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.

The Brooklyn Rail: Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten

Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha

Doten combines a genius for fictive architecture with dazzling prose

By Kurt Baumeister

MARK DOTEN

Trump Sky Alpha
Graywolf, 2019

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.

TNB Book Review: Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Songs, reviewd by Kurt Baumeister

TNB Book Review: Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Songs, reviewd by Kurt Baumeister

By Kurt Baumeister

November 13, 2018

Fiction Reviews

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 itthan Donald Trump, or as Gabino Iglesias refers to him in his dynamic new novelCoyote 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.

PAX AMERICANA Review/Author Interview at RAIN TAXI

Published initially by Rain Taxi

ROCK STARS, SECRET AGENTS,
AND AMERICAN MYTHS:
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN
CONSTANCE SQUIRES
AND KURT BAUMEISTER

Pax Americana
Kurt Baumeister

Stalking Horse Press ($19.99)

Live from Medicine Park
Constance Squires

Univ. of Oklahoma Press ($19.95)

Live from Medicine Park is a pure distillation of the dream that is America, one with little time to waste on the clichéd façade of hard work and success we so often associate with that dream. A tale of anonymity, fame, redemption, and remembrance that rises like myth from the sweltering heartland itself this is, nonetheless, a deeply realistic story of postmodern America, of disappeared rock goddesses, space-suited guitar wizards, Toyota dealerships, documentary filmmakers, and last gasps at fame. Filled with characters struggling more than they know, Live from Medicine Park is an unflinching portrait of America’s realities, Constance Squires just the sort of clear-eyed stylist to steer her characters and America towards the truth about themselves.
—Kurt Baumeister

Constance Squires is the award-winning author of Live from Medicine ParkAlong the Watchtower: A Novel and the forthcoming story collection, Hit Your Brights. Her numerous short stories have appeared in GuernicaShenandoahAtlantic Monthly, and other magazines. She teaches creative writing at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Brilliantly plotted and linguistically nimble, Kurt Baumeister’s Pax America is a high-flying book as arch as it is deft. The spy thriller plot, particularly as we know it from James Bond films, serves as a surprisingly flexible skeleton for Baumeister to tell a dystopic tale of a not-too-distant American future after thirty plus years of right wing control. Part satire, part homage to the form, Pax Americanaalso resonates with other parodies like Archer and the Austin Powers movies—there’s an unabashed glee in playing with the loopier elements of the genre—hidden islands rigged out with nuclear devices, sharks, henchmen, allegorical names, and a suitably oh-no-whoever-controls-it-controls-the-world Maguffin in the form of a technology, called Symmetra, with vast, cryptic spiritual power. Beneath all the fun, there’s a serious critique of tendencies in our culture that are scary, but in a way that makes considering them go down as easily as a Righteous Burger. James Bond for the #MeToo moment.
—Constance Squires

Kurt Baumeister has written for SalonElectric LiteratureThe Rumpus, and others. His debut novel, Pax Americana, was published in 2017. He is currently at work on a novel, The Book of Loki, and a hybrid collection of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry entitled Superman, the Seven Gods of Death, and the Need for Clean, Romantic Poetry.


Kurt Baumeister: Connie, I’ve been eager to talk to you about Live from Medicine Park. First off, let’s cover the fact that this is a Rock n’ Roll Novel. More specifically, this is a book with a certain kinship to Great Jones Street, one of our mutual hero Don DeLillo’s earliest books. The books seem like mirror images in a way; in Great Jones Street, rock star Bucky Wunderlick is trying to escape fame. In yours, you’ve also got a rock star at the center of things, Lena Wells, but Lena’s trying to regain the fame she lost decades earlier. Do you think this is a fair comparison?

Constance Squires: I love Great Jones Street and definitely wanted to tip my hat to it in the media kit section of Live from Medicine Park. There’s always a question of how to represent the music on the page in a book that deals with music, and of course you always want whatever you do to deepen character, so I wrote a media kit inspired by Great Jones Street that contained Lena’s lyrics and some reviews. I wanted the lyrics to show sides of her that she wouldn’t show Ray in person. I don’t go so far as to think of my story as a reversal of Great Jones Street, though, mainly because Lena’s not the main character and her ideas about her career and music aren’t what drive the story. Lena is sort of a Gatsby figure, someone who the main character, Ray, thinks a lot about, but she probably changes less than anyone of the other key characters. She’s at the heart of the book, but she’s not the engine.

KGB: The idea of Lena as a Gatsby figure is an interesting one. DeLillo and Fitzgerald share an iciness in tone, a detachment critics have commented on. I don’t notice that with your work. In fact, the balance you show in developing and presenting emotional conflict is striking. Live from Medicine Park is no tear-jerker, but you take quite a few characters here and give them meaningful inner lives, even the minor ones. Is there a sort of North Star you look to as you develop characters, something that helps you succeed in developing their interiority?

