In Defense of Ambiguity


In his review of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a seminal experimentalist novel by David Markson, David Foster Wallace describes Markson’s narrative technique as “deep nonsense.” That novel tells the story of a woman who lives alone in a house on a beach, believing, rightly or wrongly, that she is the last human being on Earth. She recounts, presumably as a way of maintaining her sanity, every fact she can remember about Western civilization. But we soon notice that these facts are endlessly repeated, and that every time, a detail or three is changed. Einstein has become Churchill. It is not Proust who is gay, but Joyce. We start to read these “facts” not for the truth of their words, or even their literal sense, but for their incantory quality and for the desperate loneliness they reveal. Though the narrator is unnamed, and though she tells us almost nothing about her previous life or what happened to everyone else, we grow to know her via a sort of metaphorical and emotional through-line that allows continuity of meaning even while shattering the agreed-upon bonds between common signifiers and signifieds. The title of the book is no accident: the woman herself is Wittgenstein’s mistress; she is a speaker of the “private language” that Wittgenstein rejects in his Philosophical Investigations. If language is no longer communal then it means whatever its “author” chooses it to mean. However, the very fact that we are reading and understanding her words actually supports Wittgenstein’s argument: her language is not private after all. And hence the term “deep nonsense” to explain how words that are detached from their original meaning nevertheless manage to communicate.

Deep nonsense is, of course, not nonsense at all. Its sense is simply not the traditional, or superficial, one. This is where the word “deep” comes in. But how does a writer use language to create that sense of depth? How does he avoid mere nonsense? It seems to me that this is what the best surrealist film does; it is the aim and duty of certain poetry; and it is the effect of the lyrics of some of our greatest bands – to achieve a rich and suggestive ambiguity, while avoiding opacity.

***

Music, in particular, can be a great vehicle for deep nonsense. It operates not just on our linguistic sense, but on our auditory sense. As we listen to it, we are often engaged in other activities – driving, cleaning the house, mingling at a party. The lyrics can seep into our brain without too much active analysis. When we are confronted with a poem, on the other hand, we are alone with the words and there is a kind of obligation and challenge to understand them immediately. For this reader at least, the brain often butts up against a wall of inscrutability and grows frustrated. We live in an impatient age; we don’t want to read a poem 20 times. A song on the other hand, can be played over and over without much effort; all that is required is opportunity and time. And slowly a private meaning (which is not the same as a private language) creeps in. It may not be the lyricist’s intended meaning – nor, in fact, did the lyricist necessarily have an intended meaning – but it is the meaning we have made, and there is a joy that is both intellectual and visceral at having unlocked the puzzle’s secrets. Once we have decided on a song’s meaning, it sticks with us, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. What comes to mind is an episode of the Aaron Sorkin comedy Sports Night, where sports anchor Dan Rydell, convinced of impending trouble, references the song “Hide Your Heart, Girl” by Three Dog Night. When fellow anchor Casey McCall tells him that the “Eli” in the phrase “Eli’s coming” is not an occult symbol of impending doom, but rather an “inveterate womanizer,” Dan replies that he knows, but that that’s the way he interpreted it at first and it has always stuck with him. Like the readers of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and like the narrator herself, Dan has constructed an alternate meaning behind the literal one.

***

Let’s move to a more specific example of how one listener – this listener – constructs meaning from seemingly nonsensical lyricstuff. Here, in their entirety, are the lyrics to “Soft Pyramids” by a now disbanded postpunk outfit from Washington D.C., Q and Not U. The dashes in Line 1 indicate that the words are spelled out, letter by letter.

S-o-f-t p-y-r-a-m-i-d-s e-v-a-p-o-r-a-t-e at daylight.
Internationally fashioned like d-i-sease.
Patterns, a-l-w-a-y-s yes, maybe no.
This soft is building the softest buildings.
This soft is raising the firmest ceilings.
This soft is dimming the brightest cities every night.
Midnight, midnight.
Midnight, midnight.

How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?
How can we ask for a place?
We can’t imagine that.
How can we ask for the brightest cities every night?
Midnight, midnight.
Midnight, midnight.

Select a color for your checklist.
Color for your checklist, na na na.
Kiss every comma in your checklist,
Commas in your checklist, na na na.
Ah-ha, commas in your checklist,
commas in your checklist na na na, na na na.
Please pick a color for your checklist,
Color for your checklist, na na na, na na naaaa.

How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?
How can we ask for the best?
We can’t imagine that.
The softest blackout is soft and black
outside and in.
Clue me in.

We should begin with the title, since that offers a critical legend by which I map the rest of the song. When I hear the phrase “soft pyramids,” one thing comes to mind, and it is not a Salvador Dali painting. I am thinking of the pyramid, with its embedded Eye of Providence, found on the reverse side of the US dollar bill. Money being made of paper, this pyramid is of course “soft.” We also get the connotations of “soft money” and “pyramid schemes,” two capitalist phenomena associated with corruption, greed and the illusory appearance of sturdiness. Line 1 spells out, in a kind of ironic cheer, this impermanence. This is no “Y.M.C.A.”; the singing of individual letters is not meant to celebrate, but to fragment. Without reading the lyrics, it is very difficult to determine what is being spelled. But the last two words are said in their whole: “at daylight,” in other words, under the “harsh light of day.” These soft pyramids will not bear up to real scrutiny.

This idea is further expanded in the Line 4: “this soft is building the softest buildings.” Apart from its nice punning quality, this line is essential to the meaning of the song. “This soft [i.e. – money] is building [structures of impermanence].” The next line is harder to parse, as it seems to contradict the idea of impermanence, but it’s possible that “ceilings” refers to the limits set by capitalism for certain groups. Remember that this is a private meaning I’ve created, mostly by associative accident, and that not every detail has to fit into the schema. In fact, some are flat-out ignored if they can’t immediately be made to cohere. However, this idea of the natural oppressive limits of capitalism is buoyed by the next “stanza” (I use poetic terminology because this song lacks clear verses and choruses).

This stanza asks a series of rhetorical questions, presumably from the point of view of the disenfranchised. “How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?” is another way of saying, “How can we, the disenfranchised, expect food and shelter in this corrupt system?” This idea of impossible expectations carries into the next line: “How can we ask for the best? We can’t imagine that.” The speaker’s very imaginative capabilities are stunted by a system that has taught him not to ask for too much. The last phrase echoes a phrase in the first stanza: he/they cannot ask for “the brightest cities every night,” the same brightest cities that are “dimmed” by “this soft.”

Now comes the tricky part. For a long time, I chalked the next stanza up to pleasant and nonsensical wordplay. But recently, I’ve come to see them as a critique of another societal superstructure, bureaucracy, and its fetishism of forms and irrelevant details. What could be more irrelevant than the color of a checklist? The idea brings to mind multicolored, triplicate forms. That it is a fetish, and not just a baroque accident, is emphasized in the phrase “kiss every comma in your checklist,” which stresses the punctilious nature of bureaucratic systems while vaguely sexualizing them.

***

So what do we get when we add it all together? For you, perhaps nothing. But for me, we get a critique of the corruption of the capitalist façade, the way it uses “soft pyramids” to erect “soft pyramids,” an endless feedback loop which can be seen as a metaphor for money itself. It only has value insofar as we agree that it does. Like the bureaucracy that manages it, it has a “shared value.” Sound familiar?

I do not know Christopher Richards, guitarist and vocalist for Q and Not U, personally. I have never had the opportunity to ask him what “Soft Pyramids” means to him. Does it even mean anything? Perhaps it is all just witty wordplay and sonic free association. But it is suggestive: I am able to construct from these ambiguous materials a definite meaning. But because the materials are ambiguous, the meaning is not predetermined. It is flexible, variant. And this seems connected to the project of good art: to avoid the overdetermination of meaning while suggesting possible interpretations. There is more than one way to do this. Some art presents a crystal-clear surface that only later yields its ambiguities (the poems of William Carlos Williams might be a good example). Some, like “Soft Pyramids,” operates on the principle of deep nonsense. This art is not willful or disobedient. Rather, it uses language, image or narrative in non-traditional ways, challenging us to not simply interpret, but to reinterpret whole systems of interpretation – to find the shared language in the seemingly private. This strikes me as an endlessly fertile project worth defending.

Small Press Review Series: Adam Robison and Other Poems (A Call to Arms or At Least to the Continued Search for the Munitions Locker* of Meaning Where Arms Might Be Kept)

Adam Robison and Other Poems
Adam Robinson
Narrow House (2010), 77 pages, $12

As an editor at a small press/journal, I wage daily confrontation against the sheer tonnage of quality work out there. After awhile, you don’t always ask yourself “Is it good in some objective measurable sense?” or even “Do I like it?” but “Does the literary world need this?” Of course this leads to a more fundamental question: What kind of writing, if any, does the world need? The shelves of bookstores and warehouses of Amazon are flooded with writing someone thought worthy of publication, and yet much of it is just more words on a page. The detritus of a culture with too much time on its hands.

As I read the charming Adam Robison and Other Poems by the not-quite-eponymous Adam Robinson, I wondered why this particular book needed to be published. As the title suggests, this is a work of fourth-wall-breaking experimental postmodernism. When I say that as an editor, I am seeking “the new,” I mean the truly new, not the merely “experimental” – which as anyone versed in their Barth and Barthelme knows is neither new nor actually experimental. It is, rather, another tradition like the more accurately named traditionalism.

