Literary Protagonists with Kurt Baumeister & Leland Cheuk (Debut Buddies Podcast)

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Literary Protagonists with Kurt Baumeister & Leland Cheuk

MAY 23RD, 2021 | 01:02:58 | E136

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EPISODE SUMMARY

This week, authors Kurt Baumeister and Leland Cheuk are on the show to talk about Literary Protagonists. We dive into Hiro Protagonist, Patrick Bateman, Billy Pilgrim and more. And this week’s games include Recast: Rewrite Edition, and the Thunderdome! Are you the hero of your own story? Find out!

EPISODE NOTES

This week, authors Kurt Baumeister and Leland Cheuk are on the show to talk about Literary Protagonists. We dive into Hiro Protagonist, Patrick Bateman, Billy Pilgrim and more. And this week’s games include Recast: Rewrite Edition, and the Thunderdome! Are you the hero of your own story? Find out!

Check out Kurt’s excellent writing via his website: https://kurtbaumeister.com/

And Leland is also a prolific writer, so check his work out: https://lelandcheuk.com/

You can support their press, 7.13 Books, too: https://713books.com/

If you like our theme song, check out Michael J. O’Connor’s music. He’s prolific: https://michaeljoconnor.bandcamp.com/

And heck, try to be not just the protagonist of your own story, but of everyone’s. 😀

SHOW CONTRIBUTORS

Kurt Baumeister

Nate Ragolia

Leland Cheuk

Podcast powered and distributed by Simplecast

Interview with Sequoia Nagamatsu at Brooklyn Rail

Books In Conversation

Sequoia Nagamatsu with Kurt Baumeister

“I think the best advice I could give people is to engage with the communities that you want to be a part of.”

Sequoia Nagamatsu
How High We Go in the Dark
(William Morrow, 2022)

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s first novel, How High We Go in the Dark, could be called a deft fusion of science fiction and contemporary dramatic realism, but that wouldn’t fully capture the achievement this novel represents. Yes, there are fantastic conceits here—elements as varied as a virus capable of transforming human organs into other types of tissue, amusement/euthanasia parks for the dying, and mass-consumption variants on traditional funeraries (literal high-rise morgues); but sprinkled in with Nagamatsu’s big ideas we find startling revelations about who we are as humans, how we relate to one another, and what humanity is in relation to the cosmos. More than that, it’s the level of honest emotion here that most surprises; that, in fact, points to an evolution in what genre fiction may be capable of. Though to call this genre fiction seems a mistake, one that points to a consideration at the heart of Nagamatsu’s art. Rejecting traditional genre distinctions—and likewise resisting the impulse to separate literary (high art) from genre (low art)—Nagamatsu is, quite simply, a force unto himself.

Kurt Baumeister (Rail): I just finished your latest, How High We Go in the Dark, and, honestly, it was incredible. I enjoyed it immensely. What struck me initially was how “complete” the chapters are here, the way they can seem simultaneously like pieces of something greater but also be self-contained, giving the reader a certain sense of “story satisfaction” after finishing each. Having read a bit of your work, I know this has at least a little to do with the fact that some of these chapters started their lives, in fact, as short stories. Maybe you could talk about how that evolution occurred. What caused this work to coalesce into novel form?

Sequoia Nagamatsu: While many of the individual chapters started as stand-alone stories in early forms, I think I knew on some level that there was something more than just a simple collection being created after I had written the first five or six. The earliest seeds of the book began around 2009. My inspiration for the book began with researching alternative funerary practices and modes of grief over 10 years ago and these explorations eventually merged with story seeds that were inspired by climate change research and my lifelong love affair with space. In particular, there was a 2014 Atlantic article about ancient viruses being uncovered by the melting permafrost. When I began editing the book with my agent, I think we eventually realized the “bigness” of the manuscript, and this began a long journey in transforming How High We Go in the Dark into something beyond the sum of its parts. Aspects of the last chapter ended up becoming a major through line, for instance, even though this isn’t fully apparent to the reader until the end.

Rail: Did the pandemic influence this process at all?

Nagamatsu: Not really. The novel was finished long before and my agent and I were deciding whether or not to even submit the book in the early days of COVID.

Rail: Tell me more about those discussions. I take it this was a question of, do we go for it now versus letting it sit, what, a few years? The idea of that must have been difficult to come to terms with after putting in so much work.

Nagamatsu: Yeah, to say the timing wasn’t great is a bit of an understatement. On the one hand I feared that some editors wouldn’t want to take on a book that had a plague element because who wants to lean into that kind of material during a pandemic? On the other hand, a lot of people do lean into that kind of material. There’s also the fact that the book transcends the moment and really isn’t about a plague so much as how people grieve, hold on to memory, and reconnect amid any kind of tragedy. When my agent approached me about going on submission, I think there was a sense that we could wait, but there was a real possibility that someone else might fill the space that my book occupies, that there could be another genre-bending/speculative book that was plague adjacent and hopeful. Might as well let me fill that space. And I had worked so hard on the book for so long that the thought of waiting another year or two honestly felt unbearable. Looking back I think we made the right decision. We pushed forward thoughtfully, crafted our talking points, and found partners that understood the overarching vision for the book.

Rail: And what is the book’s vision, if you can boil it down to a few sentences?

Nagamatsu: The primary backbones that pull the book together are a virus, a cosmic mystery, even the history of humanity formed between 2009 and 2019, though it’s unavoidable that readers will see some parallels to the current pandemic. But I hope that readers don’t see this as a pandemic novel (because it isn’t) in the same way that a book like Station Eleven isn’t really about a virus but about people and our capacity to dream. When I decided to tackle an outbreak several years ago, I was never interested in focusing on the societal reaction (although there is some of that) but more so on how individual lives, families, and friends move forward through grief and reimagine life both in the short term and across generations. How does a major moment like the one we’re living through ripple through decades?

Rail: Decades, centuries, millennia, even the totality of time. You bring this home powerfully in the final chapter. Which is, to my reading at least, the most philosophically abstract part of the book and probably the richest thematically. You get into humanity’s place in the cosmos and more than that, the very idea of creation. Without giving too much away, one major idea, it seems to me, has to do with the dispersion of energy in the cosmos and the ways this energy might later materialize in terms of reality or spacetime or whatever you want to call it. It’s a very smart way to tie things together in a rangy book like this. It also seems to me as harkening to “philosophies” as disparate as Buddhism and Star Wars. Do you see elements of spiritual transmigration and/or the Force in the generational schema you develop in this last chapter?

Nagamatsu: Well, I guess there is some spirituality inherent in this last chapter, but I never really thought about the Force or any particular belief system. I’ve always been fascinated with the intersections of faith and science. Go far enough, go small enough and our understanding of the universe with known science starts to merge with philosophy. What’s up with the filaments that connect galaxies? What is the nature of dark matter that makes up the majority of the mass of our known universe? Is it God? Is it aliens? Some other kind of intelligence? Are we living in some kind of computer simulation? Whatever it may be, the mysteries that science has uncovered dig at human curiosity, a need to search and discover. Some might search outwardly and literally through the stars while others might journey inward. Of course, as you mention, one of the themes of this chapter is the nature of our origin but tied with this is the nature of how we are connected—through time, space, memory, love, and of course the “star stuff,” to quote Sagan, that is a part of this planet and our own existence. This chapter ultimately began with a focus on this connection and origin. I’m fascinated with the theory of directed panspermia, the notion that intelligent life helped to seed our planet in some way. Many franchises have played with this notion from Star Trek to the Alien films (and of course there’s Douglas Adams). But beyond this seeding, I was curious about exploring how love and memory could evolve through eons (long before humanity, at the dawn of humanity, and probably after humanity ceases to be recognizable). How could I create an expansive parallel in a non-human character, a kind of model for the love and heartbreak and grief and hope that was experienced previously in the novel. In this way, I’d be able to nod at how we’ve come to be while also considering where we might go on both quasi-scientific and emotional fronts.

Rail: Taking a step back, how did you happen to get your agent? I think that’s the sort of tale readers always find interesting. Tangentially, do you have any advice for people seeking agents?