CS: Thank you! I know what you mean about DeLillo’s iciness, and I’m glad to have a warmer book. I think we’re all trying to write the kind of book we’d like to read, and everybody has a different set point for what they want in an emotional conflict. I’m bored and sickened by sheer melodrama, but stuff that’s too ironic and glib feels almost like cowardice to me, like a writer not wanting to go there. I think in life I try to notice this tendency in myself when it comes up and then to make myself think about or feel or act on whatever it is that’s uncomfortable, so maybe I just extend that expectation to my characters. I do know that my favorite kind of characters are very flawed—I always feel grateful to writers that give me a flawed character I can relate to at the same time I get to watch her figure things out. It’s no different than life; a person that will say, “Hey, you know what, I was such an asshole and I’m sorry,” is a thousand times more compelling and admirable than someone who shirks and blames and avoids.

So, Kurt, to bat one back at you here: On the subject of iciness, I admire the way you manage to warm up Tuck Squires in Pax Americana so that he is so much more than just a type. I’ve read a lot of stuff in which it’s clear where the writer’s sympathies lie, and so often it means that the character representing the values the writer disagrees with is not given much humanity. Satire can be especially cold, because the conceit often trumps the characterization, but you really surprised me in how reasonable and even admirable Tuck was in certain moments. Again and again we see that he is loyal and determined; that you let those traits coexist with his less likeable ones took this book to another level for me. Tell me about writing Tuck—where did that character come from and how did you feel your way into his voice?

KGB: Tuck is a fantasy/anti-fantasy persona. Speaking superficially, he’s everything one could ever want to be—young, rich, handsome, athletic, sure of his place in the world, confident—but he’s also a complete fucking mess. To the extent Tuck is successful as a protagonist, I think the thing that makes him work is his conviction that he’s doing right even when he’s not. Like so many of the characters in this book, Tuck is, on some level, a failed Christ figure. He wants to save the day and I do think there’s nobility in that. Sure, he wants all the accolades that might go with it, but even if you’re the worst person in the world, if you want to save the world, there’s something good about you. And I think this is applicable to all the characters, including the villains. The funny thing about villains is very few people or even characters would cop to being one. With few exceptions, each of us is the hero of our own story. When people talk about heroes and villains, antiheroes and antivillains, my ears always perk up, because our perceptions of heroism or villainy, good or evil, are subjective. One woman’s hero is another’s villain.

As far as Tuck’s voice goes, I hear him as someone who’s developed a veneer of confidence, someone who conveys the conviction he’s doing right, no matter how wrong he obviously is. Because he’s so convinced of how right he is, Tuck can say and do things that are awful and funny all at once. He’s not politically correct. In this way, he’s the voice of the far, religious right in America, the part of it that seemed to be ascendant under W. Bush.

CS: I adore unreliable narrators and love Tuck for that reason, but Diana is another key voice. The alternating chapter structure, Tuck and Diana, really works; did you conceive the book that way or did you find you needed Diana for certain things?

KGB: This book was a lot longer at one point, perhaps up to 130,000 words, and there were more points of view. As I trimmed the word count, one of the obvious (though not easy) things to do was get rid of POV characters. I knew I needed Diana and Parlay; they are the drivers for the story, so I had to be able to get inside their heads directly. Tuck and Clarion drive the plot, so I had to keep them as well. I toyed with Jack Justice as a POV character and he was fun to write but ultimately superfluous. Beyond all this, if there’s one thing I absolutely needed Diana for it was her goodness, her heroism. She’s the best of these characters, the most admirable and the most intelligent. I think she understands the limits of human knowledge, the fact that we’re constantly evolving our understanding of the world.

Thinking now about heroism, and, also, failure—Diana’s, Tuck’s, Clarion’s, but also your main character, Ray’s—Ray is the protagonist in Live from Medicine Park, the hero in a way, and he’d understand that about himself, auteur that he is. He’s also a realistic character, and though ultimately successful on some level, he spends a lot of time failing.

CS: Right. Ray believes he is a cool, objective filmmaker who never gets involved or steps from behind the camera. His mantra from Star Trek about the prime objective—never interfere with the fate of a civilization you’re visiting—articulates this position. He fails utterly at this, and so the crisis of the novel involves a moment when someone he cares about on the Medicine Park set is gravely hurt because he’s practicing the same character flaws that got someone shot on his last set—he’s finally having to get real with himself about that.

KGB: Coming to terms with the truth about themselves, the realities of their lives . . . there are a lot of characters doing that in this book. What is Live from Medicine Park saying about truth?