Let me stress that Adam Robison is not a bad book. I even have a soft spot for this type of writing; I did pay for the book. The charm in Robinson’s writing is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, it seems to directly position itself against serious interpretation. In this sense, asking whether the culture “needs” such a book is already answered, quite cheerfully, in the negative by the book itself. Its language is deliberately unpoetic and the poems tend to end on flat, declarative statements or sometimes even non sequiturs. Here are some representative endings, all as printed, without periods – suggesting that the poem’s ending is provisional or even arbitrary:

He had a pompadour or feather/A nom de plume was Johannes Climacus – “Soren Kierkegaard”

Brahms died in 1897 – “Brahms”

My grandmother is still alive – “Emma Ruth Rogers Tyner”

I know a lot about Mike Schmidt but he doesn’t know one single/solitary thing about me – “Captain Cool”

As I’ve already mentioned, and as is especially evident in the above quote from “Captain Cool,” Robinson’s prose is purposefully conversational, even comically so. From the same poem: One time Mike Schmidt hit a hit that hit a loudspeaker in Houston. That repetition is 100% grammatically correct and yet it’s the kind of move we rarely see in prose, let alone the heightened, compressed language of poetry. Or this, from “Curtis Ebbermeyer, Leading Authority on Flotsam:” What’s up with bottled water man…Boy howdy what’s the deal with bottled water. The missing commas only heighten the sense that these words have been arranged to resemble an overheard conversation, just more cultural flotsam, to echo the poem’s title. Such a tone and syntax seem to be saying, “Hey, none of this matters, but it’s kind of fun and interesting anyway.” This is a smart rhetorical position to take in this age of centerless postmodernism, but in its extreme – i.e.–when it’s used over and over throughout a collection – it leaves a reader a little sad and untethered. The trouble is that it’s not a trick meant to lead us toward the meaning at the heart of apparent meaninglessness. (See how, for example, David Foster Wallace uses postmodern means for traditional ends.) Rather, Robinson appears to believe in the meaninglessness of it all. Which leads me to the question: why a book of poetry? Is it just one more wet noodle thrown against the void? Robinson seems aware of this weakness:

My poems lack depth and complexity in which the reader can invest
They are bald things…
…Readers will grow bored and go about their day
“There’s no urgency” they’ll complain “No incision.”

And yet an admission of a book’s faults does little but reveal the impotent self-consciousness of the author; it doesn’t eradicate or reduce the faults (though it can mitigate them marginally). Robinson is not wholly without poetry, as that interesting word “incision” in the above passage suggests. Here’s a passage from one of the stronger poems:

Deathbed is one word made special for the place you die
But there is no one special place for your deathbed
On her deathbed what do you want your daughter to say
You will be so spitsoul sad
Then you will be okay
Then you will be sad that you are okay
Then mostly okay again and well this will continue
Even now I often feel sad that I am not sadder
And my worst thing that died was a dog

This piece strikes me as new and weird and truly experimental. It strikes me, which is exactly what literature needs – poems that act as a slap to our complacency. Who hasn’t felt “sad that you are okay?” And further, doesn’t it say something interesting about the paradox at the heart of Western luxury and ease that the speaker is saddened that his “worst thing that died was a dog?” And yet this is an ugliness that we rarely admit: that our lives are empty, and our poetry shallow, due to the fact that our lives are too good.

Probably it is unfair of me to insist that every book assert its necessity. When you get right down to it, Robinson and I are asking the same question: when the traditional is too retrograde and predictable to impact us and the postmodern is a dead end (and equally retrograde), where and how do we find meaning? I worry, though, that Robinson has settled for postmodern stasis rather than trying to find the hard path forward. Because I believe there is meaning in the world. People die – not just dogs – and along the way they suffer and kill and surprise with kindness, creating narratives about themselves and the world, just as they always have.


*Editors Note – But of course the munitions locker wouldn’t contain meaning itself but merely the tools to target that meaning. Or something. To append a Robinson-like ending:
Oh well.

Small Press Review Series: One Last Good Time and the Literary Platypus

One Last Good Time
Michael Kardos
Press 53 (2010), 185 pages, $14.95

The trouble with interconnected story collections is that they are interconnected.

I know, I know: the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club. But in this case, it’s not an argumentative fallacy to say that the qualities that make interconnected story collections theoretically interesting can make them disappointing in practice. It has to do with reader response: we come to a short story for a discrete experience – a world we enter and leave in the same sitting. If we recognize a character, a setting, or a matrix of events from a previous story the sense of separateness is lost. And at the same time, we don’t get the total immersion of a novel. READ MORE

Frozen on a Street Corner While the Unbludgeoned World Moves Forward

Michel Franco’s Daniel y Ana

In the last decade or so, Mexican film has been among the most consistently interesting in the world. It has a certain moral and social grittiness not seen in most American movies, but a tightly-edited watchability missing in European films. Some big-name, Hollywood-endorsed movies spring to mind – Amores Perros, Pan’s Labyrinth, Y Tu Mamá También – but there are also some worthy, less-heralded candidates. One of these is 2009’s Daniel y Ana.

Directed by Michel Franco and starring Gael García Bernal’s younger brother, Dario Yazbek Bernal, the film garnered critical attention at Cannes and other film festivals, but is still without its own wiki, and its IMDB page is incomplete and littered with negative reviews. I don’t want to psychoanalyze audience reaction too much, but part of this reception could be because the movie straddles an uncomfortable middle ground between shocking and subtle. It will turn off the easily offended, but with its nearly geologically paced shifts in character, it will also alienate thrill seekers. It is genuinely disturbing – a very different effect than simply being shocking.

Most synopses of the film have shied away from the trauma at its heart, perhaps reluctant to ruin the suddenness with which the trauma occurs. I, for one, had guessed at it simply by looking at the movie’s cover, but the movie remained vital and unruined for me. In fact, this knowledge, coupled with the slowness of the movie’s first act, created a nice simmering dread which I found just as effective as the hammer-to-the-head suddenness of real trauma.

Therefore: spoiler alert for that which there is no way, really, to spoil.

Daniel and Ana are brother and sister, young privileged Mexicans at pivotal points in their lives. Ana is on the verge of getting married. Daniel is a typical teenager, taciturn and self-involved, on the verge of losing his virginity to his girlfriend and resentful of not having been given a new car yet. One day the siblings go shopping and Daniel fails to make the appropriate turn on the way home. Two men jump into their car and hold a gun to Daniel’s head. They blindfold Daniel and Ana, throw them in the trunk, and take them to a big, starkly furnished house. And yes, if you haven’t guessed, they force them to have sex. On camera. Brother and sister.

The true horror of this scene is not just in its unflinchingness, but in the way it indicts the viewer. Daniel and Ana are beautiful, slim, and pale, like Greek statues. You cannot look away as Daniel fucks her from behind. Her face is buried in the mattress, and though we know she is weeping, it might be mistaken for orgasmic bliss. Daniel comes quickly and shamefully, as any teenager having sex for the first time might.

What follows is a study in post-traumatic stress. Both victims retreat from the world in their separate ways. Ana breaks things off with her fiance and retreats into her room.  Daniel stops going to school, spends time in movie theaters watching any old film. He also breaks things off with his girlfriend. Quite understandably, both do not talk to their parents about what happened.

In the end Ana proves to be the stronger about it, more equipped to deal with it because of her relative adulthood perhaps. She sees a therapist, weeps, and delicately broaches the subject with Daniel. Daniel meanwhile lies about going to the therapist and continues his self-destructive behavior. He googles their video, but gets no matches. There is another big twist at the heart of the film and perhaps you can figure it out. It didn’t surprise me, but I still don’t want to give everything away. Suffice to say it had the quality of being both unexpected and entirely appropriate that all the best storytelling should have.

As It Ought to Be cofounder, Okla Elliott, compares Franco’s subject matter to Neil Labute – that great American playwright, director, and darkly comic moralist responsible for Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men – and that’s as useful a touchstone as any. But he admits that the comparison is of limited use, and indeed, Labute has a venomous edge that Franco does not. Labute seems to see everyone as disgusting – either weak and sniveling or sociopathic – while Franco’s aim is to show us how fundamentally good people react to horrible events. Though Daniel, and to a lesser extent Ana, behave badly throughout the movie, we understand why. There is no comic distortion or exaggeration. This goes back to the difference I outlined earlier between shocking and disturbing: the shocking cries “Look at me!” while the disturbing goes about its quietly gruesome business, twisting the psychological knife deeper and deeper. It doesn’t need to beg for attention because it’s impossible for us to look away.

Further, Labute is a playwright and his characters vocalize their trauma in a way that seems psychologically untrue to me. One reason I think this movie was, relatively speaking, not well received by audiences is that there is so much silence at its heart – that the shifts in attitude of its two main characters are so gradual and happen over scenes that only seem repetitive. In pace, Daniel y Ana resembles a Euro-film (or the American idea of one), and yet there is no fashionable ennui here, or Bergman-like scenes of Freudian camerawork, just two characters coming to grips with their shattered relationship with each other, their family and lovers, and the world.

There is a beautiful and telling image some two-thirds of the way into the movie: Daniel is deep in his daily wanderings on a crowded street; the light changes and all the pedestrians move forward in a wave, crossing to the other side of the street, but Daniel just stands there. This strikes me as the perfect symbol for the way trauma affects us: it leaves us frozen on a street corner while the rest of the world moves—steadily, ignorantly, heartlessly—forward.


French Connection

Two recent novels by French-speaking authors blend close psychological analysis with free-flowing lyricism to tell deceptively simple love stories. One of those books, In the Train, by Christian Oster, was released by Object Press this year. Object Press, out of Toronto, is an indie press established in 2008 and with only two titles to its name so far. But if In the Train is any indication, they are off to a promising start.