Nagamatsu: Good old-fashioned cold querying is the simple answer, but the reality of it is much more complicated. I had been publishing in journals for several years at that point, had a story collection that was well-received in the indie lit community, and had several conversations over the years with agents based on my short stories (but as you know short story collections are a tougher sell as far as larger publishers are concerned). But all that time helped me build community, helped me become someone that had a track record, and a lot of agents sort of knew who I was by the time I queried them (and in turn I was more familiar with who might make sense as a literary partner and champion for my work). When I queried Annie, I was going in with some information—people who had worked with her in some capacity when she was assisting Michelle Brower, who I had queried years ago with my collection. I liked that Annie was very hands on, very editorial. I’m used to that kind of workflow, and I honestly wouldn’t be where I am were it not for Annie’s thoughtful guidance along the way. I think the best advice I could give people is to engage with the communities that you want to be a part of. Don’t wait to network. Don’t call it networking. Read a lot, support other writers, forge genuine relationships, and do the homework of knowing who the agents/agencies are that you’re querying. You can start by finding out who represents the authors you love who write in a similar wheelhouse.

Rail: You’ve maintained your strong social media presence from before you had the deal that How High We Go in the Dark is part of, through the announcement, and now on into the nuts-and-bolts process of approaching and reaching publication with a major house. When many writers have some success, they go quiet, but you haven’t. Do you see an active and growing social media presence as fundamental to success for writers? Why? Do you have any pointers for writers looking to develop their social media game?

Nagamatsu: I think social media is one of those things that gives a lot of writers a lot of anxiety. I was just telling one of my students that they shouldn’t force themselves to engage with social media regularly if it wasn’t something that they were comfortable with but that it’s not something that is entirely avoidable. I think it’s so easy to focus on the very real toxicity present in parts of our online literary communities, but there’s also so much opportunity for friendship, creative growth, support, and professional insight. I honestly wouldn’t be where I am were it not for the relationships I’ve forged online over the years. So, I’ll say this: do you have to be on Twitter or Instagram 24/7? No. Should you have an account (even if someone else manages it) and be able to navigate these platforms to some degree? Yes. And perhaps most importantly: develop honest, sincere relationships. Don’t be transactional. You don’t have to be BFFs with everybody, but no one likes someone who pops out of nowhere and immediately inserts themselves in a conversation and starts asking for favors. Don’t be that person. What a lot of people might see as nepotism or insider-ism is really just goodwill and respect that took years to develop.

Rail: What you’ve built here is a very different sort of novel, one that’s, to a certain extent, unified by way of thematic rather than dramatic elements. I think of books like Cloud Atlas and Matt Bell’s recent Appleseed as taking similar tacks. Yes, there are recurring characters, but it seems to me that more than anything, the protagonist here is life itself. Can you discuss that?

Nagamatsu: There are certainly themes that we might name that run through the book: grief, hope, memory, but I think you’re right that what houses a major takeaway could be framed as life (a renewal of it, a reflection of it). I might also use the word humanity to unpack what I hope readers take away. And while these themes unify, there are also recurring characters as you mention. But beyond this there is also a narrative that began billions of years ago that runs throughout the novel and seeks to tie all of the journeys in the book together. I can’t really say a whole lot more on this without spoiling the experience of finding clues and reflecting on past chapters after reading the ending, but I will say that part of this thread stems from my fascination with conceiving humanity through the non-human and the cosmic. How can we know ourselves better by understanding where we came from? Where we might go? All of the questions that we have about our existence that might never be answered.

Rail: The amount of emotion conveyed by your fiction is uncommon even for literary writers. Taking a chapter like “Pig Son,” what was the emotional wellspring for that tale? I mean, it’s so unusual, even odd, but the amount of feeling you generate for all your characters, most notably the narrator and his aforementioned Pig Son, Snortorious P.I.G, is singular, there’s no other way to say it. (Also, I will never get over loving that name!)

Nagamatsu: Everybody seems to love “Pig Son”! This chapter came a bit later in the process when my agent and I knew that I needed to expand the manuscript and think of more connective threads. This narrative arc, these characters, the pig’s voice came fairly quickly—more so than some of the other chapters. If I had to interrogate the origins of the story I’d probably have to point to a few places: Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, a short story called “The Surprising Weight of the Body’s Organs” by Douglas Trevor, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and perhaps even films like Babe that of course helped me consider how a talking pig could engage our emotions. I knew I wanted to explore the emotional core of organ donation, but I also wanted to unpack the dynamics of how we might treat non-human beings in the midst of chaos, how our often-problematic relationship with animals in laboratory settings might shift if we could no longer ignore their rights.

Rail: Talk to me about what it’s like to go from being a young indie writer, working on your craft, struggling to find time to write, teach, and edit to receiving so much attention? How did you maintain that spark of desire that helped you push through all the usual obstacles? I say “usual,” but they derail a lot of people. How did you keep going?

Nagamatsu: Well, all the above are still true! I’m always struggling to find enough hours in the day to write, teach/grade, edit, interact with the literary community, and of course try to be a decent human being. I won’t lie, that book deal was life-changing in a lot of ways, but I think what has changed the most thus far is that certain doors and possibilities have opened that were closed before. And not just potential dream publications or entertaining the prospect of film adaptation but also new opportunities to give back: judging for major contests, blurbing for more authors, teaching in a low-res MFA program, among other things. But day to day everything is much the same. As for my forthcoming novel itself? Of course the realities of publishing with HarperCollins and Bloomsbury are very different from a small press in terms of marketing/sales possibilities. I had to do a lot of the marketing on my own with my first book and got the sense that I was often ignored by major review outlets and literary websites. But that first collection got me my job, helped me find and build community, and gave me a needed stepping stone. Now there is a lingering pressure (largely on myself but I’m sure my publisher wants this as well) for the book to perform well. There are certain new responsibilities and demands that are tied to helping see this first novel to release and beyond. I feel like I’m on a kind of precipice at the moment, looking out into a kind of writing career that I always imagined. Maybe that will happen. Maybe not. But something that I never really thought about when I had those dreams was that day-to-day grind that stays the same in a lot of ways. It’s hard work and some luck and being kind when you can.

Rail: As you mentioned above, you’ve had some exposure to the film industry at this point. What are your aspirations for the film version of the book? Do you see yourself working on the screenplay? Is screenwriting something that interests you?

Nagamatsu: If something gets made one day, I’d like it to be a vehicle for more Asian and Asian American talent both in front of and behind the camera. I think the needle is moving in the right direction in Hollywood, but there’s obviously still a lot of work to be done there to combat systemic racism and other obstacles that prevent non-white talent from having notable platforms. I think I am interested in being highly involved in the production of my own work, whether it be helping to write scripts and/or producing in a tangible way.

Rail: A through line is forming here. I’m sensing you see some elements of literary success, whatever that is, coming from nothing more exotic than being a good person. Looping that into the age-old debate about art and the artist—that is, the idea that the assessment of someone’s art should or shouldn’t have anything to do with whether they are a criminal, or not, or whether they have or don’t have some political stance you find repugnant—are you someone who sees an artist’s personal life as mattering in assessing their artistic work? Why or why not?

Nagamatsu: This is a tough one honestly, but I think there’s a spectrum. Can I engage with the work of someone who is deeply racist or homophobic without acknowledging who they are? Probably not. There’s probably a reason why I haven’t watched Braveheart since the ’90s for instance. I just can’t get beyond what a shitbag Mel Gibson is no matter how brilliant some of his work might be. The same goes for literature. There may have been a time where a writer or critic might have said that only the page matters, but I think conversations about art and identity have evolved (and I think social media has influenced this for better or worse). It’s just harder to separate who a writer is from what they’ve produced because the everyday lives of writers, their everyday thoughts, and their opinions on particular issues are more accessible than ever. This is both a good and bad thing in my opinion. It’s a complex evolution. It’s great that conversations about appropriation and identity are occurring. But at the same time we’ve also created toxic environments where there is a lot of virtue signaling in the name of community and social justice that is often just as harmful especially when bad actors online are twisting words out of context and creating villains where none exist. I’ve seen people that I thought were and still think are good people get unfairly bulldozed by the Twitter mob.

