Tag Archives: Fall 2018

Revisiting the Journey:
An Interview with Craig Thompson

by Eric Lorberer

Earlier this year, Craig Thompson’s 2004 book Carnet de Voyage, originally published by Top Shelf Productions, was reissued by Drawn & Quarterly in an expanded hardcover edition. Thompson, an internationally celebrated cartoonist, is the author of books such as Good-bye, Chunky Rice, Blankets, Habibi, and Space Dumplins, but Carnet de Voyage is unique among his works in many ways, not the least of which is that it is real-time drawn work of nonfiction. In the following conversation—a transcript of a public conversation held on August 18 as part of the 2018 Autoptic Festival, a comic and independent print culture gathering in Minneapolis—Thompson discusses the book and its world with Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer. (The transcript has been lightly edited by the participants for clarity.)


Eric Lorberer: Carnet de Voyage feels like an utterly unique book, and for that reason I think it is my favorite of your books, although that’s a tough call. How did you come to imagine the project?

Craig Thompson: The book is sort of embedded where I was emotionally at the time. And the new edition has some new material in it and it has some pages about how the book came to be. I was living in Portland, Oregon and I was just going through a weird space in time like a lot of people who are about to set out on some sort of voyage. I knew I needed to get out of Portland for a while so I set up this month-long travel adventure in Europe where I have a bunch of friends. I was going to go catch up with them and then my European publishers caught wind that I was going to be in France and it started turning into a book tour, and suddenly it was three months long. The advantage of that is that they were kind of paying for my tickets. I kind of had this sort of couch surfing adventure mapped out, and they said okay, we’ll fly you here and here and pay for your flight to Europe . . . But suddenly it was co-opted and it turned into a book tour. And that was not my intent, so then I carved out three weeks just for myself in Morocco. It was the very beginning of me working on Habibi; it was sort of in the conceptual stage, I hadn’t started writing, but I was thinking about Islam and thought I should probably go to an Islamic country, and Morocco just happened to be the easiest to go to both geographically and culturally. So suddenly I had this three-month trip planned and I felt like I would go crazy if I didn’t have a creative project to ground myself, because I am so focused all the time on working—I’ve never taken a vacation in my life, how can I take three months off? So then I talked to my publisher at the time, Top Shelf, and was like “hey, I am going to go on this trip and I am going to keep a comics diary, do you think that’s something we could publish maybe down the road if it turns out?” And they said “better yet, let’s publish it before you get home from your trip.” So then there was this crazy component where I had to send it to press midway through my travel—and sure enough, before I got home, the book was in print.

EL: Yeah, it’s one of the really special things about this book—as the reader you approach the ending and you realize this is happening in real time, or at least the illusion is that it is.

CT: No no, it is real time.

EL: Well I wanted to ask about that, because we also hear or we witness in the diary that you’re making other sketches, you’re giving away portraits to people . . . so we have some sense that the composition process is at work. Because if these pages are a direct printing and what you do in your sketchbook—I mean, that’s incredible.

CT: It is a direct printing of what I did in my sketchbook; maybe half of the book is sketches straight to paper while looking at the subject, portraits of people or the streets, and then the other half are comics pages that are more composed—but in real time. And when I was composing them I was on trains and planes and buses or in my hotel room late at night in a dim light—you know, skipping sleep so that I could make some comics pages about what happened that day.

EL: And also skipping interactions with people, or taking a break from the actual living of life . . .

CT: Yeah, it both helped me engage with people and also distanced me from people. It bridges a certain communication barrier because I was in Morocco where I didn’t speak Arabic or French or Spanish, and I was in all these other European countries where I didn’t speak the language, so it helps me sort of have a connection with people or speak through drawings. But other times I was just sketching all the time, every meal, every spare moment. I grew up in Wisconsin, so that sort of Midwestern work ethic was ingrained in me. I didn’t know how to take a vacation—that was my first vacation of my life!

EL: You mentioned how the Morocco section feeds into Habibi, and we know now what we didn’t know then—the reader of this book when it came out originally was still in awe of Blankets and immersed in that experience, in that persona of yours, and you kind of address that—that’s the tour you’re on, and the sort of comics fellowship you’re being welcomed into is largely based on that. But now we see that the next book was gestating already, and I wondered if you say a little more about that.

CT: Well, I definitely am like a naive Country Bumpkin in this book—I’m 28 years old, I haven’t really travelled or experienced other cultures, and this whole book tour thing is overwhelming to me . . . now it’s sort of old hat and I’m a little cynical about it, though with that said I am super honored to be here today. I like touring a lot but I am much more cool with it now than I was then, because I hadn’t yet had any success with my books, so my big book tour in Europe—every moment was kind of awe golly, there’s a lot of that in this book.

EL: Yeah, you have a scene in here where you’re remembering a book signing appearance you made for Goodbye, Chunky Rice probably, and like four people show up—so it is a little meta-textual here, that one of the themes in Carnet is being an author on tour, and now we’re talking about that.

CT: Which is a little embarrassing! I would never do a book like that again partly because I don’t think it’s that interesting to document a book tour. I also think it’s pretty crazy to try to create a book while doing all the book signings and promotions. But I am grateful for it for that reason, because it was a crazy thing that I’ll never do again, and I haven’t seen other cartoonists be able to manage the combo. I guess as a reader I have a voyeuristic interest in what it is like for an author on tour.

EL: It’s funny, my memory of the book was how deeply solitary and personal it was, even though you’re also seeing friends and engaging with lots of people, and there’s an obvious pleasure and excitement to that—but you’re a solitary traveler, and you’re coming off a breakup, and you’re often alone in your head. But then again, you’re not actually alone because you have invented a travel companion in the book called Zacchaeus. How did you come up with that?

CT: I see that there are a couple kids in the audience: Zacchaeus, the little orange critter on the cover, ends up having a big role in my children’s sci-fi adventure book Space Dumplings. This is where he first emerged and he was sort of the other part of my conscience or my personality in this book—I am very emo, kind of fragile and whiny, which is definitely part of my personality, but then there is the more scrappy, more Midwestern, “pick yourself up by your boot straps and stop whining” voice that’s always with me, or like “lighten up and have fun, don’t be heavy all the time.” It’s just the counterbalance to that other part of my personality, sort of a Jiminy Cricket—although I guess Jiminy Cricket is maybe more of a moral conscience; Zacchaeus is a little more sassy.


EL: It reminded me of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy; I don’t know if you’ve read that but the concept there is that every person has a daemon, a sort of animal companion that is a reflection of their inner self. Zacchaeus is yours for sure! On the topic of writing autobiographically, it’s interesting you quote Blutch saying that doing autobiographical comics can really mess with your life—that line has a lot of weight in what is essentially a day to day recounting of what’s happening. What is your perspective on that now?

