CCLaP Journal Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
03 | November 2013
Interviews with Ben Tanzer and Mark R. Brand Original fiction from Andy Plattner and Steve Romagnoli New reviews of: Philipp Meyer Thomas Pynchon Samantha Irby and more
S E G A P 0 5 1 S D A NO
Photo features by: Noushin Arefadib Brendan Ó Sé Sheldon Serkin <--Elodie Fougére
4 Ben Tanzer: The CCLaP Interview
A talk with this prolific author about the five (!) new projects he published in 2013
42 Original Fiction: “Resort Life,” by Andy Plattner
To escape a family scandal, a troubled young man enters the high-end hotel industry
76 Mark R. Brand: The CCLaP Interview
The Chicago sci-fi author discusses graduate school, his new book, and much more
112 Original Fiction: “Nevermore,” by Steve Romagnoli
“Waiting for Godot” meets Charles Bukowski in this rowdy absurdist adventure tale
PHOTOGRAPHER FEATURES 19 Noushin Arefadib 55 Brendan Ó Sé 89 Sheldon Serkin 127 Elodie Fougére
REVIEWS AND ESSAYS 14 16 38 40 50 52 70 72 74 85 86 108 110 124 146 148
The Son, by Philipp Meyer Fighting for an American Countryside, by Jennifer Vogel All That Is, by James Salter Cannonball, by Joseph McElroy Sloughing Off the Rot, by Lance Carbuncle Angels, by Denis Johnson Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon The Osiris Curse, by Paul Crilley The Image, by Jean de Berg Saga: Volume One, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples The Explanation for Everything, by Lauren Grodstein The Disaster Artist, by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell Bitter Orange, by Marshall Moore Sheikhs, Lies and Real Estate, by J.R. Roth The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida Meaty, by Samantha Irby
RARE BOOKS FOR SALE 18 49 54 73 88 126
Native Son, by Richard Wright Night Scenes of City Life, by T. DeWitt Talmage Dorian Gray (1917 Modern Library Edition) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1925 Scribner Series) Moo, by Jane Smiley Mystic River, by Dennis Lahane
PHOTO: BRENDAN Ó SÉ
2 | The CCLaP Journal
The CCLaP Journal. Published monthly by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Copyright 2013, CCLaP Publishing. Released under a Creative Commons license; some rights reserved. Rights to individual works revert back to authors upon publication. Editor in Chief: Jason Pettus. Photo Editor: Rex Brink. Contributing Writers: Travis Fortney, Madeleine Maccar, Jason Pettus, Karl Wolff. This magazine mostly contains material first published the previous month at the CCLaP blog; for all the latest, please visit cclapcenter.com.
FROM THE EDITOR Oh, what a fantastic but frustrating year 2013 was for CCLaP! And this magazine you’re holding in your hands is a good example of why; for although I’ve been immensely proud of the few issues we managed to actually get done and released this year, we far and away missed the goal of putting out an issue every month, namely because everything that CCLaP does has all taken a big leap in popularity this year, to the point of us having constant struggles in 2013 just to get all of it finished in the first place. But with the addition of five new staffers this year (marketing director Lori Hettler, photography editor Rex Brink, and critics Karl Wolff, Travis Fortney and Madeleine Maccar), things have finally started getting back under control again, and I’m happy to be presenting this newest issue of the Journal just a month after the last one (amazing!), with the hopes that this will be a regular monthly occurrence all through 2014. And that’s because we’ve got big news for the Journal and 2014: namely, because of a recent switch in our overall publishing program, starting next year we will finally be getting rid of the super-expensive print-on-demand paper version of this publication ($22 an issue, which is just too expensive for nearly everyone), and presenting these instead as 150-page trade paperback books for only $8 an issue, complete with ISBN numbers so that you can order them directly from your favorite local bookstore. We’re combining this, then, with an expansion in scope of our interviews and original fiction, plus are adding a new staffer who will be creating and maintaining an iOS app for us; and we hope this will make the Journal a viable new national mainstream publication in 2014, available in stores nationwide and with optimized e-mag versions for both Kindles and iPads. But in the meanwhile, here is our last issue of 2013, and our last to be presented in full 8.5 x 11 inch format; and I gotta say, it’s a pretty good one too! As always, you can find all the versions of this issue, plus all previous and future issues, at [cclapcenter. com/journal]; read the online “flippable” version of the PDF at Issuu.com [issuu.com/jasonpettus/cclapjournal03]; purchase the optimized Kindle version for $4.99 at [bit.ly/cj03amazon] , or pick up the full-sized print-on-demand paper edition at [bit. ly/cj03paper]. These paid versions are the only way this magazine’s contributors make money, so I encourage you to spend a few bucks and help support the production of future issues, as well as a robust and always intellectually stimulating blog containing this content that you can visit every day for free. Like I mentioned, we’re now starting to accept submissions of individual short stories and essays, as well as pitches for interviews, so please direct all your inquiries directly to me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you. —Jason Pettus
CENTER HAPPENINGS It’s been mostly a quiet late autumn for everyone at CCLaP, as the staff takes a muchneeded holiday break, although there have been some interesting things going on here and there with the center as well. Perhaps the biggest news is the continual expansion of our new “Studio 505” performance space, a.k.a. Jason Pettus’ new apartment in the Uptown neighborhood; September saw a reading there by visiting author Maureen Foley, while October and November brought us local author Mark R. Brand and St. Louis musician Ken Kase. The shows were a humble but great start to our growing liveevents schedule here in Chicago, and we hope to begin expanding this program in both
scope and size throughout 2014. But this autumn has seen us getting out and about town as well; in October we were at the Evanston Public Library for a special performance from neighborhood denizen Brand, while in November CCLaP made it out to the second annual Chicago Book Expo, where we had a chance to meet and talk with dozens of our blog readers, along with thousands of new lit fans. As always, the Expo was a real highlight of the entire year for the local literary community, and our congratulations go out to the hardworking
staff there for another successful event. We look forward to announcing big news about our publishing program next month, including a whopping 16 new titles on our schedule for 2014; producing our first-ever mini literary convention next June, the “CCLaP Gathering” which finally collects up all our far-flung authors and staffers into one place for the first time in our history; and sharing more details about a big new student anthology we will be publishing next fall, the first-ever attempt to create a “City All Star” student publication that spreads across all of Chicago’s college campuses. And in the meanwhile, we hope that all of you are having a happy and healthy holiday season.
November 2013 | 3
Ben Ta 4 | The CCLaP Journal
Chicago author Ben Tanzer has rightly earned the title of “Hardest Working Man in Show Business;” a late starter who didn’t begin writing until his thirties, just a decade later he has a dozen books in print, and is easily one of the most popular authors currently in the city. In the year and a half since CCLaP last spoke with Tanzer, a whopping five books he has either written or edited have come out, including his first national release on an A-list publisher, the science-fiction family drama Orphans from Northern Illinois University Press. CCLaP’s Jason Pettus recently sat down with Tanzer to talk all about these five books, the drunken pitch sessions that sometimes led to them, and why we should all be unabashed fans of Vanilla Ice.
Tanzer THE CCLAP INTERVIEW
November 2013 | 5
(This interview was originally conducted in August 2013, and has been slightly edited for this printed version.) CCLaP: Ben, appearance number five for you today on our podcast. I can’t imagine anyone better for episode #100. Ben Tanzer: I was thinking when you mentioned that this was going to be the hundredth episode that I’m honored, but I was also thinking, “Man, in the back of your mind, you must be thinking, ‘Why couldn’t I have gotten George Saunders?’” (Laughter) I feel like I messed things up, but I’m honored and thrilled. Well, you have such a long history with the center. You were the author of the very first book we put out. And we have to keep having you on, because you have so many new things you’re constantly doing. Look at this list here in front of us; you have... (counting) ...five new books either come out or are coming out since the last time you talked with us. That’s true, because we last talked about a year and a half ago, and it’s been a very awesome, manic year and a half. It’s funny, because in my mind, I would’ve tried to space things out; but as an artist, you really have no control over that. People ask you to write things, and then you just sort of wait and see where they land. This has been a very odd window. I’m embarrassed about it, although our friend Jason Fisk tells me not to be. I’m thrilled to talk about them; they’re great projects. But it is odd, isn’t it? How out-of-order does this publishing stuff occur, in relation to when you write it? I have to say, it constantly varies, even when people specifically ask me to write something. There can easily be a year’s delay [with some of these projects], where you think you’re done but then there are last-minute changes. I’ve been helping out Curbside Splendor recently, and learning how to write press releases—they just hooked up with a new distributor, Consortium, and there isn’t going to be any confusion anymore about when things are coming out. You don’t get to move dates around anymore when you’re dealing with someone like that. But it’s different with the people you and I run around with most of the time, depending on cash flow and personality. So yeah, I find it can be about a year or so, Orphans, my new book, got delayed too, but I found that was to my benefit. Sometimes the delays can be good. Does that answer your question? [Laughter] Well, what I was thinking of was whether you might write Project A and then Project B, but then before you know it, Project B is getting published six months before Project A. Well, take I Am, for example; that’s been done for a while. We—and by “we” I mean me and Artistically Declined Press—we were both sitting on it for a while, for whenever we thought was the right time. And then I had this other thing that was supposed to come out this summer, but got bumped; so then Ryan [Bradley, owner of Artistically Declined] was like, “Well, then, let’s just put I Am out.” So that was originally supposed to be eight months ago, then it was a year from now, and now suddenly it’s coming out right this moment. But it was basically done and edited and the cover done for months now. Let’s go through all this stuff chronologically, in order of when it’s coming out. First, Daddy Cool. Another Artistically Declined book, right? Yes. That came out in June. That was a great project, about a year or so in the making. Ryan sent me an email in the middle of the night, as he tends to do, and he said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we got a bunch of dad authors who did pieces for their kids? Could you do that? You collect dad authors.” Which I do; it’s a hobby of mine. So I just started reaching out to people, about a year and a half ago. And it was interesting, because not everyone wanted to participate. Or, some people felt like they couldn’t participate. Because they didn’t feel like they had a good story in them? They didn’t think they could write for kids, or they were too busy, two things that are very foreign for me. [Laughter] So I collected all those pieces and I thought, “These are so good, maybe I could do another wave [of contributors].” Because what had happened was that I had made more dad-author friends. So we ended up with around twenty dad authors all around the country. And we spent around six months editing it and cleaning it up; and although we didn’t deliberately time it for Father’s Day, it did end up coming out right before Father’s Day. And it’s just a wonderful collection of authors, and a 6 | The CCLaP Journal
lot of [Chicago] people who are friends of mine anyway—Mark Brand, Jason Fisk, Rob Duffer. I know I’m going to leave a lot of people out. Joseph Peterson, who I think is one of the great all-time writers. But then a lot of people from all around the country too. And I just had a lot of fun with it. I find it interesting that here in Chicago right now, when we think of a “community” of writers in a large city, and these writers going out to live events, usually we skew this image in our heads to a young crowd, a single crowd, who have the ability to stay out late at night a lot. I find it so interesting that there’s this big wave in Chicago right now of middle-aged fathers who are performing writers, who have kids and who always need to get back home at a certain time. What’s been your experiences with finding other people like this, like yourself, out in the city? Well, I’m someone who’s always sought out community. Even before I was a writer, I was friends with writers, and I was obsessed with books. And I always thought, “What if you don’t go through the usual system? What if you don’t get an MFA?” Which I didn’t; I’m a social worker during the day. So I was always looking for writers, and when you look around, [the community] mostly is young, attractive people. But everywhere I go, I do still run into dads; and I admit, I have specifically sought these people out to form a community. Most of us have office day jobs. Most of us struggle to find time to write. They really are everywhere; AWP, book readings in Chicago, book readings in other cities. The funny thing was that it wasn’t hard to reach out to dad authors [for this anthology], just that they don’t write as dads necessarily. But every reading, there’s always a couple of us. The funny part was setting up the release party for the book, because every single person was like, “Aw, we need a babysitter, and what’s my wife going to say?” [Laughter] One of the things we did at the party at the Book Cellar was that I said to the dads, “Why don’t you bring your kids with you?” So almost every dad who read brought their children. So the bookstore was hopping that night [laughter], but half the crowd was kids twelve and under. My son Myles and I actually co-authored my piece for the book. It’s an adaptation of a story he wrote for school, that he got recognized for, and then we turned it into a piece of flash fiction. And he said, “If I’m one of the authors, do I get to read at the party?” And I was like, “Sure!” So we did. I really feel honored to be part of a group like that. I’m friends with all the contributors now. The money for Daddy Cool got raised through a Kickstarter campaign, and I know at least one other project we’ll be talking about later is getting funded that way too. How has Kickstarter changed the way you go about doing things? It seems that so many projects by people we know are all getting funded that way, to the point where it’s becoming a standard part of the basement-press experience. Does that add a burden to your time as a writer knowing that you now have to set aside an extra amount of time to go promote the fundraising campaign? It’s funny, because there’s always a level of self-promotion if you’re a small press. I also have to say that I feel a bit like a freeloader, because I’ve always been the beneficiary of those campaigns. These publishers ask me to do very little. They ask me to rally, of course, in a sense. I’ve been asked to get my piece done in a timely manner so that it can be part of the Kickstarter marketing. What I’ve noticed, and I’ve been very lucky, is that people want to go out and start them on behalf of a number of books I’ve been a part of in the last year. I do what they ask, but I don’t feel like I’m doing a lot of the work, which is great. But for publishers, I do think it’s now part of the norm, which is fascinating. What’s interesting is that so far every Kickstarter campaign [I’ve been a part of] has been successful, and none of them feel like they’re going to be. There’s always some last-minute surge. I think if you’re a small press, I think what [Kickstarter] allows you to do is lower your stress about how much you need to bring in in order to get something back out. The stress is more front-loaded: you calculate what you need to spend, and you’ve already lowered your stress level. One of the problems is following up on your promises. I think a lot of Kickstarter dudes find it a lot more difficult to follow up on what they promised to deliver [as level perks] than they thought it was going to be. If you promise people to get them a copy of an anthology signed by every single author, that’s a huge amount of stress. But I’ve been lucky enough that I haven’t had to personally worry about any of that. I think it’s becoming a de rigeur kind of thing. I think a lot of people are saying, “Damn, maybe I’ll be stressed for a couple of months at the beginning, but at I least I can guarantee that the money will be there [for the actual project].” But there also seems to be a Kickstarter backlash, and that I don’t understand. If you want to donate, donate, and if you think it’s bullshit, that’s cool. I can see why people would get mad at Zach Braff, but I’m not sure I agree with it. Who cares if Zach Braff wants money? Don’t give it to him if you don’t want. Is it really more complicated than that? [Laughter] People seem very upset on Facebook. Well, and another problem, especially on the basement-press level, is that there seems to be a much higher signal-to-noise ratio anymore. There are so many projects, and so many of your friends are trying to get books out, every person who runs one of those has to hustle a whole lot more even to November 2013 | 7
get noticed by their friends. There’s a lot from my day job that I can apply here. There’s a ton of what we call “clutter.” Clutter isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means that there’s a lot of things happening at once. So the question becomes, how do you rise above the clutter? Kickstarter at least helps you fund your clutter, which frankly means you don’t have to sell as many books anymore [to break even]. So I don’t think you can’t do it. You have to do it if you want to get traction. This is just an assumption, but I assume that most small presses are reliant on having at least one thing per year sell really well, which sort of floats everything else. If something doesn’t sell really well, Kickstarter I think is a really good stand-in. Look at Akashic Books. They’re incredibly successful already, and as cool as can be; but tell me they haven’t benefited from Go The Fuck To Sleep. That’s a great book! If you’re a parent, you don’t even have to ask why they would publish a book like that. I’m assuming that’s allowed them to do a lot of other cool stuff. So that’s my new theory, that I’ve never really thought of this way before—Kickstarter is a standin for having an accidental home-run. One thing I’ll say—and I wish this was a more fully-formed thought—but there’s obviously a democratization that’s happened with making books; the internet, better printers, better graphics. But if everyone can now make nice books, that’s the clutter we’re talking about. Kickstarter allows these people to get over the hump. So speaking of Artistically Declined, let’s talk about I Am. I have to admit, you’ve had so many new books coming out recently, this one has been completely off my radar, and I don’t even know what it’s about. This is one of those things that grew out of a [different original] idea. I’m sure many of your readers know who J.A. Tyler is, a great dude who ran the old Mudluscious Press; and a couple of years ago I had coffee with him in some diner outside of Denver, and I just really loved the guy. He’s got this very particular type of style, the way he writes, and at the time he was doing these sort of flashfiction books. And I wish I could explain this part better, but I was sitting in the airport in Denver a couple of days later and got to thinking about Richard Simmons, who I absolutely love, and I was thinking, “What would a monologue by Richard Simmons look like?” If I could take all my thoughts about Richard Simmons and make them funny, but make it kind of painful too. What would it actually be like to be Richard Simmons? You have to work really hard to be that guy. You have to let yourself be mocked. I wanted to write something in this guy’s voice, so I wrote “I Am Richard Simmons,” and it was in my J.A. Tyler voice. And then Mudluscious immediately accepted it, and that’s the best kind of thing to work on, when you write with someone in mind and that someone says, “Yeah, that’s us!” So then later I was thinking, “What would a series of monologues look like by guys who seem to be in pain?” I also write humor pieces on a regular basis, and I was thinking, these could be like humor pieces but without the humor. You still go for the same level of grandiosity, but what’s left if you pull out the humor? So I was thinking about that for about a year; and then a year ago, a year before Daddy Cool, Ryan said, “When are you going to do something new for us?” I had done a full novel with them before, which apparently did well for them, and Ryan said, “You should do something smaller for us.” And I said, “Well, I have this idea for a series of monologues,” and Ryan said, “All right, let’s take a look at them.”
I wish I could explain this part better, but I was sitting in the airport in Denver a couple of days later and got to thinking about Richard Simmons, who I absolutely love, and I was thinking, “What would a monologue by Richard Simmons look like?” If I could take all my thoughts about Richard Simmons and make them funny, but make it kind of painful too. What would it actually be like to be Richard Simmons? You have to work really hard to be that guy. You have to let yourself be mocked.
What happened was that I got on this streak where a lot of people were asking me to submit things, to pitch things, and so every time someone asked me to do something, I thought, “What would a monologue here look like? And what kind of B-list people would I write them about?” The kind of B-list people I love. I love Gunther Gabel [Ed.: famed ‘70s lion tamer with the Barnum and Bailey Circus], so I wrote a monologue about him. And what about the very first person to win the gold medal in the marathon? What about Darth Vader? What do these people look like when they’re off your radar? What’s in their heads? So every time someone asked me to write something, I said, “Can I write you a monologue?” And about six months ago, I hit my goal of writing about twelve monologues, 8 | The CCLaP Journal
about 15,000 words, which seemed like just enough so you wouldn’t get sick of all the people. I wrote about Christa McAuliffe, the woman who died on the space shuttle. I started writing these stories to the best of my ability, about these minor semi-celebrity types. Corey Feldman, who I love. A lot of them are ‘80s and ‘90s fixtures. Vanilla Ice. He’s made a comeback, which I’m happy about. [Laughter] I’m glad somebody is! You know what I love about Vanilla Ice? [Laughter] Oh, tell us. I was watching this interview with him one time. And I tend to fixate on things, as I think a lot of writers do, and I got fixated on this interview where he insists that he did not steal the riff from “Under Pressure.” He sat there and explained how the beats were actually different. And he clearly stole the riff, and nobody cares, but his argument was very elegant and very impassioned. “They do duh-duhduh-DUH-duh, and we do duh-duh-duh-DUH-DUH-duh.” He was really breaking it down. And that’s what I love about him, that twenty years later he’s still trying to convince people that he didn’t steal the riff from “Under Pressure.” That’s what I Am is about, those pieces, and it just came out. That mindset has worked well for you—that when people are asking you for short pieces, you’ll spend a year or two trying beforehand to write pieces that will eventually work well together, and then at the end of that year or two you can publish them as a themed book. That’s how a lot of your New York stories came about, in the story collections you’ve published with us in the past. Absolutely. It’s almost like a business model, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. When we did the blog tour for Repetition Patterns [the first collection of New York-set stories], I was getting all these questions that I was really intrigued by. And I started thinking about another group of stories in my head, just because of that blog tour. And that eventually became So Different Now [the second collection]. So anytime someone asked me to write them a short story, I thought, “What are the pieces that will be in So Different Now?” And at the end of the year I handed it to you, and you said, “I don’t think we even have to edit these”—that was a first for you and me [laughter]—and it’s funny, because I just kept thinking of those stories every time someone would ask for one. That has become a model for me; and I have to admit, from a marketing standpoint, I never want to think of any of my stories as an individual piece. Why write one story [on a particular theme], when you could write ten and maybe get someone to publish it? I think of them as down projects for between [my larger novels], so why not dedicate them to little personal obsessions? That’s what I’m doing right now with the third collection of New York stories. It starts with the town being flooded, and so for the last six months, every time someone has asked for a story, I’ve thought, “What would this town-wide flood look like from this angle?” When are we going to see volume three? I’m about six months away from sending you a manuscript. Yay! [Laughter] Absolutely. Next: 27th Mile. I believe this one just came out recently, from Ray Charbonneau in Boston. I did an interview about this book last week, and every time I said something, I thought, “Ugh, you’re such a fucking cheeseball,” but 27th Mile was an attempt to bring writer/runners together to do a benefit for the One Fund, which is for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. And I forgot about this until I did this interview, but most of the victims were actually not runners but in the crowd. So Ray reached out to all the writer/runners he knows, and he said, “Can you give me something?” So to follow up on the theme thing we’re talking about, I wrote one of the New York stories about runners and violence. I was really affected by the bombing. I’m a runner; I’m from the northeast. The Boston Marathon is the most amazing running event in the country. It was interesting, after the bomb went off, a lot of people said, “I never realized how exposed you are at the finish line.” That really hit me. So I wrote him an original piece called “The Runner,” about a runner who gets himself into a violent situation; and then after accepting that, Ray reached out and asked if he could have a piece from 99 Problems [Ed.: the essay collection on running that Tanzer published with CCLaP in 2010]. Which people seem to still really love, which thrills me to no end. And so I gave him “The Long Haul” too; and it was funny, because November 2013 | 9
one of the reviews of the book singled out that story. So I’m honored to be a part of that. I hope people will track it down. The writers are amazing. Talk about another interesting sub-scene within the literary community. This is what led you to writing 99 Problems in the first place, finding out that there seems to be this strange, ongoing, profound connection between runners and writers. Absolutely. And also, they’re not casual runners. That’s one of the things I wanted to hit in 99 Problems. I am old, and I am slow, and I am fat with bad knees, but I would never be casual about running. I’d never say I was going jogging, and I would never run on a treadmill. Fucking blech. [Laughter] Blake Butler, I don’t know him very well, but I learned during an interview he was doing, he’s a long-distance runner too. Plus he’s an insomniac like me. This is my very unformed theory, but what I think is that to write is to be compulsive. And I think other writers have other compulsions, and I think all of us try to manage them. So I think running [is a compulsion] that goes with writing hand-in-hand, because it lets you get away, it lets you think. I mean, I ran before I wrote; but now sometimes I have to decide, if I only have 30 minutes, am I going to run or am I going to write? And it’s funny, and I don’t think Ray minds me mentioning this, but both he and I [have had alcohol issues in the past], so perhaps it’s just moving one compulsion to another. Maybe as a writer you never give up the compulsions, so running is a way of handling it more healthily. Okay, next. And in fact you talk about the origins of this next book within the manuscript of 99 Problems. Orphans—a story about family, set in a post-apocalyptic future, right? It’s maybe not apocalyptic, but I was just trying to picture what Chicago or America might look like down the road. We’re not going to have any money, and there won’t be enough work. So it’s not about war or violence, per se, but I think it is about what happens when you slowly run out of money, and what kinds of places you’ll go because of that. So perhaps a dystopia. Yeah. And the thing about the book—and like you said, I do talk about this in 99 Problems—is that I was really interested in the relationship between fathers and sons, and I also got to thinking about how jobs and work have the potential to warp families. And then I got to thinking, “You know, I don’t want to keep writing the same book again. How might I do this differently?” Also, I was thinking, how do you sell more books? I don’t think I’ll ever figure that one out. So I started thinking, maybe something a little more genre. That would take me out of my usual brain. So I don’t know how science-fiction it is, but I did set it in the future, and part of the problem with work [in my book] is that it’s simply not available. That would really fuck you up. So what if you get a job but then you’re really owned by the job? And what if you’re owned by the job, but you kind of like it? Not only are you conflicted, you don’t really mind being conflicted. One of the impulses behind that was that one night, I had to go speak at a conference [for my own day job]. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn, but we were having a rough time as a family, and I was sitting in an airport, and I called home because I was feeling so guilty. I was thinking, “This is not the time to go get on a plane and go out to California for a conference.” But I was told I had to. But I thought, just because someone tells you you have to, do you really have to? And then I thought, but don’t you kind of want to anyway? This was the first time I was ever going to have the opportunity to speak in front of hundreds of people, and I was really conflicted in my head. And so later, after my run [Ed.: the one mentioned in 99 Problems, where Tanzer muses out loud about bringing these pieces of the story together, and how he still felt one piece was missing], I realized this was the missing piece. I like to think of it as The Martian Chronicles bumping heads with Glengary Glenross or Death of a Salesman. So it gets into pretty dark territory, it sounds like. It depends on how you define dark. I write things that I think are dark but that everyone else thinks is funny, and I write things I think are funny but everyone else thinks is dark. I often try to wrap pain around humor, or humor around pain. So we’ll see. The darker parts are perhaps not about the family but more about the world they live in. And this is a big new step in your career too; it’s being put out by Northern Illinois University Press, probably the biggest press now to have put out one of your books. As long as I can say that and in no way look like I’m dissing any of my previous publishers [laughter], 10 | The CCLaP Journal
I guess so. It’s not a diss! [Laughter] From a pure standpoint of budget, I mean. They have more money than any other press you’ve dealt with. That’s true. Even the fact that I’m talking to a full-time publicist all the time about marketing and press. I’m not even dealing with the editors anymore, just her. It’s different. They have a cover-design guy; that’s his only job, to design the cover. And since this is an academic press, I assume they have [ins with big groups] that you or I would ever have. Now, whether or not that ends up making any difference... Tell us how it all came about to begin with. I’ll give you the abbreviated version. It’s a funny story. Joseph Peterson, who I already mentioned, at one point worked for the University of Chicago Press. He’s the numbers guy, when he’s not writing kickass novels. His colleague was leaving U of C Press to go to NIU Press and be the second in command. Part of his challenges was to take their fiction arm and make it cooler, hipper, whatever. So Joseph told this guy, “You should call Ben Tanzer; nobody knows this guy, but he’s maybe one of the people who could help you elevate your fiction program.” And this guy really called me. He was like, “I don’t know who you are...” [Laughter] Very politely. He said, “Send me your books, and maybe there’s something we can do together down the road.” But that road never seemed to materialize. So almost a year passed, and right before the 2012 AWP [Ed.: the second-largest literary convention in the United States, held that year in Chicago], this guy calls and says, “We should get a drink at AWP.” And I thought it was going to be very casual, and in fact I went somewhere else and drank first, which is also part of this story. [Laughter] And I show up, having drank for a long time, and there was the guy, and he was sitting with the head publisher. And I saw them sitting there and I thought, “Oh. Oh, this is not good.” [Laughter] It looked like a job interview. But when I sat down, they were soooo drunk, so the whole thing started becoming like this competition. They started interviewing me like I was going to go work there. And this went on for like an hour, and finally they said, “So what do you got for us?” And I had just finished Orphans and was talking to another publisher about it—and I want to thank that publisher for being so cool—but I thought, “If I leave this discussion, after verbally battling with these guys for an hour, without pitching something, I’m a fucking idiot.” So I explained Orphans to them, and this head guy, who could barely even stand up, says, “What would you think of your first novel with major national attention being a science-fiction novel?” And I said, “I’m sorry, I stopped listening after ‘national attention.’” [Laughter] And I got an email a day or two later, and he said, “Read the book already. This is a go.” And I had a contract on Monday. And then the guys left the company.
