The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Know-It-All” by Jeff Spitzer

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Some narrators announce their unreliability in the opening sentences of a short story (see Matt Sumell’s “All Lateral”), and in this way their skewed vision of the world serves as a stylistic lead, drawing readers in. In “The Know-It-All,” from the latest New Ohio Review, Jeff Spitzer creates a narrator whose reliability is revealed slowly, aiding the development of a satire as hilarious as it is terrifying.

We meet this narrator as he’s debating with his wife whether to attend a New Year’s Eve party with his co-workers, whom he considers “…fellow academics, the least redeemable bores in human society…” But the real reason he doesn’t want to go is Charlotte Roon, a wildly successful professor with a penchant for lording it over her colleagues. We discover that at the same party, two years ago, she’d shamed the narrator, who drunkenly quoted a stanza to Whittier.

“A surprised silence. People stared oddly in my direction as I halted, my glass poised before me.

‘Whitman,’ said Charlotte Roon.

‘Pardon?’

‘Whitman wrote it. Whittier could never have written it.’”Continue Reading

Round-Down: Book Readings In the Sky

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Southwest Airlines recently started holding book readings on their flights. The airline has a history of bringing spontaneous and entertaining events aboard: there was at one point an Imagine Dragons appearance, and once even a wedding. The involved writers are compensated in free airfare, the passengers with free readings–which might seem like a win-win from a comfortable and grounded distance.

But, as senior Slate editor Jonathan Fischer writes in his article, “Southwest Airlines Has Figured Out How to Make Your Flight Even More Fun: Book Readings at 35,000 Feet,” a sudden book reading at 8:40 AM might not be such a great idea. “I’m generally of the opinion that there are no good surprises on an airplane,” Fischer writes. “But Southwest hopes that these ‘in-flight activations’ will make their customers’ days a little brighter.”

Near the end of the piece, Fischer writes: “But surely Southwest is worried about annoying passengers? ‘There’s always the opportunity for that,’ [Southwest community engagement coordinator] Boller says, but she maintains it hasn’t happened yet.” What strikes me about this new book reading venture is that it is less offered than mandatory, and that regardless of the quality of the work there’s something that is, while certainly well-intentioned, a bit off about forcing participation in celebration of anything.

Just two days ago I returned from AWP Minneapolis, where I heard some phenomenal writers read their work. I have the great memory of walking to the “Paris Is Still Burning” reading. I was late to the reading–my own mistake, having been caught up in conversation–and recall seeing the windows grey with condensation, the silhouettes of bodies pressed against the glass. The place was packed, with incredible writers and thinkers eager to share there work, and readers eager to hear it.

This got me thinking about the role of the reading at large, and made me question why I felt such instant hesitation about these airline readings. Writers deserve to have their work heard by those interested in or at least open to hearing it. But when that organic willingness, that eagerness, isn’t there, the whole exchange stops holding the shine of a reading. I suspect a lot of the magic is lost. And both parties run the risk of awkward disappointment: the writer reading to an uninterested or even annoyed party, the listeners strongarmed into their status as such.

I think it’s great Southwest wants to keep its passengers entertained and offer something fun, something new, but I hope nothing is cheapened at the expense of this entertainment.

Literary Enemies: Ann Patchett v. Zadie Smith

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Literary Enemies: Ann Patchett vs. Zadie Smith

Disclaimer: Zadie Smith doesn’t care if she has enemies.

I have a recurring dream in which I meet Zadie Smith at a picnic. She compliments my leather jacket—Vintage? she asks—and we begin chatting, and in the end she offers to be my mentor. She’ll teach me how to be a woman writer, she says, and I wake up full of confidence. Zadie knows everything. Zadie will guide me. But when I’m fully awake and I need advice or recognition or consolation, I don’t go to Zadie Smith’s work. Instead, I read Ann Patchett.

Zadie Smith and Ann Patchett are both phenomenal novelists and essayists. They are both contemporary female literary writers who get consistent critical attention. Smith is more given to playing with form and structure than Patchett, but I wouldn’t call either one experimental. And both write ambitiously, but in opposite ways. Zadie Smith makes the small big, and Ann Patchett makes the big small.