CT: There’s a problem when doing an autobiographical work because you’re free to tell your own story, but wherever it touches with other people’s personal lives then it gets very sketchy. Lewis Trondheim was telling me when we were gossiping about another French cartoonist, Joann Sfar, that every conversation that Joann has with his friends ends up in his comics—he’s been totally destroying their privacy, taking their personal stories and putting them in his books, so he’s lost a lot of friends. And Lewis and I had this very intimate conversation that was really profound—I thought oh man, this is some good stuff I should put in the book—but as I was thinking that, I realized that there’s a lot of Lewis’s personal information in this story, so I couldn’t draw that. It’s frustrating when you’re doing non-fiction, because unless you’re a total jerk, you know you kind of have to protect those things. I think one of the reasons it comes off very interior and whiny is because that was the only material I was really free to put out there, my thoughts and feelings. I think it’s true that you can have more truth in fiction. That’s one of the things Blutch was saying, something like “all my work is personal and truthful, although it’s completely made up”—that’s where he finds honesty.

EL: In the scenes of you visiting with them we see how welcomed you were by the fraternity of European cartoonists—they must’ve been an influence on you, but you became their peer. I thought it might be interesting to hear about that transition.

CT: I was lucky to be one of the first young American cartoonists that was having a dialogue in the European scene, especially with French cartoonists, but they were equally influenced by the American indie comics movement, people like Dan Clowes, and the Hernandez brothers, and Julie Doucet. They were being influenced by ’80s and ’90s North American indie comics and then they started to make these amazing books that collectively kind of took it to the next level. I ripped off a lot of my ideas from them, especially from the French publisher L’Association; even the format for the original Carnet I stole from them. I think my style borrowed very heavily from Blutch, and Trondheim, but I wasn’t seeing that work here—graphic novels were not a thing then. Trondheim did a 500-page graphic novel (Lapinot et les Carottes de Patagonie) and he didn’t know how to draw before he started the book, he challenged himself: “I’m going to draw 500 pages, and if I can’t learn to draw by that time then I’ll move on and do something else.” And that was his first published book. I was like “Oh, I’m gonna steal that idea,” and that was Blankets—it was totally borrowed from his example.

EL: Yeah, even the format—I mean when you came on the scene it was pretty unusual for someone not to have serialized a work of that length first.

CT: I don’t know if there were any, I can’t think of any examples offhand. Of course Fun Home came out like a year after that, and Alison Bechdel had been working on that for like 10 years. It was kind of a moment of things shifting in the comic scene.

EL: One impression a reader might get is that the comics medium offers its creators a more global enterprise than maybe other book forms do. Do you think that’s true?

CT: That’s completely true. In the year 2000, L’Association published this 2000-page wordless comics anthology, did you ever see that book?

EL: No.

CT: They put out an international call for contributors and the only requirement was that submissions had to be wordless; there were people from all over the world in that anthology, and that was my introduction to a lot of those people. I regretted not sending in something myself—I remember seeing the call for submissions and thinking “oh, I’m not good enough to contribute,” but then it ended up being pretty inclusive. They only printed 2000 copies, so it’s pretty rare.

EL: I think that sort of dovetails with a moment that we’re in now—travel really makes obvious how Americans are regarded in all sorts of ways, culturally and politically maybe the most, and you touch on this in the book. There’s a moment when you almost guiltily admit after the weeks in Morocco that its sort of a relief to be among Europeans again, sort of demonstrating that stress. Given what’s going on now in our country concerning immigration, does that come back to you in any way with republishing this book?

CT: Hmm, that’s always a dilemma traveling, and it was new to me at that time. I encountered a very fair perception of the U.S. internationally, and you know I don’t support the US as a world power, I don’t support capitalism, and so a lot of times I just . . . this is such a weird, delicate thing to talk about! But I remember I went to Jordan not too long ago for the U.S. Embassy; it was related to the Syrian refugees and working with some people there. And of course being American in the Middle East, there’s a lot of accusations one hears . . . this was when Obama was still president, so they were blaming Obama, and they were blaming Americans, and I had to spend a lot of time kind of defending and explaining: this is what the American people are doing, this is what our government is doing, this is what corporations are doing . . . this is something I am always thinking about, but I am terrible at articulating. Even with my newest project, I am trying to look at globalization and how there are both positive and negative sides of it: there are really beautiful sides to global community in terms of cultural exchange, and then there is a part I don’t support at all, the exploitation that comes with capitalism.

EL: Well, I think you were articulate in that response and I’m grateful that you are willing to discuss it—it is a delicate topic, but I really believe we need authors to weigh in on such issues because people need help dealing with this. So the trajectory from this book to Habibi and maybe to your upcoming project seems to be towards a more globally inclusive picture of humanity, and I for one applaud that.

CT: Thank you.

EL: One last thing before we turn to the images; the name of the comics show here this weekend is Autoptic, an ingenious name that means among other things “seen with one’s own eyes”—and Carnet de Voyage is such a great example of that in practice. I think a lot of people assume that depictions of what is strange or foreign have to be heavily researched, and I’m sure that’s in there too, but there really is a sense of immediacy here, that this journey is from your perspective. So I just thought we’d touch on that and the amount of research that goes into your work, versus capturing what you’re seeing with your own eyes.

CT: That’s a great question and it segues pretty naturally into the images I brought. But yeah, I did this book in 2004 before I ever had a cell-phone or digital camera, so zero photos or reference material were used making the book—that’s another reason I don’t know if I’ll be able to repeat this again, because like most people I’ve become really lazy as a documentarian! So everything was just drawn straight to paper from my head. There’s a lot of missing information because I wasn’t google searching or fact checking things.

EL: Like the notion that when you’ve ridden a camel, you’ve experienced the camel’s digestive system—suddenly we’re getting your drawings of what that might look like—it’s a really fun reflection on how interiority works, when we’re really pretending to know something or in terms of it being scientifically accurate. Craig, I know the crowd probably wants to see the images at this point and so do I, so maybe we can switch to that and keep talking a bit.

CT: Okay great. (shows slide) So this is just a quick time frame of what is involved in making these books. Blankets I spent about three and a half years working on; Habibi took almost seven years to do. And Carnet de Voyage was two and half months. This is my most off the cuff, uncensored, just send it to press book I ever did. So it’s flattering that it might be your favorite of my books, but that’s sort of how I feel too, in the sense that this is my only book I didn’t labor over. It’s raw and it’s spontaneous. And as I said, I didn’t use any phones or cameras or digital things, and I’m kind of nostalgic or wistful for that time. I know that I’ve become lazier as an artist because I don’t have to draw my notes on paper.

EL: I just want to say that it’s still possible to do—if there is any cartoonist out there that wants to travel somewhere without a phone, I would read what you create!

CT: Yeah, that’d probably be a very spiritually cleansing thing to do. And I always had a sketchbook with me at all times. Here’s a photo by the way—no photos were used to make the book, but I had an analogue camera and I developed a couple rolls of film once I got back from the trip—so these are photos I developed after the book was already in print. You can see in my hand I had this sketchbook with me. And there’s those camels you were referencing—an important part of this book is that it got me out of my comfort zone. Usually when I make a graphic novel I’m just stuck in my studio all the time, but this is like, here’s some drawings I did on the back of a camel! I was on planes and trains and standing in the street with crowds around me, almost getting sunburnt and run over by donkey carts—and I’m drawing all the time. The book was comprised of three spiral bound sketch books, and a few supplemental sketch books for some of that composition work that we were talking about, where I had to figure out what a story would look like. You were asking early on “were these pretty much from your sketchbooks?” and yeah, you open up my sketchbooks and that’s what was inside.

