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.
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 Loner, Apartment’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.
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.
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.
In Trump Sky Alpha, Mark Doten writes: “On 1/28, the first commercial telephone exchange is established in New Haven, Connecticut…On 1/28, a fifteen-inch snowflake falls on Fort Keogh, Montana. On 1/28 Charlemagne, King of the Franks and the Holy Roman Emperor, curses the known and unknown worlds he’s left unconquered, and his dumb ass croaks and becomes a ghost. On 1/28, Canuplin is born. On 1/28, Jon Postel will reset the system,” (emphasis mine).
Humanity has a sort of love affair with lists. Big/Small, Bad/Good, Whack/Lit: we love lists because they compress the vast and unknowable into the concise and knowable, because doing this helps us create the illusion of understanding, which is, itself, understandable.
We’re terrified at the scope of what we don’t know. And we have been ever since the first homo habilis took a look around and grunted, “What the fuck?” Whether through selective attention, lying, stories, or simple compression, we struggle to create the illusion of comprehension because it makes us feel like we’re in control.
As far as lists are concerned, some of my personal favorites have always been Granta’s compilations of Best Young Novelists. The first of these, put out in 1983, showcased their Best Young British Novelists at the time and included Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, and Julian Barnes. In 1983. Not bad, right?
Fast forward a few decades and who do we find on Granta’s latest list of Best Young American Novelists but one Mark Doten, whose second novel, Trump Sky Alpha, recently crossed my path. Now, I hadn’t read any of Doten’s fiction before this, but based on his mention in Granta, I went into Trump Sky Alpha with high expectations not only for the novel itself but its satirical dismantling of Trump, a creature whose nefarious political charisma ties right back to our love of lists.
Donald Trump is great at labeling people, at demeaning and reducing them. He dispenses withering nicknames with the sadistic aplomb and nasty nonchalance of a fraternity pledge master gone radioactive supervillain. This reductionism is one big reason why Trump’s minions love him: not only does he shrink their enemies down to subjects of mockery, but the concentrated malice they see in Trump as he does so mirrors the monster they know themselves to be deep inside. This, at least, is how Doten would have it. In Trump, Doten sees not a cause, but a symptom.
“Be that as it may, we’re in Trump’s timeline, and Trump is a symptom of the internet, of American sickness on the internet, he’s an internet creation, this avatar of white regressive blowhard resentment…”
For the ultimate cause of apocalypse in Trump Sky Alpha, we must reckon not with Donald Trump, but with the post-postmodern world created by AI and robotics, by climate change, nuclear proliferation, the surveillance state, and ultimately the Internet itself. For Doten, though, the what of his chillingly realistic fictional apocalypse pales beside the whys and hows.
“So there are big questions. The people who took it down, what did they want? Was it some specific attack that got out of hand, was it China or Russia and it got out of hand, was it just fuck-up-the-system, watch-the-world-burn lulz that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams?”
“Watch-the-world-burn lulz” is the sort of line you find yourself smiling at then chuckling at then scanning the room huntedly to make sure no one can see what it is you’re laughing at. On a certain level it encapsulates this novel perfectly. Hidden beneath the vicious satire of Trump sailing the skies in his mighty, gold-plated blimp, monologuing like a reflexively prevaricating Nero as the rest of the world burns and sputters and smokes, are Trump Sky Alpha’s real questions about what happened and why: events which are not completely outlandish to think may now be in the process of happening in our real world.
The answers to Trump Sky Alpha’s questions lead to everything from an Internet terror group called the Aviary that may or may not be based on a novel (all of which is, yes, obviously, planted within yet another novel) to an article on Internet humor after the apocalypse, to the villainous and insane master-hacker Birdcrash, a character that seems almost to take on the Platonic form of Mayhem, and lists of everything that happened on this or that date, lists in which the items that truly matter are buried within a mass of pointless information.
Having finished with Trump Sky Alpha, I come back to my initial expectations, the ones provoked by Granta’s pronouncement that “Mark Doten is one of the Best Young American Novelists” and the implied question, “Is that true?” The answer, mine at least, is “possibly.” But, as Trump Sky Alpha teaches us, simple inclusion on a list is not significant in and of itself. More central to understanding is what underpins the list: the rationale, say, for inclusion.
In Trump Sky Alpha, Doten combines a genius for fictive architecture with dazzling prose, all of it wrapped around a novel of ideas that never stops dancing from one question to the next. Satirically pyrotechnic and brilliantly formed, Trump Sky Alpha has a musical quality both on a line-to-line basis and in terms of narrative structure; a quality that, in the end, leaves the reader feeling a little like he’s listening to a sort of swan song for civilization, the world’s last symphony, if you will. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether Doten belongs on some best-of list. What I can say, without a doubt, is that Trump Sky Alpha is indeed a great literary novel, one that deserves to stand alongside the best work of writers like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.
