accommodating. It was much easier than I expected to get everyone to abandon the turkey, which, while labor intensive, turned out not to be anyone’s favorite part of the meal. My mother’s only condition was that there must be stuffing, and I promised there would be. As it turns out, making stuffing in a dish rather than inside a raw turkey is an immeasurably more enjoyable experience. A win for everyone, especially the turkey (and germaphobes).

This recipe (while not as clearly written as it might be) turns out a reliably delicious stuffing, and conveniently offers one method with many variations; I recommend the apple and cranberry. Doubling the recipe for a large group works well, although it requires a good deal of space.

The other indispensable part of the Thanksgiving meal or seasonal baking, in my view, is pie. I’ve tried several but here is the most popular, most frequently requested pecan pie recipe I’ve made so far.

Note the generous 3 tbsp of bourbon (vs. the mere 2 tbsp suggested by many other recipes). Yes, you will taste the bourbon. If a bourbon cocktail could wrap itself in a cozy coat of chocolate and pecans and masquerade as a tipsy desert, it would be this pie.

This year I’ll be (clumsily) making it with a homemade crust, but trust me when I tell you that using a deep dish frozen pie crust is just as good, and makes it the actual simplest pie I’ve ever made. If you do use a prepared crust I highly recommend adding this step: brush the rim of the crust with an egg wash and then sprinkle with turbinado sugar. This makes it look gorgeous, and if someone happens to assume you did in fact make it from scratch I don’t see any reason to interject and correct them. Let’s not make the holidays any more difficult than necessary.

Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: There was a time when proposing a sequel to an iconic film like The Shining would have been met with outrage by the culture at large (I still remember the media pillorying Gus Van Sant received for his ’98 remake of Pyshco); but based on the dismal theatrical turnout for this year’s Doctor Sleep, it seems the general audience reaction in 2019 is indifference. Which is a shame for a number of reasons, but one of those is that—as daunting as it seems to follow up Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1980 horror film—Doctor Sleep is really quite good.

The movie represents the finest theatrical effort yet from Mike Flanagan, a filmmaker who has built a steady resume of humanist horror films that favor character and emotion over graphic violence or hollow jump scares. Movies like Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil display Flanagan’s interest in familial legacy and the inheritance of trauma, culminating with last year’s exquisite Netflix mini-series The Haunting of Hill House. His ability to balance supernatural elements with character drama, not to mention his keen visual sense, made him a natural fit to adapt Stephen King’s 2013 novel Doctor Sleep.

And therein lies the challenge: how to reconcile King’s source text with The Shining’s cinematic legacy, given that King himself has long been the loudest critic of Kubrick’s adaptation. In the novel, one senses that Jack Torrance is a fundamentally good man, despite fighting a losing battle with his inner demons; onscreen, we suspect Jack Nicholson would have eventually gone axe-swinging mad even if he had never checked into the Overlook Hotel. It’s a discrepancy that has clearly always irked King, who saw his own struggles with alcoholism reflected in the character. Flanagan’s film, then, must ultimately serve two masters, but the director does so artfully, paying homage to Kubrick’s enduring visual iconography while penning a depiction of the Torrance family that is perhaps more in line with King’s vision.

To be honest, I found the experience of watching Doctor Sleep in the theater to be strangely moving. The Shining has long been one of my favorite films and, in many ways, feels like more than just a movie to me; it’s a work of art with an atmosphere so palpable that, for 146 minutes, the skeptic in me shuts off and I believe whole-heartedly in the supernatural. A viewing earlier this year felt even more magnified than before—as the Overlook Hotel is a place where evil congregates and thrives and, looking around us these last few years, that seems to be increasingly true of the world outside the movie theater as well. It makes me want to cling to what good exists in The Shining universe: the resourceful Danny Torrance and his psychic protector Tony; Shelley Duvall’s wide-eyed matriarch; the genuine warmth Scatman Crothers brought to his role. Duvall, long derided by many for her turn in the film, gives my favorite performance in The Shining; and I suppose that’s partially what made Doctor Sleep so emotionally impactful: as I watched Flanagan’s sequel, I sensed that he cared about and appreciated those same aspects of Kubrick’s film, and not just the immediately quotable moments like “Here’s Johnny!” (Alex Essoe’s performance here as Wendy Torrance serves as a lovely tribute to Shelley Duvall)

In 2019 it’s easy to feel like ‘the Shine’ has gone out of the world. Evil does persist, as evidenced by Doctor Sleep’s most difficult-to-watch scene, in which the movie’s antagonists, a pack of RV-driving vampires known as the True Knot, torture and murder a young boy in an empty lot. But Flanagan is able to end his adaptation on a hopeful note: in Doctor Sleep, we see psychic trauma serve as a bond between one generation in the next, as a middle-aged Dan Torrance fights to protect a young girl named Abra, also blessed with supernatural abilities. And it’s ultimately Dan’s same demons, when properly harnessed, that allow him to fight back against the True Knot. It’s a reminder that so many victims of abuse do not go on to inflict that same abuse on others, but instead find the courage to become counselors or mentors to those in need.

RECIPE: Not unlike our Editor, I’m always looking for an excuse to remove turkey from the Thanksgiving equation—it’s dry, it makes you sleepy, and is really only there to accentuate the stuffing and gravy, if we’re being honest. A couple years ago, I tried this honey curried roasted chicken as an alternative and now I have no reason to ever go back. Sorry, turkey!

Gabe Weiss, Intern: Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen’s novel Niels Lyhne explores the same polarities between dogmas of religion and science that we still face today. Modernist poet Rainer Maria Rilke claimed the only books he found indispensable were the Bible and Jacobsen’s novel. In his letters, he praised Niels Lyhne“In it there is nothing that does not seem to have been understood, held, lived and known in memory’s wavering echo.”

To me, it is not surprising that a sensitive poet like Rilke would suggest Niels Lyhne to young poets searching for a reason to write, as Jacobsen’s novel aims to distinguish the polarity between faith and reason. The book examines the internal struggle of a rational person with romantic ideals attempting to redefine his faith on his own terms. I suspect Rilke saw this struggle to be the same for all poets who try to shape their lives around art and tackle the burden that comes with this personal commitment.

Jacobsen himself was both a poet and a botanist, a translator of Charles Darwin, and an admirer of Kierkegaard. Through his studies, the author’s conflicting interests between science and poetry led him to believe that the illusion of the Christian faith was in conflict with the laws of nature. Much like his character Niels, Jacobsen lost his romantic partner due to these beliefs and later suffered from tuberculosis, which likely fueled the writing process of his masterwork.

