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Brian Chappell

Animal Collection is a new book of stories by Colin Winnette (author of Revelation, discussed here at THEthe). Like his previous book, it is a subtle blend of experimentation and dramaturgy. The concept: each story contains some kind of animal behaving in unusual and, in some cases, very human ways. From being cuckolded by a beaver, to falling in love with a hummingbird, to being impregnated by an iguana, human characters interact with animals in intimate and occasionally visceral ways. The result is a commentary on the strangeness of our own behavior, and the collection is proof of the power of certain art forms to defamiliarize ourselves to ourselves. This, to me, is the potent achievement of Animal Collection.

Here is the interview:

Brian: When we spoke about Revelation, a major theme of the conversation was the happy constraints of a framing concept. Here we have a collection of stories, each of which revolves around the image of a certain animal. How did this concept occur to you?  How “happy” of a constraint was it?

Colin: The germ for this project was pure constraint…or, better, like a dare / challenge I gave to myself because I was afraid. I had been asked to participate in a reading put on by Publishing Genius and Beecher’s Magazine at AWP DC a few years ago. I was super excited about the reading, many writers I admire were participating, and so I kept googling the reading and looking for info. Then, like the day before the flight, I discovered a poster for the event that claimed all of the authors had chosen an animal to write about and would then read that story in front of said animal’s cage…I had not done that. So I was sort of terrified and convinced of my own failure. Then there was a blizzard in Chicago (where I was living). A major one. All flights were grounded, school was cancelled, six feet of snow fell in something like two or three hours, and people were buried in their cars on Lakeshore Drive. Hunkered down in my apartment, nervous I would never make it to AWP in all of that, I decided to write 26 stories, one for each letter of the alphabet, each of which would center around an animal they had in custody at the Washington D.C. Zoo. A lot of these stories were awful, but some I loved. That was how the whole thing started. I wrote a lot more, revised considerably, and worked out a larger, more considered structure for the collection itself over the next few years. So, in a way, it was the happiest of constraints…except for those poor folks on Lakeshore Drive.

Brian: We have stories of metamorphosis, anthropomorphism, and something in between. In your thinking about this project, did you envision a clear boundary between the animal and the human? Is there a scale or spectrum of humanness or animal-ness? It’s obviously more fluid than that, but how fluid was it in your mind when you conceived of these scenarios?

Colin: The overall project, initially, was extremely fluid. As it came together, I began to detect certain underlying structures, and I worked to tease those out or, sometimes, to counteract them. Every story operates on slightly different terms so the boundaries shift. They are specific to each piece, and to the function of the “animal” in that particular piece.

Brian: More than even metamorphosis, we have visceral images of the human merging with the animal – eating a tarantula, having sex with an octopus, aborting an iguana baby, having one’s private space completely overrun by insects and vermin (which include men, in one story). This to me was a very disturbing turn, which contrasted with the lighter and outright funny tone of some of the other pieces (but maybe that’s because I’m squeamish in general). I guess the question is – if a story collection is a recipe comprised of different flavors, how did you manage the balance of the various flavors we have here?

Colin: This was a topic of much conversation with a  friend of mine, actually. The poet Ben Clark read these stories over and over again while I was working on them. He read many of the stories I wound up deleting and drafts of the stories that wound up looking completely different. At one point, he sorted all of the stories into separate categories. Something like: animal as human, human as animal, animal into human, human into animal, and so on. The various functions of the animal figure, as he could best figure them. So that was a helpful guide. But, more than anything, I was guided by the associative qualities of whatever animal occurred to me at the time I was writing the piece. That was a way I secured a certain level of variation throughout the text. Whichever animal occurred to me when I was setting out to write one of the stories would come with a cluster of associations. Some fairly common or general, and others deeply personal. Those associations dictated the movement of the story, and what was possible. So the stories had a kind of emotional and intellectual logic to them from the get go, which I then refined during revision. For that reason, some of the variation I hoped for was pretty much there from the beginning, but Ben helped me to see the “recipe,” helped to point out the ingredients, so that I might balance the whole thing more purposefully.

Brian: One unifying component of pretty much all the stories is the breakdown of relationships – lovers, families, friends. How does envisioning people as certain animals aid this feeling of disconnection and dissolution? Could it be misconstrued as a distraction (i.e., why not just depict humans as humans, rather than as animals?), or is that part of the point?

Colin: Well, I grew up on Disney films, so who knows what kind of havoc that wreaked on my sense of what exactly is “human,” but…

It’s different in each story, but the function of each animal brings something to the equation that I feel wouldn’t be there otherwise. For example, the iguana. That story is terrifying to me. It’s a joke my friend Blake and I used to make, that we always thought our parents didn’t understand us, when the reality is, they just couldn’t sometimes. It wasn’t possible. It’s entirely possible that I know Blake better than his parents ever could, just because we’re about the same age. The terms of our era were so radically different from our parents’, the disconnect was so severe, there was just no real way to bridge the gap. Any parents who are willing to listen to their kids and genuinely accept what they think and feel and do, without question, without feeling complete alienation and bewilderment every once in awhile, those are some pretty amazing people…or they’re faking it. It’s the kind of parent I hope to be (the genuine article, the amazing kind, not the faker), but what terrifies me is the question of whether I will have the self-awareness to realize when I’m not. Anyway, the joke Blake and I used to make was that it was easy to say parents “just don’t understand,” up until the day your kid is suddenly dating a Tyrannosaurus, and all you can think to say is, “I just don’t want you hanging out with that dinosaur! It’s unnatural!” Of course there’s something about racism in there too, I suppose, but for me it’s more about feeling fundamentally alienated from your child’s life. Or that’s the hook of the story. That’s what complicates it. I mean, would you have allowed her to birth the iguana?

And, just for the record, humans are totally animals.

Brian: Speaking of – the other major “human” theme is one that I’ve already briefly mentioned – the invasion of one’s space and privacy. To what extent is this a comment on the fact that the spaces and zones we build around ourselves are arbitrary and fragile? Am I putting words in your mouth here? Better than a tarantula, I guess. Stylistically, though, one way to convey this invasion of privacy (beyond various really creepy scenes) is the use of the second person. You open the collection in the second person, and one entire story consists simply of “You are here.” Who is you in Animal Collection? How many you’s are there?

Colin: Arbitrary and fragile, yes. Those are words I would use…and even have used when answering earlier questions. Each You, as with each animal, and each story, is very different. It is a way of incorporating the reader at times, or of generating an extra-textual character who is being addressed. For example, the Beaver story does not ask that the reader occupy the space of the You, any more than he/she would any other character. But the You story, that’s all about you, Brian, or me, or whoever is holding the book, really. On the one hand, it’s extremely literal. It’s also a joke. A bit of fun. But one that I felt was essential. It’s one of the last ones I wrote. I was pretty proud of it.

Brian: We have lots of animals, but also lots of voices and perspectives. As many as there are stories, really. This builds on that multivocal component of Revelation. I tell my students that writing is less akin to directing a film as it is to acting in one. How do you get your mind around the different voices and personae from story to story, especially when they’ll only live and breathe for a short time? To what extent do you “become” the voices you depict?

Colin: I abandon a story pretty quickly if I can’t embody the characters I’m writing. For me, it’s literally a physical sensation. I can feel it. I move in certain weird ways sometimes when I’m writing. You’re completely right that it’s like acting in a film, rather than directing it. Although, sometimes, once you know your characters well enough, and if you want to create a kind of stiffness or something, you can move them around like a director, like set pieces. I didn’t do that much here in AC, but I did do that a little in Revelation. They’re different projects, but they do overlap in certain areas. With AC, I was very invested in the voice of each character, or each story. It comes out when I read them, which is something I really love to do. (As a side note, whenever I read the “Tarantula” story, someone inevitably asks, “did you really…?”). I can’t say exactly what caused it, it likely has to do with the associative qualities each animal brings to the story, and what those associations allowed me to access. I was also able to play around a lot with these pieces, so I wasn’t stuck in one voice for any particular length of time. I could start writing and ride the wave of a particular voice until it stopped. Until it was done, and I could just end right there. I didn’t have to keep coming back to it and dragging more out of it. What I loved about writing this book is that I felt so free to make each piece be exactly the length it needed to be. I felt no pressure to extend a piece to make it more like a “short story” or to cut the longer pieces down so they better fit with the flash pieces. The book needed range. It required a variety of approaches to telling a story—and these are all stories, even if they’re poems. It’s a bestiary, an abecedarium, a zoo. It’s an animal collection.

The setting, Yahia reminds me more than once, is a little absurd. We meet at McGinty’s Irish Pub in Silver Spring, situated in a bustling commercial environment, across from a cineplex and multi-storied shoe store. This woodpaneled simulacrum of authenticity, shutting out as much sunlight as it could, served as our original meeting place, a year and a half ago, to discuss Yahia’s book Trial By Ink. We had sipped beers and discussed his intellectual and spiritual awakenings, my recording device picking up the ambient noise of soccer, classic rock, and the increasing din of patrons. Today, the environment is a little sunnier, and much warmer, but still not exactly conducive to discussing mysticism.

The pub, and Silver Spring itself, very much constitute what Yahia, in The Artist As Mystic, a new book of conversations with fellow aphorist Alex Stein, calls the “here-world”: “Silver Spring,” he assures me in a way that only subtly hints of irony, “has restaurants, bookstores, cinema, and the general feeling that something is happening. What else can you ask for?” But the artist’s often troublesome relationship to the “here-world,” the humdrum of taking out the trash, answering the phone, and trying to live each day as a citizen, husband, etc., is a subtext of this book. Its subtitle is “Conversations with Yahia Lababidi,” but Yahia calls them a series of “lyric interviews…controlled hallucinations,” in which he “eavesdrops on [his] dreams,” then speaks them out loud to Alex. Alex, through his “creative listening,” provides the “music” of their arrangement, turning them into a viable, readable book. Their ruminations address the general topic of art and mysticism, or, the extent to which artists are able to navigate the “here-world” of lived life and the “there-world” of their own dreams.

To speak of this problem Yahia allows himself to be “spoken by” major figures whom he consistently refers to as “these guys”: Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Kierkegaard (among other minor characters such as Bataille, Eliot, and Ekelund). Just how “Any biographer is one who is clever at confessing through the mask of another…They can very discreetly tuck themselves in…They’re lending it their own breath, their everything,” Yahia uses these figures as masks through which he can dramatize his own inner conflicts. But this is the point – he reminds Alex in the introduction that “mortui vivos docent,” the dead shall teach the living, that we are always in conversation, and therefore a conversation, he tells me, was the “optimal form for expressing ideas that are too slippery for other forms…We were letting these ideas have play. You are a midwife. You show up with a body, because ghosts need a body to communicate, then as soon as you can get them to hold hands, you can say ‘please never mind me.’” But, he reminds me, “I don’t want to make the artist sound too precious because they are just a metaphor for everybody…the artist draws from the same well; he only makes a bigger show of the pulling, prodding, and partaking of its contents.” Artists self-consciously display the things that we all inherently struggle with; “[these thinkers] are talking to one another, and we’re talking through them.”

The conversations with Alex are Yahia’s way of demonstrating that “between any two artists there are more similarities than differences,” and that the closer you look, the more their affinities arise. Their affinities, Yahia and Alex argue, reside not in the life of the mind. “I was exasperated with the mind aspect,” Yahia asserts, “I’ve arrived at the very edge of my mind and it’s thin and flat and I’m not interested in it anymore.” For too long “these guys” have been examined and critiqued like specimens, the spiritual urgency of their visions suffocated beneath the trappings of the academic; “we are rescuing dear friends from a stuffy academic party and saying ‘come out!’” The Artist as Mystic uncovers just how each of these figures “comes out” to touch a level of being beyond the “here-world.”

These artists recognized that their existences were “exalted,” which means, Yahia affirms in the book’s introductory discourse, that they were “called to service…The life of the artist may not be apparently monastic, or holy, but there is the same sense of sacrifice, vocation, of having been entrusted with something greater and dearer than one’s own happiness. Imagine! To hold something more dear than one’s own happiness. That cannot be a voluntary thing.” Indeed, for some like Baudelaire, it may lead you to become a “neurasthenic idler,” wallowing in the paralysis this condition may bring. It is a lonely condition, which consists, Yahia asserts, quoting Heidegger, of “longing [which] is the agony of the nearness of the distant.” “That got me,” he says, “It seemed that it was right there. It! I could almost brush it with my fingertips. But it wasn’t right there.” For those who can break free of “neurasthenia” one concept rings true: “I kept coming back to the idea of attention. Attention is the artist’s mode of prayer…I think of those times when I fly in my dreams. I think there must be some connection between how I fly in my dreams and this state I sometimes come to in writing when I feel that I am aloft, ecstatic. The thing I want to say: In my dreams, it is blinking that brings me back to the ground…When I have fallen, I don’t know how to get back into that state. But if there is a formula, I think it must have to do with attention.”

In this sense artistry borders on meditation, which requires the focused channeling of the whole being. One can see how this might lead an artist to become a bit of a misfit, or even a frail neurasthenic, or worse. So, I ask him, how do you negotiate these two modes of existence? “With extreme difficulty,” he says, “I have gross tendencies toward imbalance…But you used this great unstuck simile last time. You said I am unstuck from space and time, like an aphorism, scurrying to find some balance, always.” As for these guys, and the new book about them, Yahia and Alex agreed that “the balance of light has to outweigh the darkness.” Yahia admits that he has his moments where he is “marinated in irreality” and he’s able to work with precise uninterrupted attention. But for the most part, he says, especially as we get older, it’s harder to find those moments of sustained purity. They are replaced by what he calls “interstices,” which resemble dream states, which more or less occur accidentally, appearing like Alice’s rabbit hole. But, ultimately, the goal is “to turn an accident into a summer home, where you return with some sort of intentionality and regularity if you’re lucky.”  Spending time with Yahia and, to use his words, “breathing in” his energy, I can see how important the quest for interstices is to him. He elaborates:

At the risk of sounding completely like a mad person, it’s like a dream state, whether it’s a daydream or an actual dream. It’s a noncommittal state; you’re abstracted enough in the world of ideas. It’s a diffusion of vision, not an everyday life. You abstract, you see everything around it and beyond it. Solitude helps, silence helps, reading helps, to sort of rev up. Another person helps, to sort of nudge you there. To be really fair, it’s always grasped at, it’s not like you show up and say ‘It’s me again!’ [knocking, now, on the table]…The cage seeks the bird. The violin seeks the wood. I’d be flat out lying if I said I’d found a way to go back. If anything I’m trying to find a way not to be denied going back. I know the things I need to do to not be denied from going back. Work is one way of doing it. You do what you need to do throughout the day and you don’t expect it.

His candor about spiritual things is refreshing, but most of its resonances in the book are filtered through “these guys.” To be with Yahia in conversation is to encounter the full range of his feelings on the subject. I begin to see how the book took shape, over the year plus of dialogue with Stein.