CS: This space is also filled with the family story around Lena—her son, Gram’s search for his father, Gram and Jettie’s band, the Black Sheep, and their approaching make-or-break moment, the mystery of Lena’s relationship with Cy, and the further question of Lena’s heritage embodied in her claim to be Geronimo’s great-granddaughter. The place—the Native American history, the military-industrial history of the base, the buffaloes and the trashy bars, the prohibition-era myths of the old hotel and the rock myths walking around in silver lamé spacesuits—is important to me. It’s not a part of the world most people have their own experience with, so it felt important to show it.

KGB: Poetry and lyrics, fiction and music reviews—your book has just about everything stylistically, something few writers can pull off. Do you feel confined by form? Is the variation of form in Live from Medicine Park an attempt to move past the novel’s traditional boundaries, or are you simply doing what your material demands?

CS: I loved writing those lyrics and reviews—it was tons of fun, and there’s actually more that the editors talked me into cutting, with good reason. I felt like I had to do it. I’ve read a lot of rock novels, and it’s so important to try to find an equivalency on the page for the experience of hearing live music and watching someone in concert. You really can’t do it, but it’s important to try, because I’m not too interested in Lena as a public figure, I’m interested in her as an artist. So, I have to show her art, at least what I can. And I tried to make Lena’s lyrics and Jettie’s lyrics different—I used different models and went for different effects. I wanted them to be of equal quality but distinct stylistic variations.

As far as moving past the novel’s traditional boundaries, I don’t feel like I did that much with this novel. Aside from the lyrics, this is a very linear narrative with quite a traditional structure, really. My first novel was much more modular, not plot-driven, and the one I’m working on now is very definitely pushing against the restrictions of the form, but Live from Medicine Park felt like it needed a strong, recognizable structure. I thought of it like a song—a listener will tolerate a lot of harmonic weirdness and cryptic lyrics and what-have-you if the rhythm section keeps driving hard, pulling you forward.

Kurt, speaking of cryptic . . . I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that your initials are KGB, but I’m enough of a dork to want to try to make something of that and the fact that you’ve written in a form that reached its pinnacle during the Cold War. I guess I’m curious about your relationship to the spy thriller genre and how you chose it. Are there certain books or movies that imprinted on you? Do you want to talk about any deliberate homages, like the way my media kit is a direct homage to DeLillo?

KGB: I think my parents were trying to be funny. Maybe? Those are just my initials, though. Certainly, the Bond books (and movies) are key. You’ve very astutely homed in on my writing relationship with the genre, at least with this book. Tuck Squires sees himself as an American Bond. And his partner, Ken Clarion, I mean, he’s only fifty-something but I’ve joked about him being a geriatric Bond. To a certain extent, I think I’m also satirizing a lot of “Christian” fiction a la the Left Behind books, other spy thrillers, and to some extent perhaps something like The Da Vinci Code.

CS: Your fictional computer program Symmetra, with its genuine spiritual potential, as well as your examples of a power-mad Christianity that resonate powerfully with our own America (like “Righteous Burger,” which is so great), suggest you have something to say about the distinction between spirituality and religion. Do you, or what concerns about religion are you manifesting in these story elements?

KGB: Absolutely. I draw a distinction between spirituality and religion. I hold out a little hope for some sort of metaphysical world beyond, though I’m fairly convinced this is it. When we die, the game stops. No second chances, no bonus rounds. One never knows, though. I think what I was trying to get at with Symmetra (or maybe better to say what its inventor, Diana Scorsi, is trying to get at) is that the chances of one of the many thousands of religions being right—or really billions, if you consider that even people who accept the same dogma interpret it differently in their heads—that in the face of all that, the idea of one religion, any religion, being right, (Christianity, say, or Islam), well, it is sort of ridiculous. If any fundamentalist interpretation of one religion is correct, it voids all the others. So, it’s just sort of funny that everyone’s running around convinced they’ve got the secret sauce and everyone else is doomed. Now, what Diana’s tried to envision, which seems more likely to me, is that if religions en masse are right, it’s in their commonalities. So, she builds a database of religions and uses this as the genesis for her technology.

CS: In their commonalities—I couldn’t agree more. Onto your dialogue: it’s snappy and smart and it veers away from anything that felt expected or formulaic. You’re great with indirection and with attitude too. How do you write dialogue? Does it come easily or have you had any embarrassing experiments as you learned your craft?

KGB: What a great thing to hear. I love writing dialogue. Honestly, it’s the easiest thing for me. The conversations just sort of come to me as I sit thinking about them. I don’t use many tags when I’m drafting, just write stuff down as it drops into my mind. My editor had to convince me to put more tags in so that readers could keep track of who’s saying what.