Niels Lyhne is a coming of age story about a boy who feels contempt for the Christian faith that his family clings to like a crutch rather than overcome their grief and suffering through reason. Despite Niels’ indifference to organized religion, he realizes that his disapproval of God and his family’s blind devotion to Him is out of spite rather than genuine doubt. After the death of his aunt Edele, he decides to cast God out of his heart due to what he regards as a betrayal. As Niels matures, he engages in various love affairs with women who try to warn him about the consequences of idealized love. Throughout the novel, we find that many of the characters in the book seem doomed to feeling alone, from the tutor who was in love with Edele to Niels’ long affair with his friend Erik’s wife, who tries to teach him to accept what he can’t control: “We can’t hold out waging a battle against ordinary people; deep inside we think they are right because they are the ones who judge.” Jacobsen’s depicts Niels’ struggle to fill the emptiness of a godless existence and live vicariously through those very same individuals who oppose him.

While this novel is rooted in its atheistic beliefs, it also shows Niels’ gradual attainment of free will. At Edele’s funeral, Jacobsen delves into the mind of the angry pubescent who bitterly justifies his resentment of God:

“With a believing mind he had followed Jesus on his wandering of the earth. But the fact that Jesus was still subordinate to his Father, walked so powerlessly, and suffered so humanly, had concealed his Godliness from Niels; in him Niels had seen only the son of God, not God Himself, and thus it was to God the Father that he and prayed, and it was God the Father who had betrayed him in his bitter need. But if God had turning away from him, then he could also turn away from God. If God had no ears, then Niels would have no voice.”

Here Jacobsen makes the bold claim that the suffering of Christ is comparable to the same kind of betrayal that Niels felt when Edele passed away. To me, Niels Lyhne evokes the restlessness that comes when we feel dissatisfied with the beliefs that govern us in our own age. Jacobsen’s mature approach to these religious dilemmas remind us that we are living in the repercussions of historical change, and that we are still a part of an ongoing narrative, regardless of what we might think. Jacobsen’s confident approach to Athiesm as a way of life doesn’t entirely dismiss religion, for it reminds us that faith and reason are now in our own hands, and we must responsibly wield them to inspire the stories yet to be told for generations to come.

RECIPIE: Here is the recipe for the German Rotkohl my grandmother used to make for us each year.

Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor: There’s plenty that’s been said about Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, but among the movie’s rich themes worth considering is how Scorsese, who is 76, depicts aging. It is pitiless. Decrepitude is in the fore. We see his characters reduced to wheelchairs and walkers, limbs trembling, words slurred. A walk down a dark hallway becomes a life-and-death challenge. But worse, much worse, is what it would mean to be the near the end of life without love. Your friends are all dead. Your family wishes you were dead. And yet you carry on, alone in a nursing home, just regret and perplexity to keep you company.

I would suggest that it’s one thing to depict from your director’s chair, while cozy within the warm assurance of your youth, the inevitable (assuming you’re fortunate to make it that long). But it is entirely different to do so when you are in the anteroom leading to the Big Nothing. Perhaps that is why aging doesn’t come off as   a simple trope here. Rather, it feels like gospel truth. It raises the question of what are you doing with your life: are you taking care of what’s important? Will you be able to stand yourself? Can you make your peace?

Spalding Gray said everybody knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it. The Irishman can be understood as an old man’s soliloquy wherein he no longer has the luxury of not believing. Even as he still can’t quite bring himself around to that understanding—out of fear, perhaps, of accepting how badly he misspent his life, or simply because he doesn’t feel bad about the evil he did, so what sting could dying hold, what was the point of anything?—the film’s minor-key atmosphere of gloom and sadness tells us there will be a reckoning for its titular protagonist, even if the audience doesn’t witness it. But the pathos of the old asking the door be left open a little bit for them at night, reverting to reassurances sought by an anxious child, are harrowing enough to see.

RECIPE: If you’re into egg nog, this recipe from Bi-Rite is a must (click to
pages 4-5 on the slide to find it).

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‘On Valencia Street: Poems & Ephemera’ by Jack Micheline: A Return to San Francisco’s Core

“The art world is so fucking boring it could make your heart cry,” writes the late Jack Micheline in On Valencia Street: Poems & Ephemera (133 pages; Lithic Press; edited by Tate Swindell), and it’s a phrase that neatly captures the vibrancy of Micheline’s gut-wrenching artistic project. On Valencia Street contains an array of unpublished work by the honorary Beat (Micheline purportedly derided the label of “Beat poet” as a “product of media hustle), as well as varying pieces of memorabilia, including drawings of a Basquiat-Johnston lovechild, posters for live readings, and nearly illegible notes written on napkins. Micheline’s aesthetic sense of San Francisco’s Mission District, and its streets which he so valued, has been faithfully and thoroughly catalogued here.

Though often regarded as one of the less nuanced poets of his time, it is Micheline’s straightforward style and eerie emulation of his historical moment that lifts his work off the page. Proclamations like, “The rich and poor will all die broke / We will all go naked to our maker” are the sort of moments of vulnerability and truth that endow Micheline with a profundity that defies the skew of language’s mediation. The directness of excerpts such as “You dead souls work here / No one laughs / Man gone” in “Poem on My 39th Birthday” achieve their poignancy by its plainness.

Such concepts, beautiful in their skeletal state, surface in nearly every piece and color Micheline’s work with the foundational qualities of the human condition. Distilled in “[Untitled…]” are his notions of life, death, and love: “People / Die / Because / There / Is / Nobody / To / Love / Them.” The poem is placed next to two cool-toned and slightly torn diner napkins, splattered with the blood-red figure of a boy, and in this juxtaposition a stripped down and strikingly pure emotion emanates: Micheline is not condemning the world but mourning for it.

As the book progresses, with the touch of a masterful hand, it gently elaborates and textures Micheline’s basic poetic themes. Near the end, a spread features two posters with a description of a reading: “4 Jacks / 4 Wednesdays,” listing Micheline as the last performer in the lineup. This dialectic of individual experience and homogeneous identification is an apt metaphor for Micheline’s poetry. Although his topics are some of the most common calls (as common as the name “Jack”) to poetics, they are animated by Micheline’s studied and spontaneous subjectivity. Similarly, the physical journey of discovery editor Tate Swindell undertook to produce this book, digging through old boxes in the Tucson garage of Micheline’s son, is echoed in the experience of reading On Valencia Street.

It has been twenty-one years since Micheline’s fatal heart attack during a BART ride between San Francisco and Orinda. In a moment when the city’s cultural legacy seems to be pulsing more faintly, the reproduction of his principles is affecting. His essence, possessed by the aspirations of his subversive city, finds hold in this new look at his work.

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‘We, the Survivors’ by Tash Aw: A Grim Portrait of Life Under Late Capitalism

The latest novel by Man Booker long-listed author Tash Aw offers a grim portrait of contemporary Asia under late capitalism. We, the Survivors (336 pages; FSG) traces the life of Ah Hock, a Malaysian-born citizen of Chinese heritage living a quiet life of solitude on the other side of a murder sentence. Ah Hock relays his story to a young journalist looking to shed light on the circumstances that led to Ah Hock’s violent crime, a crime he himself doesn’t quite understand. The murder is ultimately connected to Ah Hock’s former career as second-in-command at a local fish farm, as well as his longtime friendship with Keong, a hotheaded boy from his childhood village.

