Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations: Early Comics 1909-1919

Rube Goldberg
Sunday Press ($35)

by Jeff Alford

Even before he was celebrated internationally for his zany inventions, Reuben Lucius Goldberg churned out cartoons like a machine. He built his comics around a simple premise, typically a recurring punchline or structural gimmick. His 1912 cartoon I'm The Guy features repeated wordplay, with characters who "put the ale in Yale" and the "con in congress." The 1914 strip Old Man Alf of the Alphabet turns familiar acronyms inside out: in one cartoon, a poker I.O.U. is explained to actually mean "I'm Often Untruthful." Some strips were riddles, with literary titles hidden in silly scenes: "Next station is Ferno," a train conductor announces in one puzzle, while two passengers muse about how a friend named "Bill Dante" lives in town. "What does this awful mess represent?" the cartoon asks.

Between 1907 and 1938, Goldberg created over 100 different cartoons, and while many of them were short-lived, a few proved to have substantial staying power due to their delicate balance of social satire and relatable humor. From 1909 to the mid-1930s, Goldberg penned a single-panel comic called Foolish Questions that repeats the same sarcastically screwball shtick with each new iteration. Every cartoon depicts a person in the middle of particular task, interrupted by an onlooker who asks, stupidly, if they're doing exactly what it looks like they're doing. The interlocutor, naturally, receives a snappy reply. "Feeding the cat, Lemuel?" a man asks, as another man tends to his feline. "No, you herring, I'm biting the horns off a goat." Some can be quite sassy: "Going to school, Sonny?" a man asks as schoolboy tromps by. "No you simp," he replies, "I'm on my way to an undertaking parlor to meet a bunch of live ones."

The formulaic nature of Foolish Questions allows little room for flourish, but Goldberg manages to capture the early 1900s in a vaudevillian shimmer and trades social niceties for some bite. In one cartoon, a major world event is brushed aside: "Oh, has the pole been discovered?" a man asks as another man reads the newspaper, its front page screaming reports of recent arctic exploration. "No, you rummy-this is an account of a dog fight in a frying pan."

Foolish Questions laid the groundwork for the machine drawings that would transform Goldberg into a household name. Goldberg realized through the strip that he could sink into a gag and let that machine run until its wheels fell off. His inventive chain reactions were absurdist, imaginative feats: one, for example, depicts a "Professor Butts" wearing his "Self-Operating Napkin," which connects his soup spoon to a headpiece carrying an alarm clock, a rocket, and an exotic bird, all of which would somehow lead to an automated face-wiping. By the 1920s, Goldberg was everywhere, from syndicated funny pages to progressive art magazines like Tristan Tzara's Dada. Today, his drawings and, more importantly, his influence, can be found in major art museums: much of Dada's mischief and the momentum of Futurism can be chained backwards to Goldberg's pen. Jean Tinguely's kinetic sculptures, for example, owe a mechanized tip of the hat to the cartoonist's pointed dreams of useless complexity.

Sunday Press's Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations compiles over 250 of Goldberg's cartoons, including his complete Foolish Questions output for the Sunday Chicago Tribune from 1909-1910. To read them all in sequence is somewhere between mind-numbing, soothing, and positively transcendent. The book is beautifully produced, with the subtlest coloring that accentuates Goldberg's brilliant penstrokes and trailblazing lettering. But to have what is loosely the same joke repeated four times a page creates a bizarre new reading experience: the book's elegant presentation suggests there must be some way to unlock these gags and find some cohesive, metatextual glue between them all. Could there be repeated themes to the interchangeable variables of name, action, and put-down? Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations feels like a riddle in itself, like there must be a code to crack their screwy simplicity.

In the end, we may not need to put the gold in Goldberg; these cartoons make as much sense as "playing auction pinochle with a musk ox", and that's perfectly alright. Left to their wacky inanity, they showcase a writer committing wholly to a simple goof, and that commitment alone boasts a marvelous sort of artistry. Perhaps it is because these gags do not transcend into something larger that makes them so special. While they may risk oversaturation and feel at times repetitive, they hold a remarkable mirror to the wonderful ridiculousness of daily life, reminding us that even when we have nothing to say we find a way to say it, day after day.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

from unincorporated territory [lukao]

Craig Santos Perez
Omnidawn ($17.95)

by Robyn Maree Pickens

Where a banyan tree is adventitious, with its branches and roots growing in a promiscuous tangle, from unincorporated territory [lukao] by Craig Santos Perez is ordered and carefully wrought. Beyond this initial comparison however, Perez deploys the banyan tree as both metaphor and symbol of two interrelated political pairings: colonisation/decolonisation and militarisation/demilitarisation. The book pivots on the tension between these two pairings, and on another dichotomy: birth/death.

Like the branches and roots of a banyan tree Perez constructs a dense weave of themes that are bolstered by formal (linguistic, stylistic, typographic) techniques, a method he recounts in "ginen understory (i tinituhon)":

i taotaomo'na : the spirits of before also dwell within the space
of i trunkun nunu : the giant banyan tree, whose aerial roots fall
from branches, intertwine, fuse, and root // as time passes, new
trunks form until a single tree becomes an archipelago

Perez rarely uses language for singular meaning: "archipelago," for example, refers to the Mariana Archipelago of Micronesia in the western Pacific, and to the project of Chamorro self-sovereignty. Chamorro are the indigenous people of Guåhan (Guam) and the Mariana Archipelago. (Perez is Chamorro but grew up in San Francisco from the age of fifteen; he currently teaches at the University of Hawai'i.) In the above passage, "i trunkun nunu : the giant banyan tree" symbolises the project of remaking Guåhan into a place where "i taotaomo'na : the spirits of before" can once again dwell. The proliferation of the banyan tree into an archipelago is a metaphor of Chamorro self-sovereignty. As such the project necessarily invokes colonisation/decolonisation, militarisation/demilitarisation, and birth/death.

from unincorporated territory [lukao] is anti-colonial, as the title makes clear. Guåhan is an unincorporated territory of the United States. This designation entitles Guamanians to American citizenship but not the right to vote. Their island is used primarily as a military base for the U.S army. It is from this colonised, militarised position that Perez situates his anti-colonial/anti-militarisation suite of work. from unincorporated territory [lukao] is preceded by 2008's from unincorporated territory [hacha], 2010's from unincorporated territory [saina], and 2014's from unincorporated territory [guma']. Each collection is a branch, an aerial root of a giant banyan tree on its way to becoming an archipelago of self-sovereignty.