EL: Forgive me if I’m asking a really stupid question, all these practicing cartoonists in the audience might already know the answer, but a lot of the published sketch books that I have seen have a rougher quality to the drawings—but these don’t. I guess I had assumed that’s what sketchbooks were.

CT: I’ll show you the rough part, those smaller sketch books where I would figure out what pages I was gonna draw; it was kind of like my diary, my journal. Half the drawings were just pages that I drew on location while looking at the subject, they’re portraits and landscapes, and the other half were comic pages. I realized as I was prepping photos to talk about the book that it organically falls into a three-act structure; nothing was planned but the first month was in Morocco mostly, the second month was in France with friends, and then the last third is the book tour and also a sort of idealized travel romance. And we mentioned briefly that I was just starting to conceptualize Habibi—here’s a really crude sketch of magic squares that ends up in Habibi. This is also where I was having my first real conversations about Islam, because up until that point I was pretty sheltered and isolated; I hadn’t had any friends that were Muslim and hadn’t had the necessary conversations.

EL: And you were seeking them out?

CT: Yeah, though it started randomly. Or maybe not so randomly—you also asked about people’s perception of America and stuff, and there were some awkward moments. Like when I was in Morocco I would stay in the old medina, which is a terrible place to stay; I thought it was the authentic area, but it’s probably the least authentic part of the city. It’s like staying in Tijuana when you go to Mexico—it’s all hustle and tourism and drugs, not the best place to be. When I would get out of the medina and be with regular people, I’d have better interactions and conversations; we would just talk about everything we had in common. And this ties in directly with what we were saying too: there’s all this understandable anti-American sentiment. I put some of that in the book, like when I showed some anti-American murals. Israel=Nazis — that was a pretty loaded one! But then those same kids that were hanging around there, they would invite me to their homes and I would have these amazing intimate meals with people. So despite the conflict between our countries, the overall sense was that everywhere you go, people are family. That’s what travel is about for me. Instead of putting boundaries and walls and borders, you see we’re all exactly the same wherever you go.

EL: I think a theme of your book, and of a lot of travel writings, is that you find something exhilarating in mundane day-to-day actions —everybody has to eat; everyone has to catch the next train. Everyone just has to exist. And it becomes kind of spiritual after a while, to witness those ordinary moments. I think you capture that really brilliantly and it made me reflect on how that’s actually a theme in your other books as well — the mundane and the magical are actually the same thing.

CT: Thank you. It’s always frustrated me that the comics medium tends towards fantasy and super heroes, because for me real life is much more compelling—those are the stories I always wanted to see in comics, and now we’re seeing a lot more of them, so I’m grateful for that. I think of comics as a very human and intimate medium—it’s one of the visual mediums we have that one person can create—you know, it’s not movies or television or video games, it’s something much quieter and more personal. When I did Blankets, at the time it seemed like a novelty to do a really big book where absolutely nothing happens—that’s what I would tell people I was working on. And I wanted it to take place in a very small, intimate space, like a bedroom. So likewise in Carnet, I just wanted to slow things down. Occasionally I would collage. There’s a little bit of collage—like here [shows image] I had a different drawing, it’s a full page sketch that I inserted in that blank spot—so if there is any kind of editing, it’s that kind of thing.

EL: That’s sort of a relief.

CT: Yeah, I would make drawings and collage as needed, because some of those sketch book drawings would work. I had to put in the travel diarrhea page [shows image], because there’s this scatology theme in a lot of my books too, but I think it sort of reflects this discomfort of travel.

EL: You can turn that into a poster and make a fortune, because every traveler can relate to that! And for anybody who hasn’t read it you can see Zacchaeus coming in right in the end to…

CT: Mock my whininess! This was one of those moments where I would’ve felt refreshed to hang out with Europeans. A group of Spaniards took me under their wing, and we were traveling through Fez together; I was doing drawings as I was walking around. So the drawings on the left are drawn—while walking—and then later that day I would compose a comics page. It’s amazing I didn’t step in more donkey poop or something. Some of the places were sort of chaotic and I would try to escape to some private spot on a roof top where nobody would bother me. I got in the habit of trying to get up high in places.

EL: You know, these images just make me want to point out that another tension that makes the book exciting has to do with the urban setting. You were talking about the chaos of the medina and all that, and coming after the pastoral vibe of Blankets . . . I think in here you even decide at one point, “I am a nature cartoonist. That’s really who I am in my core.” So it’s interesting that here you’re forced to depict an urban reality.


CT: Yeah, that’s a good observation. I grew up in rural Wisconsin and I don’t want to live in those places ever again, but I grew up in nature and that’s where I am most comfortable. I live in Portland now, and I live there partly because it’s near the ocean and the mountains. I want to be in a city culturally, but I need frequent escapes to actual nature—I get pretty claustrophobic when I’m in cities. The drawing on the right there is where this weird thing would happen sometimes . . . when I’m drawing in public you attract people’s attention. Usually I’d have young boys surrounding me and I’d give a lot of sketches away, so there are portraits that never made it into the book. But the butcher, he was wanting to see the image I drew of him so I walked over to show him the drawing, and he got some blood on my sketch book. While examining my sketchbook in disgust, I ran my noggin into this slab of hanging meat. And then these guys on the left—there’s no photos used, but sometimes they look like photos, because people would see me sitting there drawing so they’d strike a pose. I made good friends despite there being a language barrier. I didn’t speak Arabic or French—but like this guy Saeed, we just sat inside on a rainy day and we drew together all day, it was one of those great moments. There’s another guy in Marrakesh, this guy named Mohammad, he did this sort of woodworking with a foot-operated lathe spinning this dowel to make these candle sticks and stuff—and he was really happy to have me sit in front of him for like an hour and make this portrait. I don’t think I would have had that bond with him if I had just been a tourist, snapping a “ah, cute” photo—and I’m really grateful for that exchange.


Click here to purchase Carnet de Voyage
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Click here to purchase Habibi
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Click here to purchase Blankets
at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Sabrina

Nick Drnaso
Drawn & Quarterly ($27.95)

by Steve Matuszak

From time to time, the deep-seated feeling that nothing is really as it seems grabs hold of us, the world as we know it threatened with erasure as we buckle beneath the weight of our doubts. Sometimes the feeling is triggered by events outside of us; sometimes it appears to have no cause. The problem is not with reality, of course, but with our understanding of it, the explanations and narratives we tell ourselves to stave off the nagging suspicion that we really don’t know what we’re talking about.

Nick Drnaso’s gripping graphic novel Sabrina drops his main characters right in the middle of this epistemological seizure. The book opens with an innocuous scene of Sabrina and her sister Sandra having a relaxed conversation at their parents’ house—Sabrina is cat sitting—working on a crossword puzzle and planning a bike trip around the Great Lakes in the fall. It ends with Sandra leaving to attend a surprise party, and Sabrina heading out the next morning into what appears to be a brilliant summer morning.

