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A Savage, Celibate Gaze: Cris Mazza’s Foray into Independent Film


by Michael Newirth  

Is adolescence a greater torment for the artist? If everybody in those years must face struggles about bodies, gender, identity, and sex, creative people may in particular wince when recalling the awkward growing pains of high school romance. For Cris Mazza, PEN/Algren award-winning author of eighteen books and the subject of the new hybrid “fictive documentary” Anorgasmia, her high-school romance with the kind, popular, new-in-town musician who would many years later reappear as her life partner was especially fraught—due, she now realizes, to a lifelong alienation from her own sexuality on every level. The memories remain etched for Mazza. She recalls, “On our second date, he wanted to go to the drive-in movies . . . and I didn’t like what he wanted to do at the drive in.” The teenaged Mazza castigated herself: “You’re supposed to like this . . . Something’s wrong with you if you don’t like this.”

Mazza, who on screen and in person exudes the ascetic, coiled intensity of a particularly prolific “writers’ writer,” had taken on these shifting matters of sexuality in her 2014 memoir Something Wrong With Her (Jaded Ibis Press). The memoir underperformed commercially, but it inspired filmmaker Frank Vitale to contact the author and propose a further exploration of the deficit at the memoir’s heart and the movie’s title: an inability to engage sexually so profound that it shakes the subject’s self-identity, role in the world, and ability to form human connection. The result is a spare, intense viewing experience that provokes empathy and difficult questions in equal doses; despite its personalized focus on Mazza herself (and a modest budget), they have produced a more universal look at intimacy’s fragility, especially when translated into our drive for sexual satisfaction.

In the film, Mazza plays an unvarnished, no-filter version of her real self, leading writing workshops and sparring with mansplaining colleagues in the Program for Writers at the poured-concrete confines of the University of Illinois, Chicago (that the film captures the brawny intimacy of life on its Brutalist Near West Side campus is one of its successes). The filmed narrative compounds aspects of her memoir; through both voiceover and a dramatic storyline, Mazza asserts that her lifelong discomfort with notions of femininity is pushing her towards the stripping down of her own physicality. She attempts to develop a transgender identity, and likewise explores the new (to her) movement of asexuality; she utilizes photography to document and criticize her own physique, made lean through a punishing regimen of weights. And throughout, she carries the anguish of anorgasmia, her own inability to recognize or give in to sexual satisfaction.

Mazza’s partner on this journey, on the screen and in life, is that former high school bandleader, musician Mark Rasmussen. After more than twenty-five years apart and multiple marriages, they reunited when Mark sought her out after a book publication, and he eventually moved from California to Illinois to be with her. In a film obliquely concerned with physicality, attractiveness, and age, Mark is a stolid, burly presence, a large man who has done some living, if on the monastic rather than the decadent side of the aging-musician spectrum. While the film (which deftly utilizes childhood and teenage footage of the principals) first establishes Mark’s full-bore hippie coiffure when he and Mazza first met in the 1970s, today his mostly bald head gleams, another reminder of the fragility of conventional attractiveness. Throughout the film, Mark’s struggle with Mazza’s self-abnegation in the face of his obvious adoration of her provides its counterpoint, its Jarmuschian suspense.

As Mazza brutally critiques her own physicality and the very idea of enthusiastically enjoying sexual engagement, Mark’s wish to be supportive, or at least to comprehend her perspective, manifests itself in an anguish which gradually overtakes him. At one point in the film, this is evidenced in his sad hesitation as they shop in an enormous, rural thrift store for appropriately run-down working man’s clothes, so that Mazza can complete her “transgender makeover” in time to appear at dinner at a colleague’s home. Later, as she describes her determination to include him in an intimate photographic portfolio presenting Mazza in a male role and appearance, his roiling unease and the fear of losing her as the woman he loves come to a head, in a tense confrontation, shot close-in. Mark claims, “To show my affection towards you as trying to be a man, that is asking me to live the biggest lie that I’ve ever tried to live for you. No, Cris. I can’t do that for you. It’s not in me, any more than I think being a man is in you.”

Throughout their funny and sometimes sad interactions that lead up to this scouring moment, Mazza and Mark seem to balance their real selves with slightly exaggerated, composite versions prepared as in fiction. Of this synthesis, Mazza noted in a conversation via email, “We—Mark and I—got better at it as we went along. It was recovering from the feeling of being watched as we lived out our lives that was difficult.”

The film likewise makes use of Mazza’s real-world literary compatriots, including novelist Gina Frangello, who appears as a similarly exaggerated composite of herself, as they discuss misadventures in vibrator shopping, as part of a well-meant attempt to address Mazza’s condition (“You said it was going to work!” she upbraids Frangello). Elsewhere, short-story writers Dan Libman and his wife Molly McNett (played by actress Christine Simokaitis in the film) host Mazza during her ill-fated experiment in masculine “passing.” While these scenes have a thrown-off aspect that would situate them well in Chicago’s mumblecore / micro-indie film scene, they also possess a sweet, awkward humor that unfurls a window into the supportive literary networks present here in “flyover country.” Mazza observes, “Writers were the only other people I knew who could understand the project quickly and work within the constraints. Also, these were the people who already knew my and Mark’s background. Working with a person from another area of my life, like a dog-training buddy, even a different colleague at UIC, might have been too awkward to then maintain any semblance of naturalness in the filmed scenes.”

Mazza is a sharp presence on film, and forces the viewer to contemplate what for most is a fearful path not taken—a life in which sexual pleasures and connections are alien—by showing how, in a writer’s life, so many outlets would otherwise become foreign. At one point the camera drifts on a dreary fall day through the crowded UIC quadrangle, finally voyeuristically settling in on the lower half of an undergraduate woman, who is essentially wearing clingy pajamas. “I can sort of understand how a man would see that and want to put himself there,” Mazza notes. “I asked one of my ex-husbands, what’s it like to be a man? And he answered, so quickly. . . ‘You walk around wanting to fuck everything.’” Mazza’s own bemusement when faced (along with the viewer) with the co-ed’s appealing rear end in clingy sweats (as Mazza muses, “She probably knew that, and that’s why she wore them to school”) shows her determination here, as in much of her fiction, to play with the invisible forces of sexual objectification (constructed here by the juxtaposition of a young student’s ass against the severe, urban backdrop of Brutalist learning) in ways that may discomfort the viewer, yet keep them tuned in for more. Still, Mazza clearly hopes the film stands on its own, apart from her fictional concerns, and making it seems to have been a mixed and at times exhausting experience, distinct from the control the novelist enjoys. As she notes, “Whatever intents I may have had that my body of work was part of this (really, only in a “Stage-of-career” way) were thwarted by decisions made in editing.”

Mazza’s film raises these issues—of enforced celibacy, of bodily alienation, against the savage stew of feminine objectification—with a plain and unflinching honesty that treats its autobiographical subject with thought-provoking empathy. Yet, its easily overlooked heart is the long-thwarted relationship between Mazza and Rasmussen. Given that neither are professional actors, their escalating on-screen intensity, and ability to step outside of their actual relationship to represent its fictionalized extremes while actually capturing the longing of both the years that passed between them and Mazza’s storm of sexual alienation, is nothing short of remarkable and admirable. The film ends, in a clever twist, with a return to Mazza’s sole quasi-sexual (as in romantic) fantasy, described offhand in an early scene: coming up on Mark playing jazz in a darkened bar, as her true, neutralized self (though as the viewer knows, still purely feminine in Mark’s eyes), only to make an unstated, public, celibate connection, an intimate visual acknowledgement. As the film’s understated climax, it represents a calm resolution one only hopes Mazza the individual (if not Mazza the restless, productive writers’ writer) receives.
 
 
Anorgasmia is available for purchase or online rental. For further information, please visit the film's website.

 

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

 

Science Fiction in the Critical Vein: New York 2140 & This Census Taker

New York 2140
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit Books ($28)

This Census Taker
China Miéville
Del Rey ($16)

by Paul Buhle

As icebergs break off into the ocean and threats of mass extinctions gather, it’s normal (if “normal” is the word) for Science Fiction to re-emerge as a form of social exploration and social criticism. Happily, we have a handful of masters on hand to lead our imaginations along.

