À La Recherche de l’Amérique Perdue: Fantasizing America

Portrait of Orleans, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Portrait of Orleans, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

To say that the French have a love-hate relationship with the United States is an understatement. We’ll be tssk-tssking Americans for their alleged anti-intellectualism and Puritan mores, while unabashedly dreaming Technicolor dreams of New York and California and happily binging on series. There’s also a strong mainstream appetite for American literature, or at least one that delivers a certain brand of Americanness, all in stock images: New York, looming large in the French imagination of what America must be like, and all the noir imagery that goes with it (give us your grittiest cities and your most hardboiled fedora-wearing detectives); the small sleepy towns, their closets always full of skeletons; the Deep South, though that’s usually more popular among academics than in pop culture; the hallucinated landscapes sung by the Beat generation. Lately, Montana writers are also getting their share of the spotlight, with the allure of great open spaces.

But this means that you don’t have to be American to give us the America we want: more than a few French-language writers have dreamed of penning the next Great American NovelTM. Among these is a young Swiss writer, Joël Dicker. His novel The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair has been marketed as no less than “a reflection on America, on the flaws of modern society, on literature, on justice, and on the media,” and crowned by several distinguished prizes, including one from the French Academy.

Never mind that, to get to the denouement, we must trudge through over 600 hundred pages of sloppy, cliché-riddled writing: young “brilliant” male writer in NY (where else?) is hit with writer’s block after the overwhelming success of his first book, and seeks out “genius” male mentor from college who lives as a quasi-recluse in New England and abuses the boxing/writing metaphor; mentor is falsely accused of murdering a teenage girl eons ago (but he did have a liaison with her, and he did love her like he loved no one else before); young writer takes it upon himself to clear his name. There’s also mentally ill women, jealous women, and a healthy dose of suburban suspicion. All in all, a brittle collage of genres, thriller noir and romance, sub-Rothesque cinematic realism and pseudo-experimental writing.  Continue Reading

Planetary Poetry

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It’s a comet, no it’s a planet, no it’s not a planet, yes it is. What is it about Pluto that so draws us to it? Is it that Pluto is so far away? Or is it just that we always pull for the underdog? Over the past few years, especially, as Pluto’s planetary status has been called into question, the adoration for the planet has only risen. Perhaps, there’s something to the idea of distance, of the unknowable vastness that stretches between us on Earth and the surface of this planet (or dwarf planet or whatever). It is in this expanse, that poetry seems to have found a way to talk about other distances—more of the metaphorical and emotional nature— through the use of planets.

In his poem, “Pluto’s Loss,” poet Paul Guest begins with the line: “Little star, how lost to us you are already” and goes on to elegize Pluto as something that is so small and far away and cold that it’s easy for humans to forget, to not think about, to push out of the mind. However, Guest then brings the poem around to his own thoughts. It’s easier to remember the distances between our own memories—a lost love, perhaps—than it is to think about the distances between planets.

In the end of the poem, though, Guest then makes another twist: it’s also easy, he argues, for humans to be small and distant and forgotten by the heavens. The poems ends: “In that moment, and in this one, I could not be/ more human, to the dead sky/ making apologies heard by no one, by nothing.” Maybe, we identify with Pluto because we too can feel so small and cold and easily pushed out of the mind.Continue Reading

In Bookstores Near You

In 2004, the state of Texas most likely executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, for the murder of his three young children, who died in a fire in their family home. Arson experts later determined the fire was not intentionally set, and the story quickly became enmeshed in a political scandal involving Rick Perry. Interestingly, Willingham, who escaped with only minor burns, had such a poor reputation in the small town of Corsicana, Texas, that when PBS produced a documentary about his execution and probable innocence, many of the residents refused to accept he wasn’t guilty. One woman said he was a bad man, plain and simple, and it didn’t matter if he didn’t do it. He deserved to die regardless. Having worked with defense teams on over twenty capital murder cases since 2009, I’ve learned the most intriguing part of these investigations isn’t the whodunit part of the story, but how witnesses affect the outcome, how willing they are to lie to convict someone, to shape the story into a tale they want to believe.