[lukao] means procession, a thematic that enables Perez to encompass Chamorro creation stories of Guåhan's origins; reflections on the chain of nations who have colonised Guåhan (Spain, Japan, U.S); his own familial history; religious rites; and the birth of his daughter Kaikainali'i (addressed as "[neni]"). These themes are distributed throughout the four main sections of from unincorporated territory [lukao] under five titles (one of which has five subtitles). This distribution enables variant iterations and repetitions of words, phrases, and typographic strategies such as: double forward and backward slash (\\ //); square brackets ([you] refers to Brandy Nālani, Perez' wife); faded type (for extinct birds); strikethrough text (for banned Chamorro birthing practices); italicised text (English translation of Chamorro words); colon with a space on either side, as in "i trunkun nunu : the giant banyan tree" (perhaps to give equal weight to the two languages); ~~~ as separatory devices, and # to indicate both digital saturation and recent (and on-going) political movements such as #blacklivesmatter.

This list, although fairly comprehensive, shines only small shafts of light onto a dazzlingly complex architecture that supports intricate, multilingual, multi-register layers of meaning. The use of the double forward and backward slash at the beginning and end of phrases (in some poems), for example, is not a typographical conceit, but perhaps instantiates kåntan chamorrita, a Chamorro practice:

. . . \\ they stood in circles and chanted rhymed
verses back and forth // [we] call this communal poetic form
kåntan chamorrita (which translates as to sing both forwards and

There are many paths that sing forwards and backwards throughout this collection, but a good one to follow as it braids is lukao : procession. The first appearance of lukao occurs on the contents page with three untranslated Chamorro words held between tildes:

hånom håga' hånom

Although not a Chamorro speaker, I take the phrase to mean: water daughter water. Hånom : water occurs multiple times throughout the collection, and one close translation of håga' suggests daughter, which is fitting given that the birth of Perez' daughter Kaikainali'i is central to from unincorporated territory [lukao]. Kaikainali'i's imminent arrival is captured in the unspaced closing sequence from "ginen understory (i tinituhon)":


From birth, lukao leads the reader to Perez's grandmother, and the missionary strategy of the Spanish who colonised Guåhan in the mid-sixteenth century:

. . . // grandma lights votive candles,
dusts the wooden crucifix, and kisses her lisayu : rosary :
procession of prayers \\

This religious mandate and the impact it had on indigenous ritual practices is subsequently narrated in the second iteration of "ginen organic acts":

the spanish brought their god and bible, suppressed the story
of fu'una and puntan, and forbade the procession
to laso fu'a in humåtak bay

Fu'una is the first mother of Guåhan creation stories, and Puntan, the first father (Fu'una's brother). Laso fu'a names the creation point in Humåtak Bay where life began. The sacral procession to laso fu'a is made banal in the ersatz Liberation Day parade each July 21 when Guåhan "celebrates" their "liberation" from the Japanese by the Americans in 1944:

. . . The patriotic procession takes place on Marine
Corps Drive, our main highway

From civic banality, lukao cycles back to a recuperation and reconstitution of the original procession to the creation point in the third iteration of "ginen organic acts":

on that day in 2014, the cultural groups our
islands are sacred and hinasso* revived the lukao fuha, the annual
procession to humåtak bay in honour of fu'una and puntan \\
silenced for centuries //

{*the name of another group, which "translates as imagination, thought, memory, or reflection"}

In the fourth and final iteration of ginen organic acts, lukao returns to Perez's daughter Kaikainali'I ([neni]):


walks to her, opens her arms // grandma kisses her cheek,
breathes deep her baby scent \\ lukao between four generations

With the theme of lukao : procession, Perez weaves together the birth of Guåhan and his daughter, missionisation, religion, and the revival of ritual procession practices; through these manifestations Perez in turn encompasses Guåhan's historical and current colonisation and Chamorro resistance through reinvigorated ritual. The entire collection flourishes on this hinge of past and present: balancing loss with renewal, grief and anger with humor and touches of lyrical beauty. from unincorporated territory [lukao] holds the bitter (faded out calls of extinct birds) and the sweet (new life), as in the closing sequence from the fourth and last iteration of "ginen island of no birdsong":

i believe in the resurgence
of our bodies because
[we] are the seeds
ginen {from}* the last hayun lågu {native fire tree}
waiting to be rooted
into kantan chamorrita {to sing forwards and backwards},
waiting to be raised
once more into lukao {procession}

"kaaa-ah o asaina kaaa-ah o aniti"
"kshh-skshh-skshh-kroo-ee o asaina
kroo-ee kroo-ee o aniti"

{* = translation added}

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Attributed to the Harrow Painter

Nick Twemlow
University of Iowa Press ($18)

by Stephanie Burt

If you started writing, or reading, contemporary poetry in the 1990s, you may remember how disconnected from practical matters so many poets (mostly white ones) seemed; you may remember how many then—urgent questions about art and language and style spoke almost entirely (so it seemed then) to art and language and style. And if you've read what counted as contemporary poetry in the late 1960s, or the 1930s, you may already know what happens when once-detached poets get woke; how self-important, or shallow, the results can be. Poets write what they need to write, when they are acting as poets, whether or not it reacts to the news; poets, as Auden put it, seek "the clear expression of mixed feelings." Yet some of those feelings—especially in these rough times—can be "holy crap, I've been privileged! What have I missed?"; "Why do I keep writing poetry, when the world is on fire? Isn't it selfish, or pointless?" You may also ask (if you have kids) "How can my poems help my kids?"

All those feelings energize Nick Twemlow's disarming new book, Attributed to the Harrow Painter, which feels almost—but not quite—like a palinode, a taking back, of the more recondite, more evasive work that he and other members of his cohort were writing, and publishing, ten and fifteen years ago. It is, not by coincidence, also a book of autobiography, a book about parenthood (especially fatherhood), a book about realizing what you have inherited (like it or not); how you can inherit privilege and damage, shame and pride, at once; and what to do when you realize that your old conceptions of style no longer work for you.

For those questions, Twemlow has found a cadence that pursues disillusion, frustration, anticlimax, the sense that he and his past have let him down. He writes almost entirely in long demotic sentences broken up into choppy free verse, exactly right for flat questions like this: "Tell me / How your / Radical formalism / Saves lives / Exactly?" Or like this: "What do you need / To be reminded of your / Obsolescence? I can/ Go on, but do you need / Me to?" Such short lines, rich in anticlimax, dribble down the page for most of the book. What were the 1990s, for Twemlow? Answer: "We didn't just live / In a bubble, we built / The fucker breath by breath . . . We were students of something / Complicit / As two plugs of dirt."

Few poets so clearly committed, emotionally, to poetry have dwelt for so long on the dubious value of their own poetry, and Twemlow—whose poems do run long, like shaggy dog jokes—strives to convey the feeling that he is wasting his life: "These lyrics offer nothing, / Stolen & begged for, / They relieve / No one as they relive / The traumas . . . of my past, / Which I've grafted / Onto you." Twemlow sometimes prints the same kind of language as prose: "Why depict spiders skittering All over our dreams I didn't mean I didn't always Love my mother her Name is Robyn same As my wife." (No, Rain Taxi hasn't left out the virgules: that's how it looks in the book.) The Robyn who married Twemlow is Robyn Schiff, whose most recent book of poetry, A Woman of Property, pursues some of the questions that Twemlow asks—is poetry worth it? is art self-indulgent? what can we do for our kids, in these parlous years?—She and her husband have moved in opposite directions, he towards apparent mess and spontaneity, she towards the involuted and nearly Baroque.

