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Under the Influence #7, Magic

UNDER THE INFLUENCE #7, MAGIC

written by Kurt Baumeister December 12, 2018

Intro

Wherein Jana Martin lauds the “Sunbelt-oddness-filled” and “hot blast evangelism” of Joy Williams, Paul Cohen tells how Saul Bellow’s words stalked him across a continent and turned him into a writer, Debra Di Blasi brings us the ambience of Guy de Maupassant, D. Harlan Wilson shares his take on William Burroughs “panic theorist,” Whitney Collins praises “sinister sister” Shirley Jackson’s magical admixture of horror and comedy, and Samuel Sattin barely survives psychic drowning in the sea of masks that is Haruki Murakami’s Nobel-winning work. Enjoy…


Haruki Murakami

by Samuel Sattin

I love books that wear masks. When I know too much about what I’m reading, when I’m swimming in an author’s intentions, I end up hacking, spitting, desperately crawling to shore. Haruki Murakami’s books wear masks, extravagant masks that in some ways may elude even the author himself. Private, industrious, notoriously esoteric, Murakami doesn’t choose to showcase meaning, as many writers are trained to. Statements are made in books like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that are political, emotional, and spiritual alike, but in the manner of intangible feelings spurred by listening to Schumann’s Bird as Prophet, they’re experienced, rather than revealed.

Samuel Sattin is a novelist and comics creator. He is the writer of the forthcoming Glint trilogy and Bezkamp(2019), LegendThe Silent EndLeague of Somebodies, and Adventure Quest. His work has appeared or been featured in The NibThe AtlanticNerdistEntertainment WeeklyNPRPaste MagazineSalonio9KotakuVulture,Bleeding CoolThe Fiction AdvocateThe RumpusThe Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Comics from California College of the Arts and has a creative writing MFA from Mills College. He is the director of a toy company in Oakland, California, and teaches at the California College of the Arts.


Shirley Jackson

by Whitney Collins

When I first discovered the works of literary maven and rumored witch, Shirley Jackson, my tell-tale heart soared. Who knew you could write suspense and humor? That you could kill off characters in one work and wax sentimental in another? In the milquetoast 1950s, Jackson did just that, simultaneously terrifying and delighting readers with horror novels like The Haunting of Hill House and frank parenting memoirs like Raising Demons. Equal parts Poe and Bombeck, Jackson inhabited both the demonic and domestic worlds while battling outer monsters (four children) and inner monsters (addiction and anxiety). The sinister sister’s biggest break (assuming false the anecdote she used black magic to fracture a Knopf editor’s leg) was her story, “The Lottery,” which detailed a bucolic town’s stoning ceremony. That tale succeeded in chilling America to its core and proving Jackson was, indeed, a sorceress—at least with the pen.

Whitney’s fiction appears in New Limestone ReviewLUMINAThe PinchGristPamplemousse, and The Gateway Review and is forthcoming in Ninth LetterMoon City Review, and Shirley Magazine (which pays homage to the aforementioned Shirley). Her story, “Daddy-o” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the PEN/Dau Prize, and her story, “The Nest,” received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train. Whitney’s nonfiction appears onSalonHuffington PostMcSweeney’s Internet TendencyThe Weeklings, and The Big Jewel, among others. She lives in Kentucky with her husband and sons and is pursuing her MFA at Spalding University.


William Burroughs

by D. Harlan Wilson

I remember reading Naked Lunch for the first time in my parent’s basement; I had never read anything even remotely like it, and it had an instant, permanent effect on me. The chapter entitled “Word” and the “kaleidoscope of vistas” it unleashes remains as fresh, compelling, and unique to me today as it did so long ago. In an article on Burroughs’ cognitive (cut-up) maps, I described him as, “a panic theorist whose hyperbolic, oneiric, ultraviolent psy-fi novels satirized the impact of twentieth-century media technologies on the human condition and prescribed the drug of pathology as a cure.” I’ll stick with that description, now and forever.

Harlan Wilson is an American novelist, short-story writer, critic, screenwriter, playwright, editor and university professor whose body of work bridges the aesthetics of literary theory with various genres of speculative fiction. He is the author of over twenty book-length works of fiction and nonfiction, and hundreds of his stories, essays and reviews have appeared in magazines, journals and anthologies across the world in multiple languages.