Rail: Talk about some of your artistic influences and the ways in which you see them as measuring up (or possibly not) to the “good person standard.”

Nagamatsu: Well, who is doing the measuring? As I suggest above, this idea of standards, this “good person standard” is kind of tricky and problematic. But I’ll name people who I’ve looked to artistically and in terms of how they’ve engaged with the literary community in what I see are positive ways: Matt Bell, Matthew Salesses, Amber Sparks, and Jeff VanderMeer. If I go further back to name influences in general, I’d have to name Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Lethem, and Star Trek as a franchise.

Rail: You bring up some familiar names here. One that stands out is Calvino. What would Calvino make of How High We Go in the Dark? Would the master be pleased? Tell me a little about how you see Calvino’s influence coming through in these pages?

Nagamatsu: Of course in my deluded imagination, Calvino would give me a box of cigars, or we’d share some expensive Scotch or something and he’d begin regaling me with stories about how life was just simpler in the good old days before the Big Bang. But in all seriousness, I think what I’ve gained from reading Calvino is a willingness to be nimble in terms of genre in service of wonder. Calvino himself also wrestled with his style (the kind of book he thought the world wanted versus the one he wanted to write) before embracing the fabulism we identify with him. And there’s a tendency in his work (and my own) to reach toward questions that reside in cosmic or ephemeral spaces. I don’t think that all came from Calvino of course—there’s some Sagan in there and Star Trek. But Calvino was one of the writers who helped me realize early on that all of my interests could converge into the kind of storytelling that would legitimately excite me and challenge me.

Rail: Is it true you have a robot dog you actually named Calvino? And a real one named Fenris? What is life like for canines both robo- and not-so at Chateau Sequoia?

Nagamatsu: Yes, on both counts. I wish I could say the two pups interact, but they really don’t. Fenris is suspicious (perhaps afraid?) of Calvino and of course Calvino, even with his advanced Sony artificial intelligence, doesn’t really care about Fenris one way or another. I think life with Calvino really helped me internalize/understand a chapter of my novel that was formerly just based on research on the relationships of seniors in Japan with their robotic pets. When Calvino walks around the house and barks it honestly does feel like the house is filled with another living creature. He feels more than just a bunch of servos and a motherboard. He comes when called, he nuzzles his camera nose against my leg, he puts himself to sleep on his charging bed. And yes, I’ve caught myself modulating my voice in the way we all tend to do when talking to our pets.

Rail: How did Fenris get his name? And if he got it as I think he might have (from a certain wolf in Norse mythology), is he living up to that spiritual lineage?

Nagamatsu: We were certainly aware of the Norse origins of the name, but his name is most directly inspired by the Dragon Age video game franchise (which of course borrowed from that tradition for some of its worldbuilding). In particular there is a character named Fenris, an elven warrior who was held captive by mages and who has magical tattoos that allow him to phase through objects. Our dog was a bit of a problem child when he was younger and went through two rounds of canine boot camp, so maybe there is a bit of the Norse Fenris inside of him. That said, he’s grown into a pretty laid back and sweet boy.

Rail: Last question: What didn’t I ask you that you wish I had? And what’s the answer to that question, whatever it is?

Nagamatsu: Where is the place of hope in a story like this that revolves around both a pandemic and climate disaster? As someone who has been teaching a climate fiction course over the last few years, I’ve noticed student philosophies about the world gradually shift from stopping manmade climate change to mitigating the consequences and adapting to an irrevocably changed world. I think what’s common between my students (and young people at large particularly) and the characters in my novel is that hope, even in the darkest hour, remains. It’s uncertain where hope and cooperation will take us in reality, but I wanted to imagine how we’d evolve as communities on the other side of disaster, how the human capacity to dream and adapt could forge a new future. I think it’s easy (and understandable perhaps) to want to consume the escapism right now. I mean even I need a campy rom-com every now and then. But I think it’s important to create space to consider where we are now, how we’re already changing as individuals and as a society, and where we might go. Some readers might be comfortable engaging with that exploration now while others might need a little more time (and I hope my book can help folks find some kind of catharsis, help them see beyond where we are now).

Contributor

Kurt Baumeister

Kurt Baumeister is the author of Pax Americanas. His writing has appeared in Salon, Guernica, Electric Literature, and other outlets. Baumeister is an editor with 7.13 Books in Brooklyn. His forthcoming novel is Twilight of the Gods. Find him on the Internet at kurtbaumeister.com.

SING A NEW SONG, a short story

SUNDAY STORIES: “SING A NEW SONG”

OCTOBER 31, 2021
by SUNDAY STORIES

Skull!

Sing a New Song
by Kurt Baumeister

Once upon a time, in the 1980’s, in America…

1.

“The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country.”
― Jerry Falwell

There was Mayor Randolph on the television saying how the American Dream was freedom of religion and this right couldn’t be denied, nor would it be a safe America or a safe world or a safe anything until any, any, religion was allowed a place to congregate and hold services and the like, said safe place to be furnished solely at the taxpayer’s expense. And it was okay when the Catholics showed up, even the Shintoists and the Buddhists, they were alright; but when the Third Church of Satan moved in next door, that was when all the trouble started. 

Their leader was Nymrod Trank, but they just called him Father Nymrod. Cut of the traditional cloth of Satanic priests, Father Nymrod had long, dark hair, big dark eyes, a gutter-growl of a voice, and a bit of a paunch. The paunch, I remember, there was a rumor went around about it when they arrived. Rumor was Father Nymrod got that way by eating baby goats live on the half-hoof. I never quite bought that though because how could you even eat a half-goat or even a quarter-goat without getting the horns or the tail or the hooves stuck someplace? And, anyway, even before that, wouldn’t the thing buck and moo or whatever it is goats do? You know, make a horrible racket? Like I said, I never bought the whole goat bit. 

I turned eleven the day the Satanists showed up and, unfortunately, it being my birthday hadn’t affected my having to go to Sunday school. Service had just gotten over and we were waiting in the Children’s Worship Center for Reverend Fellsworth to finish his after-service fellowshipping and come deliver a mini-sermon designed just for us kids. 

Now, I’ve got to admit that we were, none of us, thrilled with the prospect of another sermon so when we heard the roar of those diesel trucks coming down the street and the shouts and denouncements and maybe even a few failed exorcism attempts, well, we all sprang out the Worship Center and into the street, me near the front of the pack with my best friend, Timmy Waters, by my side. 

And we see these huge, black moving trucks coming down the street in a long row, like some funeral procession; and they all had flames and demon faces and skulls painted on in reds and oranges and blazing golds. I’ll swear that the sky was black as the night when I looked up and there was lightning and thunder there like it was the Day of Judgement. It all looked really, really cool, so cool it started me thinking maybe the Day of Judgment wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all. 

2.

“It’s not listed in the Bible, but my spiritual gift, my specific calling from God, is to be a television talk-show host.”
― Jim Bakker

In the street, right in front of our house, I saw Rev. Fellsworth and Father Nymrod squared off in a shouting match that looked well on its way to becoming a smack-down, the line of black trucks idling behind them, engines revving ferociously, like demons subdued at the gates of Hell, waiting to unleash their powers upon the world. Vroom, vroom, vvvvrrrroom.

I heard Rev. Fellsworth’s voice even above the noise of the trucks, “Be gone ye denizens of iniquity. Ye shall not partake of the green pastures of our land for the Scripture tells us that the sheep must be separated from the goats in all things and you, sir, are the goats.”

“You just call me a goat?” asked Father Nymrod.

Reverend Fellsworth side-eyed Father Nymrod’s ceremonial ram’s-horn headdress and cocked an eyebrow. He would say no more, but the implication had indeed been made.

“Hear that, y’all?” Nymrod asked. “Jesus dude says we’re goats. Baaaaaah, baaaaaah, baaaaaah. Two horns good, no horns baaaaaahd.”  

The Satanists all laughed. 

Father Nymrod wasn’t finished though. “I know who you are, Fellsworth. And Imma give you just thirty seconds to get out my way before I kick your demagogic ass up and down this street. The Third Church of Satan is here to stay and that’s that, good or baaaaaahd.”