Both address art history, too. The titular Harrow painter is one of those "people" art historians make up—nothing about him, beyond his work, is known. That work—ancient Greek vase paintings of beautiful boys—is regarded as minor, or inconsequential, as Twemlow fears or believes our poetry will be. "Classical Greece," like "civilization," like "poetry," promised a lot more than it can deliver now:

The great poem
Is chiseled rock.
The great poem
Rages with
White fire.
. . . . . . . . . . .
The great poem
Steals rolls
Of toilet paper
Every chance it gets.

"The great poem," we learn, might be no better, and no better for the young, than a tennis coach given to inappropriate touching: "I'm an artist, he told me." No wonder Twemlow's attention to visual art comes about almost reluctantly; there's more here about his teen and post-teen years, his smoke-filled hangouts with Kira, George, Andy, which might not be that different from poetry workshops, or urbane launch parties, with writers whose names you might know:

Poetry is super duper,
In a loop, say it with me.
I'm fine with all this
Pretend stuff
About how my friends are
My only real audience
Except didn't some of us
At least have slightly bigger

The word "slightly" hurts. So does Twemlow's admission, "Most of the poets / I've met felt ashamed": ashamed either of making their art merely personal (what the scholar Gillian White calls "lyric shame"), or of unrealistic, revolutionary vanguardist ambitions (radical critiques of capitalist language, comprehensible only to friends). They might be ashamed of their present lives, having settled in an English department rather than organizing Gulf Coast flood relief, and they might remain ashamed of their past, of the sexual trauma or class trauma or whatever trauma made them think creative writing would save them.

Attributed to the Harrow Painter talks back not just to White's idea of shame but to Ben Lerner's recent argument (in The Hatred of Poetry) that we look down on actual poems, and their authors, because no real poem can cash the checks that "poetry," that lofty concept, writes. Why does Twemlow use verse, if he's lost belief both in the old ambitions of verse (to be lyrical, to last forever, to save our souls) and in the new ones (to make us all modern, to attack cliché, to bring revolution)? One answer fits the kind of verse he chose: verse is the medium of introspection, of turning and turning back on oneself, of stopping yourself short as often as you go on. Twemlow's long poems (and they are long: "Burnett's Mound" lasts twenty-one pages) also partake of the offhand ongoingness familiar from book-length post-Beat works like Ariana Reines's Coeur de Leon and Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day: the verse fits not condensed conclusions but helpless impressions, reluctant notions, and unwanted, disorienting memories, as when Twemlow recalls being "So high coming / Back to [a high school] class one day, / Investing myself back into / My chair," and then, of course, laughing.

Is poetry just another fidget spinner, a way "To distract myself / From the need to / Distract myself"? Is there any point in "Conveying how just being / Just feels" when "My latest concern / Is our son"? Twemlow throws shade on the value of poetry, and and on the value of your time, if you keep reading him, but there is one source of value he never doubts: his and Schiff's son Sacha (named in the book). What kind of poetry can make the world more valuable, or safer, or more fun, for Sacha? If such a poetry exists, can Twemlow write it?

Maybe not—who knows?—but, having given up on older defenses of poetry, Twemlow can try. The title poem tells a sad, disturbing story, one whose ending I won't give up; the poem, and the story, ultimately suggest poetry, like the other arts, exists not because it can save us, but because some of us can't help but make it, and can't help but want it, or want more of it:

You read the wrong thing
At the wrong time
& poof! There it goes
All getting under your skin
For life!

Twemlow once worked reading commercial screenplays—anti-poetry, as it were; proposals for spectacles; he "learned to hate / Reading anything / That was for sale." Poetry might even sell—it might get you a job—but it's still a kind of resistance to practicality, to spectacle, to being told what to do, or doing what sells. So is toking up and skipping class, but poetry stays interesting for longer, at least when you're an adult. Poetry won't answer your scariest questions, but it can certainly help you ask them; poetry also—because it can be very short or very long; because its lines give writers a way to stop, or reverse, or restart, our sense of time; because it lets you listen to yourself—can help you address your own past; you might even find out what, if any, of your prior thoughts, of what you once thought you had to say, rings true.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

The World to Come

Jim Shepard
Vintage ($16)

by Ray Barker

1987's holiday film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles has nothing on Jim Shepard's recent short story collection, The World to Come. Nearly all manner of transport is explored: ship ("HMS Terror"), train ("Positive Train Control"), horse-and-buggy ("The World to Come"), and even hot air balloon ("The Ocean of Air"). Readers familiar with Shepard's previous short story collections would expect this; the title story from an earlier collection, Love and Hydrogen, depicts forbidden love aboard the doomed Hindenburg, after all. That story, and the majority of the ten here, are quintessential Shepard, mining historical events to illuminate human emotions.

As in his previous work, the primary sources Shepard consulted in the course of his research form the backbone of the bulk of his stories. (The list of those sources, offered in the books acknowledgments, could serve as its own experimental short story.) And as before, Shepard's tales are most effective when framed by a particular historical context. One can easily see this, for example, in The World to Come's opening story, "Safety Tips for Living Alone." In it, tragic and true events are filtered through the private lives of a handful of the husbands and wives affected by the collapse of a radar tower in Texas, 1961. The collapse of "Texas Tower no. 4 became one of the Air Force's most unlikely achievements and most lethal peacetime disasters, marooning nineteen wives including Ellie Phelan, Betty Bakke, Edna Kovarick, and Jeannette Laino in their own little stewpots of grief and recrimination." Shepard walks the reader through actual events with grace, offering both an instructive history lesson and a profound exploration of how regular lives are affected by national accidents.

Less successful is "Intimacy," an unintentionally ironic title as it is the least intimate story in the collection. Detailing the before, during, and after of a hurricane hitting sections of Australia, along with its devastating effects on three characters, the accumulation of details just pile up, with no broader significance. It almost reads like someone doing a sub-par imitation of Shepard.

When he's on, however, Shepard excels at creating authentic voices, regardless of the character. Journal entries form the narrative for "HMS Terror," where real-life Navy Captain and arctic explorer John Franklin's "lost expedition" is described by fictional crew member, Lieutenant Edward Little, from 1845 to 1848. As the unfortunate expedition progresses, the thoughtful entries slowly reveal a new tragedy each day:

Two more died in the night and when we set off in the morning two others, when it came time to pull, were unable to tighten their traces. We haul until everything goes black before our eyes. We sink to our chests in ponds of meltwater a quarter-mile across. My feet at days' end are yellow and wooden and swollen, and the toenails sugarcoat with frost while I inspect them. The soles have started to peel off.