Guy de Maupassant

by Debra Di Blasi

My 1000-page tome of The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant is stored in a dusty room across an ocean and a continent, so I must vaguely tell you a story about de Maupassant’s stories about storytelling characters. And why I care. There’s often a fireplace. Cigars. Brandy or coffee. The light beyond the windows dims. People settle into the rhythm of the storyteller’s voice, drawn tenderly toward the storyteller’s tale. The reader leans in. The writer leans in. A moment is brought to the radical center, the point where circles intersect. It’s you, me, and story. It’s always been.

Debra Di Blasi is the author of seven books, including Prayers of An Accidental Nature (Coffee House Press) The Jirí Chronicles (University of Alabama Press/FC2), Drought & Say What You Like (New Directions/W.W. Norton), winner of the Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award, and TODAY IS THE DAY THAT WILL MATTER: An Oral History of the New America: #AlternativeFictions (Black Scat, Fall 2018). Her writing has been published in notable journals and anthologies of innovative writing, with adaptations to film, radio, theatre, and audio in the U.S. and abroad. She is a former publisher, educator and art critic. More at: www.debradiblasi.com.


Saul Bellow

by Paul Cohen

Chasing Borges’ “vast dawns,” I quit college and worked as a handyman in a Utah ski lodge, where we paid tribute to mighty snows by diving off the four-story hotel’s roof, and as a landscaper in Wyoming, where I scaled peaks rope free and slept in a grove of aspens. Back in school—an environment to which I still felt unsuited—I encountered Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. In the disastrous and rapturous pilgrimage of Bellow’s violin playing pig farmer, I recognized the relentless craving that had pursued me across a continent, and knew I needed to write.

Paul Cohen’s Pushcart-nominated debut novel, The Glamshack was named a top ten debut for fall 2017 by Barnes and Noble Reads. Cohen’s short fiction has appeared in Tin HouseFive ChaptersHypertext, and Eleven Eleven. He won the Prairie Lights Fiction Contest (judged by Ethan Canin) and was named a finalist for the 2016 Big Moose Prize for his novel-in-progress, The Sleeping Indian. His nonfiction has appeared in The MillionsThe New York Times MagazineDetailsThe Village Voice and others. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he won a teaching scholarship. For more info visit http://paulcohenfiction.com/.


Joy Williams

by Jana Martin

My first encounter with Joy Williams’ astounding work was the Sunbelt-oddness-filled “Breaking and Entering” about a young couple with a white German Shepherd who break into and live in strangers’ houses in Florida. Other stories of hers have a hot blast evangelism, with radio preachers and idlers derailed and buoyed by their own illogical faith. But my favorite William book might be Ill Nature, for its unflinching, eviscerating essays like “Hawk” constructed like a Bach fugue, soaring, devastating. Even her tourist-friendly guidebook, The Florida Keys ends with a killer line — about being on the Tortugas, standing beneath frigate birds: “They ride the currents of the air and there you are below them, far from home, almost nowhere.” It may read like a paradox, but it’s all true.

Jana Martin is the author of Russian Lover and Other StoriesSmoke Gets in Your EyesGreat Intentions, Good Inventions and recently contributed to Women Who Rock edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Feckless Cunt Anthology. She’s an editor on TheWeeklings.com and has appeared in The New York TimesVillage Voice,MarieClaireElleGlimmer TrainMississippi ReviewSpork, and PostRoad. Her essay on Etsy.com was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She’s taught journalism and creative prose at SUNY New Paltz and is working on another book. She was a founding member of the NYC punk band The Campfire Girls and a bassist and lead singer for The Rings.


Outro

There’s only one type of magic I’ll admit to believing in. And though it’s not always called magic, that’s precisely what it is. I’m speaking, of course, of literary magic, the sorcery of reading and writing.

You pick up a book and if you’re lucky the world changes, becomes the contents of that volume. Characters, settings, phrasings: Your mind becomes focused on the book’s interior world and little else. This is true of writing, as well.

Whether you’re banging away on a keyboard, dictating into your phone, or writing longhand when the work is really flowing there’s no better feeling in the world. Part of what makes that feeling so special is that it can be fleeting. Worse, when it goes, it sometimes disappears completely, for years or even decades at a time.