Wherein Chuck Greaves praises the erudition of Rex Stout, David Abrams hails Agatha Christie’s ability to breed distrust in teenagers, David Huddle discusses the shining sentences of J.D. Salinger, Tim Horvath thanks Renata Adler for broadening his perspective on language, and Kurt Baumeister shares how master satirist Kurt Vonnegut taught him to be himself. Baumeister returns with a final outro, including an index readers can use to find their favorite pieces in the series.
by David Huddle
Ever since I read Nine Stories in 1961, I’ve been under the influence of J. D. Salinger. The fact that I grew up in Appalachia made Salinger’s writing all the more exotic and compelling to me. Enlisting in the army in 1964 and convincing the army to send me to the Army Intelligence School were choices informed by “For Esme with Love and Squalor.” I still think his sentences are among the most pleasurable I’ve ever read—a shining example is thirteen-year old Esme’s droll and heartbreaking question to Sergeant X: “Are you at all acquainted with squalor?” In 1961, all I knew was that I loved those stories and read them so many times I could recite whole paragraphs from memory. Even now I often hear myself whispering Esme’s polite note to Sergeant X as a mantra for my daily life: “I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.”
David Huddle is the author of Hazel, and more than twenty previous books, including fiction, essays, and poetry. His novel Nothing Can Make Me Do This won the Library of Virginia Award for Fiction, and his Black Snake at the Family Reunion won the PEN New England Award for Poetry. He teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English and the Rainier Writing Workshop. A native of Ivanhoe, Virginia, Huddle has lived in Vermont for over four decades.
by David Abrams
In 1975, I was a body in a library reaching for a book. I was twelve years old, caught at that awkward border between boy and man. I pulled the paperback out of the wedge of books and turned to the first page. I was a body in a library reading The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie. That afternoon, I met sin in all its cool adult glory: deceivers unspooling deception, adults engaged in adultery, stranglers tightening their grip on the ends of scarves. The world’s most widely-read mystery novelist taught me about masks and the true faces they hide. She taught me to distrust and to observe. She showed me that nothing is ever as it seems.
David Abrams is the author of Brave Deeds and Fobbit. Abrams’ short stories have appeared in the anthologies Montana Noir, Watchlist, Fire and Forget, and several others. Other stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, Narrative, F(r)iction, The Greensboro Review, and many other publications. Abrams earned a BA in English from the University of Oregon and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He lives in Butte, Montana with his wife. He blogs about books at The Quivering Pen: www.davidabramsbooks.blogspot.com
by C. Joseph Greaves
I first discovered Rex Stout and his thirty-odd Nero Wolfe detective novels at around the time I discovered pleasure reading, which is to say in my early teens. The books were erudite, and slyly political, and sometimes touched on hot-button social issues like Communism (The Second Confession, 1949), and civil rights (A Right to Die, 1964), and governmental intrusion (The Doorbell Rang, 1965). And while I didn’t realize it at the time, they were teaching me everything I needed to know about writing a compelling mystery: an inciting incident, a quest, obstacles to be overcome, and a big reveal. Boom.
Chuck Greaves/C. Joseph Greaves has been a finalist for most of the major awards in crime fiction including the Shamus, Macavity, Lefty, and Audie. His last novel Tom & Lucky (Bloomsbury) was a Wall Street Journal “Best Books of 2015” selection and finalist for the 2016 Harper Lee Prize.His sixth novel Church of the Graveyard Saints (Torrey House) will be in bookstores September, 2019.
by Tim Horvath
When I picked up Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark from the remainder stand outside the Strand in my early twenties, my eye alighted on, “The world is everything that is the case. And in the second place because.” I knew the first line was Wittgenstein and would soon learn the second was Nabokov, but I wouldn’t know for many years how much this book would shape my way of thinking about language, relationships, and storytelling.
I went on to write my thesis on the book’s fragmentary challenge to knowledge, at one point photocopying the whole thing so I could write marginalia without marring the deckle edge pages. It remained mysterious, elusive, which I continue to admire as much as its bold turns of phrase, its obsessively recurring refrains, and the way it treated language itself as material: plenty of warp, a little weft.
Tim Horvath (www.timhorvath.com) is the author of Understories (Bellevue Literary Press), which won the New Hampshire Literary Award, and Circulation (sunnyoutside press), with stories in Conjunctions, AGNI, and elsewhere. He teaches Creative Writing at New England College, including in the Institute of Art and Design.
by Kurt Baumeister
A reviewer recently mentioned Vonnegut’s influence in relation to my novel Pax Americana—and he’s the point of reference that seems to be most common when people are looking for one with my work—so, why not, let’s make the last influence of Under the Influence, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr..