So I explained Orphans to them, and this head guy, who could barely even stand up, says, “What would you think of your first novel with major national attention being a science-fiction novel?” And I said, “I’m sorry, I stopped listening after ‘national attention.’”
[Loud laughter] What?! Yeah. And as of about eight months ago, it looked like the book wasn’t going to come out at all. Total panic. Wait, wait, wait. Let’s stop for a moment here. [Laughter] You go through this whole rigamarole with these guys, and then they leave? What did you hear from their office at that point? I actually didn’t hear anything. So Joseph Peterson once again reached out, and he sent me this note saying, “Dude, things are falling apart over there. You should follow up.” So I followed up. And the guy I first met with was very cool. He’s like, “The guys you worked with are gone, and I’m also leaving on my own accord soon. But one of the things I’m going to do before I leave is get your book greenlit with the new people.” And to his credit, I think he was working on getting my book in front of the right people all the way up to the day he left. I think he called me on the road on the way to his new job in California. What happened, though, is that the book was supposed to have come out last spring, but that got of course bumped. But if it had come out last spring, [my team would’ve left right after] and November 2013 | 11
nobody would’ve been paying any attention to it. Now it’s got a whole new team, and they’re all really excited too, and we’re in a great place. It worked out well, and I feel really guilty about that. You touched on this a little before, but tell us more about what you’ve seen that’s different at a place like NIU, as far as what they can bring to you, bring to your book, bring to the marketing, and getting the word out? I think all you guys do a really good job at this. Again, I’m self-conscious about making anyone sound less capable than others. [Laughter] For the record, Ben is not talking crap about any of his other publishers! I am forcing him to say nice things about the new people! So what I got was a whole team of people, people who worry just about one aspect of the book’s success. You’re dealing with the cover guy, and you’re constantly emailing back and forth with him. You’re dealing with the office guy, who deals just with the bullshit. They’ve all got their separate responsibilities, and while you guys are all good at everything, these guys are REALLY good at just their one thing. Dealing with the publicist has been fascinating, because it’s literally his day job. That’s all he has to worry about. And the irony is, because of that big transition, my book is actually the very first one in the schedule ready to go under the new leadership. So I’m getting all this extra love and care, which I don’t feel so bad about. [Laughter] But it’s great. So we’ll see how it pays off. I got a list of where all the galleys went to. I mean, all you guys worry about this stuff, but they’ve got access to people I’ve only heard about. It makes a difference, and that’s the part you [as the customer] don’t know. The galleys are beautiful, that’s the other thing. They’re these really nice softcover books. Yeah, when the advance reading copies look as nice as the final copies of many of us smaller presses, that’s when you know you’ve made it. [Laughter] And again, when they were doing the line edits, they literally have someone who just specializes in line edits. When it went to proof, they have a guy who just does proofs. So you’re constantly hearing from an entire string of people, and everything’s moving really quick. I love that, as you know. It could still end up [selling like the other books], but it’s been a really wonderful experience. Although I’ll say, and this is not blowing smoke, but every publishing experience I’ve had has been very good, no matter how big or small the publisher. I’ve had a wonderful run in the last five or six years. It’s been slightly bigger each year, but all my experiences have been good. I’m humbled by that. People have horror stories, but my biggest horror story is that a couple of publishers have gone defunct before my book could come out. That sucks, but that’s not a horror story. Okay, finally, the thing that brings us together on this particular day, because this is the other Kickstarter campaign mentioned, and the campaign is just about to end. Four Fathers. A group called Cobalt, which has been doing a lit journal before now, is breaking into publishing full-length books for the first time. Correct. And now it’s Cobalt Press, run by Andrew Keating. They publish great stories and I love them to fucking death. And how did this come about? I don’t think Andrew was particularly looking for me; I think we just met on Facebook, but I don’t know why. But we met and we hit it off. And as you know, one of the things I do is constantly send people emails; so whether he reached out to me first, or whether I reached out to him first, I was really taken with what they do. I’m really attracted to people who hustle, and the moment I met him, he seemed like a guy who really hustles. So this is four different people putting together the contents for this book. Tell me how that came about. So Dave Housely contacted me, and he said, “Let’s get together at AWP, I have something I want to talk to you about.” And once we met, he told me about this idea he had for a dad-author project, with four people each doing a...segment? However you want to call it. And he said, “I’ve got a novella, and I’d like to mix it up.” And the two of us were already friendly with Tom Williams, and he’s like, “I’ve got these two longish short stories, so what do you want to do, Ben?” And I had just gotten done writing 12 | The CCLaP Journal
my first piece of flash fiction, and it happened to be a dad theme. It was this project where you were only allowed to write 300 words, which sounded like torture to me, but it really turned out to be this interesting experience. So I said, “I’m going to write a flash-fiction collection. I’ll produce 10,000 to 15,000 words.” I didn’t know what that was going to look like. And then BL Pawlewek was like, “Okay, you’ve got a novella, some long stories, and flash fiction. How about a chunk of poetry?” And also, he has a daughter, and the rest of us have boys. So Four Fathers, which sounds like the name of a really bad band. [Laughter] But it all happened at AWP, and literally nine, ten months later we were all done. So then right before this year’s AWP, Andrew’s like, “I’m going to write up a book contract,” and we were all at AWP so we all signed it. And then we immediately found a publisher. [Laughter] I’m sorry to all those writers out there who are banging their heads against the wall. You live an incredibly charmed life as a writer, Ben. We’ve talked about that before, that every single piece of writing you’ve ever done has been picked up by a publisher at one point or another. [Thinking] ...Yes, that’s true. And so just like we were talking about earlier, every time someone would ask for something new from me, I’d say, “How about a piece of flash fiction?” [Laughter] “Hmm, I just happen to have this 300-word piece here about fathers...” So that all came together really fast, and those are all writers I really love, and it was really fun to write all this flash fiction, which I had never really tried except for that one piece. All my pieces ranged from 100 to 600 words. That was a really interesting experience. And the other thing, and this sounds really self-serving, but there were journals I just couldn’t get into, and these pieces as a set got me through some doors I had never been able to open before. This a really cool little collection, so I hope everyone will be able to support the Kickstarter campaign. We touched on this before, but on projects like this where you’re a contributor—not an editor, not a staff member—what do you feel your obligation is on supporting and working on that Kickstarter campaign? If the publisher thinks there’s something I can do that would be pledge-worthy, I’ll do anything. Truthfully, I’m always shocked that anyone would even want anything. Second, I’m always willing to hype. Using Facebook, using Twitter, emailing my friends, I’ll do all that. And there are other things. Andrew called me one day and was like, “It’d be pretty cool if you could do a video,” so I shot a video. I feel like I need to do that [for my publishers]. But again, it’s so much nicer to be on [the author’s] side of the table. These are all just things I’d be doing anyway. I’m not interested at all in the other side of Kickstarter campaigns, organizing and running them. I’m really glad no one’s asked me to do that. [Laughter] I hear some people do that for pay now, and that just sounds like a nightmare to me. But as the “talent,” and I’m using quotation marks here, I’m willing to do anything the publisher wants me to do. Plus I also contribute regularly to almost every Kickstarter campaign someone I know is involved in, and I contribute money to the books I’m a part of. It’s funny, because most of the time the publisher will ask, “Why are you contributing?” I find that fascinating. I work for a non-profit, which I’ve done for pretty much the entire time I’ve been an adult; and when you work at a non-profit, you always want to be able to say, “I’m willing to give too.” But people [in the literary world] seem to be taken a little aback by that. C
Ben Tanzer’s newest book, Orphans, is now available from Northern Illinois University Press. Purchase a copy at [niupress.niu.edu].
November 2013 | 13
The Son By Philipp Meyer Ecco Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Philipp Meyer’s 2009 novel American Rust was one of the few literary debuts to break through that year, generating positive reviews in major publications, earning Meyer a spot on The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list, and creating a lot of hype around this recently released follow-up, The Son. Like all breakthrough novels, the reasons for American Rust’s popularity were part luck, part timing, and part Meyer’s talent. The book was about de-industrialization in rural Pennsylvania—a key scene takes place as the two heroes are taking shelter in an abandoned factory—and happened to be published during the economic crisis, when readers’ interest in stories of the recession’s victims was at its highest. Despite having undeniable potential, I thought American Rust was a disappointment. The problem with that novel was mostly with Meyer’s storytelling abilities. The plotting gets wild, characters’ behavior gets erratic and unbelievable, the writing gets loose. It’s a book I wanted to love, and for the first hundred or so pages I did, but it ended up making me groan one too many times to earn anything like a ringing endorsement. I remember talking to a friend about American Rust, trying to describe it and build my friend’s enthusiasm momentarily before feeling shame or embarrassment mixed with the certainty that if my friend were to read the book he’d see it for the work of schlockery that it is, at which point I backtracked from the endorsement and recommended Lorrie Moore’s Gate at the Stairs, which came out around the same time, instead. 14 | The CCLaP Journal
Moore’s novel has its own problems, but the comparison of the two novels is worthwhile. The difference is that Moore’s novel feels like real life, while Meyer’s novel feels like a writer fleshing out (i.e., making longer) a detailed outline. Despite all this, I was genuinely excited to read The Son. Reviewers were tossing around comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and phrases like “Great American Novel.” The book is blurbed by Richard Ford, who calls Meyer “an impressive and multitalented storyteller.” I’ve never had dinner with Phillipp Meyer, or drinks, or met him in person, which Ford must have, because he’s clearly judging Meyer’s abilities on something other than The Son. Apart from being a good or great novel (it’s neither), this book certainly can’t be taken as evidence of storytelling ability. The problems are shared with American Rust. A very strong first hundred pages, which quickly becomes repetitive and boring, due mostly to overly rigid and amateurish structuring on Meyer’s part. The Son begins in the spring of 1849 on the hot plains of Texas, as we watch a band of Comanches ruthlessly murder a family of settlers. The sole survivor of that massacre is Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by the Indians, then ends up becoming a member of their tribe, which he leaves after most of them die of smallpox. Eli grows up to become an Indian hunter, then a rancher. Besides murdering at will, Eli also fathers offspring. The Son is narrated by representatives of three generations of McCulloughs: Eli, his son Peter, and his great-granddaughter Jeannie. Jeannie is a Scarlett O’Hara type cliché. Peter is a bit wooden, and his romantic swooning is hard to take. The main problem though is that neither of these characters (nor the narratives they occupy) are particularly compelling, especially when viewed in comparison to Eli, who rules this book and hangs over both of Peter and Jeannie’s lives like a shadow they can never escape. I’m not going to knock Meyer for a few problems in a five-hundred page novel. After all, there might be some reader out there who finds it engaging and suspenseful to have a character engage in a semi-conscious death-dance across five-hundred plus pages. There might be a reader who finds the disturbing butt-sex scene (the dutiful frontier wife doesn’t want to get pregnant) in the middle of the book to be, sensual, sexy, or well-written. But to criticize Meyer’s every misstep wouldn’t be quite honest. The truth is that The Son does meet some minimum criteria for readability. And the subject matter does successfully evoke a feeling of Americana. The real problem with this novel, and the only one it can’t hope to escape, is structural. The narration switches too reliably: Eli, Peter, Jeannie, Eli, Peter, Jeannie, Eli, Peter, Jeannie. Certainly, a “storyteller in the good, old sense” would have no use for such a structure. Think about the last time you heard a good story; did the teller stop ever ten minutes and say, “now, wait a minute, let me catch you up on John?” That’s ridiculous. A real storyteller would catch you up on John when you needed to be caught up on John, when knowing certain facts that were essential to the larger story became necessary. When Meyer constantly switches narration, it doesn’t feel like he’s acting out of duty to his reader, but instead like he’s bound himself to a too-simple structure. When the author is so focused on maintaining control over his story, any opportunity for reaching emotional truth, which is necessarily messy and is the realm of all art, is irrevocably lost. C
Out of 10: 8.0 or, for the admittedly biased reviewer (this one) who thinks this book is much too well-loved, 1.0
November 2013 | 15
Fighting for an American Countryside By Jennifer Vogel Minnesota Public Radio News Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Fighting for an American Countryside, written by Jennifer Vogel, began as part of Minnesota Public Radio’s Ground Level project. As the Ground Level blog states, “we started almost four years ago [with a mission to explore] rural Minnesota with one guiding quest: Where are people trying to fix things?” In her ebook, Jennifer Vogel explores the economic, demographic, and political challenges facing rural Minnesota. In the vast literature on the Great Recession, this is another sliver in the pie. And one that is routinely forgotten or written off. For decades, rural communities have faced a braindrain and depopulation, with their younger inhabitants heading to big cities for further education or job opportunities and not returning. Vogel looks at several instances of younger individuals returning to their small-town roots. Prior to the individual profiles, she explores and debunks the preconceived notions about rural Minnesota. What does the term “rural” mean? In Minnesota, there is farmland in the southwest and vacationland in the north. Some small town constitute exurban communities, outliers from a major metropolitan core, while other communities are sparsely populated and highly isolated. On the whole, rural Minnesota is less densely populated, older, and more politically conservative. The aging population represents a major challenge, since slashed budgets mean less medical and social services needed for older populations. And while there are less people in rural areas, these areas end up receiving more tax subsidies than their urban counterparts. 16 | The CCLaP Journal
Fighting for an American Countryside does a good job in parsing differences between rural and urban populations, working to avoid any pat explanation or stereotypical image. One fascinating demographic tidbit was rural Minnesota’s growing Hispanic population. The book tells the stories of several people who have sought to make a difference in rural Minnesota. (Each is given an individual profile at the end of the book.) Michael Dagen, an audio engineer in Hewitt, Minnesota, fixed up several old buildings in town and now runs Barter Fest. Windy Roberts from Morris, Minnesota, works to educate the town’s Hispanic population. Simone Senogles, from Bemidji, has “an incubator kitchen” that fosters entrepreneurship for individuals to sell food products at the Harmony Co-op in town. At the end of the book has a photo essay called “Scenes from an American Countryside.” It is a humanizing group portrait of rural Minnesotans working to get by in these difficult economic times. Fighting for an American Countryside is a fascinating look at rural Minnesota, yet another demographic area effected by the Great Recession, slashed government budgets, and corporate malfeasance. While this short ebook scratched the surface about what is happening in rural Minnesota, it is an excellent start. (It’s also available free on Amazon.com.) For those, like myself, with little knowledge about rural life and culture, this book was a short education. It shows rural Minnesota as a place that refuses to be written off and an emerging hotbed for innovation and entrepreneurship. But, as with everything effected by our current slouch, it will be a long hard road. This is a book that seeks to answer the questions, “Why stay?” and “Why go back?” C
Out of 10: 8.5
November 2013 | 17
Native Son By Richard Wright (1940) First Edition, First Printing
Overview by Jason Pettus CCLaP is making a growing amount of available at reseller eBay.com, both instant purchase. For all current [ebay.com/usr/cclapcenter], or for the [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks].
its rare book collection for auction and for books for sale, visit collection’s entire list,
DESCRIPTION: Despite single-handedly starting the genre now known as “African-American Literature,” the feisty Richard Wright had trouble his entire life with getting the proper recognition his work deserved, mostly because he had trouble even getting along in whatever group he would find himself associated with over the years -- whether that’s the American communists in Chicago he spent time with in the 1930s, as a part of the New Deal’s WPA (where, like his friend Nelson Algren, Wright would eventually distance himself from the group after being horrified by the tactics of the Stalinists), the radical left wing in New York where he would soon move (which was both racist to him and accused him of being bourgeoise), the intellectuals of the publishing world (who accused Wright of including too much violence in his award-winning books, and thereby confirming to whites their worst fears about a strong, independent black man), the Existentialists of Paris, where Wright moved after the war (because of his refusal to work with the group favorite “Congress for Cultural Freedom,” for rightly suspecting it had CIA ties), even fellow African-American pioneers (like James Baldwin, for example, who once wrote an entire book of essays named for his scathing indictment of Wright’s work). But perhaps that’s best for all of us as readers, for without this natural fighting spirit, Wright might have never made the main point he did in 1940’s Native Son (his explosive debut novel, after an earlier story collection that raised the eyes of many lit-industry people, and which went on to become a Book Of The Month pick and the highest selling novel by a black author in history): that because of the pervasive racism that still permeates every aspect of society, beneath the pleasant exterior of any “civilized” black man lurks the seething, violent heart of a Bigger Thomas, the Chicago lumpen proletariat who serves as the antihero of Native Son. Bigger can’t help being the violent blue-collar bruiser that he is, because any attempts to truly live his life the way he wishes are blocked at every turn by sometimes subsumed, thoroughly institutionalized racism; and this is the exact thing that struck a chord with so many of Wright’s readers, in a time when the Emancipation Proclamation was supposed to have stopped discrimination but hadn’t, when the “democracy fighters” of World War Two were tolerating such a two-tiered society back at home. If it wasn’t for the angry but intelligent diatribes of ‘40s writers like Wright, essentially the first wave of black American authors to gain a popular legitimacy among mainstream white audiences, there wouldn’t have been the slow organizing of a unified civil-rights movement in the ‘50s, leading to the successes they had in the ‘60s (or so says Wright’s fans); and this is a chance to own a legitimately important piece of that history, the book that birthed an entire new wing of literature and that in a scant six months made Wright the richest black author in American history, and then a troubled spokesman for “the black experience” for decades after.
RARE BOOK FOR SALE
CONDITION: Text: Very Good Plus (VG+). Still in fantastic shape for its age, with a tight binding and completely clean inside covers. Dust Jacket: Good Plus (G+). Still completely intact and generally in good shape, although with a half-inch chunk missing at the top spine and a two-inch tear along the bottom spine, now protected in a Demco archival sheet (see photos for more). As confirmed by the McBride Guide to the Identification of First Editions, a stated “First Edition A-P,” and lack of additional printing statements, makes this a first edition, first printing. PROVENANCE: Acquired by CCLaP on October 8, 2013, at Babbitt’s Books in Normal, Illinois. C
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Noushin Arefadib is an Iranian Australian photographer, poet, activist, and dedicated global trotter. These photographs were inspired by my work and travels in India and Sri Lanka. Most of the photographs reflect the daily lives and spirit of people, particularly children and women in South Asia. My work and art have for the most part been inspired by the essence, courage, and struggle of people and a lot of the way that I see the world is shaped by that which inspires me. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my world with you, through my lens.
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Sometimes your subjects seem happy to be having their photo taken, and someimes they seem wary. What goes into the process of taking pictures of strangers on the street there in south Asia? Often times I found that people were very curious about my curiosity in them and it was through this mutual interest that we made our initial connection. I would ask people if it was okay for me to take photographs of them and would then show them the photos I had captured. However, sometimes I would see things from a far or captured in the faces of people who were asleep or uninterrupted in their own reality that I desperately wanted to capture. In these instances, I would take a shot without them being aware of me. This often makes me feel like a thief in the night, but I feel that there is no other way to capture a photograph that reveilles a moment of vulnerability or private thought when the person becomes aware or conscious of the camera. But where possible, I would always approach people and ask for permission into their worlds.
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Whatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s been the biggest surprise now about traveling in this area of the world? Is it mostly how you expected things to be? I think my biggest moment of surprise was coming into the realization that a lot of us in the West, including myself, really romanticize this idea of struggle in South Asia. Personally, I expected to live and work in South Asia and take in what the West projects as the crazy beautiful energy and dynamics of life here. But after only one month, it hit me that romanticized notions of poverty, aid, the human condition, chaos and so on, were for the most part just that: romanticizations! In reality, living here, especially for those who are at the bottom of the food chain (women and children in poverty) is a daily battle and sometimes even a nightmare; and being a part of that, even as an observer, is a very challenging and confronting reality. Yes it is beautiful; yes it is bright and the colors are intoxicatingly delicious; yes there is so much energy that it can shift your perspective on life; But it is also sad, frightening, shocking, heartbreaking, and devastating. For those of us who came here to take pretty photos and â&#x20AC;&#x153;helpâ&#x20AC;? poverty reduction, it has been a very loud and very clear wakeup call. 30 | The CCLaP Journal
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Sixteen-year-old May Florence is a budding poet who is about to join Louisiana’s most elite boarding school. Her brilliant but reserved twin sister, Susanna, isn’t. But the truth is, they’ve been drifting apart for some time, their relationship barely sustained by shared friendships and mutual envy. Now, as Susanna watches May prepare to leave her behind, she must reconcile what she thinks she knows about herself and her sister with the secrets they’ve been keeping from one another— or risk losing her closest friend forever. four sparks fall is the story of two young adults searching for love and acceptance in Baton Rouge, a city as complex as the people who inhabit it. At once confessional and speculative, analytical and numinous, T.A. Noonan’s debut novella is an affecting coming-of-age story for readers of all ages.