By most appearances, Ah Hock was once the portrait of success: raised by a single mother and accustomed to backbreaking labor in his youth, he eventually settled down with a wife and worked his way up the ranks at a booming fish farm. Yet his achievements do little to relieve the pressures of working class life at a time in Malaysia when climate change is rapidly affecting agricultural industries, and companies are increasingly relying on undocumented workers.

Ah Hock manages the foreign employees at the fish farm; these men, from countries such as India and Bangladesh, are often susceptible to illness and death due to strenuous labor, low wages, and poor living conditions. The migrant workers are treated as outcasts, even by Ah Hock. But for all of Ah Hock’s success, he is not so dissimilar to these workers, suffering as they do from the illusion that upward mobility is within reach. In reality, they are at the mercy of countless economic factors entirely outside their control:

“…the feeling of anxiety, the knowledge that the entire town depended on trade from faraway places, goods being bought and sold by people we would never know. Some politician in America decides that they can’t buy Malaysian rubber gloves; suddenly ten factories in the area have to shut down. The Europeans want to save the fucking planet so they ban the use of palm oil in food; within a month the entire port is on its knees. Life continues, but you feel it slipping quietly away, and you worry that it’ll never return. And because of that fear, you feel caught in a suspended state. On the outside, life seems normal, but inside it’s drawn to a standstill.”

Told in a conversational tone, We, the Survivors is peppered with pop culture references to Hong Kong stars like Andy Lau and Leslie Cheung, and presents a matter-of-fact acceptance of life’s harsh circumstances. Through their repeated interviews, Ah Hock develops something like a fatherly affection for the young woman recording his narrative, though there remains between them an invisible barrier defined by her privileged background and urban life versus his more rural, impoverished existence.

Tash Aw’s skills as a writer lull us into a sense of comfortable familiarity with Ah Hock, which registers as disturbing when one remembers he is a convicted murderer. There are no easy answers at the end of We, the Survivors—and there shouldn’t be: this is a stark rendering of Southeast Asia in the 21st century, a region barreling toward an uncertain future at the speed of modernity. It’s an outlook shaped by the ravages of climate change, by a society that treats its migrant population something subhuman, and by rampant corruption. Yet thanks to Ah Hock’s striking voice, the novel is never less than a pleasurable read.

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In the Winter Issue

In this issue:

New writing from the East Bay to San Francisco, from the North Bay to the Peninsula

“This Is Why We Can’t Have Nasty Things” by Charlie Jane Anders: “San Francisco used to have a million pockets and folds in her long flowery skirts, where the strange and barely loved could create their own reality. But lately, not so much.”

“Andi Taylor vs. Artemis Victor” by Rita Bullwinkel: “The fact of the two girls’ bodies was not lost on Artemis Victor or Andi Taylor or on any of the young women in the Daughters of America tournament. Their body was the only tool they had at their disposal.”

“Island of Beginnings” by Lydia Conklin: “Sometimes Posey forgot that she’d emerged on this side of her marriage middle-aged. That she’d grown a potbelly and her hair was stringy from years of dying it what she had thought until recently was a striking crimson.”

“Ring Around the Equator, Pockets Full of Acres” by Chia-Chia Lin: “It mimicked her life at work, when she calculated the hours until lunch, or how much of the day was left, or how much of the week or year. But her new athletic life was a different kind of life. A second, better life?”

“Strangers” by Nina Schuyler: “Then I heard the coyotes howling—they were always moving, large packs at night, displaced from the never-ending construction. I imagined them sprinting on the dirt paths like veins on the hills, illuminated by the moon, sprinting to catch a rabbit, a mouse, sprinting for the sheer pleasure of sprinting.”

And First-Time-in-Print “Channel 4” by Michael Sears and short short stories by Ingrid Rojas Contreras and Andrew Roe

Paul Wilner on Lowell High School and youthful literary pursuit, Gloria Frym on the wide resurgence of a late writer and beloved friend’s work, and Lydia Kiesling on the grasping for home, and its slipping away.

sam sax, Meg Hurtado Bloom, Luiza Flynn-Goodlett, W.S. Di Piero, Sara Mumolo, Kevin Simmonds, Lady Nestor Gomez, and Matthew Zapruder

Dodie Bellamy and the late Kevin Killian—stalwarts of the New Narrative and the unconventional life—on poets, art, and San Francisco.

The notebook sketches of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (introduced by Mauro Aprile Zanetti) and the photography of Janet Delaney (introduced by Nathan Heller).

You can purchase a copy of No. 117 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA now and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Winter issue.

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‘In the Dream House’ by Carmen Maria Machado: No Mere Confessional

Carmen Maria Machado’s new book, In the Dream House (264 pages; Graywolf Press), begins with a statement of intention. Machado, the author of the acclaimed story collection Her Body and Other Parties, tells us she has written a memoir to add her story of queer domestic violence to the catalog of contemporary literature: “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon,” she writes, “and that it can look something like this.”

Depictions of intimate partner violence between women have been largely left out of our collective culture, Machado tells us, warping our understanding of it as a phenomenon. It was imperative, then, that she share her own story of abuse. “I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice;” she writes, “measure the emptiness by its small sound.” Machado then considers the value of the memoir as a genre, noting its unique capabilities to uncover and contextualize truths. Fundamentally, every memoir is “an act of resurrection.”

She both summons the past and reanimates her former self; she bends genre to her will, excavates meaning from chaos. She reconstructs the limits of form and narrative and structure, delivering a spectacular literary performance.

In often harrowing detail, Machado recounts an abusive relationship that commandeered her life. In graduate school, she met and fell for a beautiful woman, who remains unnamed throughout the book. Instead, she is referred to as “your girlfriend,” or, more chillingly, “the Woman in the Dream House.” Their courtship is lovely and lusty, something plucked from a dream: “Sometimes when you catch her looking at you,” Machado writes, “you feel like the luckiest person in the whole world.” But the relationship quickly devolves into an emotionally, verbally, and psychologically abusive one: “Sometimes when you catch her looking at you, you feel like she’s determining the best way to take you apart.”

Throughout the memoir, Machado refers to her past self in the second person. It isn’t until she has escaped her abuser and regained her agency that she reclaims the first-person pronoun. There are two Carmens, she tells us: “I was cleaved: a neat lop that took first person […] away from second.” In the Dream House, then, is an attempt at wholeness, at reconciling these two selves. “I thought you died,” Machado confesses about her other half, “but writing this, I’m not sure you did.”

Machado wields language like a weapon then applies it like a salve. Her craftsmanship is especially evident in the structure of the book, which is styled as a series of vignettes, each playing with form and centered around a specific genre or trope: “Dream House as Lesbian Pulp Novel,” “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,” “Dream House as Chekov’s Gun,” to name only a few. With each iteration of the Dream House, Machado opens a new avenue of literary exploration. But this isn’t about showing off Machado’s ability to deftly vault between genres (though she certainly can). Every new incarnation of the Dream House gives us a new line of sight, another perspective through which we can construct reality.