Oster’s novel is small, not quite 150 sparsely printed pages, and the story it tells is a modest one. Frank, nondescript in every aspect except his tendency to overanalyze and his habit of seeking out women on train platforms, meets Anne, a woman carrying a large bag at the Paris station. He offers to hold the bag for her and thus their romance begins. Anne is cautious at first, but Frank insinuates himself into her heart through a series of maneuvers ranging from half-gestures to outright stalking – or what would amount to stalking if we weren’t charmed by Frank’s voice and thus made to trust his motives.

I’ve not read another novel by Oster so I can’t say if this voice is his or one cleverly adopted for Frank. But whether he’s chosen the perfect character for his style or created the perfect style for his character, it’s a match. Comma-heavy, this style involves long sentences, full of clarifications, elaborations, asides, and disclaimers – many of them seemingly unnecessary; and yet they charm us while drawing us closer to Frank, and so, I think, are essential.

Here is Frank analyzing Anne’s reaction after he offers to hold her bag:

She looked tempted by my offer, although still undecided. Then she looked at me and thought that, at worst, I was interested in her, not her bag, and she handed it to me… I took the bag, thinking this woman was actually pretty relaxed, with men, unless she was doing everything possible to be left in peace, but I wasn’t sure this was the best way to go about it, with a man. But with me, I don’t know.

There are plenty of phrases here that an insensitive editor might remove, but to do so would be to miss the point. And besides, there’s enough meat in the story that we don’t get sick of this style. Not only is there Frank’s questionable behavior as he knocks on every door of the hotel to which he has followed Anne – is this gesture romantic or creepy, and more importantly, how will Anne see it? – but there is another man, a successful and interesting author who uses Anne as a plaything. When Anne first takes off her robe for Frank, in her hotel room while waiting for the author to return, we are not sure whether her behavior is the result of genuine attraction or revenge on a man who has hurt her. We go on questioning her sincerity throughout the story: even when she does succumb to Frank’s love, we can’t help but feel she’s settling.

The overly explanatory style doesn’t always suit Oster’s purposes perfectly. The bag in the aforementioned passage comes to symbolize many things – an obstacle to Frank and Anne being fully united; the weight of their separate pasts; the burden of love – but Frank makes all these meanings explicit to us, and in doing so, they lose some of the impact they might have had were we allowed to figure them out on our own.

All in all though, this is a strong novel in the European mode – if I might be allowed such a generalization. European novels tend to privilege abstraction and the explicit elaboration of thought and feeling, while American novels approach these things obliquely, through gesture, dialogue, loaded description and telling action. Both are useful and worthy methods, but it’s books like this that give rise to the lie at the heart of the worst American fiction: that we do not elaborate our feelings and thoughts to ourselves; that we are acting, not thinking, beings and that we approach our consciousnesses indirectly.

Running Away, by Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint, is roughly the same size and scope as In the Train. Released in 2009 by Dalkey Archive Press, it tells the story of an unnamed narrator who, on business trip to Shanghai, becomes involved with a mysterious woman named Li Qi. What follows is a whirlwind, dreamlike romance.

Like In the Train, much of this book takes place on the move – in trains, yes, but also on planes; and there is even a high-speed chase by motorcycle. As in In the Train, the romance is complicated by a third party – in this case, the narrator’s business partner, Zhang Xiangzhi, who has an ambiguous, probably romantic, relationship with Li Qi. And like In the Train, the story is told in the observant, lyrical voice of its first-person narrator. But while In the Train roots us in Frank’s head, Running Away focuses more on the physical world, providing lengthy descriptions of Shanghai, Beijing, and the Mediterranean.

At places, this book reads like the best travel writing. Here are the narrator and Li Qi after they first meet at a Shanghai art gallery:

Sound checks could be heard from the warehouse, and sharp bursts of Chinese heavy metal…filled the calm surroundings of the summer night, causing glass panes to vibrate and sending grasshoppers flying in the warmth of the air. It became difficult to hear one other on the bench and I moved closer to her…

Compare this to Frank’s meeting with Anne. In that passage, the focus is entirely on the two characters – just look at how many times the words “she” and “I” are used; and then notice how comparatively empty of pronouns the passage from Running Away is.

While it is nice to have a visceral experience of teeming China, Toussaint’s descriptive gifts often push us away when we should be drawn closer. Just as we become interested in the menacing, yet oddly passive love triangle (Zhang seems to know what’s going on between the narrator and Li Qi and yet doesn’t seem angry about it) we are dowsed in lyricism that gives a poetic lift to a situation that, psychologically, can’t support it. Where Oster uses lyricism to extract his characters’ motivations, Toussaint trains it on the outer world. And so the trio who races via motorcycle through the streets of Beijing could be anybody at all, the nice tension between them dropping away into mere action:

We turned off the freeway to escape our pursuers, braking to take an off- ramp, but the sirens kept following us, seeming to multiply in space, coming from everywhere at once, as when a number of police cars converge on the scene of an accident at high speed…

There’s a reason high-speed chases aren’t thought of as literary. Running Away does provide a deepening context to the passage: the narrator is “running away” from a previous romance; and the chase, his constant movement between countries, and his quick plunge into the arms of another woman all reflect that. However, Toussaint misses opportunities to complicate this idea, or I should say that the natural limitations of his style – its tendency toward superficial, poetic effect – prevent him from realizing these opportunities. It is when this book, yes, runs away from the very things that make it most European that it loses us, too.


Drinking with British Architects

A Not-Very-Objective Review

by Raul Clement

Recently, poet Jeff Laughlin sent me a copy of his first collection, Drinking with British Architects. This is a chapbook of less than 50 pages that went through a press run of 100 copies and is now sold out. I would guess that of those 100 copies, 90 of them went to friends or people at the small reading held for its release. To put that in perspective, more people will probably read this blog post than Laughlin’s collection.

And yet it is good. A full disclosure forces me to admit that Laughlin is a friend of mine, and that he offered to send me the book, free of charge, over drinks. So perhaps I wanted to like it; and yet I think, objectively speaking, that it is livelier than most poetry I read in major journals and that the fact that it was released so modestly is a testament to how hard it is to make it in this business, how much toil and sheer luck it takes, and how the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. This is especially true for first collections. Resumes are, of course, a self-powered engine: the more impressive your resume looks, the more likely a journal or small press is to seriously consider your work. Many of these presses are struggling to stay afloat and they probably shouldn’t be faulted for preferring an author with a track record. It does seem a little small-minded when you consider the miniscule difference in sales we are talking about here – does one previous publication in the Black Warrior Review bring with it a rabid cult following? – and yet when you are treading water, you will cling to even the smallest piece of driftwood. As someone who has seen the editorial side of this business, I understand and sympathize with this even while it saddens me.

But let’s look at the collection. The title sounds like a Decemberists song, and indeed, much of the work seems influenced by the new literary side of indie rock. Colin Meloy, singer of the Decemberists, is a graduate of the MFA program at The University of Montana; conversely, Jeff Laughlin was (until his move back to North Carolina from New York) the singer of an acoustic, ballad-based group known as Beards. Many of his poems have a sung quality, aware of their rhythm and canny in their use of repetition, and the overall attitude is one of romantic, drunken Tom Waitsism. This is particularly evident in the “women” poems, which apparently were supposed to be part of their own chapbook, but which the publisher insisted Laughlin include – rightly, I might add. The first is called “The Women I Know” and every stanza begins with that phrase. It is a critique of the pursuit of an empty, surface-type of pleasure at the expense of a deeper happiness:

The women I know crack their
clavicles if only to stick out their
chests.

This perfectly conveys the desperate need these women have to be thought of as sexual beings. Another line struck me as entirely accurate to a recent experience I had had with a young woman whose chief aim seemed to be worshipped by every man around her. That he had outed my interior life so accurately bespeaks the quality of the work.

The women I know go about their
pleasure the same way: without
love and continuously.

As you can see here, Laughlin privileges the strong opening word rather than the clever line break. Nouns like “clavicles” and “chest” get initial weight, not the last word. Lines don’t end so much as flow into each other. And here at least, he privileges abstraction over the concrete image – a preference that, as much as the extravagantly sentimental attitude, lends to the quality I’ve already identified as coming from the indie rock lyrical tradition.

But Laughlin is too skilled in other ways to be dismissed as a rock musician turned poet. The collection is united by several systems of images and titles that give it a formal quality its free verse lacks. There is an obsession with body parts – particularly the poet’s own broken and damaged parts. This is from “The Critic’s Worry,” one of a series.

There were grease marks along my arms—
Their length took me off guard.
I scrubbed until capillaries broke,
But my blood was not as thick as the car’s.

This stanza shows that Laughlin has the ability to paint a specific scene using concrete images. It also shows that he is not insensitive to the charms of formalism. Not only does he end every line on a strong monosyllable, but there is a definite respect for rhyme hinted at it in “arms”/”guard”/”cars.” Here are more broken body parts in the sister poem, “A Soldier’s Worry.”

We march through split heels,
chafed shouldertops, sprained ankles, compressed
knees, and, invariably, arthritic knuckles.

I particularly like that word “invariably.” Later more body part imagery, albeit now wed to some nice description of the physical world:

The most amazing things actually do affect us,
ever so slightly: groves of oranges, broken branches,
houses foraged with rotten wood, rain, broken vessels
on elderly hands or voices floating through light brush.

