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Frankenstein in Baghdad

Ahmed Saadawi
Translated by Jonathan Wright
Penguin Books ($16)

by Matthew M. Pincus

Ahmed Saadawi’s new horror novel has the simple but timely premise of retelling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the context of Baghdad during the Iraq War. Hadi, a junk dealer who lives in a dilapidated building in the historic district of town, brings back body parts blown up by explosives, attaches them together, and brings the result to life through an unknown astrological magic. The monster, here called Whatsitsname, then goes missing from Hadi’s residence and starts killing.

Shelley’s original narrative is complicated by the fact that Baghdadi citizens are already in a constant state of terror before Hadi creates his monster. Multiple bombs go off in the city throughout the day (some explosions worse than others), and minor characters are steeped in Iraqi history. Hadi’s neighbor Elishva still waits for her son who went missing in the Iran-Iraq War; her other children who live in Melbourne wish her to leave but she stubbornly refuses, waiting for her son to return. Abu Anmar, the owner of the Orouba Hotel, moved from Northern Iraq. Aziz the Egyptian, who owns the coffee shop, is an expatriate who came to Baghdad for a better life. Colonel Brigadier Majid, head of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, is trying to stay alive as a loyalist of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime.

Saadawi’s village of characters all have their own stories and motives, but it is clear that the community is entrenched in stubborn fear and class inequality. Faraj the realtor wishes to buy as many properties in the Bataween district as possible to make a maximum profit. Ali Baher al-Saidi, the publisher of the magazine al-Haqiqa, is only interested in his own well-being and notoriety as an editor. Brigadier Majid hunts the Frankenstein monster not for the safety of the community, but for his own political desires to become a more powerful military figurehead.

When a journalist obtains recordings of the monster, we discover that the Whatsitsname, ironically, is the most eloquent individual in the entire novel. The monster’s belief in extrajudicial justice for murderers and war criminals in Iraq leads people to an insurgent movement complete with astrologers and magicians able to predict future explosions and the locations of enemies. The monster must continually replace his body parts with those he murders because they consistently melt and deteriorate in battle. By the end, Hadi is arrested for his crimes and Whatsitsname is left snuggling with the old lady’s cat in the junk dealer’s residence.

Americans are always at the periphery of this novel, whether as menacing soldiers, an army with impunity, or just those from whom there is consensus among Iraqis to stay away. Frankenstein in Baghdad answers the question, “Who or what is a terrorist?” with “That depends.” To all the citizens of Bataween, the monster Hadi creates is as frightening as any American soldier. More conspicuously, the city of Baghdad is a constant place of fear because a suicide bomber could come at any time to cause suffering, destruction, and mass tragedy.

The Whatitsname is a bodypolitik of Iraq from 2008-12, the by-product of sustained violence in a Middle Eastern urban cultural and social center. It shows that whether people live peacefully or violently, arguing over ideology, political affiliation, or racial and religious divisions, they always end up in the same layer of history. A national culture and historical memories collide and ferment to create the present social reality of the Bataween neighborhood.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is a rare novel for how simple its structure and tone are on the surface. Saadawi’s sentences are smooth, crisp, and McCarthy-esque; translator Jonathan Wright does an incredible job of bringing the haunting, brooding rhythm of the words to life. The war novel after Iraq is alive in America, and an Iraqi perspective here gives a shot of high voltage to a reanimated discussion.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Blossoms and Blood

Mark SaFranko
Murder Slim Press ($12)

by Zack Kopp

The title of Mark SaFranko’s new installment of his fictional alter-ego Max Zajack’s biography comes from a snippet of Norwegian author Knut Hamsun’s Victoria: “all love’s ways are strewn with blossoms and blood.” SaFranko’s style is a distillation of that founded by Hamsun in the late nineteenth century and refined further, in America, through Nathanael West, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, and others—a style of individualized assertion coupled with an atavistic divination of the modern world.

Blossoms and Blood may be considered a prequel to SaFranko’s Hating Olivia (Harper Perennial, 2010), which detailed the adult Max’s torrid affair with its tempestuous title character. It displays a reverence in recounting the facts of the author’s early life in fictional form comparable to that of Charles Bukowski in Ham On Rye—a crucial difference being that while Hank Chinaski’s parents were, by turns, abusive or complicit in the author’s abuse by the world at large, Max Zajack‘s parents Bash and Jake are ecumenical in their accepting stance, simultaneously enabling yet delimiting his outlook with their cynicism:

The atmosphere at 810 Iowa had always been oppressive, but it had gotten even heavier. Whenever I could figure out how to escape, Frankie and I ran the streets. In fact, Bash and Jake took to calling me “the Runner”—among other things. . . . Bash always bitched about me and Jake warned me of the dangers of turning into a hoodlum, but they couldn’t force me to stay indoors all the time.

A “weird old bugger” named Knight “who wore a ski-cap and a flea-bitten winter coat even in the dog days of August” lives in Max’s neighborhood. Peering through this old man’s window one day, our kid comes face to face with a rat, and when Knight is found dead in his house later, Max imagines rats eating the corpse. The rats don’t keep him from returning for a clutch of flowers he spotted in the backyard, though, as they are perfect for giving to the girl he loves. Indeed, Young Zajack’s captivation by his classmate Astrid Perry, the “ice queen” with “cornflower blue eyes,” is this book’s engine. “Suddenly every single thing about her cut me like a wild razor,” he says; “. . . I couldn’t stop looking at her. Even her pink fingernails were painfully beautiful. Her school jumper was the luckiest thing in the world—it got to cling to her body.”

Max must reconcile these exciting new feelings with the dogmatic conditioning he’s simultaneously receiving from his Catholic education, the good-natured hard-heartedness of the tough guys he runs with, and the general stoicism of the house he lives in with his cynical parents, where things like love are never mentioned. As a result, Max’s mental arithmetic is essential, as opposed to mathematical, resulting in his heartfelt, inchoate vows made in passing Astrid’s residence becoming the stepping stones to his greater familiarity with the laws of reality:

Would I be invited into that house one day? Yes. No doubt about it. God would see to it. I’d prayed to Him, and He would answer my prayers.
I turned for home, full of confidence.
But nothing happened. Nothing whatsoever changed. . . . how could a person tell the difference between God’s indifference or his nonexistence? It seemed strange, even embarrassing and humiliating, to beg for someone’s attention anyway, but I couldn’t figure out an alternative.

In passages like this, treating existential considerations with nuts and bolts phrasing, SaFranko’s book displays great reverence for language without seeming self-aware, exemplifying that beautiful miracle of difficult simplicity too infrequently practiced these days. Notably, where others might recount their childhoods from an ostensibly wiser adult perspective, this child-protagonist stands on the verge of having made any such writerly decisions, being as yet concerned only with elemental basics such as competing for Astrid’s affection with other young hoods in his unnamed northeastern city:

His face was a blank, neither happy or sad. Having Astrid Perry fall for him apparently meant nothing to him, or next to nothing. Maybe he was a half-wit, a moron. Didn’t Astrid realize that Mike Vesuvius was nothing but a cipher, and that there was something singular about Max Zajack? Didn’t she see the rare mark of the genius on my forehead? I knew it was there. How could she have missed it?