Let me show you what I mean. Here’s Samad Iqbal, one of the several protagonists of Smith’s debut White Teeth. He’s talking to a woman with whom he plans to cheat on his wife; she’s just bought him something, and is about to show him what she bought. As she searches for the gift in her purse,

two things happened.

1.1  Samad closed his eyes and heard the words ‘To the pure all things are pure ‘and then, almost immediately afterwards, ‘Can’t say fairer than that.’
1.2  Samad opened his eyes and saw quite clearly by the bandstand his two sons, their white teeth biting into two waxy apples, waving, smiling.

And then Poppy resurfaced, triumphant, with a piece of red plastic in her hand.
‘A toothbrush,’ she said.

In most writers’ work, and in most of our lives, this moment would count for nothing. Most writers would plant Samad’s sons elsewhere in the scene, during a kiss, maybe, or as Samad and Poppy stand to go home together. But Smith takes the quickest, most practical bit of their pre-tryst—I bought you a toothbrush, since you’re going to sleep over—and uses it to blow the relationship up.Continue Reading

A Gathering of Particulars: On Building a Word-Hoard

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It is fitting that the bowerbird roosts in the opening lines of Ted Hughes’s poem “A Literary Life,” for there is perhaps no better mascot for reader and writer both. The species is a known collector, spending the better part of the year building complicated huts from assorted novelties: colored glass and aluminum tabs, bleached bones and rifle shell casings—anything a potential mate might find beautiful. In this slow, deliberate construction is an elaborate invitation. Similar is the writer who builds a “bric-a-brac nest,” curating particulars to invite new understanding. As Marilynn Robinson noted: “Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.”

Yet if the writer is the keen observer, the close reader is also a collector, accumulating words proffered on the page: fragments of sound, fleeting emotions, an uncommon tint. We infuse these modes of seeing into our own vocabularies, heightening our ability to attend to our surroundings. Through books we discover new names for sorrow and shame, just as we learn how to speak of redemption and beauty. Writes Amy Hempel in her novella Tumble Home: “And if you don’t like the person you are? Where do you find the parts to make yourself into some other kind of person? Can it be something you read in a book, a gesture you see on the street?” Words are among the “parts” that allow us to improve ourselves.

One of the oldest known Anglo-Saxon poems celebrates the exchange of gathered language. It is titled “Widsith,” after the well-traveled minstrels who relayed tales of distant realms to public assemblies. It begins:

“Widsith spoke
His word-hoard unlocked”

Certainly words are among our greatest treasures, a portable jewel box from which to draw the vicissitudes of life. Yet a rich “word-hoard” also takes a lifetime to develop. As Mary Ruefle reminds us: “In the beginning William Shakespeare was a baby, and knew absolutely nothing. He couldn’t even speak.” Ben Fountain made a similar point when recalling his first forays into fiction: “I had to create a mental image of a building, a room, a façade, haircut, clothes—just really basic things. I realized I didn’t have the facility to put those into words. I started going out and buying visual dictionaries, architectural dictionaries, and going to school on those.”

The dictionary is part of my own reading process; if I come across a word I do not know, I look it up and record (or hoard) the definition in a notebook. This can make for slow going, as when I recently read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, narrated by a woman with an outsize vocabulary. Yet the effort to define new words never felt tedious; rather, I felt a sense of intentional awareness similar to when a biology course taught me to identify species of birds by their songs. The noisy symbols on the page suddenly held meaning: oneiric, pertaining to dreams; verklempt, overjoyed. I’d found word-treasure, and Fowler had provided the map.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Dark Season” by Maya Sonenberg

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Over the last few decades, it has become more and more common to find mythical narratives such as fairy tales alongside realist fiction in academic and mainstream literary journals and magazines. More publications have also opened up to stories that blend storytelling elements that previously were dismissed as “genre” into the style du jour, realism. Maya Sonenberg, in her story, “Dark Season,” from the latest issue of the Pacifica Literary Review, does a masterful job of weaving together elements of both fairy tales and realism in order to create a new, hybrid reality that in ways feels more true to contemporary life than perhaps either style could aspire to on its own.