There are people who will tell you there’s no such thing as “writer’s block,” that the ability of the writer to write is an act of will, nothing more. Maybe they’re right. Maybe those of us that experience writer’s block or lack of desire or whatever you want to call it are just lazy. Or self-absorbed. Or bad people. Maybe it’s as simple as one or more of those. Then again, maybe it’s not.

Writers are opinionated, after all. They’re keen to tell you when they’ve found an answer for themselves, which they then tend to universalize, sharing that knowledge again and again like some fire-eyed preacher spinning personal salvation into a biblical epic of Old Testament grandeur, a truth so certain there can be no other way of seeing the world.

Writer 1: “Show don’t tell!”

Writer 2: “B-but…narration?”

Writer 1: “Write what you know!”

Writer 2: “Err…what about fantasy?”

Writer 1: “Don’t use adverbs!”

Writer 2: “Seriously, dude?”

I read an article the other day by a former teacher in an MFA program. In it, he shared the sage observation that most writing students weren’t going to make it as professional writers. They were wasting their time, simple as that.

This guy went on to talk about how few “real deal” writers there’d been in his classes, that in his long tenure as a teacher (a decade, maybe two, I forget) there hadn’t even been five; his assessment made comical by the fact that I’d never even heard of this cat. No doubt, in spite of what Baumeister thinks, this dude sees himself as a “deal” so “real,” normal mortals can hardly fathom his vast talent. Which is fine, because the truth is that one person’s “real deal” isn’t necessarily another’s.

Faulkner hated Hemingway’s writing. Hemingway hated Faulkner’s writing. They are both famous, canonical, historical literary figures. They each published many books, made a lot of money, and won Nobel Prizes in Literature. If nothing else, reading their work side by side will assure you of one thing: Neither reading nor writing are one-size-fits-all endeavors.

Some of us may get lucky. We may have a bestseller or win a big award. We may find the perfect mentor or agent or editor; the sort of resource that can, potentially, make a career. But even if we are that lucky, there’s going to be a lot of trial and error first. There are going to be a lot of people telling you to do things this way or that, plenty taking the opposite position and arguing for it just as vehemently.

My point is there are no easy answers. We must each make up our own mind. Not that it’s the only way, but the only way I know is to read the writers you like, to read them again and again, let them help you synthesize the vast amount of literary knowledge that was here before you hit the scene and will linger long after you’re gone. If you need an idea or two about who to read just stop by here sometime. Each month, we’ll have six new literary legends brought to you by six contemporary writers; every one of whom, I guarantee, is somebody’s “real deal.”

Featured

Under the Influence #6, Negative Capability

UNDER THE INFLUENCE #6, NEGATIVE CAPABILITY

written by Kurt Baumeister November 9, 2018

Intro

Wherein Thaisa Frank discusses Laurence Sterne, Samuel Johnson, and the Throne of Bolivia; Bill Lessard muses on Charles Baudelaire, pin-up; Hank Cherry lauds the realism and self-promotion of Denis Johnson; Jennifer Spiegel declares her love for Elena Ferrante; Jessie Janeshek praises Djuna Barnes’s vast stylistic range; and Seb Doubinsky lauds demigod of letters Michael Moorcock for showing him how to channel anger into literature. I will return at the end with some thoughts on negative capability in its various forms. For now, read, please…


Michael Moorcock

by Seb Doubinsky

Paris, 1983. I was twenty years old and full of rage. The West was stuck in a cold war against the Communist bloc, and Reagan and Thatcher had declared an economic civil war on their own citizens. I was desperately seeking in literature what punk gave us in music: relevance. When a friend gave me his used copy of Michael Moorcock’s The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius, it was exactly the amphetamine shock I needed to inspire me to write not about or for, but against. Against comfortable literature, comfortable politics, and the comfortable image of the writer him/herself.

Seb Doubinsky is a bilingual French writer, born in Paris in 1963. His novels are dystopias which revolve around a City States parallel universe. His new novel, Missing Signal, was released this summer through Meerkat Press.


Djuna Barnes

by Jessie Janeshek

At 19, I bought a hot pink copy of Nightwood and a used copy of The Book of Repulsive Women that, complete with Barnes’ black and white fin de siècle-esque illustrations, replicated the 1915, 15-cent original release. Years later, it’s hard to decide which book has had a more profound effect on my writing. Nightwood still fills my mind, a vast maze of language cast in neon fuchsia; yet the crisp rhythms of Repulsive Women are there, too, depicting femininities both stark and decadent. As someone always writing about odd women at odds with their worlds, I love Barnes’ succinct and tender “Suicide[s]”: “Corpse A,” “a little bruised body like/A startled moon” and “Corpse B” who “lay…like some small mug/Of beer gone flat.”