Alex used a phrase to describe the core of these spiritual movements. He calls it a “rage for transformation,” which he perceives in each of the figures discussed in the book, centering, for example, on Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with its monumental final line, “You must change your life.” “You could have said ‘Boo!’ and I would not have been more surprised,” Yahia confesses. But it’s this desire for transformation that drives these artists beyond the “here-world” and into, yes, mysticism. Yahia tells me:

Transformation – yes brother – yeah [clasping his hands together], that’s what it’s all about. But again that’s where the writer is a metaphor for everyone. This is not some academic, esoteric, rarefied project. This is something where everyone is going about in their own ways, maybe without declaring it as such, but it is about transformation. All of these guys, if they have anything in common, that’s the ultimate thing. But it doesn’t belong to philosophy as it does to mysticism. And that’s where we’re comfortable talking about the mystic enterprise vs. the spiritual one. Because the mystic is the one who’s denounced as heretic, because he’s gone too far. There’s no measuring stick; maybe they’re the ones who have to go too far to make someone else realize what is the way. They have to declare themselves divine and then go mad and then backtrack a little bit and realize that that’s an imbalance. All of these guys somehow suspect that they are imbalanced. That’s the difference between the balanced spiritual life or the philosophical life that is very rational…and the mystic, who is reckless and very keen to arrive at once and risk everything, not caring one bit what’s at stake. And these guys interest me now [for] this recklessness, because they didn’t hold anything back, and they didn’t calculate, or care very much, for what they might lose. Everything might just be enough – it might not be enough – but it might just be enough. When you don’t give everything, that space in between might be depression, madness. You’re gambling with that.

It is a constant quest without arrival, a pushing to the edges of parameters, “using the mind to overthrow the mind. Using words to overthrow words.” “It’s a continual clearing of the way,” he muses, “You’re always mid-leap. That’s why you’re always aching. That’s because you can never relax into a normal sitting position.”

Toward the end of our conversation, it became more apparent that Yahia prefers balance to the dangers of approaching the mystical. I asked him, expecting him to reply with one of “these guys” or another like them, if he could only read one person forever, who would it be? Without hesitation, he says:

At this stage, I’m less interested in these guys than I’ve ever been. It was very difficult for me to return to them…The Book of Tao – it’s impersonal enough that I’m not wrestling with one person, especially when I have to return to [these thinkers], but I’m very aware of the all-too-human dimension behind it all. I knew that they shat, or slept, or ate, or betrayed their effervescent persona. They were creatures of their own time and they weren’t always aligned to their own version of themselves. Because of that and because of their psychosexual specificity, I’m done with that, because I’ve got my own psychosexual specificity to deal with. I’m also getting older…meaning it’s unbecoming for me to be under the sway of anyone. It’s not as necessary or valid for me. Something like the Tao is a freer space and something that I don’t want to be reading on a daily basis, but every time I return to it – I really think I’d give up all these guys for this one book.

His preference for the Tao seems to indicate a new turn in Yahia’s spiritual quest. Replacing the mad searching with a balanced rendering of the scale between “here-world” and “there-world.” But will he miss these guys? Ultimately, he finally says, “Writing is a way of looking away from something, so you can look on to something else. It’s a way of saying that they are alive and they are relevant. They are worth picking up. But it’s also a way of saying a grateful goodbye.”

The Artist As Mystic emphasizes this gratitude. It captures the earnestness and urgency of Yahia’s discourse, which is really only fully encountered in conversations like these. Since our first encounter, he and I have become friends, and he never ceases to exude a refreshing spiritual energy. He’s worth reading for that alone. But this is a viable critical/biographical work of any of these figures – Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kierkegaard – for the very reason Stein and Yahia claim. That is, while Yahia breathes knowledge of the life and works of these men, the main aim of the project is one of recovery. It’s not a “study” of them as much as a grateful encomium, an example of how spiritually enriching criticism and biography can be written. Therefore the book is ultimately a way for Yahia to be “spoken by” these guys, to offer his own take on art and mysticism through his formidable interlocutors. I am grateful to be spoken by him, even if for a brief interstice.

Brian: My favorite aspect of your novel, one that other “Armageddon” narratives mostly miss, is that the sky may fall, but still nothing is more terrifying than one’s own death (or even one’s own life).  I guess this is a statement posing as a question.

Colin: I like this.  Thanks, Brian.

Brian: A writer friend and I debate over concept v. character. I don’t consider your book to be a “postmodernist rewrite.” But some might. Did you envision this book in that light? To what extent do you see yourself as an “experimental” writer?

Colin: I don’t view it as a rewrite so much as an interpretation, and a loose one at that.  Obviously I pick and choose which elements from the Book of Revelation I’m interested in working with.  I set down a frame on a particular section of a particular translation and worked with those elements. I’m working with the material much in the way that the characters are.  I’m responding to a  limited set of external stimuli, drafting a story in response.

As for the “experimental writer” thing…I’m going to go ahead and say I would accept being called as much by someone else, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it about myself.  In a literal sense, Revelation is a long-form experiment.  In one sense, especially early on, I was balancing a variety of narrative modes against one another to see the effects.  But I also feel like “experimental” has become a way of describing a certain style of work that resists recognizable trends in “realist” fiction.  This is going to date me a little, but I think of a band like Modest Mouse and how everyone would always describe them as “indie,” even long after they were on a major label.  It had more to do with their sound than anything else.  There’s a certain “indie” feel to it.  This is done all the time.  Bands have an “indie” sound, or writers have an “experimental” vibe, even though most of the work that’s out there being called “experimental” is as heavily codified and traditional as what people often call “traditional” (by which they most often mean “realist” or narrative).

Brian: This is interesting. I focus on what some call “unnatural” narratives. That is, anti-mimetic strategies that stretch the reader’s cognitive parameters. Problem is, “unnatural” strategies, such as, say, the experimentations of postmodernism, are very quickly “naturalized,” or incorporated into a set of parameters readers have come to expect. Do you feel pressure to challenge those parameters? Are we always trying to be one step ahead of incorporation? What does the MFA workshop, which wants you to be able to sell your books, say about this?

Colin: I’m interested in working with the expectations of the reader.  For certain projects, I’ll engage with familiar tropes or narrative modes, recognizable genre ticks, references of one kind or another, etc., and use them in specific ways.  Of course, it’s impossible to predict how people will ultimately respond to a provocation or proposition, regardless of the thought and care that went into it.  And I’m also interested in this.  I find it fascinating and extremely useful that you can introduce elements of the “familiar” by opening a story in a particular way, or saying a particular thing at a particular time, and yet every reader will have a different set of associations to a “familiar” thing.  So what you’re really doing is loading the work with a moment of recognition.  It’s a tool in the toolbox.  The thing is, the “parameters” you’re talking about, what tricks are “naturalized” or “familiar,” those are shifting all the time.  So it feels pointless to me to challenge them directly.  Rather, you can use them to enhance or complicate the work in some way.  I gave my grandmother a copy of Revelation because she was very excited about the fact that I had written a book and someone had published it, etc.  But I talked to her a few months later and she said she had to put it down because she felt she wasn’t familiar enough with the Book of Revelation to read it.  Her plan was, and I suppose still is, to reread the biblical version of the story in order to prepare herself for taking this book on.  Now if you’ve read the book, you’ll know that’s entirely unnecessary.  Maybe it would enhance your read in some way, but everything that needs to be there is in the book itself.  At least in my opinion.  But I’m interested in the way her expectations of the book shift due to a structural conceit.  If she ever returns to Revelation, studied up and thoroughly “prepared” for the material, the questions at the center of the book will be as present as they would have been otherwise, only maybe she’ll feel them more deeply because they will resist the information she’s brought to the book with her.  Where, she might ask, is the God I’ve come to know?  Why is the believer in the same position as the non-believer?  What/where is salvation?  But this book is not the Book of Revelation.  It’s not even a re-telling, really.  It’s something else entirely.  It functions on its own terms, even though it incorporates and uses a variety of familiar narrative modes.  Alternatively, if I had attempted to write something that was a direct challenge to those modes, I feel like it could no longer be said that the work functions on its own terms.  I’m tempted to say that if I wanted to “challenge” the Bible, I would just hand out copies of the Bible to as many people as possible.

But back to your question, I think we want to innovate.  That means different things to different people.  Most people want work that explores new ground, digs a little deeper, maybe, or addresses something abandoned or untouched, or recasts the die, etc.  This is as true of the “experimental” writer as it is of the YA novelist.  So, as you’re making work, it helps to know what you’re ambitions are.  And I think young writers tend to feel that more than know it.  No one in my MFA program was too concerned with me selling my work.  In fact, when I pressed faculty for information, everyone seemed just about as confused and unsure of the game as I was. I won’t go into it here, but it’s obvious that the face of publishing is changing and has been for some time.  The people I listened to most at school were those who encouraged me to make the work I wanted to make, and trust that if I kept at the whole publishing thing I would eventually land on my feet.  At the very least, during those desperate nights when you feel you’ll never make it as a writer, that no one will read your work, let alone pay you for it, that your “career” is a joke, etc. (we all have these nights, right?  Or maybe some poor souls feel this way in the morning…), but at the very least you’ll have a folder full of work that you love and that means something to you.  That’s not enough for everyone, but at one point it was something that kept me going.  It got me to this point, where I’m a little more comfortable with myself.  I don’t ever think you can shake the fears, the doubts, the reservations, but you can make it to a point where they’re no longer driving the car.  This is something a teacher of mine once told me, another thing that stuck, that you’ll never get rid of fear and self-doubt, but as long as you don’t let them take control, you’ll be alright.  They can even be useful.

Brian: That’s beautifully put. Thank you. We have Marcus’ whole life in a slim volume. Did you always envision this book as being relatively minimalist? Why did this approach speak to you the most?

Colin: I knew the book would need to be spare.  I wrote a lot more than is included and edited it out or set it aside knowing it would never go into the book in the first place.  I drafted the in-between scenes and most of what (in the book) happens off stage.  For example, the letter Marcus is obsessing over in the second chapter, I have that written out and saved in a folder on my computer.  The exact wording of the letter is irrelevant for the book, because for that scene what matters is not what the letter says, but the way Marcus is reading the letter.

Also, throughout the book, I wanted a clear sense of how things had moved in the characters’ lives.  I needed to be able to write each new chapter as if it were continuing a story, rather than picking up at some random point and beginning again.   I was interested in a story that feels clear and direct and yet is full of gaps.  The book is a kind of distillation.  There is a story here, but it is obviously not the “full” story.  In fact, I’m skeptical of the idea that there ever is one.

I’m interested in examining our relationship to the unknown, but I didn’t want to be withholding without purpose.  I think the gaps introduce elements of the unknown without tendering purposeless obfuscation.  The gaps make the world feel bigger.  I heard a story once, and I’m likely remembering this wrong, that when Gil Evans was working with Miles Davis on the album Sketches of Spain, Evans wanted to include “quiet” in the composition.  Not silence, but “quiet”.  The way he went about it was to instruct the players to play a large instrument (like a gong) softly.  So, it was actually a fairly loud sound, but it created a sense of quiet because that loud sound was loaded with the possibility/sense of an enormous sound.

But there were a lot of things that made this approach important.  Another major one was speed.  I wanted the book to move quickly, or to have the feeling of something that is moving quickly.  This isn’t an articulate way of saying this, but the book needed a kind of “woosh” to it.

Brian: Is this because death “wooshes” us?

Colin: Oh god, if we’re lucky.  I hadn’t thought of it this way, though.  Life certainly does from time to time.  David Byrne had it right.  And here’s the annoying part of the interview where I include a hyperlink to a Youtube video.

Brian: There’s some interesting textual variety here. Why fill up the page sometimes, sometimes not? Is there a relationship to poetry there?

Colin: I suppose so, in the sense that I was interested in graphic interruptions.  I think the white space on the page guides the way we read and can dramatically alter our interpretations of and engagement with the text, and that’s something many poets are concerned with.  Certainly more than most fiction writers.  But I’ve just finished two books of poems and that feels very, very different.  It was something else entirely, really.  For Revelation, I was interested in certain moments standing alone, or inserting gaps here and there.  Slowing things down or speeding them up.  I wrote the book in standard paragraphs, and it wasn’t until we were editing the book that I spaced it out like this.  Once I had done it I immediately thought, oh, this is right.  This is perfect.  Then I had to edit everything all over again.

Brian: How long did you work on Revelation, from the first intuition of the concept to the final edit?

Colin: I wrote the first draft of the book in a month.  Or, about three weeks.  During that time, it was practically all I did.  I sent it to readers then and spent a few months editing.  Then I Quixotically sent it out to publishers and agents.  Mutable Sound got back to me in a matter of months.  We went for it.  Following that, I spent maybe three months editing and re-formatting the book.  I took it to Martha’s Vineyard and immersed myself in it in the way I had done when I first wrote it.  The book was published exactly a year after I finished the first draft, but I was sending them “updated final versions” up until the last possible second.

Brian: Talk a little bit about your web presence. Your site does some interesting things.

Colin: Ha!  My web presence.  First please allow me a tangential anecdote: about a year ago I was in Austin doing a reading at 5 Things!, a monthly reading series held down there.  At the time, Amelia Gray was involved in running things and she was the one who invited me to read.  After the reading we were all hanging out at Amelia’s and eating tacos and I was being drunk and Amelia said something about the fact that I had a kid.  When I said, I do not have a kid.  She looked at me a moment and then said, well you need to work on your web presence.

That’s been the resounding cry from all concerned ever since.  I recently started working with a publicist  (Lacey Dunham at Atticus Books, she’s amazing) in preparation for the release of A Long Line of Diggers, a pair of novellas I wrote that they’re releasing in 2013.  One of the first things she said to me after we introduced ourselves was, we should talk about your web presence.

I mean, to be honest, it is primarily jokes with myself.  That’s about it.  I just thought to write, it’s all a desperate attempt to be funny…but that’s not entirely true because if I’m posting something, it’s almost always because it’s making me laugh to myself at that moment.  So I guess it’s kind of selfish…

The website is a pride of mine.  My friends Rebecca Elliott and Heather McShane helped me do the code for it.  They helped me realize what was a very specific dream.  It does exactly what I wanted to do.  It is an extension of my outlook in certain ways.  It is a random assortment of images that are related to my work in specific ways and excerpts and stories and interviews and what have yous.  There is no way to “successfully” navigate it, meaning the only way to potentially ever access all of the material is to keep going back and trying over and over again, although you’re just as likely to get nowhere or cycle through the same thing over and over.  Like I said, it’s random.  I imagine it’s terribly frustrating to many.  But I find it immensely pleasing.  (Not frustrating people, mind you, but the site itself).

Brian: That’s why I love it! These are interesting moments you describe, when folks who want to market you “need to talk to you about your web presence.” How comfortable are you, in general, with the prospect of marketing yourself, or, altering aspects of what comes naturally for you for the sake of marketing?