I just try to imagine the conversation going back and forth and write it down, then go back over it again and again until it sounds true and says everything that needs to be said. Dialogue is an easy way to provide key details—I mean, it can be a trap, too, if you go too far with it—but, used correctly, it’s an easy way to accomplish just about everything from characterization to exposition, story, and plot without being too clunky about it.

Under the Influence #3, Rediscovery

written by Kurt Baumeister August 8, 2018

I’m changing the format here a bit. I’ll have some words on the month’s contributions at the end. For now, let us celebrate the contributors.

Kerry Cohen was just on the Today Show a couple weeks ago. Yeah, that Today Show. Holy Hades!

Bud Smith is a one-man literature factory. Every time I turn around, dude got another book.

Susan Nordmark is a Kansan who studied Biological Anthropology at Harvard. There’s a Wizard of Oz mash-up in there somewhere.

Buzzy Jackson is one of the most delightfully zany people you’ll find anywhere. And she’s hilarious. And she’s an atheist. So, +10 to all ability scores.

Jordan A. Rothacker puts the “I” in IQ. When not pumping out interviews, reviews, or his own creative work, Jordan relaxes (apparently) by musing on Ovid.

David Bowles gets this month’s UTI (yes, we’re aware) Badass Award for championing a major historical figure/writer I had never heard of.


Kazuo Ishiguro

by Kerry Cohen

During graduate school, I read Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro to examine how he transgressed the meta-narrative of the love story. The novel is about a butler who is devoted to the requirements of his work, namely duty and dignity, so devoted that he sublimates all unruly feelings, such as desire and love. Ishiguro masterfully buries the love story beneath the protagonist’s devotion to duty, which is conveyed through every word, every sentence, and every scene of the book. It is, put simply, a perfect book, and it taught me how to be a writer.

Kerry Cohen is the author of 11 books, most recently Lush: A Memoir. She is a practicing psychologist and is on the faculty of the Red Earth Low-Residency MFA program. www.kerry-cohen.com

 


Tove Jansson

 by Bud Smith

Tove Jansson lived partly on a tiny island off the coast of Finland. First she was an illustrator of children’s books, but when she turned 50, she switched to autobiographical novels for adults. Tove’s writing is mean-spited, unsentimental, and beautiful. Summer Book is great but Fair Play is better, it’s about the mundane life of an artist, plus she gets lost in Baltic Sea fog in a small boat and argues with her partner, drifting towards Estonia, fighting over lack of crispbread. I love when she rails against her fans, often children, who send letters she debates replying to.

Bud Smith works heavy construction in New Jersey building and demolishing chemical plants, refineries, and power houses. He is the author of a memoir about that called WORK (CCM, 2018), as well as a book of short stories called Double Bird (Maudlin House, 2018). In 2019, Tyrant Books will publish his next novel Teenager. He lives with his wife, a textile artist in an apartment at the corner of two loud streets, the opposite of Tove Jansson’s remote Finnish Island. Tove’s coordinates were 60.165579º N, 25.802778º E. Bud’s are 40.725513° N, -74.072922° W.

 


Hillary Mantel

by Susan Nordmark

Hilary Mantel’s fiction rations beauty. She’ll allow a couple sentences of loveliness, then complicate by injecting uncertainty, trepidation, ugliness. If there’s nothing edgy in-scene, she creates it. In Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell observes Anne Boleyn in a gorgeous pink and gray dress, and thinks of the intestines he’s ordered torturers to rip from the bellies of politically recalcitrant monks. This joins Cromwell’s feelings about Anne with how he may be haunted by his own realpolitik. Mantel never hyper-dramatizes or seeks solace in beautiful things. Romanticism is always false. Mantel’s images startle and cut.

Susan Nordmark‘s stories, essays and prose poetry have appeared in EntropySin Fronteras: Writers Without BordersPeacock JournalDraft: The Journal of ProcessPorter Gulch Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, California. 


Jorge Luis Borges

 by Buzzy Jackson

The first time I read Jorge Luis Borges—the story, “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941)—I knew nothing about him. I began to read the abrupt, confusing, self-contradictory story and wondered: was this a spy novel? A memoir? A joke? Yes, it was all of those.

Plus.

“At one time, Ts’ui Pen must have said; ‘I am going into seclusion to write a book,’ and at another, ‘I am retiring to construct a maze,’” Borges writes. “Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same.”

In Borges, they always are. I still can’t find the center of the maze.

But I’ll keep trying.