Here “affect us” is echoed by “vessels,” and “groves” by “broken.” Similarly, the repetition of “broken” unites “branches” and “vessels” – the world of nature thus equated with the human body. As the soldiers walk, they are beaten down by the physical world until they become it. Even the voices only come at them “through light brush” –a nice, simple image which also manages to convey painting, and thus art in the abstract.

[Note: these are my interpretations and are in no way intended to suggest authorial intent; this is just a survey of the many association these poems, like all good poetry, inspired in me.]

As I’ve already hinted, it is in repetition where Laughlin really excels. “Lists” finds the poet guessing at the contents of a list left behind by his roommate. Each verse is structured with the casualness of a prose poem and is yet another guess at the list’s contents.

No. You are a list of morose sights—deceased grandparents, bloodied fists, crooked-billed birds with feathers still falling from once-clean windows, dead dogs on the sides of dirt roads. You are the wrong vision at the right time.

Or:

No. You are a list of pragmatic decisions—split-ups before things got too serious, pets put to sleep, gifts exchanged on Christmas Eve, shirts in donations boxes despite still being in fashion. You are a remembrance of things still around but unwound from the mind.

There is further subtler repetition here in the mention of another dead pet, this one purposefully and pragmatically “put to sleep.” Similarly, the last lines echo each other.

Another repetition poem, appropriately titled “Simultaneous Reactions,” verges on the annoying but somehow transcends that by sheer brave bombardment. It begins: “Appetites are growing, finger-skin is getting more coarse, strength is waning.” (Another reference to body parts, specifically hands, which are mentioned over and over.) The use of the gerund here makes reading it a bit of a slog, but the joy is in seeing the different uses and combinations Laughlin comes up with. “Parachutes aren’t opening, cause is no longer affecting, science is calculating.” Here “calculating” can be a verb or adjective. Another example of the same: “Waitresses are finishing doubles, carrots are digesting, work is boring.” Not carrots are “being digested,” but are doing the “digesting” (though obviously they are also being digested). Similarly one imagines work “boring” into the speaker’s skull, like a drill. Many other lines have similar effect, making us question our preconceptions of the meaning of words. The sum total of all this repetition is to soak the reader in the variety of world. The poem ends, “I am brimming with capability, I am leaning side-angled into nothing, I am proselytizing.” Not only does this nicely bring the lens back around to the observer, it also hints at the meaning of all these “Simultaneous Reactions.” The poet is “brimming” with the possibilities of the world, but at the same time he is sunk in the infinite “nothing” of its excess, his only recourse “proselytizing” (really just another word for making poetry).

I wish I could sink my teeth more thoroughly into the meat of this collection. I’d like to talk about the series of “Autobiography” poems, the other “women” poems (especially “The Women I Don’t Know,” which flirts with and redetermines “The Women I Know”), or the absurdist “Not Titled,” a prose poem about, yes, a biblical rain of tacos. I hold a soft spot for the poem “Pregnant Crooked Horse,” having unwittingly inspired the title (long story), if not the subject matter, and so I feel like I have slighted it. I’d also like to discuss whether or not it was wise to have ended the collection on the title story, a strong poem which turns out to be deliciously less surreal than its name suggests, or whether it would have been better to end with another “Autobiography” poem, thus giving the collection a cleaner symmetry.

But I fear taxing the reader’s patience on a book he may never read. The good news is that the author is working on a new collection, one that he claims will be even darker and more alcohol-drenched. Until then I’ll leave you with my favorite poem in the collection, which sums up the entire history of literary friendships (the existence of which are, in fact, at least partially responsible for the writing of this review). Hopefully it will be enough to convince you that the underground of American poetry is alive and well – in fact, often more fully alive than the more heralded surface.

Upon Hearing Liakos Read From Another City While We Were Both Drunk

If you don’t keep that one
I will throw something at you.

It will be heavy,
and possibly wet.

It will be, most definitely,
something close and large.

It will be an object symbolizing
my obstructive frustration.

It will pass by your head,
grazing your cheek-skin.

It will remember you to
the sharks of your past.

It will recall the conquerable
people that made both of us.

It will punish you to leave a
contrail or convex or context.

I do not know much else about it
except that it will smash on the floor.

It will leave a mark on the ground
where I didn’t want it to.

I didn’t want it, I never ever did,
and it will crash, waking roommates.

You will look and we will laugh
but you gotta keep that one.

You’ve got to, got to—because
there is only one envelope left.

It will shatter next to the only envelope
left in the entire universe forever.

[Note: if you are interested in receiving a free electronic copy of this collection, email Jeff Laughlin at repetitionisfailure@gmail.com. I will post details about his follow-up collection as they become available.]

Tiger Moth

[This story was originally published in The Chaffey Review in May of 2009.  It is reprinted here with minimal editorial changes.]

Tiger Moth

by Raul Clement

For a long time after the boy’s death, the father sat in the darkened rooms of the house and stared at his empty hands. They were strange birds. The mother made several delicate attempts to pull him back into their world: she bought tickets to plays, she arranged dinner with the couple down the street, she ironed his suits. Then one afternoon she found him in Derrick’s bedroom, pieces of a remote-operated model Tiger Moth spread before him. With a penknife he was chipping a wing from the battered body of the plane.

I thought I should rebuild it,” he said.

How did you get in?” she demanded.

In the yard shadows played on the bleached frame of the shed he’d begun last summer. A tarp serving as a doorway beat in the wind. He was self-employed, a woodworker retouching antiques, and for nearly a month he’d taken no clients.

Well?” she asked.

He squinted at her and then went back to his tapping, until the motor spilled into his palm. He cradled it, tracing a sloppy scar of glue. “It’s smaller than I would have guessed. Odd…such a little thing could fly.”

He had found the key, then. She remembered locking Derrick’s room the day before the viewing. He should be buried in something nice, the mortician had said. She’d laid out three suits on the bed, ironing them and choosing matching ties, before flinging them to the floor, and the blankets with them, the sheets, the mattress slip. She rested her cheek against the naked mattress, feeling the springs behind its cool drum-tight skin—there was a rust-orange stain at the foot of the bed. Australia, she thought absurdly, it looks like Australia.

At last she stood, wiped the mascara smudges from her cheeks, smoothed her dress. From the closet she took a navy-blue uniform with wings stitched across the shoulders. That Halloween Derrick had been a pilot, part of a year-long obsession that included radio flyers, books on Charles Lindbergh, the Bermuda Triangle. He should be buried in this, not the starchy church attire he’d always hated.

The father had finished breaking down the plane, and had the pieces spread on a square of cloth. With a thin brush, he dabbed the propeller with red paint. He put on a few black spots.

Ladybug, he thought. Derrick used to pull them apart. Maybe this one would put itself together again and fly away.

She held out her hand. “Give it to me.”

Is it so late already?” He began to shuffle from the room.

Where’s the key? How did you get in?”

He glared at her as if she were being willfully dense. “He opened it for me.”

She went to the mirror in the hallway and ran her finger over the dusty lip, encountering loose metal. The key was where she’d left it. She locked the room, and taking the key to the basement, hid it behind the boiler, inside a box stuffed with her grandmother’s china.

*

That night she awoke with a bladder full of the wine she’d had to help her sleep. As she stepped into the hallway, she noticed an alien glow from behind Derrick’s door. She tried the knob and the door swung open. There was a magazine fanned out on the bed, a record jacket on the floor—things not in themselves meaningful, but disturbing because she couldn’t remember how they got there.

She hurried to the basement and dragged the box into the light. She dug around for the key, and when she could not find it, she removed the china, dish by dish. She unwrapped and shook out the brittle newspaper. The pages fell apart, leaving the smudges of letters on her fingertips. She held her shaking hands up to her face, and then spit on them, began rubbing them furiously on her nightgown. Then she remembered herself and let her arms fall to her side, looking about quickly as if to make sure she hadn’t been seen.

In the bedroom she shook him awake. “I don’t know how you did it, but this can’t go on.”

He rolled away from the light, smothering his head with a pillow.

The next morning she found him on the back porch, turning the nearly assembled plane in his hands, noting the way it caught and twisted the light.

He was grinning, proud but sheepish. “It’s really going to fly this time.”

Stop blaming yourself,” she told him.

But they were talking about different things. They always would be. Because there it was, over his shoulder, the shed—skeletal beams swaying a little in the foundation. As long as it stood, she knew, it would mock even their modest attempts to move on.

*

When Derrick was eight years old, she enrolled him in Cub Scouts. They met Sunday afternoons in the basement of a block-shaped church—Derrick and a dozen boys his age. She’d had to bribe Derrick with the promise of a new bicycle if he attended the meetings for at least six months. Her hope was that some of the enthusiasm of the other boys would rub off on Derrick, but before the meetings he wouldn’t join them as they traded comic books and dashed through the sprinkler on the lawn. Instead he took a seat on the church steps, waiting to be let inside. Three hours later he would be in the same position, studying his shoelaces in the cricket-filled dusk.

One evening, after several months of meetings, he ran to her car where she idled on the curb. He thrust a paper through the window, some sort of newsletter. “Model plane contest. We’ve got to build our own planes and install our own engines and the one that flies the best wins. Fifty dollars. There’s also a prize for best design.”

A few days later, he sat hunched over the kitchen table, an elaborate spread of penciled forms and symbols before him—blueprints for the assembly of a de Havilland Tiger Moth. From the doorway, she and her husband watched. “You know, the other boys’ fathers will help them,” she told her son.