Taking one’s life as the model for one’s literary art seems to be a dying art in American lit. SaFranko’s adherence to this venerable tradition has redirected him, in recent years, to the European market’s archivists of that Old Style Greatness—in this case, publication by the United Kingdom’s Murder Slim Press. Consequently, his work has received lesser exposure stateside, despite the fact that the New Jersey author got his start via an encomium from John Fante’s son Dan Fante (as detailed in the P.S. section of Hating Olivia). One can only hope that more of his fellow citizens come around to joining Europeans in thinking highly of this very talented writer.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Chris Ware : Monograph

Chris Ware
Rizzoli ($60)

by Steve Matuszak

For all its sophistication, cartoonist Chris Ware’s body of work, as Ware relates in his recent, hefty book Monograph, has a humble origin: listening to his grandmother tell stories of her past. According to Ware, she did so “with a vibrancy of detail, a firm feeling of reality and a sense of life which I’ve not experienced since in any conversational setting,” forging a powerful connection between them through story. “The lingering feeling of it,” Ware explains, “is what made me want to become a writer, or an almost-writer.”

The desire for connection, for the reader to be moved, to feel not just emotion but something intangible, something like the rustle of memory, can indeed be found in the virtuosity and formal complexity of Ware’s comics. Though Monograph is not in comics form—it is (as the title suggests) an artist monograph, collecting photos from Ware’s life and of his paintings and sculptures, reproducing pages from his comics, both in rough and finished form, as well as from his sketchbooks and personal journals, all accompanied by Ware’s commentary and reminiscences—it is yet another iteration in his attempt to capture the lingering feeling he experienced in those conversations with his grandmother.

Monograph is arranged roughly in chronological order, beginning with Ware’s childhood in Omaha before quickly moving to his years at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was an art student and would draw his first comic strips for the college paper The Daily Texan—work that would capture the heart of Art Spiegelman, who immediately invited the young artist to contribute to RAW, the venerable comics anthology from the ’80s and ’90s. The book then follows Ware as he moves to Chicago to matriculate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a period of time when he would create strips like “Quimby the Mouse” and “Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth” that would make their way into his innovative comic book The Acme Novelty Library and eventually lead to the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth and to Ware’s more widespread recognition, including his subtly complex New Yorker covers.

There is a lot here. While most artist monographs offer plenty to look at, what one is looking at in Monograph are often comics, which, as Ware is well aware, are meant to be read. So some pages in Monograph become nearly vertiginous as one has to rotate the book (on occasion several times) to read the strips’ panels, some of which might have been intended initially for a larger format, the lettering still legible but shrinking precariously, especially when some of those “panels” are themselves comic book pamphlets affixed to the pages of Monograph, asking one to read even smaller pages and panels. The movement of these pages, spiraling off into ever finer articulations, recalls a photograph in Monograph of the coiling, filigreed ornamentation of architect Louis Sullivan, which in Ware’s estimation “was able to harness in sculptural form the energy, shape and flow of life in near abstract form.” And, most resoundingly, it delineates the structure of Ware’s more formally complex comics, like the one gracing Monograph’s cover, in which scenes are shot through with intersecting strips that depict characters’ fantasies or provide glimpses of backstories, thought balloons drifting up from other thought balloons, iconic imagery and diagrammatic notations—lines and arrows—allowing the reader to set out one way or another and back again across the page to discover new narrative threads and interpretations in the abounding visual rhymes (only some of which, Ware reveals, are intentional).

Throughout Monograph, Ware makes clear that as a cartoonist, he has wanted to evoke in the architecture of the comics pages, “the energy, shape, and flow of life” through visual rhythms that, he realized, are especially suited to the art of comics. It is an insight that came to Ware early in his career as he experimented with wordless comics, stripping the art form of the distractions of word balloons down to its very structure, where “underneath the balloons and in between the panels something akin to the music of emotional gestures that fills our days was being recreated.” It is that music, Ware began to understand, that animated his favorite comics, including Krazy Kat, Peanuts, Gasoline Alley, and on to the formally adventurous work in RAW and Weirdo.

Because comics express time spatially, through the arrangement of panels (or at least figures) on a page, the “music of emotional gestures” in comics is visual. Readers see the gestures, which are expressed now, in the present, by the figure or panel that is the focus of the reader’s attention. But Ware recognizes that the gestures—that is, the expressions of the present—can only be fully experienced, can only be felt, in light of conditions that have brought them into being: our histories, our desires, and the world around us. And that’s what comics, by the very nature of how they work, have the capacity to show us, and in fact do show us if they are expressing the music that Ware is talking about. We see the moment of the gesture, what is expressed in a particular panel, but we also see what brings it to life, in other panels or figures on the page and perhaps even in what they imply. As Ware puts it:

The universe . . . is almost assuredly a continuum through which our consciousnesses pass, its (and our) shapes knowable only in the slices of time and memory we experience and cling to as fragments of a three-dimensional present. Not to draw too much of a bold line under it all, but in somewhat reduced form this notion undergirds the idea of the basic structure of comics, where the composition, the rhythms and the rhymes are more important than the individual pictures and panels themselves.

If this sounds a bit heady, it is really describing nothing more complicated than reading comics. Still, in Monograph, Ware is not afraid to pursue philosophical lines of thought about life, comics, and art. By its very design—the book weighs almost nine pounds, is a foot and a half tall and over a foot wide, and contains some very small print that requires one to really look at what one is reading—Ware makes clear that Monograph is not casual reading. Regardless, the abstract passages are few and are included only because Ware is striving for complete honesty. Moreover, they are an important part of what animates him as an artist, a timbre of the music of his emotional gestures, of which this book is another expression. And it is not, generally speaking, one of the intellect, but one of the heart, born of love like the stories Ware’s grandmother told him. It is the making of a music that engages the mind’s eye and illuminates our strange eventful history upon life’s stage. Or, as Ware says at the end of the book: “The astonishingly human ability to see within one’s mind . . . is the very definition of memory and of the self. It is the poetic engine of literature and it is the esthetic core of the visual art I practice—and which, I guess, I love.”


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Spinning

Tillie Walden
First Second ($18)

by Stephanie Burt

Spinning presents itself, accurately enough, as a familiar kind of graphic novel, or graphic memoir, or whatever it is the kids these days call book-length comics about the author’s youth (like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home or David Small’s Stitches) written primarily with adult readers in mind. Tillie Walden organized much of her life, in those years—or else adults organized it for her—around figure skating: her title, her through-line, and most of her subplots reflect all the time she spent at the rink, where she was encouraged, heartened, restrained, guided, saddened, and ultimately rejected by her sport’s perfectionist, team-oriented, and feminine norms.

It’s a beautiful story, a complicated story, and a quietly heartbreaking one, with moments that made me want to throw things; it’s almost the opposite of the conventional sports story in which setbacks lead to triumphs and the big contest comes at the end. Instead, it’s a very careful, mostly melancholy, braided narrative about how to identify false starts, how to find true friends, and how to extricate yourself from institutions and norms that aren’t for you.