In his latest novel, Late One Night, Lee Martin explores how a town unravels into gossip and accusations after a man’s wife and three of his seven children die in a fire that destroys their mobile home. Martin writes this tale as if he’s followed death penalty cases and investigations for years. For example, Ronnie Black, the accused, has a background similar to many of the men and women charged with capital murder: he was orphaned young and farmed out to one foster home after another. And he’s reputed to be “just mean and tricky enough to do some damage if the punching and gouging got going.” In fact, weeks before the fire, Ronnie throws lit matches at his wife until he accidentally catches her hair on fire. Ultimately, it’s just easier for everyone to believe in Ronnie Black’s guilt over his innocence.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Appellations” by Faith Shearin

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Juliet famously said of Romeo’s surname, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” which may be true, but also—as the rest of the Bard’s play argued—problematic. So what is in a name? “Appellations” by Faith Shearin (FRiGG) explores what bearing names can have on one’s destiny.

Shearin introduces this dynamic in the first line.

When we checked into Big Meadows Lodge, we were given a new last name. Our father, Henry, has a thick southern accent, and when he called to make our reservation, he was misunderstood. According to the ski passes, and our tickets to the dining room, he was now Harry Bighorn.

The change seems innocuous enough at first, and their decision not to fix it just a way for the lodge operators to save time and paper. When told the news, Hazel seems intrigued by the possibilities of having a new name for the ski trip. After an initial ski lesson, she announces that she has no desire to go skiing any longer—through backstory Shearin reveals that though her sister has a graceful athleticism, she does not. So while Dad and Beth go skiing, Hazel and her mother, Ruth, go on a hike in the forest, where they further discuss the name change.Continue Reading

Writ in Water: Interview with Chris McCormick and “Desert Boys”

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Photo by Chris McCormick

This month, I chat with author Chris McCormick, whose terrific debut of linked stories, Desert Boys, follows main character Daley “Kush” Kushner and his friends Robert Karinger and Dan Watts. The book is largely set in the growing desert suburbia of the Antelope Valley, 70-odd miles north of Los Angeles. We talk about what it means to write about the West and live in and write about the desert; we share our mutual love of Louise Erdrich and writing that goes “deeper than geography.”


Joseph B. Horton: Take this however you will. What does it mean to be a Western Writer, or One Who Writes About the West?

Chris McCormick: There are so many definitions and tropes, but my guess is you know you’ve met a “Western” writer when you ask this question and they start squirming. I think that’s the result of a deeply internalized resistance to being categorized. One of my questions in Desert Boys was what happens when certain western tropes—real or imagined—are challenged, what happens when open spaces become grids through suburbanization, what happens when a person grows up longing for community in a place that almost fetishizes self-reliance. I guess a Western writer—at least this one—is someone who grapples with those questions even though he’s suspicious of the premise.

JBH: In the past you’ve mentioned Louise Erdrich as an influential writer, and specifically her debut Love Medicine. I love her and that book dearly, and I’m interested to know more: what, to you, does it mean to write about an isolated or insulated community? Do interconnected stories—from different points of view or not—serve that community best? I don’t think it’s too much to say that you’ll be introducing many readers to the Antelope Valley for the first time. Is that pressure? Opportunity?

CM: Oh, Louise. The first book of hers I read was the novel, Tracks, which begins with one of the most beautiful and devastating first lines in fiction, I think: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” Then I read as much of her work as I could  borrow or buy. From early on, I knew I wanted to write in a language as beautiful and as clear as hers. But it was the structure of Love Medicine that became the biggest influence on this particular book of mine. Whenever you’re writing about a place—especially a place that’s been relatively overlooked in literature—there’s so much pressure not only to get everything right, but to get everything down. I’m upset with myself that I left out specific institutions or aspects of the Antelope Valley that just didn’t fit in this book, like the Performing Arts Center or the AV Fair or the Poppy Festival. People don’t only crave accuracy about the place they call home, we also crave thoroughness. Linked stories provide a strategy to be as expansive as possible without sacrificing the specificity of focus, moment by moment. No one argues harder than I do that stories and novels are completely different forms. But when it comes to book-length fiction, I’m not convinced that linked story collections make up a different form than the “traditional” novel, so much as a different technique.

JBH: I’m fascinated by this line about Karinger’s soon-to-be wife, Jackie Connolly: “She was beautiful in the way people call the desert beautiful, which was to say that although some people actually believed it, most of the time it was said in response to someone else’s denigration of it.” Care to elaborate? I think, for one, that there’s a lot of truth in the defensive invoking of desert beauty.