Buzzy Jackson is a historian, critic, and author of three books, most recently The Inspirational Atheist: Wise Words on the Wonder and Meaning of Life (Penguin Random House). In 2018 she was an Edith Wharton Writer-in-Residence at The Mount, where she worked on her current book, a historical novel set in World War II Holland. www.BuzzyJackson.com

 

 


Ovid

by Jordan A. Rothacker

Ovid looked forward by looking back. Systematic within the poetic, everything in Ovid is transformation, like his great work, Metamorphoses. An epic-making version of Hesiod plus Heraclitus; with the heart of a dissident, Ovid’s dissidence was erotic, amounting to songs of love in all its forms. He touched power and it bit back with exile. Ovid made terms with his fate and learned the language of place to compose poems forever lost to the world. Work, ever imperative, he knew his position in history. I look back to Ovid, as Shakespeare did, as we all three have looked back to the Greeks. We gaze together, points and positions connecting in varied directions.

Jordan A. Rothacker is a writer living in Athens, GA where he received an MA in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia. His work has appeared in various publications both commercial and literary. The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015), And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds, 2016), and My Shadow Book By Maawaam (Spaceboy Books, 2017) are his novels. 2019 will see a short story collection from Stalking Horse Press called Gristle. Rothacker promises it’ll be weird.

 


Nezahualcoyotl

by David Bowles

In college, awakening to the erasure of my Mexican heritage, I tumbled down a rabbit hole of research and discovered Nezahualcoyotl, king of the city-state of Texcoco from 1430 to 1472. A founder of the Aztec Empire, Nezahualcoyotl excelled as a statesman, engineer, and philosopher. Most importantly, he was Mesoamerica’s greatest poet. After the Conquest destroyed most of Mexico’s indigenous literature, the poet-king’s mestizo grandson, Juan Bautista Pomar, preserved 36 poems of Texcoco, titling them Ballads of the Lords of New Spain. The document includes Nezahualcoyotl’s haunting verse, poignant reflections on the fleeting nature of human life and joy.

Only flowers form our shroud.
Only with hymns
does our despair
tumble like a thousand blooms.

It is said that feasts
will fade away for me.
It is said that friends
will fade away for me
when I depart
for the Land of Songs.

A Mexican-American author from South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written several titles, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry,the Pura Belpré Honor Book The Smoking Mirror, and Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths. His work has also appeared in venues such as Journal of Children’s LiteratureNightmareApexRattleStrange HorizonsAsymptoteTranslation Review, and Metamorphoses. In 2017, he was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.


Outro

Sometimes I wonder whether humanity has lost more knowledge than it will ever possess. Even as technology advances—as we fly higher, compute faster, and live longer—we seem constantly to be forgetting things that should never be forgotten.

We forget love and nature until they desert us. We forget tyranny and war until it’s too late to stop them. We forget disease, famine, and genocide in a vain maze of beauty products, video games, and YouTube. Even as we seem to move forward, trouble comes in our wake, so much that sometimes history seems nothing but an exercise in making its own end plausible.

Then I remember the raw power of language. I remember language is a gift and a proof, a ward against forgetting; that as long as language survives in some form, knowledge survives with it, knowledge that may someday, if we’re fortunate, be recalled. And in knowledge there is hope.

Yes, sometimes knowledge is a straightforward mapping of the physical world: the facts, figures, names, and dates that are the province of scientists and historians. But sometimes knowledge is more. Sometimes knowledge is a dream, the sense of eternal spring conjured by the idea of a Land of Songs. Sometimes knowledge is the poetry of a master centuries gone.

Under the Influence #2, Son of Kid of Baby

UNDER THE INFLUENCE #2, SON OF KID OF BABY

written by Kurt Baumeister July 10, 2018 (ran initially at Entropy Magazine)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;”

– Juliet, Act II, Scene II of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

 

In school, we’re taught we can give things names and in doing so cast a sort of spell, that we can create a shared understanding of what it is we’re talking about. But that teaching isn’t necessarily borne out by reality. Names, as Juliet might have mused four centuries ago, aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.

Take Literary Modernism (essentially New-ism), a catchy vaguery that was (and is) the literary world’s response to the sweeping technological changes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most notably the assembly-line approach to mass-killing World War I had made possible. Woolf and Joyce, Faulkner and Kafka—these disparate writers were all modernists, “new” writers who, maybe mimicking the destruction all around them, attempted to confront technology’s impact on humanity by blowing the literary world apart. Modernists made literature so varied (and often weird compared to what had gone before) no one could succinctly categorize what was being done. We weren’t dealing with realism, for example: People were waking up as cockroaches. But we weren’t dealing with realism’s glitzy twin romanticism either: People were waking up as cockroaches. What we were dealing with was a world in which people could wake up as cockroaches and you could still get a decent story out of it.

Modernism wasn’t the end of weird, though. Nor, in fact, was it the end of technology’s dizzying advance. To television and splitting the atom, critics responded with yet another new term, one we’re quite familiar with today: Postmodernism. Maybe their thinking was that with a little more time, and another buzzword (After-New-ism?) to distract people, they’d finally be able to figure things out? But they didn’t. Or, rather, haven’t.