That kind of praise makes the book seems all too instructional, or too close to negative stereotypes about YA. But it’s better than that, and more complicated, and slower-moving too. A book that wanted mostly to teach us a lesson (as Walden’s coaches wanted to teach her lessons; as her teammates, too often, did too) would spend less time on purely visual contrasts, on freeze frames, on white space, on an empty rink with skylights, on manga-style depictions of hot pursuit, on how Texas sky looks when you wake up just before dawn. Both the visuals and the terminology that come with figure skating give Walden obvious metaphors: it’s cold all the time; she faces a dauntingly empty expanse, a blank space; she has to spin and flip and jump, as if to escape the path she’s on, though really she’s going to come down near where she began. (When she loses her ability to jump, it’s a big, and very bad, sign.)

Spinning is, in other words, a book that takes consistent advantage of comics as (you’ve heard this one before) a visual medium. The beautiful, understated, slightly uncertain line that Walden developed to tell her own story rejects the deliberate ugliness of other famous graphic memoirs, but it also rejects the kind of highly wrought perfection she would have to embrace had she remained in the sport. Rather than Bechdel, or Small (whose book appears in one panel!), or Lynda Barry, Walden’s spare, friendly, bittersweet visual style, with its blocks of negative space, expressive faces, and sometimes wavy lines, comes closer to Jillian and Mariko Tamaki. As in the Tamakis’ books, the washes and open spaces, the color blocks (here representing skylights and ice rinks), the unfinished lines, leave space for a girl who’s not sure what she wants to become. And yet the young Walden is, in so many ways, already herself: loyal, stubborn, unstylish, needy, craving approval, reluctant to disappoint.

She’s also very queer. Interviews treat her crushes on girls her own age, on older girls and women, and the story of her first girlfriend as a subplot, but these aspects of the young Walden’s identity are, at the least, things no reader can skip: if you’re seeking queer moments (and not everyone is) there are moments when you’re going to cheer for her, and at least one moment that may make you want to break all the glass in the house. In between, there are girls in the dark, sincerely devoted and tenderly serious, checking their phones, trying so hard to get past the fear.

Figure skaters, like gymnasts and classical musicians, are watched and graded for every detail; Walden wanted to skate, but did not especially want to be watched. “The best part” of extra-early practice “was that all the other girls were getting ready. . . . No one could watch me.” That wish to perform, but only when no one is watching, isn’t just a problem for figure skaters, or even for other performers (dancers, gymnasts) whose whole body is at stake. Skating, “a perpetually nerve-racking experience” with its constant series of tests, might also put some readers in mind of the academic tests, the series of multiple-choice gates and gatekeepers, that organize many other kids’ early lives. Skaters, too, take tests: “Testing felt like a prolonged spasm. . . . It was intricate patterns and minute details under the veil of makeup and freezing air.” “I had to prove that I deserved to be here.”

Walden opens with an adult return to the ice rink: “Everything feels just like it used to and I want to run away.” All that blank space in her rinks, her malls, her classrooms, around the bodies of her skaters, solicits not just identification but sympathy: you may see yourself in her, but you may also want to enter the frame, to keep her company, to hold her hand. When she loses her glasses on the ice, you are there in the close-up, low-to-the-ground panel as she tries to pick them up. She does pick them up, but she has trouble seeing what the other girls know they should see: not just rules of deportment, rules of skating competitions, but the apparently random social rules that seem to leave nobody satisfied, not even the alpha girls who enforce them. “You can hang out with the girls on our team, the Sparkling Stars, but, like, the other girls are off limits.”

Tillie badly needs trustworthy adults, first in her coaches and then in the arts, as substitutes for her distant parents; for whatever reason, she gives herself to these adults entirely, starting at a very young age. “I came to her lessons just to be in her arms.” One of these adults takes obvious advantage; most do not—they are just better, or worse, parent-substitutes. She also needs peers; among them, she often feels young and unsure. “The other girls always seemed so much more confident, so much more grown-up,” she remembers in a three-panel page, its middle one dancing torso, its top and bottom two pensive headshots.

Most of us have been told over and over and over that confidence, and the feeling of being grown up, come either from recognized academic success, or else from falling in love in the right way, or perhaps from physical, sexual success. These messages—not to put too fine a point on it—are destructive garbage even if you’re cisgender and straight, and they’re even worse for you if you’re not. Walden’s discomfort with skating (even as she gets better and better at it) starts to look like her discomfort with compulsory heterosexuality: “I quietly fell in love over and over again, never once thinking it could ever be real.”

Another kind of athlete might have lost herself in competition—sublimated, as Freud would put it—in order to get away from all those feelings, and Walden tried hard: “I wanted to chase that high, that thrill of success.” For some athletes (and mathletes and debaters and young violinists and so on) first place is dessert; the whole performance is fun. For the young Walden, on the other hand, only success, first place, could bring a thrill: even second place made the whole thing not worthwhile.

It’s hard even to explain, if you haven’t had them, the mixed feelings that come from this kind of immersion in competition: to make them explicit or clear, using only words, would falsify the feeling that kids have, the feeling many kids never quite admit, that whatever you want for yourself, it’s just not this. That’s a feeling you can have about a sport, or a discipline, or a life course, with its prescribed social and sexual roles. Comics suit Walden so well because their open-ended contrast between words and pictures, their juxtapositions without explanation, let her describe that shapeless dissatisfaction, that sense of the studious self adrift in space. (There’s even a scene—set in darkness, with one cone of light—where she tries and fails to write her feelings down.)

Yet Tillie does have triumphs, and she does benefit from compassionate adults, and above all she finds friends—not false friends but true allies, boon companions, among them Lindsay, the slightly older skater to whom she dedicates the book, and Rae, about whom I don’t want to say too much, except that I wish that Walden would tell us—in an epilogue to the second edition, or via Twitter, or somehow— where Rae is now. When you get to the end of the memoir you’ll wonder too. Have a box of tissues ready. Unlike most sports memoirs in any medium, this book will not make you want to try, or watch, the sport; it’s more likely to get you to pick up the cello. But it will surely make you want to look hard for whatever Walden does next, and—at least if you grew up queer in a highly competitive, disciplined environment—it will certainly make you recommend it to people who might, also, have been there.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Progress Center Directions

PRINT MATTERS
June 29 and June 30, 2018
Progress Center
Minnesota State Fairgrounds
1265 North Snelling Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota

CLICK HERE for more information.

View Larger Map

WITHIN THE FAIRGROUNDS: Enter through the main gates at 1265 Snelling Avenue, and take the first right onto Cosgrove Street. Cosgrove dead ends at Randall Ave: the building to the right is the Fine Arts Center and the one directly in front of you is the Progress Center. There is a public lot to the left of the Progress Center (19 on the map) and more parking on the surrounding fairground streets. Bike racks will be located in front of the Progress Center to the right.

 

The Paradox of Happiness: An Interview with Aminatta Forna

photo by Nina Subin

interviewed by Allan Vorda, with Nina Shanu and Jennifer Otalor

A writer with both a Scottish and Sierra Leonean background, Aminatta Forna was born in 1964 in Scotland near Glasgow, where her father Mohamed Forna was working on a medical internship. After her parents’ divorce, Aminatta moved with her father back to Sierra Leone, where he remarried and became involved with politics: Mohamed was the Minister of Finance before being imprisoned by his own government (he was named an Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience) and subsequently executed. Aminatta returned to England where she received a law degree before writing a memoir of her father’s life, The Devil that Danced on Water. She then turned to fiction and has published four acclaimed novels: Ancestor Stones, The Memory of Love, The Hired Man, and her latest, Happiness (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26).

