Rehabbing the Southern Way of Life: On “The World’s Largest Man”

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At a cultural moment when it seems the Southern Way of Life needs some image rehab, the timing of Harrison Scott Key’s memoir of his Mississippi childhood is impeccable. The World’s Largest Man takes on the Southern masculine ideal, violence, race and more, all under the guise of amiable family anecdote.

Comprised of humorous, highly polished essays with a loose through-line (mainly Key’s rural upbringing and his relationship with his taciturn and boulder-like father), the book can be described as at least part hunting memoir. During his childhood, young Key was regularly roused by his father in the pre-dawn hours to commence a “campaign of slaughter through the animal kingdom,” which included at one point, accidentally shooting the face off a fawn. The episode is one of many that shape the author’s ambivalent relationship with guns. “It was embarrassing that my children did not know what an actual gun looked like,” he writes late in the book, “Or was this a good thing?”Continue Reading

Deep Valley Homecoming and Laurapalooza: Keeping Classic Children’s Literature Alive

In a ballroom in Mankato, MN one June evening, a murder mystery unfolds called “Betsy and Tacy Go Downton.” Each table is supposed to cast our votes for whodunit: a character from Maud Hart Lovelace’s charming Betsy-Tacy books, which take place at the turn of the twentieth century? Or one of the “visiting cousins” from Downton Abbey? I’m sure it’s going to be someone from Downton Abbey. Betsy and her family and friends are just too nice.

I hasten to add that these favorite characters from my childhood are not, however, bland. If you haven’t heard of them, it’s your loss, though not unusual: the Betsy-Tacy Society’s slogan is “I thought I was the only one” because so many fans grew up thinking these books were our own personal discovery. And now, miraculously, a whole slew of avid fans have turned out for this dinner and play—at least 50 of us— that kick off Deep Valley Homecoming, a celebration of Lovelace’s work.

I’m spending my summer at smaller-scale children’s-literature-related versions of Comic-Con and Star Trek Conventions—DVH, and, a few weeks later, Laurapalooza, focusing on the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I hang out with women in Merry Widow hats, so wide they used to get caught in train doors, and in sunbonnets like the ones that Laura hated. These conferences strip away academic jargon and ironic distance in favor of an immersive experience that imitates the all-consuming absorption in books of many of our childhoods.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Fanfare” by Bruno Nelson

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Wake up one morning and go to the nearest busy street and sit down on a bench and watch how people walk. Their gait, their posture, their stride, their tempo—these could all tell us a little something about their lives and how they interact with the world. I see voice in fiction operating in the same way; not only what’s being said, but how it’s being said can potentially reveal the whole world of a character. The narrative voice in “Fanfare” (Agni) by Bruno Nelson does just that.

Here’s how the story opens.

“He was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was not an octuplet. He was not conjoined.

He was not a virtuoso and he did not write symphonies. He wondered why his mother always came to his aid when there were seven people living in the house. Later he would play bass clarinet in the high school band.

He did not, at the age of six, derive a formula for summing the integers from one to one hundred. He worried the acorn he planted by the side of the house would grow to take off the roof. He confessed the next day.”

A few things jump out. The first is that it’s presented in a very close third, and a peculiar one at that. After a few lines it begins to read as though the character is speaking about himself in the third person. Second is that narrator is going out of his way to downplay his importance, making it clear that he’s unremarkable in terms of birth, nor is he a child prodigy. But neither is he a flat character—there’s such sweetness and complexity in the acorn image.

Nelson moves quickly through the short summaries of the protagonist’s life, which makes sense, considering the narrative voice’s insistence that its subject isn’t worth much of our time. As the protagonist grows older, the list of what the character didn’t accomplish grows more outlandish, while the list of what he did achieve becomes more mundane. But it’s really funny, both due to the contrast as well as to the understatement of the delivery—and as a result it never feels self-pitying.

“He didn’t discover the source of the Nile. He correctly figured the rainwater in the master bedroom was coming from the sliding glass door on the loft level, not the flat roof deck. For days he mocked the roofer’s speech on water migration.

He did not run through the streets yelling I have found it. Whenever a nude stranger started a conversation in the locker room, he would get irritated.