As the horror unfolds (records indicate the crew eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive, at least temporarily), the narrator reflects on his still-felt romantic failures with a former classmate, and his personal failures are contrasted with the epic one. These entries, and Shepard's "historical fiction" in general, are not a dry telling of events, but rather evocative re-imaginings of a history that is told precisely and personally.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

The Clouds

Juan José Saer
Translated by Hilary Vaughn Dobel
Open Letter ($14.95)

by Erik Noonan

For the most part, contemporary fiction consists of dreams just about to come true, except that now and then a voice interrupts our slumber party, to invoke the tradition of Don Quixote and Lazarillo de Tormes. In this spirit, the anglophone reader who craves some profondeur in her divertissement will take pleasure in a new translation of The Clouds, a 1997 novel about madness in a millennial wasteland by Argentine author Juan José Saer (1937-2005).

His wife and sons having gone ahead to the seaside, Pinchón Garay, a Parisian academic from an unnamed city in the Southern Hemisphere, receives a disk from an old friend containing a transcription of an 1835 manuscript passed on to her by an archivist, and sits at his computer to read. The narrative relates a journey from Santa Fé to Buenos Aires, undertaken in August 1804 by a psychiatrist named Dr. Real, his guide Osuna, and five people who will become the inaugural cohort at Las Tres Acacias, an insane asylum soon to open at their destination: Prudencio Parra, who has gone mute and concentrates all his energy in a balled-up fist; Sister Teresita, a nun who has been reformed by the ladies of the evening she set out to reform; Troncoso, an aristocrat more at home in the company of the elemental forces of the universe than in society; Juan Verde, who crams everything he wants to say into the phrase Morning, noon, and night and never says anything else; and Juan's little brother, Verdecito, who expresses himself with every vocal sound imaginable except articulate speech. Beset by the terrible heat of the llano, the interpersonal dynamics of the group, their own maladies, and a gang of marauders led by the dreaded violinist-bandit Josesito, the little caravan makes its way to the closing pages of the story, whereupon the weather breaks, in the form of the clouds of the title, followed closely by a wildfire that lays the countryside to waste while the travelers take refuge in a lake until the blaze surrounds and passes them.

In this fiction, a doctor, the safeguard of the community's health, is the transmitter of civilization. The ruling passion of our narrator is bureaucratic—this is not an intrepid adventurer, but an efficient administrator—yet the chief pleasure of the book is Dr. Real's subtle commentary upon the action. Fearing public exposure as a psychiatric patient, Troncoso only ceases his antics when the doctor appears, while the latter remarks: "By revealing that connection to reality, he eased my concern, though only to an extent; experience has generally proven that, beneath that deceptive meekness, frenzy often grows impatient." When some local prostitutes adopt an adversarial stance toward the hypersexual Teresita, Real observes that "what the women took as an affront on the little nun's part, was, in a way, an homage she paid them." Reflecting on human behavior, Real reveals himself to be a naturalist: "A group of butterflies that all unmistakably perform the same motion at the same time puts our categories of individual and species to shame." In Saer's neoclassical prose, the simultaneity of the themes—life as a mere sojourn in the midst of transience, sanity as fortitude before dissolution, the cultivation of habit as the survival of culture—recapitulates the balance of the diction (epithets qualifying substantives) and the complexity of the syntax (subordinate clauses qualifying main ones), and this architectonics traces a line at the edge of barbarity, somewhat like the one that was thought to exist during the Enlightenment, but did not.

The trek of this crazy crew, a society in miniature, is an allegory for the transformations of a post-colonial, post-global Hispanosphere, gone astray in a wilderness of totalitarian regimes, corrupt democracies, and popular revolts, monsters born from the union of Evil and Reason. In Hilary Vaugn Dobel's excellent English version of the text, Juan José Saer visits us from an era that is like and unlike our own: "We were the effervescence of what lived," he writes, "things that vanish, in the very instant they arise, to that place we call the past, where no one ever goes," except sometimes in a novel.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

The Science of Things Familiar

Johnny Damm
The Operating System ($26)

by John Pistelli

In the interview that concludes this hybrid work, poet Johnny Damm confesses, "I'm a cis, white, straight man: I have privilege on top of privilege, and my voice certainly doesn't require amplification." While such a confession, with its histrionic air of noblesse oblige, almost always sounds more like self-aggrandizement than self-criticism, it does help to orient the reader ethically and politically in Damm's aesthetic world. The Science of Things Familiar is a collage whose startling juxtapositions try to shock readers into awareness of the various subtexts—emotional, sexual, racial, environmental—of twentieth-century American popular culture.

Damm explains in an afterword, "Poetics and Process," that the "things familiar" of his book's title-itself borrowed from a nineteenth-century textbook-are "music, film, and (comic) books." The "science," he leaves the reader to understand, is the critique of ideology: an explanation of the material circumstances that brought these "familiar things" into being, with an emphasis on the exploitation and oppression underlying them.

Damm works in the disparate modes of appropriation, pastiche, and confession, sometimes all at once. Bookended by faux-scientific textbook diagrams with poignant titles—"Diagram of Your Breath," "Diagram of Your Touch," "Diagram of What Remains Unsaid," etc.—The Science of Things Familiar also includes comic-book cut-ups, mock entries in a biographical dictionary of film, a critical essay with confessional footnotes, and more.

In The Science's first third, Damm arranges collages of panels from old Classics Illustrated comics and replaces their expository and grandiloquent narrative elaborations on canonical literature with his own bittersweet lyrical prose:

Walt Whitman feels a sharp need to look out the window but pauses over the drawn back curtains and rolls the sinewy fabric between his fingers. There's a word for this, he thinks. There's a word.

The irony in this section, with its clash of the stagy old comics' pomposity against a contemporary so-sad-today sense of self-conscious sorrow, has a light touch.

The book's next two divisions are more polemical. In the middle third, Damm explores, via a Borgesian parody of a film dictionary, the exclusion of women from cinema. The third section returns to comic-book collage, this time to explain the class- and race-based marketing decisions that segregated American popular music into white middle-class norms (pop, rock) defined against poor-white and black music construed more as folklore than art.

Damm certainly addresses serious topics, and his treatment of them is often arresting—for instance, in the last section, machine-gun onomatopoeia ("rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat") borrowed from war comics exemplifies the racial and economic violence underwriting the music industry. As important as this subject matter is, though, Damm's information is not new, and his implied outrage, while well-intentioned, has become a somewhat rote gesture among right-thinking writers. More impressive because more unpredictable, and thus riskier, is the impassioned re-writing of Classics Illustrated comics that opens The Science of Things Familiar. In these pages, Damm fulfills his title's implied promise to return the familiar—whether canonical literary works or old comics—to the strangeness from whence they came.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Irradiated Cities

Mariko Nagai
Les Figues Press ($17)

by John Bradley

"we are still in the before the after : before the before the after," writes Mariko Nagai, reflecting on the nuclear disaster that took place in Fukushima in 2011. The nuclear focus of this book-on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, and Fukushima-feels quite timely, given our nation's stance on North Korea, which means it makes for uncomfortable reading, as it should. The book, with both its prose and photographs, is quietly and chillingly effective.