Download for free at cclapcenter.com/foursparksfall
four sparks fall a novella
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All That Is By James Salter Knopf Reviewed by Travis Fortney
“All night in darkness the water sped past.” How you react to that sentence—this novel’s first—will likely determine how you react to James Salter’s All That Is. The sentence is chiseled to its essential core—it tells us that we are on a boat, that the boat is traveling through the night—and yet the words manage to retain a healthy amount of a certain kind of masculine poetry. If we read a little further, we find out that the boat in question is a Navy warship, and that it is carrying our protagonist Phillip Bowman into battle. We find out that it’s the end of the World War II. Of the sinking of a great Japanese warship, Salter writes: “It was not a battle, it was a ritual, the death of a huge beast brought about by repeated blows. [...] Near the end of the second hour, listing almost eighty degrees, with hundreds dead and more wounded, blind and ruined, the gigantic ship began to sink.” The beginning of All That Is is the end of the war, so it makes sense that the few pages describing battle scenes are the most descriptive and beautiful in the novel. This is the story of a postwar life, a life lived in war’s ever-widening shadow. By chapter two we’ve followed Phillip to New York, where he gets a job as a book editor. We follow him through a failed early marriage and several love affairs. There is a healthy amount of the sex writing Salter is known for. We get sex from both the male and female point of view, written with a kind of ultra-compressed, lyrical minimalism. “She 38 | The CCLaP Journal
reached down and slipped off her shoes,” Salter writes. The author seems to have a fascination with zooming in on his characters at moments when their guard is down. Salter also makes liberal use of another technique, which, for lack of better phrasing, I’ll call “opening a portal” into his characters’ lives. For just a few sentences, or a paragraph, or sometimes an entire chapter, he’ll let us see what the world looks like through the eyes of a character other than Bowman. Salter’s mission is to express life’s wideness, and to express Bowman’s own wonder at it. Salter’s purpose isn’t so much to allow Bowman to come to any conclusions about what he has seen as it is to chronicle his experience. All That Is is an exercise in the type of compression that Hemingway specialized in—what Hemingway himself called “poetry written into prose”—taken to an extreme that Hemingway might have reached had he lived and written effectively for another thirty or so years. I don’t mean that All That Is is better than Hemingway’s best work, but I do believe that Salter takes it to a level that Hemingway wasn’t able to reach in his lifetime. Part of the accomplishment of this novel has to be Salter’s expansive focus. Besides Bowman, we get the “portals” into the lives of twenty or so other characters. The narrative spans fifty years. On the surface, Bowman’s life ends up looking a bit sad--he never has children, never finds true love, and never becomes as rich or successful as some of his contemporaries. Bowman’s life also doesn’t provide much of a plot or plot arc. He doesn’t so much begin as find himself involved in a war. In the middle of the novel, directly after the war, Bowman is characterized mostly by desire. He strongly desires conventional comforts like love, marriage, a career. But desire fades. Toward the end of the novel, Bowman is having dinner with his boss. Salter writes that, “Their dog, a black Scottie, didn’t even bother to sniff him.” Ouch. Bowman doesn’t come to an end so much as lose his spirit. The closest thing to an arc in All That Is is provided by Ezra Pound. (Incidentally, Pound also made an appearance in Salter’s last book of fiction, 2005’s Last Night. The title of the story “My Lord You” in that collection is taken from Ezra Pound’s translation of the Chinese poem “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”—this probably doesn’t suggest Pound fandom on Salter’s part so much as it suggests that he was engaged in the writing of All That Is a decade or so ago when he was working on the story.) Early on in the novel Bowman tells his wife Vivian he “was reading about Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s.” Vivian asks what Pound was there for, and he tells her, “probably because they didn’t know what else to do with him.” He describes Pound as “a towering poet,” then goes on to explain, “he made some broadcasts for the fascists in Italy. [...] He had obsessions about the evils of bank interest, Jews, the provincialism of America, and he talked about them in his broadcasts. He was at dinner in Rome one night and heard the news that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor, and he said, my God, I’m a ruined man.” Vivian says that Pound doesn’t sound crazy, and Bowman agrees. Bowman’s refusal to accept what he views as the flawed prevailing wisdom about Pound—that he lost his mind and turned to spewing mindless ugliness—is what youth and vitality looks like in this novel, at least when youth and vitality isn’t finding expression by more carnal means. Toward the end of the book, Pound makes another appearance. At least a decade has passed, and Bowman’s marriage to Vivian has long since ended. Bowman is out to dinner with his boss, and the publisher’s wife Diana is discussing the Bollingen Prize, which was awarded to Pound for the Pisan Cantos in its inaugural year of 1948. “They did it as soon as they could,” Diana says. “You don’t honor someone who’s thrown sewage on top of you and stirred up ignorance and hatred.” Bowman lets the comment pass. It’s not that his opinion about Pound has changed in the intervening years, so much as that he no longer holds passionate opinions at all. It’s no coincidence that in the chapter immediately following, Bowman makes a desperate (and apparently successful) attempt to reassert his manhood. All in all, this is a beautiful, difficult, and sometimes puzzling novel. Though Salter takes many cues from Hemingway, I’m not sure Hemingway himself would have found this intense focus on the everyday to be worthwhile. C
Out of 10: 9.5
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Cannonball By Joseph McElroy Dzanc Books Reviewed by Madeleine Maccar
While waiting for my white whale of a novel—Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men—to emerge from the murky depths of the internet with something akin to a realistic price tag in tow, I’ve settled for introducing myself to the writer’s more readily available works the way one “settles” for Guinness when the bartender has never even heard of Three Philosophers. I finished McElroy’s debut novel, A Smuggler’s Bible, nearly a month before picking up Cannonball, his ninth and most recent offering. Reading two bookending extremes of a writing career in quick succession produced the effect of watching a new acquaintance transform into an old friend as endearing quirks become welcome habits, as a whisper of what will come crescendoes to a thundering boom of masterful storytelling. Discernible plots emerge like a developing photograph’s slow cohesion: a young man forges a symbiotic friendship with a younger immigrant of incredible talent before enlisting in the Iraq war, only for their paths to cross one more fateful time in that Fertile Crescent; recently discovered scrolls that may or may not be genuine accounts of Jesus from a contemporary’s vantage point are revealed to posses great religious or political significance; familial ties are questioned, strengthened and redefined, especially in terms of when a friend becomes a brother, a father becomes a foil and a sister becomes an object of desire. Cannonball is not written in the most invitingly accessible of 40 | The CCLaP Journal
styles—the plot is rendered in a first-person narration that initially feels like a shuffling slideshow of non-sequential images and impressions—but it is by no means impenetrable. This is a book that divulges its secrets in ravenous gulps rather than ladylike sips. Patience and greedily lapping up the book in 50-page guzzles are rewarded with a better sense of its pace and disjointed recollection. McElroy is a writer whose plots and characters exist to move a thesis toward its inevitable elucidation. His books are not simply vehicles transporting his characters in linear, predictable joyrides through personal growth as they hurdle toward the happily-ever-after finish line. That’s not to say that this novel is populated by uninspired archetypes who mechanically convey the writer’s agenda, because that would be a lie; in fact, McElroy’s minimalist approach to exposition proves that a deft hand can show so much by telling so little, as I left this book with a complete image of everyone who lived and died within its pages. Several of the characters who play significant roles in Zach’s life possess the kinds of talents that tend to forgive—nay, willfully gloss over—the perfectly natural failures of character that aren’t exactly negated by finely honed skills. It is that mental difficulty in reconciling extremes and other seemingly at-odds elements that is the force propelling Cannonball. This is a book about dualities, how easily they come into existence and how unavoidable they are when no two people can ever see any one thing identically. Once the novel begins to grab hold of and run with this theme, every action becomes more significant, every word is made richer with layered precision, every character develops into something more believably human. We know that Zach is not a perfectly reliable narrator, that he possesses great abilities as well as a great capacity for lapses in judgment, but he is also a magnetically empathetic soul who puts the world together in such a familiar, non-academic way—as if he, too, were groping in the dark without the hand of an omniscient writer guiding him as both the bigger picture and his part in it come into focus—that such flaws make him companionable to a degree that sheer, awesome talent alone cannot. This is a novel told in symbolic metaphor stemming from Zach himself: He is a gifted swimmer and diver, but it is photography that drives him, and, as the novel barrels ahead, it becomes more and more evident that the commonalities between these two pursuits hold the key to the heart of the story. Which is this: Universal understanding is a myth. No two things look the same to two people, much like a photo and its negative, like a concrete entity and its pallid, rippling reflection on water. Zach, who never had the crucial thing separating a competitive diver from an Olympian, who sees photography more as a mode of artistic expression than factual representation, stands at square opposition to his father, who seeks a champion in the water and a documentarian behind the lens, neither of which Zach is destined to be. For all its frenetic pacing, Cannonball never feels rushed; there is no hurry to get to the next stop but there are a controlled urgency for understanding and a need for some sense of correlation between seemingly unrelated events that drive the narration. A scene of great chaos and destruction occurs about halfway through the novel that arrives so quickly and is such a turning point for the story that it takes Zach and the reader alike a few seconds to realize what’s happening, as is often the case with those moments that change everything. It offers a slow dawning of realization that echoes how such moments of upheaval are processed and later recalled in the real world. True to the dualities it encompasses, Cannonball is at once hotly emotional and coolly rational, capable of blending everyday humor with routine human tragedy, celebrating true talent and the virtues of incredible heart. Its curiosity is honest without being mawkishly earnest, its questions are sincere without erring toward saccharine sentiment. McElroy challenges his audience with unconventional narration and the occasional up-close look at some uncomfortable realities but he more than generously rewards his readers with a thought-provoking examination of how one thing can have so many varied appearances from different angles, with a clearer understanding and through the increasing distance created by the onward march of time. C
Out of 10: 8.9
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Resort 42 | The CCLaP Journal
Photo: Steven Erat (flickr.com/stevenerat) Used under the terms of his Creative Commons license
Before my old man blew the family’s eight Detroit-area dry cleaning stores on account of his compulsive gambling, we used to travel to some of the best hotels in the country. The Breakers, The Drake, The Ritz. Then, along with everything else, he lost my trust fund, the university savings. We began to like Russian nesting dolls. Every time you lifted one out, that was us inside, in the smaller place. We moved out of our mansion in Bloomfield Hills to a two-story place on Becker Drive. Then into a ranch house in Normalton. I did think it would be a positive step to get away from him and my mother—who’d never done anything to stop his betting sprees and seemed even more to blame in this way—so I applied to colleges in great hotel towns down south and wound up attending the University of New Orleans. I put myself through school pushing around laundry carts at the Fairmont, then doing dishes and parking cars at the Bienville. During summers, I waited tables and ran trays for room service at the Grove Park in Asheville, North Carolina, and then I worked the front desk at the Lynch House on Cumberland Island, Georgia. Right after graduation, I was a registration clerk, then assistant manager at the Blanchard Hotel in downtown Atlanta. I was made interim manager after the previous one, a man named Billy Carlyle, suffered a heart attack and died right there in his office. November 2013 | 43
As a manager, I felt at ease. I felt something had been returned to its rightful place. When I was just 26 years old, the EW Corp. in Dallas, which owned the Blanchard, as well as a number of other hotels, offered me a breathtaking promotion: executive manager at the Carolinian Hotel, a resort in eastern North Carolina with 91 guest rooms, each of which faced out to the Atlantic Ocean. By this time, my parents were living in a one bedroom rental apartment in a West Detroit complex a former maid of ours, Inez Hidalgo, had recommended to them because of its cleanliness. I visited my parents once, on my mother’s 50th birthday. There were stacks of newspapers and magazines everywhere. I didn’t recognize any of the furniture. My father pedaled back and forth on a bicycle to his job at a sandwich shop. He had been going to Gambler’s Anonymous for a half dozen years. As a gift, I brought my mother some sky blue beach towels with Carolinian logos, items I had purchased at full price from the hotel gift shop. My mother didn’t say anything, she just hugged me for a minute. She had quit everything, too; smoking, drinking, pills. Predictably, everything that was said between us was dramatic: Mother: How do you feel about the world these days, son? Do you look at your life in an optimistic way? Me: For heaven’s sake, I run a resort. I’m probably the youngest executive manager in the whole country. Do I even need to answer that? Father: Your mother and I are living with great humility now. It took a lot for us to finally understand how to do this. Don’t let it . . . I suppose what I am saying, son, is that I am sorry. Me: About what? Father: We didn’t save anything. You will have to work for the rest of your life. I mean, I suppose everyone has to in some way . . . Me: (Suppressing a laugh) I don’t work hard. I love my work. Oh, mercy. Mother: It’s all right. Your father has been so brave. I didn’t know we had this kind of courage inside is. Me: It’s fine. You all did not ruin my future. Because of you, I simply know what I don’t want to be. (A long silence ensues). All right, there had to be a better way to express that. (Silence.) I don’t hate you. I don’t hate anyone. Mother: It’s all right. Me: I know. Mother: We’re so proud . . . Me: Happy birthday. I had not been back. Two Christmases ago, I invited them to stay at the Carolinian, but they gave me all these reasons why they couldn’t make it. My mother finally said, Honey, we just don’t live hotel lives anymore. I supposed it would have been strange to see them in the lobby, checking in like two people on holiday. My father had once owned three Cadillacs; a white one and two green ones. Now, he just wanted to talk about why the world was such a mystery. I certainly did not tolerate a lot of philosophizing or other forms of messiness from my hotel staff. If one of the maids brought in one of her squawking babies because the day care was closed, that maid was sent home. A bellhop who argued with his girlfriend on one of the house phones? Suspended. Unkempt uniform? Written up. Bad language? Docked a day’s pay. I had been running the Carolinian for just a few months when I received a call from the home office in Dallas with the explicit order to ease up on the staff. They are complaining, the company exec said. It is hard to get any kind of help with what we pay. Half your workers are not even documented, you know that, right? The staff also disliked the fact that I was so apologetic to the customers even though to a good number of our guests, the Carolinian was nothing more than a huge living room. Bare feet on the lobby carpet. Backwards ball caps, shirts hanging out. Arguments. Mothers shouting after their children. In a way I supposed they were the biggest problem of all. We also had guests like Mrs. Catherine Nance and her son Michael who traveled down from the state of New York for two weeks in May, which was our shoulder season. They both were slender 44 | The CCLaP Journal
and blond with fair-complexions. Mrs. Nance was a shade over 50, I thought. Michael, in his early 30s, did not appear to have a worry in the world. It was uncanny, the similarity in the shapes of their faces, how much they looked alike in the eyes. Once, I stopped by Michael’s table at our piano bar, the Meteor Lounge, while he was there having a drink by himself and he wound up showing me billfold photo of himself and his mother at the Kentucky Derby from two decades earlier. Little Michael wore a child’s blazer and his hair was combed back. His mother wore a silky, straw-colored dress, her Derby hat shaded the top half of her face. Look at her, he said. Thank God, Mother is gorgeous. I imagine I’m not so bad, either, right? Of course not, I said. Where is your mother tonight? Upstairs, he said. I’m bringing her a drink. He raised his glass to me in a toast. You’re a terrific fellow, he said. I don’t know you very well, but I can surely tell that much. Mrs. Nance’s husband spent a lot of time in Tokyo, that seemed to be the story, and Michael, the story went, was the only company she wanted for her travels. There was the predictable, meanspirited gossip about them amongst my staff. Mrs. Nance and her son Michael though, they just had the loveliest way about them. Nice manners, nicely dressed, marvelous, attractive people. (Twice, other guests at the hotel mistook her for Diane Sawyer.) Naturally, they were restless, Michael in particular was a fidgety one. He liked to slip into the hotel’s pool and he would stay out there for a half an hour at a time, just swimming his laps back and forth until it exhausted him. Then, he might return to their cabana and order a pitcher of martinis. He’d fall asleep on a chaise lounge and our Tiki Lounge bartender, Bobby Ray, said the fishing boats way out at the horizon probably heard the snoring. Michael might get into the water again after he awakened. On one occasion, I saw Mrs. Nance walk along the pool’s edge in her royal blue one-piece swimsuit, a light green, gauzy sarong tied around her waist. She carried a towel over to the deep end where Michael was doing laps. When he saw her, he immediately aimed for the ladder. He climbed out, accepted the towel and began to dry off. My second year at the Carolinian, they returned again in late May and this was when we actually had the issue with them. The problem would have been avoided completely if Mrs. Nance had simply hung the DND sign out on her door. Or, if our maid on that floor, Kayla Shuler, had followed a company policy, which clearly states: Before a maid is to open a door, she is to listen for a moment. If she hears the slightest noise from inside the room, she is to move on to the next room. When she unlocks the door, she is to open it and say Good morning! And then she is to wait another moment for an answer. Kayla said she followed the rules. She opened the door and said Good morning and then she eased the maid’s cart into the little hallway of the room. She caught something in the mirror hanging on the wall opposite the king-sized bed. Then, in the mirror’s reflection, she saw someone sitting up. My god, get out of here! the Nances yelled at her. This was what she explained to the day assistant manager, a young kid just out of Wake, Wayne Samuelson, who was already shooting for my job. Wayne explained Kayla’s story to me after he called the main office in Dallas. Then, while Wayne was in my office explaining this to me, I received a call from Dallas myself. On the other end was a company lawyer, a Mr. Hanover, and he said to me, Look, quickly and quietly, get these people out of the hotel. Today, do you hear me? They need to check out and they cannot return. Do it fast and it will go away. Do you understand? I understand, I said. Good lord, he said. After I hung up, I could only stare at Wayne. Young kid, early twenties, always with an answer for every damn thing. Why didn’t you just tell me? I said. Why call Dallas? Couldn’t find you, he said. I was about to ask him again and his mouth opened. He said, When Kayla came to me, there were a couple of other staff members around. She was babbling, she was speaking in tongues. They suggested I call Dallas. Not bother you with it. I’m not satisfied with your explanation, I said.
Two Christmases ago, I invited them to stay at the Carolinian, but they gave me all these reasons why they couldn’t make it. My mother finally said, Honey, we just don’t live hotel lives anymore. I supposed it would have been strange to see them in the lobby, checking in like two people on holiday. My father had once owned three Cadillacs; a white one and two green ones. Now, he just wanted to talk about why the world was such a mystery.
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We didn’t think you would do anything about it, he said. The customer is always right. He smirked after he said that. I said to him, Please get out of this office right now. I was stunned by his behavior. Just speechless. My first thought was that he was to be fired for insubordination. But since he was management in training, I would have to get approval from Dallas. The kid was an head-to-tail copperhead, but they would not let him go because of that. I thought, hoped, either Mrs. Nance or Michael would call down to the front desk and say they were checking out immediately. Save everyone. I stayed at my desk in my office for half an hour, then I phoned the front desk clerk, Helen Dolphin, asked her how things were going. What Kayla had seen was all over the hotel by now and Helen understood what I meant. Not a peep, she said. I said, The Nances are in 729 & 731, yes? She said, Wow, you memorize every guest like that? I said, No, I don’t. After a pause I decided to hang up. Helen was just a year younger than myself, she had intriguing clay-colored skin, shining black hair, a smile that put people at ease. A natural for the front desk. As I rode the elevator up to the seventh floor, I supposed I should have asked her which Nance had which room but I imagined it did not matter. Sometime, I thought, I will call Helen to my office and tell her not to let this business with Nances make her feel strange about the kind of place we are running here or the resort life overall. This whole thing is for us, I might say. Don’t you see that? My heart was beating fast when I tapped on 729 first and there were steps and when the door opened, Mrs. Nance stood there dressed in a khaki skirt and ivory and blue-striped silk blouse, her thick blond hair all swept back. Her aqua eyes seemed hectic and exhausted. Faint eyebrows sharpened towards her nose. Mrs. Nance: Oh, I thought it was going to be Michael. Me: No, I’m sorry, I said. How are you? Mrs. Nance: Yes, I am fine. How are you? Me: I’m all right. Where is Michael? Mrs. Nance: I don’t keep track of his every moment on this earth. I thought you might be him. I just said that. He’s probably running out on the beach. Me: It’s good to stay in shape. (Mrs. Nance turns and walks in the direction of the armchairs situated near the room’s balcony. She stares at the drawn curtains.) Mrs. Nance: You’re here about the maid barging in. That’s all right, I have already forgotten about it. No harm. Me: She said there was no sign on the door. Mrs. Nance: My attorney’s name is Mr. Levy . . . (Muttering.) perhaps . . . Do you live in this hotel? I’ve stayed in hotels where the manager has a room to himself. In Europe it’s like that. There to help you all the time. Back in Buffalo, Michael lives all the way across town from me. He has a girlfriend named Shauna. Me: There are non-hotel lives. (A considerable pause.) I live in an apartment building further inland, about a mile away. At night, I do something quiet, read a book, watch a DVD . . . (A straightening of the shoulders.) I can’t say I am surprised by any of this. Mrs. Nance: That is a terrible thing to say. Me: I only meant . . . Mrs. Nance: What did you mean! Me: (Politely.) A little is too much, isn’t it? (She glares at him.) Right now, I have a hotel to look after. 46 | The CCLaP Journal
You understand that. I will send a man up here to get your things. In one hour. I can call ahead, find you another . . . Mrs. Nance: No. Do you understand? Michael will return and when he does, I will call down to the front desk. Do you understand? We will leave when we are ready. Me: When you are ready? Look at this. (Strides in her direction, then reaches the closed curtains and pulls them back.) Look at this set up you have! Look at this view! (She turns away.) Mrs. Nance: Is that what you call it? Me: (Considers what is out the window. Yanks the curtains shut again.) I would appreciate it if you didn’t came back here. Mrs. Nance: Just do your job, sir. Me: I am. Mrs. Nance: (Quietly) Just do your job. Me: (Shakily) I am. I supposed if they left one hour or three hours from now, it would not make a difference. I was just glad no one but her could hear the sound in my voice. I left that room and I walked up the hallway of the 7th floor. The service elevator was the closest one and I stepped inside that, pressed ‘B’, then started my descent. I had this odd thought about blackmailing the Nances. How easy that might be. They could just send me a check, once a year. I wouldn’t have to work another day for the rest of my life. But what would I do? Learn to play an acoustic guitar? Wear cut-off jean shorts and just be a beach guy who was all right with everything? The elevator doors opened for the basement and I faced the laundry room. There were two full carts of linen still to be washed. A couple of the maids, Brandi and Maria, were propped along the edges of the big folding table. Maria was smoking a cigarette, which absolutely was forbidden inside the building. She dropped the cigarette into the can of soda she held. They were on their sneakered feet, padding for the machines. I decided that I needed some fresh air, so I walked up a flight of stairs, up the long hallway past my own office, made a right, then pushed the door open to the outside. I walked past the swimming pool and the cabanas and wound up at the edge of the Tiki Lounge, just looking out to the beach and the ocean beyond it. I had a picture in my head of Michael Nance running, just running until he was exhausted, losing track of how far he’d gone. You okay there, boss? a voice said and I stayed in place. Boss? I thought. One summer, when I was still a teenager, I worked at my father’s dry cleaning business on Grand Avenue in downtown Detroit. Everyone called him that, though they did this in a certain way, as if to give him confidence. He had all these problems but everyone seemed to like him, anyway. I’m not my father, I said aloud. When I did turn, I said, Please, call me Anthony. The person I said this to was Bobby Ray, the silver-haired bartender of our Tiki Lounge. He stood behind the counter of a bar that had a bamboo hut motif. Behind the row of bottles was a little wall made of plastic palm fronds. After five, Bobby Ray folded it all up like a city corner newsstand. In the evenings, he put on a
I squared my shoulders to the shoreline again. I said, The hotel feels a little shabby to me today. I felt tired after saying that. I felt as if I had not slept in a month. My back was all tingly. I wondered how much better the ocean would make me feel. The water out there seemed dark. There was an endlessness to it.
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dark vest and worked inside, in the Meteor. I watched the beach for a time and then I turned to look at Bobby Ray again. You think I’m a good manager? I said. This question caught us both off guard. But he did what a good bartender does, he smiled in a knowing way. Still, it took him longer to respond than I would’ve liked. He said, Best manager in the world is a ghost. People think he’s around, but he isn’t. He was a bartender, advice was a reflex. I said, You think I don’t try for that? Bobby Ray said, You look kinda warm in that jacket, Anthony. Lemme get you a cranberry juice. I squared my shoulders to the shoreline again. I said, The hotel feels a little shabby to me today. I felt tired after saying that. I felt as if I had not slept in a month. My back was all tingly. I wondered how much better the ocean would make me feel. The water out there seemed dark. There was an endlessness to it. And people usually complained that it was cold. I turned to see if Bobby Ray had heard me. But he had already walked down to the far end of the bar counter. He’d begun to slice a lime with a big knife that had a serrated edge. He kept the limes in a wooden bowl, which seemed right for a place called the Tiki Lounge. But that knife seemed awfully large for a lime. Bobby Ray then lifted the ice scoop, filled a tall glass with cubes. He poured in cranberry juice, set a lime wedge on top. To my surprise, he reached for the vodka bottle and poured in two fingers of that. He set the drink on an emerald green cocktail napkin. In a moment, I stepped over there to it. I’d never had a drink on the job in my life, not even when I worked in New Orleans. Of course, I did drink liquor, I knew what a vodka and cranberry tasted like. I just didn’t want to get a bad habit started. I lifted the glass, took a sip, then another, and then I set it down again. Pretty good, I said. Thank you. I decided to take another sip. After I sat the glass down again, I said, Sort of a large knife there, Bobby. He held it up. The blade was as clear as a mirror and it held a tiny burning ball of sunlight. We have an island theme here, he said. I want it to seem authentic. Know what I mean? I said, I suppose I do. It’s your island, right? You’d be surprised how my guests behave, he said. I supposed he could’ve meant this one of two ways, but all I said to that was Thanks for the drink. He nodded and his expression was bright. I decided to get moving, get on to the next thing, whatever it happened to be. I walked past the bar, then down the wide sandy path between the lines of cabanas. I walked alongside our swimming pool, which for some reason was unused at the moment. The pool was Guests Only and we kept water heated and sparkling. A couple of weeks ago, a cabana boy, I forget his name, had asked about having have a pool party out here, just him and a few of his friends who usually worked nights. They would have the party on a weekday. We’ll play our music soft, he said. Just a little dancing. We want to go swimming. I stared at his silly, young face. It seemed to equal the truth about any number of things. I pointed and said, Swimming? See that out there? There’s a huge ocean just waiting for you and your friends. There had been a better way to handle that and I guessed this was the thing with me. Eventually, I would figure out the right thing to say, though it usually happened after everyone had gone home. I wondered. Anyway, what I should have done was fix things, not just leave the kid feeling scolded. I should have reminded him that no matter what our job titles were, in the end the rules were the same for me. I should have said, For heaven’s sake, I am the executive manager and I understand they did not put this pool here . . . I should have said, Look, the ocean. It’s waiting for me, too. C
Andy Plattner’s newest book, Offerings from a Rust Belt Jockey (Dzanc Books), comes out in February 2014, and his previous work has appeared in The Southern Review and Sewanee Review among other places. “Resort Life” was originally published in Epoch and is from the story collection of the same name, currently seeking representation.
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Night Scenes of City Life By T. DeWitt Talmage, D.D. (1891) First Edition, First Printing
Overview by Jason Pettus CCLaP is making a growing amount of available at reseller eBay.com, both instant purchase. For all current [ebay.com/usr/cclapcenter], or for the [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks].