They (and we) stumbled through the next three-quarters of a century (flight and spaceflight, the Internet, AI, robotics, and genetics) mumbling “blah blah Thomas Pynchon blah postmodern blah” and “Blah blah postmodernist David Foster Wallace blah blah blah”, until we wound up on the cusp of something else without being clear not just what that was, but on what had come before it or even before that. If Modernism was a baby who never got a name besides Baby, Postmodernism was its kid, Kid. All of which leaves us where and with what? Postpostmodernism, I guess, Son of Kid of Baby, or something like that…

Now for the good stuff. This month’s group of influences kicks off with literary magician Amber Sparks and her admiration for the Baroness von Blixen, Isak Dinesen. Much as I hate to admit it, I think we may owe Twitter a debt of gratitude for Amber’s contribution. But I’ll leave it at that. Enjoy…


Isak Dinesen

by Amber Sparks

I prefer the title ‘storyteller’ to ‘writer,’ so self-professed storyteller Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) is my literary heroine. In her books, she transforms the traditional fairy tale into something much wilder, stranger, and more savage. I love that she turns that hoary old advice on its head and she tells, rather than shows, and thank god for an old-fashioned bard. As the Paris Review says, “Outside the canon of modern literature like an oriole outside a cage of moulting linnets, Isak Dinesen offers to her readers the unending satisfaction of the tale told.”  Her collection Seven Gothic Tales was the first I ever read, in print, that felt like someone was spinning me stories on a dark and shadowy night.

Amber Sparks is the author of two short story collections and a novella. Her work mostly lives atambernoellesparks.com, and she mostly lives @ambernoelle on Twitter, much to her chagrin.

 


Lydia Davis

 by Laurie Stone

One day the man I live with read me “The Bone,” a story by Lydia Davis. The narrator, now divorced, remembers a fish bone caught in her husband’s throat. Attempts to dislodge it fail. A doctor extracts it with a tiny hook. The doctor is Jewish and the husband, also a Jew, speak in French about being Jews. I said, “What’s it about?” The man said, “Irritation is at the center of everyone’s life, irritation that can neither be coughed up or swallowed. The narrator recalls connection in a time of loneliness.” I said, “I would never have understood that in a million years.” Thus began my romance with the mysterious, layered moments and gloomy hopefulness of the Davis short story.

Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. Her stories have appeared in Tin House,Evergreen ReviewFenceOpen CityThe CollagistThreepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction, among other publications. She is at work on The Love of Strangers, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is:lauriestonewriter.com.

 


Kathy Acker

by James Reich

—Empire—of—the—Senseless—Artaud—Rimbaud—Apropos—Foucault—YoHoHo—Homosexuals—Hemophiliacs—Haitians—Heroin—4H—Tattoo—Voodoo—Hoodlum—Cyborg—Appropriate—Inappropriate—Disappopriate—Amputate—Fornicate—AIDS—CDC—CIA—Discipline—Anarchy—Colony—Imperial—Empirical—Empire —Orphan—Dickensian—Algerian—Reagan—Urchin—Cancer—Neuromancer—Exotic—Dancer—Necromancer—Pirate—Muscle—Barnacle—Manacle—Motorcycle—Radical—Tears—Punishing—Nourishing—Eidetic—Emetic—Schreber—Freud—Mother—Father—Multinational—Flesh—Rose—Cunt—Blood—Phenomenology—Sade—Samedi—Theory—Rejects—Revolution—Robot— Effigies—Elegies—Class—Corpus—Rope—Rats—Dead—Fish—Fuck—Form—Intention—Language—Transnationalism—Rape—Travesty—Tricky—Transvestite—Code—Body—Failure—Drastic—Classicism—Sculpt—Scalp—Scalpel—Mastectomy—Masts—Masks—Modernist—Pain—Postmodernist—Pimps—Love—Persian—Poems—

James Reich is the author of five novels including the forthcoming The Song My Enemies SingSoft Invasions(2017), and Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness (2016) from Anti-Oedipus Press. He is the publishing editor of Stalking Horse Press and has a Kathy Acker tattoo.

 


Elizabeth McCracken

by Shannon Leone Fowler

Another writer recommended Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination when I was writing my own memoir. It begins with a suggestion that she “should write a book about the lighter side of losing a child. (This is not that book.)” What follows taught me that books can be deeply sad and profoundly beautiful at the same time. Her words are unflinching and unapologetic. Writing about the death of my own fiancé, I was surprised by the universality of grief. And the ending of McCracken’s memoir perfectly encapsulates life after losing someone you will always love.