Not only the topic, but the consequences of nuclear warfare confront the reader here. Take this description of a victim of the Hiroshima bomb: "something is dismantling him from within : hair keeps coming out in fistfuls, & he is sleeping more : bloody nose & erupting ulcers on his lips : he cannot keep anything inside his body & lies there in his own vomit & diarrhea : things are breaking down inside, the body is collapsing from inside out & they don't know what it is . . . ." The use of the colons, as can be seen, blurs cause and effect. Everything is connected to everything else. Nagai uses the colons this way in all of the thirty-two prose poems in the book, even for the closing. There's never a period to provide closure, even at the very end of each piece. The colon is the perfect punctuation for this book, as it's logical, neutral, and inevitable.

This punctuation usage creates a challenge to the reader, however, as each piece (usually a page long) must be read without pausing. Nagai holds the reader's attention, though, with her shifts in tone and voice. In the piece on the Japanese fishermen irradiated by an American bomb detonated in the Pacific during a test on March 1, 1954, for example, the author weaves in this statement from Edward Teller, dismissing the death of a fisherman: "it is not from radiation, but from underlying liver cirrhosis compounded by an infection : it is unreasonable to make such a big deal over the death of a fisherman . . . " One wonders what the U.S. would say if Japan or Russia or North Korea gave this response to us.

Interspersed with the prose, the book features eighty-eight black and white full-page photographs. While the prose makes the reader confront the effects of the radiation, the photos approach the nuclear legacy much more indirectly. For example, the photo that accompanies "This Mysterious Disease," which contains the graphic description of the "dismantling" of the body, we see earth and shadows. The photo is titled "Shadows in the Hiroshima Peace Park," and the shadows soften the harsher prose. This happens throughout the book. In a photo found in the chapter on Fukushima, entitled "Farm Boots at a Temporary Dairy Farm," we see only farm boots, two of them numbered with a black "23." The ordinariness of the boots, the reminder of the chores of the farmer, brings to mind the safe images of cows and milk. Only implied are such questions as these: Is the milk being checked for radiation? What are the standards? How can the consumer know if food and beverages are really safe? The boots can also remind us of the boots of the workers in Fukushima, trying to "clean up" the nuclear disaster.

In "Rumors of Distant Disaster," Nagai closes with this calm yet frightening observation: "on a distant shore, a government is making hundreds & hundreds of suns, to reorder the politics of the world : on this short, all is well : because they tell themselves : on a distant shore : it all happens on the distant shore : it can never happen here :" This ironic warning should be heeded by all, and yet the reader may wonder: Will these words be heard by those making the "hundreds & hundreds of suns"? The author deserves much praise for making us gaze with her into the nuclear abyss.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Rain Taxi Monthly Supporter


Keep our motor running all year long!

Set up a recurring gift to Rain Taxi today, and let us do the driving. A small monthly gift of $5, $10, or $15 is a powerful way to show your support of the work we do every month. Here's how your monthly donation will help Rain Taxi driving into the future:


Wednesday, March 14, 2018, 7:00 pm
Black Dog Cafe
308 E Prince St, St Paul

Rain Taxi invites you to explore both the dark and light in humanity with Peter Stenson, author of the acclaimed novel Fiend and the new novel Thirty-Seven. This event is FREE and open to the public!

Peter Stenson’s Thirty-Seven (Dzanc Books) takes us into the world of The Survivors, whose members are known only by the order in which they joined. Mason Hues, formerly known as Thirty-Seven, is the group’s final member and the only one both alive and free. Eighteen years old and living in a spartan apartment after his release from a year of intensive mental health counseling, he comes to believe that there is still hope in the Survivor philosophy and begins the journey again—this time with himself as One. Part Fight Club, part The Girls, and entirely unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, Peter Stenson’s Thirty-Seven is an audacious and austere novel that explores our need to belong, our need to be loved, and our capacity for self-delusion.

Books will be available for purchase courtesy of SubText Books.

Pre-publication praise for Thirty-Seven:

“With his second novel, Stenson proves to be a more articulate, more empathic, and more intelligent version of Chuck Palahniuk. Stenson's sentences devastate, and his characters are nuanced and warm . . . A book that manages to break your heart, make you dizzy, and punch you in the gut all at once. You will be hard-pressed to find a novel as dark or intense in any bookstore."
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Unnerving but spellbinding . . . Stenson's brilliantly vivid prose and striking characters deserve the widest possible audience."
Booklist (starred)


“Shambling, scabrous figures rotting from the inside out and driven by an insatiable hunger—there are more than a few similarities between meth heads and zombies. Stenson exploits all of them in Fiend.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Best read of the year. Best zombie book, ever. Masterful illustration about how painful and overwhelming addiction can be . . . I want every book I read to enthrall me as consistently and emotionally as Fiend did.”
SF Signal

“Certain to invite comparisons to Hubert Selby and Cormac McCarthy . . . one scalding pressure cooker of a novel, and I advise you to buckle up and hold on tight because you’re in for one hell of a ride.”
— Donald Ray Pollock

“Shockingly personal . . . Shaun of the Dead meets Trainspotting.”

PETER STENSON received his MFA from Colorado State University in 2012. His stories and essays have been published in The Bellevue Literary Review, The Greensboro Review, Confrontation, Blue Mesa Review, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Denver, Colorado.

Habit of Mind: An Interview with Jennifer Egan

photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem

Interviewed by Allan Vorda

Born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco, Jennifer Egan is known by readers of The New York Times Magazine as a journalist, and to many more readers as one of the pre-eminent fiction writers of our time. Since her first book, a collection of short stories titled Emerald City (1993), she has published the novels The Invisible Circus (1995), Look at Me (2001), The Keep (2006), and A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), the latter of which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the LA Times Book Prize.

Egan's new novel, Manhattan Beach (Scribner, $28), is set during the World War II era, a time when women were newly permitted to take on industrial jobs that once belonged to the men, now soldiers fighting in the war. The novel follows the interwoven stories of Anna Kerrigan, the only female diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, her father Eddie Kerrigan, a bagman for the mob who has vanished under mysterious circumstances, and nightclub owner Dexter Styles, Eddie's mobster boss.

I interviewed Jennifer Egan on November 6, 2017 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston before the author's reading at Rice University for the Inprint Reading Series; we ended up discussing her latest novel of course, but also travel, beauty, and Rockford, Illinois, among many other topics. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation (transcription by Shawn Vorda).