RARE BOOK FOR SALE
its rare book collection for auction and for books for sale, visit collection’s entire list,
DESCRIPTION: Oh Lord, what an unending string of Very Strange Books got published during the Victorian Age! And here’s one of them, a salacious look at a modern world under siege from sin, by a man who was once commonly known as the second most well-known religious figure in America (behind only Henry Ward Beecher, who was untouchable in popularity). A pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Talmage’s weekly sermons were reprinted in over 3,000 different local publications, reaching what was said to be a total audience of 25 million; and he was such a natural orator that his audiences kept outgrowing the churches he was assigned to, eventually landing in Brooklyn where the local church built a special multi-thousandseat tabernacle just for him, with hundreds still having to be turned away every Sunday. (And in an interesting bit of trivia, all three tabernacles built for him in Brooklyn eventually burned down because of natural causes; Talmage was so frustrated by the third fire in 1894 that he gave up on the city altogether, moving to Washington DC for the last decade of his career, where he had a smaller, more conservative audience.) Night Scenes of City Life is from the end years of Talmage’s career, and he really doesn’t seem to be messing around anymore: described even by his own words in the preface as “soul-stirring discourses on the temptations and vices of city life...as seen by him in his midnight explorations in the haunts of vice of New York City,” this is modern link-bait in its oldest and purest form, with chapter titles such as “Satanic Agitation,” “Among Thieves and Assassins,” and “Poison in the Cauldron,” a chance for the flock to be titillated while on their way to getting their dose of moral medicine. Delightfully overwrought, and a veritable checklist of Victorian vices (laudanum! bootjacking! rendezvous in shady alleys with women of loose morals!), admittedly a book like this is not worth very much money to a full-time collector, but is an amazing conversation piece for a snarky young urbanite’s apartment. (And for locals, note that this was published by Chicago’s Donohue, Henneberry & Co., and that this particular copy was literally printed and bound in the historic Printers Row neighborhood, quite literally at 407 S. Dearborn Street.) CONDITION: Text: Very Good (VG). In general still in great shape for its age, but with a few white fabric creases on either end of the spine, and a spine crack on the inside front cover. Issued without a dust jacket. As confirmed by the McBride Guide to the Identification of First Editions, an agreement of date on its title page and copyright page, and lack of additional printing notices, makes this a first edition, first printing. PROVENANCE: Acquired by CCLaP on September 2, 2013, at the Oak Park Book Fair. C
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Sloughing Off the Rot By Lance Carbuncle Vicious Galoot Books Co. Reviewed by Karl Wolff
A guy named John awakens in a cave with no memory of his former life. He is harassed by Santiago, a foul-mouthed wiry old guy who acts like the personification of the male id. The quest narrative of Sloughing Off the Rot involves John following a red brick road called El Camino de la Muerta and confronting his nemesis, the Man in Black, Android Lovethorn. What the Dr. Reverend Lance Carbuncle brings to the party involves turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. Imagine John Bunyanâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s allegory The Pilgrimâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Progress re-imagined by Joe Coleman or The Wizard of Oz turned into joyous Cronenbergian body horror with abundant references to pop culture. Sloughing Off the Rot is something like that. The bizarro fiction genre, while fitting, lacks the lowbrow mysticism that infuses this novel. John becomes John the Revelator when he frees Santiago from imprisonment during their quest. Santiago had become covered with plagueridden boils. John cured him of his ailment, absorbing the sickness, albeit with an embarrassing side effect: abundant flatulence. Joining him on his quest is Joad, a gentle giant imprisoned with Santiago, and a rag-tag crew of oddballs and derelicts. Some of their names can not be reprinted here, but there is Three Tooth and Alf the Sacred Burro. Alf horks up bezoars, undigested petrified material that Santiago cracks open and smokes. On one level, the story is an ultraviolent re-telling of the Christ story, while on another level, it is a gleeful celebration of everything foul, messy, and viscous 50 | The CCLaP Journal
that the human body excretes. In the opening scene, John, overcome by sexual feelings, deposits his seed upon the ground. In this case, his semen transform into horrifying creatures. Santiago kills one and eats it, horrifying John in the process. Suffice to say, Sloughing Off the Rot is an acquired taste, like balut or organ meat. (Reading this was akin to chomping down on duck lung or pig liver. I’ve had both. They are a rare bloody treat for foodies of a certain persuasion.) What’s impressive is that Reverend Carbuncle’s transformation of John from morally derelict lost soul to Christ figure is both believable and narratively compelling. It’s so easy to paint by numbers with quest narratives and Christian allegory. The respect for John the Revelator’s sacred status as healer and savior gets enmeshed in the narrative involving brutal violence, squishy fleshapoids, and obscene outbursts. The sacred and the profane co-exist, bespeaking something pre-Christian and pagan, while at the same time the narrative drives ahead, since we know the confrontation between John and Android Lovethorn will be both inevitable and predictable. (Guess who wins?) One final aspect worth noting (and John noticed this too), is the complete lack of women in this environment. Santiago tutors John in the ways of the blumpkins, ovoid fleshapoids covered with vaginas and lactating breasts. Whereas this could have become some rote pornographic sidetrip for the male characters, Reverend Carbuncle gives the blumpkins emotions and agency. Despite their utterly non-human appearance, John, Joad, and Santiago become attached to their respective blumpkin. Granted, the misogynistic undertones should be understood for what they are, since everything is happening inside of John’s head and John was a very bad person. In reality, John sits paralyzed in a coma on a hospital bed while suffering from bedsores. The biggest challenge for John is whether or not he wants to return to that world. But the quest distracts him from this immediate concern, including the ever-present threat of Android Lovethorn. Part psychogeography, part hallucination, part body horror, and part vision quest, Sloughing Off the Rot is not for the squeamish, easily disgusted, or overly serious. This is bizarro literature as fine art. C
Out of 10: 9.5 But as good as it is, this isn’t for everyone
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MY KIND OF TOWN
Angels By Denis Johnson Essay by Travis Fortney
Once a month throughout 2013 and ‘14, CCLaP critic Travis Fortney is reading a series of classic and contemporary books set in Chicago, not only to understand his new adopted hometown better, but to learn more about the origins and nature of the socalled “Chicago Way.” For all the essays in this series, please visit [cclapcenter.com/travis_fortney]. Denis Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2009 novel Tree of Smoke, but he probably remains best known for the 1992 cult classic Jesus’ Son, a short collection of stories chronicling the downward spiral and spiritual yearnings of a group of drug addicted wanderers. It’s well known that Johnson drew inspiration for Jesus’ Son from personal experience. In the 1970’s, Johnson attended the University of Iowa, where he apparently became pals and regular barroom companions with revered writer and raging alcoholic Raymond Carver. By the time Johnson left Iowa, his alcohol problem had progressed to the point that it required multiple hospitalizations. He’d also become a published poet and developed a taste for heroin, though Johnson has explained in the past that he was never a full-blown addict, because he didn’t have the stomach to fully devote himself to chasing down drugs. Johnson has been sober since 1983 and is a born again Christian in the AA 52 | The CCLaP Journal
mold, which accounts for the spirituality that infuses much of his writing. But I digress. A less well-known item in Johnson’s bio is that in the mid-to-late seventies, before he had found sobriety and God, he briefly settled in Chicago, taking a one-year teaching position at Lake Forest College. I thought that Johnson’s 1983 novel Angels—which he started writing during or just after his Lake Forest stint and finished years later, after a two year stretch teaching creative writing at the state prison in Florence, Arizona—was worth revisiting as part of this series. The heart of Angels takes place on the mean streets of Chicago, and it’s worth picking up a copy of the novel to see what our city—at least the 1970’s version of it—looks like through Johnson’s junkie poet eyes. Angels is the story of two lost souls— Jamie Mays and Bill Houston—who meet on a Greyhound bus. Jamie is fleeing Oakland and an abusive husband, and Bill—a world-weary ex-Navy, ex-con, alcoholic—is headed to Pittsburgh for some “high old times.” Jamie joins him, which proves to be a bad decision. They spend several days in Pittsburgh in an increasingly dangerous state of inebriation as Bill blows through the last of his money. At the beginning of the book’s second chapter, they have separated. Bill comes to in a bar and has no idea where he is, but when the bartender says the word “here” with a certain inflection, it causes Bill to exclaim “Chicago!” The best part of the novel—at least for a Chicagoan, and especially a North Side resident like myself—happens when Bill stumbles out of the bar and finds himself on Wilson Street in beautiful Uptown. “Where had Chicago come from?” he wonders. “It frightened him in his mind to wake up in unexpected towns with great holes in his recollection, particularly to understand that he’d been doing things, maybe committing things.” Bill proceeds to wander the city streets drunkenly, trying to “draw near two women in overcoats carrying purses.” He follows the women down Wilson, then follows them up Clark Street. On Clark, he realizes that “the time and place were all wrong for a purse snatch, and the real crime was not revealed.” He then comes to “a little hardware place crammed with everything necessary for the good life”, which can be no other hardware store than the Crafty Beaver store on Clark and Lawrence, where he proceeds to commit a terrifying robbery. With his new influx of cash, the city is Bill’s oyster. He comes to next at the Dunes hotel on Diversey. “When he sat up and put his feet on the cold floor, the darkness seemed to rush up suddenly against his face and stop there, palpitating rapidly like the wings of a moth. He went over to the window and took a look out[...]. The street out there was a mess of things--trash and rust and grease--all holding still for a minute. In his mind he was wordless, knowing what the street was and what he was, [...] a drunk and deluded man without a chance.” Meanwhile, Jamie, abandoned in Pittsburgh, makes the disastrous decision to follow Bill to Chicago. Guess where she winds up? “Clark Street at nine PM was a movie: five billion weirdos walking this way and not looking at each other, and every third one had something for sale. Moneylickers; and black pimps dressed all in black, and a forest of red high heels.” Jamie seeks Bill out amongst people who don’t look at all legitimate, and is eventually approached by a man in a red velvet suit who gives her drugs. Jamie gets in a cab with Mr. Redsuit (thankfully traveling away from Uptown) and is the victim of a brutal and graphic rape. When Bill eventually finds Jamie at social services, he considers murdering her rapists, almost coolly. “Two reasons I wouldn’t waste those guys,” he says. “One, I just don’t want to cross that line. I don’t know what’s on the other side of it.” But once that line is in the sand, its a foregone conclusion that Bill will cross it. Bill’s other reason for not committing murder is that he doesn’t know whether it would change anything for the better. Jamie takes Bill’s hand and tells him he’s a good person. Bill tells Jamie that he loves her. Shortly thereafter, the two leave Chicago and rejoin the rest of the Houston clan in Phoenix, AZ. Bill has called his brother “looking for some shit to get into.” Bill’s brothers have the same kind of badness in them that Bill does. But rather than sum up the entire plot, I’ll just say that in Phoenix Bill does have opportunity to step up to the line in the sand, and he crosses it. The novel’s final scenes take place, alternately, on death row and in an insane asylum. Angels can feel melodramatic at times, but it’s well worth reading, not only as extrapolation of the isolation and disgust that creeps into everyday urban life, but as the first major work by a great American author. C
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The Picture of Dorian Gray By Oscar Wilde Very First Modern Library Book Ever Made (1917, ML001)
Overview by Jason Pettus CCLaP is making a growing amount of available at reseller eBay.com, both instant purchase. For all current [ebay.com/usr/cclapcenter], or for the [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks].
its rare book collection for auction and for books for sale, visit collection’s entire list,
DESCRIPTION: All of us are familiar with “Modern Library” books, because their thousands of title/design combinations from over the decades can still be found in the wild by the millions, selling for just a buck or two on the back shelves of thrift stores and garage sales nationwide; but have you ever stopped and wondered just what the very first Modern Library book actually was? Well, you’re looking at it, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, from 1917 when the company was still owned by Boni and Liveright; for while technically it’s true that the first dozen titles of the ML’s very first catalog were all released at the exact same time, by this one technically having the very first catalog number (ML001), it makes it technically the very first volume in the company’s history. See, Boni and Liveright used to be just another popular mainstream publisher in the US, and the “Modern Library” series was just a half-forgotten experiment that took up little of the company’s attention, an attempt to pump out perennial sellers from over the years in a cheap uniform edition with a high profit margin, back before tech innovations would allow this to be done through even cheaper mass paperbacks; and it was in this half-forgotten state when first come across by young B&L employee Bennett Cerf, who suddenly understood the kind of goldmine the company was sitting on in a way that no one else there did. That’s what allowed Cerf to convince B&L to sell him the entire catalog and naming rights for a song in 1925; and after putting the kind of money and attention into it that he realized it deserved, the titles started selling in the millions every year, in large part because of the kind of individualized vendor/agent “elbow grease” attention that Cerf perfected in his early career. (In fact, parent company Random House originally started as a mere imprint of Modern Library, a place where Cerf could literally publish any random manuscript he came across that he particularly happened to enjoy; but this side of operations became so popular that Random House eventually became the main core of the company, and the Modern Library a subsidiary of it.) A popular publishing concern that still continues to this day, by now the Modern Library has become an important permanent fixture in the entire American culture; and this is a chance to own a legitimately collectible part of that culture’s history, the very first book to kick off the thousands of others that have come after it.
RARE BOOK FOR SALE
CONDITION: Text: Very Good (VG). In general this is in great shape for a softcover book its age, although there are noticeable scuff marks on both edges of the spine and on the cover corners. Ink signature “Marie Erikson” on the inside front cover. Dust jacket: missing (as is common with books this old). As confirmed by the Modern Library collecting website Modernlib.com, visual confirmation of multiple aspects (leatherette and castor-oil cover, marbleized endpapers, no colored bands on spine, no “Modern Library” on spine, no decorative box on title page), plus an interior ad for the “First Twelve” titles of the company’s very first year, makes this a true 1917 first edition. PROVENANCE: Acquired by CCLaP on September 2, 2013, at the Oak Park Book Fair. C 54 | The CCLaP Journal
Brendan Ó Sé
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Location: Cork, Ireland Brendan Ó Sé is a photographer trying to see what can be seen and how to see it.
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You posted on your blog that you were interested in the question of privacy in street photography. Have you come to any conclusions about it? It is an ongoing thing; something I am aware of when I am photographing. Itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s an instinctive thing, though. You can sense when it is an intrusion. I try to be discreet, to be respectful. If I am noticed, I offer to show the shot. I have not had the experience yet where someone has reacted badly to my taking their photograph on the street.
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Much of your street photography features subjects in couples, pairs, relationships. Is that intentional? To be honest, it is not something I consciously look for. When I am on the street I am open to all photographic possibilities. It happens that what interests me most in these situations are the people I encounter. When photographing couples I am intrigued by distances between them; intrigued by the fact that the distances between them can be filled with love or loss. 58 | The CCLaP Journal
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What appeals to you about blur? Often when I ask my wife if she likes an image she comments that she expects the image to come into focus and then realizes it wonâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t, that it is intentionally out of focus. Blur allows us to see things differently; it can bring us into an image, a scene and then allow us to recreate it in our imaginations.
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A faith-shaped hole in my consumerâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s heart I live on the tip-top of a hill. To leave the house is easy. I know it is all downhill. The sun introduces itself each morning through the crack in the carelessly drawn curtains. Its warmth felt on the sheets. A lingering caress that makes it way slowly across my bed. When it slips and lands softly on the floor, I get up. My days have a rhythm; each unchanged from the one just spent. Evening has passed before I return home. A little of me eroded; a little of the dayâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s toil on me, encrusted. The hill before me, slowing my step. To sleep I recall days with you and before the questions become too many I am off.
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Whatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s the story behind your bokeh head photographs? Like many things, it came from an attempt to do something else. I was trying to clone out a part of an image using the Lightroom spot removal tool and discovered it looked cool covering the peopleâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s heads in the images. It gave an anonymity and a uniformity to them and I just took it from there. It seems the style is something people like and that is something I am proud of.
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photographicpunctuation.com flickr.com/rebelsabu flickr.com/instame 68 | The CCLaP Journal
Lonely California pastry chef Win never learned how to swim, despite growing up just miles from the Pacific Ocean. Even Janie, her flaky prosurfer single mother, couldn’t convince her to brave the water, solidifying Win’s fear when she leaves her at the tender age of 9. But when Win turns 29 and decides to take swimming lessons for the first time—finally confronting her hydrophobia and trying to make sense of why her mermother suddenly swam off all those years ago—she must also deal with a desperate crush she’s developed on her New Age neighbor, mysterious postcards that keep arriving in the mail, and her bad habit of pathological lying. This touching and humorous look at female relationships and the dramas that come for contemporary women turning thirty also doubles as a loving ode to the small coastal town of Carpinteria and the laid-back SoCal lifestyle that guides it. Poetic and moving, Maureen Foley’s fiction debut is both a perfect beach read and an insightful look at love, accidental families and the power of friendships.
Download for free at cclapcenter.com/womenfloat
Women Float A novella by Maureen Foley
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Bleeding Edge By Thomas Pynchon The Penguin Press Reviewed by Madeleine Maccar
It is all too easy to dismiss Thomas Pynchon’s most recent novel as another one for the “Pynchon Lite” pile, which is by no means fair to a book that can’t help counting the likes of such heavyweights (both in the literary and literal senses) as Against the Day, Mason & Dixon and the undeservedly Pulitzer-snubbed Gravity’s Rainbow among its older, beefier brothers. Bleeding Edge takes place in a world immediately surrounding September 11, meaning that it is finally a Pynchon book set in a time period with which all of its readers, especially its American audience, are familiar (this is, of course, assuming that there aren’t any post-millennium-born kids out there surreptitiously paging through their parents’ copies of a tantalizingly shinycovered tome), thus minimizing the frantic research that usually punctuates a Pynchon novel’s obscure cultural allusions and mathematical formulae rendered in high-minded gibberish, allowing for an appearance of simplicity and uninterrupted reading that may lull one into a false sense of knowing which way’s up when Tommy P. is navigating the screaming that comes across the sky. No, this is not a postmodern labyrinth housing a lunatic beast that is just itching to pummel the unsuspecting and unprepared with tricksy words and engineering metaphors. This is a love letter to New York City that knows all too well how the Big Apple can be a finicky—but ultimately rewarding— mistress. This is a September 11 story that does not cash in on a day burned 70 | The CCLaP Journal
into a nation’s collective conscience. This is, quite possibly, the most from-the-heart novel Pynchon has written since Vineland— though it’s still peppered with paranoid brilliance and an understanding of early-aught pop culture and tech savvy that most septuagenarians simply can’t summon. Bleeding Edge follows Maxine Tarnow, a defrocked fraud investigator and mostly divorced mother of two elementaryschool-aged boys, on a madcap rush that scrambles atop NYC rooftops and dives to the depths of the as-of-yet unexplored nether regions of an internet the public was just beginning to embrace en masse. It is the standard Pynchonian detective fare in that it derives its own flavor from a cast of characters bearing Muppetesque monikers, a balance of humor and heartache that is nothing short of scientifically calibrated for maximum effect, a tangled web of paranoia surrounding a shady computer-security firm that only works itself into a tighter knot the more Maxine prods at it, and a healthy dose of parental concerns augmented by a Jewish mother’s terminal worry. While Pynchon’s previous works had a tendency to spiral off into myriad directions, Bleeding Edge seemed more streamlined than its predecessors. An old acquaintance brings the questionable finances of an as-of-yet defunct dotcom to Maxine’s investigatory attention before the pages even reach the double digits and the plot tirelessly tears ahead from there. Each question posed by our unflinching protagonist does, unsurprisingly, bring three more questions to the surface but there is a sense of overall connectedness and bigger-picture relevance threading its way through each new twist and turn that Maxine & Co. face. Allowing the plot to remain unusually unfettered by carefully choreographed chaos and divergences, along with wrangling a comparatively small cast, allows Pynchon’s writing to take center stage in Bleeding Edge. For all his ability to weave masterfully complex scenarios into a rich tapestry of life-imitating, intricately layered storytelling, Pynchon cannot ever get enough credit for simply being one hell of a writer. The man knows his way around the English language like few others do, deploying ten-dollar words just as easily as he plays casual comedy against understated devastation. The events of September 11 occur more than halfway through the book, and the day itself is relegated to roughly three pages. It is tempting to submit to the urge that allows that day to dominate whatever it touches; however, Pynchon’s deliberately tactful approach allows for its aftermath to come to the forefront, as its lasting effects and the inevitable changes it brought— especially to New York City and the areas close enough to both it and Washington, D.C. to feel the ripple effects for years to come—were the true test of a population’s endurance. This is where so much of the book’s heart comes into play, as September 11 and parenthood become inextricably linked: As we cannot protect our children from the unpleasant truths of life, we could not protect ourselves from one Tuesday in September that rocked everything we thought to be true more than a decade ago. For all of her professional acumen, Maxine is, at her very core, a loving Jewish mother who wants to give her boys the world and can’t shake the guilt over such a world being a dangerous place that, like the parade of girlfriends they’ll one day bring home to her, will never be good enough for them. The point is, one has to adapt to and learn from life after trauma, as one can’t become stronger without facing an event that demands personal growth and paradigm-shifting perspective tweaks to overcome it. Which is as close to a resolution as Bleeding Edge really has. Because sometimes things aren’t neatly settled. People die but the world marches forward and will not stop as a courtesy to all the survivors who are left shaken and grieving. Unplanned growth is the universe’s way of pushing us beyond our comfort zones to become the best version of ourselves. Admittedly, it is initially frustrating to come to an end of the book that leaves a trail of loose threads in its wake but the questions that this novel asks still don’t have answers. And the questions aren’t nearly as important as the discoveries made while searching for a solution, anyway. C
Out of 10: 8.5
November 2013 | 71
The Osiris Curse: A Tweed & Nightingale Adventure By Paul Crilley Pyr/Prometheus Books Reviewed by Madeleine Maccar The Osiris Curse picks up where the first Tweed & Nightingale adventure left off, propelling its seventeen-year-old heroes through new adventures in an alternate-history Victorian London reimagined through the eyes of steampunk; one does not need to have read its predecessor, The Lazarus Machine, to understand the plot, as concise exposition provides both tidy summaries of previous events and the already-established back stories of Sebastian Tweed, a Sherlock Holmes clone in the truest sense, and Octavia Nightingale, a junior reporter whose mother is missing. The two teens, with occasional help from new allies they meet along the way, go up against Nikola Tesla’s murderers, board a luxury airship incognito, and learn of an ancient underground society desperately fighting for survival in the nineteenth century. The story is fast-paced and imaginative, populated by likable protagonists who are grappling with their own shortcomings as well as surprisingly sympathetic foes who demonstrate to the book’s young-adult audience that the world is not a black-and-white place. In fact, despite its richly atmospheric setting and multi-dimensional characters, the novel’s lessons, cleverly disguised as detail, offer some of the most compelling reasons to keep reading. The Osiris Curse thoughtfully explores gender equality, the pros and cons of empathy, how logic and critical thinking solve more problems than grandly heroic gestures do (but that good judgment can recognize the time and place for the latter), that the good of the many often—but not always—outweighs the good of the few, that even our worst enemies are capable of love, and the very philosophy of humanity; however, it is the attention given to the exception to each rule that wards off any sense of stale sermonizing. The Osiris Curse is a high-octane adventure, indeed, but one that uses its head to get to the heart of the matter. C
Out of 10: 8.0 72 | The CCLaP Journal
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea By Jules Verne Scribner Series for Young People Edition (1925)
Overview by Jason Pettus
RARE BOOK FOR SALE
CCLaP is making a growing amount of available at reseller eBay.com, both instant purchase. For all current [ebay.com/usr/cclapcenter], or for the [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks].