Happiness revolves around Dr. Attila Asare, a Ghanan psychiatrist, and Jean Turane, an American social biologist who is studying the habits of foxes in London. It is an unlikely relationship that develops slowly but inevitably; the novel tells the tale of two middle-aged professionals who are trying to solve problems in their respective fields while dealing with their own problems. Jean is going through a divorce and combatting the forces trying to exterminate London’s foxes. Attila is trying to help his niece avoid deportation and find her missing son; he is also attending an ex-lover who is battling early onset Alzheimer’s. The unspoken theme is that Attila and Jean are searching for happiness in a world where struggles and conflicts abound, and it is this elusive emotion Forna so deftly reveals through the two characters; although they come from such disparate backgrounds, they might actually find happiness in each other.


Allan Vorda: By the time you published your first book, the memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water, you had already received a law degree from University College London. What made you decide to write a memoir?

Aminatta Forna: In the later 1990s when the war in Sierra Leone was ongoing, I felt there was an urgent necessity to address what was happening in our country in a way that went beyond news reporting. By then I had been a BBC journalist for ten years and knew well both the limitations of the form and the way the Western media served and continues to serve the African continent poorly. The question I wanted to answer was how had Sierra Leone lost its way? My father’s and my family’s story held part of the answer. In a final letter to the nation shortly before his death in 1975, my father had foretold the country’s future if people allowed our then nascent democracy to be subverted. He warned about the end of the rule of law and of coming war. The causes of the war were political; there was a chain of cause and effect. I wanted to write about that, to trace the place where the country left the path. To me it is the task of the writer, of the artists, to address these moments in a country’s story.

AV: What writers have influenced you and can you name a few of your favorite books?

AF: I grew up reading the South African writers: Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton, Andre Brink. These writers revealed to the world what the apartheid regime denied, stripped away the lies to reveal the brutishness beneath. I recently met Isabel Allende for the first time; as a young woman I had been utterly absorbed by The House of the Spirits. Her life could have been my life. I looked to South American writers in my twenties, for the ways in which they addressed political upheaval and social injustice. I teach my students Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman. Can you imagine the impact of going to the theatre to see that play in Santiago in the 1990s when Pinochet was still alive? Dorfman has said he thought that of writing it as a novel, but decided the story needed to be made into a play so that the experience of seeing it would be a collective one. He was forcing a nation to address its conscience. Nearly three decades later the play still resonates, and it could be set anywhere: Indonesia, Syria, Egypt, El Salvador. I adore Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. Those are some of the books that shaped my writing mind. I don’t have favorite books, but I am drawn to works which ask questions about the human condition. People write and read for many reasons, but for me what fiction does best is to offer the opportunity to interrogate the way we live through the self.

Nina Shanu: The Devil that Danced on the Water is a wonderful, heartbreaking memoir. However, it seems your father, Mohamed Sorie Forna, underestimated the maliciousness of President Siaka Stevens. Do you think your father, who was a physician, was naive not to think Stevens would try to malign him, especially considering the public response to your father’s resignation as Minister of Finance? Why didn’t he get himself and his family out of the country?

AF: My father was thirty-nine when he was killed—he was young, not naive. Stevens’s regime was gathering pace and power, but he had not yet begun to murder his opponents. I’m often asked why my father didn’t leave. I have to say I struggle with this question, as I understand perfectly why he stayed. For a political activist, danger goes with the job description. My father was a political activist who chose to stay and fight. He loved his country and he wished to remain there. After his death my step-mother stayed and I continued to go home to Sierra Leone from my boarding school in Britain during the holidays. We never left. I asked my step-mother about that once, given how very tough it was for her as my father’s widow. She said my father very much wished her to stay and she wanted to as well. She told me: “I would not give them (Stevens and his acolytes) that satisfaction.”

NS: After uncovering the events that led to your father’s death and writing your memoir, how has this changed you?

AF: It gave me a hard-earned wisdom. When I told my sister what I was planning she said, “Be careful, what you discover may be worse than what we think.” I didn’t know how much worse it could be, but it was. I thought I was going to uncover a sophisticated plot that would take me months to unravel. What I discovered instead was that Stevens, when he wanted my father dead, merely let his wishes be known and those around him were all too willing to play their part. The level of complicity was astonishing and the discovery of how it penetrated almost the whole society led me to write The Memory of Love. This, of course, is not unique about Sierra Leone.

I also discovered the face of courage via the elderly couple who hid me as a child. I asked them why they did it and they replied that they couldn’t have lived with themselves if they had done anything else. I’ve heard this predicament called the “Anne Frank test”—it poses the question of whether someone you know is a good enough person that they would hide you if the worst happened. I find myself thinking about people this way now. Which one would they be, the complicit or the quietly courageous? This question has informed a great deal of my writing ever since. It is one we should all be asking ourselves.

AV: Was it a difficult transition to move from non-fiction to your first novel, Ancestor Stones?

AF: The writer of creative non-fiction and the writer of fiction have much in common. Both employ the techniques of narrative, plot, pace, mood, and tone, considerations of tense and person, the depiction of character, the nuance of dialogue. Where the difference lies is that the primary source of the fiction writer is first and foremost their imagination, followed by their powers of observation and maybe a certain amount of research. The primary resource of the writer of creative non-fiction is lived experience which is, above and beyond all, memory. Then you can add observation and research to that. The big difference is that the writer of non-fiction works within the limitations of the story as given, remembered, or told. Non-fiction can be also untidy—there are usually too many characters—whereas in fiction you would use one character for multiple purposes. These are some of the challenges of non-fiction. The challenge of fiction is that there are no “givens” to rely on. It’s easy to lose track of what story you are telling, to lose direction or even inspiration.

Jennifer Otalor: It seems Ancestor Stones used the stories and lives of the women to portray the evolution of the West African nations and their communities. Were these women symbols of this evolution?

AF: Each woman in Ancestor Stones is born into a different period of her country’s history. Asana is born into a pre-colonial world; Hawa is a child of the colonial era; Mariama comes into contact with the missionaries and their ambitions; Serah comes of age at the same time as her country. The women are not so much symbols of this evolution—or transition might be a more accurate word—as they are impacted by political events of which they were often not even aware and in ways they do not realize.

JO: Reading Ancestor Stones reminded me of what I experienced in Nigeria as a child. Were most of the experiences you wrote about in your novel based on true events?

AF: The stories in Ancestor Stones are fiction. Like many writers, if not most, I find inspiration in something seen or heard. Some of the stories grew out of such a kernel. During my research I spoke to many older women about their lives from the 1930s to the present day, for this was not the kind of information you could read about in a library or on the Internet. They were the kind of lives that had gone more or less unrecorded. Once or twice a woman said something that prompted an idea. For example, I first heard about the stones from a woman whose father had thrown her mother’s stones away. Her mother pined and died thereafter. This women did not know what the stones represented, she only saw that they meant a great deal to her mother. Later I discovered the significance of the stones, that they represented a woman’s line of descent, her mother and her mother’s mother and so forth. Each woman added a stone to the collection before she passed it onto her daughter. I found that woman’s single memory so moving and so compelling that I built a narrative around it.

AV: Your second novel, The Memory of Love, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book Award in 2011. What was the genesis for writing this multi-layered story that revolves around Elias Cole, his love for the beautiful but married Saffia Kamara, and his betrayal of her husband?

