My Literary Zombie Apocalypse Dream Team

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It’s a discussion as old as time itself: in the event of a zombie apocalypse, with whom would you hope to be stranded? I know I’ve given this a lot of thought (I am, after all, a very serious and presently unemployed intellectual with way too much time on my hands), but lately I’ve been cogitating upon—in the event a cosmic interdimensional crisis somehow renders all my favorite literary characters real—which fictional favorites might afford me the best chance of riding out the guts, the gore, the chaos and savagery of a civilization fallen.

Here’s my winning line-up, tentatively team-named The Stealth Zombers (in no particular order)…

1. QUEEQUEG

Queequeg

“For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself – the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

Featured in: Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

Why He Makes the Team:
[X] Fiercely loyal.
[X] Sweet harpooning skills.
[X] Swell bedfellow.
[X] His practice of fasting and prolonged periods of silence ideal for post-apocalyptic zombie survival.
[X] Knows how to build a coffin.
[X] Wanderlust befitting of nomadic lifestyle.

Risks Posed: His lack of shame in practicing cannibalism may make fellow survivors nervous.

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The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Centrifugal Force” by Jodi Angel

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People want to believe that Mark Twain once said, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt,” though there’s zero evidence to back up his authorship. While others have claimed to know the quote’s true origin, most likely it’s one of those anonymous aphorisms passed down through the years. But doesn’t it just sound better if it was from Mark Twain?

The nature of the quote and the questions surrounding its authorship play perfectly into the nature of denial. Reality, for various reasons, is sometimes something we’d rather not face. Jodi Angel’s “Centrifugal Force” (Tin House, Summer 2015) explores the nature and tragedy of denial from the perspective of a group of young folks looking to find a fix for their boredom.

That fix comes in the form of Harold, who we discover is off his meds and behind the garage of his house, smashing garden snails with a hammer.

“There was a shitload of wreckage in front of him—all kinds of shattered pieces and bodies thick and wet as snot …we watched him do this for a while, nobody saying anything, and somebody whispered that maybe we should go find something else to do…”

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“We licked the dictionary off each other’s faces” : Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal: A Project for Future Children

Sal_tree_Np copy 2What’s wrong with being raised by wolves? In Humanimal: A Project for Future Childen, Bhanu Kapil investigates “the true story of Kamala and Amala, two girls found living with wolves in Bengal, India, in 1920” (ix). But unlike a crowd drawn to witness a re-enactment, Kapil’s book instead involves “trying to see it” (17) and the creation of a work of radical empathy. Of becoming, not speculating: a desire to “write until they were real” (41).

In this complex “re-telling of planar space,” Kapil records her trip to the site where Kamala and Amala briefly lived “as girls,” her own father’s journey to England from India, where “his feet resembled those of a goat’s” and her childhood (35 and 64). Ridiculed by children in London after returning from India while still in school, Kapil remembers: “When I grew up, I wrote about the bloodstream of a child as intermingling with that of an animal” (40). And this is a book of so many interminglings that the differences can hardly be marked by its end, if only because “I was frightened and so I stopped” (1).Continue Reading

Round-Down: Why GO SET A WATCHMAN May Have Been Better Unpublished

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Discussion surrounding the recent release of Harper Lee’s purported To Kill a Mockingbird prequel–or draft, or sequel–Go Set a Watchman has dominated the literary community for the past several weeks. Just about every article on Watchman touches on the question of either whether Lee consented to having the long stowed-away manuscript released. At The New York Times, Randall Kennedy asks exactly this.