Literary scholars will eagerly point to historically distant origins of SF, and rightly so. But it’s good to understand how closely the American share of the genre has been tied to the book and magazine market at their lowest, most popular levels, and thus to their connections with utopian and anti-utopian political visions. A half century before H.G. Wells, meetings on Mars with gender experiments unacceptable on earth—notably women’s freedoms—were already being enacted in popular novels, part of the Yankee reformism of the middle nineteenth century. Toward century’s end, Populist standout Ignatius Donnelly sold tens of thousands of his vision of a destroyed and despotic future, anticipating Jack London among others, and added newer fictions of dread as the First World War approached.

Jump down to the 1920s through ’40s as the pulp magazine market, then the paperback market, found their way into the lower-class consumer world. Mostly filled with space cowboys and “BEMs” (Bug Eyed Monsters), these publications also contained much of the bizarre and politically radical. In Depression-era New York City, a circle of young, left-leaning, mostly Jewish intellectuals called themselves the Futurians. Only Isaac Asimov among these youngsters is likely to be remembered today, but the wider circle contained not only writers but also genre publishing experts establishing their own paperback imprints. By the 1960s, drug store readers looking beyond Ray Bradbury would find dozens of socially critical novels, not to mention short stories, about how the future looked a lot like . . . well, actually, Donald Trump’s America, with public schools privatized to cereal companies and all sorts of barbarism made respectable. The last of the Futurians, democratic socialist Frederik Pohl, passed away at ninety-three in 2013, still blogging for a transformed, cooperative order.

The literary picture, meanwhile, had become too complex for any easy overview. But postmodern science fiction, with a special inspiration from the British, made quite the splash in the 1960 and ’70s, willfully discarding the narrative in many a novel. For many readers, however, the tellable tale remained mandatory. Thus Philip K. Dick, whose Man In The High Castle, now adapted to video by Amazon Prime, has brought his name back with a bang. Thus Ursula K. Le Guin, feminist, ecosocialist, and literary standout of a political generation. Thus the young intellectual who wrote his PhD dissertation on Dick’s novels and then decided to become a writer rather than an English professor: Kim Stanley Robinson. Across many volumes, but memorably in his “Mars” series of the 1990s, the multiple award-winning Robinson combined a wealth of “hard” scientific knowledge with a radical critique of capitalism and hints of what a more cooperative order might look like.

A couple of decades ago, when I interviewed Robinson for In These Times, he was already a genre legend. My own father was a geologist, like Robinson’s wife, and that might help explain why the Mars series was so special to me. But hundreds of thousands of readers had the same impression: when he wrote, for instance, about “terraforming” Mars into a habitable (for humans) environment, he offered more than credible details. This was as far from sword-and-sorcery (of the old “Science Fiction and Fantasy” publishers’ category) as imaginable—and close to a tradition little understood.

Robinson has been so prolific that merely listing his works would be excessive. Suffice it to say that in one of his Mars books, explorers far in the future come across the physical remnants of an extra-planetary social uprising crushed by the mighty. The proletariat, let alone the socialists, do not seem to gain the victory over the earth-bound and interplanetary corporations. But then again, the struggle is never over. Unable to make desperately needed change, such as the abolition of the profit system, humanity must face itself and the consequences of its ecological foolishness.

Robinson’s next-to-most-recent book, 2015’s Aurora, concerns itself with the subject of such devastation. It makes sense that humanity, a couple centuries from now, would be exploring the solar system for a planet where at least a portion of society could start over. It also makes sense that success is badly against the odds, which favor our presence in the planetary ecosystem where we now live, no matter what we have done to it. But there’s something else here: Aurora happens also to be the title of the totemic mystical text by Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), a vision of abundance and presumably peace as well for all, animals included. This “legacy” Aurora is the presence of an absence in Robinson’s book, and yet it is there, somehow. From his home in Davis, California, Robinson works closely with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, and has been named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time, that historically reactionary publication now seriously worried about the future of American politics and profits.

It would not be giving too much away about New York 2140 to say that it depicts the city being continuously flooded, with new struggles of landlords and tenants, lenders and creditors, heading toward the riotous stage. Amazingly, not quite credibly, the Democratic Party is still at once hopelessly corrupt and a locus for progressive political work (the “Rad Dems,” a phrase that sounds curiously like Berniecrats). The protagonists are forever floating around, of necessity; there also seem to be a lot of beavers and muskrats, as pre-settlement water sources reassert themselves. New York 2140 is chock full of whimsy, as if Robinson is on a lark and wants us to know it, and yet the subject is serious, too. If capitalism does not yield, and Fascism does not crush all opposition, then something else is bound to happen.

If there is a younger version of Robinson in the English language, it must be China Miéville. More influenced by postmodernists like J.G. Ballard but also well within the socialistic literary lineage of science fiction, Miéville was born in 1972 and educated in International Relations and British Left politics as well as what he likes to call “weird literature.” No summary of his earlier work, ranging widely and twice from fiction to non-fiction (the latest is October, his own historical account of the Russian Revolution), can simplify it generically. So let us turn to his latest fiction, a little gem entitled This Census Taker.

Reading this spare journey into the life and mind of a boy growing up in the aftermath of some unnamed but terrible wars brings to mind not the dystopian literary fiction of the 1950s but rather the comic art version. EC Comics, about to go under from pressure of the Comics Code in 1955, featured the most realistic and therefore most anti-war war comics ever written and drawn—mainly by Harvey Kurtzman, also the founder of Mad Comics. Horror titles actually kept EC financially afloat, but a sidebar series of science fiction, drawn by some of the contemporary greats but adapted from Bradbury or pursuing similar themes, often had impoverished wanderers discovering destroyed cities. On the last page or perhaps in the last panel, they realized that the barely recognizable places had once been New York, Chicago, or anywhere else in the vanished United States.

Miéville’s protagonist, who seems to be in his early teens, is raised on a hill outside a village struggling, through the recuperation of handicrafts, to come back to life. His mother raises vegetables, his father makes keys, and he grapples with their inability to communicate with him about the world they inhabit; he also has a terrible (and seemingly justified) fear of what his father has done, and may still do, to people considered dangerous. He seems to find a community of his own, young ragamuffins in the collapsed village, but this, also, comes to almost nothing. The story is better in the telling of details than in any proposed conclusion, perhaps because in this world, no conclusion can be foreseen—as in our world today.

No doomsday crier, Miéville was himself among the founders of a UK socialist alliance initiative led by filmmaker Ken Loach, in 2013, and is doubtless in the camp of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn today. How will this affect his further fiction? Hard to say, but if there were ever a time for the resurgence of such politically astute SF as Miéville’s and Robinson’s, now is surely it.

Click here to purchase New York 2140 at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase This Census Taker at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

The Stories Choose You: an interview with Rosa Montero


Interviewed by Jorge Armenteros

The repercussion of the work of Rosa Montero in the world of International Hispanism is enormous. Ten books, thirty doctoral theses, and more than 120 academic papers have analyzed her work. In 1978 she won the World Interview Prize, in 1980 the National Journalism Prize, and in 2005 the Madrid Press Association Award. This year she has received the Professional Career Award awarded by the International Club of Prensay and the Manuel Alcántara International Journalism Prize from the University of Málaga.

Two of her novels, The Lunatic of the House (2003) and Story of the Transparent King (2005) received Spain's top book award, the Qué Leer Prize. Her other titles include the short-story collection Lovers and Enemies and the novels Beautiful and DarkMy Beloved Boss, and The Heart of the Tartar. Her work is translated into more than twenty languages.

Montero has been a visiting professor at Wellesley College, Boston and at the University of Virginia. She has taught creative writing at Bingham Young University, Utah, and Miami Dade College, Miami, and received a scholarship to lecture at Queen's University in Belfast, UK. Montero has taught literature and journalism in the School of Letters and the Contemporary School of Humanities, both in Madrid.

This interview was conducted verbally this past spring in Madrid, Spain. We met in her apartment, which overlooks el Parque del Retiro; surrounded by a multitude of sculptures, paintings, drawings, and amulets of salamanders, we spoke about literature and her last published book, La Carne (Alfaguara, 2016). I later transcribed the interview and edited the content for length and accuracy. Once edited, I translated the interview from Spanish into English.


Jorge Armenteros: At the beginning of La Carne, we find the subject of age. We know Soledad is on the brink of her sixtieth birthday—“Dogs’ age,” as you describe it in the book. What motivated you to choose her as the main character?