Colin: Thanks, Brian!  I get the idea and use and even necessity of an “artistic persona”.  I think it’s not only a marketing tactic, but also a tool for guiding readers as they approach your work.  That said, I’m a terrible actor.  So my “artistic persona” or my “web presence” has always just been an extension of my normal, social self.  An exaggerated extension, sure, a distillation, but one that, as you say, “comes naturally” to me.  Lacey is an amazing publicist and we never did wind up making any serious changes to the website or any of the other ways I’m using the internet: social media sites, etc.  After we started working together a little more closely, I think she got a handle on where I was coming from and things started to gel for both of us.  She might not have even been concerned initially, but rather looking to make sure we were on the same page.  And I think we are.  I’ve been called “strange”.  The work is “strange”-seeming, at least to some.  And my web presence is certainly “strange” in particular ways.  But I think once you see the whole picture it starts to make a certain kind of sense.  So, in answer to your question, I’m fine with the idea that artists or writers might work to present themselves in a certain light, I think we’re all doing this all the time anyway.  But I think it’s important that the presentation/illusion be in some way a part of the work, or that it help us to better understand the work or inform us as to the terms on which we are to engage the work.  However, in terms of serious alterations to the self, I’m just not a savvy enough fellow to stray too far from home.

Brian: Some very exciting things are happening for you in the near future. How do praise, fame, etc. affect your work?

Colin: There are some exciting things happening, yes!  Or things I’m excited about, at least.  There will be the book of short stories Animal Collection out in September 2012 (Spork Press) and then two novellas will be released by Atticus Books in 2013, as I said earlier.  I’m excited for all of that and to tour and on and on.  As for the second part of your question…I’ll need to see your sources.

Brian: What about the not-so-near future? Do you have ambitions for bigger projects, different modes, more experimentation, etc.? Do you feel the need to evolve as an artist?

Colin: I just finished two new projects I’m really excited about.  The first was a book of poems collaboratively written with another poet, Ben Clark.  It’s called Kate Jury Denton Texas.  Most recently, I finished a book-length poem.  Right now it’s called And We Will Stay That Way.  These were the two “ambitious” projects on the horizon this spring, but now they’re finished and out in the world being read and hopefully they’ll soon find a home.  I’m also about halfway through a new novel that is doing some strange things.  It’s a lot of fun to work on, but it feels very odd moving back into fiction after being so heavily steeped in poetry for the last few months.  To me, every project feels singular, though I’m sure you could locate patterns and identify developments in style, etc. if you were to look closely after the fact.  I’m interested in making work that is exciting to me, and part of what excites me is examining new ground, or the same ground in radically different ways.  I don’t feel pressure to “evolve” as an artist.  Or, if there is a pressure I feel, it is not on those terms, necessarily.  I feel pressure to keep myself interested and fully invested in the work.  But I don’t look at it as a progression as I move from project to project.  But if I were to use the language of a linear progression, I would say I work “backwards” as much as “forwards,” and of course “side to side”.  As I see it, I’m sifting through and rearranging a network of constantly shifting ideas and associations.  It’s a mess up there and out here.  Each project is a momentary organization of a set of needs, ideas, impressions, etc.   Let us look to the T-1000.  Ideally, each book would enter the world like one of his blades or needles, exacting and perfectly fitted to a specific use, and yet the full effects of the introduction of that new element are unpredictable.  That’s one of the motivating factors behind sharing the work, I suppose.

Sigh.  That is the second time in two days I’ve brought up Terminator 2.  Something is wrong with me.

Brian: Well, I don’t see too much wrong with Revelation, or with the way things are going for you. Thank you so much

The seven sections of Colin Winnette’s slim new novel Revelation correspond to the seven angels of the Book of Revelation. They bring with them fire, hail, receding oceans, bitter water, falling stars (and bodies, in a chilling moment), darkness, locusts, sinkholes, and, of course, those pesky horsemen. The seven sections also depict seven stages of the life of Marcus, whose love and despair we encounter intimately. These biblical calamities, very subtly rendered in unique and memorable visages, are backdrops to Marcus’ struggle, a reminder that life’s great apocalypse – its end – is always an intensely personal one. I had a chance to speak with Winnette about his work on this novel, his other projects, and the writing life.

Brian: Can you talk a little about your development? What authors and styles have shaped you? How has attending a program changed your outlook (or not)?

Colin:  Influence is a tricky thing to talk about.  I can say that Ben Marcus’s work was extremely important to me.  It still is, but at one point it totally saved me.  Or, reinvigorated me.  I was finishing up undergrad and I was in love with writers like Beckett, Proust, Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, these iconic figures who did what they were doing so masterfully that there seemed nowhere to go at all after that.  That was also the result of my age at the time and what being in school can do to you.  I didn’t realize it then, but I had a pretty narrow vision of what it meant to be a writer and what one could do with fiction.  But then I picked up Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women and I was just totally blown away.  It was an entirely different approach to working with and examining language than I had ever encountered before.  Those books led me to Gertrude Stein and William Gaddis and all of these authors who were breaking language apart, yes, but also reclaiming it, making it do new and fascinating things.  And, I mean, they had been doing this for a long time and in different ways, and here was Ben Marcus doing it still in his own way and just killing it.  So I suddenly felt very free again.  It’s interesting the difference between grad school and undergrad.  In undergrad I was constantly being told what good writing looked like.  It looks like Carver.  It looks like Chekhov.  It looks like Pynchon (and indeed it does!).  It looks like Austen.  Etc.  Workshops were little help because they were often the same kind of thing: I think you should do this, or I think this should happen, etc.  Initially I lacked the confidence to assert myself.  Then, when I gained a little confidence, I asserted myself by just ignoring pretty much everybody and only listening to the 2% I thought made sense or seemed to come from a good place.  I started to tune a lot out.  So I left undergrad fed-up, but with a lot of energy.  I wrote and worked and traveled and didn’t write and two years later I went to grad school with a much different attitude.  I used that time to write as much as possible.  I listened to people and read as much as I could, but took the whole thing less…personally, I guess…than before.  I took it seriously, but I knew the conversations we were having in class were often selfish in that we were all interested in enhancing our work by discussing the work of others.  Helping one another wasn’t exactly the point, although we certainly did help one another from time to time.  And I should say I think all that’s great.  The two most important things grad school gave me were time and a sense of purpose.  I felt encouraged to work and I had the hours in the day to do it.  Or if I didn’t have them, I made them because I knew my time was limited.  I taught myself how to make time to write.  I was writing a lot on the train and in bed my first year.  I wouldn’t let myself sleep until I had done a certain amount of work.  I’m not sure I would have had that kind of discipline at first if I weren’t in a program.  Now, it comes much more naturally.  I had to learn how to kick my own ass.

Brian: I found that the discipline angle served as a wheat/chaff scenario in my own fiction writing classroom. The students who wrote well were the ones who put the time in. Is that level of focus and concentration waning in the generations that come after us? Is it something that can be taught?

Colin: Obviously practices vary.  The kind of disciplined work ethic that worked for me in the past just wouldn’t work for everyone.  It’s very personal, I think, and the method I described is one that fits with the way I am, in general, about many things.  I can be rigid and extremely hard on myself, especially when I’m working on something I care about very much.  And it doesn’t even work for me all of the time.  In fact, being too disciplined or too hard on oneself can often be a hindrance, and can drive one to resent something that should ultimately be pleasurable and thrilling.  So another thing I had to learn was to not be so hard on myself all the time.  It’s a balance, I’d say, something I’ll be perpetually tweaking.  But can discipline be taught?  I think yes and no.  You can’t make anyone do anything, really.  Or, who would want to?  But you can give them (and I assume we’re talking about students here) ideas about what to do.  In a classroom setting, I think it’s important to emphasize the variety of ways that people have worked and will work.  I think it’s important for young writers to write often, even if it’s bad.  Especially if it’s bad, maybe.  Just write it all out and use up all your clichés and lazy sentences.  For me it was like I just poured all of this garbage out onto the floor, but in it were these little pieces of rubbish that I actually kind of liked.  These nuggets I could polish and be proud of.  Seeing it all messed together like that, it was easy to start understanding the difference between something I thought was good or attractive or effective and something that wasn’t.  There’s a process of learning to identify what interests you and what you’re trying to do and what helps you do it.  But that’s just how I do things, you know?  As a kid, I was the one who poured all the Legos onto the floor then went digging for the pieces I wanted.  I needed to see it all at once.  But I had a lot of friends who were much cleaner and more deliberate in their selection.  And we both eventually built whatever it was we were building. There’s no right way to do it.  You just have to do it.

Brian: Ben Marcus and Adam Levin speak highly of Revelation. How do mentors shape your work?

Colin: I’ve always had relationships with other writers and artists.  For me, it’s essential.  I’ve also been blessed enough to attend schools with curriculums that involve one on one meetings with faculty, so a lot of my education occurred in that intimate kind of setting.  I learn a lot from other people.  Or, really, I learn everything from other people.  And I love people very much, so it’s always a pleasure to get together with someone whose work I admire or who is really insightful and engaged and talk through things and get to know one another better.  Having Ben Marcus respond to the book was really one of the most thrilling things that ever happened to me.  He’s a champion and I owe him a lot.  Adam Levin teaches at SAIC, where I earned my MFA, so I had the opportunity to work with him both in class and as an advisor.  He has an incredibly active mind and cares very much about fiction, so our conversations were often incredibly invigorating.

Brian: Do you have any interest in teaching your craft?

Colin: I love talking about fiction.  And I love talking about fiction with people to whom it really matters.  People who have a personal connection to writing.  Often, but certainly not exclusively, you meet those people in an academic setting.  You meet people who are trying to figure things out for themselves, trying to better understand their work, trying to improve, and so it can be a wonderfully open and productive environment.  It can also be a hostile and competitive environment.  It’s a mixed bag just about everywhere, I think.  But I’m optimistic.  I’m happy for the good when it comes.  I’ve had a number of teachers who really inspired and encouraged me.  The bad experiences tend to melt away and the good ones still drive me years later.  One of the best gifts a writing teacher can give, I think, is the sense that the work of a young writing student is as important as the work they themselves are doing.  It sounds obvious, but I think it’s much more difficult than most people realize.  I’ve had a number of teachers who did this, but one of the first was Brian Morton, whom I worked with at Sarah Lawrence College.  While our opinions about fiction were occasionally at odds, I always felt that he approached the conversation as earnestly and attentively as I did.  He was studying, his mind was always working, and he was kind and generous and honest.  He was an early guide, but also an attentive friend.  It was a gift.  My interest in teaching writing would come from a desire to give other young writers something like this, because it meant so much to me.  And still does.

Brian: You manage the imagery from the book of Revelation so gorgeously and subtly in your novel. How did this idea occur to you?

Colin: It was really very sudden and intuitive.  Honestly, I was first attracted to the idea primarily as a constraint.  I had no idea why, but it just occurred to me to write a book that was seven chapters long, each chapter of which would be invoked by the sounding of one of the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse.  And I knew each chapter would jump forward radically in time, so that the book covered the entire span of a character’s life.    It wasn’t until I had written the first draft of the book and was beginning revisions that I really started to understand what was interesting to me about using this structure/content, other than the fact that it gave me the push to begin the work as well as a set of loose guidelines to move the project forward.  It’s something I say all the time about the book, that it was a sort of exorcism of certain narrative modes I was steeped in as a kid growing up in a small Texas town, as well as the models of “great writing” I was beaten over the head with as a young writer.

Brian: How important are constraints for anything that you work on? This is, to me, the delightful irony of experimentation. You exhibit freedom and limitlessness through the very limits you impose on yourself.

Colin: I was extremely interested in working with constraints at one point for many reasons, one of which was exactly the reason you detail here.  I followed and studied the Oulipo, and other artists working with constraints, like 60s/70s performance artists or musicians, and many working today.  I’m interested in the idea that we are always working with constraints, only some are more apparent than others.  When I sit down to write a work of “fiction” on my MacBook, in Microsoft Word, a vast number of decisions are made for me before I even begin.  One’s limited knowledge of the tradition in which they’re working can also be viewed as a series of constraints guiding all of one’s production.  Making the conscious decision to impose constraints is a way of acknowledging and engaging with the constraints that are already in place.  There’s a quote from one of the more famous Oulipians, Raymond Queneau, in which he says, “…inspiration, which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery.  The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.”  It is also a way of knowing more about what you are doing before you do it.  For me, it is also a way of incorporating one’s limitations into the work itself.  And, as you and Queneau point out, the marvelous thing is the way in which engaging with limitations or constraints, be they self-imposed or otherwise, can actually be liberating.

Brian: Most other narratives of this type depict a man-made apocalypse and thus morph into social commentary. Some would argue that even the end-of-days apocalypse is man-made, due to sin, etc. What causes the events in Revelation?

Colin: Yes.  Exactly.  It’s funny no one’s thought to ask this so directly before.  The quick and easy answer would be to say there is no answer.  Or, we don’t get to know.  This is something the characters in the book are struggling with, or trying to ignore, or successfully ignoring.  I’m much more interested in the ways we come to understand, deal with, or not deal with traumatic events in our lives, rather than tracing any kind of causal relationship, casting blame, etc.   I’m interested in the stories we tell ourselves.  I think examining those stories brings us closer to an understanding of what it means to be an actively living/seeing/perceiving thing.

Brian: This is a good point. Your answer clearly applies to Marcus. We don’t get to see the ups and downs (mostly downs?) of his life actually happen to him. We’re always, at the beginning of a section, thrown into some sort of aftermath, or dénouement, of another major life change. You have a taste for, as you say, the way we re-present these moments to ourselves, after the fact. I find it would make for a very interesting film. Have you thought of this book cinematically? Does thinking cinematically help you?

Colin: I think it’s hard not to think cinematically at this point, at least when writing a book with such clear scenes and imagery.  I certainly pictured every scene I wrote in my head as I was writing it.  And movies have dramatically impacted the way I imagine things.  This is true of other work I’ve done as well, that the work relies so heavily on the concreteness of a certain image or gesture that I have to really picture it before I can write it.  I have to see it and look all around it and check it for weak spots.  I’ve been so effectively trained by movies and television as to how one looks at and around a thing, that my imaginative eye often examines an imagined thing in these camera-like sweeps and zooms.  I am a slave to the machine.   But I think you’re also talking about the narrative itself here, and I would have to say that in constructing the story I wasn’t thinking at all cinematically.  I also would be interested in seeing a film that moves in this way (I’m sure they’re out there.  In fact, I’m sure I’ve seen a couple without realizing it).  I think most movies emphasize the moments that this book tends to leave out.  We are attracted to stories with high-drama and with rising tension that moves toward a rewarding climax because it makes the events of our lives seem meaningful.  I am not belittling this method of storytelling.  I love it, in fact.  And I’m interested in it.  I’m interested in the ways we construct meaning.  And I think we always draft the narrative of meaning after the fact.  There is a quote, though I cannot remember who said it, that thought occurs in the wake of experience.  This idea has been stated in one way or another by many, I’m sure.  And I like that.  If it’s something that’s been said over and over in myriad ways and contexts, that seems right.

 

Bat & Man: A Sonnet Comic Book by Chad Parmenter and Mark Cudd (illus.)