The initial reactions to Watchman’s release are expectedly mixed, yet strong. An informal poll conducted by CNN, in which about twenty thousand people have now participated, reveals public response to the question “Are you planning to read Go Set a Watchman?” Just over sixty percent say they will, and there’s about a twenty percent split on either side between those who are flatly not interested and those who won’t because they “want [their] memories of the original unsullied.” Lee’s new novel is operating under the extremely unique condition of existing within the same realm as and including many of the same characters from Mockingbird, a text that has been so widely loved and taught. It is because of these conditions that we should consider some facts of the questionable circumstance.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “A Daring Undertaking” by Ashley Davidson

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Who doesn’t enjoy reading other people’s mail? There’s a guilty pleasure in eavesdropping on other people’s correspondence. In “A Daring Undertaking” (Shenandoah Volume 64, Number 2) by Ashley Davidson, we’re privy to a strange collection of letters, public and private, spanning from 1856 to 1933, examining the various transgressions—both personal and private—of a mid 19th century con artist. Through these letters, the reader is asked to piece together not just the narrative and the nature of the characters, but the art of the con.

The first letter is from the protagonist, Sergeant Erastus Snow, to then U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, dated five years from the beginning of the Civil War (1856). In it we discover that Snow has taken a group of men from his post in California to acquire a group of camels from another military outfit.

“Let me first inform you of the caravan of thirteen camels and dromedaries of mixed variety, transferred safely into Fort Defiance from among the cargo of thirty-three originally landed at Indianola, Texas by the storeship Supply on the tenth day of February, 18 and 56.”

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Round-Down: What You Should Know Going Into GO SET A WATCHMAN

Atticus_and_Tom_Robinson_in_courtToday, July 14, is an auspicious day in literary news: Harper Lee’s much anticipated, and controversial, Go Set A Watchman is officially released across the world. An event for the record books–the title already broke the pre-order record held by the Harry Potter series and promises to break still others before the week is done—many eager readers lined up at midnight this morning to grab a copy. Die-hard fans picked up the sequel (or prequel, depending on how one looks at it) to the childhood favorite because, or perhaps in spite, of several shocking spoilers leaked in the days leading up to the worldwide official release.

In a coordinated publicity stunt, HarperCollins released the first chapter of the novel online, in the UK via The Guardian, and in the U.S. via The Wall Street Journal (owned by the same parent company as HarperCollins). Reese Witherspoon’s breathy, wry Southern voice is leant to the experience at both sites via an audio recording, and if you’re still on the fence about whether or not you want to brave a bookstore today, I recommend checking out the text at The Guardian. The colorful animation that accompanies the text as you scroll down to keep up with Witherspoon’s charming intonations lends a visceral experience to the “sneak peak” that will—even if the text itself cannot, as some reviewers caution—provide fans with the same sense of whimsical pluckiness as young Scout’s voice. The WSJ, for its part, has black and white photographs from the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as from Lee’s own life and town, accompanying the text.Continue Reading

Four Intriguing Ideas from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism

Statue of Northrop FryeWith five new critical studies of Northrop Frye hitting the bookstores this year, 2015 is turning out to be Frye’s year. Frye was one of the 20th century masters of myth criticism: if you’re at all interested in archetypes, the hero’s journey, or the intersection of religion and literature, Frye is the writer for you. But for those unfamiliar with Northrop Frye, it might be a bit daunting to step into books like Northrop Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth or Northrop Frye and American Fiction. As with most books about deceased Canadian academics, you might not even crack the spine. That would be a shame. As an undergraduate, Frye was one of the first literary critics I was able to take a serious interest in. He writes with tremendous imagination about almost every major work of Western literature. Reading Frye is an education in the whole of literature, which is just as exciting and daunting as it sounds. So I’d like to sell you on reading books by and about Frye by exploring four of my favorite ideas from what I consider his best book: Anatomy of Criticism.

Autonomous Verbal Structures

Frye can’t start critiquing literature without first defining what literature is. (Actually, in the introduction he starts at the very beginning by defining criticism itself. Pedantic? A little. Worth reading? Definitely.) He eventually settles on what I find to be one of the more intriguing definitions of literature: “autonomous verbal structures.”