Rosa Montero: The truth is you do not choose the stories you tell, but stories choose you. You do not choose, therefore, characters either. Novels are like dreams you dream with your eyes open; they are books which appear in your head with the same apparent immediateness as they appear in your dreams at night. A writer always writes their obsessions and the truth is that all throughout life we end up writing the same thing in different ways. I am a tremendously existentialist writer; a contemporary novel is a novel that is very much marked by death, but mine is even more than the average one. Then all my books speak in a very obsessive way about death and the passing of time and what the time does to us or undoes to us, because our lives mean us being undone over time.

So it was natural that Soledad came out of nowhere. I mean, it is not that I chose her. On the other hand, Soledad has a feature I did look for. There was a conscious thing I wanted to find in her, and it is that I wanted to write a very extreme character who was close to turning sixty and who had never had a stable loving relationship. Soledad has had many lovers, but she has never had a complete everyday sentimental story. When we read the novel, we understand why: she has reasons for not having lived it. I wanted to write such an extreme character, because I wanted to ask myself how it is that someone, upon reaching that age, with such a life, can, perhaps, start to say to herself, “I will die without getting to know love,” and I wanted to do some research, I wanted myself to live within a life like that one to see how it feels, and what kind of wound can do that to you in life. But take into account that when I was already working on this character, I realized that it would not have been necessary to go so far, because I understood that there are lots of men and women who have been married for twenty years, or who have married and separated and remarried three times, and who, nevertheless, share the same experience with Soledad, because they feel they have never been loved the way they wanted to be loved. This might become such a deep wound that it destroys their life, that creates in them a radical frustration and that makes them feel they have thrown their lives away. And, in some cases, they might have gotten to this point due to bad luck. But in other cases, I think it is because we do not know how to live, which is another of the themes of the novel La Carne. We, humans, make out of our lives nonsense very often. There is a phrase from Oscar Wilde I love that says, “For most of us, real life is the life we do not lead.” Tremendous, isn’t it? Tremendous, but very truthful.

JA: There’s the following passage in the book: “Because one of the most widespread mirages is to think we are not going to be like the other old people, we will be different. But, then, age always catches you and you end up being equally shaky, unstable and drooling.” Would Soledad be able to overcome this overwhelming reality?

RM: No, absolutely, never, and nobody can. And, besides, we all believe it. As you grow old, you go telling yourself, “But not me.” You go challenging others if you are lucky, and if you are still physically fit and continue to look younger. I myself believe it, because I see people my age who look much worse, but it is not true. At any given time, if you live long enough, old age catches you . . . the only choices we have in life are either the impairment of old age or early death.

JA: Flesh and senses seem to enact guidelines in Soledad’s life. “Tyrant flesh enslaved everybody,” says the narrator of the novel. Is that just Soledad’s struggle, or do you propose it to be our struggle as well?

RM: No, no, of course, it is everyone's struggle. The relationship between the human being and the flesh has always been a matter of huge conflict. Since the beginning of time every religion has tried to take control of our selves, usually from a repressive point of view, most often than not inhibiting the body as well. Other times, on the other hand, as in certain eastern liturgies, empowering the body and doing away with the ego. But living inside this body never ceases to be a conflict. We are cultural beings and that clashes with our animal instincts. That’s where the title comes from. One day I came up with the title and I thought, what a title—so simple, so easy, so powerful, so telling. How is it that there aren’t twenty thousand novels titled La Carne? But there aren’t. So I kept my mouth shut, desiring at all costs not to have it stolen, until my book came out. In the first place, the flesh is what traps us, because no one has ever chosen his or her body to live in, has he? You are what you are and you didn’t get to choose it. It’s the flesh that traps us in the first place, the flesh that makes us sick, that makes us old and that eventually ends up killing us. But at the same time, it’s that glorious flesh that enables us to scratch heaven through sensuality, through sex, through passion. Paradoxically, the flesh that kills us will also make us feel eternal for a brief moment because that’s what we are in passion, eternal—we abandon ourselves, we merge, we give ourselves to the other, so much that when we are loving passionately, death doesn’t exist.

JA: Do you think Soledad truly loves Adam or does she only desire him, even though she is convinced otherwise?

RM: No, she is trying to convince herself of only wanting him, but what she truly is looking for is love. In fact, almost at the beginning, when she is about to call him on the phone, their relationship hasn’t even begun and she says: “More than a lover, I want a loved one.” She is afraid of herself, of that need for total love she has, of her loving passion. She has kept it under control for so long with all of her lovers and suddenly, with Adam, it just goes off.

JA: Soledad shares with Adam the frailty of those who have suffered, but that communion is not enough to keep them together. Is that the book’s central tragedy?

RM: No, truthfully, no. Because they are an impossible couple in so many ways. Let’s go back to the novel’s beginning. She is an exposition commissary, an educated woman, intellectual, nearing her sixty years, who’s had a lot of lovers, as we’ve established, but no serious significant others, who just broke up with one and who, in a final childish outburst, because love turns us into children, has no other brilliant idea than to try to make her ex-lover jealous in an opera performance, so she hires an extremely handsome gigolo. She doesn’t want to have sex with the gigolo, which she could, since he’s a prostitute; what she wants is to have that hottie by her side and make the other guy jealous. But we already know that us human beings spend life making plans and then reality comes along and tears them down in a single second, so there’s a violent and unexpected event that disrupts everything and they initiate a relationship. So, all the way from the beginning, it’s a wrong relationship. There’s a huge age difference and, besides, he’s a prostitute. That makes the relationship far more ambiguous than it already is. What’s really important in the novel is the edification of the mirror, the twins, the other one. She, the main character, has a twin. He, Adam, also has a twin. They are both like twins, one being a mirror to the other one. I believe in twinship—in my novels there’s lots of twins—and it’s exactly about that. It’s about all of the possibilities of our own being that we leave behind because one of the things that troubles me the most in life, that upsets all of us, is that we reach this world with the capability to be anything. But then life starts to confine us inside our small realities. And then, the shadow of those other possible lives stays to lurk us, which also sticks to you and you can’t shake it off, since it was so easy, it’d have been so easy to lead another life. We make twenty thousand small choices a day, and maybe one of those choices is the one that will take us to a completely different life. If you stop to think about it, it is vertiginous, hypnotizing and distressing. So, twins represent the other possible lives you could have led, which you drag behind you some way, in a ghostly way.

JA: The chase topic is important in the novel.

RM: Yes, it’s a novel of pursuit. I think Soledad is chased by her ghosts; she is certainly running away from her childhood. She has a very tough childhood and there are several terrors chasing her, such as the terror of going crazy, because she has a schizophrenic sister. Therefore, Soledad is constantly running away. That chasing could be self-destructive, but there is a redemption moment in the novel, a moment in which she forgives another person and she forgives herself, and that is going to let her end the book in a better situation. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s a much less desperate place than in the beginning of the novel.

JA: Do you think destiny is a tragedy or a chance to vindicate ourselves at the end of our lives?

RM: Well, it depends on what we consider destiny. Because if we consider destiny as closed, as they do in the East, then it would be a tragedy. Me, I belong to a Western tradition and I am strongly proactive, I think we can always do something. It’s true that a human being cannot control what happens to him. I can leave here now and a truck runs over me: I can’t control it. However, what we can control is how we respond to what happens to us, what we do with what happens to us. Even if the range of choice is minimal, there is always a choice. For example, in the Nazi concentration camps we have records and we know there were prisoners, poor men, that betrayed their mates—I insist they were victims, I’m not going to judge them—and on the other side, in the same circumstances, there were absolutely heroic prisoners who helped their mates. Even in that tiny little range of choice, you can choose. So, from that point of view, destiny is our battlefield. It’s not a tragedy; it is what we do with it.

JA: You appear in the novel as Rosa Montero, with tattoos and everything. Do you write like that, just like the book’s Rosa Montero explains, embodying the lives of all your characters?