I picked up Bat & Man amid my own recent bat-craze. The full trailer for The Dark Knight Rises had just gone viral; I was knee-deep in a run-through of Arkham City; I was even following The Batman on Twitter @God_Damn_Batman. But the Batman mythology, despite films that provide luscious arcs of his formative years and a video game that includes pretty much every character, is a minimalist one. This is the nature of a mythology, to always only provide snippets of a far vaster cosmos, regardless of the size and depth of any individual narrative and the number of tellers who take up the tale.  Batman’s, for all intents and purposes, is perhaps the distinctly American mythology. While Superman inspires with his perfection, and the Marvel heroes prance around in more and more ridiculous scenarios, Batman is, well, Bat and Man, a paragon of flawed redemption and ambitious idealism. He is the stone-faced cowboy, the gothic Ahab of the modern age, the manifestation of the American apocalyptic id, who transcends and defies a socioeconomic system that limits righteousness. He is almost completely silent, his message the persistent enactment of retributive violence cloaked as justice.

He straddles the border between genius and madness, and the Joker brings this dichotomy to bear on Batman’s consciousness time and again. His life is a nightmare, the self-preserving lie to the Joker’s horrifying truth, as Zizek so cleverly put it. Chad Parmenter picks up the mythology with a literal nightmare of Batman’s own origins, an autobiographical spin on the roots of myth in the vein of good poetic work on superheroes by Bryan Dietrich and others. The poem, indeed the sonnet, may be the perfect vehicle for such a project, given its inherent minimalism and gesture toward unseen depth.

The book’s structure is subtle and unique. The narrative proper begins with “Hey Bruce. Wake up. You’re shrieking in your sleep.” It doesn’t surprise us that the source of this easy nonchalance is Selina Kyle, a.k.a., Catwoman, who happens to be sharing Bruce’s bed at the moment. Their banter exhibits the curtness and simultaneity of comic-book speak, back and forth within single lines like panels: “We should wait./No. Tell. But it’s a nightmare. Do your worst./You’ll learn too much. I’ll live. This one will haunt/your catnaps. Spill it. I’m too curious./It started by the bay. My parents…spawned” (his ellipsis).  Thus commences Batman’s narrative of the nightmare of a counterfactual upbringing, in which he is literally fathered by bats:

What did you dream then, sobbing in a ball?
That mother knew there was no boy inside
her body. Not so much as human cells
evolved there. Doctors – jokers. Tried to tell
her what was kicking in there was a child.

She felt me – bat. With feather ears, with eyes
like night lights, I would spy. With spindle nails
for fingers, I would scratch for freedom. Sails
of budding wings I’d flutter, and she’d die

before she let me out.

This is a twisted darkness commensurate with this universe. Note the element of dialogue here. Just as the above excerpt begins with an inquiry from Selina, so does each page of the book, to which a poem is the reply. The table of contents cleverly arranges these questions into a sort of found poetry of its own.

From his mother’s insemination (which is mythological in its bestiality. Later in the book Bruce describes a party in which he is “disguised as Zeus, disguised as swan”) we proceed through Bruce’s early years shrouded in martial imagery:

The nursery I was raised in – arsenal,
where suits of armor rusted to their swords
and soldered armies swarmed before their lord,/myself.

And his parents’ murder:

He squared/his shoulders. Tom did? Yes. Then the dark cursed
and birthed a fire. Roar. Star that ate his shirt
and burst. She howled “You bastard.” Mother? Heard

her lurch. Another fire. Roar.
Star that
_____blazed
so bright, so long, I saw her – mask with ink
exploding
_____through its cracks. The killer? Spliced
himself into the city night. Erased
_____me. Who did? Mother. Father. Shh. Close your eyes.”

Thus ends the “Bat” section of the book. The irony here resides in the fact that while the Batman origin story typically goes from man to Batman, here the order is reversed. Bruce is always already part bat, and learns to become a man in the sections “&” and “Man.” “&” depicts his upbringing in orphanages, in which visions of his father as a bat (“vampire father”) haunt his sleepless nights (“I stayed awake. He stayed in hell”). It was here that he embraced his identity and birthed his obsession with vigilante justice. Not before he endured a period of self-medication, “A year/I spent in articles I had to scan/to fabricate the night before,” what we are led to believe is the “&” portion of Bruce Wayne’s life.

“Man” begins with the accident that shaped Bruce’s destiny, in which a Halloween party at Wayne manor is interrupted by a swarm of bats, which catch fire by torches lighting the lawn. One becomes tangled in Bruce’s date’s hair: “The more/she fought, the tighter it was caught. It lit/her scalp. You put it out?  I tried. I…poured/my drink on her. Oh god. The fire caught/and spread. She sputtered ‘Zeus,’ my dying star.” It is here that Selina reminds us (actually, we do need reminding. Bruce’s story is sordid, but not unlike a believable Batman origin tale) to “Calm down, dear. It’s just one more nightmare. Right?” Right? Bruce then describes his guilty flight into hiding, out of the public eye, at which point Selina realizes that “This really happened. I remember. You went underground.” This subtle blend of fact with dream nicely underscores the tone of the whole account: this very well may have happened, all things considered. Bruce’s telling concludes with an image of the discovery of the Bat Cave, which we may in this case call hell. In a drunken stupor around the darkened mansion

I’d found a door. It couldn’t, must/
be Father’s cellar door. Lit up. With what?
An orange glow was pulsing from inside.
I had to break it. Bad bat. “Sorry, Dad,”
I prayed, and kicked the frame. Again. It burst,

Exhaled a veil of smoke. Behind it, floor –
but no. I must have been insane. Why? Where I set my feet was just a shaft of air
descending to a monolithic pyre
how many hundred feet below. It snared
me.

Selina comforts him, in a nice elision over two pages, with “Then I woke you back into the here/and now. Your dream is Batman’s memory.” This declaration is appropriately vague. Myths float in the zone between dream and memory, a collective vision of the origin and manifestation of our cultural anxieties. But the book ends in comic book fashion, with some more banter between lovers, on a short-lived break between stints as hero/anti-hero:

You’re just a boy. I’m more than that. You’re Bat—
I’m what? You’re bad, I said. Okay. Hey. Lie
here next to me some more, and we’ll forget
that nightmare life you’ve spun for me. I’d like
that, but I can’t. That sound, under the bed?
My phone. I have to go. Then so do I.
__________________________Goodnight. Good bat.

There is some interesting paratext here, too. “Bat” and “&” begin with epigraphs that are so serendipitously spot-on that the sections may have been inspired entirely by them. “Bat” opens with lines from Rilke:

And how bewildered is any womb-born creature
that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing
from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way
a crack runs through the teacup. So the bat
quivers across the porcelain of evening.

This perfectly captures the chaos of Bruce’s conception, and Rilke’s image of the bat mirrors that of Batman, whose obsessive “zigzags” taint an otherwise pristine life as Bruce Wayne. “&” begins with lines from John Berryman: “Henry, for joining the human race, is bats,/known to be so, by few them who think,/out of the cave,” introducing a biting pun on Bruce’s underlying insanity.  Mark Cudd’s illustrations that introduce the sections not only embody a portion of the narrative, but convey the general theme. Of particular interest is the diagram that opens “Bat”:

It staunchly conveys the air of contamination and disfigurement that characterizes Bruce’s account of his conception.

The book is also bookended by a pair of sonnets from an external voice. The first, titled “Holy Sonnet for His New Movie,” is a nod toward the odd commercialization of such a dark story. “Your christ in vinyl tights” should generally cause nightmares, but “Don’t you close your eyes to weep/or let them blur with tears; no watering/the roses with your cheeks; he’s glittering/behind these sponsors.” Bat & Man reminds us, however, not to be anesthetized to the real horror. “Sonnet on Selina’s Machine,” the final poem, is literally a voicemail from Batman to Catwoman, an ominous love note:

I need
you to return my call. I swear
your alter ego’s name is safe with me.
I need it that way, need her to stay clear
and skylined on skyscrapers’ tips, to flee

from me, but not this far ahead. I’m near
now, on the fire escape. Pick up. I see
your shadow on the blinds. I hear your purr.

This is a smart delineation between identities. The series proper ends with a willful obfuscation of their true selves (“You’re Bat—I’m what?”). Here, their love is in full bloom, in their own creepily managed way.

In all, Parmenter gets the idea of the dark mythology. His use of ellipsis and punning enjambment and elision creates an air of mystery and deliberate concealment. You definitely don’t need to be a “bat-fan” to get a lot out of this. Maybe that’s the point – it’s also the nature of mythology to slowly but surely seep into the collective consciousness. This is due to a lot of things – ubiquitous exposure, divergent retellings by multiple authors, a clear socio-psychological identification, etc. – but we have here an origin story that is more Ovid than Hollywood.

If you’ve read Norwegian Wood, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or any of his other novels and stories, you know what Haruki Murakami is about. For three decades he’s guided us through odd parallel universes and the underbelly of Japanese culture. You would not be surprised to find your protagonists walking through walls, talking with (not just to) cats, or visiting abandoned and dreamlike villages. Simple everyday people carrying out strange and extraordinary tasks for otherworldly agents, the completion of which carry emotional resonances that open your mind to the fact that you’ll never look at the ordinary world around you, the same way again. But Murakami, whom Michael Dirda calls a “brilliant practitioner of serious, yet irresistibly engaging, literary fantasy,” and whom Sam Anderson hails as the world’s “chief imaginative ambassador,” whose “addictive weirdness” has captivated college students and hipsters everywhere, has succumbed to an odd case of gigantism in his much-heralded, and long, twelfth novel (or twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth novel, depending on where you live) 1Q84.

All the tasty bits of vintage Murakami are here: dull but steadfast male leads, hypersexual and hypersexy teenagers, strange conspiracies loaded with uncanny coincidences, and, of course, forays into parallel universes. He has a straight ahead style, and is an ace at making you interested in watching a guy drink a beer. Daily routines have never been so captivating. But it’s not until, in this case, you descend an emergency stairwell off the side of the highway or receive a request to rewrite a teenager’s novel that your whole world is thrown for a loop. This is something Charles Baxter has called “Unrealism,” a slightly altered state that mirrors the real world in odd ways, which “reflects an entire generation’s conviction that the world they inherited is a crummy second-rate duplicate.” Murakami therefore flirts with the hopelessly weird at every turn.  Problem is, he usually comes out of his considerably shorter novels relatively unscathed. Here, I’m left asking myself if Murakami has fallen into his own Bizarro World of self-parody.

The title 1Q84 is a translingual pun, the English syllable q indicating the number nine in Japanese. It is also a tip of the cap to Orwell, whose authoritarian world of 1984 is evoked here by a prevalence of religious and political cults, ominous shifts in natural phenomena, and a near total atmosphere of surveillance verging on downright omniscience.  The emergence of this vaguely odd but unmistakably different world of 1Q84 (there are two moons in the sky and folks called Little People emerge from the mouths of the dead, detonate animals from within, and perpetrate other illogical feats) is grafted onto the actual year of 1984 (and, conveniently, on to the consciousnesses of only certain characters), spawning a proliferation of pairs, doubles, mirrors, and the like. Seemingly everyone shows up somewhere else as someone else at some point in the novel.  Aspects of characters’ appearances and personalities resonate across generations and worlds. Memories of loved ones project new identities onto the people around you.

This is most clearly the case for our two protagonists Tengo and Aomame, the former a math teacher who writes fiction, the latter a fitness instructor cum assassin cum sex maniac, who fell in love in grade school, have been separated ever since, and now find themselves on a quest through 1Q84, and the sinister twists and turns within it, to reunite.  Thus the theme of the whole thing, articulated early on by Aomame: “If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, then there’s salvation in life. Even if you can’t get together with that person.” This trajectory toward redemptive love is told in alternating chapters, wherein each character inches tantalizing closer to the other. Murakami manages this overarching duality rather cleanly; the slow rise of background details to the foreground by the latter parts of the novel occurs organically enough. The suspense is real, and you root for the lovers.

But amid this relatively sophisticated complexity is an ultimately unsurpassable stumbling block. Murakami, seemingly desperate for simplicity, commits grievous stylistic errors that I encourage even my own students to avoid. Despite this book’s heft, and Murakami’s now famous work ethic, 1Q84 is a lazy novel, whose every page (all 923 of them) requires a scalpel at the very least, a chainsaw in most cases.

I’ll begin with the most noticeable transgression. Namely, in his attempt to depict the quotidian, Murakami lets us know exactly what our main characters are thinking, by putting their thoughts, which occur in complete sentences, in italics. If the fiction and poetry of the last century taught us anything, it’s that depicting the mind in the act of thinking is a terribly complex task, riddled with subtle demands. So I thought to myself, Murakami must be up to something. Is he playing with genre here? What is the purpose of purposefully bad prose? I’m going to get to the bottom of this.  See what I mean? This is the kind of slog that occurs page in and page out. It’s reminiscent of the hard-boiled American novels Murakami actively imitates, but these self-dialogues by and large reveal nothing important and deliver evaluations that are usually reserved for the reader to determine. We have to wait constantly for our protagonists to make the connections we’ve tidied up pages if not chapters ago. Consider:

It was the perfect moment for a man to approach a woman, and [Aomame] had created it. But this man said nothing. What the hell is he waiting for? she wondered. He’s no kid. He should pick up on these subtle hints. Maybe he hasn’t got the guts. Maybe he’s worried about the age difference. Maybe he thinks I’ll ignore him or put him down: bald old coot of fifty has some nerve approaching a woman in her twenties! Damn, he just doesn’t get it.

Or:

This was an easier death than you deserved, Aomame thought with a scowl. It was just too simple. I probably should have broken a few ribs for you with a five iron and given you plenty of pain before putting you out of your misery. That would have been the right kind of death for a rat like you. It’s what you did to your wife. Unfortunately, however, the choice was not mine. My mission was to send this man to the other world as swiftly and surely – and discreetly – as possible. Now, I have accomplished that mission. He was alive until a moment ago, and now he’s dead. He crossed the threshold separating life from death without being aware of it himself.

This mental rehashing of the painfully obvious and ethically simplistic persists into the most important parts of the plot, and we have to twiddle our thumbs while these protagonists densely process information and repeat it until they’re sure they’ve got everything. I initially tried to keep track of every time a character repeated and rephrased something that someone just said – “’So the German shepherd died, and the next day Tsubasa disappeared,’ Aomame said, as if to verify the accuracy of her understanding” – but this sort of thing occurs at almost every conversation. You really can’t miss it. The narrator even gets in on it: “The phone woke Tengo. The luminous hands of his clock pointed to a little after one a.m. The room was dark, of course.”

 

And then there are the metaphors:

“Aomame lifted her glass and took a sip of iced tea, tasting nothing, as if her mouth were stuffed with cotton and absorbed all flavor.”

“[H]er stylishly cut linen jacket looked like a lovely piece of fabric that had descended from heaven on a windless afternoon.”

“Tengo stared at the dead receiver in his hand for a while, the way a farmer stares at a withered vegetable he has picked up from a drought-wracked field. These days, a lot of people were hanging up on Tengo.”

“To himself he said, She was very good at it. Just as every village has at least one farmer who is good at irrigation, she was good at sexual intercourse. She liked to try different methods.”

“Her nipples showed clearly through the shirt, which could not help but revive in Tengo the feeling of last night’s ejaculation, the way a certain date brings to mind related historical facts.”