Jessie Janeshek’s second full-length book of poetry is The Shaky Phase (Stalking Horse Press, 2017). Her chapbooks are Spanish Donkey/Pear of Anguish (Grey Book Press, 2016), Rah-Rah Nostalgia (dancing girl press, 2016), Supernoir (Grey Book Press, 2017), Auto-Harlow (Shirt Pocket Press, 2018), and Hardscape (Reality Beach, forthcoming). Invisible Mink (Iris Press, 2010) is her first full-length collection. Read more at jessiejaneshek.net.


Elena Ferrante

by Jennifer Spiegel

I have Ferrante Fever. First, the intimacy. I want my writing to be crazy candid. To get inside minds.  To be revealing, ugly, beautiful, human. Ferrante does it! The Neapolitan Quartet is breathtakingly intimate. There’s something rollicking, frenetic, and true about its progression.  It’s also addictive. Second, I’m intrigued by her separation of Art from Artist, her rejection of celebrity. Frantumaglia, interviews granted through writing, explores the idea that books live apart from their writers—and that’s so alluring to me, especially on the verge of Book Promo Season. I agree, but I’m, like, I can’t! She’s my brilliant friend. (I mean, she’s not, but we could be. Call me, Elena!)

Jennifer Spiegel is the author of Love Slave (a novel) and The Freak Chronicles (stories). She is also part of Snotty Literati, a book-reviewing team, with Lara Smith. And So We Die, Having First Slept, a novel, will be published in December 2018 by Five Oaks Press. For more information, visit www.jenniferspiegel.com.


Denis Johnson

by Hank Cherry

A photojournalist friend once told me how he discovered Denis Johnson. He’d met a man on a bench in Iowa and asked for reading suggestions. The man told him to read all the Denis Johnson he could because Johnson outlined our corrupt universe with spectacular, poetic honesty. The best part of the story, though, is that the man on the bench, the man promoting Denis Johnson, was Johnson himself.

My own internal struggles led me to Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son, where even his most ravaged characters displayed absolute humanity. “Talk into my bullet hole,” he wrote in the story “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” “tell me I’m fine.”

Hank Cherry is now a fiction writer, photographer, journalist, and documentarian. He has been a cook, a bike messenger, a ranch hand, unemployed, and a bar owner. His work has been nominated for the Best of the West Journalism awards, a Pushcart, and as a notable story for the Best American Mystery Stories. His poetry has been published internationally.


Charles Baudelaire

by William Lessard

Charles Baudelaire’s picture used to be taped to the wall facing my bed. That postcard with several generations of yellowed tape at the corners was the last thing I saw at night and the first that greeted me each morning. Today, the postcard is gone, but I feel those eyes on me every night I sit down to work.

Was there ever a better summation of what is at stake for a writer than the closing lines of “At One O’clock in the Morning” from Paris Spleen – “And you, my Dear Lord, give me the grace to produce a few beautiful verses so I may prove to myself that I am not the worst of men, that I am not inferior to those whom I despise”?

William Lessard is a writer and critic based in New York. His work has appeared in McSweeney’sBrooklyn Rail,HyperallergicPrelude, and PANK. It has also been featured at MoMA PS 1. With Mary Boo Anderson, he is editing the Brooklyn edition of the Cities project for Dostoyevsky Wannabe. He is poetry and hybrids editor at Heavy Feather Review.


Laurence Sterne

by Thaisa Frank

Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy, which Dr. Johnson called “the greatest shaggy-dog story in the English language,” when he was heavily in debt and his wife was convinced she was the Queen of Bolivia. The wit and sense of absurdity it took Sterne to survive unify a book that might otherwise have become pure entropy: the title character, Tristram Shandy, isn’t born until halfway through the book; one chapter is a big black square; at another point, Sterne stops the story explaining he’s lost his voice. I was mesmerized by the wit and inventiveness of Sterne’s self-referential narrator. Much like Rabelais, who believed his patients were cured by laughter, Sterne believed the purpose of art was purely to entertain. The ecstasy of his voice freed me from the burden of delivering a message.