RM: Totally. That thing about appearing, I don’t find it so pleasing. I have the feeling . . . no, the conviction, the certainness that reality and fiction are really mixed up. The frontier between reality and fiction is tremendously porous and slippery. And in fact, when I remember something that has happened to me a long time ago, let’s say twenty years ago, many times I’m not sure if I have actually lived what I am recalling, or I have dreamed about it, or I have written about it, or I have imagined it all. And the four possibilities have the same experiential force to me. That’s why there’s this game in many of my novels, in this border area between reality and fiction. Ana Santos Aramburo, who is actually the National Library Director, appears in La Carne. Moreover, she’s a friend of mine and the poor woman didn’t know I was putting her in a novel, so when I finished the first draft, I sent it to her and I told her: “Ana, look, you’re appearing there and you also talk a lot, so take a look at it and see if you’re OK with that.” Thank goodness she was! So, including myself in the action is also within this game. And the truth is I had a lot of fun looking at myself through the eyes of my character, because it’s me. And Soledad is right when she criticizes me. Yes, of course, I am a lot like Peter Pan. It’s true, I wear Doctor Martens boots, I have tattoos and I am dressed with young clothes . . . everything she says is true, it’s just that I’m not uncomfortable at all with that. Kids are the ones who create; I find it really great to have my inner child still alive. But besides this chapter, besides playing with the limits of reality and fantasy, it’s a key for the novel’s structure, because there I tell my character that imaginary life is also life, and that too helps my character to end the novel better than how it started.

JA: In what way does your journalism career influence in your fiction writing?

RM: You can’t make a living out of fiction writing. You can’t and you shouldn’t. I always tell everyone that is a huge mistake, because I have seen many writers get lost because of that. Novels should be an area of total freedom. It is already difficult to fight against the market pressure, against the pressure from your friends, your family, your editors, against the pressure of your own ambitions. All of that is already a fight. If you also have to earn money to pay for the mortgage, it’s fatal. I have seen how friends of mine, very good writers, who have left their jobs to make a living out of their books, started publishing every year really bad books, because they needed to get an advance payment. And they have been shot to shit—in very few years they have disappeared as writers. Incredible, right? I think you always need to have another job. I make a living out of being a journalist. The print journalism I do, reporting, is a literary genre as any other, and it can also be as sublime as any other. For example, In Cold Blood, written by Truman Capote, is a spectacular book. I like journalism very much as a job. And I have learned a lot, really a lot . . . I have met many worlds, and not only geographic, but also inner worlds. But it is always a job, it belongs to my outer being, to my social being, hence I may get tired of it. I’ve been working as a journalist, now I keep working as an article writer, for more than forty years.

Fiction, however, is a different matter. Like many novelists, I started writing when I was a little girl, a very little girl. My first tales, I wrote them when I was five years old and they were about little rats that talked. My mother dated them and I have them around here. Since then, I’ve been writing fiction for as long as I can remember myself as a person. For me, fiction belongs to my inner being, is something essential which defines me—I am a fiction writer in the same way I am a woman, the same way I am dark-haired—it is something essential and structural. It’s like an exogenous skeleton that keeps me going. And I don’t know how I would manage to live without writing, working with words. But they are two extremely opposite genres; let’s say as essays are to poetry. In particular, within journalism, clearness is a value. The clearer and less misleading a work of journalism is, the better. In a novel, ambiguity is a value. The more readings a novel has, even contradictory, the better. In journalism, you talk about what you know; you have provided yourself with records, you have gathered information, you have performed interviews. In a novel, you talk about what you don’t know, because the novel comes from the unconscious. They are very different relationships with words and with the world. In journalism, you talk about trees; in the novel, you try to talk about the forest.

JA: Who are the American contemporary novelists you find interesting to read?

RM: Well, the United States is still the empire, so we read a great many American authors: Jonathan Franzen, Lucia Berlin, Paul Auster . . . Many. I will say there are two authors I consider my teachers, one on the most realistic side and the other one in the most fantastic side: one of them is American—Ursula K. Le Guin, who’s still alive, in Portland—and the other one is half American, Nabokov, although his Russian ancestry and his Russian works also influence me a lot.

JA: You have written many novels and you have won many prizes. Which aspects of your narrative do you aim to develop in your next books?

RM: The art path leads you to be increasingly free. That’s what you do. Maturity happens because of being increasingly free. And what does “because of being increasingly free” mean? Well, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, the Peruvian writer, used to say a mature novel demands the author’s death, not literal death but metaphoric death, which is the author has to truly erase himself. Therefore, to be truly free, you have to break free from internal and external pressures. The things that restrict the freedom of writing are thousands, from the fear of hurting someone to the will of pleasing someone . . . a lot of things. And you actually have to erase the self completely and become a sort of medium, let the story pass through yourself and let the story dance with you. For example, all my life I have been saying, and it’s a good advice for young authors, that you have to find the balance between self-criticism and arrogance. I mean, you have to fiercely criticize your own work, tell yourself “Oh, this is really bad. I am failing at this,” but at the same time, in order to not get blocked, you have to be confident enough in yourself to say: “OK, but next time I’ll do better and someday I will write the best novel ever written.” You must have this as a lighthouse, but when you’re already getting to a certain age, like me, for example, and you become a mature author, you have to lose even that, you have to lose even the ambition of writing a wonderful piece of work. You have to lose everything. You have to erase yourself.

JA: You’re talking about a complete, absolute freedom.

RM: Yes, yes, that’s right, and I’m following that path and now I’m also, I think, in the plenitude stage of my writing. I feel very close to that, I am increasingly free. I have written La Carne with a huge freedom. By being completely free, totally erasing the self, you can dance well, you can make love well, and you can write well.

JA: And with that spirit, are you working on any new project?

RM: Yes, now I’m going to make a third novel about my character Bruna Husky, whom I adore. This is the closest character, although she’s an android from the 22nd century, but she’s the character I feel the closest to. It’s a character I feel really close to, that I like a lot, and I’m going to write another novel about her. There are already two of them, which are Lágrimas en la lluvia (Tears in Rain) and El peso del corazón (Weight of the Heart), and I have a lot of notes about the third one.

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All the Lives I Want

Essays About My Best Friends
Who Happen To Be Famous Strangers

Alana Massey
Grand Central Publishing ($26)

by Lizzie Klaesges

At first glance, Alana Massey’s debut collection All the Lives I Want might appear to contain wistful affections for the many famous women included in her work. However, the book actually offers something much more pertinent to our culture’s portrayal of women. Massey’s attention is not for those females considered perfect by today’s social standards; instead she focuses on troubled, flawed, forgotten, and at times outwardly ridiculed women. This includes celebrities from Amber Rose to the Olsen twins to Nicki Minaj, Princess Diana, Anna Nicole Smith, Britney Spears, and more. In addition to female celebrities, she also includes a writer, Sylvia Plath, and fictional women such as the Lisbon sisters from The Virgin Suicides.

Massey challenges the false narratives that have been insistently placed upon these women—narratives such as Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj’s supposed “feud,” that Amber Rose is nothing but a stripper, that Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen can be viewed as a singular character, and so on—and she revitalizes these women by sharing her own stories of heartbreak, sex work, mental illness, and other subjects alongside their stories. Massey politely exposes the inherent inconsistencies of a culture in which these misjudgments are allowed to occur so casually. Her writing is shrewd, analytical, sad at times, and ruthless at others. Her essays are littered with web links in the end notes, reminding readers that she is a prolific internet writer, but unlike the typical internet column, her collection of prose is as elegant and literary as it is heartbreaking and entertaining.

Massey is often first to admit her own shortcomings and particular misuses of famous women, as she does in the first essay, “Being Winona; Freeing Gwyneth,” in which she separates Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow as “two distinct categories of women who are conventionally attractive but whose public images exemplify dramatically different lifestyles and worldviews.” Massey identifies with Winona’s awkward and authentic lifestyle rather than the more perfect but dull “Gwyneths,” whom Massey imagines “wearing overpriced clothing in colors like ‘camel’ and scowling at her staff.” Massey clings to her “Winona-ness” for comfort after a romantic interest leaves her for a Gwyneth. Realizing the unfairness of using a unique individual as a metaphor for her own suffering, Massey finds ways in which Winona and Gwyneth are both flawed, beautiful, and authentic women, and struggles to reconcile the two.

Often female narratives are distorted for personal enjoyment, likely that of men. In the essay, “Our Sisters Shall Inherit the Sky,” Massey diverts the focal point of The Virgin Suicides away from the five suicides and places it on the male observers, who are now narrating the story as grown men. The men became obsessed by fantasies of the Lisbon sisters, most clearly revealed when the boys watch fourteen-year-old Lux take lovers on her roof. The boys proceed to track down the male lovers for further details of the sexual encounters. Even long after the suicides, the men are enthralled by this perfect fantasy of mysterious young girls who never “aged into the fullness of living real human lives.” Yet, The Virgin Suicides is often received with the same misplaced excitement both by men who want the fantasy and by women who want to be admired in the same way.