He was never held for ransom by pirates whom he subsequently captured and executed. He got seven months of free cable when they neglected to terminate his service after he cancelled.”

The narrator is wonderfully jocular; he doesn’t take the heroic narratives he’s ingested his entire life too seriously, nor does he put much stock in his own personal victories. They are the stuff of life, and if there’s an importance to them, it’s that he faced them, no matter how small. Though humorous, this isn’t a passive narrator, nor a passive voice. So then, what does this narrator take seriously? Watch what happens in the last two lines.

“They didn’t find 1800 poems in his desk after he died. He kept a journal for a while in his twenties and ultimately created a body of work on Amazon reviews.

He is not buried at Père Lachaise. His grave marker: name, year of birth, year of death. Too much information, his granddaughter might say.”

What’s his legacy? It’s certainly not personal achievement, at least in terms of occupation, nor did anything he do change the course of civilization. But in the last line we get a different kind of legacy: that of family. But it’s even more than that. Not only does he have a granddaughter, there’s evidence she’s inherited his posture towards the world, and the most remarkable thing about this story—his voice.

 

Review: WHAT COMES NEXT AND HOW TO LIKE IT by Abigail Thomas

what-comes-next-and-how-to-like-it-9781476785059_hrWhat Comes Next and How to Like It
Abigail Thomas
Scribner, March 2015
240 pages

Buy: book | ebook

I was first introduced to Abigail Thomas’s work in grad school when I read Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life. Initially, I was startled by its economy of words, wondering how all those little pieces were going to fit together to form something larger. To my surprise (which says a lot about me, I’m sure), they did fit, perfectly, and after I closed the book I found myself thinking about it for days.

Such is the subtle way Abigail Thomas enters the lives of her readers. Now in her 70s, she recently published her seventh book, What Comes Next and How to Like It. Like Safekeeping, it’s filled with white space, some chapters holding no more than a single paragraph, others filling a few pages; all of them seeking to answer the question of what comes next—in her life, and perhaps in ours.Continue Reading

The Economic Crisis and Survival of Greek Letters Part 2: Growing Up

PSM_V40_D095_Selvage_and_mesh_rope_knotsLike most good things in my life, I stumbled upon Yiorgos Chouliaras’ poem, “Grow Up,” by accident. It came to me like one of the great gifts from the literary Gods—in an e-mail no less. I read it, I loved it, I printed it out and taped it to my office wall, if only for my students to read and freak out about while I’m grading their papers. It is a beautifully dark, impossibly unhinged poem. It’s about Greece, it’s about the crisis, but more than that it’s about the layers of that word, crisis. It goes like this:

 GROW UP

(First summary of a life’s work)

A person sits on a chair. A piece of rope, with a noose around his neck, is tied to the branch of a tree, which does not exceed the height of the person sitting, who is watering it in order to grow so that, if he stands on the chair and kicks it away, he will hang.Continue Reading

New Ploughshares Solo: “Biting the Moon” by Joan Frank

biting the moonWe’re excited to announce the release of our newest Ploughshares Solo, “Biting the Moon” by Joan Frank! In our Ploughshares Solos series, we publish longer stories and essays first in an affordable, digital format, and then in our annual Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Series. For more information and some great reading material, check out our previously published Solos, or the Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2.

About “Biting the Moon”

It’s been years since the woman in “Biting the Moon” has seen her former lover Felix, a famous, Oscar-winning composer. But upon hearing the news of his sudden death, she mourns his loss by revisiting moments of their former life. Jumping in time from the pair’s first encounter at an artists’ colony to their rendezvous in cities across the US, the path the narrator takes toward acceptance is much like the jazz the couple loved so much: winding, unexpected, and beautiful.

“Biting the Moon” is available on pshares.org for $2.99. Continue Reading

Round-Down: Adam Johnson’s New Story to Sell for $9,000

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Adam Johnson, the author of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Orphan Master’s Son, has a new story collection, Fortunes Smiles, out today. The collection, which includes six stories, was recently reviewed, with high praise, by Lauren Groff for The New York Times.