Thaisa Frank’s fifth book of fiction, Enchantment (Counterpoint Press, 2012) was selected for Best Books by theSan Francisco Chronicle. Her novel, Heidegger’s Glasses (Counterpoint Press 2010, 2011) was translated into 10 languages. New work appears in New Micro (Norton 2018) and Short-Form (Bloomsbury2018). She is a member of the San Francisco Writers Grotto.


Outro

The term negative capability seems like it could mean many things. Vaguely provocative, its literary use comes to us from Keats, referencing Shakespeare and dissing Coleridge in turn:

…I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…

Keats was alluding to Shakespeare’s dramatically unmatched (and prototypically novelistic) ability to pose questions without answering them. In this, in Keats’s estimation, Coleridge’s inability to stop short of perfect resolution left him wanting.

But there are many other things negative capability could mean, some of them suggested by this month’s contributions:

Negative capability: The ability to draw a positive result from that which angers us or that which we hate. (See Doubinsky and Lessard above.)

Negative capability: The ability to shamelessly promote oneself without seeming like a total a-hole. (See Cherry above.)

Negative capability: The ability to do the opposite of what one did in the first place and do it equally well. (See Janeshek above.)

Then, for me, there’s an additional meaning relating back to Seb Doubinsky’s praise of Michael Moorcock.

Negative capability: The ability to come to the same conclusion as Seb Doubinsky, that Michael Moorcock is a great writer, for entirely different reasons…

The last ruler of a dying empire, Moorcock’s character, Elric of Melnibone, is a physically weak, sickly albino. Also a dope fiend of sorts (albeit from an alternate reality/sword and sorcery context), Elric kills and/or betrays just about everyone he ever loves. He doesn’t simply kill them, though. Rather, Elric’s vampiric, black broadsword Stormbringer sucks out the souls of his victims (friends and enemies alike) and feeds them back to Elric as temporary physical prowess, which is the only way he can even temporarily kick his addictions. Not only a swordsman, Elric is a powerful sorcerer with a patron demon, the Chaos Lord, Arioch.

Most important, or perhaps most shocking from a traditional literary standpoint, Elric, even though he is and does all these rather unsavory things, even though he often does the bidding of powerful, evil beings such as Arioch, is also undoubtedly a hero. Do I mean antihero? Sure, maybe, why not, who cares?

Point being the word “hero” is in there somewhere. Point also being that terms like antihero and antivillain are fun to play with, to consider as a sort of philosophical parlor game, but they fail to get at the motivations of real people and, for that matter, even the sort of well-constructed doppelgangers we find in fiction.

Among other things, reading Moorcock taught me that at least in fiction, evil can be good. Or, perhaps better put, that evil and good aren’t real strictly speaking, that we each contain an admixture that changes in potency and tone as we live our lives. Even if we’re dispossessed, sorcerous, albino kings armed with vampiric broadswords we’re never all bad. Nor, no matter how noble we might seem from the outside or think ourselves, are we ever all good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

FEATUREDINTERVIEWSLIT.SIX RIDICULOUS QUESTIONS

SIX RIDICULOUS QUESTIONS: KURT BAUMEISTER

AUGUST 31, 2020
by TOBIAS CARROLL

Kurt Baumeister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Who taught you to juggle?

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

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

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

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

JULY 28, 2020
by KURT BAUMEISTER

Charles Yu book cover

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

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

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

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

***

Interior Chinatown
by Charles Yu
Pantheon; 288 p.

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

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

By Kurt Baumeister

July 09, 2020

Fiction Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

TAGS: apartmentTeddy Wayne

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

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

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

By Kurt Baumeister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Brooklyn Rail: No Good Very Bad Asian by Leland Cheuk

Leland Cheuk’s No Good Very Bad Asian

By Kurt Baumeister


Leland Cheuk
No Good Very Bad Asian
(C&R Press, 2019)

Any writer who attempts comedy has considered the maxim, “Being funny is never enough.” They have, likewise, considered the corollary, “Until it is.” As a writer, you can be funny enough—accepting the innate subjectivity of humor—that little to nothing else matters. You can make your reader forget holes in character, plot, and story by achieving the comic writer’s Holy Grail of making them laugh again and again.