The title of the collection is taken from the most popular Sylvia Plath quotation on Goodreads: “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want.” Although Massey admits she did not initially feel inspired by this quotation, she later hears it in its proper context where it continues to say, “Perhaps that’s why I want to be everyone—so no one can blame me for being I.” Massey does not necessarily wish to inhabit all the lives she mentions in the collection, as much as she, like Plath, is fearful of exposing her true self to a world that makes harsh judgments. The famous women in this book all have been mocked or disregarded in some way. Massey does not wish to save these women, but she does believe they deserve to be understood.

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Trump: The Complete Collection and The Realist Cartoons

Trump: The Complete Collection

Harvey Kurtzman, et. al.
Dark Horse Books ($29.99)

The Realist Cartoons

Edited by Paul Krassner and Ethan Persoff
Fantagraphics Books ($44.99)

by Steve Matuszak

It’s either fitting or ironic that, when America was on the verge of swearing in a president who throughout his campaign had waged a scorched-earth war on truth—his unrepentant lying corrupting the concept of truth more thoroughly than the much-maligned postmodernists had ever done with their opaque, gnomic theory—this past December saw reprints of comics associated with two important twentieth-century American satirists who used humor to shine a sometimes harsh light on reality to get at the truth: the felicitously titled Trump: The Complete Collection, edited and co-written by Harvey Kurtzman, and The Realist Cartoons, which collects cartoons from The Realist, the freethought magazine founded and edited by Paul Krassner.

While Kurtzman and Trump are less well-known to a general audience, both are highly regarded by comics cognoscenti. Kurtzman, who has a prestigious comics industry award named after him, was a trailblazer in the work he did for legendary comics company EC, first with his ironic, anti-war war comics Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, and then, more famously, for creating Mad in 1952. But his success with Mad was his undoing. Shortly after pressuring publisher William Gaines in 1955 to turn Mad from a comic book into a magazine, he demanded that Gaines give him majority ownership of the magazine. Instead, as is described, surprisingly, in Paul Krassner’s introduction to The Realist Cartoons, Kurtzman was fired, his obscurity cemented as he went on to create a series of relatively unsuccessful satirical magazines until landing in the back pages of Playboy with his comic strip—unfortunately, heavy on the strip—Little Annie Fanny.

The most spectacular of those failed magazines, and the shortest lived, was Trump. Bankrolled by hotshot young publisher Hugh Hefner, Trump was Kurtzman’s dream come true: not another cut-rate comic book, but a “slick,” a lush, full-color magazine aimed at adults. So Kurtzman brought to Trump some of Mad’s most inspired talent—Al Jaffee, Wally Wood, Arnold Roth, Jack Davis, and his life-long partner-in-crime Will Elder, who worked with Kurtzman on everything from Mad to Little Annie Fanny. As Al Jaffee once reminisced, “Harvey said to the people at Mad, ‘I’m leaving Mad. Who wants to come with me?’ and nearly everybody went with him. He was like the Pied Piper.”

So Trump abounds with dazzling cartooning. But the debut issue’s crowning achievement is “Our Own Epic of Man,” two over-sized, captioned illustrations brimming with detail that depict mid-twentieth century America distorted through the funhouse mirror of how artists a million years in the future might imagine our culture. It is a delightfully inverted parody of Life magazine’s then-popular The Epic of Man series, which purported to put into vividly painted illustrations scientific theories about how humankind lived tens, even hundreds, of thousands of years ago. The Trump illustrations are so epic they spill over the page break, requiring a fold-out that recalls Playboy’s centerfolds, a resemblance Kurtzman could not leave unmentioned, so he includes a quarter-page fragment of an image of an apparently nude woman playing chess, text at the top of the photo proclaiming, “Hey! Wrong foldout! This foldout goes in a different magazine!” Such playful use of form is pure Kurtzman.

It also suggests the almost unruly lengths to which the magazine would go for a joke. Ideas are literally all over the place, filling every nook and cranny, which for some is as exhausting as it might be funny. As Playboy art director Art Paul reported to Hefner in a memo after the first issue of Trump had been released, “I’ve gained new respect for the initial humor of the magazine, but the pacing, layout and typography continue to jar my over eager sensibilities. The magazine has the pacing, type and layout of an explosion . . . All in all it’s a hell of an interesting beginning, but I am out of breath.”

So, in January 1957, after only the second issue, Hefner pulled the plug on Trump. In his introduction, Denis Kitchen reports on plenty of reasons given as to why Hefner had squelched the fledgling magazine: Hefner didn’t think the material in Trump foretold a cultural phenomenon the likes of Playboy or Mad; Bob Preuss, Playboy’s chief financial officer, told Al Jaffee years later that Kurtzman had difficulties meeting deadlines, a problem with serious financial implications for a magazine; and going into its second issue, Trump had already cost Hefner almost $100,000, which it hadn’t been able to make up in sales—as Hefner eventually put it, “I gave Harvey Kurtzman an unlimited budget and he exceeded it.” Worse, this was at a time when Hefner’s credit was over-stretched, causing him to cut costs on all of his enterprises, the upshot of which was, Kurtzman quipped: “Everybody took pay cuts, and I got my throat cut.”

In addition to beautifully reprinting the first two issues of the magazine, Trump: The Complete Collection also includes art and concepts for material that was going to appear in issue three, which promised to be no less dazzling and innovative than its predecessors, including something that appeared to be a cross between a fold-out and a puzzle called a “hexahexaflexagon” (a name that Kurtzman thankfully shortened to the “Flexagon”), “a complex visual puzzle . . . formed by folding strips of paper into nineteen connected equilateral triangles to create a hexagon shape, which when ‘flexed’ can change its surface in an amazing eighteen combinations.” It’s unclear how this puzzle is an example of truth-telling, but it sure looks fun.

One year after the demise of Trump, in the spring of 1958, upstart comedian, journalist, and erstwhile violin prodigy Paul Krassner launched his long-running magazine of “social-political-religious criticism and satire” The Realist. It is telling of Kurtzman’s influence on American satire that the first issue of The Realist was produced in the offices of Mad magazine and was, in fact, born of Mad. Krassner had begun contributing to Mad magazine as early as 1955, shortly after Kurtzman left, but wanted to write more adult material, so he eventually abandoned Mad to create The Realist. His magazine’s first subscriber was comedian and TV personality Steve Allen, who sent gift subscriptions to others, including Lenny Bruce, who himself sent out more gift subscriptions. “From this momentum,” Krassner wrote in his memoir Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut, “the satirical wing of my readership would grow,” as would the influence of both Krassner and The Realist.

A significant aspect of the magazine’s humor was its cartoons, now collected in The Realist Cartoons, a handsome, over-sized book that is like a doppelgänger of The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker. If, as a memorable episode of Seinfeld would have it, the New Yorker prints cartoons that fancy themselves “commentary on contemporary mores,” the cartoons in The Realist trample those mores underfoot, as in the 1964 cartoon in which a gas station attendant asks the Buddhist monk handing him a gas can, “Regular?”

Over the course of 291 pages, The Realist’s cartoons touch on dark, difficult, sometimes taboo subjects—nuclear war, religion, sex, racism, death, abortion, the Vietnam War, and Watergate—with blithe indifference toward what can be said about those subjects other than to be provocative. “Irreverence,” The Realist announced on one of its covers, “is our only sacred cow.” It’s no wonder that, in spite of his immediate call for a paternity test, People magazine (of all things), declared Krassner the “father of the underground press.” Indeed, by the early 1970s, some of the most prominent underground cartoonists even contributed to The Realist, including Jay Lynch, Art Spiegelman, Skip Williamson, Dan O’Neill, R. Crumb, and S. Clay Wilson (probably the most outré of the lot, whose comics collected here are quite an eyeful).

While some of the cartoons are dated, requiring footnotes, that’s to be expected with topical satire. Many remain funny. It’s a pleasure to see New Yorker cartoonist Ed Fisher, whose work is featured prominently in this collection, letting his pants down, so to speak. And Sam Gross’s work, like the cartoon of a Seeing Eye dog watching his master step onto a busy street as he takes hold of a baby carriage whose handle resembles the dog harness’s handle, prefigures the gleefully tasteless material he did for National Lampoon. Probably the biggest surprise is the work of Richard Guindon, whose work in The Realist was earthier, more biting, and took more structural risks than his self-named syndicated comic strip from the 1970s and ’80s. His 1964, five-page feature “Guindon Goes to a Reservation,” in which the cartoonist visits a Seneca tribe who were losing their homes to a dam conceived by the Army Corps of Engineers that would “[dispossess] some 482 Seneca Indians, turning their homesites into river bottom and their treaty into nothing more than a fine example of old government stationery,” hints at the kind of comics journalism that would only fully flower in the 1990s.