Machado dissects the complexities of abuse, love, sex, and violence, all through a distinctly queer lens. She realizes that abuse at the hands of another queer woman feels like a unique betrayal — torture at the hands of one of your own. And because abuse between queer women is so widely ignored, it becomes easier to perpetrate. “I am doing this because I can get away with it; I can get away with it because you exist on some cultural margin, some societal periphery.”

In the Dream House is no mere confessional: Machado also widens her aperture to analyze our larger culture. She tackles depictions of queerness and abuse, from Star Trek to Vertigo to Gaslight, investigating the ways in which abusers ensnare and manipulate their targets. And through a plethora of footnotes, which connect moments in Machado’s life to Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, she irreverently considers how tropes manifest in reality. The footnotes are a sort of book-long wink, a running joke with literary roots; they are painfully clever.

Spending time with Machado inside the Dream House can feel uncomfortable, even claustrophobic—this is by design. It’s on us to linger in that discomfort, to feel—even just temporarily—as trapped and forsaken as Machado has. (This is the resurrection that memoir is capable of—not just the resurrection of people and places, but of ephemeral feelings.) Reading her memoir could in a sense destroy you, but it will reconstruct you, too, leaving you better than before you found it.

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‘The Promise’ by Silvina Ocampo: Remembering How to Die

In The Promise (120 pages; City Lights Publishers; translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell) the nameless narrator, after falling over the handrail of a transport ship, recollects her life in a disparate series of largely character-based vignettes as she waits to drown or be rescued at sea. As she comes to in the ocean, she promises Saint Rita that in exchange for her life she will commit to publishing a book documenting a “dictionary of memories that are at times shameful, even humiliating.” And so the lone novel by the prolific Argentine author Silvina Ocampo (1903-1993) becomes a brief study of memory, examining how those facing imminent death attempt to plug the holes of their past with the many meaningful scenes—minutiae reimagined, acquaintances revisited, and action relived—that constitute a life lived.

Perhaps what’s most interesting and impressive about Ocampo’s investigation of the mind is just how collective the retelling becomes. Our protagonist does not so much retell the scenes of her life as recount scenes of the lives of others in relation to her, acting more as a voyeur than a direct participant. Even when a potent sensual memory is conjured it is not the narrator’s memory that’s evoked but the imagined memory of another character,:

He caught a whiff of her hair that emanated a dirty brush smell in the heat, like the heads of those people in his childhood kneeling in confessionals, smelling of cheap perfume and powders, of barbershop pomade.

This tactic raises intriguing questions about what is real and what is imagined in one’s mind. Ocampo, whose sister Victoria founded the legendary literary journal Sur and whose husband was Adolfo Bioy Casares, suggests it is not merely the fact of what happened, but rather the reality of a feeling that may or may not have occurred that stamps itself indelibly upon us.

Entire passages, pages even, repeat themselves throughout the book. As Ernesto Montequín states in the introduction, this repetition is by design, and serves to offer additional perspectives or small variants to the narrative, reshaping the narrator’s identity. In short, this tactic demystifies the idea that memory is stable, suggesting its very nature is nebulous.

The protagonist also seems acutely aware of the revisions taking place. A distant unpleasant memory in Palermo is now fondly remembered:

Those times when I felt unhappy now seem so joyful, when my nephews would get their hands so filthy playing with dirt that when we’d return to my sister’s house, instead of taking a bath or going to the movies, I’d have to clean their nails with Carpincho saddle soap…

But while most of the “action” of the novel lies in a fictionalized past, the most intense moments arise when the narrator takes the reader back into the present, into her drowning. Often whole sections and trains of thought are sharply cut off, jolting us out of a reverie such as in this passage that follows a particularly emotional encounter between two characters: 

Poor Irene. She didn’t like the water. Sometimes we would go swimming in the river, but she almost always stayed on the bank. What would she think of the ocean, this ocean that surrounds me! She would have died a thousand times over already. There’s too much water to cry. Wouldn’t my eyes drown?

As The Promise unfolds, we learn this is not a story about an individual’s persistence, but rather the persistence—sometimes to the point of being oppressive—of the memory of an individual. Her “mental journey or itinerary” through her past begins as a way of staying awake to stave off death, but soon morphs into something altogether different. Later, when she appears to finally be ready to accept her fate, her mind rejects the idea entirely. “Dying is the only sure thing. Now I can finally die. But how to do it? It’s as impossible as ever.”

These are the moments that elevate The Promise into a higher echelon of letters; simultaneously, death proves evasive and nostalgia serves as a survival tactic. All the while readers get to witness the wondrous tightrope act Ocampo performs, traipsing back and forth between past and present. It’s soon evident that failures and inconsistencies along the way are not cause for concern, but reason to celebrate the potential of our own memories.

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Q&A with Heather Christle: ‘The Crying Book’ and a Nourishment from Sharing

Over the course of The Crying Book (208 pages; Catapult Press), Heather Christle examines the phenomenon of crying from every possible angle: social, cultural, biological, and historical. She asks the tough questions, ones that science still can’t answer: Why do we cry? And what does it mean to cry? Christle’s inquiry is rigorously researched, but it is also deeply personal. While she was writing The Crying Book, she was doing a lot of crying herself, grappling with depression, mourning the passing of a dear friend, and preparing to become a mother.

The scope of The Crying Book is surprisingly vast—we learn as much about crying as we do about grief, art, motherhood, and Christle’s life. As she conducts and shares her painstaking research, she is also intimately attuned to her pain; she weaves together her examination of crying with her personal experiences, studying tears while shedding them herself. The result is a book that is as informative as it is profoundly moving. ZYZZYVA spoke to Christle, whose poetry was published in Issue No. 114, about The Crying Book via email.

ZYZZYVA: Throughout The Crying Book, you play with the relationship between researcher and subject, and you’re constantly straddling the line between the two. On the one hand you’re conducting a meticulous, thoughtful study of crying; on the other, you are the often the one who is doing the crying. Can share a bit about your experience as both a researcher and subject while writing the book, and if there was any tension between those two roles? 

HEATHER CHRISTLE: I think I felt that tension not as discomfort (which the metaphor of tension often expresses), but more literally as a physical sensation of being stretched in different directions. There would be moments when I was crying, or when I was with someone who was crying, and I would both be in that space and simultaneously recall some fact about crying that would make my awareness shift. It made me feel I was in several places at once, with a string of consciousness held taut between them. On the whole, I think it helped me maintain my humility, knowing that my reading would not release me from being a crier, from being described.

Z: In many ways, The Crying Book is as much about mental illness as it is about crying, and the book contains some of the most lucid (and accurate) descriptions of depression that I’ve read. You personify despair so that it becomes this parasitic but still authoritative presence, one with a clear agenda. “Despair,” you write, “wants me not to know the difference between itself and me.” Was it challenging to describe despair so precisely, or was it liberating to put it into words? 