While on the surface the scene may seem dramatically static, there is something off-kilter about it, danger lurking just out of sight. For example, its first few pages depict Sabrina searching for something that caught her attention as she stands at the kitchen sink, facing out at the dark night. Peering into unlit rooms, behind the shower curtain, into a closet, and under a bed, she appears to be searching for an intruder—but in a riff on a common horror film trope, it turns out to be the cat. Immediately afterward, Sandra arrives, startling Sabrina; we also see that one of the crossword puzzle answers is “Dick and Perry,” the killers in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Most unsettling, though, is Sandra’s response to Sabrina’s fear that they might not be safe on their bike ride because of animals; she relates a moment when she was nineteen, on spring break, and was stalked by three men who told her they were “hunting,” one even grabbing her arm before her escape, leading her to conclude, “Don’t worry about riding a bike through the woods. The fucking wild animals stay in hotels.”

Considering that the rest of the book unfolds after Sabrina has vanished, the family’s worst fears eventually confirmed, Drnaso might be laying it on a bit thick here. But for the most part, the drama in Sabrina is understated, rendered in muted colors across comics panels laid out in relatively uniform grids that rarely change much from panel to panel, suggesting the passing of time, minute by minute, in all of its agony, the characters’ dialogue unadorned. The story itself focuses not so much on the crime as on its emotional and psychological impact on two groups of people: Sabrina’s sister Sandra and Sandra’s friend Anna, and, making up most of the book, Sabrina’s boyfriend Ted King (an emotional zombie since Sabrina’s disappearance) and his childhood friend Calvin Wrobel.

At first, reality is cut asunder for these characters by the sheer unreality of what has happened. Both Ted and Sandra become speechless in their grief, as when Sandra, curled in a fetal position in the middle of her apartment, laments, “Sorry, I can’t sit here. I don’t know what to do. . . . I’m serious. I don’t know what to do! . . . God. I don’t know what to do.” After Anna tries to calm Sandra down with a guided meditation, Sandra only ends up shouting, “Ahh!” echoing Ted’s screams from within a nightmare earlier (and again, one presumes, later) in the book.

The events are too unreal even for Calvin, an Airman working a desk job at an Air Force base in Colorado Springs; he tries to comfort Ted but has difficulties expressing all but a kind of surface niceness, and its insufficiency in dealing with these jagged circumstances is exposed again and again: in his relationship with Ted and the abyss that opens up for him as a result of it, and in his strained marriage, his wife chatting with him in brief, shallow conversations via webcam (they are separated, with divorce impending). This kind of thing doesn’t happen to people, at least to people we know. At best, they are horror stories we encounter in the news, perhaps on the Internet as we are checking our emails or social media.

It is in the media landscape, where we go for information, entertainment, and interpersonal connection, that Sabrina locates its most haunting insights. After all, we commonly rely on mass media for answers. Unless we know the people involved, it is where we would hear about something like Sabrina’s murder in the first place, and it is also where we would go to understand it, regularly checking news outlets in multiple platforms for the latest developments, for a deeper understanding of the event and those involved in it, and even for how to make sense of it—what does this event mean, how does it impact my world? So it’s only natural that Calvin goes online to help him figure out what is going on, while unbeknownst to Calvin, Ted turns to the rantings of Albert Douglas, an Alex Jones-like radio host, who sows paranoia in the name of exposing what he calls “the paranoia campaign.”

While Calvin and Ted turn to mass media for narratives and explanations to help them understand their lives, they are also reminded that it is a strange place—located here, where they access it, and also not here, from somewhere in the ether (or, to be more contemporary, the cloud). Its roiling discourse moves in like strange weather—sudden, anonymous, sometimes violent, and always impersonal in the way it uproots what is quite personal to them. But because the media forms this virtual, living web seemingly connecting them with others, it can be hard for them to see how it also isolates them; it might in fact depend on the assumption that they are already isolated from others in order to connect them.

Drnaso vividly captures the sense of isolation that can be experienced in this seemingly crowded media culture in the way he frames each panel. Rarely are there more than two figures in any given panel; often there is just one, each individual isolated from others even when they’re in the same room. Rooms are often empty, even relatively public spaces like the greasy spoon Calvin patronizes that no longer draws the crowds it once did. In fact, we quickly realize the only masses of people to appear in Sabrina, in a large panel teeming with colorful people, is actually a page from Where’s Waldo?, Drnaso using comics to achieve a disorientation not possible in cinema, for example, where a room full of people and an illustration from a children’s book are immediately distinguishable. In Sabrina, however, while there is a shift toward a brighter color palette and a cartoonier representational style, it takes at least a beat to realize what one is seeing: a perfect metaphor for our need to find what we feel we are missing or have lost, and for the sinking feeling that such a need is merely child’s play.

That things are more ambiguous than we would like is emphasized in Drnaso’s drawing style, in which people can sometimes be a bit indistinguishable from one another—we’re not always sure who we’re looking at. Is that a foe or a friend? It’s a question that Ted and Calvin wrestle with in key scenes late in the book, and in simply asking the question, they realize that even should it prove to be a friend, they still can’t be too sure. Friend or stranger, could he be the face behind those trolling comments or that frightening email? In moments of deep uncertainty, we realize we’re never really sure of the things we take for granted, but we never give them a moment’s doubt until something shakes us out of our certainty. Sabrina helps us to see that uncertainty is a condition of life, whether we look directly at it or not. Its final, brief scene reassures us that no matter how alarming or frightening things might appear, it is OK.


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

Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature

Gloria Fisk
Columbia University Press ($60)

by Erik Noonan

In Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature, Gloria Fisk offers a case study of the oeuvre and persona of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Because he is a representative figure with general applications to the profession of creative writing in a global context, she uses the occasion to issue a challenge to U.S.-based literary critics, whose pretensions to neutrality compromise their theoretical positions on literature while qualifying them for positions at universities.

Descended from a family of nineteenth-century industrialists, the Orhan Pamuk of Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature is the freelancer son of lapsed aristocrats who laments the fallen state of his hometown of Istanbul while taking in its scenic ruins, to the resentment of his fellow Turks. He plays into the narratives of nationalists, who call him a tool of Western interests and cast his acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide as a cynical ploy calculated to gain the favor of the Western establishment. Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in 2006 and fled Turkey with a security detail when his life was threatened; in the West, he found himself increasingly called upon to opine on political topics. Although he maintains he is a spokesman only for art and artists, the subversive episodes of his fiction—particularly his 2002 novel Snow, the focus of Fisk’s analysis—continue to escape the notice of Western readers, as commentators decline to emphasize them in favor of those aspects that might be termed faux reportage, fiction written in journalese, bringing news of an orientalist Turkey to the Western armchair traveler and assuaging her anxieties about the East.