When we meet the protagonist—under a section subtitled, “The Dungeon”—he is referred to only as “the boy” and his father as “the king.” Not naming characters is an accepted technique of fables and fairy tales, and we’d be firmly in that mythical tradition, except that woven into these approaches to characterization and storytelling are contemporary details, which push the story elsewhere:

At recess, he kicked a ball around the school yard with his buddies and when it found the back of the net, he shouted, ‘GOOOOAAAAAAL,’ the way he heard the announcers do on the Spanish language soccer broadcasts he listened to at night. He didn’t know where the voices came from…His father, the king…sometimes told him of such places, even claimed to have come from one himself.

The play-by-play reference situates us firmly into contemporary life through content—soccer—as well as style—the spelling and capitalization of the announcer’s cry. Where characters referred to simply as “the boy” and “the king” invite the whole tradition of fairy tales to help provide their characterizations, the soccer descriptions draw their power from the their relation to the present milieu.Continue Reading

Do-Overs: Critical Fiction

James-Dean-in-East-of-Eden Can a story be truly inspired by a classic while serving as a literary critique of that work? Does critical fiction help us to understand our common archetypes? Absolutely. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck is, perhaps, the model for literature as critical writing. Steinbeck structures Eden around the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The reader is directed overtly to the biblical brothers: first with Steinbeck’s patriarch, Adam, and then in two generations of brothers. By reimagining Cain and Abel two times, Steinbeck uses Eden to ask whether we’re born evil or choose our own fate. Each iteration of Steinbeck’s brothers is another response to the same biblical prototype. Ideas of conception, children and evil are explored through several of his generations’ story lines, allowing Steinbeck to wax philosophic through his narrator: “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents…” he says.

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

But Steinbeck’s characters—excepting Cathy—are almost never purely good or evil. His antagonists struggle with their dark nature, making them more complex than the original biblical types. This challenges the reader to question the didactic message of the source. Steinbeck elevates his characters above the Cain and Abel archetype, asking unique questions in a natural extension of the original. Echoing his source, Steinbeck suggests the ability to do both good and evil—in his own characters and (in his heavy-handed narration) in all of mankind. Midway through the book, Steinbeck introduces the biblical idea of timshel, a direct plea to the reader to understand his characters in light of the biblical story.Continue Reading

Easter 1916

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“Easter—that’s a weird tradition,” says the comedian Jim Gaffigan in one of his imagined dialogues. He continues:

“The day Jesus rose from the dead—what should we do?”
How about eggs?
“What does that have to do with Jesus?”
Alright, we’ll hide them.
“….I don’t follow your logic.”
Don’t worry, there’s a bunny.

And if you’re Irish, the mix of Easter traditions can get even stranger. That is because during Easter week the Irish remember the bloody Easter Rising that occurred 99 years ago this year. So, in addition to the other more joyful images of Easter—of new life, growth, and freshness—the Irish also remember a time of intense struggle, death, and violence.

Strange.

But it would have been even stranger to be a poet at that time, especially a poet like William Butler Yeats. On the one hand, Yeats was an Irish nationalist. He had been working to revive Irish theater for a number of years, and he had written countless poems using Irish myths, legends, and folklore. But his battle for Ireland was a cultural one, not the kind carried out with fists and rifles. Like many great poets of the 20th century, Yeats believed in maintaining a separation between poetry and political action. Like his later compatriot Seamus Heaney, he believed that poetry lost its power when it became merely an “agent for proclaiming and correcting injustices.” Thus, Yeats had written a few years before the uprising in “On Being Asked for a War Poem”:

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

But when the uprising began on that Easter Monday of 1916, it was not far from Yeats’s Dublin home, and he couldn’t ignore his kinship with the more than 300 Irish who lay dead by the week’s end.

This time Yeats chose to confront the violence directly in his poetry. But rather than avoid the contradictions and uncertainties of the situation, he managed to embody them in a new style of writing. The result was the poem “Easter 1916,” now famous for its enigmatic refrain: “…Are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”

We might ask, What is a “terrible beauty?” What does it look like? Here Yeats breaks a foundational rule of creative writing by remaining abstract rather than concrete. And he also breaks the rule all pedantic freshman writing instructors hold to by using the passive voice. We know that they are changed, or are born, but we don’t know the precise cause of that change or birth.