AF: The genesis was talking to people about the 1960s and 1970s in Sierra Leone, people who had been witnesses and sometimes party to events. I was interested to know how those who had been silent or complicit could live with their choices. What was the story they told themselves that made this possible?

AV: Attila runs a mental hospital in The Memory of Love. What made you choose this name and why did you decide to make him one of the main characters in Happiness?

AF: Attila stayed with me, as simple as that. I kept thinking about him. I wrote a couple of short stories in which he is featured. I became very curious to know what he thought of the West and its values. Attila is not such an unusual name in West Africa since there was a fashion for the names of historic characters at one time.

AV: You have described how Sierra Leoneans, in living with the memory of the civil war, existed with a “disassociative condition in which the mind creates an alternative state. This state may be considered a place of safety, a refuge.” You also touch upon this with Duro in The Hired Man (his memory of Anka is based on smell), and you discuss PTSD with Adama and Rosie’s battle with Alzheimer’s in Happiness. How important is memory, both the good and the bad, to you as a writer?

AF: Memories are what shape us. Memories are based on experience, but how we remember the experience is more important than the experience itself. Consciously or unconsciously each one of us creates the narrative of our lives and that is both informed by and informs the way we see the world.

AV: The first thing that struck me about The Hired Man is how physical your prose is—at times I felt like I was reading Hemingway. How do you feel about writing from a man’s perspective?

AF: When I create a character I create a voice for them. I listen closely to people from their world. Croatians in general are economical with words, to the point of dispensing entirely with definite articles. Duro is an excellent hunter, an occupation which demands patience and silence; he prefers his own company to that of other people. So it is his voice that speaks in The Hired Man.

AV: One of the ironies of The Hired Man is that Kos, the blind hunting dog, can easily find his way, yet Laura and Duro are blind to what is around them. It seems inconceivable that Duro can remain in the company of Fabjan and Kresimir after what they have done to those he loved. The same can be said for Agnes in The Memory of Love, who witnesses her husband’s beheading by rebel soldiers and later discovers her sole surviving daughter is married to one of these soldiers. How can these people live amongst people who have been so cruel?

AF: We all live among people who are that cruel, or at least potentially cruel. In peace time most people don’t get the opportunity to live up to their full potential. They need something like a civil war, some breakdown in law and order, which removes the restraints of ordinary society. Duro knows this because he is close to nature and its ways; he has no illusions about human nature. Agnes has no illusions either. Agnes would have grown up knowing poverty and hardship and she would have had few romantic illusions about the world. However, she must endure the consequences of people’s cruelty at even closer quarters than Duro. Both must stay silent, yet Duro has found a way to turn that silence into a weapon against his enemies by threatening to break it. Agnes has no such resource; her silence is turned inward and her mind has found the only way it can to cope with the horror of her predicament.

AV: Your latest novel, Happiness, revolves primarily around Dr. Attila Asare, a Ghanan psychiatrist, and Jean Turane, an American social biologist who is studying the habits of urban foxes in London. One of the reader’s first glimpses of Attila is where you state: “He liked to watch the English perform, enacting a conception of Englishness still held sacred in some quarters, among expatriates who went about their parties, bashes and games of golf with a kind of strained urgency, but also here on home turf, in this room, were gathered the guardians of the flame.” Why is it that writers, such as you and Kazuo Ishiguro, can describe the English so well? Also, since you are Sierra Leonean and Scottish, do you feel English?

AF: There’s a Chinese saying: “A cow can tell you what it feels like to stand in a field and eat grass, but it cannot tell you what that cow looks like standing in a field eating grass.” Possessing more than one cultural influence has gifted me a double consciousness—the ability to view one through the lens of the other. So in a way Ishiguro and I are both the cow and the viewer of the cow.

Do I think of myself as English? Identity is multi-layered and overlapping, far more untidy than I have just suggested. I went to boarding school in England for twelve years and then university. I have lived in London for thirty years and for the last three years in Washington D.C. I am married to an Englishman. I am probably far more culturally English than I am Scottish, having spent much more time in England than Scotland.

AV: Is it fair to assume from your novel that foxes are fairly common in London? Also, based on your research of wolves, coyotes, and foxes, what did you find most surprising?

AF: Foxes are everywhere in London. I’ve seen a fox wander past Buckingham Palace. I’ve seen a fox cross the road in Piccadilly. I have foxes in my garden, where a vixen raises her cubs every year. Like all Londoners I am very used to the proximity of foxes. I never realized coyotes were equally prevalent in American towns and cities; I had assumed them to be mostly rural. A wildlife biologist told me that in Boston you are probably never more than 200 meters from a coyote. The speed at which coyotes evolved from a desert to an urban environment has been astonishing. Their adaptability is what has allowed them to survive strenuous efforts to kill them. You have to admire them for it.

AV:She stroked the fur of his underbelly. Finally she laid her cheek against his chest and felt the beating of his heart, turned to bury her face in his fur . . . The coyote had been Jean’s first. She had never forgotten.” This scene describes when Jean tags her first coyote; a few years later she remembers “the smell of this animal’s coat the day she felled him and collared him, the warmth of his body, the blood beat of his life.” These scenes seem to have sexual connotations. Is Jean, who is divorced from her husband Ray, in some kind of sexual limbo before she falls in love with Attila?

AF: I would not have said this was intended to be sexual. The moment for Jean is in the transition between studying the animal in the abstract and feeling it as a living, breathing creature. If I were to use an analogy I would say, like a parent having a child placed in her or his arms for the first time, the emotions produced in that moment are far deeper and more complex once the idea of a child becomes a reality. Also, Jean isn’t in state of sexual limbo in London; she has had a couple of lovers of which the Romanian truck driver was the most recent before Attila.

AV: Jean has a very contentious radio interview. Was this scene based on something you experienced?

AF: The style of British radio broadcasters is very different from NPR. They are far more direct, even hectoring, especially on more populist shows—although still not in the league of American talk radio. I know how the inside of a radio studio operates because I have been in them many times, both as guest and presenter.

AV: At one point, Attila says “I’m not being cynical, just realistic. War is in the blood of humans.” Do you believe this statement is true?

AF: Look around you. I recently spoke to a conflict negotiator who was, very much like Attila himself, a trained psychologist. He had spent many years working in Northern Ireland, which is where he was from. He told me that human beings reflexively want what somebody else wants and will try to take it by one means or another. A friend of mine, a war correspondent with thirty years of experience, put it even more succinctly. He said. “War is armed robbery.” Somebody wants what someone else has got and sets out to take it. The Ancient Greeks stole women. Most modern wars have been fought over land, and increasingly, wars are fought over resources such as oil and soon enough water. People think wars are fought over religion, race, or ethnicity, but those things merely act as a justification. Look beyond and you’ll see what is really being fought over is material wealth.

AV: Attila thinks to himself that “he knew, every morning when he woke up, what he had been put on this earth to do. Or he had anyway, the knowledge had nourished him for decades. He could not imagine what it was like not to wake with that sense of purpose.” Do you feel similar to Attila in this regard?

AF: When I became a writer I felt this overwhelming sense of relief that I had found the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My restlessness was over. I feel profoundly lucky.

AV: In the novel you mention a statue in Greenhampton, MA called The Wolfer—does this statue actually exists?