Shannon Leone Fowler is a marine biologist, writer, and single mother of three young children. She’s researched Australian sea lions, taught in the Bahamas and Galápagos, studied killer whales in the San Juan Islands, and spent seasons in both the Arctic and Antarctic. Originally from California, she lives in London. Her memoir, Traveling with Ghosts, is out now in paperback.

 


Donald Barthelme

by John Domini

Donald Barthelme left us any number of nourishing lines. He can make a meal out of just two words, like “monkscloth pajamas” from Snow White. Yet for such protein, he dug deep. I mean his gift may seem all surface: the Tharp-sharp wit, the Flying Wallenda rhetoric, leaping from blunt to dandified. Yes, but his true cornucopia was the passions. All his challenges to narrative norms, baroque and Euro in “The Indian Uprising,” folksy and cartoonish in “The School,” one way or another evoke familiar quandaries. Even those monkscloth pajamas — what’s their story? Who’s doing penance, night after lonely night? One hopes the poor guy at least finds a good Barthelme story to sustain him.

John Domini’s latest book is MOVIEOLA, a collection of linked stories. In 2019 he’ll publish the novel The Color Inside a Melon.

 

 


J.G. Ballard

by Michael J. Seidlinger

I remember the copy of Crash a bandmate brought to practice—the blue cover with its iconic head-on collision, the irresistible premise of people turned on by car accidents. Of course, I was on board with Ballard: as if I’d read him before I’d even picked up one of his books. The DroughtThe Drowned WorldThe Crystal WorldCocaine NightsAtrocity ExhibitionCrash, you name it, I read it. Ballard’s books fueled my passion for exploration, the desire to question sexuality and technology. More than that, he taught me to transform an urge into a fully fleshed-out piece, an idea into an entire novel.

Michael J. Seidlinger is an Asian-American author of a number of books including Standard Loneliness Package,My Pet Serial Killer, and The Fun We’ve Had. He serves as Library and Academic Marketing Manager at Melville House, Editor-at-Large for Electric Literature, and is a member of The Accomplices. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he never sleeps and is forever searching for the next best cup of coffee. You can find him online on Facebook, Twitter (@mjseidlinger), and Instagram (@michaelseidlinger).

 

 

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PAX AMERICANA Selected to Best of 2017 List (PANK Magazine)

Best Books of 2017

The year is almost over and it’s time to revisit some of my favorite reads of the year. As with any list, this is not as extensive/inclusive/comprehensive as I’d like it to be, but having to do other things besides reading severely cuts into the amount of time I can spend inside books (if you have any leads on a gig that pays you to read whatever you want, get at me). In any case, this was a fantastic year. I made a list of best crime reads and one of best horror books, but some of the best books were in the enormous interstitial space between genres. Anyway, here are some books I hope didn’t fly under your radar:

Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano. I was ready for this to be great, and it was, but the pain and violence in its pages blew me away. This is a narrative about loss, guilt, and surviving, but the way Catalano builds his vignettes allows him to show the minutiae of everyday living and the sharp edges of every failure.

Absolutely Golden by D. Foy. Funny, satirical, smart, and packed with snappy dialogue and characters that are at once cartoonish and too real, this is a book that, much like Patricide did last year, proves that Foy is one of the best in the business and perhaps one of the most electric voices in contemporary literary fiction.

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) by Tatiana Ryckman. I met Tatiana when we read together at Malvern Books in Austin in late 2017. She read a chunk of this and it blew me away. I got the book that same night. Imagine your favorite philosopher deconstructing weird relationships while trying to simultaneously make you cringe in recognition and laugh at yourself. Well, this is what that philosopher would write. A short, powerful read that I will soon be reviewing here in its entirety, this was a blast of fresh air.

Itzá by Rios de la Luz. This short book destroys patriarchal notions of silence, abuse, and growth. Rios de la Luz wrote about a family of water brujas and in the process redefined bilingual bruja literature. This is a timely, heartfelt book that celebrates womanhood in a way that makes it necessary reading for every gender.

Pax Americana by Kurt Baumeister. With Trump in the White House, this novel is more than an entertaining look at the dangers of unchecked religion and politics. Yeah, call this one a warning that should be read by all. It’s also very entertaining and a superb addition to the impressive Stalking Horse Press catalog.

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown. I don’t want to imagine the amount of research that went into this book. However, I’m really happy that Brown did it, and that he turned everything he learned into a novel of interwoven narratives that is a celebration of a river, of people, and of language. This was so stunning that Brown immediately joined the ranks of “buy everything he publishes authors” before I’d reach the tenth chapter.

Human Trees by Matthew Revert. If Nicolas Winding Refn, Quentin Tarantino, and David Lynch collaborated on a film, the resulting piece of cinema would probably approximate the style of Revert’s prose. Weird? Yup. Smart? Very. Beautiful? Without a doubt. It seems Revert can do it all, and this is his best so far.