I discovered Vonnegut late, as I was finishing my undergraduate work (in accounting…yick!) and I sailed through his major books (and a few others) in short order. He’s smooth, easy reading, of that there can be no doubt. Of the books I read, the one that stuck with me most was Cat’s Cradle, and I would say there are certainly elements of Pax Americana’s world-bending computer program Symmetra that echo Cat’s Cradle’s deadly water variant, Ice-nine.
To sum up what I learned from Vonnegut in a few words: I’d say I learned I could have fun and still be writing “serious” fiction; I learned I could let my imagination go, more or less as far as I liked as long as I could make some odd sort of sense of things eventually; and I learned I was allowed to be serious and humorous, political and ridiculous, more or less at the same time, and certainly in the same work.
This is the end of Entropy’s Under the Influence, at least for the foreseeable future. I have novels and poems to write. I have books to review, interviews both ridiculous and not-so to conduct. Oh, I may be back at some point, as there were many of my personal favorites (Margaret Atwood, Milan Kundera, Graham Swift, Julian Barnes, Lorrie Moore, Will Self, Anthony Burgess, etc., etc., etc.) we never got around to covering. But I’ve run every piece I accepted, just as I said I would at the beginning—I’ve even written a few myself—and now seems like a good time to shut things down.
Thanks to all my contributors! I’ve listed them below, along with their influences, for your ease of references:
Roll Call (by issue, in order of appearance, writer (influence))
As I said, I may be back at some point, with this column or an anthology in which I ask some of my contributors to expand their pieces into the 2000-word or so range. Who knows? But it’s been a pleasure editing/curating this column for you.
Thanks, as always, to Entropy’s Editor-in-Chief Janice Lee who has been fabulous to work with, friendly graphicsmith Ryan W. Bradley for the Under the Influence logo he was so generous as to provide, and everyone who’s been a reader. I hope you’ve found something useful in these columns, an influence or thought, that has helped enrich your writing and your world. Peace.
Wherein Robert Burke Warren praises the magical minimalism of Alice Munro; Gregory Spatz reflects on the wild life–and still wilder work–of James Agee; Matthew Specktor muses on the wacky, baffling genius of Wallace Stevens; Nina Buckless discusses what she learned from Tolkien about gaining the reader’s trust; and Kurt Baumeister returns to the topic of literary courage, this time focussing on the iconic Vladimir Nabokov…
by Nina Buckless
I was searching for the keys and tools with which to build a fictional world, a world that, no matter how alien, gains the reader’s trust, actualizes her desires. In Tolkien’s collected essays, The Monsters and the Critics, I found the perspective I was seeking.
Tolkien reminded me that the fantastic can create treasure boxes, forming a bond of trust between reader and writer, that can later be opened; that language, whether real or invented, can invite the reader into trusted foreign spaces and open new worlds that welcome the human heart, for as Tolkien says, “Fantasy is a natural human activity,” and, to go further, “Fantasy is a human right.”
Nina Buckless is a fiction writer and poet. Poetry or prose have appeared in Santa Monica Review, Tin House, Unsaid, Georgetown Review, Absent, Burrow Press Review, Midwestern Gothic, Big Muddy Review, Turkish Literature and Art, Pangolin Review and Fiction Writers Review. Her short story “Deer” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers Program and the recipient of a Zell Fellowship. Nina was granted a Civitas Fellowship and taught poetry with InsideOut Detroit in Detroit Public Schools. She received two scholarships to attend The Community of Writers Workshop in California. Nina is a veteran of Jim Krusoe’s creative writing workshop in Los Angeles, California. Currently, she is working on a novel.
by Matthew Specktor
I first read Wallace Stevens when I was an undergraduate. The titles alone (“Someone Puts a Pineapple Together;” “Palace of the Babies”) summoned me, with their daffy undercurrents and disharmonious suggestions. The poems themselves, for a moment, baffled me, until I understood their fragrant invocations and tendency to freestyle on the edge of nonsense (“Cheiftain of Iffucan of Azcan in caftan…”) to be renderings of perception, rather than of reality. He was the writer who taught me–even ahead of Henry James–that writing is a stage for consciousness, rather than a place to represent the drab actual.
Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Believer, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He is a founding editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books.
By Gregory Spatz
Poet, journalist, film-critic, novelist, script-writer James Agee died in the back of a taxi cab in 1955, age 46. I first encountered his final novel, A Death in the Family, in ninth grade. I’ve re-read it countless times since. My hunch is it took Agee his entire life to learn to restrain his notoriously “poetic” style so he could write straight into the most devastating event of his life—the death of his father when he was six years old.