HC: I didn’t experience it as a challenge, but nor was it exactly liberating. I feel the same satisfaction about shaping an accurate description of despair that I do about shaping an accurate description of other events, I think. It would be nice to be liberated from despair, but for me it does not work that way. This is true of writing about anything personal. I mean, describing—for instance—the way an elderly man on an overnight flight last week kept waking me because he was overcome by the need to whistle the kind of tune that says “I am nonchalantly waiting for time to pass and generally happy to do so, though this very whistle suggests I require your recognition of this circumstance and therefore my good-natured patience has certain limits around it” feels pleasant, but it can’t make me any less tired. The describing makes something else happen. It generates a new sensation, but does not, for me, replace the one being described.

Z: You touch on the experience of crying in public, and the shame that can be attached to that. You talk about how some people might “hide behind a lie about allergies or a cold,” and about how people on airplanes devise special methods to conceal their crying (men hiding under blankets, women pretending to have something in their eye). In your research, what did you learn about the relationship between crying and shame, especially in regards to crying being seen as a (gendered) sign of weakness? 

HC: First off, I feel like it’s important to note that virtually all the research I encountered around gender and crying treated sex and gender as binary and synonymous. I would love to read a study that took a more accurate view. (This seems totally doable! If there can be a “feminist, anti-colonial lab specializing in monitoring plastic pollution,” why not one specializing in tears?) So, with a recognition of the limits of the currently available information, I’d say that shame and crying can be very intertwined, that crying need not feel shameful, but if an audience—real or imagined—responds to a person’s tears with disgust or annoyance, shame can result. The quality of the response of that audience is often rooted in the identity of the crier, and whether they see the crier’s tears as appropriate, given all the expectations they might have for a person inhabiting their particular identities. Lastly, I’ll just say that there can be enormous gaps between the stories people tell about their beliefs about crying and gender (as a sign of strength, weakness, power, vulnerability, etc.) and how they actually respond when in physical proximity to tears (whether their own or others’).

Z: I’m fascinated by this image you posted on Twitter of a tool you used to edit The Crying Book, which envisions the book’s various strands as colored squares on a grid. I think this grid does a great job of demonstrating visually how complex but thematically unified the work is. Can you talk a little bit about this visualization, how it came to be, and perhaps clue us in to what a few of the strands are? 

HC: It was so helpful to make this chart. I was struggling to maintain (or even create) a sense of the book as a whole, to apprehend its entirety. Any moment I examined felt like it had its own centrality, like it insisted on all the rest of the book being seen in relation to it in particular. I had to take action to make the book into something other than words, and to contain it within a single page. I knew if I did that, I could hold each moment in place and understand the entirety of their relations at once. And adjust them! Yellow represented science; green represented language and literature. I assigned shades of blue to different phases of my own life. Some passages contained only one color; others had several, and so the line of the book thickens and thins across the page. It would be hard for me to overstate how soothing this process was. I kept my colored pencils very sharp.

Z: In your Author’s Note, you talk about how conversations with friends helped shape the book, saying it would have been “impossible to write this book without their company.” What are the roles of collaboration and conversation in your creative process, both as a poet and an author?

HC: So much of The Crying Book is about the relationships between things, between ideas, places, people. Formally, that’s at the core of the book. I am endlessly curious about what happens when entities are in conversation, what unexpected angles they illuminate in each other. Early in my poet life, I witnessed Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer composing collaborative poems one word at a time, in front of an audience. I was enthralled; I was inside the poem, watching it build. For a long time after, I made poems that way on my own, one word at a time, feeling where the language could go. I love to be inside friendship as well, to watch it grow and change, to watch how we shape and hold each other. Conversation, when it is real, when it moves beyond recitation, is one of the great joys of my life. At the most basic level I learn so much of what I should read from my friends, and The Crying Book is hugely influenced by that, but the gift of their company is so much more. Company! The ones with whom one eats bread! I love this etymology. I love the sense that nourishment comes not just from food, but from its sharing.

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‘Black Card’ by Chris L. Terry: A Satirical Look at Racial Identity in America

Chris L. Terry’s new satirical and funny novel, Black Card (272 pages; Counterpoint), challenges ideas about race and identity as it follows its unnamed mixed-race narrator as he navigates the complex world of the punk rock scene in the American South, trying to understand where and how he can fit in—or if he can ever fit in. Structured episodically, Terry’s novel manages to address specific and thematically relevant incidents of the narrator’s life minus an overwhelming page count.

“I was finally black again,” the novel begins, in 1997. “I sat on my bed, waiting for proof. Gray smoke oozed under my bedroom door and through the crack where the windowpane met frame.” The novel itself—like its opening line—walks a tightrope of humor and introspection. In Black Card, race is something one can lose or keep, and to obtain it you need an ally not unlike one found in a video game: somebody who tests your knowledge and then hands you a necessary item for the next task. The ally here is Lucius, who, after reviewing the events of the last few months, finds that the protagonist is finally entitled to his Black Card.

“I hereby bestow you with this Black Card. Carry it with you, as proof that you’re one of us, because …” He squinted and started to read from the back of the card, “This card entitles the brotha or sista who bears it to all black privileges, including but not limited to: Use of the n-word, permission to wear flip-flops and socks, extra large bottles of lotion, use of this card as a stand-in for the Big Joker in a spades game, and most important, a healthy and vocal skepticism of white folks aka crackers aka honkies. To be renewed in five years, upon evaluation.”

Five years later, the twenty-something protagonist finds himself crashing with his band at the home of a family that throws around the n-word like confetti at a wedding. This scene serves as the apex of a section of the novel where the narrator has already had his white bandmates ask him asinine questions about black culture, been mistaken for light-skinned famous and non-famous black men, and asked to perform all of the rap songs at karaoke night for the all-white audience. Because the narrator does not say or do anything about any of these indignities, he loses his Black Card.

“This ain’t your first time playing dumb tonight,” said Lucius…“It’s not yours no more. You let those crackers act a fool and didn’t say a damn thing. Your pale, mixed ass just sat there like some sorta white boy. So, that’s what you are. You ain’t black no more.’”

With his Black Card revoked, the narrator sets out to reclaim it. This literal quest allows Terry’s novel to explore the concept of identity, those we choose (like writer or Cross-Fit enthusiast) and those thrust upon us (like those associated with the color of one’s skin).

Eventually, the narrator is liberated from his vexing quest when he realizes there is nothing he needs to do to be black. He is black, and therefore everything he does is black and part of black culture, whether he plays hip-hop or punk rock, or works in a coffee shop or goes to college. “It was black people listening to black music. I was a black person playing black music. My experiences were black, even though they weren’t the ones I’d seen on TV and pieced together from Lucius.”

Black Card’s critical look at racial identity in America sees the cracks in everything and calls out everyone, the narrator included. It’s a brilliant comedy that speaks to what America is right now.