In The River by Jeremy Robert Johnson. The simple story of a father and son going fishing somehow morphs into a soul-shattering tale of anxiety, loss, and vengeance wrapped in a surreal narrative about the things that can keep a person between this world and the next. Johnson is a maestro of the weird and one of the best writers in bizarro, crime, and horror, but this one erases all of those genres and makes him simply one of the best.

The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan. A slice of Americana through the McClanahan lens. Devastating and hilarious. Too real to be fiction and too well written to be true. Original, raw, and honest. Every new McClanahan books offers something special, and this one might be his best yet.

In the Distance by Hernán Díaz. This is the perfect marriage of adventure and literary fiction. The sprawling narrative covers an entire lifetime of traveling and growing, and it always stays fresh and exciting. At times cruel and depressing, but always a pleasure to read. I hope we see much more Díaz in translation soon.

Beneath the Spanish by Victor Hernández Cruz. Read the introduction and you’ll be sold on the entire book. Multiculturalism is fertile ground for poetry, and Hernández Cruz is an expert at feeding that space with his biography and knowledge and then extracting touching, rich poems and short pieces that dance between poetry, flash fiction, and memoir.

Some other outstanding books I read this year:

Dumbheart / Stupidface by Cooper Wilhelm

Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools by Peter Markus

Something to Do With Self-Hate by Brian Alan Ellis

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

 

PAX AMERICANA: Coverage on National Book Critics Circle Blog by Daisy Fried

Nov. 8 NBCC/Lit Mixer, plus new bios of Vladimir Lenin, James Wright, Alexander Calder and More

by daisy fried | Nov-06-2017


NBCC and Lambda are hosting a literary mixer next Wednesday, November 8th at Folksbier in Brooklyn. Details are available here.

John Domini interviews Jenny Erpebeck for Bookforum, and praises her novel Go, Went, Gone as “a fresh career benchmark.” In Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Domini reviews Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana, which he enjoyed for its “whack-a-mole action and rabbit-hole getaways.” Of Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House, Domini wrote, in The Brooklyn Rail, “For hours on end, I wanted no other company.”

NBCC VP/Online Chair Jane Ciabattari‘s Literary Hub column this week includes new biographies of Oriana Fallaci, Vladimir Lenin and poet James Wright, a surprising look at the Ku Klux Klan, and James McBride’s new story collection. Her BBC Culture column features a new novel from NBCC fiction awardee Louise Erdrich, a two-century look at hoaxing ending with “fake news” by NBCC finalist Kevin Young, and an anthology of translated poems edited by NBCC honored poet Martha Collins and former NBCC board member Kevin Prufer:

Jenny Yacovissi ​reviewed Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Schieffer and Schwartz’s Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News, Katy Tur’s Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, John Haskell’s The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts and Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour, all for the for Washington Independent Review of Books.

Rebecca Kightlinger reviews Kim Michele Richardson’s The Sisters of Glass Ferry, in the November 2017 Historical Novels Review.

Cliff Garstang reviews Jia Pingwa’s Happy Dreams, translated by Nicky Harman, for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Frank Freeman reviews three books about Henry David Thoreau (Robert M. Thorson’s The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years, Richard Higgins’ Thoreau and the Language of Trees, and Laura Dassow Walls’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life) for America Magazine.

Julia M. Klein reviews Pete Souza’s Obama: An Intimate Portrait for the Chicago Tribune and Thomas Childers’s The Third Reich for the Pennsylvania Gazette. She also reviews Masha Gessen’s https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2017/10/26/lessons-for-american-putin-rise/GzM9xcKPHk1YyW5eOhc50M/story.html”>The Future is History for the Boston Globe.

Karl Wolff reviews John Ashbery’s final book of poetry, Commotion of the Birds, for the New York Journal of Books

Steve Kellman, former board member and Balakian recipient, ​reviews Bill Mckibben’s novel ​Radio Free Vermont for the Texas Observer.

​David Nilsen reviews David Brazil’s poetry collection Holy Ghost from City Lights Books. novels

Hamilton Cain ​reviews Jed Perl’s biography of Alexander Calder: The Conquest of Time; The Early Years, 1898−1940 for the Barnes & Noble Review.

Balakian Finalist ​Roxana Robinson writes about teaching Madame Bovary for the New Yorker.

For the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, NBCC Board Member Katharine A. Powers reviews novels by Arundhati Roy, Gabriel Tallent and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton.

Past NBCC President and current board member Tom Beer‘s​ picks ​for the Times Herald-Record are, in honor of Veterans Day, all about war this week. And here’s his What’s New column for Newsday.

NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. With reviews, please include title of book and author, as well as name of publication. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.​ We love dedicated URLs. We do not love hyperlinks.