In Fisk’s view, critics of world literature reinforce these conditions by creating an intellectual climate for their acceptance. Following Erich Auerbach—author of Mimesis, a founding text of the discipline of Comparative Literature—scholars cultivate a spiritual homelessness intended to endow their work with a purity it does not possess. These scholars write as if without a context of their own, and thereby conceal and secure their complicity in Western hegemonic doctrines, which demand acquiescence as a condition not only of participation but even of survival—white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, neoliberal global capital—and they do this because the U.S. university requires its academics to use the polluted rhetorics of these absurd logics if they want to advance their careers. In a prescriptive conclusion, Fisk suggests that comparatists jettison the fantasy that their marginal privilege makes them exiles, and replace it with an ambition to see their investment in the status quo for what it is—and then trace its effects on their scholarship, even as they carry out their analyses.

This book is absolutely modern, and that quality defines its scope. Fisk construes for Pamuk an implied reader who reads books according to the status that these commodities will confer upon her in an economy of leisure pursuits. This ideal reader has learned from mainstream channels how to evaluate the “conversion factor” of a work of fiction; she consumes titles recommended to her and rehearses the mental moves and conversation gambits scripted for her by social media, blogs, podcasts, public radio commentators, and print and web magazines. The premise of the structural complicity of academics with oppression is an excellent feature of Fisk’s text, but it does not constitute a departure from convention, and neither do her arguments. A critique of her critique—and a worthwhile project for the scholar herself to undertake, perhaps—might commence, instead, with the consideration of a reader antithetical to the one whose whims Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature takes so seriously: an obsessive, a devotee of literature—whether “world” or otherwise—for the pleasure of it, in the largest sense, someone whose imagination is therefore saturated with literary culture, a person as anachronistic and outré as the implied reader of this book is au courant and hypernormal. How, it might be worthwhile to discover, does this kind of literary citizen read a novel?


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Journeying

Claudio Magris
Translated by Anne Milano Appel
Yale University Press ($25)

by John Toren

Writing in Italian but steeped in the literature and cultures of Mitteleuropa, Claudio Magris remains a "writer's writer" rather than a popular one, and Journeying will do little to alter the fact. That's too bad. These occasional pieces display the erudition and charm for which Magris is known, and have the added virtue of being relatively short. Is there any point in revisiting impressions of Berlin before the Wall fell, for example, or of Prague during that strange period when Czechoslovakia had come apart and was unsure how to reassemble itself? Magris says yes, and he's got a point:

History does not consist only of what has occurred, much less of absurd, far-fetched alternatives, but also of possibilities . . . The hopes of a generation in a specific historical period are part of the history of that time, and they too have therefore contributed to making us who we are, even if the course of events later overlooked them or proved them wrong.

It can be relaxing, in fact, to relive the dreams and anxieties of a historical place and moment with the knowledge that, after all, things turned out alright. In any case, little of the material Magris has gathered here is expressly political; far more of it is devoted to literary, cultural, and sociological observations. Although the essays have not been divided into sections, the book follows a pattern of sorts, with pieces about Spain—the least interesting part of the book—followed by impressions of Germany and specifically Berlin. In time we arrive in Poland and later the Balkans, where Magris introduces us to several obscure but enduring micro-cultures, including the Sorbs and the Cici.

Three attributes stand out in these pieces: their brevity (they seldom run to more than a few pages); Magris's command of the historical background and common lore of the cities and regions he's describing; and their overriding humanity. Magris tends to be less interested in monuments and past events than in individual people, friendships, and the fellow-feeling that animates any healthy community or culture. Mad Ludwig's castle interests him less than the personality of the Bavarian king himself, for which Magris feels a certain sympathy.

In one essay Magris journeys to California to examine exiled serial composer Arnold Schoenberg's desk. He describes the objects and papers, makes a few remarks about the character of Schoenberg's music, and discusses how disappointed Schoenberg was that Thomas Mann (who lived just down the street at the time) used him as a model for the diabolical artist in Dr. Faustus. But what interests Magris most are the family photos on the desk. Here he sees a man attached to his children and grandchildren, inventing ingenious games together and passing the days in an atmosphere of familial love than many would envy:

In that room of Schoenberg, maestro and creator of dissonance, we feel the mark of harmony, of a man who lived in harmony. It is the room of a fabulous father, grandfather, or uncle whom we per¬haps knew in our childhood, a family member who might not have amounted to much and whom others regarded with suspicion, but who for us was the magician who made things come alive, transform¬ing pieces of paper into mysterious creatures . . .

These impressions, which seem to have struck a chord from Magris's own childhood, are confirmed and amplified by Schoenberg's daughter Nuria, who now looks after the museum.

Magris has an abiding affection for the peoples and cultures of his home region of Istria, a peninsula at the head of the Adriatic Sea that has changed hands several times during the twentieth century and is now divided between three nations. Yet he avoids wading into the morass of crimes and counter-crimes that a detailed history would expose. His position is a simple one:

An ethnic group that asserts itself often does so at the expense of another, weaker group, thus violating the principle in whose name it protests against the stronger state or nation by which it in turn feels oppressed; history is one big frothy fermentation in which bubbles eager to emerge continuously destroy one another, bursting one by one.

In contrast, throughout these disparate pieces Magris not only champions but allows us to catch glimpses of expansive polyglot pockets of local culture. For example, on a journey to the land of the Ciribiri, he shares a meal with some of the local inhabitants:

At the table, deliciously laden, Italian, Istro-Romanian, and Croatian are spoken. For this free, relaxed people, the Istro-Romanian identity is not a visceral obsession, a purity to be protected from any contamination, but an added rich¬ness, which coexists peacefully with ties to Italy and being part of Croatia. That is how a border identity should be, an enrichment of the individual, whereas instead the border often exacerbates barriers, divisions, hatred.

Magris, too, is a creature of the borderlands, and he has been amply enriched by the experience. In Journeying he celebrates the Jews who have no home, exposes to a wider audience the obscure cultures in the midst of which he was raised, and casually offers up the fruits of a lifetime spent exploring the literature and customs of regions farther afield, all the way to Norway and Vietnam. Laced with both wisdom and fellow-feeling, these pieces support an ethos that has little, in the end, to do with journeying. We might meet up with it anywhere that people relax their guard and get to know one another well—maybe right down the street.


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Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt,
Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil

Deborah Nelson
The University of Chicago Press ($25)

by Esther Fishman

What makes up our public discourse? We seem to want to know everything that is going on around us, and we love to form opinions on a myriad of topics: baseball statistics; where to get the best pizza; strategies for the next election. But it doesn’t stop there; we also actively seek out the opinion of others. In fact, it could be said that our world is divided into two camps: those who agree with us, and those who don’t. Said another way, we receive information from the world around us—what we read, who we talk to, and what is projected by the ubiquitous media—and then choose what to believe, what to let in, what warrants a reaction.

In Tough Enough, Deborah Nelson examines the work of six women who were known for their strong opinions: Diane Arbus; Hannah Arendt; Joan Didion; Mary McCarthy; and Simone Weil. Nelson maintains that these women can be studied as a group, although their ideas are in no way similar, or even compatible. Their importance derives not only from the contents of their books, magazine articles, or art exhibits, but also from the tone in which they were presented. Collectively, these artists did not depend on any kind of sentimentality to explicate their opinions, even when their subjects were earthshakingly tragic. They all believed that as soon as emotions were introduced in public discourse, even in art, they obscure the clear light of understanding.