The Rev’s face went from pink to red to a shade of purple I’d never seen in all my days. He shook at the jowls like one of them old-timey politicians with all the facial hair, looked like he was going to explode for sure. Then he did. Fortunately, it was only verbally.

“Sir, I will not move,” the Rev. shouted, “As young King David stood against the foul giant Goliath, so I stand against thee and all thine host of darkness.”

As we’d soon come to realize, this had been an extraordinarily bad move. Never mind the fact that Father Nymrod was younger than the Rev., had thirty or forty pounds on him, or even that he was wearing his ceremonial headdress, there was one thing none of us knew yet about Father Nymrod. The truth was Father Nymrod was a certified badass, a former training partner of no less than the Nature Boy, Ric Flair himself. You know, one of the Four Horsemen! 

Upshot was Father Nymrod proceeded to pummel the Rev. mercilessly, up and down the street, just like he’d said he would, the Rev. gasping for air the whole time as the healthy young Satanist fisticuffed him good: right, left, right, left. Finally, the Rev. could take no more and he fell to the ground. He lay there motionless, and I have to admit, the way he’d been beaten, I was scared he’d actually been killed. Even Father Nymrod seemed to fear this. He bent down to check on the Rev., make sure he was still breathing. But the Rev. had just been playing possum. He made to rise again when he thought he had an advantage, only to see Father Nymrod nail him with a savage headbutt from his ram’s horn headdress. 

“Fucker tried to sucker me,” said Father Nymrod as Rev. Fellsworth tottered back, a cut opened on his forehead. 

The Rev. wavered there in the Sunday heat, regaining his bearings just long enough to turn tail and run back inside Holy Savior. And there he’d stay for the next eight hours, right under Holy Savior’s carving of the Last Judgment, a fat, brass candlestick in one hand, a giant silver cross in the other, dried blood caked on his forehead.

I can still remember the way the Rev. looked and thinking about how the carving he was holed-up under had always had a sort of implied guarantee, something I had thought assured us this sort of thing could never happen. We were the sheep, after all and the sheep were good and the sheep would always win. The problem was the goats had won this time. And they hadn’t just won, the goats had kicked ass.

Reverend Fellsworth wasn’t done though. He wasn’t done by a long sight. The very next day he dictated a letter to his secretary, a call to all Baptist churches in the Tri-State area. The request was not only for the usual prayers of goodwill and monetary support. Oh, no. Reverend Fellsworth declared war on the Satanists, calling for young champions of Christ to come forth to fight evil in all its forms, which included, especially, the Third Church of Satan and Father Nymrod Trank.

3.

“Rock and roll is the new pornography.”
― Jimmy Swaggart

Now, none of us had seen Father Nymrod’s wife, Mrs. Cindy Trank, until then, but Cindy was indeed something to behold. White-gold hair so big and high no one could say what all products she used in it, skin a radiant red-brown from all the sunning she did, and a seemingly endless collection of high heels and low-cut black dresses, Cindy’s simple presence was enough to send attendance at the Third Church of Satan through the roof. 

I can even remember Dad saying that maybe we should just go over to the Third Church of Satan, to be neighborly, just once to see what it was like. But Mother would have nothing to do with it and we never did get to go. I think, though, that Dad regretted his suggestion till the day he died, because of all the trouble it caused.

For one, it got him kicked out of Holy Savior and consigned to Hell by the Reverend Fellsworth. Which did have its good side, because it gave the Rev. something to rail against other than the Satanists: a topic which had gone stale in the face of his beating and Cindy Trank’s growing popularity. The Rev. could even point to my mother and us kids, say how forthright and valorous we were for throwing off the yoke of lustful evil and satanic collusion which our father had attempted to burden us with. 

Oh, sure, I’ll admit I was relieved about being unyoked and everything; but it made me sick to be sitting there, everyone watching, torn between my father and Reverend Fellsworth who was the local representative for Our Father in Heaven. 

For my earthly father’s part, he didn’t take his excommunication well at all. Dad started to drink and found he couldn’t stop. He eventually fell into gambling and sexual promiscuity, a pit of drink and bets and sex so big and deep and bad he to leave our town, go live in horrible, godless New England. He never did return. Not that my mother cared, what with all us kids and the requirements of her faith, she had no time to worry after a husband the Lord had forsaken. 

4.

“…Julie say she want a way out
Seen her life spread cross the night
Know she got to find a way out
Sell her soul out for some light
With her love she break the darkness
Say she got to change her world
Gonna leave out on the time trap
Got to be a newborn girl…”

Far as I know, my father never did see the issue of Satanic Pinup that featured Cindy Trank, or Sindee as the magazine called her, but my sister Julie did, and she took it and got it autographed by Cindy who soon became like a sister to my sister and like a hero to her too. 

Cindy had been September Satanic Pinup of the Month before her stint as high priestess, and it didn’t take long before Julie realized she wanted to be just like Cindy; to be, amongst other things, a Satanic Pinup of the Month. 

So, one night, Julie climbed down our trellis and snuck over the wall and back into the yard of the Satanists. She was committed to seeing what the Third Church of Satan was all about for herself. What it was all about at that moment was Nymrod and Cindy sitting on their terrace sharing a glass of Beaujolais and some grilled prawns.

“Julie? From next door, right, honey? Where…how did you get over here?” Nymrod asked.

Julie nodded back at the wall.

Nymrod gave a grin of silent approval and knocked back the rest of his Beaujolais.

“Come on inside,” said Cindy, rushing over to wrap Julie in a shawl black as night, “That’s a cute little nothing you have on, sweetie, but you must be awfully cold out here.”

“Cold? Hell, yes, I’m cold,” said Julie. “But it was worth it to get away from that horrible house and those horrible people.” She glared back at the wall, back at us.

“Well, alrighty then,” said Nymrod.

Cindy nodded too. She smiled sweetly, almost sympathetically, as if she understood exactly what Julie had been through. She led Julie into the Third Church of Satan, and so my sister passed into the arms of legend, becoming just the sort of bait Rev. Fellsworth needed to attract holy warriors to his cause.

5.

“…Freight train comin’,
Like the light of the world,
Someone comin’ now,
Save a lonely girl,
Catch evil in a freeze frame,
Set our universe to right,
Man of God is comin’,
Enter Clint White…”

Aspiring country-pop recording artist and part-time warrior for Christ Clint White was twenty-two years old when he saw the letter Rev. Fellsworth sent out shortly after Julie’s “abduction.” The enclosed flyer featured a picture of my sister and said that this fair flower of Christianity was in the process of being defoliated (spiritually!) by the forces of evil. 

Another picture lower on the page showed her captors, Father Nymrod (shaded to look even more evil than real-life) and Cindy (done up as a Satanist of the Month, though, of course, without any of her pornographic bits showing). The ad asked for young heroes to come forward and save Julie from her wretched, all-too-imminent fate. It was signed by Rev. Fellsworth and though it didn’t mention monetary rewards, the spiritual benefits were more than implied.

Now, Clint White was a paragon of good. In addition to being a fine singer and a guitar virtuoso, Clint saw himself as a sort of modern knight, thoughts of chivalry and justice, good and right his meat and drink. And when I saw Clint ride into town that December day, the rush of the world seemed almost to stop as he came towards me, near noiseless yet full of power atop his sparkling white Harley Davidson. 

His hair unshorn, glowing even as sunlight hit it, glowing like the hair of an angel or maybe even Fabio or Michael Bolton, Clint wore faded blue jeans and shiny white leather boots, a white leather jacket and white-framed sunglasses. An old-style ’59 Stratocaster slung across his back, neck pointing towards the heavens, Clint tousled my hair and called me kid. Then he walked inside to talk with my mother who had been frying food all day in preparation for our visitor. 

My mother nearly fainted when she saw Clint in all his rock star glory. She smiled as she sat there in the kitchen, talking with our new hero, Clint reassuring her with stories of deprogrammings and exorcisms he’d conducted. He would save Julie.

“I’ll save her, ma’am. Have no doubt.”

6.