But simply being funny isn’t enough for literary comedy (or its subcategories satire and black comedy). The balance between comic and serious is crucial in literary comedy. Stray too far in either direction and you fail, becoming simplistic on one hand, boring on the other. While a perfect balance is admittedly impossible, never mind a matter of taste, Leland Cheuk does an admirable job in his latest, No Good Very Bad Asian, achieving a true synthesis of heart and humor highlighted by the fluidity of his first-person voice and a steady diet of sharp turns of prose.

Sirius Lee, the stage name of Cheuk’s protagonist and narrator (born Hor Luk Lee) is a young Chinese-American comedian. Growing up in the near-poverty of a cramped apartment he shares with his father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother (whom he refers to alternately as The Lee Council and The Yellow Panthers), Sirius is sent to a toney, primarily white, Hollywood high school. After the all-too-familiar bullying and racial abuse, he’s befriended by one Veronica Razzmatazz, reality TV star and daughter of B-list comedian Johnny Razzmatazz.

Veronica takes Sirius home, and he soon becomes a character in the Razzmatazz reality series progressing from a job as Johnny’s assistant to one as his joke writer. Ultimately, Sirius becomes Johnny’s comedy protégé and they hit the road together, during which Sirius’s lingering infatuation with Veronica is forgotten for a time. Months later, post-divorce for Johnny, the two crash-land in an NYC loft, Sirius having become what passes as the narcissistic Johnny’s significant other—something between adoptive son, sidekick, and best friend. But only for a while. In America, we learn, relationships can be just as fleeting as acceptance and success.

The novel spans 19 years of Sirius’s life (from the ages of 14 to 33) in which time he becomes extremely successful in an objective sense. Television, movies, HBO specials, and sold-out stand-up shows: these are what Sirius comes to know. In this time, he amasses millions, growing famous and ever lonelier; the performer’s common companions of drugs, alcohol, depression, and bad behavior eventually take center stage in his life as they have, with disastrous consequences, in Johnny’s. As Sirius becomes more like Johnny, he eventually grows alienated from him, has a romance with Veronica (who finds Sirius newly attractive as he basks in the glow of fame), and generally comes to look on in a sense of inertia as his life skids from A-list success into a series of rehab visits and attempted comebacks.

Eventually, Sirius does get clean. With Johnny and Veronica seemingly in the past, he meets his wife-to-be, Tina. Something like domestic bliss follows, culminating in the birth of Sirius’s daughter Maryann, or M: the book’s epistolary addressee. This, of course, is not where the story ends. To borrow a term from magic, this is simply the turn; the prestige will see Sirius and all four generations of his family contend with the costs of success in America.

As a writer, Leland Cheuk has a varied palette of talents. Most striking is his novel comic sense and timing, abilities that routinely produce surprisingly humorous results. You can tell as you read this that Cheuk has done his research, going so far as to spend years doing standup. His imagination is strong but precise, blending figment and reality to produce his tale of the entirely fictitious Sirius Lee. Ultimately, this book is exactly what it says it is, the story of a man who sees himself (and, for various reasons, always has) as a No Good Very Bad Asian. Caught between his parents’ glorified memories of the China they fled and the life he knows in America, Sirius is at odds with himself—his Americanized name (and its implied pun) is symbolic of this conflict.

No Good Very Bad Asian is a quick read, consistently funny, and surprisingly poignant at times. Cheuk achieves the very difficult balance necessary for successful literary comedy, pointing to a bright future. His fertile imagination given still freer rein, it would be interesting to see what Cheuk might come up with. I, for one, will be looking forward to that whatever that is.

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.

Fallen Flowers

Fallen Flowers


by Kurt Baumeister

Published initially in The Oddville Press Spring 2019 issue


Your dresses of pale rose and budding sunflower,
carnation, marigold, and tulip made time slow,
made me dream there was nothing wrong with the
cheap wines, Louisiana nights, streetlights, the mists
and fogs, the closing specters of war and truth and
dawn. In the evenings, I’d find you waiting as your
flower of the day, the dress an excuse for conversation,
a way to forget the waiting world. It never took long
for the words to die, for the silk to gather, flowers
fallen at our feet. And on that last night, as I left,
as you slept, I saw the flowers as they were, truth cut,
cunning symbols, coming realization that he would
return from the war he’d chosen over you, that you
would forgive him as you always had. That the
flowers meant nothing, or were, at best, lies; the
only thing we’d shared withered on the ground.