its rare book collection for auction and for books for sale, visit collection’s entire list,
DESCRIPTION: In an age of Kindles and digital books, it seems one of the things that is rapidly disappearing are the giant sets of reprinted backlist titles most publishing companies were maintaining by the beginning of the 20th century, often done under one massive design scheme to both save money and to give the books a uniform look when on a shelf. Take for example the “Scribner Series for Young People,” which definitely ran throughout the 1920s if not before and after as well, which collected up hundreds of titles and ran them through the “publishing machine” to get them uniformly ready for output; and this particular title from the series for sale today, Jules Verne’s Victorian classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, is about as institutionalized as a book like this gets, with the poor in-house artist of the cover and four interior illustrations (one in color, three grayscale) not even listed by name, and a large ad for other books in this series being the main thrust of the entire front matter. To be frank, a book like this will never end up being worth much to a full-time collector; but at nearly a hundred years old now and still in relatively great shape (but see “Condition” below for more), this is a highly affordable conversation piece for any book lover’s home, not just an ode to Victorian science-fiction but also the Modernist Era’s rediscovery of it, when so many of these fantastical ideas first started becoming true in real life. CONDITION: Text: Good Plus (G+). In general still in great shape for a book its age, but there are discolorations on the back cover which bring down its rating quite a bit, fabric crinkles on both edges of the spine, and a bit of wear and tear on the frontispiece color cover. Ex-libris bookplate on inside front cover, children’s design signed “Otto Wm. Schur, 1245 Glenlake Ave.” Issued without a dust jacket. Stated date of “1925” on title page, but it’s difficult to tell the actual publishing date of these mass-run backlist titles, because no detailed records were kept of their print runs. PROVENANCE: Acquired by CCLaP on September 2, 2013, at the Oak Park Book Fair. C November 2013 | 73
THE NSFW FILES
The Image By Jean de Berg Essay by Karl Wolff
Once a month throughout 2013 and ‘14, CCLaP critic Karl Wolff is reading another classic novel that has been notoriously labeled “not safe for work,” in order to assess the true artistic worth of such projects. For all the essays in this series, please visit [cclapcenter.com/karl_wolff]. Personal History: Virtually none. While the previous entry, Story of O is a minor classic and a well-known novel within the BDSM community, I had known little to nothing about Jean de Berg’s novel, The Image. Susan Sontag’s mention of the novel in her essay, “The Pornographic Imagination,” was the extent of my previous knowledge. For all intents and purposes, I read this novel cold. In some ways, this is beneficial for criticism. It’s nice not being weighed down with a novel’s fame or notoriety, let alone one’s preconceived opinions. My only preconception about The Image was that Susan Sontag considered it to be a pornographic text with literary merit. The History: This is the last novel Susan Sontag discussed in her essay, “The Pornographic Imagination.” Along with Story of the Eye and Story of O, Sontag considers The Image to be a pornographic novel that has literary merit. Written in 1956 by Jean de Berg, the pen name for Catherine Robbe74 | The CCLaP Journal
Grillet, the wife of nouveau roman pioneer Allain Robbe-Grillet. Like Story of O, the novel became emblematic of Mid-Century Modernist erotica. In the process of postwar recovery and still possessing much of its colonial empire, France was a hub of high culture, fashion, and commercial success. Along with heightened national pride and disposable income, France returned to its tradition of creating challenging experimental work and nurturing its aesthetic avante-garde. Allain Robbe-Grillet’s work creating the nouveau roman (“the new novel”) went along with the early pioneers in Cahiers du Cinema (Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard). The years Pauline Reage and Jean de Berg published their books, Samuel Beckett disassembled the novel with his landmark Trilogy. The Fifties re-ignited artistic experimentalism in everything from books to plays to art. A Streetcar Named Desire laid bare an inarticulate, yet charismatic, American masculinity. Jackson Pollock’s canvasses confounded gallery patrons. Bebop ripped apart the pre-war jazz elegance with technical virtuosity and boundless energy. In the United States, one could still get arrested for reading “Howl” or drooling over Bettie Page photographs. It wouldn’t be until the Sixties when censorship would be relaxed enough for people to appreciate erotica on an aesthetic and philosophical level. Susan Sontag’s essay would make inroads towards legitimizing this otherwise notorious and prurient genre. On a much larger historical level, The Image, like Story of O before it, would continue the French literary legacy begun by the Marquis de Sade: the bondage novel. It’s difficult for American readers to understand that there’s a literary tradition for these books. It’s too easy to either consider erotica akin to thermonuclear waste and not touch it, unless one has a moral hazmat suit, or medicalize the genre and see the kinky world of bondage as a realm best left to the psychologically damaged. Both these lines of argument won’t be dealt with, because, in the end, they are irrelevant to appreciating this piece of literature. The Book: The Image is peculiar, even by the standards of Mid-Century Literary erotica. With a preface by Pauline Reage, the book doubles down on the pen names. A literary sensation writes effusively about a book written under another pen name. Nothing like starting a book about bondage and domination with some mind-games for the reader. The story itself is pure simplicity. Like Waiting for Godot with its minimal stage direction, The Image has a limited number of locations and only three major characters. Unlike Story of O, this story is barely over one hundred pages. The narrative involves Jean, the male narrator, witnessing and occasionally participating in various humiliations of Anne. Anne is privately and publicly humiliated by her mistress Claire. In the end, Claire submits to the will of Jean and lets Jean dominate her sexually. This is bare-bones erotica. Written in a style that’s simultaneously explicit yet detached and clinical, the reader identifies with Jean and his mounting shock and arousal at the humiliations he witnesses. Like O, Claire is a fashion photographer. The novella’s climax is when Claire shows Jean a series of pictures. The pictures involve ascending levels of sexual humiliation visited upon Anne. Jean thinks they are staged until he sees Claire do the same things to Anne. This shocks and arouses him. He eventually becomes a participant in these humiliations. While Anne is Claire’s subject, she gets verbally harassed by Claire, who treats her like a child, using language that infantilizes her. Story of O had an intricately built erotic underworld created around O and her torturers. The Image is like a stage-play. Actors, setting, situation. The barest necessities to create a plausible narrative. The Verdict: The Image is a classic bondage novel and it does have literary merit. But this brings up some relevant points. Would I have considered it “literary” if Susan Sontag hadn’t given it her critical imprimatur? Possibly. Perhaps it would have shown up in the bin of forgotten classics like Gynecocracy? It’s the same conundrum with other aesthetic judgments. Just because it’s in a museum and has a nice frame around it, does that make it “art”? Does the incomprehensible gibberish on the museum label also make it “art”? (Although the incomprehensibility of museum labels is most rampant in contemporary art galleries, where artists writing grants and galleries catering to the academic crowd create a feedback loop of obscurantist jargon.) With the barest elements present, what makes this novel an example of erotica and not pornography? Sontag thought it was pornography. My issue is that there are two words to begin with. “Erotica” and “pornography” implies we are talking about two different things. (In the visual arts and cinema, there’s probably merit to that argument.) Either the distinction is inherently classist (hence the old joke: “The difference between erotica and porn is the lighting.”) or narrative based (plot equals erotica; plotless equals porn). Is that always true? Beckett’s Trilogy has explicit language, a couple horrific sex scenes, and then becomes a jumble of hallucinations and plotlessness. Hardly porn, especially to those who awarded him the Nobel Prize. There’s also prurience. Molloy’s actions with the old lady do not inspire arousal. In the end the distinctions between erotica and porn seem like historically contingent definitions. Sontag was writing in the Sixties about books written in the Twenties and the Fifties. Today, The Image appears like a quaint relic from the past. The challenge with assessing literature is figuring out the lens to interpret the narrative. As a historian, I like historicizing the novel, contextualizing it with the events, politics, and trends of the time period. But I also like reading books for the sheer joy of reading something new and unknown. I also had to juggle critical assessments. Art for the ages versus historical relic, although I find either/or judgments constricting and self-defeating. I neither want to diminish a novel by historicizing too much and I don’t think “art” is something special and beyond-the-ordinary. This ends up being a roundabout way to say that The Image is both historically important to the literary history of erotica and an entertaining read. It is minimalist erotica: a novel about sexuality and domination sanded down to its barest components necessary for a narrative. C
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Mark R. 76 | The CCLaP Journal
Chicago author Mark R. Brand is already a veteran in the field of science-fiction, with several awardwinning books already under his belt (including the 2011 CCLaP hit Life After Sleep). But after this husband and father decided to enter graduate school at a later age, his work has expanded in both scope and depth, with his newest story collection Long Live Us inviting comparisons by critics to George Saunders and Gary Shteyngart. CCLaPâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Jason Pettus recently sat down with Brand to discuss the new book, his new career as a writing professor, and why his work immediately got better once he decided to stop trying so hard.
. Brand THE CCLAP INTERVIEW
November 2013 | 77
CCLaP: There’s so much stuff that’s been going on with you since the last time we talked, I was hoping we could go through it all chronologically. Let’s talk first about the novel you put out right after [the 2011 CCLaP novella] Life After Sleep. Mark R. Brand: Yeah, my next novel came out about six months after that, called The Damnation of Memory. That came out through Silverthought Press. That had actually been in development for a number of years before I became the short fiction editor at Silverthought. Since then, [Silverthought founder] Paul Hughes and I both had children born, so that kind of slowed down the pipeline for awhile. And how did that release end up going? You know, it was tricky. I don’t remember who I saw talking about this—I think it might have been Patrick Somerville—about how tricky it is to try to release two books in one year, and how they kind of step on each other in terms of getting the word out about them. And I think Life After Sleep kind of stepped a little on The Damnation of Memory. The people who read and reviewed it had really nice things to say about it, but it didn’t get a ton of press like how Life After Sleep did. Tell us more about your time as an employee of Silverthought. What exactly do you do there? When I started, I was just a friend of the editor, and I sent in some of my work and got published by them, and then in late 2010 I ended up becoming the short fiction editor there. So I read and approve all the short fiction submissions that come in. We publish all our novels through a print division, and all our short fiction through an online division, so they’re sort of different. I’m involved with the online portion of things there. And then perhaps what is most important in what’s been going on in your life since the last time we talked is that you decided to go to graduate school. Tell us a little bit about why you decided to go back to school at this time in your life; you’re a father now, you’re a little older. Well, part of the catalyst was my wife, and I think I will love her forever for doing this. I was struggling with a medical career that would often take up forty or fifty hours of my week, then struggling with coming home and writing for another twenty hours a week. And eventually she just took a hard look at me and gave me the honest appraisal that I needed to spend more time trying to make a career of the thing that I was going to do regardless. And she was right about that. Writing is something I love to do regardless. So I decided to try to shift my career at that point into that field, and try to make a go of it that way. So I applied to a couple of different programs, and it took me a couple of application rounds, but I was able to get into DePaul’s Writing and Publishing program. So what’s sort of become my new career as of late is teaching intro writing classes, in addition of course to writing myself. That’s a big transition, Mark, to decide to switch into a whole new career like that, and to go back to school. You’re married and have a kid, and there’s a lot of pressure to make sure that everything’s going all right financially. How much of a hesitation was there to do something like this? You’re right, there’s a lot of pressure involved in that, and I have to give the credit to my wife, because she was the one who convinced me to take the leap. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to do that on my own, truthfully. I’m very cognizant at all times at what I need to provide to my family. Without her help it wouldn’t have happened. So honey, in public now [laughter], thank you, thank you, and thank you again. But the switch itself was not as big as you might think. I was in medicine for twenty years, and a lot of the same principles that apply to getting someone to trust you in that environment apply to getting writers to trust you in a teaching environment. Being able to connect with people; being able to empathize with people. Those skills are really useful when it comes to being able to teach young college-aged students. Also, my family are all educators. My mother, my father, my sister, many of my aunts are educators; and up until now, I had been sort of the black sheep of the family, because I had decided not to go into education. They mostly work in elementary and high-school education, but I had gone a different way for awhile, and now I’m sort of coming back into the direction my lineage points to. So it’s really not as big a leap as it looks from the outside. Definitely a different pace of career, but I’ve found it really, really fun so far. I had that same sort of reaction, getting in front of a class for the first time, that I had when assisting in a minor surgery for the first time. “That’s so cool. I want to do that again right now.” As soon as I had that feeling [in a classroom], it was off to the races. I knew that 78 | The CCLaP Journal
teaching was something I would be able to do into perpetuity. Something I find really interesting is that, going into school, you had been very much a straightforward science-fiction writer—and I don’t mean anything bad by that, just that your work would be very thoroughly classified as nothing else but science-fiction. But you became a very different writer by the time you finished grad school, and we’ll get into that a little more in a bit; but start us out by telling us a little bit about what it was like to go into an academic environment as a science-fiction writer. Is there a lot of resistance from the people around you? Or were you welcomed by the academic community? I have only good things to say about the people at DePaul. And it’s two things: [first], they were very welcome of any type of genre work, any type of people who were approaching writing with a slightly narrower perspective than just literary fiction. And then they were very rigorous with the way they presented their programs. Their workshops and classes and so forth were much more rigorous than I expected, and I was very pleased about that. I went to DePaul as a way to fill holes in the knowledge I didn’t have, since I didn’t have a Bachelor’s in English or Literature or anything like that. I knew there was going to be holes in my knowledge, and I wanted someone who would challenge me enough to fill those in. That really paid off. They definitely came through on everything the program promised. The people there are just terrific, and I think they really helped a lot with taking what I came in with and helping me make something better. Dan Stoler in particular, he had this great phrase. He’d say, “You’re trying too hard, Mark. You’re just trying too hard.” [Laughter] And he was totally right, and as soon as I started to let that go—let go of trying to work too hard to be like other writers, being too dense or things like that—as soon as I let go of that, it benefited my writing immediately. I got almost no pushback at all for being a sci-fi writer.
One of the great tropes of “genre” sciencefiction, when you think of the work that makes you think, “Eh, I don’t really want to read this,” a lot of times people don’t realize that it’s because you get these perpetually orphaned characters, with no families or any close connections to other people, this kind of loner mentality that takes over the narrative of all these stories. All the [heroes in those types of books] tend to be disconnected orphan types, and it just gets really tiresome after awhile. It doesn’t give you a charge in the same way that writing a character with a realistic family does.
It sounds like they build a strong structure for a writer to come into, but that they don’t put a strong pressure on what exactly each writer is writing about.
Yeah, exactly. And well, one of the things I try to do is set goals when going into a program like this. And when I went into DePaul, [one of] my goals was to try to experiment more with humor. You remember Life After Sleep; it had a little bit of humor, but it was [generally] kind of downbeat. And The Damnation of Memory was a very dark, serious kind of book. [Laughter] Yeah, wrist-slittingly serious! Well, I wrote it in a very dark point of our generation’s lives, right in 2008, right when it looked like the recession was going to swallow our whole lives. And I’m still not completely convinced that it’s not going to. But I wrote it during that moment, and I wanted it to reflect that, because that’s the point, right? If you want something to last, it needs to reflect what was happening at the time. But going into DePaul, I really wanted to take a different direction, and work on stuff that was a little more funny, a little more light-hearted, a little more biting in terms of satire. To move more in a Gary Shteyngart direction. He can really bite with his satire when he wants to, because he can be really funny. So I worked on that a lot. And one of the other things I wanted to do was work on science-fiction that had protagonists with realistic family lives. One of the great tropes of “genre” science-fiction, when you think of the work that makes you think, “Eh, I don’t really want to read this,” a lot of times people don’t November 2013 | 79
realize that it’s because you get these perpetually orphaned characters, with no families or any close connections to other people, this kind of loner mentality that takes over the narrative of all these stories. Han Solo Syndrome? Yeah, or like Winston in 1984. All the [heroes in those types of books] tend to be disconnected orphan types, and it just gets really tiresome after awhile. It doesn’t give you a charge in the same way that writing a character with a realistic family does. Some of the more recent really good speculative fiction I’ve read has good family stuff happening in them. For example, everyone loves [Cormac McCarthy’s] The Road, right? [Margaret Atwood’s] Oryx and Cake series, all of those characters have all these connections to boyfriends, girlfriends, relatives, all that stuff. And then in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, both of the main characters had families they were closely involved with, and that colored the way they interacted with each other. And of course the moment you start adding family stuff to these stories, you automatically start bringing it up a little bit more into a literary presentation. You start working with things that are universal, and stop working with just these individual plotlines.
You’ll remember, when we first started putting this [manuscript] together, having the theme being really vaguely, “people trying to survive in hard economic times.” That’s sort of the everyday apocalypse that comes after the apocalypse. “Okay, the world has ended but we’re all still here.” And my answer to that is, we’ll all still be okay, but we’ll be a lot grouchier.
And then like we were mentioning, one of things that I think is the more interesting things to happen to you because of graduate school is that you got exposed to and inspired by a whole series of writers who you maybe had not heard of before. We’ve talked in the past, for example, about George Saunders, and what kind of influence [discovering him] had on you. Tell us a little about how important that was, about how much of graduate school is just about getting exposed to writers who you think might influence you more, and how much of the benefit is literally just learning the skills of writing itself ?
I think it’s about half and half, and that dynamic you’re talking about is a product of what the professors choose to have you read. Just to give you an example, two of the classes I took, the books they gave were Best American Short Stories 2010 and 2012. And I think the 2010 edition was edited by Richard Russo, the 2012 edition by Tom Perrotta. Each volume in that series really revolves around the tastes of whoever edited it. And I read the entire 2010 edition, and I think the only story that really stood out to me, in terms of something I would like to try to emulate, to take away some kind of skill-based understanding from, was Jennifer Egan’s “Safari” from [her Pulitzer-winning novel] A Visit from the Goon Squad. But in the 2012 edition you have “Beautiful Monsters” from George Saunders’ Tenth of December, a great one from Steven Millhauser, and one of my favorite short stories of the entire year, Angela Newman’s “Occupational Hazards.” When you get exposed to more stories of a mainstream literary bent, it really depends on who’s curating that. That can be kind of a dull, boring experience, or it can be this really amazing thing. To think way back to my undergraduate days, the two big writers one of my undergrad professors had us read was Alice Munro and William Trevor, both of whom I find dreadfully boring, unfortunately. I mean, I remember kind of liking some of Munro’s stuff, but maybe I wasn’t emotionally mature enough yet. I remember reading Laurie Moore at the time—again, like the late ‘90s, early 2000s—and I remember thinking, “Wow, yeah, there’s something going on there.” But it depends on where you are emotionally and what you’re exposed to. If I had read George Saunders as a nineteen-year-old, that would’ve been a totally different experience. And if I picked up William Trevor today, that would be a totally different experience. And this next question will sort of lead us to the new book, but start us out by telling us how your feelings for the science-fiction genre have maybe changed. Are there writers you used to be a fan of
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that you now can’t look at without thinking, “Oh, they’re so ridiculous?” The only writer that works in that kind of arena who I feel even slightly disappointed by today, unfortunately, is Stephen King. I liked Under the Dome, and I’m a huge fan of his early work, but he’s the only writer I look back at and think, “Yeah, I don’t need to read that again.” I think I appreciate people like Joe Halderman even more now. I understand now why his work works as well as it does. Frank Herbert’s Dune, that book impresses me more and more now, because I think I have a better understanding of why these books work in the first place. And, you know, I’m a perennial fan of all things nerdy and science-fiction, so even if something feels to me like it’s not working on the same kind of level as George Saunders or Margaret Atwood, I still love it. [Laughter] I’m not going to kick my childhood friends to the curb. I’m actually teaching one of the “Conan the Barbarian” stories in my English 101 class right now. So what if it’s not one of the pinnacles of 20th-century literature? At some point books should be fun to read. So I don’t know if [grad school] has changed my opinion that much. But encouragingly, a lot of writers who fifteen or twenty years ago wouldn’t have thought of writing science-fiction have now started to take that on. Yes, science-fiction really seems to be starting to bleed a lot into other areas of the arts these days. I think we talked about this last time as well—that anytime you have a time period of upheaval or especially war, you’ll have a blossoming afterward of science-fiction that’s not as repetitive, not as self-referential, not as derivative. These stretches of time between great political upheavals does get very self-referential and repetitive. Upheavals attract the attention of people who think very hard about the future. I think there’s some really great people working in science-fiction right now. A lot of my classmates were working on stuff that bordered on speculative, and I was really pleased to see that. So, at the end of this entire process, you got a new book out of it, Long Live Us. And before anything else, let’s make it clear that this is a portfolio of sorts for your graduate school experiences. Did you write all of these stories in grad school? Most of them. There were two that I did before I started DePaul, the first story of the book and “She Was Never Free to Begin With.” Two of the others, “The Tree Over Garret’s Hole” and “Nose Goblins,” were written shortly after I graduated, but the book essentially encapsulates what I’ve been doing writing-wise for the last two and a half to three years. And for me, and I’m sure this is going to be the case with a lot of your fans, I was really amazed by the new book. I was astounded at how different and more mature your style now is, and what you choose to write about. I’m sure you have your own opinions about this. I think it boils back to what we were talking about before, about Dan Stoler telling me to stop trying so hard. Not trying to force a story into a particular plot made a huge difference in the way I approached these stories. And trying for realistic families, realistic situations. And not necessarily trying to get my readers to love my main characters. That was also part of the ‘trying too hard’. One of the common problems many writers do is try to make their characters too likeable, not push their edge hard enough. I wanted to do this collection because I wanted to present characters that you weren’t sure you liked or not. You’ll remember, when we first started putting this [manuscript] together, having the theme being really vaguely, “people trying to survive in hard economic times.” That’s sort of the everyday apocalypse that comes after the apocalypse. “Okay, the world has ended but we’re all still here.” And my answer to that is, we’ll all still be okay, but we’ll be a lot grouchier. [Laughter] We’ll all kind of mistreat each other a little bit, we’ll all do stupid things that seemed smart at the time. So you get a general feeling of characters who are surviving to various different degrees of...ethics. [Laughter] I think it came out pretty well. I played around with a lot of different types of narration in this book. You and I are both friends with Larry Santoro, and I worked with him briefly on the first edit of Drink for the Thirst to Come, which was his last book to come out. And I’m not really a horror guy, I hate to say, because we do take horror at Silverthought, but I’m not really a giant fan. And the stuff I do like tends to be a little more literary in its presentation, and have something really special in the way it’s presented. And part of why I liked Larry’s collection so much was that all the stories sounded like they very much came from somewhere [geographically specific]. I wanted to put at least one story in this collection that sounded like it came from somewhere. I try to narrate things many times like from an average Chicagoan’s point of view, but “The Tree Over Garret’s Hole,” for example, has a very Northeastern hillbilly redneck type voice, from a very specific place that I had in mind. The story “Insurgents” [set November 2013 | 81
in a small-town Mexican red-light district], which has gotten a good response, I wasn’t so sure about that one. That one was inspired by being exposed to Steven Millhauser, and Daniel Dafoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. A story where you can get so detail-based but that at the same time seems so vivid. And what may surprise some people—although it won’t surprise anyone who’s been listening to this talk—is that there are some stories in here that are out-and-out not science-fiction at all. One of my favorites is about this family who’s stuck in their apartment during this meningitis scare that’s going on, this husband and wife who weren’t getting along very well to begin with [laughter], stuck in this apartment together for four months without ever leaving, which is just driving them crazy. How important was it for you to get in non-science-fiction work in this new book? And where do you see this going in the future? The one you’re talking about is called “Nose Goblins,” and that’s an important story in this collection. I think that one gets to what I wanted to capture with the tone altogether. That the things that happen in the world, the changes that happen in the world, the things that five or ten years ago would’ve seemed science-fictiony, they have very real consequences that become mundane and understandable on a very small level. When I wrote The Damnation of Memory, I tried to write The Great Recession large, in a post-apocalyptic set-up where you had all these emotions flying around, and characters doing these grand, interesting things. This is the opposite of that. This is the Great Recession writ small. What does it do to a single family unit? Does it bring on claustrophobia? A little hypochondria? Non-specific anxiety? Definitely a little unnecessary hostility. And definitely just this feeling of a crushing pressure, and of quarantine. This was based loosely on a thing that actually happened to me, when I was going into ninth grade, there was a meningitis scare at my school, where a number of kids got very seriously sick and I think one child died. It was this terrifying thing, and we all had to go to the auditorium and listen to this FEMA-like presentation on how to not get this terrifying strain of meningitis that’s going around. I just remember it being this very scary paranoia-type situation. We all had to get special vaccines and this whole thing. The bottom line is that it just came out of nowhere, and I think the thing is, the Great Recession to my generation also feels oppressive and unexpected, and it seems to not want to go away. It just lingers and lingers and constantly boxes us in. It constantly takes away our agency. That’s what that story is about. And it’s also about what it takes to be an adult in that kind of environment. What does it take to get past that and still live a functional life? How to put all that oppression behind you? I think my grandparents knew that, but I think there’s been maybe no contemporary role models for that in my own lifetime. How to get through something that prolonged and oppressive. We’ve gotten in the late 20th century role models for how to survive brief things that are acutely difficult, but a generation-changing long oppressive thing, we’re all kind of relearning. I’m glad you liked it. That’s one of my favorite stories too. Before we go, let’s go over a few of the things that are going on with you right now. First, your aim for graduate school is now working out—you’re now teaching at Wilbur Wright College. Yes. I teach English 100 and 101 there. I interned there last semester with Tim Dougherty, who really brought me up to speed very quickly on how to teach an intro writing class. He really made me a part of his class last year, so I was really able to hit the ground running this year, and I knew exactly what I was going to do. It made a huge difference. My students are great, and they’ve got a huge English department that they pull heavily from DePaul for. I can confidently say that they’ve got high-quality people there, and it’s great to work with all of them. What’s something that’s been surprising for you there, that you weren’t expecting? I’ve always considered myself a tech-gadgety type guy; I’ve got my iPhone and my iPad and my MacBook. I scrimp in a lot of other areas of my life, but I do not scrimp in my technology. It appeals to me, but I also get a lot of utility out of it. I didn’t expect that part to get as difficult as it did. You’re entering a whole new system. Learning where to make copies. Learning how to make sure kids get access to blackboards. That was the biggest surprise, as far as thinking, “Hmm, that was much tougher than I thought it’d be.” But the biggest good surprise is that my kids seem to really, really like the early20th-century adventure stories. I wasn’t sure how that was going to fly. I’ll tell you, if you want to feel old, turn 35. [Laughter] You face a room full of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, and you think, “Where are those cultural touchstones?” Most of the pieces I’ve picked, they were things I was reading at that same age, that were really kind of cultural touchstones, but really aren’t much anymore. So they have a kind of freshness in them now that this new generation seems to really appreciate. And how 82 | The CCLaP Journal
can you ever complain about getting to teach Hemingway and Jack London and Flannery O’Connor? So it’s great. Wilbert Wright College, they don’t separate English classes from Required Composition classes, like many schools do, and it’s becoming more and more of a good thing in my opinion, to teach literature in these Intro to Comp classes. I use articles, I use films, and I use a lot of other stuff, but I really appreciate an opportunity to teach someone to write using literature. It’s an approach that maybe you and I had more access to when we were that age than they do now. I’m really glad that Wilbur Wright still does it that way. And maybe what’s the most interesting development in your life now is that you’ve decided to go forward and get your Ph.D.; and not only that, you’ve decided to get it in Milwaukee, Wisconsin while continuing to live in Chicago. How does something like that work?
I think the thing is, the Great Recession to my generation also feels oppressive and unexpected, and it seems to not want to go away. It just lingers and lingers and constantly boxes us in. It constantly takes away our agency. That’s what [“Nose Goblins”] is about. How to get through something that prolonged and oppressive. We’ve gotten in the late 20th century role models for how to survive brief things that are acutely difficult, but a generation-changing long oppressive thing, we’re all kind of relearning.