Most of his life, Agee drank heavily, wasted time on work that didn’t matter to him, and sabotaged his writing in every way. He didn’t live to see ADITF published (final edits were done by a lifelong friend). But there’s a quality to ADITF that could only come from Agee’s having stored it so long, working and not working on it. It is raw, unfinished. But perfectly so—perfectly imperfect.
Gregory Spatz is the author of What Could Be Saved, Inukshuk, Fiddler’s Dream, No One but Us, Half as Happy, Wonderful Tricks. His stories have appeared The New Yorker, Glimmer Train Stories, Shenandoah, Epoch, Kenyon Review, and New England Review. Recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, Spatz teaches at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Spatz plays the fiddle in the twice Juno-nominated bluegrass band John Reischman and the Jaybirds.
by Robert Burke Warren
Alice Munro’s prose reminds me of certain humbly constructed, yet oddly incantatory folk and country songs, and quite a few Leonard Cohen songs, gems that deliver a wallop with short lines, unfussy words, rudimentary melodies. Minus the melodic aspect (although her prose is indeed musical), Munro does that, too. You step back and say, “How did she conjure that image? That feeling? That intensity? And reveal the exquisite beauty of that supposedly mundane bit of life? With just those words?” It’s inspiring to know it can be done, albeit also maddening in the best way.
Robert Burke Warren is a writer, performer, and musician. His work appears in Salon, AARP, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Texas Music, Brooklyn Parent, Woodstock Times, Paste, The Rumpus, The Bitter Southerner, Chronogram, and the Da Capo anthology The Show I‘ll Never Forget. His debut novel, Perfectly Broken, is in paperback. His songwriting appears on albums by Rosanne Cash, RuPaul, and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. In the mid 90s, he portrayed Buddy Holly in the West End musical Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story. Prior to that he traveled the world as a rock & roll bass player.
by Kurt Baumeister
The fact that a writer could be so audacious as to write Lolita’s prose in his third language–the opening paragraph of which still stands as my model for the poetic in English fiction–is chastening enough. But to follow that with the literary gymnastics of something like Pale Fire, a “centaur-work” as Updike called it, is almost incomprehensible. Taken as a piece, these books reveal a literary intellect with few modern equals and a literary fearlessness that is, in some ways, more admirable because of his success. Nabokov wrote what he wanted, whether that meant a book he knew would be banned based on subject matter (Lolita) or one far enough outside the mainstream that his literary reputation (and perhaps that of his sanity) might be damaged, the poetry and imagined literary criticism hybrid, Pale Fire.
Wherein Jamie Blaine celebrates the grit of Raymond Chandler, Jesi Bender praises the prose mastery of Carole Maso, Michael T. Fournier shares how Douglas Coupland saved him from a life of suburban drudgery, Ryan Werner breaks from a guitar solo just long enough to laud writing idol Amy Hempel, and Kurt Baumeister (That’s me!) lauds the epic literary courage of Salman Rushdie.
by Ryan Werner
Four Essential Moralities from Amy Hempel:
1) It’s better to say something deeply funny that hints at the personal instead of the other way around—unless you’re writing a diary or a review of your friend’s new haircut.
2) The sentence is where a story lives or dies. A quotable sentence is where your wit lives or dies.
3) Mystery can rise above discovery if you just happen to see God and the murmurings of your youth whenever you take a bath.
4) Take advantage of the fact that we all forgot about how the world is too big to be any one thing.
Ryan Werner is a cook at a preschool in the Midwest. He plays in lots of bands and has written some books. His website is www.RyanWernerWritesStuff.com but since it’s never updated, you can just add him on Facebook.
by Michael T. Fournier
In Generation X, Douglas Coupland’s characters live in group houses, work McJobs, and share a mood of “darkness and inevitability and fascination.” Prior to reading Coupland, I thought, in my rural teenage isolation, that my path was clearly marked: college, career, marriage. I knew nothing else. But I was already writing fiction. I hoped to find people of a similar mind. I wanted to live in a city with them, see punk bands, make sense of it all through words. The first depictions of a different lifestyle made me think that maybe I could do it, too. And I do.
Michael T. Fournier is the author of Swing State and Hidden Wheel (Three Rooms Press) and Double Nickels on the Dime (33 1/3). He’s a regular contributor to Razorcake –America’s only non-profit punk zine — and his writing has appeared in the Oxford American, Vice, Submerging, Pitchfork,The Collapsar, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and more. Fournier and Maine poet Lisa Panepinto co-edit the broadsheet journal Cabildo Quarterly. He plays drums in and writes songs for Dead Trend. He and his wife Rebecca live on Cape Cod with their cat. More at michaeltfournier.org.
by Jesi Bender
Carole Maso’s Defiance is as close to a perfect novel as ever written. While there is much to admire in her other enigmatic novels, Defiance has a mystery and melody all its own. I love its layers and how it unfolds. I love its anger. I love how even at the apex of its fantasy we are still broken and alone. Carole Maso is the master of prose that is poetry and poetry that lights minute moments with a searing immediacy and importance. At once, it is the most relatable as well as one of the most challenging works of art I have ever encountered.