Okay, I’ll give you one decent one: “Ushikawa’s appearance made him stand out. He did not have the sort of looks suited for stakeouts or tailing people. As much as he might try to lose himself in a crowd, he was as inconspicuous as a centipede in a cup of yogurt,” which occurs alongside other creepiness, such as comparing a beautiful girl in the act of sex to an insect sucking nectar out of a flower, or the above character’s eyebrows to “two hairy caterpillars reaching out to each other.”

These comparisons are accompanied by and embedded within countless passages of needless description. These mostly are directed at the above mentioned Ushikawa, the primary antagonist who is, you guessed it, hideous:

The man’s gray suit had countless tiny wrinkles, which made it look like an expanse of earth that had been ground down by a glacier. One flap of his white dress shirt’s collar was sticking out, and the knot of his tie was contorted, as if it had twisted itself from the sheer discomfort of having to exist in that place. The suit, the shirt, and the tie were all slightly the wrong size. The pattern on his tie might have been an inept art student’s impressionistic rendering of a bowl of tangled, soggy noodles. Each piece of clothing looked like something he had bought at a discount store to fill an immediate need. But the longer Tengo studied them, the sorrier he felt for the clothes themselves, for having to be worn by this man. Tengo paid little attention to his own clothing, but he was strangely concerned about the clothing worn by others. If he had to compile a list of the worst dressers he had met in the past ten years, this man would be somewhere near the top. It was not just that he had terrible style: he also gave the impression that he was deliberately desecrating the very idea of wearing clothes.

But characters who appear only once are given similar attention:

The secretary was a capable woman one year older than Tengo who, in spite of her title, handled virtually all of the school’s administrative business. Her facial features were a bit too irregular for her to be considered beautiful, but she had a nice figure and marvelous taste in clothes.

This kind of inanity (not to mention a robust and almost juvenile interest in female bodies, especially breasts) is tolerable in small doses. But in a novel of this length, it becomes, ultimately, unbearable.  I tried, I really did, to rationalize. Okay, I thought to myself, the downright pornography of the first third of the book is meant to lampoon mainstream culture, right? Or, as Aomame indicates, it’s meant to balance the depressing humdrum of the rest of life. A ha! Balance, a major theme. I’m starting to get it. And the rest of these passages – the metaphors, descriptions, the self-monologue – these are aspects of popular detective novels, and Murakami is paying homage here. I’m meant to read this generically. But this novel’s nine hundred plus pages and constantly twisting plots somehow leave no room for self-consciousness and parody. For that, turn to David Mitchell, whose Cloud Atlas is a master work of stylistic and generic mimicry (not to mention of the type of mirroring plots Murakami goes for here).

But along the way, despite the incessant and annoying bad style, I cared. Tengo and Aomame, partly because you watch them clumsily process this new dreamlike world, and partly because you unavoidably spend so much time with them anyway, become real people, with normal, everyday desires and worries. This is refreshing for sure. Murakami revealed in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running that he rises at four in the morning and writes solidly for five to six hours. This novel feels like the product of such constancy, but without much retrospection. Interviews have revealed that he even intended to end the novel after Book 2, in a captivating and tragic moment, an apex of the structural trajectory, and an iconic image that perfectly mirrors the gripping opening scene of the novel.

But he decided to trudge on, and Book 3 delivers the redemptive love he probably thought his audience needed. I do agree with Charles Baxter, who wrote, “I finished 1Q84 feeling that its spiritual project was heroic and beautiful, that its central conflict involved a pitched battle between realism and unrealism (while being scrupulously fair to both sides), and that, in our own somewhat unreal times, younger readers, unlike me, would have no trouble at all believing in [1Q84].” But this addition of a whole new book dooms the novel via its dissolution of the tightness that propelled the first two installments and via the introduction of a plot thread that occurs just slightly behind the main one, temporally, requiring a recap of the main events every third chapter, so that one ultimately ineffectual character can get up to speed. In all, this is a rare case of a novel that would benefit from the work of an imaginative director, whose film version would necessarily do away with clunky metaphors and obvious and unrealistic interior monologue, whose visual rendering of 1Q84 and its quirky inhabitants would suffice for droning descriptions of it, who could deliver only the essentials of a suspenseful and moving human story.

Zone One is not a zombie novel.

Sure, there are plenty of lurching, chomping, and chewing “creatures,” the plagued dead who are affectionately titled “skels” by survivors who shoot, stab, and firebomb them. In this sense the novel certainly conforms to a generic paradigm. But the titillating idea of Colson Whitehead’s gripping book is that there really is no such thing as a zombie novel. There are zombie graphic novels, which, for all their literary dexterity, are closer in form (and content) to films like Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later, television series like The Walking Dead (adapted from a series of graphic novels with the same title), and video games like those of the Resident Evil and Fallout series. But this paradigm – which cuts to the core of popular fears of literal and figurative contamination – has not found sufficient articulation in the novel form, until now.

Whitehead’s brilliance resides in his ability, though, to slash through generic expectations, all the while tipping his cap to them. At his reading at Politics and Prose recently, he admitted that some zombie puritans have complained that this novel is some sort of an impostor, because it consists of “a bunch of sitting around and thinking.” That is, it lacks a requisite amount of horror and action commensurate to the genre. Yes and no. There’s plenty of warfare and stomach-fulls of the generally visceral, but Whitehead is too conscious of those moments as generic to dwell on them. Rather, as any “literary” (Whitehead was smart enough to put this word in air quotes through his talk) author should do, he places a compelling protagonist at the center of this dystopian milieu, providing a meditation on just what apocalypse means for the individual.

This character is Mark Spitz (this is a nickname, so consistent reference to him by this full moniker adds some humor), a decidedly mediocre man who struggled to make it in a formerly perfect world. But now, the narrator points out, that the world is suddenly mediocre, his skills ensure his survival. “He just couldn’t die.” He, along with other members of Omega Unit, aid “reconstruction,” or what the new government operating out of Buffalo refers to as “The American Phoenix” (whose loyalists are called “pheenies”). Specifically, he is a sweeper – he combs empty Manhattan for the dead, “putting them down” and leaving them in body bags for Disposal teams to collect and, eventually, incinerate (the snowing ash from the incinerator complex is a morose reference to 9/11 Manhattan, not to mention the Holocaust). The novel opens in an office building, and Mark Spitz is reminiscing about childhood visits to his Uncle Lloyd, who lived in the city, his apartment enticing Mark Spitz, a Long Islander, to fantasies of Manhattan living. These memories are quickly interrupted by the novel’s first skel sighting. The subsequent sequence allows Whitehead to flex his considerable stylistic muscles:

He was the first live human being the dead had seen since the start, and the former ladies of HR were starving. After all this time, they were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone. Their skirts were bunched on the floor, having slid off their shrunken hips long ago, and the dark jackets of their sensible dress suits were made darker still, and stiffened, by jagged arterial splashes and kernels of gore. Two of them had lost their high heels at some point during the long years of bumping around the room looking for an exit. One of them wore the same brand of panties his last two girlfriends had favored, with the distinctive frilled red edges. They were grimed and torn. He couldn’t help but notice the thong, current demands on his attention aside. He’d made a host of necessary recalibrations but the old self made noises from time to time. Then that new self stepped in. He had to put them down.

Not without an admittedly thrilling scuffle. But note the dual movement in the above passage. Mark Spitz has a habit of seeing people from his past in the grotesque forms of the dead (he even names one of the adversaries in this scene Miss Alcott, because of whose “bushy eyebrows, the whisper of a mustache – it was hard to avoid recognizing in this one his sixth-grade English teacher”). But in order to carry out his duty, he has to cultivate a “new self,” capable of capping a former human, but, more dramatically, annihilating his memories.

These metamorphoses provide the emotional core of the novel. The most obvious type are the (and this terminology has some eerily apt timing) ninety-nine percent, who, like their famous predecessors, nosh on our flesh.  But Whitehead reserves a privileged position for the one percent, known as “stragglers.” The difference:

There were your standard-issue skels, and then there were the stragglers. Most skels, they moved. They came to eat you – not all of you, but a nice chomp here or there, enough to pass on the plague…The stragglers, on the other hand, did not move, and that’s what made them a suitable objective for civilian units. They were a succession of imponderable tableaux, the malfunctioning stragglers and the places they chose to haunt throughout the Zone and beyond. An army of mannequins, limbs adjusted by an inscrutable hand. The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late…The pock-faced assistant manager of the shoe store crouched before the foot-measuring instrument…The vitamin-store clerk stalled out among the aisles, depleted among the plenty…The owner of the plant store dipped her fingers into the soil of a pot earmarked for a city plant…A woman cradled a wedding dress in the dressing room’s murk, reenacting without end a primal moment of expectation. A man lifted the hood of a copy machine. They did not move when you happened on them. They didn’t know you were there. They kept watching their movies.

Brian McHale has labeled genres such as these the “ontological genre par excellence” because of their clear allegorical function. In the case of the skels, populist fears of cultural mixing, contamination, plague, apocalypse, starvation and poverty immediately arise. In the case of stragglers, we move beyond allegory to a more empathic state. Consider the trigger-happy Lieutenant, an unlikely voice for the following sentiment:

They’ve been studying this thing, squinting at the microbe, cutting it up, and all the British guys can come up with is that the stragglers are mistakes. Nobody knows anything…Personally, I like them. Not supposed to say it out loud, but I think they’ve got it right and we’re the ninety-nine percent that have it all wrong…They know what they’re doing. Verve and sense of purpose. What do we have? Fear and danger. The memories of all the ones you’ve lost. The regular skels, they’re all messed up. But your straggler, your straggler doesn’t have any of that. It’s always inhabiting its perfect moment. They’ve found it – where they belong.

The stragglers’ existence, in other words, brings the existential agony of surviving an apocalypse into clear focus. Frequent scenes of straggler abuse recall Abu Ghraib and succeed in garnering genuine pity for these poor “wretches.” But it’s not a case of certain human qualities persisting post-contamination, but a case of a positive evolution, a zombie Nirvana that humans in this dark future, Mark Spitz being the prime example, struggle to achieve.  If the ninety-nine percent symbolize the stupefied bourgeois masses, the stragglers point to an enlightened state of being.

This state is directly linked to nostalgia, the “forbidden thought” that Mark Spitz’s new self strives to efface. He’s done well to quell his memories, but the irruption of those very memories into his rounds of skel popping characterizes his plight by the end of the novel.

And we become privy to plenty of them. Whitehead’s narrative, like his nonfiction prose (including his talk at Politics and Prose) is exquisitely digressive. In fact, beyond the routine sweeps, there isn’t a primary plot to speak of here. Rather, we follow Mark Spitz through his memories of how he came to work for Omega Unit. Two days surrounded in a farm house here, weeks holed up in a toy store there (falling in love with its other inhabitant). We see how he developed his “new self” who is able to let go of his attachments when they disappear as swiftly and effortlessly as they materialize. But the locus of memory for many of the novel’s characters is Last Night, that collective Where-Were-You-When-You-Realized-The-World-Was-Ending question that occupies late nights around campfires with rationed whiskey. They tend to be gruesome and devastating, and Mark Spitz’s is no exception. It is the point at which everyone took on a new self, but the tragic irony resides in the fact that the main aim of these survivors is to access physical (and, we see, emotional and spiritual) remnants of the past and “carry them across” into a reconstructed future.

This interplay of cutting losses and preserving “the good old days, which we are having right now” pulls Mark Spitz in multiple directions, but eventually things come to a head. Consider a pithy exchange between Mark Spitz and the Lieutenant in which the former asserts, “I’m here because there’s something worth bringing back.” “That’s straggler thinking,” replies the Lieutenant. Mark Spitz eventually recognizes his inner straggler when he comes across the old restaurant his family used to frequent. He pauses and reminisces at length, frozen in an otherwise discardable moment. He finds his happy place. The enlightenment, the brief recovery of his humanity, is, of course, short-lived, as he is swept up in the mad dash to the novel’s conclusion. It doesn’t end like a zombie narrative would, but rather as one should. It is the apocalypse, after all.

And this subversion of generic expectations constitutes Whitehead’s singular achievement. The last fifth of the novel is loaded with aphoristic meditations on what is really happening here. Ultimately, it’s not the mindless skels that terrify us, but the fact that after the destruction of society and its norms, “I’m more me” – I can become the monster I always wanted to be. Because really “It was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends, and neighbors as the creatures they had always been.” Survival is a curse, and the stragglers, “they’ve got it right.” But we quickly learn the fallacious nature of nostalgia in the face of survival. The allegorical, symbolic, and emotional cores of the novel are bleak through and through.  The problem, and the sad beauty of Zone One, is that we don’t need a plague-apocalypse to see the monster within. The world crumbles around us, one moral disaster at a time.

What would a trip to Paris be without a gentle kiss from Destiny? My fiancée and I arrived in London on a Friday morning to stay with her cousin, his wife and daughter, in East Finchley. A jumping-off point to three weeks in France. The following morning Ana, matron of the house, presented me with an insert from last week’s Guardian, called A Literary Guide to Paris. I unfolded it to see maps, lists, itineraries, blurbs. An Indiana Jones map to the mother lode of literary booty.

The contents of the guide can occupy you for a weekend, which is all we had after our sojourn in London, before proceeding on to Dijon. So, I’ll give you the cool stuff that you have to see without driving your partner nuts and taking away from all the other beauties Paris has to offer. But a lot of sites you can catch on your way to and from the major places. Don’t miss the favorite hotel of the Beats (on rue Git le Coeur, just off the left bank of the Seine), or Picasso’s studio just up the road at rue des Grands Augustins (Balzac lived there for a time too), or the flats of Henry Miller, Joyce, Hemingway, Pound, as well as the cafes strewn across Saint-Germain des Pres they used to frequent. This is just a smattering of the itinerary that the guide draws up for you, winding you all around the Latin Quarter. By the way, a good deal of the French literary greats (Dumas, Balzac, etc.) are buried in the Pantheon, if you’re willing to pay handsomely (comparatively) to enter.

But do stop, when you can, at some of the English language bookstores across the central part of the city. First, visit this blog for the total rundown. I’ll just tell you where I went, what I bought, what I thought.

If you don’t have time to go any bookstore save one during your visit, make sure it’s Shakespeare and Company, the tried and true classic with loads of history. Pretty much all those heavyweights listed above hung out there when it was run by Sylvia Beach. At 37 rue de la Bucherie, it’s situated in the middle of, well, everything. Across the street from the famed “bouquinistes” (roadside stalls selling all sorts of French books and art) and across the river from Notre Dame, the area bustles throughout the day and night. It makes for a crowded venture into the store itself, but take your time to go through the used and antique shop next door, as well as the bookshop proper. It was here that Destiny blew me another kiss. After proceeding through the entrance adorned with photos of the heroes of high Modernism, I squeezed into the narrow stacks lined with high shelves. This was not the place to increase my Burgess stock, so I looked around for novels by the authors who are the focus of my dissertation (Vidal, Pynchon, Coover, Erickson). I sought the Coover, the first alphabetically. They had one copy of one novel, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (Director’s Cut). I removed the book from the shelf and checked the title page for the price. At 7 Euro, not a bad deal. And then my eyes moved to the center of the page, and the tiny signature under the title. Coover himself had graced these pages, signed his name. Feeling my karma to be near an all-time high, we exited the shop, into the sunlight, and continued our day.