Outside of literature, words aren’t autonomous. Without the outside world to refer to, they don’t have a leg to stand on. “In fourteen-hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” These words, even though they have a musical and literary quality, are referents to persons and places and events that actually exist.

But fiction and poetry tend to point inward, toward themselves. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” The opening sentence of George Orwell’s 1984 uses words and knowledge we know from the outside world (what April is, the fact that clocks don’t have a number thirteen to strike), but the world they refer to is fictional, a product of the author’s and reader’s imagination. Words in a work of fiction don’t exist so much as they insist. They say “It is so,” and so it is. This brings literature into the realm of speech action together with the law (“You’re under arrest”) and religion (“I pronounce you man and wife.”)Continue Reading

Pursuing Essence through Ambiguity: On Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories

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Among the known instances of writers reworking published material, Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata stands apart for his seemingly untenable decision to turn his acclaimed novel Snow Country (for which, along with Thousand Cranes and The Old Capital, he received the 1968 Nobel Prize) into an eleven-page story. Kawabata completed “Gleanings from Snow Country” just three months before his death in 1972. Yet while the story pulls scenes almost intact from the novel, it does not offer a condensed retelling. Rather in his distinctly spare yet affecting style, Kawabata’s miniaturization intensifies the isolated images, producing an independent take on his regarded masterpiece. In excavating new facets of his novel, Kawabata was also returning to the form he felt encapsulated his art: a series of short works he eloquently described as “palm-of-the-hand stories.”

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, translated by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman, contains 70 of the 146 brief vignettes Kawabata wrote across the span of his career. While “Gleanings from Snow Country” is unique in its novelistic origins, the other works in the collection—most only a few pages long—evoke an urgency and substance that makes a similar adaptation conceivable, albeit in reverse. That Kawabata achieves such intricacy in a concise, understated manner supports an initial temptation to compare his palm-of-the-hand stories to haiku. The fantastical nature of some of the works—gravestones tumbling down hills like white goblins, lionhead goldfish swimming through a silvered mirror, a woman who turns into a lily—also suggests the possibility of placing them along the spectrum of fairytale. Certainly, the judicious imagery and inventive associations found within the stories are reminiscent of prose poetry or flash fiction. Yet as I moved through the collection, considering what made the remarkably varied works still feel cohesive, I determined that the palm-of-the-hand stories are a form all their own, difficult to measure against more familiar conventions. This conclusion was useful only to the extent I could admit I did not yet know, exactly, how to approach them.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Lunar Facts” by Michele Finn Johnson

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Human beings are nothing if not list makers. Grocery lists. Chore lists. Listings of jobs, scores, events. Lists are a way in which we bring order to a chaotic world. The same could be said of stories, which is why lists can make such great story structures. Michele Finn Johnson’s “Lunar Facts” (Necessary Fiction) announces itself as a mere list, but quickly becomes much, much more.

Johnson begins her list with the moon.

“1. I am planning to remove the Moon from service. Do not consider this a temporary interruption. It will be permanent.

2. Statistics show that over 82% of violent crimes occur when the Moon is full. Isn’t it time we hold the Moon accountable?”

Behind the tongue-in-cheek argument a plot question is introduced, on the sly. Johnson is speaking in general terms, with—as the title suggests—facts, but below we’re wondering what precisely the moon ever did to the narrator to deserve this treatment? Something happened. The answer as to what begins to take shape in section four.Continue Reading

Do-Overs: The Meursault Question

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Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation is getting a lot of attention. This retelling of Camus’ classic The Stranger imagines the eyes that stare down Meursault’s gun. The unnamed Arab from the original is given a name, Musa, and a brother, Harun, who tells the family’s story in a bar.

Camus’ work is widely taught in high schools, and imagining the perspective of the unidentified Arab is a common assignment. But Daoud exceeds all expectations in his reinterpretation of the original, a book that his characters contend was penned by Meursault himself in an effort to explain his actions.Continue Reading