Jesi Bender is an artist from Upstate New York. She runs KERNPUNKT Press, a home for experimental literature. Her first novel, The Book of the Last Word, was released in May 2019 from Whisk(e)y Tit and her shorter work can be found in Split Lip, Lunch Ticket, and Paper Darts, among others. www.jesibender.comwww.kernpunktpress.com
by Jamie Blaine
“She had the kind of body that would make a bishop poke a hole in a stained-glass window.”
That one staccato sentence struck me like brass knuckles on a bloody lip. Not anything like those other boring authors we studied in English Lit. Even misquoted, the words were so salty I had to say them out loud, to feel their cadence and grit, to spit them with menace through clenched jaw and clenched fist. I found The Big Sleep at our branch library and read it long into a stormy night. I knew what I had to do.
Jamie Blaine has worked at megachurches, rehabs, radio stations, and roller rinks. His writing has been featured in venues such as Salon, The Rumpus, Relevant, Modern Drummer, Bass Guitar, Guitar Player, The Tennessean, Washington Post, and London Scene. He is the author of Midnight Jesus and Mercy Never Sleeps and lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
by Kurt Baumeister
The 80’s were a sort of Golden Age in Postmodern Brit Lit, writers such as Ishiguro, Winterson, and Amis rising to prominence. Perhaps no writer better symbolizes this era than Salman Rushdie, a highly lauded, bestselling author who was forced into hiding by violent religious extremism, the effects of which we continue to deal with to this day not only in the Muslim world, but, it seems, more and more, in “Christian” America.
The Satanic Verses, the book that made Rushdie both a household name and a hunted man, is a magical, postmodern retelling of Islamic myth. Not only structurally but on a sentence level Rushdie plays with linear logic in The Satanic Verses, looping back and forth seemingly at will, juggling maximalist prose and humor, big ideas and political commentary as he does. The courage it took Rushdie to write this book—to speak his truth regardless of the consequences—inspires me to this day.
Wherein Constance Squires shares how Iris Murdoch taught her not to be afraid of plot, Michael Gillan Maxwell discusses how Gary Snyder’s writing turned him on to philosophy, Sean Beaudoin lauds the life and work of cultural icon Jim Carroll, and Dr. Nancy Hightower explains how Kafka taught her about “the elasticity of truth.” There’s no outro this month, or, rather, there’s a different type: I will be back at the end with my own submission on the great Martin Amis. Please read and enjoy.
by Nancy Hightower
I had always appreciated Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and The Trial, but I could not escape the nightmare world of his short story “A Country Doctor.” Kafka has an uncanny ability to collapse landscapes and rooms, but the concrete details of unearthly horses, supernatural groom, and eerie village are what shows the power of the surreal, which can infiltrate reality to the point where the reader becomes destabilized and cannot argue against the logic of the text, no matter how illogical. The boundaries we try to draw around “truth” or “reality” become frighteningly elastic in Kafka’s world, and we see just how fragile our own narratives are. In my flash fiction, I want readers to get lost in this tangle of the familiar and the strange; I want them to experience the most fantastical parts of the story as the most true.
Nancy Hightower‘s work has been published in Joyland, Entropy, Gargoyle, Sundog Lit, Sojourners, Flapperhouse, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. She is the author of Elementari Rising (2013) and The Acolyte (2015), and currently teaches at Hunter College.
by Sean Beaudoin
When I was 13 I wanted to be a power forward for the Knicks. Then I found The Basketball Diaries under my sister’s mattress and wanted to be a power forward for the Knicks who did lots of heroin. What was it like being a tough street kid from the Bronx in the late 60s? Fortunately, there’s a record so vivid it’s almost Studs Terkel. I spent years stealing from Jim Carroll, and then years trying to write sentences half as hilarious and vivid. Oh, yeah, he also sang in a great art-rock band, wrote one of the best dead-buddy homages of all time, appeared in Tuff Turf with James Spader, penned a lot of pretty crap poetry, and for a while was Mr. Patti Smith. Now that’s a life. The Catcher in the Rye gets all the bluster, but for the hip set, everyone knows Basketball Diaries is the best book about disaffected youth ever written.