Nevertheless, by the final refrain of “A terrible beauty is born,” we realize that the very texture of ambivalence has turned the poem strangely—paradoxically—into a great political anthem.

And that’s the genius of Yeats: he draws upon the material and even the sounds of simple political ballads, and yet he resists the temptation to offer easy answers. He creates a poem that is both passive and passionate, definite and ambivalent. And those contradictions reverberate across time, to 99 years and beyond.

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “A Prerogative” by Rolf Yngve

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We humans as a species have difficulty accepting that our heroes are made of the same plain stuff as the rest of us, which is why it can be so difficult to write a hero story in which the protagonist’s heroic actions appear, well, human. Rolf Yngve’s story, “A Prerogative,” (Kenyon Review March/April 2015) explores the complex nature of heroism through a retired military officer whose actions are never anything less—or more—than human.

We meet the protagonist, Ehrlich, soon after he’s left early from a civilian job he’s taken after a decades-long military career. He’s planning on trimming the roses and relaxing once he gets home, nothing more. Through this, and the nonchalant first line, “Erlich was not an unhappy man,” Yngve is setting the table for the rest of the story by stressing that there is nothing particular noteworthy that will explain what is to come.

What comes first is traffic brought on by what he believes to be a mere fender bender. Instead of passing by, Ehrlich pulls over to help. Then Yngve again tamps down our desire to find something special in the protagonist, an explanation, perhaps a virtue for why he stopped: “He would never know why” he did it, and neither will we. It was nothing special; it was simply his prerogative.Continue Reading

When We Are Given a Feast of Flesh

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How do I remember spaces? Bedrooms, beaches, backseats, bazaars. The time between dreams. Night. The no-man’s land of a twelve-hour flight. I remember the world as words.

I spent my last few weeks in Delhi hunting for books. For relatives, for friends, but, finally, for my own sake: to call back India when I was back in the states, when I was back in the spaces that were so familiar they faded into blurred backgrounds. Reading often works as incantation: in a second I am summoned back to the bookshop where I first flipped through a novel or the waiting room in which I finished the final page.

A place is defined by what I read when I’m there, the words wrestling for attention before memories awake. My months in India involved a mix of glum history, map-filled guidebooks, critical theory with cracked yellow spines, and poetry. So much poetry, in fact, that I bought another grey duffel to check to ship it all back. “What’s in here? Bricks?” asked a friend, hefting one of my bags as we headed to the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Bricks of books that weren’t yet architectures of recollection, reminders of cows crowding the street, cars hugging curbs and honking hello, city skies shot through with smoke and sun.

Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh by N.D. Rajkumar took up only a little space in my grey duffel. The volume, at barely one hundred pages, contains poetry translated from Tamil by Anushiya Ramaswamy and is bookended by a critical essay examining the history of Dalits in India and their literature.

I bought the Rajkumar at the Oxford Bookstore in Delhi. At the time, I thought Oxford was affiliated with Oxford University Press, and I shrank at the idea of supporting a historically colonial enterprise with my purchase of “alternative” Dalit poetry, a poetry that rallies against caste and hierarchical Brahmin values. The Oxford Bookstore chain actually shares no affiliation with the Press, nor is it even based outside of India. The colorful and clean stylization of the bookstore’s orderly insides betray the ecstatic violence and vulgarities of Rajkumar’s verses, where “I watch the old woman in the moon / Clinging to her walking stick / Bend, spread her legs / And piss into the moon” (50). The next poem ends: “I strike the master in his heart.” Perhaps Rajkumar sings of insurrection, but could I even begin to approach this song in this place that sold expensive infused teas and cappuccinos? “If anyone not our kind / Happens to read this manuscript: / Heads will roll,” Rajkumar raises as an omen in the third song. The poems of Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh are not named, but numbered, like tallies struck against a maker.Continue Reading

Five Literary Games

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Roger Ebert once wrote that video games could never be art, which later he would go on to clarify that what he actually meant was video games could never claim the status of “high art,” like that of, oh, say, cinema?