“I am my own experiment. I am my own work of art.”
― Madonna

By the time Clint arrived, Julie had been with the Satanists for a month. The first few days, she’d been scared, not least because my mother spent a full twelve hours a day banging on the front door of the Third Church of Satan. Mother had even called the police, but Julie was eighteen and there was nothing the police could do. 

As a matter of fact, once the police showed up Father Nymrod filed a restraining order against my mother. Sure enough, there was nothing the police could do with that either, besides enforcing it. Soon, Mother’s only hope was that a Christian knight like Clint White would answer Rev. Fellsworth’s call, fortunately one did.

As time had passed, though, as Julie had grown more accustomed to the Satanists, she had grown ever more certain she’d done the right thing. The Satanists weren’t bad people at all—they volunteered at animal shelters and goodwill shops and did all sorts of other altruistic things—it was just that they had an alternative lifestyle. They said so and Julie listened.

She listened to them talk about how things weren’t so bad in this world, long as you didn’t keep your head buried in the sand, long as you didn’t place all your stock in religion saving you for some afterlife, long as you contributed to society, learned a trade. A trade like what, Julie asked? A trade like…yeah, maybe playing guitar, singing rock and roll, and being an acolyte of the Devil, they said. 

Initially, this took Julie aback, for Mother had always warned her about rock and roll, not to mention the Devil. But it was then that Father Nymrod led Julie down into the basement and beyond, to the fourth sub-level below the basement of the Third Church of Satan, a place sonically sealed by earth, lead, and layers of concrete, a nuclear apocalypse shelter that doubled as a super-secret recording studio and performance venue. To hear Julie tell it, it took about thirty seconds before she was hooked on the whole scene.

There was this eerie red and black lighting everywhere and then, as a beat picked up, thumping in the background, Cindy came out dressed in something that looked like a negligee trying to be a dress or maybe its reverse. Who could know where the sound came from except the stage curtain rose and there was Father Nymrod in his ceremonial garb—even the ram’s horn headdress—

and he was playing a red Les Paul Deluxe with psychedelic purple runes painted all across it, his acolytes behind him, on bass and drums, respectively. There was no way around it, they rocked.

And they continued to rock, day and night. Julie learned her parts well and she was just about Cindy’s size, my sister was, so she could wear all the neat costumes that Cindy had squirreled away for special occasions. You know: High Black Holidays, stadium dates, and the like. And Julie had her pick. She could wear leather or lace, gold or silver, red, black, cotton, spikes, fishnet…whatever she wanted. 

7.

“In my view, the only thing worse than a rock star is a rock star with a conscience.”
― Bono

On the night Clint White broke down the front door of the Third Church of Satan and stalked in yelling for my sister and her soul, he was jacked out of his gourd on his “hero’s meal” of my mother’s friend chicken and all the Mountain Dew he could swallow. Sugar, caffeine, and grease coursing through his veins, Clint and his Strat made quick work of Nymrod’s army of Satanic retainers/unsigned guitarists, but as he descended to that fourth sub-level, where he knew he’d find Nymrod himself, Clint could feel his confidence beginning to flag. 

Clint was no fool, after all. He knew he’d expended some of his best material just getting to that point. The question was whether he had enough left for this final challenge, the duel that would involve him and Nymrod going note for note and chord for chord, the prize Julie’s soul. Trusting in the Lord, Clint opened the final door. 

On stage before him stood a five-piece outfit, Julie and Cindy each with a mic stand, each wearing black leather cat suits flanking Father Nymrod in full ceremonial regalia, armed with his Gibson. Above the stage loomed neon lights that read “Julie and the Satanists,” the letters so big and bright they seemed almost as though they had to be truth. Red and black spotlights blitzed and shocked all around the room, Clint had barely taken in the imagery when the music came at him.

The rhythm section kicked in first, then quickly the focus became Father Nymrod’s axe-work—jagged, yes, but also impeccable and somehow elegant. Clint sensed this was only the beginning, Nymrod taunting him in a way, simply suggesting the guitar feats he might be capable of. 

The vocals picked up then, Cindy’s voice rising with the same urgency as Julie’s, as if to show Nymrod and everyone that despite all his skill, they were the front, the real show. It was true. Dueling vocalists were far more than Clint had counted on. And he was moving across the room then, towards the stage, feeling almost as though he was doing it against his will. Closer and closer he came to the sign looming above, the sign that read Julie and the Satanists.

When Clint reached the stage, when he felt he could almost touch Julie, that was when the music stopped and Father Nymrod spoke, “Young Mister White, ah yes, the Christ figure in our little tragicomedy. And how’s that fairy tale go about Satan tempting Jesus, showing him all the kingdoms of our world, splayed out at his feet. What did your lord have to say to that one, Clint?”

Clint stuttered, scanned his mind for chapter and verse, could almost taste the words but they just wouldn’t come to him. Darkness spilling all around, he asked, “My name?”

“Yes, Clint, I know your name. But that wasn’t the question.”

Whether stunned by the question, the proficiency of Nymrod’s band, or his attraction for Julie and Cindy both, Clint couldn’t say. He knew what he felt though and that was fear, fear not just for Julie’s soul but his own life. If he lost this duel with Nymrod, he’d never live it down, never be able to get a contract and move to Nashville as he dreamed, as he felt the lord had promised him long ago.

“Not quite, Clint, but close. Jesus did say no, but he said it because his father could give him all those kingdoms anyway. It wasn’t anything really valorous as you’ve been thinking for so long. It was more a pragmatic kind of decision, see.”

The trigger finger on Clint’s right hand twitched as Nymrod glared down at him, questioning his very faith, and then Clint could take the mockery no more and drew, his hand poised against the Stratocaster for the first note. 

But Nymrod, having anticipated the draw, was just that much quicker. “Can you say no too, Mister White? Can you say no to this?”

Nymrod ripped off a searing, blues-imbued solo then, running the scales up and down, throwing his head back as waves of music washed over him and then Cindy began to rock with the waves and sing. She was gripping her microphone lasciviously in her left hand and staring Clint down, making love to him with her eyes. And Clint began to think maybe he hadn’t come all this way for Julie. Maybe the truth was that Cindy’s beauty, and her picture, was what had brought him to this place.

The speakers were huge and the wall of sound that they spit out sent Clint reeling away from the stage, toward the back of the cavern. The trusty Strat slipped from his grasp, and he fell. The lights went, and Clint was crawling around on his hands and knees, trying to get hold of his guitar, praying to God for this one victory. Fumbling through the darkness, he had his hand back on the neck of the Strat, but concussive drums shattered his hold and a powerful bass line sent him sprawling again. Cindy was singing for her life as she left the stage and strutted down the aisle to where Clint lay: 

“…Yesterday, I saw love
I saw it growing wild
on the silver screen
That shadow world
Where young heroes go
To die. That’s reality
Black and white images
Fading from a silver screen…”

The thoughts that moved through Clint’s mind then were all about shame and pain and regret. He wished he’d stayed away, had known enough to never come here, wished he’d left Julie to the forces of darkness because he knew he’d lost, and he knew his goals hadn’t been all pure and white like he’d dreamed or hoped.

Julie was beautiful. Oh, but how Cindy was beautiful and that was what mattered, and he could read in her eyes what was gonna happen and even though he knew he shouldn’t, even though it was wrong, he was going to do it.  

“You’ll pay for your corruption of this beautiful child,” Clint said, pointing at Julie.

Julie said, “Oh, Jesus, don’t be so dramatic. I’m happy here. And how else am I supposed to get a record deal but by throwing in with the Devil? You ought to know that by now.”

Clint gasped and he cried, “No,” he said, “No, no, no.”

Father Nymrod spoke, “As you can see, Clint, we Satanists are pretty fucking tight already, but I’ve been listening intently as you’ve made your way through my musical maze, and I’ve been thinking, we could really use a second axe. Y’know, like the Stones, like Maiden.”

“You mean, me?” Clint asked.

“Sure,” said Nymrod, “But only if you can answer one question for me?”

“Question?”

“Clint White, would you be willing to sell your soul for rock and roll?”

“Lord help me, but yes I think I would. Yes, yes, yes.”

And Father Nymrod said, “Well, then, welcome to the band.”