The Best Western Trianon Rive Gauche is a great hotel for many reasons, not the least of which is its proximity to three other high-quality English language book shops. Located at the northeast corner of the Luxembourg Gardens, it’s a short walk from The Village Voice, Berkeley Books of Paris, and San Francisco Book Company. I visited the first on a dreary morning on the way to Montmarte. Located on rue Princesse directly north of the Gardens, it’s tucked out of the way, sandwiched between cafes, one of which is the Frog and Princess, an English pub. The proprietors are American expatriates who insist on speaking French. We didn’t even try. The only customers in the place, we skirted watchful eyes. This is not the place to make a purchase, as they sport clean crisp new books at 15-18 Euro a pop. Head upstairs, though, to browse the history, politics, philosophy, and psychology sections, and to glimpse a pleasant view of the street from the open windows.

Berkeley Books and San Francisco Book Company are run by the same crew, and they are steps from each other. From the Gardens, cut north across the plaza in front of the Odeon Theater, and head up rue Casimir Delavigne to Berkeley. It sports a good collection of new and gently used fiction at the front of the store, but the more interesting back section carries the really cheap used literature, stacked sideways (Image 3). I was tempted by the Dostoevsky, Barth, Bellow and, yes, the Burgess, but I wanted to see what San Francisco Book Company had before deciding on a purchase. Right around the corner on rue M. le Prince, I found the glass door to San Francisco locked shut, with a post-it claiming that the proprietor will return in five minutes. But two racks of used paperbacks still remained on the front stoop. Really, I could have just walked off with that good-as-new copy of Ragtime and been done with it. No, I waited. And sure enough, the proprietor, who barely spoke any French, oddly, returned in five minutes, and showed me inside. Like Berkeley, plenty of quality fiction just at the front of the store, but here there is an entire back room of used cheapies. I swear I wasn’t seeking out that beautiful little copy of End of the World News. Burgess (or maybe it’s that nymphet Destiny again) seems to have a way of calling my soul. I opened the front flap for the price: 5.00. I dug around in my pocket for change (no cash in the wallet; it was our last day in Paris): 4.40. I sheepishly presented my treasure to the proprietor and meekly asked if he would accept my meager offering. Despite his displeased over-the-spectacles glare, he sent me on my way, giddy as a schoolboy. I rushed back to the Gardens to show my lounging fiancée what I had found.

But what did I read? Prior to the trip, I had resolved to find something slim and something French. Something I could finish over those last 48 hours in Paris before returning to Washington. I chose Edouard Leve’s new novel Suicide. It begins like this:

One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down, and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared. On the table, you left a comic book open to a double-page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she understands that this was your final message.

Horrific, oui? The tension of the second-person mode and the present tense of the verbs creates a unique immediacy considering the subject matter. The narrator, a friend who had become estranged in recent years, experiences a renewed fascination with the dead man’s life after his suicide. “Your suicide is the most important thing you ever said,” he admits, “You are a book that speaks to me whenever I need it.” And so the novella he writes, Suicide, is a collection of anecdotes from the dead man’s life, peppered with insights, attitudes, solitary itineraries abroad, intimate moments with his wife, furtive plans for self-annihilation – i.e., bits of impossible knowledge that beg important questions about fictionality.

The thing is, Leve killed himself days after submitting Suicide for publication. He blends art and life to the ultimate degree here, with disturbing effects. How do you evaluate – criticize – a work of art by a man who destroyed himself for it? How can I do anything but agree with the narrator who glorifies this aesthetic, though, gruesome, death? That’s the trick of the narrative; despite the interpretation thrust upon you by the second person and of course by Leve’s suicide, you must criticize to the best of your ability. You still have to be a reader. In this context, it’s reading dramatized with the highest possible stakes, literally life and death. Leve staked his own life on it, and Suicide is, morbidly, “a book that speaks to me whenever I need it.” Much the way Paris remains, in memory.

In Harvard Square, The Coop and The Harvard Bookstore loom large. The former is essentially a Barnes & Noble dressed as Harvard’s bookstore, paraphernalia and special interest sections galore. The latter is a little more of a heavyweight. Situated on Massachusetts Avenue in the heart of the square (a mere two blocks from The Coop, which makes no small difference), across the street from the University entrance and next to Bartley’s Burger Cottage, the classic Harvard burger joint, it has the makings of an intellectual and social hub. The main floor sports the major genres, including a section common to local stores devoted to books by famous Harvard professors (these are extremely pricey, but their Murakami selection is strong). For meager funded mortals, go downstairs. There you’ll find used and reduced priced titles in fiction, history, philosophy, poetry and drama. The back wall where you’ll find cheap literature is substantial for a store that ostensibly sports (and prices) reading material for the landed intelligentsia.

On the penultimate day of my conference at the Radcliffe Institute, I had a good two hours to kill (I recommend taking considerably longer, but still) before meeting my sister for dinner on Newbury Street. Just enough time for a city hike, down Massachusetts Avenue, across the Charles, and into the city proper. What I found turned out to be a veritable walking tour of some of the best independent bookstores in Boston. The Coop sits atop Massachusetts, where it forks by the Harvard Square T stop. A perfect starting point. It’s never not worth it to stop in there, at least to see who and what they’re showcasing. Their American history section on the first floor (of two) is particularly robust. But don’t tarry – head to The Harvard Bookstore either before or after fueling up for your walk at Bartley’s. After spending a thorough time at both places, and before setting off, take a detour southwest, down John F. Kennedy Street toward the river. Amid a row of upscale sushi and Indian restaurants you’ll find, in the basement of a commercial row house, Raven Used Books.

It’s tight, stuffy, and stocked with obscure titles. The first books I saw when I walked in were Franco Moretti’s two-volume history of the novel. I’m in paradise. It seemed that they had acquired a good deal of Harvard sell-backs and cast-offs from historiography to pop music. Be sure to scour every inch of this small place. It’s the best book store you’ll visit. For fiction people, they have good depth from the likes of Vollmann, Banville, Barth and other less marketed postmodernists. I was torn between one of Barth’s fatter late novels and a slimmer Banville, until I came across a novel I had been searching for for a while: Jim Crace’s Quarantine. This discovery solidified Raven’s status for me. I had to have it. It was, like most other novels on the shelf, a mere seven dollars.

Head back over and continue down Mass Ave until you see The Old Cambridge Baptist Church on your left, across the street. You should be standing in front of the red sign for Revolution Books. Behind the windowless wooden black door is a narrow staircase that leads up to the shop. It shares a floor with offices, and there are warnings posted–Keep Quiet: Therapy in Progress. Ultimately, I couldn’t help but think those signs actually referred to George, the volunteer holding court in the small room that was probably an office in a previous life. A thin, soft-spoken man of about fifty, he engaged me almost immediately in conversation (he and I were the only people in the store). He gently directed me to books, pamphlets, journals, and web sites dedicated to the socialist/communist cause. If only he could see Book Marx in London. He had never been. I didn’t buy anything, guiltily, but the store, though sparse, sports good and rich material on issues, in addition to Marxism, such as racial oppression and gender inequality (which are ultimately not terribly separable from the broader cause, anyway). After reminiscing a bit more and exchanging hardy thanks, I set back to the street.

The stretch of Massachusetts between Revolution Books and Harvard Bridge is a hipster scene, with quirky pubs and restaurants (as well as The Center for Marxist Education and The Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center). Here you will find Rodney’s Bookstore. It sports a formidable fiction section, as well as Boston history. I made my second purchase here, a pristine used copy of Barth’s Coming Soon!!! for six dollars. But the distinguishing mark of Rodney’s is what I’ve noticed as a burgeoning hipster hobby: a robust VHS collection. They’ve reserved the entire front section of the store to these clunky boxes casing The Cutting Edge and Jurassic Park. A curious commodity. The way down Massachusetts toward MIT is dotted with speeding flip-flopped hipsters aboard bicycles, perhaps racing home to watch a video. The area around MIT is beautiful, reminiscent of certain sections of London. The view across Harvard Bridge, especially near sunset, is spectacular, both for the skyline and for the crowds of cyclists and sailors. Mass Ave bustles as you cross Commonwealth and head down Newbury. At last the final stop on the tour: Trident Booksellers & Cafe. A hipster hub itself – microbrews, vegan foodstuffs, coffee. Wander the stacks to the soundtrack of First Wave FM, straight from the UK. But by this time you’ll probably be tired of wandering. Snag a title from any of the diverse sections, or from their sizable news stand, and saddle up with a beer to reflect on your journey. Or, you can head next door, to Newbury Comics, yes, that Newbury Comics, stalwart of a generation. All in all, a little hipster outpost on the edge of posh heaven. Take it all in, the center of the city, as the sun goes down.

Three Prose Poems

1.

He begins the day with very strong, black coffee. He sits in his reading chair and stares at The Iliad. He opens it, reads: “As the fighter tore out the blood came gushing forth / and his heart sank.” He puts the book down and thinks about what the world is like. He thinks it might be a Connecticut chest with a heterogenic antiparticle in the left panel and a pool of dark steaming blood in the right panel. In the center panel, behind the sunflower, there is an inactive slipperette placed catawampus on an ostrich’s brow. In the end, Hector is dragged along the ground and Troy goes up in a blaze.

2.

He spent three days writing. On the fourth day he got a haircut. It was a day mixed with thinking and reading. On the fifth day he wrote some more. “For the next two days,” he thought, “I will do nothing but read.” Instead, however, he drove to Pittsburgh and talked to an old woman and broke her stool. Then he ate a banana and attended a shouting match in which one side represented yellow and the other, red.

3.

He went to a cemetery and looked for a headstone with a familiar name. After a while he went to another cemetery and did the same, without success. It was Sunday morning and everyone was in church. But there was no need for candles, as it was a sunny day and the sun kept bringing strong white flames of light to the world. He repeatedly attempted to cast himself into the flames, but the cemetery grass smothered the flames with kisses, and he could only anguish in dry heat, his skin remaining unscathed.

________________________________________________________
Brooks Lampe teaches rhetoric, composition and poetry. He has several experimental Twitter projects including @TheOpenField, @SurrealPoems, @Microdream, and @BrooksLampe. Currently, he is dissertating at the Catholic University of American in Washington D.C. on Surrealism in contemporary American poetry.

Hook

I tried to behave with my
teaching assistant, with whom
I was sleeping, as we laid out
fresh worksheets and took
positions front and back of
a never-so-peaceful classroom.

The kindergarteners knew
before us, like a game of house,
our sixteen inner-city children.
Which of those lost boys or
girls could be our Peter Pan
that year, I mean, if I returned

to the role of father Darling
after a mostly unnoticed turn
as the dancing pirate? Surely D—,
if anyone, with whom she
watched me slam my fists down
in a moment of pure Hook.

It should have been me,
not him, the janitor helped drag
down the hall while she took
over, then sobbing in the office
that it was me, not him,
the devil made do bad things.

____________________________________
J.T. Welsch’s poems have appeared or will shortly appear in Stand, Boston Review, Manchester Review, Blackbox Manifold, and the chapbooks Orchids (Salt, 2010) and Orchestra & Chorus (Holdfire, 2011). He grew up near St. Louis, and lives in Manchester, UK, where he teaches at the University of Manchester and the Open University.

Psalm for Third Base

Fingers have their own prayers,
often crossed, but also bunched

in pockets for warmth or comfort:
there, amidst the fumble-scratch

of eager hands, there where verbs
take root: touch, trace, fist. There

in the back pew of a filled church
with a skirt tented just-so, a boy’s fingertips

graze inside, the sanctuary couched
in beeswax-smoke. There, the salvation

of dim light, brass candelabras holding
their tarnished glow in the black flame

just above the candlewick. It is there
at the back of the chapel with the choir

singing hallelujah and angels on walls
shimmering fallen light that the boy

receives what he expects from religion:
fanfare, epiphany, movement. So

it is there that the boy lingers, the edge
of where he’s been before and what must

come after: the present, what the gospel
calls the kingdom: her lips dusting his earlobe,

whispering, breathing, as if she were chanting
that moment alone: there, there, there.

__________________________________________________
Luke Johnson is the author of After the Ark (NYQ Books, 2011). His work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Southwest Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. He has twice been featured in the Best New Poets anthology and has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, theAtlantic Monthly, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington.

NOTE: This poem originally appeared in New England Review.

What do animals dream?

Do they dream of past lives and unlived dreams
unspeakably human or unimaginably bestial?

Do they struggle to catch in their slumber
what is too slippery for the fingers of day?

Are there subtle nocturnal intimations
to illuminate their undreaming hours?

Are they haunted by specters of regret
do they visit their dead in drowsy gratitude?

Or are they revisited by their crimes
transcribed in tantalizing hieroglyphs?

Do they retrace the outline of their wounds
or dream of transformation, instead?

Do they tug at obstinate knots
of inassimilable longings and thwarted strivings?

Are there agitations, upheavals, or mutinies
against their perceived selves or fate?

Are they free of strengths and weaknesses peculiar
to horse, deer, bird, goat, snake, lamb or lion?

Are they ever neither animal nor human
but creature and Being?

Do they have holy moments of understanding
in the very essence of their entity?

Do they experience their existence more fully
relieved of the burden of wakefulness?

Do they suspect, with poets, that all we see or seem
is but a dream within a dream?

Or is it merely a small dying
a little taste of nothingness that gathers in their mouths?

________________________________
Yahia Lababidi is the author of a collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere (Jane Street Press) selected for ‘Books of the Year, 2008′ by The Independent (UK) and the critically-acclaimed essay collection, Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing. His latest work is the new poetry collection, Fever Dreams. To date, his writing has been translated into Arabic, Slovak, Italian, Dutch, Swedish and Turkish.

Vladimir Sorokin stands atop a list of Russian novelists, along with Tatyana Tolstaya, Victor Pelevin, and Victor Erofeyev, who have married an old-school sci-fi sensibility with American cyberpunk hipness to constitute the vanguard of literary social criticism in Moscow.  Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy not only established him as a progenitor of the form but garnered for him a reputation as Russia’s bad boy literary star, whose brazen challenges to authority and occasional pornographic content compelled the Putin Youth to dump his works into a giant makeshift toilet. His latest work, Day of the Oprichnik (translated by Jamey Gambrell) imagines a Moscow of 2028. The Red Troubles (presumably the Soviet era) are over, as are the White Troubles (whatever those might have been) that followed them, and the czarship has been restored. It is The Russian Revival, or, as characters refer to it, “Nowadays.” The oprichniki are the defenders of the oprichnina, literally “the place apart,” the moral core of the Motherland. This was an actual group, comprised of brutal enforcers during the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the middle of the 16th century. You can see where this is going.