The Realist and Trump, then, represent two strands of irreverent pop satire that are best exemplified by two of their more famous contributors—Mel Brooks in Trump and Lenny Bruce in The Realist. Trump, designed to be hugely popular by subverting what was popular, could be biting but was equally zany, leveling most of its criticism at the phony narratives and procrustean ideals disseminated through popular culture. On the other hand, The Realist was designed to subvert yet found popularity. At least three strips became best-selling posters, including the infamous Disneyland Memorial Orgy, a cartoon featuring some of Disney’s most well-known characters represented in flagrante delicto, freed from circumspect behavior by the death of God, better known as Walt Disney. Also, The Realist focused more often on social and political concerns, calling into question conventional assumptions about those concerns not only with its jokes but in its very willingness to offend.

In the ensuing years, both strands eventually came together, most notably in National Lampoon, the second-most popular magazine in the U.S. during the 1970s; like Trump, it offered pitch-perfect satires of pop culture but with an almost breathtaking disregard for taste that rivaled The Realist. National Lampoon eventually lost its most talented artists to Saturday Night Live, the late-night warhorse that, for better and worse, has overshadowed popular comedy for nearly half a century. At its best, what SNL shares with its 1950s forebears is a desire to get at the truth through laughter, however limited those truths might be, by shining a light on the lies foisted upon us. Rather than putting everything under quotations marks as they are accused of doing, these satirists use irony to reveal the quotation marks already around all claims to truth. Truth is truth. Claims to truth are just that, however well-intentioned, however accurate they seem to be. We need to be reminded of that to help us see the lies, to laugh at them, and to steal their fire, an ignobly noble project that Kurtzman and Krassner embarked on at nearly the same time when nobody knew they needed them.

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In Which I Play the Runaway

Rochelle Hurt
Barrow Street Press ($16.95)

by Rachel Slotnick

As Rochelle Hurt read in a small off-site café during February’s AWP conference, she seemed haloed in an angelic yellow light as the snow spiraled blue behind her through the window. It seemed fitting that she was awash in such memorable lighting, as her poetry is similarly color-infused. In a crowded loft of a packed bar, I was mesmerized as Hurt beckoned me into an all too familiar tornado. She spoke softly, and the whole room stirred as she proclaimed, “My poems are named after towns with sad names.”

Hurt’s writing addresses questions of semiotics and Ferdinand de Saussure haunts her poetry, but she doesn’t ever have to refer to him directly. Rather, Hurt explores the infinity encapsulated in labels by composing studies of colors until they resemble still lives of places blowing in the wind. In fact, the entire narrative design of In Which I Play the Runaway mimics the spiraling intensity of Dorothy’s journey through Oz, an appropriate choice considering the film’s landmark exploration into color on the infamous silver screen. Like Dorothy, the narrator abandons black and white, chasing after new worlds that are lit by colors like stage lights—but the poetry is haunted by the black and white it left behind. It stirs back into the narrative like static; it’s as though the protagonist realizes that her yellow brick road is only a lucid dream.

As promised, Hurt pauses momentarily along her wayward path in towns with lonely, existential names like “Hurt, Virginia,” “Needmore, Indiana,” “Accident, Maryland,” and “Honesty, Ohio.” The book hovers in each lonely city as the poetry takes on the vocabulary of the place, then hitchhikes onward to the next lonely town. The colors compose a rolodex of characters. Yet, hints of an adult deviation from the prototypical Dorothy infiltrate Hurt’s knapsack.

In the opening poems, Hurt laments her own predisposition to flee, and ruminates over divorce and homelessness as recurring motifs. As she wanders, her body begins to ache, but she insists she is destined for paradise, “one brick, one brick. // By now your feet are swollen / to the size of pomegranates / pulsing fuchsia inside.” This is the first of many poems warmed by whole colors, but rather than slippers made of rubies, instead the metaphor evokes blood, boils, and bruises.

From there, the tornado consumes the language, spilling colors that bleed from one page to the next. Whole paragraphs glow green and blue. “My father was obsessed with green—grass, yes, but also emeralds, limes, snakes, peas, parakeets.” The green overtakes the house, and the exorcised family lies packed in a row, “straight as green beans. The parakeets circled all night. Once the house had split its seams, spilling rotten apples and dead geckos on the sidewalk, my mother packed us up and left him. She said the quest for something greener had eaten his mind.” Since green evokes both wealth and nature, Darwinian theory is on the tip of Hurt’s tongue.

Consequently, the dejected family floats up into the blue, blue sky. Pages turn sky blue in a post-divorce attempt at rehabilitation. “My mother painted every wall and ceiling and floor a different shade of blue, and the empty rooms were so enormous that their edges looked to me like horizon lines.” As the reader swims through washes of color, he or she is beckoned to unpack the cult of metaphor. When we need them, metaphors can be a saving banister. Sometimes it is easier to invest in metaphor than in the world.

This collection is essentially a cross-country travel guide for the curelessly nomadic. Hurt seeks resolution and solace as she reflects on the reciprocal nature of family histories; she blurs into the superego of her daughter, and there is a subtle shift as things move from a child protagonist misinterpreting the words of her parents to an adult protagonist being misunderstood by her daughter. Her daughter develops a familiar affinity for theft, mirroring the impulses of her mother; rubies, purse straps, dolls, and even baby teeth go missing, gleaming in seclusion like precious pearls. “There we stood, stuck in a shame loop: lady see, lady do—the two of us blushing in tandem like siren lights.” The blood rushes to their faces as they interlock guilty secrets, and in the final moments, the reader is immersed in a flash of red.

Red evokes violence and death, yet far more haunting are the furrows of life refusing to succumb to stasis. Body parts live on long after death. Dead parakeets wriggle in shoeboxes lost to the garage, filled with nervous worms, and eye balls wink in the casket. There is a sense of disembodiment, as characters struggle to align their limbs with their sentiments. Perhaps, Hurt seems to suggest, motherhood is a masquerade. Yet somehow, writing offers a semblance of control, reflecting the Wizard himself: “A lesson / in Western confession: Story / is the curtain I work behind.” Ultimately, Hurt ascribes to the affliction of lonely authors. Sometimes, in our solitary moments, poetry can quench our thirst for intimacy, making use of magic tricks and props to evoke sorcery. Enveloped in the craft, the poet unravels memory, “punching out windows” of childhood homes. She stands naked on the page, baring all for a series of gleaming and nuanced words awaiting misinterpretation. “Anything to save the Poem, She says.” Like many heartbroken authors, Hurt mourns that sometimes poems can feel more intimate than people.

Finally, the collection culminates in apology. The narrator laments her struggle to translate her daughter’s estranged language: “There are sixty-seven terms for red, forty-two for leaving, but none for sorry.” Her daughter’s words disintegrate into the guttural inclinations of language divorced from meaning, the “tk tk of fingernails on drywall, / sh sh of lace on tile,” until, finally, the metaphors unfurl: “Some crumble in my hands— / that’s how sorry I am.” And so, we awaken in the calm after the storm, like Dorothy— back in black and white, back in Kansas, and wondering how we got here.

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Aperture

Anna Leahy
Shearsman Books ($17)

by Eileen Murphy

Mrs. Tinman of Oz observes of her son: “He was always the sort of child who played / in the rain.” In Aperture, Anna Leahy’s new collection, the poet takes us into the minds of fascinating but overlooked women, real and imaginary. The book becomes a chorus of women’s voices, described by Mrs. Witch as “sometimes sibilant, often labial, unvoiced / occasionally, wonderfully guttural—.” Aperture is a bouquet of women’s interiors, from Romantic poet Felicia Hermans to Marie Curie to the wife of a whaler and more. Each woman Leahy examines is unique, but also contributes to the group’s chorus of wisdom, sorrow, and beauty.

In a series of poems, Leahy takes on the viewpoints of mothers of characters from The Wizard of Oz. The effect of the mothers’ individual voices, each carefully rendered using every means of communication—from graffiti to television interview—combine into a group portrait that’s funny, sad, and altogether charming. Extending the interior landscape, Leahy also takes on the persona of Mary Todd Lincoln in the haunting poem “After Assassination.” Mrs. Lincoln’s grief and agitation leap off the page: “I smooth my hands over my dress . . . before the theater, before the shot to the head, before the doctor rushed in, before the body was carried across the street . . .” Looking through Leahy’s aperture into Mrs. Lincoln’s pain is harrowing, but mesmerizing.