According to Nelson, this clear-sightedness kept these six very public figures grounded in reality. Indeed, the first sentence of her introduction proclaims: “This is a book on women writers, intellectuals, and artists who argued passionately for the aesthetic, political, and moral obligation to face panful reality unsentimentally.” But what is this reality? Even when writing about the twentieth century, it should be impossible to use this term without definition. After all, the philosophical ramifications behind quantum mechanics were already being explored in the post-World War II era. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, introduced in 1927, underlies today’s understanding that reality is in the eye of the beholder, that no one person or group possesses an ultimate, unchanging certainty. Therefore, an event such as the Holocaust should not be seen as monolithic and has as many stories as it had participants—and all of these stories are real, even if we do not want to hear some of them (Eichmann’s, for instance, as told by Hannah Arendt). Joan Didion didn’t make her husband come back from the dead, or cure her sick daughter, but writing The Year of Magical Thinking did make it possible for her to imagine a world in which these things were happening. Diane Arbus, by her choice of subject and atmosphere, made visible new realities. Susan Sontag writing about her illness and Mary McCarthy writing about her upbringing introduced new ways of thinking about experiences common to most people.

The true contribution of these six women was not a lack of emotion, but rather their reticence to rely on sentiment in their work. They were cognizant of their very public roles and could have given in to the easy play on gut reaction that usually prevails in public argument. There is a strong moral component to much of their collective work—a morality that suggests we ought to see that is deeper than any conclusions based on surface emotions, quick reactions that overwhelm critical thought.

“It seems almost unsporting to revisit the misogynist reactions to a woman intellectual in the 1950s, so obvious are they and so unsurprising,” Nelson points out, yet we would do a disservice to ourselves to discount the role that gender plays in this debate. Nelson writes without academic jargon, yet she uses the critical sources focused on a point of view that is primarily feminist, and sensitive to the plight of underrepresented minority populations. She does not present her subjects in any historical context, and therefore their roles as female artists, and their successes in a time when the majority male voice was codified as a unified worldview, are obscured. By concentrating on analyzing the work of these six women, however, she highlights their importance—not as popular tastemakers, embroiled in issues of their time, but as public philosophers, eager to point a way to a deeper understanding of our shared world. In this way, she helps to bring her subjects forward in time.

The women profiled in this book developed the ability to engage in theorical discourse in the wake of such horrors as the Holocaust, not to mention personal illness and death, and that is why their work continues to resonate; a Sontag or a McCarthy defines a subject long after their first introduction. These women are passionate, and able to express their particular passions without cant. Some of the very way we think is due to the concepts they developed. It is a wonderful thing to read such a cogent and thought-provoking analysis of their work.


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University Presses
in a Turbulent World

by Brian Halley

Books offer some time away from the din of constant news coverage. There is no news ticker running across the bottom of the page, no big announcement of breaking news. But chosen wisely, these books can inform how we understand that constant news buzz, online or off. Those books published by our university presses are particularly well suited to fill in the backgrounds on the most pressing issues we face. This year, University Press Week runs from November 12-17, and the Association of University Presses chose a very appropriate theme: #TurnItUP, which emphasizes the role UPs can play in amplifying underrepresented work and ideas.

University press books run the gamut, to be sure, from lighter fare to more scholarly tomes. But in an age of rapid news, delivered in a multitude of ways so it seems inescapable, these thoughtful books deserve extra attention. Beyond the credit some of us editors may want for our skills as list curators, it also means something that university press books have been peer reviewed and approved by a faculty board at a university. They are key resources as facts blur in the swiftness of this current moment.


Right now, the U. S. President and his Administration have made threats and promises on a number of fronts, possibly to draw out voters who support their more extreme positions ahead of the mid-term elections. When the New York Times uncovered a memo from the Department of Health and Human Services that would limit how the government recognizes those individuals who identify as transgender, as just one recent example, the backlash was swift. The University of California Press was able to publish a blog post from Tey Meadow, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and author of Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century, which the Press published in August 2018. Of course, many university presses have published key texts in the area of transgender studies, such as the new Histories of the Transgender Child by Julian Gill-Peterson from the University of Minnesota Press, the forthcoming Trans People in Higher Education edited by Genny Beemyn from SUNY Press, and Duke University Press’s Transgender Studies Quarterly journal..


Searching the word “migration” will now lead to hits focusing on people rather than animals, especially those women, men, and children desperately trying to reach the Unites States for a chance at asylum. This is an issue where the significant—and significantly—false information poses true dangers to the travelers in question. (As often ill-informed debates have played out, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that 1,500 children, ages 13 – 17, were being held in “temporary shelters” in West Texas, as of October 2018, for example.) The facts of today are essential for us all to know, but ongoing migration into the US, from Mexico and elsewhere, has a long and complicated history that provides necessary context. Books published by a number of university presses, particularly those like the University of Arizona Press and the University of Texas Press from border states, illuminate key questions on these issues. Indeed, in 2019, UT Press will publish Accountability Across Borders: Migrant Rights in North America, edited by Xóchitl Bada and Shannon Gleeson.


Even with wave after wave of extreme natural disasters hitting the US, most recently Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, those following the news may still believe that the science of global warming is up for debate amongst scientists. Certain university presses have long published work making the science very clear. MIT Press has published widely on this issue, from in-depth research aimed at specialists to more general interest titles, such as the recent Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale, by Matt Hearn and Am Johal. Princeton University Press comes at the issue from its various disciplinary strengths as well, from policy to science, including approachable titles such as Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North, by geographer Mark C. Serreze (2018). Trinity University Press, combining humanities and science in their approach, published Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet, edited by Susan A. Cohen and Julie Dunlap. Many presses confront these challenges in their own regions explicitly, such as a book published earlier this year by Louisiana State University Press, Environmental Disaster in the Gulf South: Two Centuries of Catastrophe, Risk, and Resilience, edited by Cindy Ermus.

In fact, university presses often serve their regions with a range of books, from regional ecology studies to local nature guides to biographies of political figures to local fiction, relevant to you and your neighbors, for pressing issues of the day or as a local resource. In addition to books in a number of scholarly fields, I have developed a Boston activist history list at UMass Press, with the latest entry being People Before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making by Karilyn Crockett, chronicling the intersectional protests against highway construction that brought together environmentalists, neighborhood groups, and more.

The news will keep moving at a breakneck pace, that seems clear. But as we as readers approach the news, or the polls, or protests, we need to be informed with knowledge that has been curated, vetted, and peer reviewed. Fortunately, our evolving, adapting, and forward-looking university presses provide the very tools that can make for better news consumers, voters, and activists.