When you enter a world like this, where an alternate history shapes an unexpected and probably fucked up future, when you have to piece together strange events and align them with those from your own world, you have to ask yourself two questions: what’s different, and how did it get this way? From the first scene we are thrust into an autocratic, nationalistic, Orthodox, and downright brutal government. All the old icons and superstitions have returned. The czar (who has repainted the Kremlin its old white) is hailed continuously, and God is impulsively and perpetually thanked for this unnamed leader’s political guidance and moral clarity. Technologically, people get their news from “bubbles,” speak on mobilovs, and drive Mercedovs (oprichniks fasten the severed heads of vicious dogs as grill ornaments, who snarl and bark in lieu of sirens). The news and the entertainment industry are monitored closely by representatives from the slew of government departments such as The Culture Chamber, The Literary Chamber, The Inner Circle, The Mind Department, the All-Russian Equine Society, The Association to Promote Air Flight, The Society of Russian Fisticuffs, The Malachite Chamber, and, of course, the Good Fellows.  Dissenters are punished, severely and thoroughly.

I love these genres because of the level of detail an author can engage. For me, this is the test of quality, and it operates down to the sentence and word level. It’s a writerly genre that can stimulate without too much attention even to its political elements. Sorokin subtly slips in bits of technology, film, radio, law and references to that alternate history  with a phrase here, clause there, that serve as a textured backdrop to the political commentary and plot. Here, that political and economic causality is engaged in interesting ways. It becomes very clear early on why Russia has reverted to its old paranoia. The oprichniks joke, “We drive Chinese Mercedovs, we fly on Chinese Boeings, His majesty likes to shoot ducks with Chinese guns…We make children on Chinese beds! We do our business on Chinese toilets!” In short China (much like in Gary Shteyngart’s recent novel Super Sad True Love Story) has reached the global economic hegemony that seems more and more inevitable. But the czar is able to sustain some autonomy via the Far Eastern Pipeline, which runs natural gas from East Asia to Europe (through the nicely renamed St. Petrograd). It is protected by The Road, a.k.a. The Guangzhou-Paris Highway, the nexus of the Russian economy, where slippery Chinese industrialists are fended off by the oprichniks, crooked business agreements, and The Great Wall, extending from Eastern Europe, across Siberia, to China.  In vintage totalitarian fashion, the protection of New Rus’ economic interests is framed as duty to God. The oprichnik general Batya explains it, in a nice stylistic flourish from Sorokin, toward the end of the novel:

Now you, my dear Enochs, you’re wondering, why was the Wall built, why are we fenced off, why did we burn our foreign passports, why are there different classes, why were intelligent machines changed to Cyrillic? To increase profits? To maintain order? For entertainment? For home and hearth? To create the big and beautiful? For fancy houses? For Moroccan leather boots, so everyone could tap their heels and clap? For all that’s good, true, and well made, so that there’d be plenty all around? To make the state as mighty as a pole from the heavenly tamarind tree? So that it supports the heavenly vault and the stars, goddamn it, so the stars and moon would shine, you sniveling scarecrow wolves, so that the warm wind would blow-not-stop-blowing on your asses, is that it? So your asses would stay nice and warm in your velvet pants? So your heads would feel cozy under their sable hats? So you sniveling wolves wouldn’t live by lies? So you’d run in herds, fast, straight, close together, most holy, obedient, so you’d harvest the grain on time, feed your brother, love your wives and children, is that it?

Batya pauses, inhales a good snort of white coke and washes it down with vodka.

Now you see, my dearest Enochs, that’s not what it was for. It was so the Christian faith would be preserved like a chaste treasure, you get it? For only we, the Orthodox, have preserved the church as Christ’s body on earth, a single church, sacred, conciliar, apostolic, and infallible, isn’t that right? That’s why His Majesty has built this magnificent Wall, in order to cut us off from stench and unbelievers, from the damned cyberpunks, from sodomites, Catholics, melancholiacs, from Buddhists, sadists, Satanists, and Marxists; from megamasturbators, fascists, pluralists, and atheists! For faith, you sniveling wolves, isn’t a change purse! It’s no brocaded caftan! No oak club! What is faith? Faith, my noisy ones – is a well of spring water, pure, clear, quiet, modest, powerful, and plentiful! You get it? Or should I repeat it to you?

Again, we know where this is going. And this is the sentence Sorokin seems to be muttering to himself as he watches Putin at work. But as readers we are as preoccupied with the rudiments of this other world as we are with the political message behind its depiction. Thus, the story that occurs within this world, a day in the life of oprichnik Andrei Danilovich, need not be overly plotted. We’re dealing with a tableau of events that unveils both the particulars of New Rus and how it came to be. In that sense it reminisces of Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and is no less frightening.

It begins with a dream, “always the same dream,” a rude awakening, and a swift hangover cure, as Andrei prepares for another day on the beat, enforcing government policies and punishing the crooked and malcontent. After he cleans up, shaves, dresses, and his butler fastens a wolf head to his Mercedov, he zips off to his first job – the seizure of a nobleman’s home, the beating and hanging of said nobleman in the front yard, the gang rape of his beautiful wife, the shipment of their children to an orphanage, and the firebombing of the property. As a first-person narrator, Andre reminds us of Burgess’ Alex from A Clockwork Orange, reveling in barbarity, justifying it with faux philosophy. But he has the simplicity and regular-guy attitude of a Murakami or Bolano narrator, walking you through his day routinely, providing sparse commentary on the tedium of certain activities. From the opening “purge” he moves on to prayer, then to a bath house where he injects a hallucinogenic goldfish called a golden sterlet into his brain (which induces, a la Alex, fantasies of future rape), to a shady bargain on The Road with Chinese industrialists, to a cultural monitoring session at the opera house, to a fortune-telling session with a clairvoyant who announces that Russia will be “all right,” to a foiled disruption of a dissenters’ rally, to a meeting with the czar’s wife (who rises at sundown and breakfasts for dinner). The day culminates at the oprichnik mess hall with a rompish ritual so grotesque and shocking (mixed with demoniacal justifications like the one quoted above) as to remind us of the true nature of these types of regimes.

This is all obviously about Putin, and what he could do. It reminds me of Brian McHale, who heralded science fiction as “the ontological genre par excellence.” But allegory aside, these types of genres are a narratologist’s dream, because one can spend an inordinate amount of time (even in a 190 page book like this one) teasing out the tiniest components of this unfamiliar world.  Sorokin manages this deftly here, and combined with his urgent social message and twisted scenes of brutality, this would make for a chilling film. The opening and closing scenes alone solidify this belief. A lot is at stake with this novel, and Sorokin pulls no punches. But for us on the outside, it has the simple pleasure of just being so cool.

I had a few reasons to pick up Geraldine Brooks’ new novel Caleb’s Crossing. First, it’s a new book by a semi-important author, which has received mostly good reviews in major newspapers. Second, it takes place at Harvard, and I thought it would be a good read for my trip there for a conference. But most importantly, I have just begun a dissertation on contemporary novels that take place in the colonial period. So, Caleb’s Crossing, the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665, seemed to fit the bill.

It does and it doesn’t. My work focuses on the novels, which have come to be called “historiographic metafictions,” that fall under the umbrella of postmodernism, novels like Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Vollmann’s Argall.  Through the depiction of historical events and figures in an ironic light, they foreground the fluidity and downright unknowability of the past. Brooks is not so interested in that here. Like Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (and I find it very difficult to make this comparison in good conscience, but bear with me) Brooks has taken an obscure historical event and extrapolated it into a fleshy, dramatic narrative. But while Jones’ novel is a veritable masterpiece, Brooks’ premise is problematic, and sometimes disingenuous.

It is told from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield (a completely fictional invention), a pre-adolescent girl growing up on Martha’s Vineyard. Stifled by her puritanical father and brother, she sets out frequently on her own to explore the coastline. She eventually befriends a Wopanoak of similar age named Cheeshahteamauk. They discuss their mutual frustrations with their respective communities, in turn engaging in debates over religion. These are convincing, in that they exhibit the types of attitudes characteristic of people that age (“But aren’t you afraid of going to hell?” Etc.).  Throughout her narrative, Bethia evaluates her experiences, no matter how extreme or trying, under the auspices of her Puritanism, which too is convincing. She is a precocious storyteller like Jane Eyre (while the entirety of Jane’s story is told in retrospect, Bethia’s keeps hers like a journal, writing sometimes only hours after the events she’s addressing), and her impetus to self-expression and feminine identity is reminiscent. But the way Brooks has her stop short and remain within her value system, out of fear mostly, is key to capturing the ethos of the period.

But this is where things do become troublesome. Bethia continually refers to her adventures and conversations as sins, deviations from the obedience she only pretends to foster. But so too does she label as sins her questioning of her faith, and her keen interest in the all too stereotypical worship of nature on the part of Cheeshahteamauk. She wavers between her fascination (often verging on subtle eroticization) and a more typical condemnation of his religion as witchcraft. Again, we can chalk this up to accuracy, but things become blurrier after Cheeshahteamauk is slighted by his family, and debates assimilating with the Puritan community. In an early scene the friends decide to re-name each other, he acquiring the Caleb that he would be referred to as throughout the novel, she becoming Storm Eyes, “since my eyes were the color of a thunderhead.” She eventually sheds this title as Caleb becomes more indoctrinated in the Puritan way of life and religious education, but Caleb only becomes more Caleb-like. That is, his assimilation is celebrated, even by him, as an abandonment of his culture’s pact with Satan, and thus “Storm Eyes” must be discarded as child’s stuff, if not heresy.

The novel from there is relatively plotless. (And Brooks’ attempt at stylistic accuracy is commendable, but compared to the virtuosity of Pynchon and Barth’s achievements in this territory, she falls disappointingly flat. Consider “I suddenly felt so light that I thought I might lift off the ground and float away like the seeds of a blowball,” or “This morning, light lapped the water as if God had spilt a goblet of molten gold upon a ground of darkest velvet.” A lot of the time you feel like Brooks is digging for excuses to use archaic terms like “sennight” just to prove she’s done her homework.) Happily, Bethia and Caleb don’t engage in a romantic relationship (thus avoiding the utterly stereotypical and unrealistic), and this allows for a significant chunk of the later plot to be devoted to Bethia’s dilemma over her choice of husband. In the meantime, as Caleb matriculates into secondary school and eventually into Harvard, the plot centers on death and its aftermath, another nice accuracy on the part of Brooks. You see how daily life, and the Puritan attitude, is refined by the imminence of plague, famine, or, on Martha’s Vineyard, shipwreck.  Many important people die throughout the story, and this is not a device to sustain emotional virility–it’s the norm of the day. That said, there is not much beyond this to indicate a plot trajectory per se, and elements of desire and controversy are introduced haphazardly. We meet new characters, such as potential suitors for Bethia, at the last minute, and we have to drag ourselves up to believe that these people are actual human beings, and not devices. There is a core mystery in the Harvard scenes that involves the impregnation of a Wopanoak servant at the school, but this potentially most interesting issue is dismissed almost as rapidly as it develops. This is very clearly not a novel about the issues of colonization, assimilation, miscegenation, etc. but about Caleb’s so-called triumph.

And triumph he does. The climax of the novel is so mawkish that its downright dismissal of the fraught implications of his “achievement” are extremely troubling. At the commencement ceremony, Bethia asides, “Well, I thought. You have done it, my friend. It has cost you your home, and your health, and estrangement from your closest kinsman. But after today, no man may say that the Indian mind is primitive and ineducable. Here, in this hall, you stand, the incontestible argument, the negat respondens.” This type of proclamation is only convincing if we are made privy to Bethia as a naive observer of Wopanoak relations, but we are clearly encouraged to trust her wisdom, as a mouthpiece for Brooks herself. Toward the end, she again proclaims, “Caleb was a hero, there is no doubt of it. He ventured forth from one world to another with an explorer’s courage, armored by the hope that he could serve his people. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the most learned of his day, ready to take his place with them as a man of affairs. He won the respect of those who had been swiftest to dismiss him.” Nowhere amid this unabashed celebration of the “modernization” of the natives is there an indictment or at least a challenge to the cultural assumptions of the Puritans (“an explorer’s courage” is a particularly bold phrase, considering certain famous explorers’ treatment of their conquered. Again, this is not posed ironically). Sure, the discipline and the repression thing is addressed, but nowhere is the study of Latin, Greek, and the Bible as proof of one’s intellectual capacity called into question. It’s taken as a given, so Caleb’s mastery of his subjects at Harvard becomes the categorical evidence that he isn’t a savage. I don’t need to tell you how problematic this type of assumption is, and how anesthetized the pain and tension underlying all this becomes. King Phillip’s War is glossed over toward the end, and any discussion of the social and political aftermath of Caleb’s graduation (there were other native people in his class, including the valedictorian) is buried under the continuation of the death-and-grief trajectory of the plot. It is not until the very end, when Caleb himself is on his deathbed (only a month after his graduation), that the real issue is called into question. I hinted at adolescent notions of the afterlife earlier in this review, but it does become central here as the ultimate stakes of any belief system. As Caleb is dying, Bethia can’t help but wonder to what home he’s being called back, and her consultation with his people’s de facto witch doctor for a remedy for his consumption throws into doubt her devotion to her own set of values. This type of ideological inquiry, I think, needs to be central to a novel that’s going to address the history of native peoples. It’s largely missing here, even though Brooks handles it nicely in their childhood, toward the beginning. In a novel that attempts to address the “crossing” of cultural barriers, a more accurate title probably would have been Caleb’s Passing, because that’s more to the point here. Assimilation is heroic in Brooks’ imagination, and this attitude ultimately dooms her novel.

For fans, the six years spent with LOST, one of the most ambitious and transformative shows in the history of television, are hard to replace. Especially disconcerting are the number of network simulacra that have tried to fill its shoes. (witness FastForward and The Event). In many ways LOST aired during what we might call the Golden Age of Television, alongside The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, the list goes on. Many of these shows have concluded their runs, and while AMC picks up the slack with the stellar Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the pay channels continue to attempt high budget shows that always seem doomed to cancellation – see The Borgias and Game of Thrones, who run the risk of going the way of Rome, Deadwood, and Carnivale. So, for the nostalgic, and as an anniversary of sorts, I want to share with you a conference paper I wrote about LOST‘s narrative structure. Critical literature on the show is slowly but surely surfacing, especially now that it’s finished. Randy Laist’s Looking for Lost: Critical Essays on the Enigmatic Series is a fine start. My analysis takes on the show’s narrative specifically, focusing on a few particular elements. It goes without saying that a major spoiler alert accompanies this paper.

* * *

With its achronous storytelling and depictions of literal time travel, its supernatural mysteries and cliffhanger endings, LOST is ripe for narratological analysis. Now that we have access to the entire series, it is especially appropriate and necessary to engage the narrative arc in its entirety. Despite the disappointment among loyal fans in the relatively solution-free and borderline mawkish finale, “The End” (the title turned out to be quite literal) did continue the show’s acute tendency to allow a season finale to dramatically shift how we read the near two-dozen episodes that preceded it. In this case, however, a necessary re-reading is enacted on a local and a global scale. “The End” not only requires us to re-view Season 6 through a new lens, but the entire trajectory of the characters’ adventures over all six seasons. Regardless of our feelings about the (again, quite literal) afterlife of these characters, “The End” leaves us feeling much like John Locke upon watching the Orientation video in season two, muttering “We’re going to have to watch that again.” Or, for more disgruntled fans, we may be left feeling like Jack at the end of Season 3, desperately moaning “We have to go back!” either to recapture the show’s purer ethos, or, as I plan to do here, to make sense of some of the formal moves this narrative made.