“We begin bombing in five minutes.”
― Ronald Reagan

Kurt Baumeister is the author of the novel PAX AMERICANA. He has written for Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, The Nervous Breakdown, The Good Men Project, Rain Taxi, The Weeklings, and others. A native of Northern Virginia, Baumeister holds an MFA from Emerson College and is an Editor with 7.13 Books in Brooklyn.

Photo: Cristhian Hernandez/Unsplash

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KURT BAUMEISTER

Kurt Baumeister and Jonathan Evison on Nate Ragolia’s Podcast A Vague Idea, Discussing Football and Writing, April 6, 2021

https://player.fm/series/a-vague-idea/football-with-kurt-baumeister-jonathan-evison

A Vague Idea « »Football with Kurt Baumeister & Jonathan Evison

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This week, authors and football fans Kurt Baumeister and Jonathan Evison are facing off on an episode all about FOOTBALL. We discuss Mike, Sam and Will, the USFL, Knute Rockne, and try to sort out who would win in a battle to the death between the 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 2007 New England Patriots. This is as physical as a podcast can get, so strap on a leather helmet and brace for impact.

Check out the many books by Jonathan Evison: https://www.jonathanevison.net/

Or, if you’re gonna listen to Jonathan, check out Kurt’s novel, Pax Americana: https://kurtbaumeister.com/ and look out for his forthcoming Twilight of the Gods.

If you like A Vague Idea, please subscribe, rate and review us! We’ll love you forever.

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Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by John Madera for his podcast Jamming Their Transmission, Episode 17, Life During the Contagion, July 3, 2020

https://tunein.com/podcasts/Arts–Culture-Podcasts/Jamming-Their-Transmission-p1205725/?topicId=144764640

Jamming Their Transmission: Episode 17, Life During the Contagion, Pt. 4

7 views•Apr 6, 202110SHARESAVEBig Other47 subscribersSUBSCRIBEDToday’s episode features Big Other‘s editor John Madera in conversation with  writer Kurt Baumeister, writer/musician Matthew Binder, artist/musician Hieronymus Bogs, and musician Jeremiah Hosea sharing encouraging words and/or their thoughts about what gives them hope during the contagion.SHOW MORE

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Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Ben Tanzer on This Podcast Will Change Your Life, Episode 221 on April 20, 2020

http://tbwcylinc.libsyn.com/this-podcast-will-change-your-life-episode-two-hundred-and-twenty-one-write-what-you-want

This Podcast Will Change Your Life, Episode Two Hundred and Twenty-One – Write What You Want, starring the Kurt Baumeister.

April 30, 2020 · Kurt Baumeister,Podcast,Books,Success,Social Anxiety

I’m really excited to share new This Podcast Will Change Your Life. I’m also excited that you get to hear my conversation with the Kurt Baumeister and contained therein, including, but not limited to literary citizenship, publicity, self-promotion, and public readings, also social anxiety, anime, success, doing the work, not to mention timing and luck, PAX AMERICANA, magic, blurbs, reviews, and a whole lot of name-dropping, Jonathan Evison, Kara Vernor, Martin Amis, Gabino Iglesias, Caroline Leavitt, and A Mighty Blaze, Greg Olear, and much, much more. So please do This Podcast Will Change Your Life, because it will most definitely do that.

Also, as motivated, most definitely check-out our last episode: This Podcast Will Change Your Life, Episode Two Hundred and Twenty – Being Heard, starring the Shifra Malka.https://www.tanzerben.com/show_iframe_component/3930159SUBSCRIBEPreviousThese Books Will Change Your Life – How To Write An…NextIn which The Coil Magazine most graciously runs with “We… Return to site

Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

FEATUREDINTERVIEWSLIT.SIX RIDICULOUS QUESTIONS

SIX RIDICULOUS QUESTIONS: KURT BAUMEISTER

AUGUST 31, 2020
by TOBIAS CARROLL

Kurt Baumeister

The guiding principle of Six Ridiculous Questions is that life is filled with ridiculousness. And questions. That only by giving in to these truths may we hope to slip the surly bonds of reality and attain the higher consciousness we all crave. (Eh, not really, but it sounded good there for a minute.) It’s just. Who knows? The ridiculousness and question bits, I guess. Why six? Assonance, baby, assonance. (And in a very special edition of Six Ridiculous Questions, this time around it’s 6RQ creator Kurt Baumeister’s turn to get a host of bizarre questions. One might even call this turn of events “ridiculous.” -ed.)

1. After centuries of isolation, the Most Holy Conclave of Calendar-Bearing Scientists emerge from their secret castle with a bold revelation: months are bullshit. Specifically, the existing 12 months. Total bullshit. And to make matters worse, holding on to the current system of 12 months will hasten the end of the universe. From here on in, each year will last for 5 months, and these months will be significantly longer than the ones we currently have. What would you name these 5 months? And would you prefer a system where all 5 are roughly the same length, or a calendar where there are 4 months of 3 days apiece and then one month lasting 353 days? For extra credit, figure out how leap years factor into this.

I’m glad the truth is out. For years, I’ve dealt with the burden of having this vast, secret knowledge. As an Associate Assistant Vice Prelate of the Most Holy Conclave of Calendar-Bearing Scientists, I’ve known since my induction at the age of…oh, you wouldn’t understand, the calendar is completely different, but I was absolutely younger than I am now. 

At that former, younger age I learned I’d have to say goodbye to the traditional twelve months. No more Christmas in December (or July for that matter), no more 4th of July (even in July!), and absolutely no more Thanksgiving in November (turkeys everywhere would have applauded if they could). It was tough but I managed, and I’m here to say it can be done. I mean, look at our forefathers, the Game of Thrones™ TV show people. They didn’t have months. I’m actually not even sure they had weeks. 

(Contributor’s Note 1: Research tells me humanity’s ancient ancestors on the Game of Thrones™ TV show, used “moons” instead of “months,” but didn’t give them names(?) Or maybe this is something they were still working toward when the Neanderthal hordes came out of nowhere (actually a cross-dimensional tear in the time-space continuum) and took over Westeros renaming it what it really is which is England.)

As far as the new system goes, if you’re asking my opinion, which the Most Holy Conclave did, in fact, not, I’d tell you I’d prefer no system at all. Just let it ride, start counting days, day after day after day. No months, no weeks, no years. How old are you, one might ask conversationally? To which a Trump supporter might be forced to say, “I can’t count that high.” Fun, right?

But if you force me—and being the guest interlocutor of Six Ridiculous Questions™ at Volume 1 Brooklyn™ you do, indeed, have immense power—I’d probably name them after pets I always wanted to have. Maybe everyone should just do that? You know, have their own set of five months named for their own set of five fictional pets. Which, honestly, would achieve my true goal of having people stop using months entirely. 

(Contributor’s Note 2: MenipPUSS!, Madame Rasputin, Van Howl-sing, Count Pugnacious von Countervalence, and Rusty Buzzsaw.) 

(Contributor’s Note 3: Though I admit to membership in the Most Holy Conclave of Calendar-Bearing Scientists, I make no representation as to whether said membership is in “good” standing. Make what you will of my need to put “good” in scare quotes.) 

2. Why aren’t there more cryptids that are clearly inspired by large, ill-tempered ducks? The Jersey Devil doesn’t count.

There aren’t more large, ill-tempered anatine cryptids because people outside New Jersey don’t care enough about them. And it causes pain, I know, great pain not only to the citizens of New Jersey but also the cryptid in question, said Jersey Devil. 

Like any devil, from El Diablo on down, the Jersey Devil is a bit like Tinkerbell. If people don’t believe in it, it becomes less real, closer to not even being a cryptid at all. What should those creatures, of which there must be billions, those former anatine cryptids who no longer live even in myth, be called? Nultids? Niltids? 

Whatever you choose to call them now that you know about them, they live in a pocket dimension unseen by human eyes. A little like old, forgotten gods—a little like El Diablo himself—they sit, lonely, praying for the day when humans will once again believe in them enough to debate their existence. Except, now, we’ve fucked that up. You with your question, me with my answer, we’ve turned these creatures if not into cryptids then certainly not into niltids any longer. Is there some yet to be named shadow-state between cryptid and niltid? 