AF: No, I made it up. I made up Greenhampton too. My inspiration for the statue came from those statues to settlers who murdered Native Americans, a few of which still exist in American towns. The statues exist to commemorate not those killed but the killer, to venerate slaughter.

AV: Attila notes just before his conference speech “what [people] desired so badly wasn’t happiness but a state of prelapsarian innocence, the things that babies possessed.” Is happiness a paradox?

AF: The paradox is that happiness is not contingent on the absence of suffering, but the reverse—that surviving difficulty can lead to happiness. In this culture we are conditioned to believe that anything other than pleasure is a threat to happiness, that happiness is an all or nothing condition. The central question in Happiness is this: Can you know happiness if you have never known unhappiness?

AV: Do you think being in love is a contingency of happiness? What can we do to make ourselves happy, since it seems happiness is a fleeting thing for so many?

AF: Are you asking whether you have to be happy to be in love? I’m sure it helps. I think happiness remains elusive when it becomes a goal in itself. The more you chase it, the more elusive it is likely to come. The happiest people I have ever met are those who have committed themselves to an endeavor that goes beyond the self. Happiness is a by-product of that activity, whether it is building hospitals or playing the piano. We tend to assume that all people are capable of achieving happiness, but I think a good many people simply don’t have the temperament for it.

AV: The novel ends with Attila writing a letter to Jean that he decides not to send, but to deliver in person in two days. This recalls the letter Attila did not send to his late wife, Maryse, although this time there appears to be some hope for happiness for the older, more mature couple. Nevertheless, doesn’t it seem the older we get the less we laugh and the less happy we are?

AF: Gosh no, I wouldn’t go back to being in my twenties for all the tea in China. I may have had more fun then, but that’s entirely different from happiness.


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Four Irish Authors: Joyce, O'Connor, Glavin & Mulkerns

A Hagiography of Heaven and Vicinity
Michael Joyce
Broadstone Books

Joyride to Jupiter
Nuala O’Connor
New Island Books

Colours Other Than Blue
Anthony Glavin
Ward River Press

Ferenji and Other Stories
Helena Mulkerns
Doire Press

by M. G. Stephens

Michael Joyce is often referred to as the father or grandfather of hyper-fiction, and is an important figure in the world of hypertext. Writers such as Umberto Eco and Robert Coover have touted his genius for years. A Hagiography of Heaven and Vicinity is Michael Joyce at his most linear and intellectual. In this collection of prose poems and poetry, he is at times as intellectually rigorous and theologically inquisitive as T. S. Eliot, and yet his work reads as contemporary as anyone writing now.

Like Joyce the progenitor, Michael Joyce can be as staunch and brilliant as any Jesuit. Hagiography comes in a binary form, part one being “Lives of the Saints,” and part two being “Desert Dialogues.” The poems and prose reference figures such as the saints Paul and Thomas, but also Karl Wallenda, the high-wire artist. They are philosophical, impersonal, allusive, reflective, brilliant, erudite, and yet very much of our time. One could easily replace a book of daily reflections with this Joycean book.

From nothing but the dawn
was once a pencil of uncertain light
viewed by the desert fathers perched
like buzzards on makeshift shelves
hovering above a cloud of nothingness
Wile E. Coyote speeding by in silence
running laps in the dim lavender dawn.
(from “Ab nihilo)

Nuala O’Connor’s prose in Joyride to Jupiter is by turns luminous and full of sly wit, and her range of storytelling is imaginative and broadly compassed, including elderly couples facing dementia and even a highly oneiric narrative of the poet Elizabeth Bishop living in the jungles of Brazil with her female lover. That last story, so full of twists and turns and surprises, is really about a young Brazilian boy, though, someone who works briefly for the North American writer.

In “Napoli, Abu,” an incongruous pair of women, one young and hip, the other older and dour, have decided to take a holiday together in Naples. Their conversations about love and life are hilarious.

I sipped my Falanghina and glanced at her: the helmet hair, the miniscule lips, the dour set to her face. Poor shite—what man would even look at her?
“My boyfriend is married too,” she said.
“You have a fella?” I sat up and leaned towards her. “Seriously? A married man? Well, get you, the capaillin dubh.”
“I’m no dark horse, Tara. You expect people to be a certain way, that’s all. Because of the way they look.”

Of course, this being Irish writing, there is always tragedy lurking in every corner of every story here. Occasionally the darker notes obtain, such as in “Girlgrief,” a story about an Irish couple coming to Sweden for their son’s funeral and then interacting with their four-year-old granddaughter, who asks: “Is God made out of sand?” Kelly, that young girl, asks her grandmother if Kelly’s own husband will die when she gets married. Her grandmother says that no, he won’t. “’Actually, he will,’ Kelly says.”

These darker—and richer—notes aside, Joyride to Jupiter is a delightful gallimaufry, sometimes sending the reader to the dictionary to look up a word (polyphenolites, a wogeous headache, sliotars), and sometimes sending the reader into paroxysms of laughter.

The Cambridge-raised, Harvard-educated Anthony Glavin moved to Ireland in 1974 and has, more or less, been a resident there ever since. An editor at New Island Books, he has written short story collections and one other novel, Nighthawk Alley, before embarking on this new ambitious novel. Some writers draw from life, others from the imagination, while the best use experience and fancy equally. There is then a special kind of book in which a writer combines both what they know and what they imagine with their sense of compassion, insight, and wonder about the human condition. Colours Other Than Blue is just such a novel.

In Colours, Maeve Maguire grows up in Boston as the child of two Irish immigrants. She and her brother live across from the Boston Common, as their father is the superintendent of the building, while their mother drifts in and out of bouts with mental illness. Maeve becomes a nurse, gets pregnant but does not marry, and moves as a single parent to Ireland, where she eventually takes a job at a nursing home, and then becomes the head or matron. The novel is a diary that Maeve keeps of her comings and goings in Dublin, along with her reflections of life in Boston with her immigrant parents, both of whom, now deceased, Maeve strives to understand and come to terms with. Improbably Maeve has sought the counsel of a nun who is a therapist and who encourages Maeve to keep this journal.

This is a quiet, psychological novel, all of it told from the point-of-view of a woman in her late thirties who is coming to terms with her own mortality and life ambitions, not to mention the ghosts of her parents, one of whom she loved (her father), the other whom she endured (her mother). This is contrasted with Maeve’s day job as the matron at the nursing home in Dublin, stories about which she tells in her journal with great sympathy and humor. Wonderful little jokes are sprinkled throughout the text, and Maeve’s detailed observations about the quotidian, to borrow a word from the Irish, are “priceless”:

“Why did the Buddha never vacuum?” Declan asks last night. “Is the dust that obvious?” I wince, but Declan just points at Siddhartha on the coffee table. “Because he hadn’t any attachments, Maeve.”

No country has produced writers whose lyrical impulses seem so effortless, but the lyrical is a mixed blessing for Irish writers, just because it is so easy for them to respond to the world in that register. Helena Mulkerns’s Ferenji and Other Stories, by contrast, is a book in which the lyrical is replaced by the observant eye and real experiences. Mulkerns worked for the United Nations peacekeeping operations in Central America, Africa, and Afghanistan. Her stories concern real people working, often idealists, whose principles, beliefs, and sense of social justice are challenged every second by the randomness of war’s violence and its crushing indifference to children and families. Against such backdrops, Ferenji documents intimate encounters by a string of jaded Western observers and do-gooders whose moral indignation has been rubbed smooth by the exigencies of survival in some of the most brutal places on earth.