CM: I’m both glad and embarrassed that you picked that line out—it was one of those lines I wanted people to underline, which meant I probably should have cut it. I don’t know, I think the line speaks for itself. Just as we have permission to insult a family member but would fight anyone outside the family who made the same insult, people in the desert lament the place until someone else calls it boring or ugly. Then, in an act of love, we step up and defend the singular elegance of the yucca.

JBH: Though the entire book thoughtfully considers the desert and life in the desert, I always come back to the story, “The Tallest Trees in the Antelope Valley,” in which Kush helps prepare a neighbor’s yard for giant palm trees. Working as a day-heat novice, he says, “In the desert, the idea of spring was a myth from another culture. It went from winter to summer like flipping a coin, and it seemed as though I’d lost the toss.” It strikes me that I think some people don’t even consider seasons in the desert, that it just exists as it always has, unchanging. Certainly your portrait of the valley talks about what remains unchanged and what changes dramatically. How do you see that change, or the balance between permanence and impermanence?

CM: This is a great question, maybe the question. Part of the mythology of the (white) west is an outlaw culture, a kind of lawlessness allowed by existence on the fringes. Lawlessness might be another way of saying randomness or unreliability. For that reason, I always thought part of the myth of the west was a resistance to permanence, the willingness and dexterity to adapt. The idea of settling there, then, seemed like a paradox to me. In the newer, suburbanized west, there’s been a fierce resistance to change, a distrust of progress. For the epigraph of the book, I use a lyric from Jackson Browne’s song, “The Fairest of the Seasons”: “Do I stay or do I go, and do I have to do just one?” I’m interested in these extremes in the desert—where there is no “fair” season—and curious about the spaces between adaptation and settlement, between leaving and staying.

JBH: From “The Immigrants”: “Not just the desert, but all of California was in a severe drought, and as I lay floating [in a pool] on my back, I felt immensely guilty, remembering an old teacher of mine, a farmer, who’d once made us draw bar codes on our faucets to remember that water wasn’t free. But the guilt, as always, passed.” Even now, when drought is much more prominent in the collective mind, I hope, how do we continually allow this guilt to pass?

CM: Guilt is easy, and so is shame. Most of us can build an entire life around guilt and shame, no problem, so long as we feel personally culpable. But collective guilt—the guilt associated with being a tiny, almost negligible part of a problem, even a problem as severe as ruining the planet for some invisible, future population—requires something really difficult, which is imagining the world without us in it. And people have children to raise and bills to pay and lovers to kiss and enemies to fight. I can’t really blame anyone for not thinking ahead, I can only offer my admiration to those who do.

JBH: How do you write about a place when you aren’t living there? (In an MFA program or transplanted across the country, or even in a different part of California or the West…) Even if you’ve spent plenty of time in your literary locale, during the actual act of writing, how do you (re)conjure that place? On the other hand, is it ever easier to be more distant? Does that remove ever prove particularly useful?

CM: Writing down what I know about the place wasn’t hard. The hard part was figuring out what I didn’t know about the place, why I still loved it despite my dedicated attempts for so long to leave. Those kinds of questions tended to be deeper than geography, and no amount of time at home would help or hurt my ability to grapple with them.

JBH: You’ve talked elsewhere about a “mythic” California and the opportunities to both challenge that myth—beaches, Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, say—and at the same time create more myths. (Maybe a moment that speaks to this runs, “…[The townspeople] were also no monolith. Some might say they were persons, not a people. That’s why stories happen. That’s why this story happened.”) The image California actively promotes of itself has been a topic of this series, and recently the New York Times published Parag Khanna’s map and analysis of “superstates” in the country, lines re-drawn based on “common economics and demographics.” Are we in the age of two or ten Californias? A hundred? Are there any shared bonds of Californians, or is this a state of 40 million separate Californians?

CM: This is a good time for me to thank you for the work you’ve been doing at Ploughshares. It’s been an education to this Californian, and a pleasure to read. As a desert kid, I grew up longing for places that seemed, on the map anyway, not that far out of reach: the freedom and glamor of the ocean, the celebrity of Los Angeles, the progressiveness of San Francisco, the racial and ethnic diversity of Oakland, the activism of Berkeley, and on and on. All those myths turned out to be both true and false, all at once, and maybe that’s why myths last. They’re built on the dreams of more than the forty million who call California home. They’re like mirages—another desert trope. They’re there, and they’re not, all at once, and no matter how close you get, they’re always just a little farther down the road.