The other boys won’t learn anything,” Derrick said.

Two weeks later, everyone gathered in a gravel lot outside of town. The lot was surrounded by toothy columns of pines, and just beyond, the throbbing passage of the river. Birds sang in high branches. The boys fidgeted in their crinkly uniforms, pants rolled up to relieve some of the heat. The planes were lined up in the dirt at one end of the lot, and there was a narrow length of tape at the lot’s opposite end, where onion grass swallowed the gravel.

You boys ready?” asked the scout leader. “What was that? You didn’t sound ready to me.”

Yes, sir!” came the boys’ trilling voices, and then one boy’s belated, “Let’s do it!”

The boys took their positions in front of their planes and the scout leader blew the whistle. The parents watched, leaning against the sun-warmed hoods of their cars, as the planes climbed into the air. But one plane wasn’t rising at all, was just bouncing across the pebbly lot, running aground on plastic bags and rocks, wheels spinning desperately, at last breaking free. The other planes had already landed safely and now everyone was waiting, watching the Tiger Moth as it lifted briefly off the earth, came smacking back down. Just before it reached the finish line, the plane leapt as if stung, climbing ten or fifteen feet in the air, before plummeting into the wall of grass.

The boys ran forward, looking for the lost plane. They wandered the field in circles and when that didn’t work, they combed the area in orderly lines. The parents joined them. Derrick drifted back to his parent’s car, and climbed into the back seat, slumping out of sight. The sun was sinking behind the trees before they found the plane, still mostly intact save a wing, buried in an anthill a few yards further on. They carried the broken body back to the cars.

But Derrick was not in the car. So another search party was formed, this one equipped with flashlights and cell phones, with which the parents radioed each other. Hours later, the last smear of sunset draining from a sky thick with crows, they found him in the spidery branches of a tree at a bend in the river. He was out on a thin limb, over an archipelago of slick rocks, the river gushing below him. The branch creaked beneath his weight, as if it might snap at any moment. He refused to come down.

Let me up there,” his father said, removing his jacket. He scaled the trunk and made his way onto a nearby branch. “Derrick,” he said. “How about you come in a little, so we can talk?” He reached out. “Will you at least hear what I have to say?”

There was a murmur from below as Derrick scooted a little closer to his father, and then a bit more. His father leaned forward, grabbing another branch to brace himself. He spoke in a whisper. He didn’t want all of them listening in.

I had a dream the other night,” he said. “Do you want to hear?”

Derrick stared at his feet dangling in the air. The river shuffled by. Small furry creatures rustled in the underbrush.

Me and you,” he continued. “we’re in a plane, and you’re flying. We’re over the coast of a tropical island. The water’s so blue it’s clear and we can see huge cities of coral just below the surface. You’re wearing a pilot’s uniform, a real one. ‘Want to try?’ you ask. I take the controls and I feel the heart of the plane. It’s like something alive, purring, telling us everything’s going to be all right. Don’t you want something like that?”

On the ground, the mother strained to hear. There was a brief quiet where Derrick might have said, “I’m scared.” Then, the father was holding his hand, guiding him down the tree. As the other fathers slapped him on the back saying “Job well done” and other things masculine and appreciative, the mother felt a surge of shame, and deeper than that, anger at Derrick for embarrassing her, at her husband for not helping him, at herself for stepping aside. She hurried back to the car.

In the bathroom that night, she stood behind her husband, watching him reflected as he brushed his teeth. She wanted to make some small gesture of forgiveness. “What did you say up there?”

The same thing you would have.” But he turned away from the mirror and wouldn’t let her see his face.

*

That night she awoke again. From the hallway came warbling music, so small and hesitant she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t in her imagination. Her husband was not in their bed. She followed the music into the hall, but it neither grew louder nor softened. Outside Derrick’s room, she pressed her ear to the door—nothing but the creaking of the wood, the hum of the boiler through the skeleton of the house. She turned the knob, but it wouldn’t budge. She kicked the door, making it shudder.

What’s going on here?” she demanded. But there was nothing but the far-off tick of a clock. She slid down the wall, collapsing on the floor. Tick-tick. Soon it was all she could hear.

It had been a bright Saturday in late winter, a cautious warmth to the air. She woke late, to the twang of a hammer on wood. She padded to the kitchen. She poured herself a cup of coffee and watched steam curl from the brim. She held the mug in both hands, feeling its heat creep up her arms. The cat leapt from the table to brush against her leg before finding its place in the shifting sun, where it yawned and closed its eyes.

She took her coffee and muffin out to the porch to let the sun soak into her bare feet. She didn’t drink in those days and she enjoyed the mornings. The shed was coming along smoothly, she decided, rafters and columns stamping the shape of a future enclosure. Her husband straddled a joist, bearing down with a drill. Derrick—up early the way he never was on school days—ran circles through the shed, squeezing through gaps in the wall. At one point he picked up a hammer and scaled a ladder until he was level with his father. He held out the hammer, but her husband waved it off. It was nice to see Derrick this way again, she thought, after the disappointments of last summer.

Derrick reversed down the ladder, leaping off halfway to land neatly on his feet. He wandered about, running his finger along the edge of a saw, kicking loose screws. He picked up a nail and squatted, writing something in the dirt. Then he looked up and she waved at him. He returned the wave and she went inside to practice piano.

The father, who had noticed the mother there and taken comfort in it, drove another nail home, enjoying the smell of new wood and the warmth of the sun on his back. Spring was coming and then he could lose himself out here, make something real. He’d tried to show this to Derrick, but the boy had never understood.

Hey dad,” Derrick called. He was halfway up the ladder, leaning forward. “I’m going to measure your angles. Watch.”

Be careful.” He fished another nail from the pack, bent low over the hammer’s arc. The vibration scooted the ladder to one side.

She was practicing her trills when she heard the small, strangled cry. A moment later, the screen banged shut. She ran into the kitchen to find her husband mashing buttons on the phone. He was shirtless and sweating. He met her gaze with wild eyes, seeming to see right through her.

He just…” he said. “I didn’t mean….”

She rushed outside, knowing what she would find, but pulled by some hysterical compulsion to see it, to really see. The first thing she came across were his feet, splayed awkwardly in the red Converses she’d bought him for his last birthday. One shoelace was untied. She wanted to tie it, but then she took a step forward and saw his head, twisted and limp on his neck. His arms were beneath him. She pulled him to her and breathed into his mouth. She was still doing this when the ambulance arrived.

*

A branch battering a window made her jump. She didn’t know how long she’d slept, or if she’d slept at all. The wind howled through the rooms of the house. She tried Derrick’s door again and this time it swung open, almost without her touching it. She hesitated, then stepped inside.

The bed looked slept in, the sheets in disarray. She searched for some familiar shape there—a friendly face, a continent—but there was nothing. Just the empty mattress, begging for his small weight. She remembered his breath as he slept, soft and easy. She’d sometimes sneak in at night and stand in the doorway, trying to imagine his dreams. She could almost hear him now, but it was all too distant, too far away. And it grew further every day.

A crash came from downstairs. She ran down the steps and found the front door banging in its hinges. Her husband stood on the lawn, facing the street, a heavy, square box in his hands. Wind furrowed his hair, tossed leaves in a winding, erratic ballet. There was a shiver in the air. She touched his shoulder, hesitated. He was working the joystick of a remote control, pulling and tapping it with his thumb. A sheet of lightning stamped the sky and she could see the plane as it dived between the tall, dark trees. She wanted to say something, anything.

Weather’s changing,” he said without turning, voice flat, as if this were the simplest of facts.

On Turning Thirty, by Raul Clement

 

“It’s impossible for a man to waste any time before thirty-five…” – James Michener, The Drifters

What you don’t do before thirty, you’ll never do.” – John Updike, from…?

 

I.

The Pixar film Up presents itself as for children. It is animated; it features talking dogs, floating houses, and nefarious schemes.  But for adults it contains one of the most remarkable – and remarkably close-to-the-bone – opening sequences in recent movie history:

In the early part of the twentieth century, a young boy named Carl watches a newsreel about an explorer named Charles Muntz. Afterward, infatuated with Muntz and his trip to Paradise Falls, South America, Carl races up and down the streets near his home pretending to be Muntz. In a nearby abandoned house, he meets a girl named Ellie. She shares his obsession with Muntz and describes to him her dream of moving their clubhouse to Paradise Falls.

Cut to: Carl and Ellie’s marriage. As a sort of montage we see their entire married life – their clubhouse remodeled into their home; their jobs as balloon-maker and zookeeper respectively; a touching scene of a silhouetted Ellie in a hospital room, crying (she has either had a miscarriage or learned she is inferitle). In their living room is a shrine to Paradise Falls, and before this shrine is jar. As the couple grows older, they fill the jar with coins for their trip Paradise Falls, only to see it emptied again in times of financial crisis.

One day, when the couple is old, stooped and gray, Carl finally buys two plane tickets to Paradise Falls. He invites Ellie out for a picnic on their favorite hill in the park, where we have already seen them lying hand-in-hand at various ages, staring up at the clouds. Midway to the top of the hill, Ellie falls and doesn’t get up. She is ill. She is taken to the hospital, where she dies. They never make it to Paradise Falls.

It was John Lennon who most famously said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” If I had to choose one phrase to sum up the opening sequence of Up, this would be it. It’s not just that we put things off until it’s too late; it’s that the decisions we make get in the way of the reasons we make them. We go to law school to support our true passion; the law consumes so much of us that we don’t ever get around to pursuing that passion. Or else accidents happen: wives get pregnant; parents get sick; money we intended for other purposes is spent. Sometimes we just keep saying tomorrow until there is no tomorrow left.