Allan Vorda: Before getting into your latest novel, Manhattan Beach, I would like to briefly discuss some of your earlier writing. Emerald City, a collection of short stories, often depicts characters who initially might be described as not worldly or perhaps naïve, yet who experience some epiphany or awakening. I am thinking of Sam in "Why China?," Sarah in "Sacred Heart," and Rory in "Emerald City." Was there a particular enlightening experience that you can share that contributed to your own self-awareness.

Jennifer Egan: Yes. I took a year off between high school and college, and I went to Europe and traveled with a backpack. I flew to London, got a Eurail pass and traveled around Europe, which a lot of European kids did and probably still do. I didn't see too many Americans. It was very alienating in certain ways because my family was in San Francisco and, of course, those were the days without cell phones or the Internet. It's hard even now for me to imagine this. I felt very cut off and I think in that cut off state, I discovered that writing was an essential part of my connection to the world. It was an epiphany, although I don't remember a specific moment when it happened. I remember by the time I came back I knew I wanted to be a writer. I guess you can't really ask for more from a year off, right? I knew what I wanted to do with my life, but like so many discoveries I've made, it really came through adversity.

In other words, it was not a fun trip in many ways. It was very hard. I felt very isolated. I wonder sometimes whether anyone experiences that isolation anymore. I wonder whether without that isolation I would have discovered I wanted to be a writer. I don't know nowadays if I would have. I don't know if I would have been just chatting on Instagram the whole time and never reaching that discovery.

AV: How have your other traveling experiences affected you as a writer?

JE: I think a great deal, because I'm very influenced and informed by place. That's my entry point into fiction. I think it starts with the fact that I'm originally from Chicago, but my parents divorced when I was two. I moved at seven to San Francisco with my mother and stepfather, and the textures and feeling of that place were very different than Chicago. Right from the start I was attuned to the fact that in some ways geography and biography intersected. I used the places that I had been and experienced as both a traveler and a citizen very heavily. In fact it's the only part of my own life that I knowingly use in my fiction. So, in some ways, the places I've been offer me stories to tell. They're my access points.

AV: Several of the husbands in Emerald City are unfaithful leading to divorce. Charlotte Swenson, the protagonist in Look at Me, observes of her one-night stand with a married man: "It was obvious he was a regular cheater. So many were." You are a happily married woman with children, but should readers read into your characters that you do not have a high opinion of men in general?

JE: I think that would be presumptuous on the part of the reader because I think there are also a great many happy marriages in my work. However, it is fair to say that I have witnessed a lot of broken marriages. My parents divorced when I was very young so I didn't grow up with an example of a very happy marriage in front of me.

AV: Taking a line from Look at Me, Charlotte ponders: "Seeing her mother beside her annihilated that hope, leaving Charlotte to wonder whether someone so unbeautiful as herself would be allowed to go on, to have anything. Wouldn't someone more beautiful get it, whatever it was?" You seem to have a lot of references to women's beauty or even their unattractiveness. I'm curious what your concept of beauty is and its importance to women in general.

JE: I think we live in an image-saturated world, a culture in which physical appearance ends up having excess importance, in which people of all sorts are focused, have to be focused, especially younger people, on this self-marketing. That's really what social media is on some level. I think physical appearance has outsized importance in our culture and no one has much of a choice but to care about it. I think that's unfortunate in certain ways. It impacts people in ways that are different for every person, and I think it often has very little relationship to their inner lives. I guess I feel that physical appearance is a bit of a distraction, but it ends up mattering more than it should in a culture permeated by mass media.

AV: Throughout several of your stories you mention Rockford, Illinois. I believe your mother grew up there, but did you spend any time there and what is it about Rockford you like to use as a reference?

JE: I did spend a lot of time there because my grandparents lived there. Until they both passed away, I would go there in the summer and other times. I think what interested me in Rockford is it is a quintessentially industrial, mid-sized Midwestern city, but whose industrial peak gradually subsided over the last century. When its industry gradually began to die out, and to some degree its economy, its identity also changed. When other changes happened, like the highway systems in the 1950s, which left downtown Rockford sort of like a shell of itself. There were a lot of trends one sees all over America that were manifested in Rockford. I guess what I found interesting is it seemed like a way to look at a larger phenomenon in the progress and decline of American cities; yet it was also a place that I knew well and for which I had an affection because of my childhood.

AV: When writing fiction and doing your research, do you have time to read for your own pleasure? If so, do you feel this distracts or energizes your writing?

JE: I am definitely always reading for pleasure. For Manhattan Beach, I was reading mostly about the first half of the 20th century for several years. There's always the danger that what I'm reading starts to make a stamp on what I'm writing. What I find is if that happens, the influence tends to fall away in later drafts. I don't really worry too much about it. I love reading and I'm very inspired by it. I'm always looking for ideas and approaches. It's true I might grab onto an idea or approach that doesn't really fit in the context that I'm working in, but I can usually spot that at a later point and let it go.

AV: You state in the book Why We Write: "Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do." What kind of writing provides nourishment for you?

JE: First of all, I like to read fiction and non-fiction, but ideally writing that has a strong intellectual bedrock and a deep structure of ideas. Writing that is ambitious and pays attention to the music and rhythm of language.

AV: Manhattan Beach is your first novel since A Visit from the Goon Squad. What was the genesis of the story? Tell us about Lucille Kolkin—did you base any of Anna's character on Lucy?

JE: Lucille Kolkin was a woman who corresponded with her husband during World War II in a series of letters that are now at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and they're wonderful letters. I discovered them in 2005 and it took me a few months to read them all since I had limited access to the library. The reason I was reading these letters was to try to learn about the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Lucy was working after her husband, Al, had joined the navy. I did not base Anna on Lucy, but I felt like Lucy was kind of an inspiring spirit in all of it, because she was sassy and strong. Lucy was crazy about Al—head-over-heels in love—so it was very sweet to read the way she wrote to him. Certain little anecdotes from her experiences did find their way into the book, but it's hard to remember because I read interviews and interviewed so many women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. So I can't quite say to what degree I've used details from Lucy's experience, but certainly she was one of many voices in my head that provided a kind of texture of women's experience at the Yard, apart from all the stuff I made up.

AV: Since we are talking about the letters that Lucy was writing, hasn't this become a lost art? Nowadays people just correspond by email and writing by script is gradually disappearing.