Take the first story in the collection, “A Child Called Peace,” in which Selam, a small child, notices that one of her family’s goats has strayed off into a rocky terrain. Rather than incur the wrath of her family for losing the goat, she goes off to retrieve it, only to be blown to pieces by a landmine. This is immediately contrasted with two West European idealists from Ireland, Brid and Thomas:

She felt uncomfortable, even overwhelmed patrolling through ruined villages or holding camps, yet Tom seemed to just treat it all like a good pensionable job, counted the days to his home leave and listened to the Irish radio station broadcast at the Base, one foot at home and one in a war zone. Maybe that was the best way to be.

The disparate worlds of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and the indigenous people they supposedly are there to help converge in the makeshift hospital, when the full impact of the landmine event becomes apparent. Mulkerns writes a prose of deceptive unadornment set against elemental landscapes and has an almost antipoetic voice; this starkness makes for incredibly dramatic effects. Ferenji is a read not to be missed.


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Perfect Wave: More Essays on Art and Democracy

Dave Hickey
University of Chicago Press ($25)

by Sean Nam

In the penultimate chapter to Dave Hickey’s new collection of essays, Perfect Wave, the typically unflappable art critic describes a moment of sobering vulnerability. Hickey is at a black-tie dinner during one of the more prominent art fairs in the world, engaging the cognoscenti with the kind of gruff offhandedness more appropriate at a dive bar: He ditches a renowned album cover designer in mid-conversation, tries out a lame joke on a well-heeled artist (“another treasure of the empire”), and then embarrasses a friend—the “eighth most powerful person in the art world”—by dredging up an old story in front of his colleagues. Satisfied, Hickey decides to call it a night. But as soon as he steps outside to leave, it occurs to him that he was perhaps not as nettlesome a presence as he thought and that he has “come down with an art world virus. All it took was one big sniff of ambient self-congratulation to induce an ego erection that deluded me into imagining that my behavior mattered in the least. It didn’t. The Cartier debacle wasn’t a debacle. I am an idiot.”

Not that Hickey—thorny, glib, irreverent—would ever deign to care what the high rollers and taskmasters of the art world think of him, but for a critic as self-deprecating as himself and who first made his name in part by the outrage he caused in lofty circles, it comes as no surprise that the art world’s indifference, rather than its opprobrium, would count for Hickey as a gut punch. Provocateurs, after all, make their bones on provoking, on being heard.

With the publications of The Invisible Dragon in 1993 and Air Guitar in 1997, Hickey positioned himself as the art world’s Public Enemy No.1, or so the narrative went. Unlike many of his jaded peers who emerged out of the culture wars of the ’80s and early ’90s, Hickey was the rare observer who talked about beauty without blushing, treating it as a philosophically rich and socially useful concept during a time when it was largely derided by tenured academics as a synonym for the nefarious art marketplace. Piggybacking on Kant’s formulation that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Hickey maintained that the experience of art is totally subjective. From this precept arose Hickey’s well-known invective against the art world and its deep-pocketed functionaries, who in the process of trying to outbid each other on the latest trend, end up determining what matters for the public.

Frequently swift, unsparing, and (of course) stylish, Hickey’s smart and rollicking prose was its own kind of vernacular, as influenced by his ’70s rock magazines peers, Lester Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson, as by the subjects of his doctoral dissertation, Derrida and Foucault. It complemented his propensity for weaving grand stories, however apocryphal, from his own experience and inserting them into the criticism. No institution, Hickey believed, has the right to tell you how to feel. As he put it concisely in an epigram attributed to Keith Richards in Air Guitar, “Let me clear about this: I don’t have a drug problem, I have a police problem.”

While Perfect Wave largely maintains the pugnacity of his earlier efforts, it is also a work that departs from the zeal and optimism of Hickey’s heyday. He writes that “There was a time, you see, when things would remain all right well into the day, when I could make some fresh coffee, walk out on to the balcony, and watch the dawn reflected on the western mountains. No more.” The spirit of stalwart opposition to the art world remains, but, if nothing else, Hickey’s faith in his ability to change anything about it has clearly diminished. And for good reason. The art institutions and administrations he once railed hard against still exist unscathed, charging ever forward with gluttonous impunity toward the green dollar sign. No writer can claim in good faith to be able to change the dynamics of an insular billion-dollar industry like the art world, but with Hickey there was always an impression that he could at least cause a snag in its machinery.

The difference in Perfect Wave is that Hickey does not hide his disenchantment. Still, it is the author’s most focused work in some time. His last several publications have been wanting: two anthologies consisting of his writings on social media and a critical survey of twenty-five contemporary female artists were published last year to mixed results. Perfect Wave is a return to familiar ground, following in the vein of Air Guitar and Pirates and Farmers. Essays on long-cherished subjects like Waylon Jennings, William Claxton, Las Vegas, Robert Mitchum, and Norman Rockwell are dotted with references to cocaine, chintz, rock ‘n’ roll, and Nathalie Sarraute, and buttressed by the usual colorful backstories culled from Hickey’s picaresque past.

In this way, Perfect Wave is Hickey in vintage form. In the chapter “Wonderful Shoes,” Hickey, the committed hedonist, reminds us that he is as pleasure-seeking and materialistic as any young blood on a Friday night on the Las Vegas Strip. “Utopias are all idea,” he writes, as he prepares a shrewd analogy. “Edens are all details. They exist in the fashions, the china, the art, the landscape, and the climate . . . They may require doilies . . . Utopias are inflated, theorized community preferences. Edens are about our desires.”

In one of his most articulate essays, Hickey offers an account of Susan Sontag that straddles a number of contradictory impulses; both congratulatory and glib, respectful and severe, it is quintessential Hickey. What he manages to say about Sontag tells us as much about her as it does himself. “We were kids, and straight, and we ‘got it,’” Hickey writes. “This meant Sontag would never be our Great Mentor. She would never be Gertrude Stein or Joseph Beuys or Marcel Duchamp. She was our uptight big sister, maybe fifteen minutes ahead of her time, disgusted by our feckless penchant for moral free fall, contemptuous of our new tattoos.” Often, Hickey’s glibness and sarcastic tone can get the better of him, but here it plays to his strengths in assessing a giant of the intellectual world.

Always attuned to art’s shifting place in society, Hickey, in an essay called “A World Like Santa Barbara,” decries the political attitudes that continue to delimit the freedom of art: “the right wing by seeking to censor any art that might generate healthy anxiety; the left by explaining away art’s ability to challenge us individually, by presenting art to us in perfectly controlled explained, and contextualized packages.”