JBH: Lastly, you had a book tour stop in the Antelope Valley. What was that like? Last month, I wrote about John Steinbeck being variously disowned by the Salinas Valley during his career. Do you worry about this? What is it like reading a book in its hometown?

CM: Variously disowned sounds like the place to be. As a person, I avoid confrontation to a fault. But as a writer, I don’t mind sparking discomfort. It means I’m writing toward the unsteady middle ground we talked about earlier, the place of questions not answers, the place where fiction should live. But I’m glad to say the event in the AV was a huge success, with lots of love from friends and family and strangers alike. If there’s anyone from the AV who detests the book or thinks my take on the AV is unfair or unrecognizable, I didn’t meet them. If they’re out there, I hope they’ll use that frustration in a constructive way by writing their own stories and poems to help create a diverse and nuanced literature of our strange and lovely home. Stories are more fun to write than angry emails, I bet, and definitely more likely to be read.

 

 

What Fiction Means

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There isn’t much that will make you more aware of a book’s message, and leerier of it, than reading it aloud to a child. Maybe this explains why I seem to have discovered books with such inordinately terrible messages during the three-plus years I’ve been reading to my daughter. There’s the book about the witless-looking big-eyed bunny that peeks suggestively over its plump bottom. There’s the ubiquitous book (we somehow have two copies) about the beautiful fish with rainbow-colored scales, which purports to have a “message about sharing,” and traces the decision of this fish to give away his uniquely beautiful scales, one by one, so that the other fish will like him. And the terrifying, now out of print book from the 80s, Your Turn, Doctor, that we discovered in some forgotten trove. Ostensibly meant to help children overcome their fears of doctor visits, this one, I truly think, must actually have been written to mess with us. Little Gloria is dreading her checkup and fantasizes about giving the doctor a checkup instead; in the daydream that then unfolds, she chases the doctor in all his almost-naked, middle-aged, pudgy glory around the examining room, saying truly unbelievable things. “You don’t have to be shy with me.” “Wider, Doctor, wider. I want to see everything.”

My daughter wants to finish most books we start. I can shift pretty fast into invention-and-skipping mode, though she seems to suspect something’s up.

Message is tricky in longer fiction, too. As readers and as writers, I think we’re taught to be wary of it, of turning characters and story into vehicles for a position. Maybe because characters and story are supposed to be more complicated than most positions are. The sense is that slogans constrain, and expansiveness—empathy, engagement, unexpected connection and reach—is one of fiction’s best gifts. Books like Animal Farm, The Jungle, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Pilgrim’s Progress, Brave New World are considered allegory, a slightly different category of thing from deep, rich literature. Their worth is determined by the legacy of the ideas they embody, and discussions of their fictional elements quickly morph into discussions of those ideas.Continue Reading

Writer-In-Chief: As a Man of Letters, Obama Will Be Missed

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In the era of the 24-hour news cycle and ubiquitous WiFi, being a good writer would not seem to be much of an asset to a politician. A commanding TV presence and social media savvy are at least as important. It wasn’t always this way, of course. Until the arrival of the electronic age, the written word was the primary means by which Americans heard from their president, unless they had the rare opportunity to hear him speak in person. Whether they wanted to be or not, for a long time, presidents had to be writers of one stripe or another. That changed with a series of breakthroughs in communications technology.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was historic primarily because he broke the most impenetrable racial barrier of them all. But Obama’s victory was also heralded in the literary community as a return to the days of yore, when the occupant of the Oval Office was a man of letters.

Before Obama was a politician he was a writer. He first entered the public arena when he was named the first African-American to lead the Harvard Law Review. The subsequent notoriety led to the publication of his memoir Dreams of My Father in 1995. The book received mostly favorable reviews but its sales, according to the author, were “underwhelming.”

However, after Obama’s stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 2004, the book was republished and it rocketed to the top of bestseller lists. Much like John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage forty years earlier, the success of Dreams of My Father prompted insinuations that a ghostwriter helped or possibly even supplanted Obama, accusations which have largely been dispelled.Continue Reading

The Collective Action of Swan Maidens

Photo by Peter Gerstbach

Photo by Peter Gerstbach

Last month I sat through five productions of Swan Lake, five days in a row. Despite a lifetime of ballet—and having danced the role of a swan in the ballet’s second act—I was hazy on the story’s ending. As perhaps I should be, as I’ve found evidence of nine different endings to the ballet. While my bones still held the choreography, I couldn’t recall the fate of the swans. So I sat through the ballet a tabula rasa and discovered a wildly feminist tale.