Well, whatever they are, these critters (can I even call them that?) have got people thinking about them, which means they’ve become a little more real, even if they’re not really real. They remind me a little of anti-Trump Republicans. I think they might be out there because I hear much talk of them. But I can’t be certain until I see whether they vote to save us from what some might call…a demon messiah…

3. The demon messiah crept from his tomb, his eye glowing a bright green and his single fang beginning to smoke. Honest Walt Dingo, interplanetary trader, had only one shot with his trusty LaserKite. Yet instead of ending the demon messiah’s newfound reign of terror, Honest Walt Dingo chose instead to destroy the world’s supply of monster trucks. Just before the demon ate him, Walt Dingo called his shot “perfect.” What did he mean?

Aside from imagining Trump as a political demon messiah which seems appropriate for many reasons…the term makes me think of Ziggy Stardust’s “leper messiah,” which I have for fun occasionally pronounced “leopard messiah.” And let’s be honest: wouldn’t you really rather have a leopard messiah than just about any other sort of messiah? I know I would. 

Anyway, back to Honest Walt and his perfect shot: I don’t know if perfect is accurate in terms of assessing the success of his shot—and, to be clear, anyone who assesses their own anything as “perfect” has a suspect opinion—but let’s say Walt’s shot was “really, incredibly great.” And destroying all the world’s monster trucks in one shot would be quite impressive. But, what else must Walt have achieved with that shot to think it perfect? More to the point, what else might Walt have achieved had he focused his energies in a more productive direction? 

To answer the former, I suppose Walt may have been dying of a terrible disease which means that this whole scenario, in which he was able to skirt his last twelve agonizing months and, in turn, destroy all the world’s monster trucks (hideous creations not un-akin to an automotive cryptid) then was killed by, of all things, something as cool as a messiah, let alone a demon messiah, may have been just what he was after. To answer the latter: Walt could have cured cancer or, more apropos, his own hideous disease, whatever it was. He could have been President of Westeros or even America. He could have created a whole new cryptid named Honest Walt Dingo, which would have been a nice trick, right? 

(Contributor’s Note 4: A dingo is a type of wild dog indigenous to Australia, land of more than a few cryptids. See giant saber-toothed kangaroo, etc. (Of which you can see a facsimile at the Natural History Museum in Hobarton, Tasmania!))

4. Would you rather pilot a giant robot or have the power to psychically control a kaiju from miles away? What if there were too many voles in the city?

No. But what I would like to discuss is society’s general opinion of rodents. By the slant of your second question, I infer you to infer voles to be not good, as in bad. This is a common perception, so don’t feel bad about thinking ill of them. 

For my part, and maybe it has to do with the fact that I had a hamster and a gerbil as childhood pets, but I’ve always found rodents pretty cute. Yes, even rats. True, I don’t live in New York City where I’m told rats grow as high as an elephant’s eye, where rats, I’m also told, will slink off with an unattended pizza slice, toy poodle, or small child. That said, I had an ex-wife once—

actually, I still do as far as I know—who hated squirrels, going so far as to call them “yard rats.” 

While I found the phrasing pithy, and still do, I never agreed with the characterization. Accepting my general pro-rodent stance, I’ve always seen squirrels as far above rats in the rodential hierarchy. Is this why my wife became ex-, this affinity I seem to have for rodents in general and yard rats in particular? Who can say? What I can say is that I resent your implication as to there ever been “too many voles” in any city.

5. “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” as the saying goes. But why would someone want to live in a glass house to begin with? 

Only in post-postmodern America is this question trenchant, for a land must indeed be rich and careless for its citizens to contemplate living in houses made of glass. I imagine it would be nice to be able to look out into the world from any point in one’s own house. The light in a glass house must be pretty phenomenal. Of course, unless we’re talking about some specially treated sort of glass, which we could be, people can see in, too. Which would, I suppose appeal to an exhibitionist.

(Contributor’s Note 5: Is there a point at which a glass house would become problematic in and of itself? Are you, definitionally, enticing people to look in and see…whatever? And what if they see something they don’t like? Which seems quite possible. You were in your house doing whatever, which whatever was presumably legal, so…is it on you or on them that they looked?)

(Contributor’s Note 6: Once upon a time, an old-timey musician named Billy Joel put out an album called Glass Houses. Perhaps the true solution to this important question lies within?)

6. Who taught you to juggle?

I cannot juggle, Toby, but it’s something I’d like to be able to do. Other things I can’t do but would like to: ride a unicycle, hula dance (though I can hula hoop), and walk on stilts. 

Kurt Baumeister is an American novelist, essayist, critic, and poet. His debut novel, a satirical thriller entitled Pax Americana (Stalking Horse Press, 2017) was selected as a Best Book of 2017 by [PANK] Magazine. Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, Rain Taxi, The Brooklyn Rail, The Nervous Breakdown, and others.

Vol. 1 Brooklyn: Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown Reviewed by Kurt Baumeister

REINVENTING POSTMODERNISM: A REVIEW OF CHARLES YU’S “INTERIOR CHINATOWN”

JULY 28, 2020
by KURT BAUMEISTER

Charles Yu book cover

Once upon a time, when postmodernism was young—before it became what-the-hell-is-postmodernism-really(?) and post-postmodernism—unique literary conceits were enough to draw oohs and ahs from critics. Think of John Barth with the nested narrative loops and literary equations of Lost in the Funhouse; Nabokov with the fiction inside poetry inside criticism of Pale Fire; or Coover with his cinematic A Night at the Movies. Great as those works were in their time, the audacious formal tricks that defined them have, to a great extent, already been tried. The novel as screenplay…or treatment…or cinema, for example, has been done and done and done. So much that when I came to Charles Yu’s latest, Interior Chinatown, I wondered whether there could possibly be enough of a point to what seems primarily a formal experiment. Could Yu, a writer I confess to liking, even admiring, possibly do enough to justify publishing a novel like this in 2020? Then I read it. And, in this instance, at least, reading is believing.

Driven as Interior Chinatown is by the form and fragmentation of a screenplay, never mind its satirical focus, you wouldn’t expect it to pack the emotional heft it does. Maybe that has to do with the number of less-is-more choices Yu makes here, the way he pares down to the essential not only in terms of prose but in story and characterization. True, Interior Chinatown may be about big issues like family, culture, and society but this is fundamentally the story of one man. That man is Willis Wu, aspiring Kung Fu Guy (KFG). 

Having progressed through a litany of pre-determined Asian-American roles, including, of course, Generic Asian Man 1, 2, and 3, Willis is trapped in the diabolical TV industry that is Interior Chinatown’s America, a place where all that’s left for him is potential ascension to KFG, the pinnacle of Asian-American achievement. This arc of confined ambition and outwardly determined goals is one we see acted out by the rest of the book’s predominately Asian cast from Willis’ father (Old Asian Man) to his mother (Old Asian Woman) and love interest, Beautiful Asian Woman. But it’s in Willis’ “big break,” his guest role on Yu’s invented American cop show, Black and White: Impossible Crimes Unit (ICU) that the story achieves its greatest effect, more than earning its formal gymnastics. 

The satire is brilliantly sharp, here, the canvas an SVU sendup that perfectly encapsulates the struggles of people of color in America. Smart, funny, and an effortless read, this is a book that never comes across as a racial screed against any one group. Rather, Interior Chinatown is about America, where minorities often struggle to cling to memories of a distant homeland while embracing a new land that often seems, like the old one, to be honest, as though it doesn’t want them around.

***

Interior Chinatown
by Charles Yu
Pantheon; 288 p.

TNB Book Review: Teddy Wayne’s Apartment Reviewed by Kurt Baumeister

TNB Book Review: Teddy Wayne’s Apartment , reviewed by Kurt Baumeister

By Kurt Baumeister

July 09, 2020

Fiction Reviews

On its surface, Teddy Wayne’s latest might seem like an obvious rebuttal to today’s literary culture. Set a quarter-century ago, Apartment is a book about young, white men narrated, not surprisingly, by a young, white man. A brief, breezy read, chock full of winning twists of prose, Apartment is a semi-satirical take on class, masculinity, and the Academy; Columbia’s MFA program, to be precise, where dubiously constructive workshops teem with “types” recognizable to anyone who’s been within screaming distance of an MFA.