JE: They don't know script, even my kids don't know script. It's very unsettling. First of all, who prints their email to save it? What are we going to do? We'll have no correspondence of which to have a record. Not only is the handwriting in Lucy's letters wonderful, but she and Al also made diagrams of things for each other. For example, at one point she kissed the letter paper, which was so eerie because you could see the little creases of her lips. It was like she did it yesterday! There was a human element that is simply not present if you read email. You're interfacing with a machine, not a person. One time Lucy was on a streetcar and her handwriting would be messy and she'd say, "Oh, my stop is almost here!" and it's just so much more intimate than reading email. There were a few letters that were typed, but I think that was because someone had typed them later to make them easier to read. Even a typewriter was an unwelcome intrusion into this prose. I wrote letters for a lot of my life. I have lots of letters that people wrote to me. I still save cards and notes, but no one writes letters. Yes, you might get a thank you note, but who writes a handwritten letter? I don't even do that, and I handwrite my first drafts. Future generations are going to have nothing. We're going to have screenshots of people's Instagram accounts to see what they were doing and thinking.

AV: The story of Manhattan Beach is set primarily in the 1930s and ’40s in which ethnicity plays a key role. "Dexter liked the Irish, was drawn to them, although time and again they had proved untrustworthy. It wasn't duplicity so much as a constitutional weakness that might have been the booze or might have been what drove them to it. You wanted a mick to help you dream up schemes, but in the end you needed a wop or Jew or a Pollack to bring them off." Can you explain to readers, who were not part of that generation, what it was like to be Irish and the ethnic differences that existed that you bring out in your book?

JE: First of all, it was very strange to use terms like that. My husband is Jewish, and when he was reading the book the first time, he was really shocked to find that I was using the term shylock or shyster in the first chapter. He was brought up short by that because it's an ethnic slur and the book is full of ethnic slurs. There was no way to be true to the period without making those characterizations. I spent a lot of time talking to the painter Alfred Leslie, who was very much a part of the abstract expressionist movement, and had a wonderful career and is still very active in his 80s. Leslie said people identified each other ethnically, but there was actually less ethnic prejudice than today. That was the first thing you wanted to know about someone, right up front—you're a mick, I'm a wop, he's a Jew, and this person is a Negro. Once our ethnicity was established, now let's move on. According to Alfred, we now have this fallacy that everyone is the same, which is not true, and ethnic tensions are actually made worse by the fact that we don't acknowledge our differences right up front. If you read someone like John O'Hara, it's striking how insecure Irish-Americans were. The Irish came to America in large part because of the famine, which was a catastrophe arising from the really cruel and negligent treatment they received from the English. The Irish already had a chip on their shoulder. Then they came here and they were treated pretty badly. It's amazing to think of how that prejudice has disappeared. I mean, who isn't Irish? We're everywhere! But there really was a strong sense of ethnic identity and also of insecurity and inferiority.

AV: This was a long time ago, but I remember my grandfather in Evanston who would look out his window and refer to a neighbor walking down the sidewalk and say, "There goes the Swede." I was just a kid, but to call your neighbor by his ethnicity and not even his name was very telling of those times.

JE: I never even thought of my name as an Irish name until much later. Chicago is one place where Irish-Americans have an ethnic identity, and definitely Boston, but not so much in New York.

I remember when I first moved to New York and got my phone number. I was working at a temp job calling the phone company. The woman gave me this great number that was really easy to remember, and I said, "Wow, thank you, that's such a nice number!" And she said, "One Irish girl to another," and it was so surprising. She had recognized my name as Irish and she was looking out for me. I don't think I'd ever had that experience before.

It's interesting to think about it in light of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the idea of whiteness as a construct. I really understand why he says that, because you rarely hear the word "white" in the first half of the 20th century. White—what did that mean? You were a wop, you were a mick, you were a Pollack, you were a Jew. The idea of all those people being combined into a category called white is something people from those ethnic groups would have had trouble comprehending. The Irish, for example, tended to hate the Italians. They certainly didn't see themselves as bound to Italians by any shared "whiteness."

AV: I once read the Irish were paid less than black people in the late nineteenth century because they were considered the lowest class of people. And yet due to Irish fortitude and pride, they built themselves up and made great lives for their children.

JE: The Irish had a lot of problems—alcoholism was extreme, physical abuse was rampant, and consequently so was a lot of abandonment. There are a lot of similarities with the urban poor that we now think of as being more often African-American: a lot of children raised without fathers which often leads to further fatherlessness. A lot of strong mothers holding families together. My character, Eddie Kerrigan, grows up in the Catholic protectory in the Bronx, and I think some of those buildings—or at least the grounds—still exist. A lot of the guys on the Irish waterfront did come from that protectory, but growing up in an orphanage did not necessarily mean you were an orphan. A lot of these "orphans" were kids whose families just abandoned them or couldn't raise them because they had so many children. Actually, it was Alfred Leslie who first that told me about this. He didn't know about the Catholic protectory because he was Jewish, but there was another orphanage where members of his family were placed, even though they weren't orphans. This kind of fatherlessness and rootlessness and trauma really existed in these Irish-American families, and it perpetuated a lot of pain that took quite a while to work through. And the alcoholism persists: my father and my uncle were alcoholics for decades before they became sober.

AV: Anna Kerrigan has a special relationship with her handicapped sister. Why did you create Lydia? What secrets does she know about Anna?

JE: I don't really create characters. I start writing and I see who enters the story. Lydia was there right from the beginning. I questioned that. I was unsure that I wanted to write about someone who was handicapped. But she felt inextricable. She's in some ways the fulcrum around which a lot of the story turns. So I rolled with that. I often don't feel I'm in control of who populates the stories. As long as I feel they organically need to be there, I just try to the best job I can to tell their story.

I think the main thing she knows about Anna is that she has a sexual history, which was not an acceptable fact for an unmarried girl at that time—certainly not a young teen. Although there was plenty of sexual activity going on, which is another thing Alfred Leslie talked about. He said in these tenement neighborhoods there was a lot of promiscuity among young kids. This placed girls in a strange position because the mores governing their behavior were very different than they are now. This often had very little to do with the reality of the situation, yet it led to a lot of guilt and bad feeling. Anna's parents are somewhat estranged, partly because of Lydia. Her father finds it impossible to feel good about his handicapped daughter and his difficulty in being affectionate towards her has created a huge divide in his marriage. Anna alternates time with her mother and her father; yet she says very little about either world to the other parent. Lydia, in a way, is the only person that synthesizes Anna's family life. She's the connection. It's through Lydia that Anna experiences her whole self, her whole life, and that continues when she develops another secret life that neither of her parents know about.

AV: Manhattan Beach is partly about the evolution of women's rights brought about by the Great Depression and World War II when women got involved in the workforce. Can you talk a bit about the role of women during this transitional period in our history?