Brian Halley is senior editor at the University of Massachusetts Press, based at UMass Boston. University Press Week runs November 12-17; you can learn more at www.universitypressweek.org


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

Lost Empress

Sergio De La Pava
Pantheon ($29.95)

by Chris Via

Sergio De La Pava’s first book, A Naked Singularity, cast a long shadow that continues to loom over him like Gödel, Escher, Bach over Douglas R. Hofstadter. Even the synopsis on the back cover of Personae, De La Pava’s second novel, is more preoccupied with escaping its towering predecessor than in its own précis, and it seems inevitable that the debut novel itself makes a self-deprecating cameo in this latest production. But for those who crossed over the event horizon and perhaps were befuddled with the slim offering during the interregnum, Lost Empress proves that the author is no one-hit-wonder.

The fateful butterfly wings of an automobile accident and a woman’s bilked inheritance set into motion the intertwining of a motley cast of characters. We open with the magnetic Nina Gill and the conflict with her brother over ownership of the Dallas Cowboys. In the midst of NFL lockouts, Nina—the author’s reimagining of Ayn Rand’s Dagny Taggart—takes over the Indoor Football League’s Paterson Pork and proposes a pons asinorum that will make (and perhaps end) history. Meanwhile a fatal car wreck brings together the lives of an outcast, a priest, an EMT, a CO, and a 911 operator. And in yet another plot stratum, we follow the virtuosic Nuno DeAngeles, an imprisoned autodidact who performs his own grand jury defense in an unlikely turn of events. One of the novel’s greatest narrative strengths is the intersecting of these disparate lives, the sharp contrast of which brings the ideas of fate and justice into bas-relief.

De La Pava revels in playfulness and punctiliousness—for starters, the book is divided into prologue, logue, and epilogue—while maintaining a perspicacity reminiscent of David Foster Wallace. There is an overwrought narration of the trivial akin to books like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, but adorned with comedic gilding that ranges from Three Stooges slapstick (think: the banter in Personae’s Waiting for Godot-like brain-in-a-vat play) to National Lampoon gags (think: A Naked Singularity’s Señor Smoke burritos incident) to sardonic social commentary. Add in the interpolated ruminations on coincidence, seasons, silence, islands, music, time, space, sports, and religion; a heavy sprinkling of literary allusions (Keats, Dostoyevsky, Musil, et al.); a keen sense of parallax (“There’s no down or up for the sun”); deft aphorisms (“Memory may be more powerful than pure imagination but both are muffled rumor when compared to our experience of the urgent present”); and you have all the trappings of what makes reading De La Pava a treat.

Like the corpulent Scarpetti, who, ironically, becomes an office celebrity for transcribing 911 calls, De La Pava is an “expert in human truth and impervious to cliché or shallow thought.” Lost Empress is the product of a restless mind that has gorged on the best of recorded thought but is too sensitive to the human condition and the ambiguity of language to succumb to chaotic postmodern regurgitation. The novel is a tightly-crafted, cerebral synthesis that bandies anti-anthropocentrism and human-all-too-human sympathy, while, as The Theorist declaims, “Time is literally running out.”


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The House of Nordquist

Book 3 of the Eroica Trilogy
Eugene Garber
Transformations Press ($9.99)

by Martin Nakell

In The House of Nordquist, Eugene K. Garber writes not about the war or the truce or the potential for harmony between reason and vision, logos and dream, order and chaos, good and evil, primitive passions and civilized societies—he writes from the consciousness of that field. Therein, all the difference. Therefrom, this extraordinary novel, a marker from time of our time.

There is no simple story here. Rather than a novel of storytelling, this is a fiction of consciousness not easy to construct, organize, or keep track of. There is an exploration of the human experience from the primitive mind to our own, our destructive and our creative powers, our restlessness. The main characters are all in search of redemption in a 21st-Century world in which we have lost our connection to the spiritual / consciousness / dream / art. They all seek to reconnect in different ways. Then there is a Kafkaesque bureaucratic governmental agency, “National Division A,” whose agent-detectives interrogate some of the characters.

To ground this Fiction-of-Consciousness in the material, lest it “slip into the fantastical,” there is an actual “House of Nordquist,” a “huge house with much glass, the north wall sharp-edged like the cutwater of a ship.” Eric Nordquist’s “insane father,” Gunner Nordquist, once sailed the ship-house off to the Arctic in search of IT. “Maybe they sailed all the way north until they got to the edge and looked over, and there was the IT. The old man couldn’t stand the voltage and cracked up, but Eric brought IT back.”

Eric, who hates the inadequacy of words, sets out to compose a symphony “to change the world,” because “only music can speak the truth. And only his music. . . . a searing music, an absolute fire out of which would rise the Phoenix of a new creation.” Half-mad, Eric draws several characters—his mother Dierdre; Holocaust survivor, Helene; Eric’s college buddy (from Justin and James College for Men) Paul Albright, and Paul’s wife Alice—into his form of the quest, creating his symphony.

To ground it yet a bit more, there is a crime—someone has set fire to the House of Nordquist. Someone is known to have escaped the fire, and National Division A goes in search of that person to try to find the arsonist. But is the crime the setting fire to the House of Nordquist, or is it the destruction of the human spirit? And who is the criminal?

The book opens with a dialogue between Alice and Peter Albright about Eric Nordquist and the fire. Alice asks, “Where did Eric come from? I don’t mean by birth from Deirdre and his crazy father. I mean after being born, or maybe before being born.” Eric’s powers, his vision-quest made manifest in his symphony is so compelling that Paul “had to speak for Eric. He had to say whatever Eric put in his mind.”

Eric must draw his Phoenix-symphony out of the body of some living person, and he will do it with a Gothic machine, “With the right equipment you could suck music from a body and change the world.” Eric’s mother, Dierdre, provides the body for Eric’s project—she procures Helene, an emaciated Holocaust survivor, the decayed body of history. Helene’s suffering is compounded by Eric’s use and abuse of her. Finally, during the fire, Helene “was in the house drinking flames like wine and singing songs of death with a nail in her throat.” In an orgiastic, madly triumphant feast of her destruction Helene drinks the “flames like wine” as she sings “songs of death.” Would it change the world? No. Paul and Alice in dialogue:

Because to change, things have to be broken up.
Or burnt up.
That’ll work.
But the symphony didn’t change the world. It just changed your life.
What about your life?
Sure. If it changed your life, it changed my life.

Thomas Meachem, another college classmate, is as much of a seeker as are Eric and Paul. While Eric re-names Paul “No-Name” (“What did it feel like getting into the role of No-Name?” / “Like being a tabula rasa.”), Meachem unnames himself, sheds all identities, all sense of self, in order to rename himself. At college, Meachem “was . . . the one of clearest purpose.” He used his clarity to become rich, a “star capitalist.” But Professor Tyree “secretly . . . loathed clarity. What he loved was the shadowy aura that hovers around the edges of clarity. It was there, he believed, that the verities were to be found.”

Realizing that the clarity of his wealth (achieved through the system of Econometrics, a first cousin to Eugenics, was just a “scam that pretends you can assign numbers to the behavior of billions of people,” Meachem pays heed to “the arrival of a voice that said you must renounce your identity,” and joins the pursuits of his old classmates and professors: “I wanted to be broken into pieces that I could put back together any way I chose.”