Sean Beaudoin is the author of The Infects, Wise Young Fool, and the short story collection Welcome Thieves. His latest novel, This Unlovely Monster, is due imminently from Algonquin Books.
by Michael Gillan Maxwell
I’ve been under the influence of Gary Snyder since the early 70’s. I was obsessed by the Beat writers and infatuated with the colorful portrayal of him as “Japhy Ryder,” a central figure in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Snyder’s seminal collections Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems, The Back Country and Regarding Wave cast a life-long shadow along my own path as a potter, visual artist, musician, writer, educator, environmental activist, student of Eastern philosophy and as a seeker questioning our purpose and role in the universe. “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” – Gary Snyder
Michael Gillan Maxwell roams the Finger Lakes Region of New York state. Maxwell is a visual artist and a writer of short fiction, poetry, songs, reviews, essays, lists, recipes and irate letters to his legislators. A teller of tales and singer of songs, he’s prone to random outbursts and may spontaneously combust or break into song at any moment. His hybrid collection of visual art and prose, The Part Time Shaman Handbook: An Introduction For Beginners, was published by Unknown Press. Maxwell’s art and intermittent ranting and raving can be found on social media and Your Own Backyard http://michaelgillanmaxwell.com.
by Constance Squires
Iris Murdoch came into my life in a lit class in which ten 20th century novels were assigned. We only had time for nine, and for whatever reason, Under the Net was the one cut. I kept it, despite being willing to sell just about anything else for beer money. When I read it, she showed me a way out of my deepest insecurity about being a fiction writer: I didn’t think I could write plot. I’d been trained as a poet, so I was good with language, image, and psychology. But, plot? That was too much like math. Murdoch’s novels, though, are suffused with the patterns of the Greeks and Shakespeare that she recombines, modernizes, and redeploys with total freedom. I didn’t have to invent plots, I only had to know how to work with the deep structures of storytelling that have always been there. And that did it for me.
Constance Squires is the author of the novels Along the Watchtower, Live from Medicine Park, and the forthcoming short story collection, Hit Your Brights. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Guernica, The Atlantic, Shenandoah, The New York Times and others.
by Kurt Baumeister
The son of a famous novelist who became, himself, a famous novelist, Martin Amis writes black-comic fiction heady with language; multi-layered, often nihilistic symbolism; and subtle metafictional conceits. A dark moralist, Amis’s work focuses on the class system and mass culture and is filled with acid wit and unlikable, sometimes grotesque characters. For me, his magnum opus is his sixth novel, London Fields, a book which I have, coincidentally, read six times.
An apocalyptic murder mystery narrated by a dying writer, London Fields brims with unforgettable scenes and characters, erudition, comedy high- and low-, and countless turns of linguistic brilliance; perhaps the book’s most perfect line coming as it ends with the confession of a literary killer Nabokov would surely have appreciated, “So if you ever felt something behind you, when you weren’t even one, like welcome heat, like a bulb, like a sun, trying to shine right across the universe – it was me. Always me. It was me. It was me.”
written by Kurt Baumeister May 10, 2019 (Originial publication at Entropy Magazine)
Wherein triple threat (writer/editor/bookseller) Kevin Sampsell praises the humor and honesty of Steven “Jesse” Bernstein, a writer gone too soon; author Samuel Snoek-Brown confesses his love for the one and only Jane Austen; Gigi Little thanks Maurice Sendak for teaching her how to do a little wrong to achieve a whole lot of right; and poet Shaindel Beers discusses how Anne Sexton taught her to use fairy tales to get at the personal. Please read and enjoy…
by Shaindel Beers
I once spent a summer reading Anne Sexton’s complete works, and it had a profound effect on me. Every little bit of life that happened to her turned into poetry. Nothing was off-limits. Think, for instance, of “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator” and “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife” and the era she was writing in. She was incredibly brave—beyond anything most of us can imagine today. Transformations showed me that you can use fairy tales (or other widely known works) to rewrite the personal, and I’m forever grateful for this lesson.
Shaindel Beers is the author of three poetry collections, A Brief History of Time (2009) andThe Children’s War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing, and Secure Your Own Mask (White Pine, 2018). She is the Poetry Editor of Contrary Magazine. Learn more athttp://shaindelbeers.com.
by Gigi Little
My first influence as a writer was Maurice Sendak, a man most known as an illustrator for children’s picture books. He was also a master wordsmith: “Poor Ida, never knowing, hugged the changeling and she murmured, ‘How I love you.’ The ice thing only dripped and stared, and Ida mad knew goblins had been there.”That tiny passage from Outside Over There, “and Ida mad,” with no commas, was life-changing. What elegant incorrectness. Sendak taught me that twisting language creates a new voice, and voice has driven me, ever since, as both a writer and a reader.