I knew when I applied to Ph.D. programs that it would have to be close enough to commute to. So I applied to UIC [University of Illinois at Chicago] and UWM. Unfortunately, as people will tell you, you get rejected from just about every graduate school you apply to. And that’s just because the application rate is very high and the acceptance rate is very low. So I was taking a big risk by applying to only two schools, and my classmates had applied nationwide. One of my friends was accepted at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and in a month he had moved his entire family there from Chicago, and he had a brandnew baby and everything. But Nebraska’s a great school, and moving to accept a Ph.D. program is really the reality, so I knew I was taking a pretty terrible risk by applying to just those two schools. And I just lucked out. UWM is a terrific program. They’ve been very welcoming and very warm. I can’t say enough about them. But yeah, it’s Milwaukee. Yeah, for those unfamiliar with the American Midwest, it’s about...what, a two-hour drive each way? A little shy of two hours. And I have three-hour classes twice a week, so approximately a seven-to-eighthour experience. I teach during the week and I teach on Saturdays as well. So I go to class a couple days a week, and that balances it out a little bit. But it’s a haul, yeah. Do you do some of your Ph.D. work here in Chicago? How does that work technically?
It’s all there. I have a total of eight classes, I believe, and I take two at a time. It’s similar to what you’d encounter in graduate school. You have your workshops, your classes and theory classes. I have a class right now called “austerity media,” which is super interesting. It’s a survey of how the notion of austerity has affected mass media. That’s very much informing what I’m working on now in the new novel. And it informs a little bit on that same notion of the oppressive Great Recession we were talking about earlier. It’s not really that different from what you’d consider the notion of a typical grad-school class. At the dissertation level it will be substantially different, but for now it’s just more coursework. And this was to increase the opportunities for teaching, right? Yes. Well...[pause] Yes. That was the main reason. Full-time teaching jobs are really difficult to get right now. And if you want to have a full-time tenured track at a university, now in this era, a Ph.D. is what you gotta have. No one will really say that to you—they’ll say an M.F.A. is enough—but from the hiring November 2013 | 83
decisions I’ve seen lately, even at the community colleges and two-year schools, the full-time tenuretrack people are almost always Ph.Ds. That’s the kind of life I want for myself, so that’s the thing you have to go do. The second reason I went is that my wife and I did genealogies of our families, and [I found out that] I will be the first Brand in over 200 years to get a Ph.D. So there’s a little bit of a personal aspect into it as well; not something to prove, but something that means a little bit personal to me, a goal I’ve set for myself that I want to have. But you don’t really need more of an excuse than to work with the great people at UWM, and all my classmates at UWM, who are all stunningly intelligent people. I’m still getting a handle on that experience. When you work in a Master’s program, you still get a lot of people coming in from different ages, so you get a lot of different maturity levels, and we talked earlier about how emotional maturity can really affect what you’re writing. A 22-year-old writer will write very differently than a 40-year-old writer. But there’s still a lot of people trying to get a feel for what it’s like to be a long-term creative writer, and so there’s a lot of variety in what you get for classmates. Here at the Ph.D. level, it’s a much narrower range. It takes a little getting used to, to play in the deep end of the pool. It’s amazing so far. There’s a lot of stuff going around right now about how valuable Ph.Ds really are, if they’re worth it. I think the answer to that is, number one, if the only people getting hired are Ph.Ds, then it’s worth it. And number two, how many times in a lifetime do you get a chance to study with 30 or 40 of the most brilliant people in the country? That’s an opportunity you can’t say no to. C
Download Long Live Us completely for free, or order a special handmade paper edition, at [cclapcenter.com/ longliveus].
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Saga: Chapter One By Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples Image Comics
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Behold the awesome that is Saga: Chapter One. Written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Fiona Staples, the series begins with an ill-fated love affair and the birth of a child. The lovers Alana and Marko flee their warravaged world in order to raise their child in peace. This all sounds pretty much like de rigueur Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces epic story arc. But what would otherwise be a standard template space opera narrative gets heaped with a dump truck full of crazy. Set amidst an interplanetary war where the fighting has been out-sourced, the universe has a bizarre appearance. Yes, there are aliens and robots, just not the aliens and robots you’d expect. Alana is a dark-skinned ex-soldier with insectoid wings, reminiscent of mythical fairies. (Her fellow inhabitants of the planet Landfall also have wings, but wings can be like bats or birds or insects.) Marko, from Landfall’s moon Wreath, has a pair of ram-like horns, but is otherwise humanoid. But one thinks of satyrs and fauns. In their desperate attempt to escape, Marko bought a map from a grease monkey. The grease monkey happens to be a human-sized monkey who speaks in a hard-boiled detective movie argot. Then there’s the robots. Human in appearance except for their pale skin color and a TV head. A TV that looks like it’s from the Sixties. The robots are part of the Robot Empire and Prince Robot IV seeks vengeance against the murder of his kinsman by Marko and Alana. There are also ghosts, a rocketship forest, and Sextillion, the sex planet. Also seeking to find the child, the Will, a taciturn badass bounty hunter, and the Stem, the Will’s ex who looks like a cross between a giant spider and an armless female. It only gets stranger and better from there. Yes, believe the hype: it is a hyper-inventive, visually gorgeous, and politically complex space opera. For sheer inventiveness, it reminds me of reading Excession by Iain Banks and his Culture novels. This review has been parsimonious in terms of plot, but because it is the first volume of an epic series, all I can do is recommend highly. C
Out of 10: 9.0 November 2013 | 85
The Explanation for Everything By Lauren Grodstein Algonquin Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Is it possible to explain the existence of Christianity, Christians, and bad Christian novels with the theory of Evolution? In a word, yes. In fact, it’s easy. Darwinism is beautiful because it’s so simple. Mutated traits that make reproduction more likely tend to be replicated over time. Over generations, the mutation becomes the norm. And that’s really it. Simple enough for a child to understand. So the question is, does Christianity make reproduction more likely? Christianity—at least in year zero or thereabouts—was a mechanism for organization, a belief system that allowed adherents to gather together in an easily defensible structure, which provided handy shelter against not only the weather, but also common enemies. So for the early Christian, Christianity equaled increased odds toward survival in a brutal world, and increased life expectancy equaled greater opportunity to breed. More recently, Christians who journeyed to America had the advantage of being resistant to smallpox— again, survival equals reproduction—but in the last century or so, Christians have had to make breeding doctrinal. Anyone who doesn’t think Christian leaders understand evolution only has to look at the issues of gay marriage, abortion, and birth control. These aren’t moral or social issues. They’re biological. The unstated thinking goes like this: Even if dad is a closeted homosexual living a miserable, miserable lie, who raises four miserable kids, then either offs himself or has 86 | The CCLaP Journal
a nervous breakdown at fifty, and even if dad’s suicide or institutionalization leaves his whole family shaky, afraid and thinking that its really all their fault, well that situation is still preferable—in the modern Christian mindset—to dad admitting his sexual orientation before marriage and living a different kind of life with a higher opportunity for happiness but almost zero opportunity for reproduction, since what Christianity gets out of the doomed marriage is four new Christians who are more likely than not to cling to religion after everything else in their lives falls apart. Sorry if I sound bitter there. And sorry if I’ve laid my cards on the table. As another example, take birth control: every prevented pregnancy equals one less Christian. Or take the website “Christian Mingle,” whose ads pollute my fantasy football homepage every Sunday. What about abortion? It’s probably best to not even step down that path. Suffice to say though, Christians have taken a long view in their battle with secularism, and their tactics point to a fairly sophisticated understanding of evolution. No gays, no abortion and no birth control add up to more Christians. All of these new Christians, unfortunately, need Christian novels. Give it a million generations or so and there’s no hope for the rest of us. You may have noticed, early on in the above rant, that I said Darwinism is simple enough for a child to understand. In Lauren Grodstein’s new novel The Explanation of Everything, however, evolution is the source of much confusion. Ms. Grodstein gives us as a protagonist one Andy Waite, a biology professor. The main conflict in the book is Andy’s hand-wringing--is evolution really the explanation of everything, or is the explanation of everything perhaps something else, maybe even Jesus, Jesus, Jesus? Take two examples from the novel. In the first, Andy is having a conversation with a student named Melissa, a young creationist who has convinced him to mentor her in an independent study geared toward proving intelligent design... ‘Well,’ she said, leaning forward, her breasts straining heavily against her turtleneck[...], ‘DNA is a code, right? [...] Codes aren’t designed by chaos.[...] The only real rational explanation for coding is an intelligent designer who planned it all out.’ It’s ironic that Andy is staring at Melissa’s breasts in the scene, because up until that point he hasn’t yet remembered the vital role that sex plays in evolution. As Andy and Melissa’s conversation goes on, Andy can’t find his footing. He can’t figure out how to disprove Melissa’s opinions. To me, this idea doesn’t seem believable. Full disclosure, I’m not a biologist. At all. I had pretty much headed in the direction of reading and writing before I finished high school. That said, I don’t think Melissa’s argument for a designer based on DNA would be difficult at all for a biologist to shoot down. My own very, very limited understanding is that mutations cause DNA to change over time from generation to generation, and that evolution is the product of those mutations that make successful breeding more likely, and so carry on from generation to generation. Since DNA is fluid, molded over time due to the environment, its “design” is just an adaptation to the natural world. But such an explanation is lost on Andy. Even more unbelievably, after their first meeting Andy takes home a book that Melissa gives him entitled God is a Rainbow, and he finds himself swayed by a particular passage. “Have you ever spoken to a small, guilty child who’s trying to get out of telling the truth?” the author asks. “When the child starts spinning his story, it becomes more and more fanciful. He would need a mere sentence to tell the truth; his elaborate tale requires paragraphs.” With that, Andy’s foundational beliefs begin to crumble. And that’s also where The Explanation for Everything begins to show its true colors. Soon Andy is “allowing for the possibility of God.” Soon after that he’s taking his young daughter to be baptized, and he’s viewing his life’s problems in a Christian light. I personally find the idea that an apparently sophisticated scientist could be swayed in this way ridiculous. The thought that’s troubling Andy is that evolution requires such a detailed explanation? What about the sentence I used at the beginning of this review: “Those traits or mutations that make reproduction more likely tend to be replicated over time.” Sounds pretty simple to me. So am I saying that Andy, as written, is stupider than your average child? No, there’s something else at work here. What about Lauren Grodstein? Her prose is too breezy, her plot too propulsive and readable for her to be called stupid. I’m afraid Ms. Grodstein’s offense is far worse. At its heart, The Explanation for Everything is a disingenuous book. Sex and reproduction—the simple explanation, and the heart of the theory—is never once mentioned in connection with evolution. The goal of this omission seems to be to manufacture confusion—and an opening for faith—where there should be none. For that, The Explanation for Everything is just as offensive as a Southern preacher standing in front of his megachurch and expounding on the evils of gay marriage, abortion and the like. This is true whether or not Grodstein herself is a Christian, because the uncertainty at the book’s heart doesn’t come from an intellectually honest place. The “gray area” Andy finds himself in at the end of the story is calculated for the dirty purpose of driving sales, which may be its own kind of honesty but is the subject for another day. C
Out of 10: 5.0
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Moo By Jane Smiley (1995) SIGNED, First Edition, First Printing
Overview by Jason Pettus
CCLaP is making a growing amount of available at reseller eBay.com, both instant purchase. For all current [ebay.com/usr/cclapcenter], or for the [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks].
RARE BOOK FOR SALE
its rare book collection for auction and for books for sale, visit collection’s entire list,
DESCRIPTION: One of the most common questions out there among people who collect “hypermodern” first editions (books less than thirty years old) is how to best guess which living authors to be collecting in the first place; and while only the future will show us which writers of our times will still be read and venerated a century from now, it’s almost never a bad bet to target an author both popular and award-winning, pick the most famous title of their career, then purchase a signed first edition, first printing of it in immaculate shape. Take this signed first-edition copy of Moo, for example, by the still active Jane Smiley, first put out in 1995; for while it’s her 1991 Pulitzer winner A Thousand Acres with the flashier reputation (thanks to the Hollywood Oscarbait adaptation), many people consider her next novel after that to be the best-written of her career, and the one that she will ultimately be remembered for. The ultimate “backbiting among philandering academes at a large Midwestern university” novel, which became virtually a cottage industry unto itself in the 1990s, the novel has been described by more than one passionate fan as Dickensian in tone; and as Smiley has elaborated on in subsequent interviews, one of her main points is to show that a university is not an isolated ivory tower but a living reflection of the often small town where it exists, which is why state schools from Wisconsin to Missouri and beyond have claimed with semi-pride that elements of this book were based on their campuses. (For what it’s worth, Smiley lives in Ames, Iowa and teaches at the large Iowa State University, but she claims that the novel is not based on her real life in any way whatsoever.) In the future, there’s a good chance that Smiley will be known as sort of the George Eliot of the Postmodernist Age, someone who was able to use small towns and middleclass societies to comment astutely on the entire national culture she found herself in; and while no rare book can be 100 percent guaranteed to go up in price in the future, certainly this has at least a strong chance of doing so, a perfect choice for a long-term investor just making their first acquisitions now at a young age. CONDITION: Text: Like New (LN). Indistinguishable from how it appeared brand-new in bookstores. Dust Jacket: Like New (LN). Indistinguishable from how it appeared brand-new in bookstores, now protected in a Demco mylar sheet. SIGNED on the title page. Stated “First Edition” on the copyright page, with no additional printing notices, makes this a true first edition, first printing. PROVENANCE: Acquired by CCLaP in spring 2013 at the Bella Luna going out of business sale. C
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Location: New York City, New York Sheldon Serkin has been shooting street photography in New York City with an iphone since 2010. His work has been featured on a number of websites, including iphoneography. com, lifeinlofi.com, iphoneographycentral.com, eyeem.com, and gothamist.com, as well as on shortlists in the Mobile Photo Awards in both 2012 and 2013. He recently contributed a tutorial to â&#x20AC;&#x153;The Art Of iphone Photographyâ&#x20AC;? by Bob Weil and Nicki Fitz-Gerald. He is currently preparing Awful Bliss, his first book of street photographs, and posts daily on instagram, eyeem, and flickr as @shelserkin, and on his blog, awfulbliss.tumblr.com.
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I have so many questions about your street portraits: How do you pick your subjects? How has your experience been, approaching strangers? What do you try to do for your subjects, as a photographer?
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Deciding to shoot a subject is instinctive for me. Usually, there’s no time between the initial draw and the shooting for me to reflect and analyze why I’m drawn to the subject at hand – if I did that, I’d miss that moment of character or action that initially drew me to the subject! I also very rarely approach my subjects. I do all my shooting with an iphone, which makes it easy for me to appear to not be taking pictures at all. As a photographer, I try to represent my subjects not as they are, but as how I see them. In the decisions I make - black and white or color, composition, processing – I try to bring out what it was that attracted me to them: to stylize their reality for my own ends.
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My favorite portrait has to be “Lilly.” What was her story? Was she as all-business as she looks? Lilly was 100% all business! She was there to sell girl scout cookies, and she was NOT happy about it at all. I don’t know if I would have been either, as it was about 9:00 AM on a Saturday at a shopping mall. She was definitely one subject I would have loved to speak to, but I think her expression and body language says it all.
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Were you involved in Occupy Wall Street, or were you just there to shoot? What are your feelings on it, two years later? I was drawn to Occupy Wall Street as a photographer. I believed in the movement and what it attempted to do during that time, and I felt that my participation was best suited to documenting. It was very exciting at the time to be there â&#x20AC;&#x201C; the energy was palpable! I made 4 or 5 excursions to shoot in Zuccotti Park, and, at each successive visit, it was larger, noisier and more Felliniesque. The last time I went before they were evicted, it had definitely become something I think was removed from their initial intention - I photographed a lot of tourists and media. I still believe in the movement, and laud their efforts postSuperstorm Sandy. November 2013 | 101
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In your landscapes of New York City, you depict something that looks like a magical reality; your use of contrast and saturation makes it look sort of Oz-like. Is that your intention or your perspective on the city? I hadnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t really thought about it before, but, yes, I guess it is my perspective on the city! I love New York City, especially when, in the urban drabness that we get accustomed to, colors and scenes pop out at me while Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m making my way through the city. I certainly try to emphasize that attraction in my processing: sometimes I like to push colors to see how far they can go.
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Just what does it mean to be human? Various artists from over the centuries have tackled this all-consuming question in a variety of ways; and now Karl Wolff, cultural essayist for the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, presents a brand-new examination of fifteen such projects, ranging from the undeniably highbrow (Samuel Beckett’s “Trilogy”) to the decidedly lowbrow (the “Warhammer 40,000” roleplaying game), and every shade of complexity in between. Originally published monthly at the CCLaP blog in 2012, these intelligent, probing looks at such varied creative endeavors as the sci-fi television show Battlestar Galactica, the Victorian erotic classic Venus in Furs, and the noir pulp The Killer Inside Me present a layered, fascinating overview of how artists have viewed the subject of humanity over the years; and with three brand-new essays exclusive to this book version, there’s a good reason to pick this up even if you’re already a regular fan of Wolff’s wry, articulate online writing. Whether it’s a comic book like Hellboy or a Postmodernist literary master like Anthony Burgess, Wolff’s shakeup of popular culture in On Being Human is sure to get your brain working in new ways, and to get you introduced to at least a handful of projects you’ve never heard of before.
Download for free at cclapcenter.com/onbeinghuman
On Being Human
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The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made By Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell Simon & Schuster Reviewed by Madeleine Maccar
In the long-running tradition of so-bad-it’s-good entertainment, 2003’s The Room is a fairly recent but impressively groan-worthy addition. Its lowbudget approach to visual effects, a script held together by non sequiturs and wealth of glaring continuity errors make it either instantly derided or ironically charming, depending on the viewer’s stomach for shoddy craftsmanship and clueless defiance of cinematic etiquette. For the enviably/unfortunately uninitiated, The Room is yet another take on the love-triangle template, offering up one more tale of a fellow whose quietly mundane existence will be predictably turned upside down by the barely concealed affair between his fiancée and best friend, the latter played by Greg Sestero, who also served as the flick’s line producer. What sets The Room apart is its enthusiastic departure from the conventions that make a movie watchable. The acting is uneven, as even the more talented cast members could only do so much with the ridiculous script and inept director. Dramatis personae inexplicably come and go with all the finesse of a drunken hippopotamus, and they cling to and then disregard their motives with similarly contrary abandon. The dialogue is wooden at best and hilariously incoherent at worst. Plot lines are introduced, run with and cast off without resolution. In short, this is the very stuff that cult followings are made to immortalize, and the audience participation that screenings both public and private invite help to reshape this train wreck into sublime chaos. 108 | The CCLaP Journal
While this book heralds itself as being Sestero’s life inside The Room, The Disaster Artist reads more as Sestero’s attempt to make sense of both writer/producer/director/lead actor Tommy Wiseau, depicted as an independently wealthy manchild who houses more insecurities than does a comprehensive guide to mental maladies, and his self-funded, self-promoted and selfdelusional labor of love. Sestero, with enough writing assistance from journalist Tom Bissell to warrant a co-authorship, explores the torturous trajectory of The Room from nascence to its opening night, as well as the strained but symbiotic friendship between Wiseau and Sestero. Sestero’s own faltering forays into Hollywood are chronicled as a sort of apologetic explanation for why he stuck with a project he clearly expected to fizzle into obscurity and stuck by a man who gave him both a place to live and an opportunity for work in exchange for the mind-bogglingly creepy way that Wiseau leeched off Sestero—the more successful actor and infinitely more attractive and youthful of the two—as if Sestero’s good looks and acting chops were things he could possess for himself via sheer proximity. Much of the book is devoted to recounting Wiseau’s especially memorable bouts of weirdness, jealousies and general inability to function as an adult: Goading Sestero into nearly abandoning him just to prove that he has the power to offend; producing a demo reel fashioned nearly blow-for-blow from a scene in one of Sestero’s other movies; spectacularly failing to remember the very lines he wrote; subjecting the whole of The Room’s creative team to his unnecessary and gratuitously filmed nudity; spending extravagantly on the film when he feels it’s in the best interest of his vision but skimping on paychecks and other details he arbitrarily dismisses as minor. To me, if not for a friend’s firsthand assurance that Sestero is a genuinely likable guy who regards his accidental ascent to pseudo-fame with equal parts wry humor and gratitude, the book’s tone—that of a young actor desperate to make it in L.A., whose naivete, curiosity and willingness to look beyond his vampiric guardian angel’s downright hostile quirks all work together to cement an uneasy friendship that barely survives a disastrous attempt at living together—would be off-puttingly glib. Wiseau is painted as the perennial (though unintentional) sad clown who would be a tragic figure if not for his nigh unflappable hubris. But Sestero does, to his credit, try to soften his description of a man who has clearly suffered some obsessively guarded psychological setback that has seemingly forever grounded him in the defensive, combative mindset of a newly minted teenager. An example: All attempts to inject a hint of unscripted coherence in Wiseau’s film are met with such disproportionate resistance and unfounded accusations that it’s unsurprising the film went through several incarnations of its cast and crew; Sestero attempts to explain that, to the best of his understanding, Wiseau sees all attempts at changing his project for the better as mutinous trespasses, a threat to the tenuous authority he has purchased with his self-propelled picture. Even in the instances where Sestero seems inexplicably passive in his inability to assume control when Wiseau has lost all touch with reality, there is a strong undercurrent of desperately gleaned sympathy that keep his remembered interactions buoyantly surreal rather than needlessly cruel. Still, the bulk of the book’s humor is at Wiseau’s expense, as it is impossible to read about his diva-sized antics, tantrums, paranoia and obstinate refusal to divulge personal details without cackling the nervous guffaws of tension-eroding disbelief because Wiseau’s fiery outbursts are in no way proportional to their triggers. The Sunset Boulevard and Talented Mr. Ripley quotes that begin each chapter and, later, the copious nods to both films just may be the most perfect encapsulation of Wiseau within these pages. This is a man who is painted as sleepwalking through life, who literally cannot help how bizarre he is, who rewrites his own personal history as he sees beneficial. The lingering effects of The Disaster Artist are an increased sense of respect for the hapless players at the mercy of Wiseau’s deranged puppet master as well as a nagging suspicion that $6 million can’t quite buy talent but it sure can stack the odds in one’s favor if one is hellbent on crafting a blockbuster from incoherence and birthing a star from a woeful dearth of thespian proficiency, reality be damned. C
Out of 10: 8.0 or an easy 9.0 for diehard fans of The Room