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How to help those affected by the California fires

Northern California is once again faced with wildfires. We encourage you
to explore this link from the Northern California Grantmakers on ways
you can help the many people displaced by the fires. NCG provides a
number of options, including vetted wildfire relief and
recovery funds such as the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the
Solano Disaster Relief Fund.

Please feel free to share links to similar relief efforts in the
Comments below.

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

As October comes to a close, the Bay Area gears up for perhaps its favorite holiday: here’s hoping your Halloween involves more treat than trick! In the office, we’re also offering a seasonal Staff Recommends—here’s a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

Scout Turkel, Intern: My music taste is defined by habit rather than preference. What makes a song good isn’t necessarily genre or content, but its capacity to fit into my rigorous and specific listening routine: for about a month at a time, I play one song, and one song only, on repeat, over and over again. Few songs hold up––most become unlistenable or annoying after a few goes. And of those select tracks that do withstand more than a handful of consecutive plays, hardly any are able to sustain me for the duration I demand. The song has to be versatile––joy-sparking but also a bit sad, appropriate for a long, crowded BART ride home or an early morning cross-campus trudge to class. It has to be sexy and danceable, galvanizing enough for chores and cleaning, calming enough to study with, and, more basically, just generally likable. I’ll be playing it all the time, so wide-spread appeal is important; I have two roommates and over one-hundred housemates, the hope is that they enjoy (or at least can tolerate) it along with me.

I’ve had many of these songs come and go over the years, but one stands up against the nonstop-listening test like no other. “Coconut Kiss” by Niki & The Dove is the soundtrack to all my seasons, and all my tasks. My breakups and my triumphs. My bad days and my dance parties, alone or, more usually, in the kitchen of my giant communal home, friends and peripheral acquaintances alike all writhing on the half-mopped floor to the synthpop anthem of our dreams. Maybe the dream is just mine, but Swedish duo Malin Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf make me feel otherwise. Dahlström’s voice is powerful but a little eerie, high-pitched and slightly crooning with a disco-y pace and flirtation. I won’t pretend to know anything about this band––I don’t. I haven’t even really engaged with the rest of their 2016 album beyond its genius title, Everybody’s Heart is Broken Now. Which is true. “Coconut Kiss” isn’t quite a climate disaster ballad, but it’s hard to turn away from the possibility it offers for collective mourning; the planet is hurtling towards an uninhabitable state, and we all, in a truly worldly sense, are being forced to feel the crushing heartbreak of our doom together, perhaps for the very first time. And yet, in the true fashion of our times, it’s also campy. And sweet. And sensual. Karlöf’s lyricism is objectively sad, but the pop, electro-rhythm of the track begs you to dance. “I am a loner / And I paid my dues / And I don’t depend on nothing / Or no one / I am a loner / All confused / Waiting for that rainy day / While I spend my time / Walking in the sunshine”––believe it’s about climate change yet? If you don’t, well, that’s okay. It took me a few hundred listens to land on that take.

More fundamentally, “Coconut Kiss” is about heartache and the defensiveness that comes with that violation, be it carried out by the corporations warming our planet to its premature end or a first love who stopped feeling the same way. The answer it offers to this loneliness isn’t redemption, but something more removed, even cynical: “Swinging in my palm tree / Cause I love coconuts / I’m drinking Coconut Kiss / And you don’t get to know me / You don ‘t get to know me…” I love that impulse; it’s not that the mystical and heartbreaking “you” doesn’t know me, or shouldn’t know me, but rather that they aren’t allowed to. The isolation isn’t necessarily empowering, but it is a choice. As everything goes up in flames, we retain a little say in how the end plays out, sipping our syrupy, boozy punch in what may be the last palm tree on earth.

Even at the end of all things, planetary or not, Niki & The Dove puts a sleepy, warm haze over all of our sadness and confusion. “I like to / watch the world / The world is looking good today / It’s almost like I ‘m sleeping / I pull my head back to the sun” whispers Dahlström in her intimate drawl. There’s still some pleasure in watching, which might be a terrible thing to say. But it feels true when she sings it, and truer still when I hear it for the hundredth time, on the kitchen floor clutching my mop, now a mic, or too close to another body on the five o’clock commuter train, somewhere under the bay.

Sophia Stewart, Intern: Succession is a difficult series to distill into so few words. The show is so many things at once. It’s an amalgam of many genres: corporate thriller, family drama, workplace comedy. It pairs the course repartee of Veep with the aesthetic of Billions (that is, badly behaved rich people in New York). And as for premise, Succession borrows a bit from Arrested Development: a flawed family with a company to their name, law-evading patriarch, adult children vying for power.

I know what you’re thinking: who wants to watch rich, white, entitled people scheme for hours on end, especially at a time like this? Believe me, the thought crossed my mind, too. But Succession goes beyond the constraints of its premise to deliver something that is devilishly clever, emotionally resonant, and thoroughly addictive. Each episode is hearty, filling—stuffed with gripping drama and caustic wit. Dysfunction is the series’ organizing principle, and boy, does Succession do dysfunction well.

So here’s the story: the Roy family, who reign over a media empire, are a family in name alone. In reality, they’re a business operation. Unburdened by familial love or loyalty, the Roys are ruthless and conniving, conspiring against each other as they paw at power. The drama that plays out among the family members is downright Shakespearean—betrayals, back-door deals, attempted patricide. There is Kendall, the scorned heir; Roman, the twisted manchild; Siobhan, the focused striver; and Connor, the idiosyncratic recluse. And of course, pulling the strings is Logan Roy, CEO and father, in that order.

What makes Succession work is the thrill of seeing these personalities collide. These are terrible, terrible people, and watching them mistreat each other is truly delicious. (At one point, an observer of the family tells Kendall, “Watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on planet Earth,” and I have to agree.) We’re like anthropologists, studying these hapless, hopeless miscreants. The Roys are monsters, products of late capitalism, and what a joy it is to watch them run loose in Manhattan. But just because the Roys are despicable doesn’t mean they’re soulless. They still succumb to the pains and pressures that come with their high-stakes lives. And we are there to witness it all, as bystanders, voyeurs, or something in between.

Succession alternates between satisfying schadenfreude and heartrending tragedy, often within the same episode. Yes, we feast on the Roys’ suffering, maybe even delight in it. But we also suffer alongside them: no matter how removed from reality they may be, their humiliations, addictions, and rejections, in some sense or another, mirror our own. And that, dear reader, is the success of Succession: the Roys can disgust us all they want—we’ll love them just the same.

Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Ever since Robert Eggers’ name floated around a possible remake of the 1922 silent film classic Nosferatu, I’d imagined what The Witch director might do with a visual aesthetic inspired by German Expressionism. With Egger’s latest film The Lighthouse now in limited release in the Bay Area, I no longer have to wonder: the spirit of Weimar Era filmmaking is present in every shot of Robert Pattinson’s wide, startled eyes. While the Nosferatu remake appears to be on the back-burner for Eggers (maybe someday?), his latest is a black-and-white, shot-on-35mm chamber piece about a grizzled lighthouse keeper, played by Willem Dafoe, and his new assistant (Pattison) in New England circa the late 1800’s.