JE: It was an incredible period for women. I always knew this in a vague way. Women were called upon to do work that they'd been told all their lives they could not do. The fact is they did it very well and then they were told they could not do it anymore. Rosie the Riveter was a propaganda campaign designed to get women to do industrial work because they were needed so badly. One of the women I interviewed for the oral history project, who was an amazing welder, talked about how she had become so proficient and so excellent at welding during her time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that she wanted to use those skills later, but she was laughed at when she applied for welding jobs. All of this came home to roost in the women's movement and the '60s counter-culture. There was no way to make this discovery go away and I think it was a really head-spinning moment for women. Interestingly, I think a lot of them really did just go back to much more domestic women's work and lives. They were back to the telephone company or to be secretaries. It's not true that they stopped working, although that's what some people say about the '50s. But that wasn't possible for working class families. The women still had to work. A lot of the women that worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard had already been working; they were just doing more of these 'women's jobs'—lots of telephone operating, secretarial work, and childcare. So they went back to that kind of work. If they could afford not to, then they didn't work. It was really their daughters that had to lead the charge and say we need to rethink all of this. The war in general was such a time of tumult. Women's lives were one of many different kinds of accepted patterns that were disrupted. I think that a lot of what happened in the '60s, in terms of the civil rights movements and all kinds of other things, were the result of that disruption. They sort of skipped a generation and then they really came to the fore.

AV: Anna wants to be a diver to repair naval ships which was considered a man's job. Why did you choose this role for her and what kind of research did you do?

JE: I don't know why I chose it. I was interested when I learned that deep-sea diving was a part of ship repairing and I saw a picture of an old diving suit, with the spherical helmet. I was very moved by that. The sea is a deep inspiration for this book. In a way I followed the sea into the various different elements of the story. One thing about using the ocean in fiction is that it's both real and metaphorical. I guess it was exciting to follow the sea into its physical manifestations and also reap its metaphorical rewards. Anna is trying to understand things that she can't see. The thought of her physically walking around the bottom of the sea just seemed incredibly thrilling to me. I couldn't resist.

AV: It is not just Anna but many of the female characters in your novels and short stories who exhibit mental toughness and the ability to eventually make sound decisions. Is this a theme you consciously try to address in your fiction?

JE: I'm always interested in strength and weakness in both genders. Stories of surmounting odds are not that interesting. We've all read those stories. I'm just as interested in marginal people who cannot master mainstream culture, both male and female. In the end, I'm more interested in those people than the ones who manage to triumph.

AV: Dexter Styles has a high opinion of himself. How should we judge Dexter?

JE: I guess the only way I can answer that is that in art and in life, I'm not very interested in judgments. I think that people are contradictory and imperfect and my job as a fiction writer is to try to capture those imperfections and to try to condense some form of the complicated mess which is human life. Judgments don't interest me; they're always reductive.

AV: Literary critic Matthew Carl Strecher wrote that Haruki Murakami has the unique ability to "include movement in and out of the protagonist's mind." I think the same is true of your work. How do you make each of your character's thoughts ring so true?

JE: That's one of the key things I think about with a character: their unique habits of mind. I think we all organize reality in our own way and a lot of that has to do with our individual past and our experience which is unique to us. Finding the way a person interprets reality and makes it legible for him or herself is the number one thing I try to find about every person. I have to find it. If I can't find it, maybe that means I shouldn't be in that person's point of view.

In other words, if I'm going to go into a point of view, I am making a promise to the reader that I can deliver the habits and mind of that person; if I can't, I haven't earned the right to represent that person's point of view. This actually happened a little bit in Manhattan Beach. I go in and out of various points of view, mostly with my three major protagonists, but a little bit here and there with other people like Lydia and her mother Agnes. At one point I was in Agnes's point of view a lot more, but what I found was that I couldn't give the reader much more than the reader already knew about her. So I pulled back on her point of view because I was not delivering on my promise to the reader to justify my presence inside her mind.

AV: All of your books are excellent, but is there one you personally like the best?

JE: Look at Me is my favorite. It's flawed, but it's the most ambitious in my opinion. I have not topped it. I'm still trying. It is all about understanding the deep mental landscape of individual characters. This is the number one goal I have as a fiction writer. This is one thing fiction can do that other types of media—film, YouTube, video games—cannot achieve, which is to deliver a deep knowledge about how someone else's mind works.

My fear was that lovers of Goon Squad—and that's where I found a lot of my audience—might not like Manhattan Beach. I've had that happen before. For example my novel The Keep, which was a gothic thriller, is where I found a whole world that loved the gothic. Yet the gothic readers weren't so thrilled with Goon Squad since there's nothing gothic in the book. I feel I ask a lot from my readers to make these transitions with me, but I'm finding that I'm getting a better reaction than I thought I might from people who loved Goon Squad. A number of people have said, "Look, I don't like it as much." They're honest with me about that. That's okay, they've given it a try and in some cases really enjoyed it. I'm hoping my next book will be a companion to Goon Squad. I'm happy to keep those readers with me and move back into that territory. If I can do it well is the big question mark.

AV: To quote from Goon Squad: "Time's a goon right? You're gonna let that goon push you around?" Your readers have waited seven years before Manhattan Beach was published. How long before Jennifer Egan knocks out that goon so we can read your next book?

JE: [Laughter.] Very fair question. I'm hoping, and hoping should be italicized, to be publishing every three years from now on through the rest of my career. I can't have those long gaps anymore or I won't get done what I want to get done. There are a number of reasons that this book took so long. One reason was that Goon Squad had such good luck, and I spent a lot of time trying to capitalize on that luck by speaking and traveling. Also, my kids were still young so I was with them the rest of the time. Now that they're teenagers—they've got their own lives to some degree—they don't want my help and involvement to the degree they once did. In fact, they're probably a little relieved that I'm not at home constantly right now. Frankly, it's just time for me to pick up the pace. I hope it will be every three years, max four, and never again seven. Of course, you say never and you find out you're not in total control, but I feel adamant that I don't want to have those gaps anymore. One concrete way I try to prevent it is while I was writing the first draft of Manhattan Beach, I also worked on the first draft of another novel for the first eight months. I actually have a lot of material which I need to type and get into, but that's very different than having nothing. That is where I found myself in 2012, two years after my last book had come out, and starting on page one. I don't want to let that happen again.

AV: Winning the Pulitzer Prize must be a blessing and a curse. You get all this popularity and sales, but then you're sitting at your desk writing you must feel this enormous pressure that you need to duplicate that success. Can you share what this has been like?

JE: I thought that I wouldn't feel pressure, but I totally felt pressure as it turned out. I think because of the delay, and I was very rusty when I finally started writing again, and the fact that I was taking on writing a book outside of my lifetime, was especially hard for me. I had always used times and places from my life. I did feel a worry about doing a horrible job and really being pounded for it. It was hard. I'm relieved that Goon Squad is not my last book anymore. The goal is always to keep getting better. The danger with having a book be so rewarded is that it starts to take on this iconic quality, and it can be hard to move past it. The big danger is not that you feel bad or that you feel worried, but that you actually cannot continue to improve. That's the biggest concern. I really hope that I've moved out of that weird loop of worry.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018