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Bitter Orange By Marshall Moore Signal 8 Press/Typhoon Media Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Seth Harrington, the protagonist of Marshall Moore’s novel Bitter Orange, is a disaffected young man dealing with the after-effects of 9/11 and a personal sexual confusion. Living in San Francisco as a student, his goal in life is to become a psychologist, specializing in burn-out cases. He wants to aid those chopped up “the Cuisinart of corporate America.” All things keep going normally until he begins to disappear ... literally disappear. What Marshall Moore presents the reader is a psychologically probing look into what happens when someone gains superpowers. In this case it’s invisibility. When Seth realizes he has a superpower, stranger and darker things happen. After surviving a car accident, he hobbles around with a severely injured leg. But deep down he nurtures a festering hatred for the Audi-driving yuppie scum who hit him. It should be noted that Seth isn’t your ordinary student, living like a miser scrounging every last penny. As a veteran of the New York corporate scene, he got out with enough money to live comfortably. In addition, he owns several residential properties on the West Coast. So his hatred of rich yuppie scum, though well-founded, is also just a bit hypocritical. Despite his physical handicaps, Seth also has to come to terms with his own sexuality, adding another twist to his superpower. He had a brief fling with Elizabeth, but secretly yearns to be with Sang-hee, his roommate. It is ironic that a character with sexual self-loathing has the superpower (or 110 | The CCLaP Journal
curse) of invisibility. This mirrors society’s treatment of gays until very recently, with homosexuality described as “the sin that dare not speak its name.” Seth’s physical and emotional issues take its toll, creating a situation where things become morally unstable. After getting harassed by an old woman at the liquor store, Seth steals a couple bottles of wine while invisible. But petty crimes lead to larger crimes, like his trip to Las Vegas and stealing turns into grand larceny. The plot thickens when Seth rescues Elizabeth from a mugger, only to kill him. Elizabeth then relates how Seth received his superpower and her mission for him. She press-gangs him into a scheme that would expose her father, a Korean-American US Senator with presidential ambitions. But Elizabeth may not be telling the whole truth. Is her father really the ultraconservative theocrat she makes him out to be? Or is this simply a family vendetta with Seth as the pawn? Bitter Orange has come out at the right time in light of society’s interest in the superhero genre. With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on television and caped crusaders from Marvel and DC filling up megaplex screens, we both cherish our heroes, but at the same time cringe at the excesses superheroes could unleash on a unwary population. Moore’s novel has a lot of things going for it. While the above plot summary may strike the reader as yet another story about superpowers turning an ordinary person into a supervillain, Moore keeps an objective eye. Despite writing from Seth’s perspective, we are never instructed that Seth is either good or evil. It’s something we have to judge for ourselves. With great power comes great ... well, you know the drill. Another aspect of the novel’s brilliance is Moore’s power of description. Whether it is a vacation in Spain or a Vicodin high, there is an immediacy and snarky genius to the descriptions. As someone who ingested Vicodin while recovering from a broken collarbone, I can attest that Moore got it right. While powerful, numbing, and perversely euphoric, Vicodin is nothing I’d want to return to. (Seriously, use as directed.) Marshall Moore has written a novel that is effective in its psychological nuance and its acidic portrayal of a post-9/11 corporate burnout. C
Out of 10: 8.5
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In additi “Yeah, so “So wha “What an “When o “You’re r “No, no, “I don’t “Shit... A “What’s “Nothin “Look, th “That’s w “Oh, yea “Yep. I’ve “Doing w “Imperso “You’re s
Photo: Aaron von Dorn (flickr.com/aaronvondorn) Used under the terms of his Creative Commons license
ion to being a pool hustler, Shenley’s uncle was the spitting image of Edgar Allan Poe. o what,” I said. at? Are you kidding? Don’t you see the angle?” ngle?” one thing’s going slow he always has the other to fall back on.” riddling again and I’m not in the mood.” , think about it,” said Shenley. want to think about it.” And I used to think you were so smart.” that supposed to mean?” n’ really. It’s just that I’m beginning to see something about you. Something I never saw before...” he pool part? That I get. It’s just the Poe part that doesn’t add up.” where you’re ignorant,” he said. ah?” e seen him rake in a thousand at a pop doing it.” what?” onating Edgar Allan Poe, you moron.” suckin’ wind.” November 2013 | 113
“I’m telling you, some people will pay all kinds of money for it. They call them fanatics. Poe fanatics.” “I never heard of such a thing,” I said. “Just because you never heard of it don’t mean it ain’t true.” After a few more beers, Shenley finally talked me into going with him. Uncle Poe owed Shenley’s mother six hundred dollars and although Shenley figured him good to pay, he didn’t want to be walking around the city alone with that kind of cash. Shenley said he would cover all my expenses from the bus fare to drinks at the Dug Out, a bar just around the corner from Julian’s pool hall where Shenley’s uncle worked. “It’s one of the best bars in the city,” said Shenley. “The beer is dirt cheap and they serve each and every one in an ice-cold mug.” “Sounds alright.” “It’s the best. They also got bowls of free peanuts you shell yourself and then throw right on the floor.” “Yeah, but that’s only to make you drink more.” “I know. But if you ask me, what the hell is wrong with that? I mean, why does a person go to a bar in the first place? To get drunk, right?” “True...” “And behind the bar? Behind the bar they got this giant stuffed head of a wart hog.” “Wart hog?” “That’s right. And, believe it or not, I never even knew what one was until I got shit-faced at the Dug Out.” “You can learn a lot of things in bars.” “You sure can.” We got off the bus and walked without incident from the Port Authority to a second floor pool hall located on East Fourteenth Street. The stairway leading up from the street smelled like piss and puke. “This place stinks to high heaven,” I said. “Where the hell are you taking me?” “Shut-up, you ignoramus. At the top of those stairs is a place like no other. A place you will never forget.” “Oh yeah? Well, I say we have a few beers at the Dug Out first.” “No way. Business before pleasure. C’mon.” Shenley was right. After the stench of the stairway, I was welcomed by the smell of cigar smoke and the crack of the pool balls. It was truly a wonderful place. Shenley told me that as a kid his mother would bring him there to visit his uncle. At the time, a few of the nicer guys, guys with names like Spanish Willy and Detroit Red, took a small interest in the boy, teaching him the rules of craps and eight-ball in between marks. “You were one lucky kid,” I said. “I sure was.” With his hands on his hips, Shenley scoped the joint. “I don’t see him. He should be here. He’s supposed to be here.” “Maybe he’s out somewhere.” Shenley walked up to the cashier’s booth. A man with a veiny red nose flipped through a Penthouse while gnawing an unlit cigar. “I’m looking for my uncle.” “That’s nice,” said the man. “His name’s Johnny. He’s here all the time. At least he used to be. I haven’t been here since I was a kid.” “You still are a kid.” “Look, have you seen him or not?” “I don’t know who the fuck you’re talking about.” “People sometimes call him Poe... Looks just like him.” “Like who?” “Like Edgar Allan Poe, the spitting image, as a matter of fact.” “I don’t know any Uncle Johnny or any Edgar Pope.” “Shit,” said Shenley. “And we came all the way down here. Shit... Are you sure? It’s really important that I find him.” Nearby, a skinny old man in a seersucker suit looked up from his racing form. He slowly folded the paper and placed it on his stool as if to prevent anybody else from taking his spot. He went up to Shenley and gave him a good looking over. “You used to come here as a little boy, didn’t ya? With your Momma, right? Am I right?” Shenley grinned. “Yes, that’s right. We used to come to see my uncle. My Uncle Johnny.” 114 | The CCLaP Journal
“I remember.” “So you know my uncle then.” “Sure, sure. I know him alright. Hasn’t been around much lately though.” “Oh, really?” “Yeah, too bad too. He was quite a player once upon a time.” “What are you trying to say?” “I’m not trying to say nothin’. I’m just conversating the facts.” “What facts?” “Well, to tell you the truth, the poor bastard’s been hittin’ the sauce pretty damn hard... Yep... Ever since he met that Raylene of his.” “Raylene?” “That’s right. Some broad over on Stanton Street. And a real loony toons if there ever was one. Broads like that will drive anyone to drink. But a looker though. I will give her that.” “So you think that he might be with her?” “Hell, he’s been shackin’ up there for over a year now. I’d say it would be a safe bet. Yeah...” “You know the address?” “Corner of Stanton and Ludlow, block south of Houston. A little storefront on the corner. Sign out front says, ‘Raylene’s Mod Relics.’ You can’t miss it.” “Thanks. Thanks a lot.” “Sure, kid. No problem. Hey, you still play?” “Huh?” “I remember you used to be pretty good. For a little kid, anyway. I was just wonderin’ if you still had it in you.” “I still got it alright.” “Oh, yeah?” “Sure,” said Shenley. “It’s just like riding a bike.” “Lookin’ for a little action, then, are you?” “Maybe. I don’t know. I do have to find my uncle.” “Sure, sure... I understand.” “Understand? What are you trying to say?” “Look, kid, I told you before. I don’t try to say anything. I just thought that maybe you still had it in you. Maybe I was wrong. It’s possible... Anyway, good luck finding your uncle.” He turned and walked back to his stool. “What was that all about?” I asked. “He was trying to hustle me, the old bastard.” “Really?” “Sure. Trying to play on my ego. It’s completely obvious if you know the game. He must think I’m stupid.” “Well, it’s a good thing you know what’s what around here.” “How much money you got on you?” “What? Why?” “Just how much?” “I got a ten. But---” “Let me have it.” “For what?” “I got a plan.” “Fuck your plan. I already don’t like it.” “Just give me the ten.” “It’s your plan so use your own goddamn money.” “I don’t have any money, you dope. I spent it all on the bus fare.” “Oh, yeah? Then how the hell were you supposed to pay for the drinks you promised me in the Dug Out?” “From the cash my uncle owes my mother, retard. Now will you just---” “I’m not giving up my last ten. No way.” “You’re a cheap fucking fuck. You know that, don’t you?” “You can say whatever the hell you want,” I said, crossing my arms. “Just listen to me a second, will you?” “No!” “Just hear me out. And then, if it still don’t make sense, well then, you can keep your fucking ten, okay?” I didn’t answer. “Okay, then... See, their whole trick is to let you win in the beginning so that you think you’re actually better than you are. Then, counting on your greed, they will string you along until the bets are November 2013 | 115
high enough and that’s when they beat you. That’s when they clean you out. It’s a real art to do it right because you don’t want the mark to know he’s been fucked. But now, knowing all this, we can make ourselves a quick twenty and quit. Beautiful, isn’t it?” “But how can you be so sure he’ll let you win?” “He has to. You can’t sucker somebody in unless you hook ‘em first. The idea is to build me up so that he can take me down later. But see, there isn’t gonna be no later. We’re just gonna take that first bet and run straight for the Dug Out!” His name was Morris. He took off his seersucker jacket, hanging it on a hook above his stool. Shenley racked the balls. “Eight-ball okay?” “Sure kid,” said Morris. “Wadda you say we start small. Say ten a game.” “Sure kid, whatever you want.” I perched on a stool, watching the balls cracking across the felt. Shenley was good. I had seen him play many times in the bars back home, usually winning unless he was too drunk to see. But here, things were different. To begin with, the tables were gigantic, at least twice the size as any one I ever saw. And the old guy, Morris? He was as smooth as a rat’s tail. With him, everything was serious. A smile was not a smile and fun was not a word. The game went right down to the eight ball. Morris was up with a fairly difficult bank extending the length of the table. He got low and stroked. The cue ball cracked the eight and as the eight rolled steadily for the downtown pocket, Shenley winced and I held my breath and Morris stood back a step with a fake look of concern and anticipation. The eight rolled for what seemed like forever before miraculously stopping an eyeball away from the edge of the pocket. “Yes!” shouted Shenley. “Oh, darn,” muttered Morris. Grinning, Shenley chalked up and gave me a wink that said, “The Dug Out, here we come!” He then strutted about the table a bit, winked at me once more and got down to business. The cue ball and the eight were perfectly lined up. It was a sure thing. Shenley stroked hard. The cue slammed the eight right down the hole. It was all over except for the fact that Shenley forgot to put some english on the cue ball, causing it to follow the eight down the same pocket. The game was over alright, with Shenley scratching on the eight. “Too bad, kid,” said Morris, pocketing my money. “But then again, you must have been rusty. You were doin’ just fine until that eight. Don’t worry though, I got all day. Go ahead, rack ‘em up.” “We gotta go,” I said. “Go? What are you talking about? Your Buddy here just lost a tenner. You gotta give him a chance to win it back. Hell, he just about won that one, you seen it yourself.” “Thanks, but no thanks,” I said. “C’mon, Shenley, let’s get the fuck outta here.” When we got downstairs, I wanted to strangle him but I held myself back because I was now broke and needed him to get me home. What’s more, I was still counting on those ice-cold beers at the Dug Out and the only way to do that now was to get on with our mission and collect the money from his uncle. We marched straight downtown without a word. There was a pink neon sign outside, “Raylene’s Mod Relics,” just like Morris said. We walked in and a bell jingled above our heads. Like a tiny Salvation Army outlet, the place was filled with junk. “What a dump,” I said. “Shut-up,” said Shenley. “Stop being so negative.” “You can go fuck yourself. Let’s just get the money and get the hell out of here. Hey, are you listening to me?” “Will you get a load of this...” Shenley stood before what seemed to be a small shrine. Underlit by a half dozen candles, was a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. Beneath the portrait, on a marble altar
“See, their whole trick is to let you win in the beginning so that you think you’re actually better than you are. Then, counting on your greed, they will string you along until the bets are high enough and that’s when they beat you. That’s when they clean you out. It’s a real art to do it right because you don’t want the mark to know he’s been fucked. But now, knowing all this, we can make ourselves a quick twenty and quit. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
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among the candles, was a framed snapshot of Shenley’s uncle. It was true. He was a dead-ringer with the same huge forehead, the same beady eyes, the same black mustache. Beside the snapshot was a cassette player. Shenley pushed the button. “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary...” “Hey! Hey, there! Who told you to touch that?” Shenley clicked it off and we spun around. Coming through the velvet curtain at the back of the store was Raylene. She had a giant head of high red hair, big tits and a caboose made for rockin’ and rollin’. Although she had a good deal of mileage on her, she still looked well worth the ride. In her mouth was a long cigarette. She sucked and let the smoke puff out through her nose. “No one told you to touch that!” “Sorry,” said Shenley. “Are you Raylene?” “Who wants to know?” “I’m Johnny’s nephew. Maybe he mentioned I was coming to see him.” “Johnny don’t tell me nothin’ no more. We’re on a purely physical relationship nowadays.” “Oh, well,” mumbled Shenley. “Then maybe you know where he is ‘cause---” “Stop muttering, boy,” she said, but smiling now. “Spit it out.” “I gotta see my uncle. My mother sent me and I’d really appreciate it if you---” “Okay, okay, just wait a minute. I’ll be right back.” Raylene went back behind the curtain returning with a bottle of gin and three coffee cups. “Sit down, sit down,” she said. “Just push all the stuff on the floor. Go ahead now.” I carefully took a pair of coats and some army boots off a small bench. Shenley and me sat and Raylene pulled up a stool from behind the counter. She lit another cigarette and poured the gin. “Salute,” she said. The gin was perfect, the best thing that happened to me all day. But as I sat there enjoying its fire, a black cat suddenly rubbed up against my leg. Instinctively, I kicked it across the room. The cat screeched and darted into Raylene’s lap. She put out her cigarette and stroked it’s arching back. “There, there, now, it’s alright baby,” she said to the cat. “You didn’t have to kick him,” said Shenley. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s alright,” said Raylene. “He’s used to it.” “That’s one fat cat,” said Shenley. “Believe it or not, he used to be even fatter before the cancer.” “Your cat’s got cancer?” I said. “That’s right,” said Raylene. “Johnny says it’s from my second hand smoke. Blaming everything on me as usual.” “Oh, yeah?” “Yes. And, naturally, it can make a person feel quite guilty...” “Ahh, I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” I said. “They’ve got nine lives, don’t they?” “Why don’t you try showing some respect?” said Shenley. “What? I’m just trying to look on the bright side.” “This is a real nice place you got here,” said Shenley. “Thank you,” she said, pushing the cat to the floor and lighting another cigarette. “Would you like to see my relics?” “Relics?” asked Shenley. Raylene moved her stool to the side. She pulled off a black satin cover to reveal a glass display case. “Go ahead, take a look,” she said. Me and Shenley peered into the case. “On the top? That there is a piece of wood from Old Sparky,” she said. “You mean, the electric chair?” I asked. “That’s right,” she said. “Not many people know it by name anymore. That’s pretty good.” “I know a lot of things,” I said. “Young man, I bet you do,” she said, pouring us another shot of gin. “An old friend of mine is a guard up at Greenhaven. When they moved Old Sparky from Sing Sing, he chipped off that piece you see there. Something, isn’t it?” “Sure is,” said Shenley. “How much something like that go for?” I said. “Make me an offer.” “Well, what are you doing later?” Shenley elbowed me in the gut. “What’s wrong with you?” he hissed. “What’s wrong with you?” November 2013 | 117
“She’s my uncle’s girlfriend, you mook!” “I was only kidding. I’m sorry if I insulted you, Raylene.” “Young man, these days, that’s just the kind of insult I need. Here, have another, both of you...” As we continued to drink Raylene’s gin, she pointed out a tuft of hair from Telly Savalas, Raquel Welch’s toe nail clippings and a pair of odor-eaters once worn inside Frank Sinatra’s shoes. There was also some assorted stuff from people I had never heard of before. “You see that feather?” “Yeah.” “That was the very same feather operated by the Canadian Tickler. It’s one of my favorite pieces.” “Who was the Canadian Tickler?” “You don’t know anything, do you,” said Shenley. “Go ahead, tell him Raylene.” “Why don’t you tell me?” “You better stop being so disrespectful or---” “Now how is that disrespectful? Raylene, am I being disrespectful?” “No, of course not. But if you really want to know, the Canadian Tickler was a kind of a cat burglar up in Canada. Only he didn’t ever burgle anything.” “Oh no?” “No. What he did was to break into people’s homes and then tickle their feet while they slept. It sounds funny now, I know, but for his victims it could be a very scary affair.” “Yeah, I’ll bet.” “Sure,” said Shenley. “But, if you don’t mind me asking, how can you tell if all this stuff is real or not? I mean, aren’t all nail clippings kind of the same?” Raylene finished her cigarette. “No. No, they are not.” “You gotta big mouth,” said Shenley. “I was only asking a question.” “Don’t mind him, Raylene. He’s got shit for brains. I believe in your relics.” “So do I. I just was wondering---” “Shut-up now, will you?” “It’s okay,” said Raylene. “It’s not the first time someone has doubted them.” “I don’t doubt them. I just wanted to know how you could tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake.” “My relics are all real. And they are real because they’re mine and they’re all true to life.” “That makes perfect sense,” said Shenley with a snort. “You’re full of shit,” I muttered. Raylene lit a cigarette and smoked a moment in silence. “When I was a little girl I came upon the decapitated head of an old man. It was lying there in the weeds by the side of the road. I was on my bike, riding home late as usual. From a distance I clearly saw the head as a head but I immediately imagined it to be something else because there was no reason for a head to be on the side of the road like that. It was something completely out of the realm of possibilities in my little girl life. So the head became a deflated basketball thrown from some car or left by some other child all in the moment it took from seeing it that first instant until I was right upon it, at which point it became the scariest thing in the world precisely because my first impression was so horribly real, so horribly true...” “Boy, those are some deep thoughts,” said Shenley. “Yeah,” I said. “Must have been tough on you, being a little kid and all.” “No, not really,” she said. “After all, it’s only something I made up.” “Huh?” “I made it all up. Just now.” “But what for?” I said. “To make a point.” “Now I’m really confused,” said Shenley. “Exactly,” said Raylene. “Especially after I told you it was a fake. And now, if I turned around and said that, yes, it really did happen, that, yes, there was a head on the side of the road and, yes, I was only lying when I told you I was lying---well, then---where would that leave you?” “I don’t know.” “Me neither,” confessed Shenley. Raylene emptied the rest of the gin into our three cups. “Drink up,” she said. “Drink up and remember: what seems to be can actually be what it really is, especially when you think it really isn’t...” By the time we left Raylene’s I was drunk and confused and in no mood to go on. But Shenley had a scrap of paper now, a paper with an address left by his uncle where he would be doing his Poe routine later that day. Being broke and without any sense of direction, I had no choice but to follow him 118 | The CCLaP Journal
down the yellow brick road to a lonesome building located on the edge of Watts Street, not far from the Hudson River. Shenley buzzed the buzzer with his thumb. He did this three times. “Yes? Who is it?” crackled a voice from the intercom. “Hi. I’m looking for my uncle. He’s supposed to be doing a poetry show for you today?” The front door clicked and we rode the elevator to an artist’s loft owned by an old widow named Pippa Kozloff. Shenley knocked and there was another electronic click. He pushed the heavy door open and I closed it behind us with a thunk. Scattered across the otherwise empty room was a bunch of black, cast iron sculptures of people who, by the expressions on their faces and the twisting of their limbs, looked like they were being burned alive. “Reminds me of a nightmare,” I said. “Relax,” said Shenley. “It’s only art kind of stuff.” An old lady whirred into view upon a high-tech electronic wheelchair. She was a tiny woman wearing a hooded, purple sweat suit. The drawstrings on the hood were pulled tight about her skull and the little bit of face she showed was as white as mozzarella. “Where’s Poe?” she said. “He’s not here yet?” asked Shenley. “No. No, he is not. And I’ve been waiting for him. Waiting a long time.” “Hmm,” said Shenley. “And at my age, waiting is not something I am particularly fond of.” “I understand completely,” said Shenley. “Oh, do you?” “Yes.” “My husband’s dead. Died on me two years now.” “I’m sorry.” “Now there’s a line of others waiting for me to die.” “Well, that’s just terrible.” “They say that I’m supposed to be filthy rich but I’ve yet to see a goddamn red penny.” “A shame.” “Goddamn lawyers!” “The worst.” “But I’ve gotten used to my reality...” “Yeah, well... That’s a good thing, I guess,” said Shenley, scratching the side of his neck. “You look like nice boys.” “Thank you,” said Shenley. “Did you know Jack?” “Jack?” “My husband. Jack Kozloff, the artist. The world famous artist.” “No,” said Shenley. “I’m afraid not.” “I think I heard of him,” I said. Shenley gave me a pinch. “OW!” “Are those his sculptures?” asked Shenley. Pippa looked in disgust at the one curled in a fetus position just off the starboard side of her wheelchair. “Disgraceful, isn’t it?” she said. “Huh?” “I hate them. I hate them, I hate them, I hate them!” “Me too,” said Shenley. “Simply disgusting! Pompeii, my ass,” sneered Pippa. “Excuse me?” “All of this. But you should have seen his old work. Now, that was art. Beautiful, simply
An old lady whirred into view upon a high-tech electronic wheelchair. She was a tiny woman wearing a hooded, purple sweat suit. The drawstrings on the hood were pulled tight about her skull and the little bit of face she showed was as white as mozzarella. “Where’s Poe?” she said.
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beautiful. Not like these---these horrible things. Oh, how I hate them.” “So, ah, anyway,” said Shenley. “Exactly what time was my uncle supposed to drop by?” “What? What’s that?” “My uncle. Edgar Allan Poe?” “Oh. Yes. I love him. I simply adore his poems, his voice, his eyes...” I gave Shenley a look that said, “This bitch must be crazy.” “Look, ah, Mrs. Kozloff ?” “You can call me, Pippa.” “Okay, Pippa. Me and my friend here, we was just looking for my uncle but if he’s---” “Why?” “Huh? Excuse me?” “Why were you looking for him?” “Oh, a family matter. Just---” “Money?” “Excuse me?” “Family matters always mean money.” “Well, yes. I guess you could say so.” “So you’re looking for some money?” “For my uncle to give me some to give to my mother. Yes.” “How much?” “Six-hundred dollars, but---” “Ha!” “Maybe we better get going,” I said. “Yeah,” said Shenley. “Look, Pippa, if my uncle comes by, do you think you could tell him that---” “How would you boys like to make some real money?” “Real money?” said Shenley. “What kind of real money?” “Thousands,” said Pippa. “Sounds good to me,” I said. “I’m too old. Too weak,” said Pippa. “But for two strong young men like yourselves, it should be easy.” “What do we have to do?” “You see these horrible things?” “The sculptures?” said Shenley. “Call them what you like.” “Okay. So?” “There’s a package hidden inside one of them. A brown bag holding twenty thousand dollars.” “What? Which one?” asked Shenley. “That’s the problem. I’m not sure. Jack never told me exactly which one it was in. But he did say it was somewhere inside one of these he left behind here.” “Like cracker-jacks,” I said. “What are you talking about?” said Shenley. “The prize hidden inside the box.” “I’ll give you two-thousand each as soon as you get it out. Cash on the spot. Are you interested?” “You bet we are,” said Shenley. “Very well. Follow me.” We trotted behind Pippa’s wheelchair to another room with a large workbench and a wall full of tools. Everything was highly organized and proper, very unlike any workroom I ever saw. “Will you look at that?” I said. “He’s got every last thing labeled.” “Jack loved his tools,” said Pippa. “But it was me who did the labeling.” “A labor of love,” said Shenley. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s always good to know that a hammer is a hammer and a chisel is a chisel.” Shenley picked us out a pair of sledgehammers and a crowbar. “This oughtta do the trick,” he said. We went back inside to smash open the sculptures. I stood before a woman who seemed to be screaming at the sky while sheltering her two children, each clinging to each of her legs. “This looks like a good place to start,” I said. “Why the hell not?” said Shenley. I spit into my palms. I grabbed the sledgehammer and swung it into the screaming lady’s iron shoulder. The sculpture clanged and my arms vibrated up and down from my fingers to my elbows. I dropped the sledgehammer. I shook out my arms. “Shit!” I shouted.
We started smashing down on the neck, one blow right after the other until suddenly, I felt my sledgehammer being snatched from behind me, right out of my hands. Shenley looked up and I turned around. A bald guy in a business suit was holding my sledgehammer and screaming, “What, are you crazy? I’m going to have you arrested! What have you done?”