Beset by ill weather, their post begins to stretch beyond its scheduled four week tenure and the two men—dynamically portrayed by Dafoe at his spittle-on-beard best and an equally game Pattinson—find their relationship (and their sanity) tested by isolation, the elements, and the almost sensual lure of the lighthouse’s beacon itself.

I feel somewhat guilty trying to articulate my thoughts on this film after only one viewing—very early into The Lighthouse I knew I absolutely needed to see it again, if only to inhabit once more the wave-battered world Eggers has conjured here, one where seabirds carry the souls of long dead sailors and mermaids appear like sirens on the rocky shore. Much as in The Witch, Eggers’ influences here feel as literary as they do cinematic: one pictures an antique bookshelf where Herman Melville sits comfortably alongside H.P. Lovecraft. The dialogue registers as period accurate and studiously researched; much of the viewing experience involves listening intently to the performers, a reminder that part of the pleasure of cinema can be simply experiencing sonorous dialogue in the hands of actors who can truly rise to the level of the material. This is never more apparent than during the many scenes in which Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson have cause to curse each other out: their exasperated tirades are bawdy, vulgar, and represent some of the best “setpieces” I’ve seen in theaters all year.

To say much more about The Lighthouse might give away some of the film’s many surprises and delights—I’m also underselling just how damn funny this material is—but rest assured the movie is worthy of the serious viewer’s time before it departs from theaters like a steamboat headed back to the mainland. Reports indicate Eggers’ next film will follow a 10th century Nordic prince on a quest for revenge; after impressing with both Puritan folk horror in The Witch and the nautical hypno-drone of The Lighthouse, Eggers seems poised to do much the same in the land of the Vikings. I’ll be purchasing a ticket.

Laura Cogan, Editor: Selecting which book to read next from the mile high stack and even longer list is an inscrutable process for me, one that is more emotional and intuitive than reasoned. I want to read them all, so why this book, today, but not last month or last year? I can’t say. I think there may be material to analyze here, perhaps not totally dissimilar to the way dreams reveal simmering, subterranean concerns. I find myself reluctant to interpret, but it is interesting to note areas of synchronicity or divergence. The two books I read this month, for example, are different in most ways except this: they both revolve around family life, the most profound fears of parenthood, and the outer edges of what we can fully understand about what transpires at home–especially our own.

First I read Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, an expansive and engaging fairytale blending contemporary and classical ideas of trolls and witches. LaValle’s smooth prose and compact chapters gave me the thoroughly enjoyable sense of being told a story of adventure and enchantment by a practiced and authoritative craftsman. Yes, there were moments when the plot felt strained or central ideas over-explained, but it never felt worth breaking the spell of story to stop and dwell on them.

Next I picked up The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, a book I’d been both drawn to and dreading. Over two tense days of reading I inhabited every taut sentence, every deft character portrait, every nuanced and loaded interaction between Louise (the nanny) and her employers and their children. Slimani is careful not to vilify the parents (painting a sensitive portrait of the working mother), while seeking to create context (personal and societal, structural) for Louise’s break down. The book raises thorny, un-resolvable issues of class, reminding us that such issues persist even when, with the best of intentions, we turn a blind eye. Ultimately, there can be no explanation or understanding for the devastating act of violence Louise commits: it is unthinkable. But Slimani turns the impulse to ask “why” and “how” into an exercise in humanity.

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Q&A with Seth Borgen: ‘If I Die in Ohio’ and Some Extraordinarily Unremarkable True Thing

The stories in Seth Borgen’s collection If I Die in Ohio (160 pages; New American Press), winner of the New American Fiction Prize, are like bars where I have learned more about people and about writing than anywhere else, except perhaps from books. And like those bars, they are places where people who would never have crossed paths come together—a retired, well-known architect and a young high school dropout, for example; a slacker, stoner, atheist and a Mormon. The characters do not seek each other out, but once they do, something happens. Nothing huge or life-changing but something that helps combat the loneliness and the despair, the inability to make decisions, to leave or to stay, or to love.

Borgen’s characters, while not transformed, are still are able to get up the next morning. They are sometimes even a little bit stronger or more hopeful, like you might be after a night talking to a stranger in a bar. You don’t walk out of there less lonely or knowing what to do with your life, but later you wonder how the other is doing, whether they got home okay, and hope today will be a better day for both of you, and then, maybe it is.

The following interview with Borgen, who lives in Akron, Ohio, where he teaches creative writing and writes full-time, about his first book of stories was conducted via email.

ZYZZYVA: A lot of your characters are men who can’t act or make a change even if it means they’re miserable. Is this the American archetype now, the new hero in a botched society?

Seth Borgen: I don’t know if it’s a new hero, but it sure is a lot of men. More and more, it seems men are raised to be vessels of inaction. They’re given very strict guidelines regarding what it means to be a man, which happens to include being ashamed of the existence of their own emotions. The moment life gives them something they don’t expect, they’re not prepared to handle it. They shut down. The light goes out and it can’t light again.

Some of the stories are perhaps born out of my own anxiety over becoming one of those men who do and value all of the things culture tells them to minus the emotional infrastructure to adapt or change. But more than that, as a writer, I’m fascinated by the processes that lead to inaction rather than action and that being able to capture that formless thing is a more meaningful depiction of the world.

The line on me back in workshops was that nothing ever happens in my stories. And I was always like, yeah, because nothing ever does. Where I come from, my people don’t act. They die inside their own lives but still breathe and walk around and buy stuff for two, three more decades. And I think that’s people from a lot of places. And I don’t think that makes their stories any less worthy.

Z: Can you talk about how you came up with the seeds for some of your stories? Mormons, ice-sculpting, any others you are interested in.

SB: Short stories tend to come from some combination of two places—from someplace within the writer or from someplace beyond the writer. Sometimes what we’re doing is litigating or relitigating personal experiences. The other times, we’re like professional stenographers following around people who don’t exist and we have absolutely no idea what they’re going to do or say next. For the former, the writing is an act of will. For the latter, it is an act of discovery. Personally, I’m more interested in the discovery. I’m more the stenographer than the litigator. Actually, what I am is one of those bugs that carries around on its back every bit of junk and debris it finds. My stories tend to begin with some extraordinarily unremarkable true thing. An image or a feeling or part of a feeling. I carry it with me and, over time, people, places, entire worlds that have absolutely nothing to do with me build up around that zygote of an idea.

For example, there was a time I went to the same bar several nights in a row. To get to the bar, I had to cut through an alley. That first night, there was a discarded ice sculpture in the alley tipped on its side like it was drunk or dead. Because it was winter, it was there the next night and the next night. That image, and what it felt like to step over that piece of ice four, five days in a row eventually became “I Really Can’t Stay,” a story that bears virtually no resemblance to anything that actually happened to me. The origins of most of my short stories follow a similar pattern.