As an opening to a major Hollywood production, and one for children at that, the beginning of Up is formally and thematically shocking. We expect our stories to start in media res, but this opening functions as back story, a prelude to the main event. But more than that, it is its bleakness that disarms us. The lack of resolution. Or at least tidy resolution – death resolves us all, of course. But while in the conventional movie, death comes with a speech or one last grand, redemptive gesture, here it comes in the middle of life, leaving many things undone. Words unspoken. Dreams unrealized.

We are disarmed not by the artfulness of the sequence but by a graceful artlessness we recognize as truth. It acts as a corrective to the too-neat narratives of Hollywood that force a calming order on life.

 

II.

By the time you read this, I will be thirty years old. That’s 10,957 days, counting leap years. 262,968 hours, 15,778,080 minutes, 946,684,800 seconds. Etc. I break it down this way not because it’s an original way of looking at it, but to illustrate how meaningless such a measurement is. Divided into its smallest units, the number becomes as incomprehensible as records of the dead – days fallen, left behind.

Thirty years is, of course, thirty revolutions of the earth around the sun: this is what it generally means to us. Seasons change, holidays come and go, the ball in Time Square drops and we imagine a fresh start. And maybe there is something innate in such a cycle, something our bodies respond to in a way outside the understanding of science. Or maybe it’s just a convenient cultural marker, a way for us to talk about units of change.

Because that’s all time is: a measurement of change.

But does change always – for lack of a better word – change at the same rate? Anyone who has arrived at this number will tell you there are different ways of being thirty. Some people seem to have it all figured out: they are married, or taking the bar exam, or buying their first home. Others work at McDonalds, drink with their friends after work, perhaps move to another town when things get stagnant. Some don’t even make it to thirty. For everyone who has it figured out, there are probably ten who don’t; and those that claim they do are often just striking a confident pose.

What does it even mean to be thirty? What separates it from being twenty- nine years and three hundred and sixty-four days old? Nothing, scientifically. At least nothing that separates it from any other day tacked on– just another step in the slow decomposition of the body that starts at around twenty-five, I’m told.

But culturally, it does mean something. A lot.

Eighteen. Twenty-one. Thirty, forty, sixty-five. I have left out a couple, I’m sure, but these are the big ones – the birthdays that we are judged by. In this society, we don’t have true rites of passage, though we do have unofficial ones. At eighteen you are a man, generally expected to move out of your parent’s house. You can die at war, vote, smoke cigarettes and look at pornography. At twenty-one, you can drink. At thirty…

Ah, but there’s the crux. These first two ages are defined by privileges and their attendant responsibilities. What can you do at thirty that you can’t at twenty-nine? To the best of my reckoning, it’s not what you can do, but what others expect of you. What the pressure of their expectations can do to you.

 

III.

For the past ten years or so I’ve lived in Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s a city of three hundred thousand, the third biggest in the state. There are two universities, three more colleges. Dozens of bars, plenty of coffee shops, a few used book stores. As a friend of mine puts it, it is a “great place to be in your early twenties, but not such a great place to be in your late twenties.”

This is because it is a college town – as you age, the people around you don’t. Or rather, they graduate, move on, are replaced by another group of undergrads. There is not much reason to stay beside inertia. There are not many jobs for recent graduates – it’s pretty much all bartending or tenure-track professorships. Greensboro is called the Gate City, and though it got this name because it acted as a train hub for much of the state, it has come to mean something different to the current residents: the city as a way station, as a place to catch your breath before diving into real life.

For this reason, those that stay here are generally failures in one way or another. Take, for example, a bar I’ll call the Pizzeria. On any given Friday night – in fact, on any given Monday afternoon – you can find the same five people hunched at the bar, deep in their cups. It’s tempting to judge these people – as, in fact, I now am – because frankly it’s a lot of fun. But more than that, it sets up a distance between you and them – insulates you from becoming one of their ilk. Because when you’re twenty-nine and it’s three o’ clock in the afternoon and you’re in the same bar you’ve been going to since you were allowed to drink (for the braver of us, even earlier than that) you are, to all outside appearances, one of them. A nobody, a failure. A townie. It is only in your mind that you are different.

One day, you tell yourself. One day I will write that novel I have been dreaming of. One day I will meet a nice girl and get married. One day I will leave this place. This is the insidious part of being a twenty-first century American: it’s not just that others judge you by what you have or have not achieved, it’s that you judge yourself. It gets so you don’t want to answer one of the most basic questions: “What have you been doing?” Because the answer, if not nothing, is at least nothing worth talking about. By which you mean: nothing that won’t diminish me in your eyes, and in doing so, in my own.

So you find ways to make yourself sound better, more promising than you are. These are not lies exactly, but a positive spin on reality. You become a PR man for your own life. “I am thinking about applying to grad school,” you say. Translation: I have looked up some schools online and dreamed about how nice it would be to attend one. Or: “I might move to New York. I have some good connections up there.” Translation: I know a few struggling actors.

Still, a young person now has certain freedoms, freedoms our parents gained us through years of costly and painful rebellion (or so the story goes – more likely it was just a gradual loosening of the belt that started generations before).  These freedoms are by and large negative ones: the freedom not to marry at eighteen, not to have three children by twenty-five, not to pick one job and stick with it until your pension kicks in. These are good freedoms – nothing is gained by committing to so much so early, except maybe the illusion of adulthood. But I also wonder if it isn’t part of the problem. You take away all restraints and there’s nothing left. You end up floating in air, untethered as Carl Frederickson’s house in Up. Except instead of floating toward Paradise Falls and a kind of redemption, you are drifting toward nothing at all.

 

IV.

The themes in the opening of Up are not particularly new. That they can be expressed in a single song lyric by one of our most universally loved musicians proves that. And nor was John Lennon the originator of that aphorism: a quick Wikipedia search shows that William Gaddis, Lily Tomlin, and even Reader’s Digest have been credited with the phrase.

Nor is Up the first work of fiction to dramatize it. One of the great – and until recently, greatly neglected – twentieth-century American novelists, Richard Yates, made dashed hopes the subject of his most affecting fictions. The short story “Oh Joseph, I’m So Tired” deals with a talentless sculptor and mother of two who cannot square the life she dreams of leading with the one she ends up leading. This character, probably based on Yates’s own mother, appears in several others works, including the novels The Easter Parade and A Special Providence. As the title of the latter indicates – and this could be the title of any of Yates’s books – she is the subject of a biting authorial irony, as well as a source of pity and frustration for the people around her.

But mothers are not the only ones to see their hopes dashed. Shattered illusions are Yates’s great theme, and nowhere does he treat them more completely and devastatingly than in his acknowledged masterpiece, Revolutionary Road. Set in the early 1960s, it tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a couple who move to suburbia, but consider themselves different from the bland conservatism that threatens to swallow them. April has dreams of acting, while Frank has a desire to do something vaguely artistic; in the meantime, Frank goes to work at the same company his father did and April becomes a housewife. In despair over their failing marriage, they hatch a plan to move to Paris: April will work and Frank will take the time to figure out his “purpose.” But April becomes pregnant and Frank, who was beginning to have doubts about the plan, receives a lucrative job offer. April, desperate not to lose what she sees as their last chance at happiness, administers a self-abortion and dies. Frank is left shattered and empty.

This is Up if the movie ended after the first fifteen minutes – and if Carl and Ellie, and not life’s vagaries, were responsible for the failure to live out their dreams. In Up, Carl is redeemed by his friendship with Russell – a Wilderness Scout who is a younger version of himself – and a belated journey to Paradise Falls, where he learns that the life you dream of leading is not always the one you’re supposed to lead. There is no such redemption for Frank Wheeler: by foolishly clinging to his dreams he destroys the possibility of ever realizing them.

So what is Yates’s solution then? Submit to our bland fate? Apparently not: the reason we identify with the Wheelers is that they are the only characters in the novel who still have the ability to dream. If we give up our dreams, then we are like Mr. Givings, the husband of the Wheelers’ real estate agent. Tired of his wife’s constant gossiping, he turns off his hearing aid so as not to listen to her. This is the novel’s final image: a woman’s lips moving soundlessly, a man engulfed in his own silent world.

 

V.

My parents divorced when I was two years old. I went to live with my mother. While I was too young to have been traumatized by the event – and the word “trauma” should probably be reserved for events like rape and genocide – I do remember the subsequent years of fatherly neglect. I would wait by the door for him to pick me up; he was hours, sometimes days, late. I don’t remember being upset by this, either – though I do remember the elation when he did arrive – but it must have bothered me on some level, because we still have a hard time interacting.

We’ve only recently begun to repair our relationship. I’ve spent a chunk of the last two summers with him in the small town of Tarboro, North Carolina, helping him renovate his Queen Anne-style home. He pays me in food and lodging and whatever cash I need.  The work needs to be done – and he would have to pay a skilled laborer more – but mostly it’s an excuse for us to hang out.

We talk about our lives, which have taken remarkably similar paths in some ways and have diverged in others. Like me, he took most of his twenties to finish his undergrad (I still have not quite done that). Like me, he spent most of that time flitting from city to city, traveling around Latin America, and working low-paying, unskilled jobs. But he also married my mother when he was twenty-two and had me he was twenty-five – two experiences I can’t imagine going through now, let alone at that age. I can’t help but think that if he had waited he might have been a better father: the proof is that I have two happy, well-adjusted half-brothers, Graham and Jacob, and that he and my step-mother have no intention of divorce. The proof is that he is here for me, finally, now.