Aperture takes an interest in other women who hover on the outskirts of our attention, a woman who served as a painter’s model, for example, who shares how it feels to stay still for a long time and how she survives her laudanum-assisted lifestyle. In the famous painting Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia has long red hair and lies on her back, half submerged in water, surrounded by flowers. Leahy’s poem “Remembering Ophelia” imagines the model posing in a bathtub, teeth chattering “when the fire went out / under the tub.”

Leahy’s skills in lyric poetry and imagery are further showcased in poems about women saints: “When death is a whispered chorus, / why not send showers of roses falling / with thorns spinning swiftly towards the earth?” Each saint has a different temperament and different story; through the magic aperture, we are given the privilege of looking into these women’s complex interiors. Leahy asks, “Are saints really artists of God / whose hands are the can- / vas reaching for plans / with brushes that strike them as odd?” The poems about saints’ inner lives lend the chorus of women’s voices in Aperture an exultant strain.

All the women in Aperture lead captivating inner lives. Leahy’s poems are varied, thoughtful, and often ironic or humorous. Savoring Aperture, the reader looks through the mind-opening with the poet as guide, listens to unique women’s voices, revels in them, learns from them, is haunted by them

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The Birth of the Imagination: William Carlos Williams on Form

Bruce Holsapple
University of New Mexico Press ($59.95)

by Michael Boughn

William Carlos Williams was arguably the most important poet of his generation, especially for those of us who came of poetic age in the 1960s. Taking his lead from H.D.’s radical rethinking of the line, Williams ran with it, opening the field with Spring and All to an unprecedented range and focus of thinking, attention, language, and imagination. Lacking Wallace Stevens’s mellifluous iambic pentameter and philosophical obscurantism, Ezra Pound’s pyrotechnic compositional razzle dazzle and grand Euro-pretense, and Pastor Eliot’s Ironic Doom Program and late sweet harmonies, Williams was largely unrecognizable to contemporary critics, even when they praised him for his observational accuracy. Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, R.P. Blackmur, Babette Deutsch, and others either dismissed Williams’s work outright or damned it with faint, highly qualified praise.

Williams’s line became the pale beyond which poetry dared not pass if it wanted the recognition and approval of the Poetic Authorities. It confused them because they had no ear for it; their America was still beholden to lingering rhythms from Europe. Eliot, their spokesman, abandoned Missouri for London’s hoity-toity lit scene—which he conquered and ruled from a pew in the High Anglican Church. Williams, meanwhile, delivered babies to Polish immigrant women on the farms around Paterson, N.J. He faced the profound fact of America as it played out all around him in the unfolding of an unprecedented world. He witnessed extraordinary, unmapped extravagances, grotesqueries, and brilliance in the forms of a new ordinary. Call it plums or a red wheelbarrow or shards of a broken green bottle in a pile of ashes, its beauty and occult complexities were beyond the rhythms of the old world. It was a chance not so much to make it new, as Pound urged, as to open it up to what was beneath the interest of the authorities: the riff raff tawdriness of something called, loosely, democracy.

Two terms provide the master tones of Williams’s thinkingwriting through this knowing: imagination and measure/form, which become identical in the way a chiasma both creates and undoes identity. In that sense, there is no more realist modern poet than Williams. The issue is the nature of the real that he knew and courageously presented in his work, in which entangled form/line/meaning further entangled itself with the projective powers of the imagination to liberate the word—to “bare handed contend with the sky . . . freed from the handcuffs of ‘art’.” Deeply Emersonian in his commitments, Williams freed attention from the established line, with imagination as both its liberator and its accomplice in the jailbreak.

Bruce Holsapple’s recent book puts the issue front and center in its title and boldly enters into an ongoing conversation concerning Williams’s thinking about form in general, prosody in particular, and imagination’s cosmological implications in relation to them. Holsapple, a poet whose own work is deeply indebted to its long conversation with Williams’s work, brings an important new address to the issue. His insights are most valuable where he is closest to the work, hence the fundamental understanding that informs imagination as an organ of vision (he quotes Blake) that is also a kind of knowing. Holsapple slowly and surely builds an argument, which is to say a vision, a seen in this light, of the fundamental importance of Williams’s work to a deeper understanding of where we now stand, groundless and dis-oriented, and how to find a way to stand there.

Poetry, then, as a mode of knowing (rather than knowledge or, god help us, expression) is the issue. As a mode, it is always actively entangled with a larger world of thinking and other modes of measure equally addressed to the emergent world. Holsapple usefully explicates, for example, Williams’s reading of Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World in relation to The Embodiment of Knowledge. Whitehead’s sense of our condition in terms of embeddeness and process resonates strongly with Williams’s understanding of “a new order of knowing” commensurate to a world of a new order(ing). While Holsapple argues that “influence” may be too strong a word to apply to Williams’s relation to Whitehead, there is no question that Williams read him with intense interest, especially as he weighed in on the significance of developments in relativity and quantum theory, two other new modes of measure that revealed previously unrecognized depths and complexities to the world. Einstein, Apollinaire, Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, Marsden Hartley, and Wassily Kandinsky, among many others, are also part of the community of minds Williams draws together.

While other approaches to Williams have emphasized a chronological development of his work, Holsapple’s contribution is particularly valuable in the way he organizes our attention around a specific chronology of Williams’s thinking and writing regarding form and imagination. Holsapple meticulously tracks through Williams’s reading as well as his correspondence with numerous contemporaries ranging from artists like Charles Demuth to philosophical critics like Kenneth Burke. As a record of a particular poetmind at work on a fundamental question over the course of a life, The Birth of the Imagination paints a fascinating portrait of Williams doggedly pursuing various implications, contradictions, and prospective possibilities.

Many readers will find the closing chapter on Williams and Dada particularly interesting. Discussion of Williams’s relation to Dada often present the European anti-art movement as determining significant aspects of his thinking after the Dada migration to New York before and during the First Great Slaughter of the twentieth century. The sense of the integrity of Williams’s commitment to his spiritualpoetic ordeal, to his particular quest to find/create/reveal a measure adequate to the turmoil of emergent America is sometimes lost or diminished in proposals that allege his indebtedness to Dada, especially in the early years of Spring and All and Kora in Hell. Holsapple very carefully and meticulously dismantles those claims, citing both biographical and textual evidence (lots of good literary gossip here) to argue that Williams’s “improvisations” are other than Dada’s nihilistic disruptions. Williams’s practice is aimed at opening the poem’s form into experiences of unprecedented meaning rather than negating or diminishing the possibility of meaning. That impulse went on to influence much of the most important and interesting poetry to come out of the movement that began in the 1960s.

Williams’s reputation can only increase in significance as the full import of his accomplishment becomes clearer, and Bruce Holsapple’s book is an important contribution to that ongoing process. Anyone interested in Williams’s work, and especially in witnessing the fascinating growth of his thinking about form and imagination over the many decades of his fierce engagement with poetry, will find The Birth of the Imagination an essential addition to their reading.

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4 3 2 1

Paul Auster
Henry Holt ($32)

by Steven Felicelli

A book about a book, a book that one could read and also write in. A book that one could enter as if it were a three dimensional space. . . .
—Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1

To an untrained ear, Paul Auster is the Aerosmith of experimental fiction, never altering the M.O. which carved out what Michael Dirda called “one of the most distinctive niches in contemporary literature.” All that’s followed his game-changing New York Trilogy has amounted to variation on a theme: The same spectral identities, Platonic halves, and coincidental realities can be found on any given page of any Auster novel.

Until now? Is this 866-page novel a departure from or career-culminating apotheosis of the offhand existentialism he’s been practicing for decades?

It is and it isn’t—and therein lies the both/and genius of Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. Though it carries the literal weight of a Tolstoy tome, for instance, it’s really more like three-and-a-quarter Auster-length novels (spoiler alert: one of the book’s four narratives ends abruptly early on). And the divergent paths of his fourfold protagonist Ferguson (spurred by quantum physics) are all linear, socio-culturally conditioned, and earthbound. A departure from and simultaneous reliance on his meta-magical approach, the milieu is more David Copperfield than The Garden of Forking Paths, and yet each of the four bildungsroman (and künstlerroman) is infused with the arch one-liners, heady cognates, and many-worlds magic with which Auster has come to be identified.
Reviews thus far have been mixed (in the protagonist’s terms, the book has received more “punches” than “kisses”). The most prominent complaints have been:

1) convolution – One reviewer needed a “crib sheet,” another a “spread sheet” to keep track of all the characters and their trajectories.