In “After the Prom,” a terrific interpretation of the Norman Rockwell painting, Hickey shows his erudition as both a first-rate formalist and astute historian. On the surface, the painting looks decidedly simple, another realist narrative painting by America’s foremost populist artist; it depicts a boy and his prom date sitting at a diner counter interacting with a soda jerk. As Hickey exhaustively breaks down the geometrical significance of each painted gesture, it becomes clear that the painting is a bit more complicated, and that Rockwell has left nothing to chance: the combination of arms, elbows, knees, and the sway of the figures’ garments, Hickey contends, creates a picture that “although harmonious and delicately balanced within itself, does not feel self-enclosed or claustrophobic.” Where others merely see a portrait of a romanticized bygone era, Hickey perceives an implicit tie to the great social paintings of the 18th century. In particular, he notes how the soda jerk’s centrality in the canvas makes him the vicarious focal point, or “surrogate viewer,” a technique that he traces back to the likes of Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Honore Fragonard. The reading here has the force of logic. It has often been said that Hickey’s tastes are too eccentric for others to adopt as their own; at the same time, there is no one better at describing them. Where others only offer staid and insipid accounts, Hickey remains one of the few writers committed to rendering the experience of encountering art in terms that are both thrilling and illuminating.

Not all of the essays are as successful. Some are anachronistic or a tad hokey, like “It’s Morning in Nevada: On the Campaign Trail in Post-Bush America,” a work of participatory journalism. A more relevant article would have been something on today’s urgent political climate—MAGA hats or Mar-a-Lago, for example. Other essays are simply uninteresting and seem only have been included to uphold a particular image: “My Silk World,” a travelogue of the Southwest states, plays to Hickey’s honky-tonk sensibility, and “The Last Mouseketeer,” an essay on Disneyland, similarly affirms Hickey’s standing as one of the few intellectuals who has anything nice to say about theme parks.

But the shadow cast by Air Guitar is long, and what ultimately distinguishes Perfect Wave is the fact that it does not come close to the swelling, near-reckless confidence of its predecessor. Not long ago, a younger Hickey defiantly declaimed in his 1993 essay “Enter the Dragon” that “The vernacular of beauty, in its democratic appeal, remains a potent instrument for change.” Today, the older Hickey is less sanguine about such possibilities. “Art may change the world, incite the revolution,” Hickey states matter-of-factly in the last chapter to Perfect Wave, “but it will almost certainly leave its administrative institutions intact.” The proper job of the artist and critic may be in the “overthrowing and reforming” of cultural institutions, but as Hickey continues to explain, today’s institutions “have rendered themselves virtually invulnerable to overthrow or reform.” It is no wonder that Hickey concedes to feeling a bit powerless these days:

For twenty-five years, I was a journeyman artisan in a marginal industry whose size was commensurate with its public importance. Today, I am a plug-in subcontractor in a bloated corporate culture that has embraced all the wickedness of mass culture and mass education in its quest of dollars at the door. More distressing still, I find myself inadvertently complicit in his lemming-like rush to the mainstream.

Still, for all the doubts and misgivings that Hickey has for the future, as the kleptocrats continue to pull the strings from behind the curtain and generic art school types proliferate, he offers this consolation: the art itself isn’t going anywhere, and its endless pleasures are there for the picking. As Hickey puts it, “I want crazy, if only in a book, dissonance if only in a piece of music, exquisite insanity if only in a painting.”


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Letters to His Neighbor

Marcel Proust
Translated by Lydia Davis
New Directions ($19.95)

by David Wiley

Marcel Proust, author of the world’s longest and perhaps greatest novel, In Search of Lost Time, was a near-invalid who sequestered himself during most of his masterwork’s composition inside a cork-lined, shuttered bedroom, banishing pollen, noise, sunlight, people, and everything else in the world other than his own voluminous memories. Stories of his reclusiveness have become so legendary and proverbial that inside views of his life—such as his housekeeper Céleste Albaret’s profoundly illuminating memoir, Monsieur Proust—read like gospel to pilgrims in search of more shards of the true Proust. He didn’t write any memoirs himself, unless you count his roman à clef as a memoir, but his epic correspondence forms a kind of double mirror to his endlessly refracting novel. Thus, when any new artifacts documenting this monster of neurotic hermeticism come to light, it’s like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of Qumran. The latest discovery of twenty-six of his letters to his upstairs neighbor, written over a decade during the composition of In Search of Lost Time, will delight any Proustian and will tide the faithful over until new relics come to light.

An American dentist named Charles Williams lived and worked in the flat just above Proust’s—a nightmare for any sensitive person, let alone one who only slept during the day—and nearly all of the letters in this volume are hilariously labyrinthine requests for quiet. Three are addressed to Dr. Williams himself, while the twenty-three others are addressed to his wife, Marie, who like Proust also had ongoing health problems and whose sensitivity and intelligence very slowly made their mark on her complaining neighbor’s empathy. Some of these letters are simply ingenious in how they wend their way toward their true purpose—quiet, please!—but Proust couldn’t help becoming connected to his fellow sufferer upstairs. Although he almost never actually came into contact with her, he nonetheless gave much of himself to her, and he received perhaps just as much in return. Responding to a letter she wrote to him while she was on vacation, he revels in her perceptive descriptions and reflects his own crepuscular experience right back at her:

You, with your pictorial and sunlit words, have brought color and light into my closed room. Your health has improved you tell me, and your life become more beautiful. I feel great joy over this. I cannot say the same for myself. My solitude has become even more profound, and I know nothing of the sun but what your letter tells me.

Gradually recognizing each other’s finely attuned minds, the two eventually began exchanging books—always through intermediaries, despite being a floor apart; in fact, he even sent some of his letters to her via the mail—and early on he began offering her published samples of his ongoing novel, despite his qualms about their level of polish and completion. Sending her magazine excerpts of what eventually became the work’s second and third volumes, he illuminates his expansive method as he subtly impresses her with why she and her husband need to give him the quiet that his labors require:

But will these detached pages give you an idea of the 2nd volume? And the 2nd volume itself doesn’t mean much; it’s the 3rd that casts the light and illuminates the plans of the rest. But when one writes a work in 3 volumes in an age when publishers want only to publish one at a time, one must resign oneself to not being understood, since the ring of keys is not in the same part of the building as the locked doors.

Those Daedalian keys eventually took seven volumes to become almost integrated into the novel’s full ground plan. Proust’s fully articulated vision halted just short of completion when he died eight years later, his revisions and expansions having ballooned the three volumes that he mentions in this 1914 letter into seven nearly perfect halls of mirrors.

Renowned Proust translator Lydia Davis reproduces the author’s idiosyncratic usage and orthography faithfully, mimicking the improvised quality of these dashed-off letters with a slashing verve (this volume’s reproductions of many of the letters attesting to their slapdash nature). The original French editors Estelle Gaudry and Jean-Yves Tadié contribute helpful endnotes, which Davis translates, expands, and emends to great effect, although Davis unfortunately has her hands tied with Proust-biographer Tadié’s labored foreword. Davis’s afterword also indulges in a few too many of her own peccadillos, such as way too much information about what the bank that occupies Proust’s former apartment looks like now. The real magic of her afterword comes in its coda, which tells the story of the grandson of a Norman florist reading extracts from these letters online and subsequently disclosing Proust’s flower-buying habits and etiquette with the Williamses and others, noting the thirty-two times that he visited the shop between 1908 and 1912. Unearthing these intricately revealing records is the true Proustian pursuit, redeeming Davis’s mini-gospel of its few apocryphal lapses and elevating this volume’s host of testamentary material to nearly the level of the letters themselves. A tiny reliquary, this book’s illuminated codex now serves as a minor pilgrimage for all true Proustian communicants.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018