It was he who shared with me the Michener quote that is one of the epigraphs of this piece. We were talking about Up, which he had seen with Graham and Jacob when it was in the theater. Their uncle, my father’s brother-in-law, was with them. During the opening sequence, he kept leaning across the aisle and pretending to smack Jacob in the head.

I thought you said this was a funny movie,” he would say.

He was playing around, but there’s some truth there, too. For adults, the opening of this movie registers as a painful recognition: we don’t end up doing most of the things we plan to do. I told my father how, now that I was approaching thirty, I could see the sad truth of this idea.

And that’s when he quoted, or misquoted, Michener to me. “You know Michener said it was impossible for a man to waste any time before thirty,” he said. “So I guess you’ve still got… what? A month?”

But Updike said ‘What you don’t do before thirty, you’ll never do,’” I shot back.

So which is it? And are the two even mutually exclusive? The Michener quote is from a novel about twenty-somethings bumming around Europe, a book that begins with the sentence “Youth is truth.” As such, it embodies the romantic idea that the purpose of youth is not to accomplish anything, but to accumulate experience. That this is, in a way, its own accomplishment.

While I couldn’t find the source of the Updike quote – too many random bits of data floating around in my thirty-year-old skull – I suspect it is from one of the Rabbit novels. Perhaps Rabbit thinks it about himself, as a way of dismissing the whimsy of his own dreams. Or perhaps it is in Rabbit is Rich, and he thinks it about his son Nelson, as a way of dismissing the whimsy of youth. Either way, the meaning is the same – something akin to “strike while the iron is hot.” That this phrase should be uttered by a writer who was printed in the New Yorker while still in college, who published his first novel at twenty-five and his first masterpiece just a few years later, is hardly surprising. It was probably this attitude that allowed him to accomplish such things.

But maybe these two statements can be squared. Maybe the time we spend doing “nothing” can be seen as a way of doing something. We might not publish (or even complete) a novel at twenty-five, but we might make the mistakes and accumulate the experiences which allow us to publish that novel later. And maybe this is what Michener really means: that youth is a time of preparation, that as long as a person spends their formative years, well, being formed, then they are not wasted. If so, it’s not what a person doesn’t do before thirty that they’ll never do, but what a person doesn’t get ready to do.  Hence, Michener and Updike are not expressing opposite sentiments but two shades of the same optimism.

Or maybe this is a last lingering bit of my youthful romanticism. Maybe it’s an elaborate justification for all the time I’ve wasted. Can’t it be these things and also be true?

 

VI.

Another book turned movie, The Natural, offers us the solution that Yates’s relentlessly bleak Revolutionary Road refuses. Like Up, it focuses on what we do after our dreams are shattered. Roy Hobbs is a preternaturally gifted baseball player who has his career cut short because of a senseless crime. As he lies in a hospital bed, lamenting the choices he made, he receives the following piece of advice from his one-time lover, Iris.

You know, I always thought we had two lives,” she says.

How…what do you mean?” Roy asks.

The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.”

The meaning is clear: Roy is still a young man. There is a lot of life ahead of him – he can lead it with the knowledge he has gained from his past mistakes. He doesn’t have to wait until he is old and alone like Carl for redemption.

I, for one, look forward to a decade of no more wasted time.  Of course, according to Michener – the true version of the quote, not the one my father misremembered – I’ve got five more years.

 

Looking Beyond the Surfaces in David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: a Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (a Not-Really Review by Raul Clement)



I.

Let’s judge a book by its cover, shall we?

The book in question is David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: a Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, and it is the first work resembling a biography of Wallace since his death by hanging in 2008. As such, it is an odd start – less a biography than a casually edited transcript of a week-long conversation between Wallace and Lipsky – but for right now it’s all we’ve got.

And perhaps it’s fitting that Wallace get to present himself in his own words. Words are, after all, what we come to Wallace for – that unique and explosive alchemy of high and low, of literary and pop, of slangy and technical, of intimate and cerebral. Or as Lipsky describes it in his afterword, placed oddly but cannily before the main text of the book (in imitation of Wallace’s experiments with form, but also so as not to have the reader’s final impression of Wallace be of his tragic death):

“He wrote with eyes and a voice that seemed to be a condensed form of everyone’s lives – it was the stuff you semi-thought, the background action you blinked through at supermarkets and commutes – and readers curled up in the nooks and crannies of his style.”

So ordinary and not. Somehow extra-ordinary, ϋber-ordinary, able to tap into the unarticulated places that we all share.  “A condensed form of everyone’s lives,” emphasis on condensed as contrasted with everyone.  Or as Wallace himself expresses it:

“If a writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart they are. Wake the reader up to stuff that reader’s been aware of all the time.”

This waking up is what we – or at least I – come to great writers for. But for this existential alarm clock to go off, we must see ourselves in the writer. He must be everyone.  And it is the job of the biographer to tease out this everyone – to emphasize the ordinariness over the genius which allows the writer to express it. Genius, if it exists (and is not just the product of concentrated effort), is why we are drawn to writers; ordinariness is what allows us to apprehend genius. Even in a book as seemingly hands-off as Lipsky’s, the agenda of teasing out the ordinariness behind the genius is present.

And we need look no further than the cover to find it.


II.

[Note to the reader: this is not a review in the traditional sense. If you want the subjective opinion of a stranger as to whether this book is “good” or not, there are dozens of those in major newspapers, magazines, and journals around the country. This is, rather, an analysis of the rhetorical project of Lipsky’s book as I see it.]

In the cover photo, Wallace sits in a study or office with his dog on his lap. An innocuous photo, but let’s think for a second about what it means. A dog is middle-American – you could even say middle-world. People of all races, ages, countries, and income backgrounds own dogs. Man’s best friend. The idea here is that Wallace, for all his “tortured brilliance,” is ordinary. Relatable. If you don’t believe me, check out the countless profiles on Wallace which use his dogs, his habit of chewing tobacco, and the fact that he wears a bandana not to be hip but because of his sweating issues, as proof of his ordinariness. Check out Lipsky in the introduction, describing his first impressions of Wallace’s house in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois:

“I’ve also been surprised to find the towel of Barney, subbing as a curtain in his bedroom, and the big poster of the complaint singer Alanis Morissette on his wall.”

But lest the reader forget that, for all his ordinariness, Wallace is in fact extraordinary (and note the word surprised in the previous sentence; Lipsky is surprised chiefly because this ordinariness is unexpected), this scene is set in a study.  A reliquary of thought and creative production. He is surrounded by books. Stacked sideways and at crazy angles, presenting a view of the artist as someone who can’t be bothered with the details. Not pretentious, however – the lone book spine we can read is The Encyclopedia of Film, which while no doubt a substantial volume, is hardly Wittgenstein. This could very well be coincidence – and I’m not saying all these details are calculated – but it achieves the desired effect of the cover as a whole: to make the extraordinary relatable, to make genius ordinary.

If we share so much with a brilliant mind, the cover suggests, perhaps, by a kind of transitive property of human intellect, we too can be brilliant.

Now let’s move to the title. Although. Of course. You. End Up. Becoming. Yourself. I’ve broken it down into discrete language units to emphasize how important each is in conveying the central idea of the book. Appropriately enough, the phrase comes straight from Wallace’s mouth – a toss-off line in the context of a book-length interview, but one which takes on new weight when made to stand alone on the front cover and, in doing so, to speak for the book as a whole.

Although: This gives the effect of an ongoing conversation we are just now joining. A classic postmodern technique (yes, at this point we can say that: classic postmodern), the idea that narrative has no beginning or end – and it is one that plunges us into the moment and creates a sense of casualness that a more rigid structure would deny.

Of course: creates a rhetorical bond between reader and writer. “We both know this,” it says. Now let’s think about it together.” This is a technique Wallace uses frequently in his nonfiction and some of his best fiction (see the narrator of Infinite Jest), a position which implies the reader is every bit as smart as Wallace. That this is a lie – we wouldn’t be reading him if he weren’t somehow smarter, more alive than us – is beside the point. It’s a lie that flatters us and makes us feel at home in the text.

You: Just as the slightly awkward abutment of the two prepositions although and of course creates a sense of naturalness – which in turn seems honest, and therefore inspires trust – so does the familiar pronoun you. You is the same thing as one, but in place of this stiff, academic generalization, we have a word that points at the reader and includes him in the generalization. Like of course, it establishes a rhetorical bond: the you here is closer to we than it is to one. It is, in fact, all of us.

End Up: I’m going to skip over this for now, since the important thing is how it plays off of becoming. I will say, however, that it has an informal quality that fits with the title as a whole.

Becoming: This book is a process. While it chronicles a road trip, it is also a trip toward the self. Wallace’s self, yourself. The interesting thing is that this self is not a birthright – it is a destination, somewhere you end up. This is another postmodern idea, the self as constructed, but with a twist. You don’t create the self you would like to be – though there is a great deal of that going on in this book – but the self you need to be. Or maybe it is not created at all, but discovered. As in Wallace’s writing, postmodern techniques are used for old-fashioned ends.  Moral ends.

(Here, for reference, is the excerpt on the back of the book, which I feel comfortable including under the umbrella of the cover:

“If you can think of the times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings.  The ability to do that with ourselves…I know that sounds a little pious.”

Everything is here. The casualness, the self-awareness – “I know that sounds a little pious” – the idea of self as active creation. As moral duty.)