Z: Were you really studying to be a dentist? Are you glad you decided to be a writer?

SB: I never actually studied dentistry. I just wish that I had every day. And talk about it, like, all the time. What I like about dentistry is the idea of clear objectives and quantifiable goals. On any given day, you might have to fill five cavities and perform a root canal. You know exactly when you’re done for the day. With nothing left on your list, you leave and who you are away from work resumes.

When you write for a living, you’re never not working. It’s all working. There’s no leaving the office and winding down because the office is inside your stupid brain. Every day you wonder, Did I do enough? Did I write enough? Was it good enough? What part of myself did I leave on the page today? Am I still a person? And, you know what, there really aren’t satisfying answers to these questions we ask ourselves every day. I might be wrong, but I just feel that if I were a dentist, I’m not sure how often I’d leave work asking myself if I’m still a person.

Z: How did growing up in Ohio influence your writing? People who have never lived there like to think of it only in political terms, as a battleground state. How was it different from the South and your experiences there at the University of Mississippi, where you received your MFA?

SB: I was raised in the suburbs of Akron, little homogenized hamlets that largely grew out of populations fleeing dying cities. I did my undergraduate work in Columbus at Ohio State, a college laid out more like a sprawling, steam-belching factory than a college. And no matter where you stand in Columbus, if the wind is blowing in a particular way, you can smell the farms. So, as a state, are we industrial or rural? Both and neither. Are our best days ahead or behind? Both and neither. Every election cycle, is Ohio blue or is it red? It’s both and neither. Being from Ohio means being defined by the absence of a clear definition. We have a little of everything and an abundance of nothing. Born out of that absence of a clearly defined identity is a sort of perpetual frozen pragmatism. It’s a self-defense mechanism—a survival mode that never shuts off.

I feel like that frozen pragmatism is everywhere in my writing. And then I did my graduate work in Mississippi. Before moving to Mississippi, I didn’t fully understand that Northern fiction was a thing and Southern fiction was a thing. I didn’t fully grasp the ways in which individual writers could be coming out of traditions that were larger than they were. I mean, I was pretty dumb. Everyone else in the program probably knew that already, but, boy, I sure didn’t. So, anyway, there I was, a very northern writer suddenly immersed in the South and its literature. The result, I’ve come to understand, is an accidental and haphazard layer of otherworldly dreaminess woven into my precious frozen pragmatism. The result of that, I’m not claimed as a Northern writer or a Southern writer, which is very, very Ohio.

Z: You have three stories in your collection that take place in another time in history that are quite different from each other. How did this come about? How is writing about another time period different from writing about the present?

SB: Most of my stories are set in some version of the past, whether that’s clearly established in the text or not. That’s largely because I’m not particularly drawn to characters who carry smart phones. But, yes, sometimes a story decides it’s necessary that we go way far back. And, for selfish reasons, I’m glad when that happens. A segregated lake in 1952. An Akron slum in 1919. A swanky hotel in 1920 Paris. The more removed a character is from who I am, the easier the writing becomes. When the characters are nothing like me and they are inhabiting worlds that are nothing like my world, I’m less inclined to ruin my stories by asking myself what I would do.

On top of that, I appreciate the ways in which the past offers an illusion of knowability. The past feels to me like a ship that’s already sunk. The wreckage can be explored and studied and parts of it might be salvaged. But the present feels more like a ship in the process of sinking. It’s hard to reflect meaningfully on anything while holding on for dear life. Fuck today, really. Today is dumb. There are other writers more adept at sorting that out.

Z: People love to know about process, so this is my process question: How do you do your best thinking about your characters and stories?

SB: I don’t know if this will be of much use to anyone else, but, for me, the most crucial information when unlocking a character is their name and what they do for a living. And as annoying as it is to say this, their names and professions are not up to me. They choose to reveal that information or they don’t. If they do, everything else begins to fall into place. If they don’t, they stay strangers. The story or book doesn’t get written. Before I start a story, it’s like I’m barely awake in a dark room looking for a coffee cup. I absolutely know the coffee is there, but it doesn’t matter what I know or what I think I know if I can’t find the handle. The name and profession is my handle. There are writers, probably a lot of them, who name their characters whatever they want and move on. And who’s to say that’s not a better way. It sounds a lot faster, if nothing else.

Z: What authors or books have you learned the most from?

SB: I was in my late teens when it hit me that I was going to write books and stories for the rest of my life. I was desperate to become a better writer and I was the wettest clay I would ever be. And when that’s where you are, something finds you. What found me was a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald stories on tape. Tapes, if you can believe that. Each story was read by a different celebrity. Parker Posey. Blythe Danner. Campbell Scott absolutely crushing “May Day.” And for years, those tapes were the only things I listened to in my car. A thousand trips between Columbus and Akron. To Birmingham and back multiple times. That strange combination of passive and active absorption, it altered my DNA. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was developing a more three-dimensional relationship with language and character than I would have otherwise. That has never left me.

I had many life-altering relationships with books and stories since then and before then and during that time. I was reading Richard Ford’s Rock Springs when I finally figured out why being a writer has any value whatsoever. Good writing puts into words things that have always been true about ourselves but we never had words for them before. And then that new understanding helps us live. I was reading Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America when I realized there were levels of good I’d never achieve and that’s totally OK because there can’t be two Lorrie Moores. But nothing is more responsible for what kind of writer I became—for good or bad—than those tapes.

Z: Why do you write, and don’t say because you have to. Well, you can say that, but you have to explain why.

SB: I think most lives come down to some personalized version of keeping the chaos at bay. Everything wants to kill us. Everything wants to run right over us and make us nothing. And it will, eventually. For me, writing is my version of keeping the chaos at bay. We get through so much of what we get through by telling ourselves that there’s got to be some meaning to all of this. So I comb through the vast garbage can of human existence and the much smaller garbage can of my own personal experiences looking for scraps of meaning. That’s where it started, but I had options back then. I could have done other things. But that’s not really true anymore. Existentially, I wouldn’t do anything else if I could. Pragmatically, I’m not really qualified to do much else at this point. The fallback options used to be things like newspapers, magazines, video stores, teaching. All that’s basically gone now. In a way, that’s a good thing. The cake is baked. People who pay people to do things don’t want to hire me and I don’t want to work for them. We’ve all decided that writing really is what I should be doing with myself. I fantasize about becoming a dentist. But I’d be a fucking terrible, miserable dentist.

Anne Raeff’s second novel, Winter Kept Us Warm (2018), won the silver medal for the California Book Award for Fiction. Her short story collection, The Jungle Around Us, won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Raeff’s next novel, Only the River, will be published in May 2020. Her wife, novelist Lori Ostlund, was the judge for the New American Fiction Prize awarded to Seth Borgen.

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