To disentangle himself from the clarity of identity, driven purpose, and money, from the America that “was to have given birth to the new order four centuries ago,” but has only “drowned in blood.” Meachem, traveling to the Amazon, abandons his possessions, his identity, even the clothes he wears, subjecting himself to hunger, humiliations, and degradations, all to look over the edge of his own void. He explains to a detective in one of the interrogations:

I broke down. I babbled in unknown tongues, howled like an animal, crawled along the bank like a furtive saurian. I crammed reeds and mud into my mouth. Success at last. I was broken.
You suffered terribly.
I visited it all upon myself.
How did you manage to come back?
I never came back. That was the whole point.

Those are the two worlds Garber sets against each other: those who, like Gunnar and Eric Nordquist, pursue art in lives redeemed by that art, and those who prize hyper-civilized, money-driven, self-destructive greed—signified by the detectives in their objectivity, their numbers, their econometrics.

Professor of Religion Karl Aptheker plays a different part in these quests. In Meachem’s letters/reports to the detective bureau, he writes: “I said that nothing we know is the center. . . . our Professor of Religion, Aptheker, would say that there is a center, only we cannot experience it.” Aptheker sees the quandary, yet is capable of just living within it, not running to find frantic ways out. Professor Aptheker “believes that no human can change the world utterly.” Where Eric is the anti-Logos, Aptheker believes that “in the end it will be the Word made flesh that transforms the world.”

A book of this complexity is no ordinary tale to be told in any ordinary way. Absent of plot, it unravels not through exposition or logic or linear time, scene or action, but through dialogue, interrogation, and letters. And then, with its target in mind of this contradictory braided miasma of forces, it undercuts its own reality. It is a book whose aspirations go far beyond mere realism:

It’s an old story, sailing off to get some great prize.
Like what?
Helen of Troy, the Golden Fleece, the New World.

But “Nothing in this story fits in.” The characters come to play parts they cannot help becoming aware of:

Where are we in the story?
It’s not a story. It’s a geometry. It’s what happens when you wrap the earth in lines. You go to the bottom of the sea, like my father. But if you want a story, tell it.

And so, it is not a story like Helen of Troy, et alia. “I may have embellished it, but I was inside of it. How does one get inside a story he has never heard before?”


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Pure Hollywood

Christine Schutt
Grove Press ($23)

by Erin Lewenauer

Author of three novels and two short story collections, Christine Schutt, with the exacting grace of a water-skier, takes us prickly places we don’t want to go in her latest story collection. What is this place saying? she asks insistently through numerous characters and their highly individual circumstances. Schutt’s universe is a thin, brittle one, where even the young are old.

In the opening novella, “Pure Hollywood,” Schutt writes, “Since they had moved to the desert Mother thought most about what happened before with people they didn’t remember or hadn’t known.” We are dropped into worlds like this often, voids, a moment choked by another moment of loss. The details of characters’ predicaments are explosions within the strict confines of time before they float away, becoming more feeling than fact:

Let’s say it was May in the first decade of the hardly promising twenty-first century, and a white stucco wall, corsaged in bougainvillea and lit up by the moon, enticed them downhill a long way past gated properties to a wider road, then down that road and across it on the other side to the lookout onto the sparkle that was the city and what lay before them at the liftoff of another beginning, which feeling they would experience again, until decades shrank to pieces of colored stone, mosaics unexpected and unfitted yet shellacked together and made to glow alike in recollection so that all she had known of love and the end of love could be summoned and summed up in a ceiling pinked in sulfurous light.

Schutt’s remaining ten stories vary greatly in length, but they share an atmosphere, always carrying the sensation of the West, where fine, gritty sand is sprinkled everywhere, never fairy dust: “the just-right night of Los Angeles” Their plots often pebble like water over skin and dissipate. And the pace is a sprint, always toward the horizon. The story “Family Man,” for example, delves in and out of conversation with itself: “He hears his name, but has no desire to know how he might be described in the future: a glass of water, a flavorless man, at best, at best, on a white tablecloth a goblet of melted ice with the slightest curl of lemon in it. Through the blinds a blade of sunlight cuts the glass in half and shows up dust.”

While Schutt sucks the romance right out of any situation, and even in her flash fiction holds us somewhere longer than is comfortable, she makes us wonder if there is exactly where we should be. Unnerved while taking pleasure in her language, lost among her characters in the never-ending desert, we wince from pain and sometimes from beauty also.


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The New Nudity

Hadara Bar-Nadav
Saturnalia Books ($16)

by Denise Low

Hadara Bar-Nadav’s The New Nudity is a book of riddles, one of the oldest literary forms. The poems examine objects like “Wineglass,” “Spoon,” and “Piano.” Most titles in the book have this one-word, concrete noun format, with only a few variations. The chosen topics may seem, at first, quotidian, but they valorize and illuminate the process of language. Titles of the poems give away the answers to the riddles, so the word play is about the inventiveness of definitions, those approximations of size and shape, as in “Thumb”:

Who means what it is to be human
and is scarred by childhood.

Thick and neckless. Your head shaped
like a gravestone.

A smile opens across the knuckle and disappears
every time you lift a tumbler of scotch.

Who holds a pen and lies.

The distinctive human digit must work in tandem; isolated, a thumb is bizarre, even grotesque. The nail is the shape of a “gravestone,” and so inutile. Wrinkles in the thumb’s skin, from a foreshortened point of view, resembles a smile. The true and literal view of a “thumb” gets lost in layers of description. The thumb of the poet herself distorts as she grips the pen, so altering with “lies” the idea of a thumb.

Metaphors accumulate throughout the volume in a new syntax, so they become singular, as when the speaker in “Bridge” finds “Wire spokes / through speech” and notes “I don’t want / to play the harp.” The distorted scale, reducing bridge’s cables to the size of a harp, creates a startling comparison. And not using the article “the” in the title makes this more indefinite—and dynamic. None of the titles has an article, which adds to their suspension in a mythic-like time.

Like Daniel in the Old Testament, Bar-Nadav is an interpreter of the realm of dream and imagination. The poem “Gypsy” demonstrates this, with a submerged narrative about a birch tree with gypsy moth eggs. The poet gives the tree gender—“Sever her arms one / by one. Cut the moths // from the white clot / of heaven.” This could be a Hansel and Gretel forest scene. The poem folds inside-out several times; the images recur in sequences similar to the jumbled narrations of dreams. In the poem, however, a closure occurs, even if incomplete, with the connections among white images: “You found her pearl-pale, / lying on the sidewalk // her head opened, / opening, // like the unborn / gypsy moths, torched // in their white beds.” The emphasis on the verb “open” and its shift from past participle to present participle moves the poem into present time, while it continues to exist in the past.

The New Nudity has surprises on every page. It interrogates many strategies of writers, and so it reads like a master lesson in poetics. The poems are about questions more than answers. Metaphors surprise but are not contorted as they expound upon physical reality and expand it into myth. Bar-Nadav teases out basic elements of physical entities— “Balcony” or “Jar”—until she reinvents alternate realities.


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