Gigi Little‘s essays and short stories have appeared in journals and anthologies including Portland Noir, Spent, and The Pacific Northwest Reader, and she’s the editor of the collection City of Weird. She’s also a freelance book cover designer and the staff designer for Forest Avenue Press. She lives with her husband, fine artist Stephen O’Donnell, and a Chihuahua named Nicholas. In her earlier days, Gigi spent fifteen years in the circus as a lighting director and professional circus clown. She never took a pie to the face, but she’s a Rhodes Scholar in the art of losing her pants.
by Samuel Snoek-Brown
My wife may have turned me on to her early in our relationship, but I really fell for Austen in a graduate course on Gothic romance. Though we focused on Northanger Abbey, a hilarious send-up of the genre, my edition also included unfinished works like Sanditon and Lady Susan. When I saw how brutally honest Austen was about human nature in her unedited stories, I was hooked. Sanditon dares to discuss the racism of British imperialist mercantilism far more overtly than Mansfield Park, and Lady Susan is remarkably free-spirited about the sexual lives of women. But even in her more polished, editorially subdued novels, Austen’s precision and insight when describing culture, society, and relationships are astounding and still feel fresh.
Samuel Snoek-Brown is the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the Civil War novel Hagridden, and the short-fiction chapbooks Where There Is Ruinand Box Cutters. He also serves as production editor for Jersey Devil Press. He lives with his wife, a librarian and fellow Janeite, in Tacoma, Washington.
Steven “Jesse” Bernstein
by Kevin Sampsell
Steven “Jesse” Bernstein was forty years old when he decided to stab himself in the throat and die. I was obsessed with death at the time and Bernstein was my favorite writer. I loved his gravelly voice and surreal vision. Not many people remember him now but he put out a few books and a posthumous spoken word album on Sub Pop in 1992, at the height of grunge. His most notable work for me is More Noise, Please!
Bernstein’s work alternates between disturbingly sad and manically funny. I once saw him perform in Seattle. I was the first one there and he asked me if I left my urine sample at the door. Instead of a reading, he played acoustic guitar and sang some of his songs. Some people, you can just tell, are not long for this world, no matter how gifted they are. Bernstein (with his bipolar disorder and PTSD) grappled with the world and ultimately surrendered.
Kevin Sampsell lives in Portland, Oregon and is the editor of the micropress, Future Tense Books. His books include A Common Pornography and This Is Between Us. His stories have appeared recently in Joyland, Radioactive Moat, and Hobart.
The topic of personal taste has always interested me because even for one person there should be many different levels of taste. Say you’re a literature professor: You may have personal favorites but to go too far in expressing disdain for something in the canon (or, for that matter, work outside the traditional canon)—work that may not be to that personal taste—is a major error, one of the worst you can commit. As a literature professor, or a critic for that matter, you must be broad-minded enough to accept the possibility that you’re not right, or even conversant, about everything of value.
Shift to the role of writing professor, and many of the same cautions hold. If you’re not careful you can do damage to the work of students who don’t share your sensibilities. Conversely, overlook what you see as (and may well be) real problems in the work and you do your student a disservice. The good writing teacher, to me, is one who is constantly and effectively balancing these two impulses, not one who blurts out dismissals like “that’s science fiction” or “that’s romance.” But not everyone agrees. I know this from personal experience.
There are some writing professors, and, no doubt literature professors and critics, who feel they only add value by being completely honest about what they love and hate, for whatever reason, reasons that might include everything from style and topic to voice and point of view. They might see the concept of assessing work based on, “How they’d see it if they enjoyed that sort of work?” as completely artificial, a sort of opinion bred in a lab. Some might even see explaining their opinions in too much detail as artificial. They might suggest the only response that matters comes from the gut.
The short answer for the writing teacher (and I think also for the literature professor and the critic to a certain extent) is that you must give both opinions, providing as much information as possible to let the person receiving the opinion make what they will of it. An even greater danger than being a biased reader is being a reader with a bias undisclosed because the undisclosed bias can go far beyond technical matters of literary taste. The undisclosed bias can run to hidden racism, sexism, or sheer personal dislike, faults still more disqualifying than making the narrow-minded offhand comment, “that’s science fiction.”
America today is more polarized than it’s been at any point in my lifetime. Socially, politically, racially, economically, religiously…in many ways, this division is born of willful ignorance, the result of small minds glorying in hackneyed thoughts and ideas discredited decades, sometimes centuries, before. There is perhaps no one more guilty of this sort of reductive thinking—and of infecting others with it—than Donald Trump, or as Gabino Iglesias refers to him in his dynamic new novel, Coyote Songs, President Pendejo.
Constructed as a sort of literary mosaic, Coyote Songs takes place on either side of the US-Mexico border, the frontera in Spanish. Madness, magic, murder, sadness, loss, and love all dwell within the pages of Coyote Songs, forces struggling to reconcile the ugliness and beauty of life. In the opening chapter, a young boy witnesses a murder while on a fishing trip with his father. Later, witches and saints, goddesses and monsters, heroic criminals and villainous victims all play their parts in a story that owes as much to magical realism as noir.