While I would obviously refute this sentiment as a teacher of creative writing for new media (as would the Supreme Court, which in 2011 ruled that video games should be considered an art form, “deserving of First Amendment safeguards as ‘the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them,’” or The Museum of Modern Art, which in 2012 featured an exhibit of 14 games as art objects, among them Pac-Man, Tetris, Myst, and Portal), I would also argue that video games can be quite literary. (And here I differentiate between artful games with a dominant narrative and artful games with a minor or altogether absent narrative—Minecraft, Fez, Tetris, Civilization, for example.)

But what qualifies something as literary? Is it a matter of mere technical accomplishment, its inherent architecture: well-strung together sentences in the case of a book, or in the case of a game its design, aesthetic, and game play mechanics? Is it the capacity to meditate on grand ideas and pose difficult questions? To speak to the human condition? To capture a certain era in history like a portrait frozen in time? Or simply to move us: to tears…to action…to something, anything beyond complacency?

If any of these prerequisites suffice, there are plenty of literary games out there waiting to be played that pack the same punch as a good book, and if I had more time here I would sing the praises of all of them (Shadow of the Colossus, The Legend of Zelda series, Braid, Chronotrigger, Earthbound, Ōkami, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Fallout, et cetera et cetera, ad infinitum) but for starters, here’s a list of five of my favorites you should consider playing tonight instead of starting that new book for a change.

THE LAST OF US

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Death has never felt more appropriately heavy than it does in The Last of Us. In it you assume the role of Joel, a man traversing a zombie-infested urban hellscape and doing his best to leave the past far behind him. This no-looking-back philosophy is challenged when he meets the stubborn and spirited Ellie.

Though the narrative isn’t exactly original, it achieves an impressive depth of realism and thematic richness while, ironically for Ebert, approaching cinematic excellence. It’s a game about survival, loss, our legacy, and the lies we tell ourselves to protect us from pain. In other words, it’s a game about the human creature posing as a game about zombies.

Standout Moment: (Spoiler Alert: Don’t click if you’d rather not spoil the surprise.) Encountering something implausibly beautiful in a world so racked with gloom and grief.

BIOSHOCK SERIES

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In the original Bioshock, you assume the role of Jack exploring the mysterious underwater city of Rapture and evading big mechanical baddies called Big Daddies.

Striking a perfect balance between gorgeous aesthetic and meaty narrative, what really sets the Bioshock series apart from its first-person shooter predecessors is its meditation on big philosophical ideas about governance, ttopias, salvation, and free will vs. determinism.

Standout Moment: A very Lynchian meeting with Sander Cohen. Or in Bioshock Infinite, a barbershop quartet Beach Boys concert.

DEUS EX SERIES, MINUS INVISIBLE WAR (DEUS EX 1 + DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION)

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In the original Deus Ex you assume the role of JC Denton, a biomechanically-enhanced agent for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition, as he tangles with Majestic 12, Hong Kong Triads, and even the Illuminati.

Equally of the mind and the heart, the Deus Ex series asks difficult questions about what it means to be human, and dares us to envision the implications of our rapid evolution toward something like the Singularity. Full of dark conspiratorial twists and turns, Deus Ex offers us a glimpse into the nearer-than-we-think future.

Standout Moment: When you are standing at the edge of civilization, the fate of all mankind is left up to you with the push of a button.

HEAVY RAIN

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A dark noir thriller that tells the intertwining story of four characters and their link to a serial murderer called The Origami Killer, Heavy Rain boasts expert pacing and one of the most compelling plots I’ve ever encountered in a game, taut as a tightrope and as gripping as a masterful novel.

Standout Moment: When you’re unexpectedly immersed in the shoes of the killer, and suddenly you understand why they are the way they are.

RED DEAD REDEMPTION

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In RDR, you assume the role of John Marston, a former outlaw tasked with performing some unfinished business for the government in exchange for his family’s release, who are being held for ransom.

If the litmus test for great literature is its ability to move us to a tearful gushing mess, then Red Dead Redemption certainly qualifies, though it might seem like an unlikely candidate at first. With its western genre-ness, dark humor, and antihero protagonist who at first may seem like a pretty two-dimensional character, RDR soon exceeds all expectations, counterbalancing one sinner’s search for redemption with an Old Testament sermon on the cyclical nature of revenge and mankind’s capacity for violence.

Standout Moment: Riding through Mexico to Juan Gonzalez’s Far Away. For a spell, true redemption almost seems possible.