Yourself: We are along on this process of self-discovery with Wallace. Anything that happens to him happens to us. His problems and questions are ours. As such we relate to genius – become it, in fact – which is precisely the reason we read the biographies of extraordinary people to begin with.

We want to understand why we are not them, sure, but we also don’t want to lose the dream of becoming them.


III.

How do these themes carry forward into the book? At first glance, Lipsky’s biography appears to be the product of laziness – a quick cash-in on the Wallace legacy. As mentioned, the book is essentially a direct transcript of a week-long conversation between Lipsky and Wallace during Wallace’s tour in promotion of Infinite Jest. Lipsky’s intrusions are minimal. I will quote a few at random, not so much for their content, but so that you get a sense of their flavor.

A few section headings so that we know where we are:

“First Day,” one reads, “David’s House, Tuesday Before Class, In the Living Room Playing Chess, His Dogs Slinking Back and Forth Over Carpet.”

Bracketed asides contain additional thoughts of Lipsky’s – sometimes purely informative, sometimes meditative, sometimes undermining – about Wallace or the subject at hand:

“[Hums while playing chess: not tremendously good at chess; strong, however, at humming]”

Or later, as they discuss why Wallace won’t take an advance on his work:

“[This remains chess: as if I’m trying to trick him into castling prematurely.]”

But mostly they talk: about the way literature works, about the perils of fame, about what it means to be human in an age of nonstop self-gratification. To readers of Wallace, these will be familiar themes – present in almost every word he wrote. But they also talk about Bruce Willis movies, Wallace’s boyish crush on Alanis Morrisette (endearingly, Wallace keeps calling one of her songs “I Wanna Know” instead of “You Oughta Know”), about Wallace’s desire to get laid on tour and his disappointment that it hasn’t happened yet.

Again: ordinariness combined with extraordinariness. The conversation flows between these two modes with the naturalness of, well, a conversation. Lipsky is more archivist/editor than writer. His interruptions have the informative purpose and staccato style of editor’s notes. What this does is allow us to be there with him.

If Wallace, in his writing – and Lipsky and his editors with the design and format of this book – makes every attempt to have us feel that his mental journey is ours, then we are also Lipsky, along for the ride. By using the road trip as the book’s organizing principle, Lipsky not only literalizes the internal journey (just as the external journey is made metaphor by the title), but he furthers the impression of Wallace’s ordinariness. Road trips traffic in the mundane: hotels, Denny’s restaurants, time spent cramped in rental cars or waiting at baggage claims. Bad pop radio, hours with nothing to do but talk.

Bond.

And bond they do. At first, Wallace is guarded. He gives the answers he thinks Lipsky wants. He is careful to downplay the impact of his newfound fame and his excitement over the book tour. Part of this, as he states repeatedly, is a way of making sure he stays grounded. But it is also a calculated attempt to seem humble and unpretentious. Here is one of Lipsky’s asides:

“[He has sized me up as a guy who likes “laying”… I now know he did this sort of thing as an approach, and I can see it here, his trying to guess what people, what I wanted.  That’s who he is too: trying to read people.]”

This is not to say he is being dishonest. Rather, it’s honesty with a motive. The simple and miraculous thing that happens in the course of this book is that the motive seems to drop away – or maybe it simply changes, from manipulation to communication. Wallace begins to trust Lipsky. Compare this to the earlier talk of getting laid:

I really have wished I was married, the last couple of weeks. Because yeah, it’d be nice to have somebody to um—you know, because nobody quite gets it.  Your friends who aren’t in the writing biz are just all awed by your picture in Time, and your agent and editor are good people, but they also have their own agendas. You know?  And it’s fun talking with you about it, but you’ve got an agenda and a set of interests that diverges from mine. And there’s something about, there would be something about having somebody who kinda shared your life, and uh, that you could allow yourself just to be happy and confused with.

It’s probably naïve to think that this version of Wallace is any less calculated than previous incarnations. Wallace is too smart for that. But the effect has changed. We get, more than any other place in the book, a deep sense of his loneliness. It’s at this moment we fully feel the death not of Wallace the writer (extraordinary), whose loss we already feel or else we wouldn’t be reading this biography, but of Wallace the human being (ordinary). The book has achieved its rhetorical goal, not through any calculated and – in the most literal sense – superficial means of cover artwork and title, but by allowing Wallace the room to speak. To become himself.

And it’s therefore not surprising that in this moment, when we are closest to the felt impact of Wallace’s death, he seems at his most alive.

Book Review of Curtis Smith’s BAD MONKEY

Spending/Reading Politically: Curtis Smith’s Bad Monkey

by Raul Clement


Historically speaking, I don’t read much work from small presses and journals.  I am well aware of the arguments against this: 1) as an aspiring professional, I should support the industry that I hope will support me; 2) there’s a lot of good stuff out there that doesn’t get picked up by major New York presses; 3) politically, not supporting small presses is like shopping at Wal-Mart over your local grocery.  Yet I tend to stick to Barnes & Noble.  Indy for me is McSweeney’s or Tin House.

Recently, I won a drawing from Press 53. The prize was a book of my choice from their catalog. Because of my ignorance about small presses, I pretty much had to pick at random.  I chose Bad Monkey, a book of short fiction by Curtis Smith, for two reasons, both superficial: 1) the title struck me as amusing; and 2) I liked the cover.

It turns out you can judge a book by its cover—if that cover is a monochrome photo of a shirtless man crouched, monkey-like, on a back alley stairwell.  The photo promised a collection that was quirky and dark—and those adjectives apply.  There are stories about abduction, Russian mobsters, Ukrainian rapists, and demolition derbies. This is not the plotless, slice-of-life fiction so popular in journals, large and small, these days.

Even better news is that these stories avoid the pitfall of other work of their kind: stylization. Curtis Smith knows that high drama, in order to be believable and compelling, must be grounded in careful prose and attention to detail.  He writes about the most over-the-top subject matter with a subdued lyricism that reminds me of writers of a more traditional bent, like John Updike.

Here is a passage from the first story in the collection, “The Girl in the Halo.” It is told in the second person, the “you” being a teenage misfit in a high school of rich kids. One of these kids, a girl named Sally for whom “you” harbored secret feelings, has gone missing—presumably not willingly. In this scene, Smith observes the effect of her absence on the chemistry lab she and “you” took together:

“…how many bleary mornings had you spied on her, her purple pen scribbling notes and Mr. Fink droning on as he held one of his molecules, a slapped-together collection of spheres and connecting sticks that reminded you of a child’s toy.”

I’m not going to pretend that there’s anything groundbreaking here. But it’s solid, unflashy writing. It starts with “bleary,” which evokes the drag that high school was for most, while being a word we can read right past. But what really gets me here—what really takes a sledgehammer to my cynical reader’s heart—is the purple pen, encapsulating as it does an entire world of vanished innocence and half-realized femininity.  And the molecular model is great, too: who doesn’t remember these, and yet who remembered that he remembered them?

This is what good fiction’s all about: the oft-referenced “shock of recognition.”  By generating that shock, Smith earns the right to tell a story in the second-person (and present tense at that, though the above quote doesn’t demonstrate it).  He earns the right to sensationalist subject matter.  I am not going to give away the ending, but suffice to say, it’s a killer—pun certainly intended.

There are flaws in this collection. At times, the writing can wander into the excessively literary. At these moments, it reminded me of the worst stuff from small journals and presses—writing that adopts the tone of “good” writing, while having none of the feeling or insight. Here’s an offender from the same story, concerning the rumors that have circulated around school regarding Sally’s disappearance:

“Daryl Stone claims he spotted Blake’s red car on the other side of the Duke street railroad crossing, and between the hoppers’ cars flickering, thundering parade, he saw a blonde in the passenger seat…but when the caboose passed, the car was gone, the gate’s zebra-striped arm raised over a deserted macadam patch.”

I seriously doubt Daryl Stone described the scene this way. Now one can argue that this is the way “you” re-imagine(s) it. But there are similar instances throughout the collection, where Smith loses track of his characters in an ecstasy of linguistic posturing. Here’s one from “Without Words”:

“Ambrose, a cost analyst by trade and thus skilled in calculations and extrapolations, could have predicted these things, but when her loaded-down car pulled from the curb, what he couldn’t have predicted was the greater absences that would find him, his life’s unappreciated scaffolding of love and trust and faith sent crashing to the ground.”

I trust you can see why this is bad—or maybe not bad, but merely competent. A little bullshitty. Additionally, there are several examples of flash fiction here, which in trying to pack too much punch in too small a space, fail to achieve resonance. Maybe some people will like them; I preferred the more expansive work, where Smith’s lyrical aggregation has time to take hold.

But these flaws are, by and large, overlookable. Stories like “Think on Thy Sins”—in which a series of questionable moral decisions lead to one of the most bad-ass, and emotionally damaging eruptions of violence in recent short fiction—more than justify the $12 cover price which I cleverly avoided, but which you will have to pay. An earlier collection, The Species Crown, is next up on my list. I will shell out hard cash for it, and unlike when I shop at Barnes & Noble, I will know my money is going to the preservation of something real.

This could be the beginning of beautiful friendship.


Raul Clement is a musician and writer living in Greensboro, NC. His work appears in such journals and anthologies as Coe Review, Mayday Magazine, and Main Street Rag, among others. He is currently at work, with co-author Okla Elliott, on Joshua City — a Brechtian, po/mo, sci-fi novel replete with lepers, revolutionaries, and Siamese triplets who can see the future. An excerpt from Joshua City appeared in Surreal South 2009.