Coyote Songs is smartly-plotted and moves at a pace that can border on frenzy at times. Which is one of its great strengths. This is a lithe volume that doesn’t concern itself with the excessive physical descriptions and cataloging of reality that often bloat contemporary literary fiction. Still, it’s this book’s more subtle, literary qualities I found most appealing. Not only is Coyote Songs elegantly written:
“The coyote knew that, because he was at the edge of adulthood, this one would have a harder time with la migra. The amount of pity you generate in others diminishes with every birthday. People, the coyote knew, are like food: the closer you get to your expiration date, the less others are drawn to you.”
But its penchants for metaphor and even allegory had my mind turning over everything from the natures of good and evil to metaphysics, economics, and the politics of race and class:
“Death. That was the only option. It was everywhere. Death took her husband. Death lived inside her. Death was coming out at night, preying on children throughout the town. The Mother had heard the rumors already. Parents finding their babies dead in their cradles, their tiny bodies devoured by some animal. Blood everywhere. Slithering trails of blood left on floors and windowsills. She felt responsible. Did she have what it took to wait for the monster, to kill it? Maybe. Would she be able to? She didn’t know. The thing was an alien, a parasite, a monster, a nightmare made flesh, but it was still her baby. It was still the last thing that her husband had given her. A baby to take care of. Maybe that’s exactly what she needed. Maybe a brother was what The Boy needed to forget their bad luck, to keep him from realizing just how poor they were.”
The frontera is the central symbol here, serving as the basis for the story’s action but also pointing to the various provocative dualities to be presented over the course of the book. Beyond those already mentioned, Coyote Songs, from early on, seemed to me to be expanding as I read it, growing into a statement on the natures of life and artifice and more than that the way art and commerce seem to be constantly at odds.
Yes, the last century of American letters saw many novels with metafictional conceits and heavy thematics centered on the nature of text, but the most powerful for me have always been those that manage not only to call attention to themselves as pieces of art but to somehow disappear within their own text. This is where more prosaic considerations such as plot, story, and dialogue are so important. For metafictional conceits to work, and not wind up a mass of ideas that become a chore to read, one must deal with the more prosaic aspects of fiction. Here, Iglesias does that brilliantly. The idea that words and thoughts have power, even a sort of magic to them, that they are transmitted into the world where they grow in force is here from early on, underscored by the way Iglesias shifts freely from English to Spanish to hybrid Spanglish, a technique that was commented on quite a bit in reviews of his earlier novel Zero Saints.
While I did not have a problem with the technique in either book, I found its execution more artful in Coyote Songs, that there was more of an effort to bridge the two languages through Spanglish and greater attention to maintaining dramatic context in-scene. Ultimately, though, it is up to the English reader whether to dwell on the Spanish aspect or not. There’s an element of authenticity the setting gains from using both languages and their Spanglish amalgam and it can be fun even for readers not fluent in Spanish to try to figure out what’s being said. It’s easy enough to skip over the Spanish passages if you lack the inclination to figure them out.
The ending of this book is shocking and violent, but understandably and even necessarily so. Here, with the heroic coyote’s fateful meeting with a reformed (?) criminal priest and its bloody aftermath, we can’t help but recall Graham Greene’s whisky priest and the socialist policeman that dogs his steps in The Power and the Glory.
The characters in this book live their lives in a twilight white America often misses and even when it does notice, fails to care much about. But by the ending of Coyote Songs, white America, both inside and outside its fictional world, will care about the people within.
In the America we live in, it’s easy to fall into an us vs. them mentality, even as a critic. It might, as I said earlier, be comforting to draw bright lines between genres or more still between genres and what’s known as serious or “literary” fiction, something Graham Greene was famous for doing with respect to his own work.
Taking Greene’s approach would cause you to conclude that Coyote Songs must be one thing or another: a literary novel, a crime thriller, or a surreal parable about the natures of good and evil, life and death, and even “us” and “them.” But doing this would be a critical failure not only to oneself but to the text and to society. Coyote Songs deserves to be taken seriously as a piece of art and an entertainment. Which, to my mind, has always been the goal every writer should strive for, not to accomplish one thing or the other but to do both, to live that duality through one’s art.
In a language both spare and poetic, within an intellectual superstructure that forces us to piece together truths we might not care to know, there beats the heart of a beast, a creature of blood and magic that stands astride the frontera’s shadowland dispensing violence and death to good and evil, just and unjust alike. But make no mistake, this is a brilliant and, at times, subtle beast, one of the growing stable that is the oeuvre of Gabino Iglesias.