“The End” is not a terrible place to begin. If we rely on Peter Rabinowitz’s theory of privileged positions in fictional texts, we see the type of retroactivity an ending can enact.   He writes, “Our attention during the act of reading [endings and other privileged positions such as titles and first sentences] will in part be concentrated on what we have found in these positions, and our sense of the text’s meaning will be influenced by our assumption that the author expected us to end up with an interpretation that could account more fully for these details than for details elsewhere.” This phenomenon is no more clear than in “The End,” an uncharacteristically unambiguous conclusion to what was perhaps the most ambiguous of LOST‘s narrative arcs.  Namely, the alternate reality, in which the stranded characters were never stranded but nonetheless come together by other and perhaps equally mysterious means, turns out to be some sort of collective intermediary afterlife, a purgatory of sorts. Their interactions within this universe were, we now realize, actually steps toward a mass apotheosis into what we are led to believe is heaven in the final scenes. This revelation not only serves the primary purpose of having one tear-jerker of an ending, but also the not-so-distantly secondary purpose of causing the viewer to re-read these afterlife story lines in a new light.

It is, indeed, a character dominant conclusion. But something very interesting happens to Season 6′s narrative structure as a result of the final scene. In it, we have returned to the Island, where Jack has just defeated the smoke monster and prepares to die from the wounds suffered during the battle. The final frame mirrors the first frame of the Pilot episode, which begins with a close-up on Jack’s opening eye, having regained consciousness from the plane crash. Here, Jack returns to what we are led to believe is the same spot, lies down in roughly the same pose, and closes his eyes in another closeup. This provides neat formal closure, in the looping style characteristic of many of the show’s story arcs.

But this is not, technically, a loop, rather a parallelism. That doesn’t mean, however, that a smaller loop has not been established. Season 5 ends when an atomic bomb explodes at The Swan construction site with the hopes of returning the characters to their previous lives, thus ensuring that they’d never have to go through their turmoil on the Island. Season 6 begins with Jack looking out the window of an airplane, which we quickly learn is Oceanic Flight 815. He’s wearing his same clothes, sitting near the same people, and experiencing the same turbulence (only this time the plane doesn’t split in two). After landing, we learn that his father has just died and he is flying from Australia with the coffin in tow. In short, many of the details for Jack and others correspond to those of Season 1. Each episode of Season 6 focuses on a different character’s experience in this alternate universe, inviting the viewer to read the differences in situation and personality closely, without real indication of what is going on. Not until the re-introduction of Desmond in the latter quarter of the season does any semblance of a plot arise, one in which he is on a mission to unite these characters and remind them of another existence together, on the Island.

But, after “The End,” and only after “The End,” do we have the necessary tools for reading this sequence. In addition to the shocking revelation within the sphere of the alternate reality, the closing of Jack’s eye at The Very End completes the loop. That is, at the moment he dies on the Island, he wakes up on the plane, in this strange new reality. He even bears the not completely healed scars of his battle with the smoke monster, though the nature of these wounds are of course not revealed until the finale. So, while Jack’s experience in this universe eventually is teleological (he reunites, finally, with his father, who leads him and his friends through some sort of pantheistic pearly gates), Season 6′s existence as a narrative, thanks to this final image, is a moebius strip that cycles continually through Jack’s demise and re-awakening.

But how might we classify this ending in Rabinowitz’s terms? He asserts that according to the second metarule of configuration, readers “expect that the ending will somehow be prefigured in the beginning,” that there will be overarching textual balance. Moreover, there is with readers a “tendency…to find what they expect and want in a text,” and they “assume that authors put their best thoughts last, and thus assign a special value to the final [elements] of a text.” LOST is most polarizing in this regard. There are so many mysteries, unresolved plot threads, and open endings, and so many of them piled up over the seasons, that “The End’s” overt focus on character left the LOST literati reeling over the lack of precious “answers.” So much so that executive producers and head writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse shot a coda in which some mysteries were addressed. In short, “The End” has the feel of needing to appeal to a broader audience, at the expense of the science fiction element that had drawn so much popularity to begin with.  It is in this sense, in addition to the They’re All Dead revelation, that “The End” was such a surprise.

But most interesting here is how “The End” corresponds to the two major ways Rabinowitz sees endings potentially defying the rules of balance, either by violation with a deceptive cadence, or exaggeration, with an excessive cadence. In both cases “the undermining of a conventional ending tends to stress the conventionality of that closure, and hence makes us aware of the gap between authorial and narrative audiences.” Such flouting of conventions can critique either the form itself or “question the ideological assumptions behind the convention.” LOST does all of the above.

I’ll begin with exaggeration.  Rabinowitz writes, “Thematizing a text’s conclusion is more complex still when a convention is undermined not by overthrowing it, but rather by following it in such an ostentatious way that it looks absurd.”  With LOST, we are dealing with one of the most massive ensembles of characters in television history. That nearly each of them is granted the most ultimate of happy endings – entrance into heaven – directly flouts the convention of the happy ending to an extreme degree. This mass apotheosis brings everyone together in remembrance of good times (almost like a reunion episode before the show is even over), but it consequently renders whatever happened to them over the course of their life-changing adventures seemingly irrelevant. No matter what you did or what happened to you – alcoholic, abusive father or husband, torturer, thief, murderer, liar – everything is going to be ok if you gain a certain sense of spiritual self-awareness. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs about the afterlife, this move is unusual, and it draws keen attention to both the formal convention of the happy and utterly conclusive ending and the ideological assumptions about the cosmic consequences of our actions.

For Rabinowitz, this is problematic: “many realistic writers prefer endings in which the full consequences of the events portrayed – even the consequences immediately pertinent to the narrative at hand – are neither worked out nor clearly implied.” Consequences are completely ignored in this case. Namely, the shocking deaths of and vexing grief over some of our favorite characters, some as recently as two episodes prior, are suddenly assuaged and anesthetized. But “The End” tells us that how and when you died, or even how and when you lived, doesn’t matter. That, in The End, it’s all about the personal connections we made.

But Rabinowitz delivered the above quote about realistic writers in reference to the other form of deviation, violation.  Endings violate when they “flagrantly defy what has come before” for the sake of shock and surprise. This establishes what Rabinowitz calls a “deceptive cadence.” Previous season finales of LOST engage in just this type of conclusion. At the end of Season 3, when the castaways on The Island are on the verge of rescue, the “flashback” off-Island sequence is inverted in its final scene, when a distraught Jack meets with Kate and utters the famous line “We have to go back!” indicating to the audience that this is not a flashback of the type they had grown so accustomed to over three seasons, but a flash forward, into life after rescue. Nothing in the narrative to this point (except for the general arc of potential rescue) indicates that this move was going to occur. Similarly, the finale of Season 4 builds up to the long anticipated (since the finale of Season 3) revelation of who is in the coffin. The outcome, John Locke, bears no contingency to any possibilities so far established (he was not, after all, one of the Oceanic 6 who escaped the Island). In the case of each example, a sense of the ending is delayed to later points, when new developments can aid a re-mapping of previous occurrences. Only at the end of Season 4 do we learn how and why the Oceanic 6 were able to leave the Island, and only in the early parts of Season 5 do we learn about Locke’s journey off the Island and adoption of the alias Jeremy Bentham that was thrown about during the Season 4 finale.

But there are no such opportunities with “The End.” And there are no analogous models upon which to build expectation. Even though the sheer ambiguity of the off-Island situation throughout the season warrants enough speculation that one may actually guess the ending, that this alternate reality is indeed the afterlife is in no way prefigured (Lindelof and Cuse even frequently directed attention away from the Island-is-purgatory theory, perhaps in order not to give away the real endgame of the show). Even the most conspicuous supernatural element of the show, the cosmic duel between Jacob and the Man in Black over the fate of the Island and of the world, is downplayed if not rendered completely irrelevant by the cosmology of this afterlife.

Rabinowitz’s conclusion may indicate a larger problem. He asserts that in cases like these, “the process of interpretation involves treating the [text] primarily as a popular [piece] (stressing the solution) rather than as a serious one (stressing the indecisive conclusion).”  The relevant question here may be, How seriously did LOST take itself, ultimately? Is the excessive conventionality of this happy ending indeed a “serious” flouting, or an appeal to popularity? Are we engaging a more “popular” mode of interpretation when we yearn for a smooth solution to all of the show’s myteries?

Regardless, Rabinowitz reminds us that “there is a general tendency in most reading to apply rules of coherence in such a way that disjunctures are smoothed over so that texts are turned into unified wholes.” Readers bring to a reading their own socially, intellectually and ideologically determined interpretive strategies, which they can employ to adapt the complicated text to their desires. Hence, in this case, the innumerable blogs, chat rooms, and theories, not the least of which came from Entertainment Weekly’s Doc Jensen, continuing months after the finale. But what must we do, in light of “The End,” to make the rest of LOST feel coherent (if that’s in fact what we really want to do)? Further analysis in the vein of Rabinowitz’s treatment of privileged positions (namely, season finales and premiers) will reveal a consistent devotion, as we’ve partially seen already, to the type of deviation Rabinowitz outlines. The formal effect in turn mirrors the content-based aim of the show – to challenge, if not subvert, prevailing ideological assumptions about the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, science and spirituality, and interpersonal relationships.

We’ve seen already how LOST‘s other finales enact a necessary retroactivity. They resolve mysteries and pose new ones in ways that are not prefigured. Thus, with this new and surprising information, we have no choice but to re-read. Just this occurs, for example, at the end of Season 3, when we have to re-view Jack’s off-Island narrative as a flash-forward rather than a flashback. But season finales have the luxury of being directly followed (however many months later, unless you own the DVD’s) by a season premier that begins to smooth over the gaps opened by the finale. Thus the beginning of Season 2 begins where Season 1 left off. Jack and Locke were left staring into into the abyss of the hatch before the screen fades to black. Season 2 opens in the hatch, with Desmond inside. Similarly, Season 4 ends with the disappearance of the Island, and Season 5 begins on the Island, having moved in time. Season 5 ends with the ultimate cliffhanger (and perhaps another excessive violation) an atomic explosion and a fade to white. Season 6 begins as the white fades into picture again, of Jack in an alternate universe (this is not a linear progression, but a deceptive one, that, we have seen, is resolved only at the end of Season 6). In each case the finale and the subsequent premier are in dialogue with each other in a way that assuages audience anxiety.

But I submit that LOST generates the final thrust of its narrative through even more privileged positions, at least here. And they are located in almost the exact middle of the arc.

With the happy ending of “The End,” the odd man out is John Locke. The heroic man of faith was murdered as he was preparing to commit suicide, never to see the fruits of his mission to bring the Ocean 6 back to the Island to save it. He dies desperate and deceived. But his mission is the fulcrum by which the endgame of the show is enacted. It begins in the Season 4 episode “Cabin Fever.” The Island is under siege, and Locke sets off to find the mysterious cabin to discern from the Island-deity Jacob what to do. The off-Island flashback focuses on Locke, and how throughout his life he just missed being recruited by Jacob and becoming the special person he always wanted to be. One such scene occurs when Jacob’s right-hand Richard Alpert visits Locke as a child. He lays a series of items on a table, including a knife, compass, baseball glove, and comic book, asking Locke to choose the items that “belong to him already.” When young John chooses incorrectly, Alpert storms out. At the end of the on-Island arc of the episode, Locke’s desire for heroism seems to be fulfilled, as he encounters the ghost of Christian Shephard (Jack’s father), who is not Jacob, but “speaks on his behalf.” From Shephard Locke learns that he must move the Island in order to save it.

These two examples are crucial mysteries in the trajectory of Locke. In the Season 5 episode “Jughead,” amid the Island’s chaotic shifts through time, Richard gives Locke the same compass we saw in “Cabin Fever,” instructing him to give it back to him as a sign of recognition at a later meeting. When Locke shows up in the 40′s (the Island has shifted to this point in time), he gives Richard (who is over 150 years old but  doesn’t age) the compass. Richard is dumbfounded. He doesn’t know John. But Locke instructs him to pay him a visit a few years later, when he’s a child, to validate what he is saying. Richard does just this, as seen in the “Cabin Fever.” That the young Locke doesn’t recognize Richard is one of the great disappointments of LOST, as it signals Locke’s future of always coming up just short, which turns out, sadly, to be his defining characteristic. But we can only read that disappointment through a re-vision equipped with necessary information that is impossible to prefigure.

The mystery of Christian Shephard takes considerably longer to answer. Locke succeeds in moving the Island, but amid the deadly time traveling, Alpert instructs him to leave the Island and convince those who left to come back. This was the only way to stop the shifts in time and save everyone. Locke leaves the Island, but when he can’t convince anyone to return, he tries to kill himself, and is murdered by Ben Linus before he gets a chance to. Hence Locke ends up in the coffin, as we see at the end of Season 4. But the episode in which we learn of Locke’s murder begins with an alive-and-well Locke, walking around on the Island, seemingly back from the dead. Only through flashbacks do we learn how he died. This seemingly improved Locke has a new mission: to kill Jacob. He succeeds, at the very end of Season 5.

It is only in the finale of Season 5 and the premiere of Season 6 (another example of the smoothing over of finale-anxiety) that we learn the mysterious truth of Locke’s return from the dead. Namely, the Locke that we think we know is in fact Jacob’s ancient rival, the Smoke Monster, having assumed Locke’s corpse as his own body. As the season progresses, we learn that it was the monster, who, as Locke, coerced Richard to give Locke the compass and instruct him to bring the Oceanic 6 to back to the Island, not to save everyone, but to kill them, and thus be free of his curse. To top it all off, by the end of Season 6 we learn that the monster also posed as Christian Shephard, and was thus the man whom Locke spoke to in the cabin and convinced him to move The Island, setting this entire arc in motion.

All this, especially if you’re not familiar with the show, is very confusing. But the point is this: what was once the turning point of Locke’s heroic adventure turned out, through a series of retroactive revelations, to be, as we have just seen, a painfully intricate plot on the part of the smoke monster to lead Locke to his death so he could assume his body, kill Jacob, and finally leave the Island (he doesn’t succeed in this final endeavor).  In other words the audience expectation for Locke, embodied in a long arc, was disrupted piecemeal along strategic points (what we might label, therefore, as the most privileged positions) of that very arc. This move, in my opinion, was masterful, however tragic. It emphasizes LOST‘s most valuable attribute, namely its keen interest in narrative deviation in a way unprecedented in television.

These deviations, as may be clear now, are perception-altering. Because of all these twists and turns, the central themes of the show are even more foregrounded. What we think we know about the supernatural, the scientific, the cosmic, the afterlife, the trajectory of our own lives, etc., is never what we think it is, and occurs in ways more spatial than linear. Moreover, the necessary deja vu enacted through this textual retroactivity signals a need to look more closely at the intricate workings of our own lives, and their unexpected privileged positions along the way.