Most narrative ballets originated in the 19th century, drawing from fairy tales charted along traditional gender roles and boundaries. Men saving women, women serving men. The history of ballet is a history of men creating on and creating for the bodies of women; the tales’ narrative sexism received no reprieve as the stories were translated into ballets.

The origins of Swan Lake’s plot are unclear, but both a German story, “The Stolen Veil” by Johann Karl August Musäus, and a Russian folktale, “The White Duck” are said to have given life to Tchaikovsky’s tale. On stage, we meet Prince Siegfriend, whose mother demands that he find a bride. Uneasy about the idea of settling down, the Prince heads out for a swan hunt, where he meets the love of his life, Odette. Yes, a swan. Or rather, a woman cursed to swan-hood during daytimes, a captive of Von Rothbart. Odette is one of twenty-four women imprisoned by Von Rothbart, part-owl, part-sorcerer, a man of unclear motives.

Eight terms of venery—collective nouns which emerged for hunting purposes—exist for swans: bank, bevy, drift, eyrar, flight, game, herd, lamentation, sownder, team, wedge, and whiting. The second act of Swan Lake showcases this collective. While Odette and Prince Siegfried perform their pas de deux, the swans stand sentry, a line flanking each side of the stage, forming a barrier to protect the lovers from Von Rothbart’s gaze.Continue Reading

Inferno: Reading Eileen Myles in Las Vegas

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Photo of Tropicana by Matthäus Wander (

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I have a few hours to kill in Las Vegas and I’m looking for a quiet place to finish Eileen Myles’s Inferno. Reading here feels like a radical act; it doesn’t make anybody any money or provide a sense of spectacle. The Vegas Strip seems to discourage it. I finally find a relatively quiet place in the Tropicana: a long hallway just outside the convention center, windows on both sides, Sinatra on the PA, an occasional half-naked drunk person stumbling in from the pool. I sit in a red leather chair and open Inferno.

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Some Mexican scout named Las Vegas “Las Vegas” when his trading party stopped here for water and rest on the way to Los Angeles. No casinos, no roads, no roller coasters, just artesian wells and patches of green in the scrub. It still feels like an oasis—the border between city and desert is very clear. My brother lives here, in the suburbs. Look out from his condo complex and you see empty office parks, built before the Great Recession and empty ever since. Past that, a fence. Past that, just dirt and rocks. The edge of the city.

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My brother, who is also a writer, hates Las Vegas. He says there’s no culture here, no museums, no bookstores, no intellectual life outside of UNLV.  It took him years, but eventually he found a group of like-minded writers, started a workshop group. I like the symmetry: Vegas is an oasis in a desert, a writing group is an oasis in life. My brother in an oasis in an oasis. Continue Reading

Han Kang’s THE VEGETARIAN Wins Man Booker International Prize

han kang_the vegetarianLast week, the winner of the newly refocused Man Booker International Prize was announced to be The Vegetarian, a novel by the Korean writer Han Kang, translated into English by Deborah Smith. Originally published as three novellas, the book is the surreal story of Yeong-hye, a young Korean woman who stops eating meat as a result of a nightmare. This puts her at odds with the society and the people around her, transforming her into a character who echoes Melville’s Bartleby. As the plot escalates, the story comments on the cultural controls placed on women through tradition, peer pressure, and even violence; the agency we have over our bodies; and the roles those closest to us play in our destruction or redemption.

Han Kang beat out the ubiquitous Elena Ferrante to win the prize. The Vegetarian was originally published in Korea and 2007 and is her first work to be translated into English, though her career spans more than two decades. Another of her novels, Human Acts, has since been translated and published in England. Human Acts is a historical fiction book about the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 Korea.

The £50,000 prize is split between Kang and her translator, Deborah Smith. This departs from past Man Booker International Prizes. For the first time, this year the prize was changed to focus on a single book instead of an author’s body of work, and it was a requirement that the book be in translation—as opposed to four of the previous six winners, who wrote in English.Continue Reading