2) overdetermination – Do we need an exhaustive account of every leftist uprising of the ’60s and a laundry list of every author, entertainer, baseball player, love interest, and casual acquaintance the Fergusons encounter in his/their encyclopedic youth?

3) on-the-nose-ism – These are the critics who share James Wood’s impatience with anything “spelled out in billboard-size type.”

4) egomania – e.g. Laura Miller’s “whoever is telling the story . . . . always sounds too much like Paul Auster.”

But perhaps:

1) You are supposed to confuse the identities, not “keep track” of them.

2) The ‘60s was indeed “a decade so dense with tumult that it had given the country both Malcolm X and George Wallace, The Sound of Music and Jimi Hendrix, the Berrigan brothers and Ronald Reagan,” and the minute details (personal, socio-cultural, etc.) accrue to a gravitas and scope reminiscent of Roth’s American Pastoral.

3) Regarding what Auster himself recognizes as “the seriocomic tone that was necessary to pull off such outlandish narratives, the plausible implausibility of what he called nonsense in motion” . . . well, it either registers or it doesn’t. It’s neither the author’s success nor the reader’s failure when it hits or misses, though erudition assists in apprehending the “droll doubleness” of “The Scarlet Notebook” (Hawthorne/Auster-Quinn/workerism?), “Mulligan’s Travels” (Sorrentino/Swift/Sturges?), and all the “pungent puns” the author unabashedly offers up.

4) It doesn’t sound like Auster, it is (and isn’t) Auster. It has always been Auster aka Quinn aka Fanshawe aka Fogg aka Zimmer aka Ferguson “filling up white rectangles with row after row of descending black marks” and to pretend otherwise would be bad faith (so he never has.) As Auster said in his Fall 2003 interview with The Paris Review, “once you accept the ‘unreality’ of the enterprise, it paradoxically enhances the truth of the story. The words aren’t written in stone by an invisible author-god. They represent the efforts of a flesh and blood human being.”

Auster has always insisted that very little of his fiction is autobiographical, but whether the events and individuals who animate them can be fact-checked is irrelevant. They are nonetheless real, engendered by the emotional, physical, and imaginative (/mnemonic) life of Paul Auster. His books do not provide an escape from, but rather a plunging into the peripheral reality we miss when we are blindered by the brute facts of life.

It is exactly the fact that the voice sounds too much like Paul Auster’s that lends the weight of what is more or less made explicit in the final pages of 4 3 2 1 and has been given short shrift as a stock framing device. His recent autobiographical turn (Report from the Interior, Winter Journal) seems to be culminating here in an auto-fiction finale, as so many of the historical and personal “facts” check out. Edison’s anti-Semitic termination of his father, the boy struck by lightning, (step-)sister who snaps, remarried mother, basketball game turned race riot, Maplewood, Columbia, etc., etc. Never has so much been based on the lived reality of Paul Auster. Something he said in a Telegraph interview (just after the first volume of Winter Journal had been published) may be instructive here: “I used to have a backlog of stories, but a few years ago I found the drawers were empty. I guess I’m getting to the point where I tell myself if I can’t write another book it’s not a tragedy.”

The four Fergusons seem to have originated in that void. Their host, who unveils himself in the denouement, is a familiar and unfamiliar figure, one who is and isn’t the being whose birth certificate bears the name Paul Auster (assuming that’s his real name), the 1 who will not endure the endless loops his alter egos retrace with each new reader rendezvous. Though to be clear, it is pure speculation, not spoiler, to imagine that 4-3-2 are other fictional selves and 1 = Auster, “the last man standing.” And yet the closing gambit at least intimates a vocational endgame. It is and/or isn’t Prospero drowning his book. The author is saying goodbye to all that; his autobiographical (re)turn has and hasn’t come full circle to that (re)invented Solitude, because when had he ever left the well-lit room (pen or book in hand) to begin with?

If you do not have a pre-existing relationship with Auster and his avatars, you may not feel bereft at the conclusion of 4 3 2 1. If, on the other hand, you have been his dear reader, you will live the lives and die the deaths of Ferguson cheek by jowl until there’s just you and 1, sitting alone in the vacated premise, closing the book on not just hours, but decades of intimacy at a distance.

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The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

Thi Bui
Harry N. Abrams ($24.95)

by Jeff Alford

The best memoirists reveal familiarity in the foreign. Challenged with the task of presenting their lives as something another person would read, they must find a way to break apart the uniqueness of their history into something more broadly connective, pushing readers towards an abstract sort of reflection and empathy. A story of a mother and a daughter, for instance, should transcend the specificity of motherhood and daughterhood and present to all readers something with which they can connect. In the memoirist’s ether, the personal needs to transfer from writer to reader.

Thi Bui’s comics memoir The Best We Can Do is about her family’s emigration from Vietnam in the ’70s and their naturalization into the United States. A tremendous achievement, the book brilliantly renders its feelings of alienation with inclusivity and empathy, focusing simultaneously on one specific family and corresponding universal themes of love, kinship, and growing up. Bui’s art is immediately accessible, cartoonishly sweet but disarmingly weighty.

When the story opens, Bui is about to give birth. She's shaken with both physical and emotional uncertainty but can recognize that this experience will, for once, definitively give her something she has in common with her mother. “Family is now something I have created—and not just something I was born into,” she writes. Upon the birth of her child, she, like her mother, will have shifted from individual to caregiver, and they will share a parallel responsibility to do the best they can for the life they made.

But did her parents do the best they could? This is a painful question to ask, as Bui’s relationship with them was one more of efficiency than joy. Growing up, they were hardworking and critical, tired and often irritable. Although now divorced, her parents see each other often, seemingly too indifferent to care about moving on. As a new mother, Bui vows to be for her child what her mother wasn't. “Proximity and closeness are not the same,” she astutely notes.

The memoir unfolds backwards into the story of her parents, known simply as Ma and Bo (although careful readers can discover their real names with a little digging). Bui, as an adult, can be seen throughout the book as a considerate listener with a newfound courage, finally asking her parents the questions they never spoke of growing up. “Me and Bố,” she writes, “we’re okay now. To stop being scared of him, I grew up and went away. And now that I’ve come back, we can sit in my mother’s studio, both of us visitors, neither one owing the other.”Alternatively, she confesses “writing about my mother is harder for me—maybe because my image of her is too tied up with my opinion of myself.” Details emerge and color vaguely-remembered outlines about their family of six: stories of miscarriages, illnesses, political pressure, and suicide attempts reframe her parents’ tribulations with all the subtle difficulties that Bui could never have noticed as a child in Vietnam.

Brutal chapters are devoted to her family’s escape from Vietnam by boat, sharing the hull in starving silence with other refugees. Bui provides readers with an important reminder that the war in Vietnam was so much more than a Walter Cronkite narrative or an Eddie Adams photograph: “I think a lot of Americans forget that for the Vietnamese, the war continued, whether America was involved or not.” They land in a camp in Terengganu, Malaysia, and from there journey, briefly, to distant family in Indiana before settling in California.

There, they tried their best. With no outside pressure, the family was left to nurture and cultivate new identities as American immigrants:

Little by little, our parents built their bubble around us—our home in America. They taught us to be respectful, to take care of one another, and to do well in school. Those were the intended lessons. The unintentional ones came from their unexorcised demons . . . and from the habits they formed over so many years of trying to survive.

Now, as a new mother, Bui can see those unexorcised demons for what they truly were: a struggle between identity and selflessness, adrift in homeless disconnection.

In her preface, Bui explains that she was drawn to the graphic novel in an effort to solve “the storytelling problem of how to present history in a way that is human and relatable and not oversimplified.” She writes that she had to learn how to “do comics” in order to tell her story the way she wanted. The results are remarkably polished. Bui approaches her portraiture with a kind of facial minimalism, finding perfectly emotive subtlety in the slightest of marks, like an upturned smile or a slightly furrowed brow. She masterfully synchronizes the themes of her memoir with the style in which it is drawn: she finds the best she can do, embracing its limitations while exemplifying its care.

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