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“Watch your language,” said Shenley. Pippa advanced her wheelchair to my side. “Are you sure you’re up for this, Sonny?” “Don’t you worry, Lady. I’m just a bit rusty, that’s all.” “Stand aside,” said Shenley. “And I’ll show you how it’s done.” He took aim at the top of one of the kid’s skulls. He swung the sledge down and, this time, the iron cracked and fissured through the length of the child’s body. Shenley swung again and again and the heavy metal cracked and chipped into a heap of mangled arms and legs and terrible expressions. “Nothin’ in this one,” he said. “Nicely done,” I said. “Yeah... The whole trick is in finding the weak spot. If you hit it there first then the rest will follow.” We moved on to the next sculpture---a man covering his head and running to God knows where. “Let me try,” I said. I took aim at his bent kneecap. I swung and a crack shot up his leg all the way to his belly button. Shenley stepped in and whacked him across the gut. The iron man split right down the middle, breaking in two before our eyes. “Bravo!” shouted Pippa. “No money here,” I announced. One by one we worked our way around the room. It was hard going with some of them giving us much more resistance than the others. When there were just two left (the woman cowering down in a fetus position and a bald guy screaming and clawing at his own face) we stopped a moment to catch our breath. “I’m eighty-eight years old,” declared Pippa. “You don’t look a day over sixty,” I said. “That’s because I’ve never smoked a cigarette, never had a drink, and never kissed a man except for my husband.” “There you go,” I said. “Well, let’s finish this up,” said Shenley. “You better roll back a little, Mam,” I said. “Sometimes the chunks tend to fly off a bit.” Pippa put her chair in reverse. When she reached the back wall, she gave a petite little wave. “This one’s gonna be tough,” said Shenley. “It’s low to the ground and probably thicker than the rest.” “So let’s get the other one first. I bet the money’s probably in that one.” “Always looking for the easy way out.” “No I’m not,” I said. “Well, I have a feeling the cash is in this one.” “Alright then, let’s just get going and get this over with.” We flanked the sculpture, going blow for blow across her neck and, like Shenley said, she was one tough cookie. “Barely a dent,” I said. “We just gotta go ape on this thing. Just keep on swinging ‘till it gives. You ready?” “Yep.” “Okay, go!” We started smashing down on the neck, one blow right after the other until suddenly, I felt my sledgehammer being snatched from behind me, right out of my hands. Shenley looked up and I turned around. A bald guy in a business suit was holding my sledgehammer and screaming, “What, are you crazy? I’m going to have you arrested! What have you done?” “Shut-up, you bastard,” screeched Pippa. “Get out of my house! Get out! Get out!” “I’m not going anywhere, you crazy bitch!” “That’s not a way to talk to an old lady,” said Shenley. “Fuck you,” said the man. “I’m gonna have you arrested.” “Oh, yeah?” I said, snatching back my sledgehammer. “That’s right. Both you and him. Look what you’ve done! Oh, my God! Oh, my God, I can’t believe this!” “Maybe we better get out of here,” I suggested. “Fuck that,” said Shenley. “Who is this clown anyway?” “He’s a bastard,” said Pippa. “Don’t listen to a word he says. He’s a lying, stealing conniving bastard!” “Shut-up, you crazy bitch,” said the bastard. “You’ve really done it now.” “Done what?” I asked. “Are you that stupid?” he said. “These works you’ve just destroyed were done by my father, Jack Kozloff. Don’t you know who he is?” “Yeah, her dead husband,” I said. “That’s right,” said Shenley. “So who the hell are you coming in here and calling people names?” “I’m Jack Kozloff ’s only son.” “So that’s your mother?” said Shenley. “You should be ashamed of yourself, talking to her like that.” “She’s not my mother, you fool.” November 2013 | 121
“He’s a bastard. An evil bastard!” With her face bulging a fire engine red, Pippa put her wheelchair in fast-forward in an attempt to run him down. But he was a crafty one, that bastard, first side-stepping her attack before disconnecting her battery from behind. Pippa was out of commission, dead in the water. But Shenley was crafty too and he used the commotion as an opportunity to swing his sledge once again across the sculpture’s neck. “No, no! Please, I beg of you!” shouted the bastard. Shenley came down once again only this time it cracked wide open. “See, I told you,” I said. “I guess you were right,” said Shenley. “Nothin’ in this one.” The bastard was beside himself with grief. He stamped his feet and gnashed his teeth. “Hey, wait a minute. Hey, Shenley, check it out.” “What?” “This poor bastard looks exactly like the statue.” “Hey, what do you know! He does!” “That’s because it is me, you fools. I was the model for that piece.” “Well, isn’t that something,” said Shenley. “Yeah. Too bad though, we gotta bust it open.” “No, no, you can’t. You mustn’t!” “But we must, we must, we must,” sang Shenley, sizing up the final sculpture. “Wait, please, just listen to me for a second,” pleaded the bastard. “Why are you doing this? You are destroying something that can never, ever, be replaced. Why? Just tell me why?” “Why?” said Shenley. “Because Pippa says there’s a bag of cash in there.” “What? That’s insane! She’s insane. She’ll do anything just to hurt me. You can’t listen to what she says.” “He’s a homosexual,” said Pippa. “A bastard homosexual.” “Don’t listen to her. I’m telling you, she’s completely out of her mind. She’s been that way for years now. There’s no money in there. The very idea of it is totally absurd. You can’t believe anything she says!” “Look, I don’t have anything against any homos,” said Shenley. “But money’s money. So you better step back before you get yourself hurt.” “Yeah, stop all your whining and take it like a man,” I said. “Just listen to me!” screamed the bastard. “Just hear me out. Please, I beg you.” “Okay,” said Shenley. “You got thirty seconds to talk. Go.” “You have to stop this madness. You have no idea what you are doing. You will be arrested and put in jail for this. Do you want to go to jail?” Leaning on his sledgehammer, Shenley pondered the consequences. “Don’t listen to him, Shenley. We’ve gone this far already and now there’s just one stinking statue left. And even if this guy is right, well, another one’s not gonna make much of a difference anyway. I mean, if we’re fucked we’re fucked. But if this bastard’s wrong, and we stop now, then all of our work’s for nothing ‘cause the money’s still gonna be left trapped inside.” “Excellent thinking,” said Shenley “I always knew you were smart.” “No!” shouted the bastard, picking up the crowbar. “I won’t let you do it!” He took a swing at Shenley but Shenley blocked the blow with his sledge. I jumped him from behind, taking away the crowbar and getting him into a headlock. But the bastard was a lot tougher than he looked, putting up a hell of a fight before we were finally able to punch him into submission. “Look, we don’t want to hurt you anymore than we have to,” said Shenley. “So just stay put and don’t give us anymore trouble.” “That’s telling him! Good for you, you fucking bastard,” said Pippa.
He took a swing at Shenley but Shenley blocked the blow with his sledge. I jumped him from behind, taking away the crowbar and getting him into a headlock. But the bastard was a lot tougher than he looked, putting up a hell of a fight before we were finally able to punch him into submission.
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“And you can pipe down,” said Shenley. I’m starting to get sick of you now too.” “Yeah, let’s finish this and get going.” “Just keep on eye on that bastard,” said Shenley. “Don’t worry, I got him covered,” I said, but as soon as Shenley started swinging (wouldn’t you know it) the bastard was on the move again. I jabbed him in the gut with the sledge. He staggered back but he wasn’t giving up. I swung the sledge to keep him at bay and shouted for Shenley to hurry up and finish. Seeing Shenley swing on his likeness, the bastard picked up a hunk of neck from the floor. He threw the heavy metal, just missing Shenley. I rushed him with my sledge but he sent me for cover, throwing an arm and a leg. Shenley swung again on the statue as the bastard grabbed a fallen head. Holding it with both hands high above his own noggin, he raced halfway across the room, hurling it at Shenley. Shenley ducked but the flying head kept right on going, cracking poor Pippa in the skull and tipping the wheelchair over on its side. Shenley dropped his sledgehammer. The room went silent and still except for the tire on Pippa’s wheelchair slowly spinning like a pointless roulette wheel. I stared at the blood seeping fast from beneath her purple sweat-hood. I shifted my eyes to the last surviving statue and then to the bastard who suddenly commanded us to run. “Run,” he whispered. “Run away and never come back. Hurry now. Run!” I looked at Shenley and he looked at me and we did exactly like he said. C
Steve Romagnoli’s “Nevermore” is part of a recently completed story collection, Idiot Missions. Other stories by Steve have appeared in The Mid-American Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Gargoyle Magazine, Booth Magazine, The Rusty Nail, and real fiction. He’s had four plays produced in New York City, including Stealing Heaven, running off-Broadway at the Samuel Beckett Theater. Steve is currently working on a novel that takes place in the East Village and Moscow during the time of the Tompkins Square Riot of 1988.
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Sheikhs, Lies and Real Estate: The Untold Story of Dubai By J.R. Roth Self-published Reviewed by Jason Pettus
You wouldn’t expect one of the best books of the year to be one of those self-published “Kindle Store Specials” with the generic clip-art cover and bad pun for a title that get made fun of at smartass Tumblr accounts; but that’s exactly the case with J.R. Roth’s Sheikhs, Lies and Real Estate, which arrived in CCLaP’s mailbox almost a year ago and ended up being so riveting that I missed bus stops several times while reading it. And to be clear, it’s not for Roth’s actual writing style that one reads this, serviceable in a workmanlike way but no great shakes; it’s instead for his mesmerizing story of a young British man of Arab descent getting nowhere in the bottom rungs of London’s financial industry, and moving to Dubai just exactly when things got their craziest there, not coincidentally right in the middle of the Bush years as well. See, just to give as fast a primer as I can for those who need it, a certain amount of what we in the West call the “Middle East”—the Arabian peninsula, to be precise—is still under the control of just a handful of thousand-year-old royal families, all of whom found themselves insanely wealthy starting in the 1960s when oil was found under all their lands. But some of these rulers have acknowledged that this oil money is one day destined to dry up, and that things need to be done with that money now to establish a new source of long-term revenue; and the king (emir) of one of these places, Dubai, decided that what they should do is become the new 124 | The CCLaP Journal
premiere tourist destination for the entire world, a sort of combination Disney World, Caribbean island and Switzerland that caters particularly to the super-rich. And this was in the 1990s when this was being dreamed up, back when the real-estate bubble seemed like it was never going to burst; and so this was a key part of the plan, to literally create a real-estate boom in Dubai out of thin air, and I mean “literally out of thin air” as in the emir had hundreds of manmade islands built off the coast from scratch, to be sold to billionaires so they could build mansions on them. And meanwhile on the coast, where terraforming was happening faster than anyone could keep up, was where the majority of the real-estate money was exchanging hands—through an endless series of 100-story condo towers in “development” along this terraformed coastline (i.e. existing on paper only), units of which during the height of the frenzy you could buy for a million dollars one morning and flip for two million by that afternoon. This is the game that our main character moves to Dubai to become a player of, and his story is fascinating—a combination of well-done factual research, tutorials on how the speculative real-estate market works, and salacious anecdotes about partying with princes, condo agents who moonlight as out-and-out prostitutes, becoming a regular at the world’s only seven-star hotel, and doing business with the kinds of clients who think nothing of blowing $50,000 just on a night of drinks and barhopping with friends. And that’s what made this book so surprising, is that it’s not just a concentration on one of these things or another—the salacious anecdotes alone would simply be another Sex In The City, while just the facts would be simply another Esquire article— but the combination of them, along with the narrator’s evermore ethically complicated descent into this world, that makes this manuscript so readable and riveting. A personal yet impersonal look at one of the most interesting crash-and-burn stories of the entire 9/11 period, which follows events all the way up to the Great Recession flood of hasty exits so many people made from the city (Dubai has no bankruptcy laws, so even missing a rent payment can get you thirty years in jail, which in post-Recession times has led to infamous stories about their international airport’s parking garage being choked with abandoned Lamborghinis), this is both one of the most informative and most entertaining books I’ve ended up reading in 2013, and will undoubtedly be making CCLaP’s best-of lists at the end of the year. C
Out of 10: 9.6
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Mystic River By Dennis Lehane (2001) SIGNED, First Edition, First Printing
Overview by Jason Pettus
RARE BOOK FOR SALE
CCLaP is making a growing amount of available at reseller eBay.com, both instant purchase. For all current [ebay.com/usr/cclapcenter], or for the [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks].
its rare book collection for auction and for books for sale, visit collection’s entire list,
DESCRIPTION: One of the most common questions out there among people who collect “hypermodern” first editions (books less than thirty years old) is how to best guess which living authors to be collecting in the first place; and while only the future will show us which writers of our times will still be read and venerated a century from now, it’s almost never a bad bet to target an author both popular and award-winning, pick the most famous title of their career, then purchase a signed first edition, first printing of it in immaculate shape. Take this signed first-edition copy of Mystic River for example, the 2001 stunner about childhood abuse and long-term manifestation by Dennis Lehane, which undoubtedly is his most famous because of the Oscarwinning adaptation by Clint Eastwood and starring Sean Penn among many others; although to be sure, this is far from Lehane’s only brush with Hollywood, having also been the author of Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, as well as a multi-award-winning staff writer of the TV show The Wire during its flabbergasting third through fifth seasons. Fans call Lehane one of the most poetic noir authors in history, a rare superstar when it comes to portraying both the motivations and speech patterns of some of the lowest members of our society; and as recent history has shown us, with the sudden rise in value recently of old pulp titles from the 1930s, it is always genre fiction that takes so long to be embraced by both academia and collectors, making this a great choice for a long-term investor just making their first acquisitions now at a young age. CONDITION: Text: Like New (LN). Indistinguishable from how it appeared brand-new in bookstores. Dust Jacket: Like New (LN). Indistinguishable from how it appeared brand-new in bookstores, now protected in a Demco mylar sheet. SIGNED on the title page. Stated “First Edition” on the copyright page, along with a “1” at the bottom of the page, makes this a true first edition, first printing. PROVENANCE: Acquired by CCLaP in spring 2013 at the Bella Luna going out of business sale. C
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Location: Lille, France Ce qu’il y a de bien avec ce “job”; c’est qu’il n y a pas a expliquer ni a justifier quoi que ce soit, encore moins a s’écouter parler ou a raconter sa vie, il a juste a produire le plus honnêtement possible et à laisser le public décider. What’s good about this “job” is that i don’t have to explain or justify anything, nor listen to the sound of my own voice or tell my life story. I just need to do my work as honest as possible, and let the public decide.
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Y at-il une raison particulière de photographier plutôt des femmes? Ce n’est pas forcément un choix de ne photographier essentiellement que des femmes mais je suis souvent mon propre model , comme je fais les choses à l’humeur c’est bien pratique de s’avoir à portée de main au moment où l’envie de faire une image se présente : je n’ai pas peur de mon objectif, je n’ai pas de complexe vis-à-vis de moi-même, je n’ai pas à attendre les disponibilités de qui que ce soit et surtout je n’ai pas à dealer avec les attentes potentielles de résultats ou de rendu des autres et je reste libre de faire ce que je veux exactement.
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Is there a particular reason that you tend to shoot women most of the time? It’s not necessarily a choice to focus on photographing women, but I am often my own model, and as I do things in the moment, it’s practical to use myself when the mood hits me or an image presents itself. I’m not afraid to be in front of my camera, nor do I have any insecurities within myself. This way, I don’t have to wait on anybody nor deal with the potential risks or outcome of taking someone else’s photo. This allows me the freedom to do exactly what I want to do.
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Dans vos photos, les parties inférieures des corps de vos sujets - jambes, pieds, fessiers – semblent avoir autant de caractère qu’en aurait un visage ou des mains, dans le traitement d’un autre photographe. Voyez-vous les corps comme des personnages par eux-mêmes? Un corps est toujours rattaché à une tête, même si celle-ci n’est pas toujours visible à l’image. Le corps donc exprime lui aussi des choses, parfois plus que pourrait le faire un visage et ou un regard. Et je mets effectivement plus l’accent, dans mes choix de cadrages ou de traitements, sur ce mode d’expression.
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In your photos, it seems like the lower parts of your subjectsâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; bodies - legs, feet, bottoms have just as much character as would a face or even hands, in any other photographerâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s treatment. Do you see bodies as characters in and of themselves? A body is always attached to a head, even if it is not always visible in the image . But, the body has things to express as well, sometimes even more than a face or the look in their eyes. So, effectively, I do concentrate more on this mode of expression, through my framing or post-processing treatment. November 2013 | 137
Je ne peux m’empêcher de me demander si ce coté enjoué incroyable qu’ont vos photos vous correspond, ou ressemble à votre vie, en personne.
I can’t help but wonder if this incredible sense of playfulness in your photos is what you’re like, or what your life is like, in person.
J’ai compris assez tardivement qu’il était important de laisser s’exprimer l’enfant joueur qui sommeille en chacun de nous, d’une part cela stimule l’imaginaire, d’autre part cela peut nous éviter de devenirs des adultes chiants et névrosés.
I understood pretty late in life that it was important to let oneself express their inner child, one that not only stimulates the imagination, but also prevents us from becoming bored and neurotic adults.
La pratique de la photo me permet de me dégager de mon propre carcan, d’exprimer des choses que je n’exprimerais sans doute pas dans ma vie, d’en évacuer d’autres ou de jouer comme l’enfant que je ne suis plus. Le but est de m’amuser en essayant de ne rien prendre trop au sérieux, de m’évader de moi-même le temps d’une image, de raconter une histoire (ou pas du reste parfois c’est juste comme ça, pour le fun) mais en aucun cas de me caresser le dos avec de l’huile solaire. 138 | The CCLaP Journal
Photography allows me to stay outside of my comfort zone, to express things that I wouldn’t normally express in my life, free up my feelings and act as a child once again. My goal is to have fun, trying not to take myself too seriously, trying to escape myself in the time it takes to produce the image, tell a story (or not, sometimes it’s just for fun), but never as a way to flatter my own ego.
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Dans beaucoup de vos portraits, les têtes et visages sont partiellement obscurcis, ou complètement absents, pourquoi? Je ne fais pas du portrait ni du beau pour faire du beau ou pour faire de la technique. J’aime assez l’idée de faire les choses à l’humeur sans pour autant avoir envie de l’expliquer ou de justifier quoi que ce soit. Un visage aurait tendance à figer les choses et à donner une orientation. Je préfère laisser les gens décider et se faire leurs libres interprétations de mes images.
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In many of your portraits, heads and faces are partially obscured or completely absent; why is this? I donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t take portraits with the goal of creating something pretty or technically impeccable. I love the idea of doing things when Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m in the mood without having to explain or justify myself. Giving my photos a face might close off possibilities and give the photo a certain direction. I prefer letting the viewers decide, giving them the freedom to create their own interpretation of my work. November 2013 | 141
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In 2011, a tiny bird observatory in far western Sweden found itself hosting its first American volunteer, and Meera Lee Sethi found herself exactly where she wanted to be: watching great snipe court each other under the midnight sun and disturbing lemmings on her way to find a gyrfalcon nest. Mountainfit is an ecological field notebook, a keenly observed natural history of the life that sings from the birches, wheels under the clouds, and scuttles over the peat bogs of the Swedish highlands. And it is a letter, in 21 jewel-like parts, from a well-read and funny friend. Meera’s vigorous, graceful prose communicates a wry understanding of how utterly ordinary it is to long for more out of life—and how extraordinary it can feel to trust that longing. Meera’s intent was to create a book small enough to fit in your pocket and read on the train to work in the morning. It is that. But it’s also large enough to contain a mountain or two.
Download for free at cclapcenter.com/mountainfit
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The Reason I Jump By Naoki Higashida Random House Reviewed by Madeleine Maccar
For a book that comprises less than 200 pages and can be read in a single sitting, The Reason I Jump is deceptive in its brevity. Using a computer and an alphabet grid to form and “anchor” words “that would otherwise flutter away,” it is the first real chance that then-13-year-old Naoki Higashida had to share his rich but silent inner world and explain the impulses that drive his seemingly erratic behaviors, as autism had prevented him from responding to the volley of questions and years of unwanted stares his condition has prompted from others. The book itself is nearly a decade old but was only recently published in English, as British writer David Mitchell and his wife KA Yoshida translated Naoki’s painstakingly chosen words from their original Japanese. While Naoki’s own jovial warmth and tactful sincerity deserve much of the credit for the charm within these pages, the couple adds a palpable sensitivity to the task of bringing this big-hearted book to a new audience with their unique combination of struggles, as their son has autism and Mitchell himself is a stammerer; while a stammer may not be as debilitating and imprisoning as autism, it does lend the afflicted a keen understanding of what it’s like to be rendered speechless and to have one’s intelligence doubted by a wanting verbal fluency, never mind the capacity for eloquence that waits in frustrated silence. Both Mitchell in his introduction and Naoki in the Q&A portion 146 | The CCLaP Journal
that comprises the bulk of The Reason I Jump emphasize that autism is by no means a disorder of universal constants, though it does feature a handful of commonalities—enough commonalities, in fact, that Mitchell said this book allowed him to “round a corner” in his relationship with his son. While Naoki tends to speak in the first-person plural when he talks about autism, he does so usually with a preface that he’s basing his explanations on his own experiences and most often as a plea for understanding. Early in the book, he answers the question “Do you prefer to be on your own?” first as a person and then tinged with the communicative defeat faced by a person with autism: “I can’t believe that anyone born as a human being wants to be left on their own ... The truth is, we’d love to be with people. But because things never, ever go right, we end up getting used to being alone.” Naoki fields a battery of questions with a combination of maturity, grace, honesty and willingness to admit when he just doesn’t know how to answer a question that is remarkable for a teenage boy. He effectively dismantles the longstanding presumptions society has assumed about people with autism, such as a lack of empathy or that there can be blanket catch-all descriptions for the way autism manifests itself in each individual, the latter being a point that Mitchell, too, makes by pointing out that “[e]very autistic person exhibits his or her own variation of the condition--autism is more like a retina pattern than measles.” Of all the autism myths that are effectively, beautifully obliterated in The Reason I Jump, it is that supposed dearth of empathy that is most enthusiastically debunked. Naoki acutely feels the stress he places on his caretakers and the frustration they feel over his powerlessness to resist the impulses that keep him jumping, spinning, running, repeating, organizing and wandering. He gently reminds his audience that while the caretaker’s exasperation is fleeting, he is the one who will always feel like a captive in a body he can’t control. But Naoki also says that he no longer would trade being autistic for being “normal,” as his autism has helped him see the beauty in little things while offering him comfort in realizing that he’s a part of something much bigger that connects us all. Tucked in amidst Naoki’s thoughtful explanations are short stories that read like more ethereal Aesop’s fables, demonstrative of Naoki’s active imagination, knack for parable, and desire to emphasize a thought or feeling he finds worthy of extra mention. He revisits the Tortoise and Hare theme to illustrate the necessity of kindness; another metaphorical tale shows that even those we envy are always searching for happiness and self-fulfillment. The final section of the book is a longer, emotionally ripe allegory for what it’s like to live with autism, which would read as an apology for the stress he has caused his parents if it weren’t so girded with hope: “If this story connects with your heart in some way,” Naoki’s foreword to the short tale says, “then I believe you’ll be able to connect back to the hearts of people with autism too.” One of the most remarkable features of this book is not even that is was laboriously created with an alphabet grid or that Naoki displays nearly tireless optimism but rather the slow dawning of empathy it quietly draws from its reader. He explains what it’s like to live inside autism using “normal” examples that betray an outsider’s wistful observation, such as likening his inability to move forward in certain actions without a verbal prompt to a pedestrian waiting for the “Walk” signal, as well as explaining his interests in terms of exaggerated reactions to routine stimuli, like his love of nature offering comfort in its sense of belonging to something so big it reduces a person to the tiny speck in the universe that so many of us try to forget that we really are. Naoki’s inventive approach to writing a memoir offers an enlightening look at a still-misunderstood disorder while embracing the beauty in imperfection and proving that one person’s normal is another’s mystery. It doesn’t provide all the answers, which isn’t a reasonable request from any one person anyway, but it begins an invaluable dialogue by approaching all the right questions. C
Out of 10: 8.5
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Meaty By Samantha Irby Curbside Splendor Reviewed by Travis Fortney
This book of essays piqued my interest because it’s written by a Chicagoan— and not just any Chicagoan, but one who resides in the part of Rogers Park that realtors like to call “Loyola Park.” Which means Samantha Irby likely binge-watches Breaking Bad only a couple city blocks from where I bingewatch Breaking Bad. It’s always fascinating to read about an author trying to “mask the sound of stress diarrhea in a tiny nail shop bathroom” when there’s a chance you might run into her on the street. But there’s more to Meaty than just diarrhea. There’s toe-sucking. There’s “day-three-heavy-flow-bleeding-like-a-stuck-pig” period sex. There’s what seems like an atypical amount of butt sex (and there can’t be butt sex, at least in this book, without the mention of poop). There’s copious amounts of profanity on every page. AND WHEN IRBY WANTS TO MAKE HER POINT SHE DOES IT IN ALL CAPS. She wants to make her point often. Which means A LOT OF CAPS. Which is fine. Irby writes a popular blog, and her writing is fast-paced and infectious. I would compare her style to Lindsay Hunter—short words arranged into run-on sentences, with an almost Kerouacian stream-of-consciousness feel, but with a focus on shock instead of beauty. The many facets of Irby’s character—the not-so-young young person who can’t balance her checkbook, the poor black girl who grew up in the rich white suburbs, the young urbanite trying to navigate the sexual mores of the early twenty-first century, the daughter of parents who 148 | The CCLaP Journal
died when she was still in her teens, the perpetually sick Crohn’s sufferer—make Meaty an entertaining and memorable read. Irby is also a very funny writer. Though her methods aren’t subtle, and this book is aimed pretty squarely at an audience that isn’t me, I found myself chuckling out loud every page or so. I can only read so many lines about dying “alone, in giant panties that come up to my chin, with crumbs under my tits, and a half eaten cat face” before just giving in and laughing. You have to hand it to Samantha Irby. She’s persistent. Her experience as a stage performer comes through on the page. She knows how to win her audience over. But there’s still more. Meaty was published last month by Curbside Splendor publishing here in Chicago. This is the first book by Curbside that I have purchased or read, but I have to say that as an object the book is impressive, with a slicker, more professionally produced feel than what I’m accustomed to seeing from small presses. And, notably, Meaty is about to be featured as a holiday selection in the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Authors program. I don’t follow B&N Discover very closely, but this has to be the first time a publisher this tiny—Curbside looks to have published ten or so original books as well as several anthologies thus far in its short life—has landed a book on that list. The idea that such a thing is possible is big news, or ought to be. We’ve all heard about the seismic shift happening in publishing right now, from big to small, from New York outward. Or at least I’ve heard about it. Again, and again, and again. But I’ve never once listened or cared. I’ve always thought that in a bestcase-scenario, small-scale indie publishing and large-scale New York publishing will continue to exist in separate spheres, but that the more likely scenario is that there will be overlap when New York reaches into the indie world to rob it of its most promising (i.e., most lucrative) talent whenever it becomes aware of some success. Which has happened recently with some YA authors of genre fiction, and may yet happen with Samantha Irby. But Meaty landing on the B&N Discover list feels bigger than that to me, because what New York publishing relies on in order to keep reaching over into the indie world and plucking the best talent out whenever it wants to is prestige. And one example of prestige is a place on that list. So when a tiny publisher from Chicago gets a spot that Knopf wishes it had, that means something. It takes that much prestige away from Knopf and gives it to Curbside. If this prestige gap continues to close, then certain writers might be less inclined to put up with the less appealing parts of the New York publishing experience (i.e., agents who are perpetually on Safari in Africa, publishers that put money ahead of art every single time) and start looking elsewhere. At least that’s what this news made me think. But back to the book. Perhaps more than anything, what I enjoyed about Meaty is seeing my little corner of Chicago through the eyes of someone who is so distinctly not me. This book isn’t perfect—it loses focus pretty badly somewhere between the cringe-worthy television pitch and the recipe section that features such gems as “Beef Taco Casserole, WHAT”—but it’s frank, funny, entertaining and well worth the read. C
Out of 10: 9.0
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bit.ly/cj03amazon paper: bit.ly/cj03paper online: issuu.com/jasonpettus/cclapjournal03
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