Each of the stories in the collection have appeared in esteemed journals such as Tin House, except one. In December, this story, “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” will be the feature of a collaboration with the artists at 21st Editions called “The Janus Turn.” Only thirty-seven copies of the resulting work will be produced. And they will each sell for the handsome sum of nine thousand dollars.

Ron Charles at The Washington Post said of the collaboration: “What a different experience this will be than scrolling through the text on your e-reader. You would never accidentally leave this on the subway.”

It’s true, of course—you wouldn’t. 21st Editions is a maker of literature-focused art that encourages the exploration of the thoughtful intersection between content and its forms.

But does engaging with a story differently, in another format, ineluctably change the story itself? I’d argue the answer is yes—it does. That the work is titled “The Janus Turn” already creates a new perspective, a complicated duality, story and art mirroring one another.

If there is another question, then, it seems to be: Is “The Janus Turn” worth $9,000? To which I would respond, “Of course. Could a Picasso be worth millions?”

It’s true that it’s not the same thing—but I do think that it is impossibly difficult to assign monetary value to the care taken and the process endured in creating art.

It would be interesting to see how 21st Editions could grow its operation with other written work or make its art more accessible. It does seem, however, that these are things that seem to run in some discord with the company’s high aim to follow, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, “in Alfred Stieglitz’s footsteps,” in enriching and exalting photography as an art form. Compromise in any direction would simply cheapen the work. This is art at its highest and, sure, most expensive, but it is well worth our attention and admiration.

Writing the Body: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maggie Nelson, & Lidia Yuknavitch

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The age of media and internet is one of fractal, ephemeral bodies—well-curated images of the self from certain angles and frozen in time, dust-coated corpses at the aftermath of a quake that provide little context, statistics and numbers that break down how many and what ages and when, yet provide little to no feeling. The body in writing is a vessel to feeling—to empathy. Reading Lidia Yuknavitch, Maggie Nelson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, is to feel.

At a recent lecture, Maggie Nelson said that a “ringing sense of mortality […] underscores everything we write.” The body, unlike the internet, is finite. It is deeply personal and universal—we all have one, but we only ever experience our own. Lidia Yuknavitch says, “we live by and through the body, and the body, is a walking contradiction.” Meaning, a body can be both beautiful and violent, and often fosters both simultaneously—new life and eventual death. Lidia Yuknavitch’s anti-memoir The Chronology of Water opens with a stillborn, rooting the reader in the author’s body at a certain place in time.Continue Reading

Tyrants big and little

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How would an onlooker have described the scene at the 2nd hole of the golf course I played on during the summer after high school? The tee overlooked the pin far below, nearly a vertical drop, and way in the left-hand distance were mountains that looked serrated down the middle. It all seemed to converge at once: my future looming large, big mountains, plate tectonics, the years and years, the 9 iron or the pitching wedge?, my own small and un-forever life. My friends were rummaging in their bags as I tried to keep my heartbeat quiet. Those mountains could’ve killed me. This is how the 2nd hole felt to me.

This was Joan Didion’s reason for keeping a notebook, to record “how it felt to me.” The mountains that could have taken the onlooker’s breath away to me were dark and devoid of majesty. This is differential construal: how we judge life’s circumstances differently. That afternoon I was at the losing end of it.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Oil Dog” by Kelly Dulaney

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It can be difficult to write short stories about large global issues—take, for instance, our worldwide dependency on fossil fuels—and not have it come off as preachy, in need of novel-length expansion, or as a coy thematic stand-in for our characters’ interior lives. Kelly Dulaney’s short story “Oil Dog” (The Collagist) suffers none of those faults; it personifies the dark side of oil dependency in the form of a demon dog, tracking its presence throughout history, making the reader face its terror head on.

We first meet the oil dog in the year 1942. He visits the physicist Richard Gordon, who’s currently employed in the military, on a training mission with fellow soldiers in an unnamed desert.

“When he opens his eyes again, an oil dog is dancing beside the idling engine. It laughs. Richard Gordon! Richard Gordon! it says. The oil drips from its fur, staining the sand. It snaps its teeth suddenly. It lowers its voice until its words sound like snares. You’ll never shake me off, Richard Gordon, it says. I’ll always eat at your heels.”

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