There’s the mid-list novelist/teacher who hasn’t published anything in years but somehow manages to present himself as a sort of Hemingway; the talented, effortlessly handsome “working class” writer; and the Atlantic-published “hack” who may not be a hack at all. Then, there’s our nameless narrator whose psychiatric problems (He’s a writer, isn’t he?) may present superficially in relation to his work but, like any good Teddy Wayne protagonist, run much deeper.

Unlike David Federman, the murderous misanthrope at the dark heart of LonerApartment’s protagonist seems harmless enough at first. Continually back-footed by the world, he’s a lovable quasi-loser who sweats too much, gets tongue-tied easily, and lacks the sort of literary self-confidence Mr. Effortlessly Handsome (aka Billy) seems to have in abundance. Like the reader, in fact, our “hero” has no idea just how bad he is until he’s presented with a crisis in the friendship—a threesome that goes from foursome to nonesome in a matter of seconds, leaving the once chummy roomies at odds.

Over the intervening weeks, Billy’s behavior goes from chilly to Siberian, eventually presenting our narrator with the justification and opportunity for a modest amount of payback. In taking revenge, though, our hero reveals a malevolence at least kindred to Loner’s Federman as his desire for vengeance snowballs into a potentially life-destroying crime of passion.

Simmering at the center of Apartment are issues of class and wealth, yes; but at a deeper level, this novel is about sexuality. The homoerotic subtext of this book is handled sparely and with grace by Wayne, who leaves our unnamed protagonist alone at the age of fifty. His literary dreams forgotten; he looks back on the relationship with Billy with an honesty he has somehow still not managed to turn to his own sexuality. This ending with its strains of sadness, anomie, and the lingering possibility of a world held together by a sort of happy nihilism is possibly the finest part of what is overall a well-crafted novel.

Overall, I can’t call Apartment anything but a success. It deftly captures the highs and lows, the heady dreams and soul-numbing disappointments, of the young writer. No, this isn’t the sort of book you read and say to yourself, “Gosh, I can’t wait to write.” But, in the intervening minutes or hours or weeks, as you pick yourself up off the metaphorical floor, you will appreciate the humor, literary polish, and psychological depth of a book that only seems obvious.

TAGS: apartmentTeddy Wayne

KURT BAUMEISTER reviews books for The Nervous Breakdown. His writing has appeared in Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, Entropy, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Rain Taxi, The Rumpus, The Weeklings, The Good Men Project, and others. His debut novel PAX AMERICANA was published in 2017 by Stalking Horse Press. Find him at http://www.kurtbaumeister.com.

The Brooklyn Rail: And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks

The Once and Future Queen: Amber Sparks’s Weird Realism

By Kurt Baumeister

Amber Sparks
And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges
(Liveright, 2020)

Tension isn’t necessarily fun, but it’s not always bad either. Under the right circumstances, tension can become pressure and pressure can produce the magic of physical transformation. It can turn coal, a grimy, black rock—unloved but by the odd mustache-twirling, workman’s comp-bilking billionaire—into diamonds which, as any Discount Diamond Warehouse commercial will tell you, some people will do just about anything to get their mitts on. They’ll kiss and hug you for diamonds. They’ll love and forgive you for them. They’ll even kill and steal for those sparkly nuggets. (Granted, killing and stealing aren’t generally mentioned in the ads, but anyone who understands the history of blood diamonds knows the truth.) Good writing, also a product of many different forms and levels of tension, can make us feel many of these same powerful impulses. But writing does more than simply feed off tension: At its best, writing acts like a tension reactor, producing it in turn, producing more tension than ever went into its creation.

Mechanical considerations like dramatic and dialogue tension aside, there’s the issue of critical tension, the fact that for every sweeping denunciation of this piece or that writer, this school or that style, there’s a countervailing, and equally, if not more, emphatic, “No, ma’am, I do not agree.” These days, in our cybernetic postpostpost-whatever world, many of these opinions and their related dust-ups get spun out on Literary Twitter. A case in point: Recently, a self-described millennial decried as “old weirdos” Gen X fiction writers who keep wanting to make things really goddamned strange. (I knew we were weird; but, shit, when did we get old, too?) Since the Tweet has been deleted, I won’t recount the extensive back and forth that ensued (in which I was not directly involved, thanks), but, obviously, the tension between the literarily realistic and not-so is alive and well today. Fortunately for me, I had a book to review by a writer who age-wise rests on the cusp between Gen X and millennial, who simultaneously—and this is the important part—manages to produce work that marries the weird with the realistic, work that produces the best sort of tension.

Amber Sparks’s third story collection And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges is, as the title suggests, teeming with tales of retribution, though reducing the book or even its concept to that of a glorified burn book would be way off the mark. Desire, anger, murder, madness, robots, gods, monsters, apocalypses, love, hate, violence, magic, fairy godmothers, women as heroes, and men behaving badly (badly-behaved men who often pay with their lives, or hearts, or souls for said bad behavior): all these things live within this book’s pages. As with Sparks’s first two collections, May We Shed These Human Bodies (2012) and The Unfinished World (2016), it’s not difficult to find things to like here. From her ability to spin an enchanting web of story to her gifts with language (alternately slangy in its idiom and jaw-dropping in its eloquence) and resolutions (bizarre and idiosyncratic yet somehow also universal) this is the perfect collection to dip into for 15 minutes here or a half hour there. You’re going to want to—and, honestly, probably have to—read all these stories more than once to get everything out of them, so there’s no need dashing through. Not that you couldn’t. Taken individually, the pieces are certainly good enough to make you read straight through; more still, to leave you wondering along the way just how Sparks does it.

How can she blend her fantastic, off-the-wall conceits with flawless execution and real world flourishes, seamlessly craft a modern faerie tale (“We Destroy the Moon”) about the end of the world and the death of a god into a triumphant revenge parable about a woman finally free of her self-centered husband?

It is always this way, at the end of things, you said. The people will need a god.
Are you fucking kidding me, I said.
Same thing, you said, and kissed my forehead, chastely, like the saint you were becoming. I despised you when you got this way; I wanted to ask Herod for your head.
Your son, I started, then stopped because I did not wish to know. There are boxes better locked. And I shivered and wished you gone, even then. Already it was growing too hard to love a statue.

In its combination of the epic and everyday, its effortless interspersing of references from Biblical and Greek mythology, “We Destroy the Moon” is an exceptional achievement, a piece of climate fiction (it’s that, too), that in its scope, tone, and depth had me thinking of Matt Bell’s brilliant novella Cataclysm Baby (2012). But there’s much more than a good story or two here, a fact that sets And I Do Not Forgive You apart from so many collections.

Really, in looking back on the collection, it’s possible I could highlight every story, but these were the ones that were most memorable for me: “A Place for Hiding Precious Things” in which a daughter is forced by her fairy godmother to wear a donkey carcas to escape her incestuous father; “A Short and Slightly Speculative History of Lavoisier’s Wife” in which a woman struggles to gain recognition for her achievments; “In Which Athena Designs a Video Game with the Express Purpose of Trolling Her Father” features, yes, that Athena and a cheeseburger-mowing Zeus clueless to his own trolling; “The Eyes of Saint Lucy” in which a woman impassively recounts the tale of her mother poisoning her father; and “When the Husband Grew Wings” in which a woman grows her own wings in response to her husband’s stilted transformation. Overall, And I Do Not Forgive You is nothing short of a raging success, a volume that points to a potentially incandescent literary future.

According to Kundera, the point of literature is not to do away with tension by answering questions definitively; it’s to suggest more questions, something that, no doubt, Sparks’s latest does. Ultimately, the various tensions at play in And I Do Not Forgive You are of the best sort, driving the writing brilliantly. Amber Sparks may be on her way to doing something rare—that is creating a style that requires the development of an expanded critical vocabulary to explain it. No outcome is assured this early in her career, but if Sparks keeps progressing at this rate critics may someday talk about “weird realism” or something like it, and do it in a way that acknowledges Sparks as its queen.