Tag Archives: Spring 2019

A Declaration of the Rights
of Human Beings

Raoul Vaneigem
Translated by Liz Heron
PM Press ($20)

by George Longenecker

In this second edition of A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings, Raoul Vaneigem expands upon the first edition published seventeen years ago. Best known for his 1967 work The Revolution of Everyday Life, the Belgian author was a member of the Situationist International, and decried what he called passive nihilism, “a world rife with the most atrocious acts of cruelty committed on the greatest range of grounds—religious, ideological, legal, illegal, individual, collective.” His slogans were painted on walls in Paris during the 1968 uprisings.

Not an easy read, Vaneigem’s declaration—which has been updated to include virtual exploitation and the misuse of technology, among other things—is divided into 58 articles, each detailing an essential human right. With essential freedoms under threat in so many parts of the world, this book provides guidance and a framework for basic protections.

Vaneigem contends that free market freedoms usually negate human freedoms, and that “There Are No Rights Already Won, Only Rights Yet to Be Won.” While some might say that constitutional rights already exist in some nations, the author would take it much further; he posits that basic necessities should be produced using renewable, non-polluting resources, and should be free. Until such a system becomes feasible, he believes everyone should be given a “living allowance.”

“All human beings have the right to knowledge,” states Article 4. Of all his premises, this is perhaps the most attainable in the United States and Europe, where public schools (and, in some nations, universities) are free. This was not a given prior to the 20th century, and is not a reality in many nations. Vaneigem believes that no form of education should require any payment.

Few would argue with the author that “All human beings have the right to life.”
However, Vaneigem dodges potential problems when he discusses “the control and regulation of human and animal births.” He imagines a global project which would make the need for such controls obsolete, but fails to propose a specific solution to population growth or to recognize the need for reproductive freedoms. Nonetheless, the basic principal is sound and integral to any social contract.

Article 5 states that “All human beings have the right to happiness.” The U.S. Declaration of Independence suggests the same thing, but the problem is legislating happiness. Still, by enshrining human happiness as a principal and guaranteeing human needs and liberties, governments could go a long way towards eliminating misery.

Vaneigem’s declaration is lengthy, spiritual in places, and some might say impractical—though the same was said of works by Locke, Rousseau, and Marx. At a time when economic disparity is widening, when xenophobia, nationalism, and intolerance are growing worldwide, we need idealists. A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings provides the inspiration for human freedoms that should and can be part of every nation’s constitution and of international law.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Bookends:
Collected Intros and Outros

Michael Chabon
Harper Perennial ($16.99)

by Erin Lewenauer

On the heels of his 2018 book Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, Pulitzer-prize winning author Michael Chabon follows his non-fiction writing trail with Bookends, a series of brief essays, introductions, afterwords, and liner notes about things he holds dear. The core of Chabon’s heart has always revolved around the concept of fandom, and here he honors everything that concept carries with it: its importance, its inherent nostalgia, its death grip.

Fandom, of course, is nurtured in the soil of childhood. Revisiting his own childhood with a fine-toothed comb, Chabon writes,

An entire world of superheroic adventure could be dreamed up by a couple of boys from Columbia, or Cleveland. And the self you knew you contained, the story you knew you had inside you, might find its way like an emblem onto the spot right over your heart. All we needed to do was accept the standing invitation that superhero comics extended to us by means of a towel. It was an invitation to enter into the world of story, to join in the ongoing business of comic books, and, with the knotting of a magical beach towel, to begin to wear what we knew to be hidden inside us.

The author also examines his attraction to D’Aulaire’s Norse Myths (“Loki was the god of the sloppily colored lineaments of my own childish mind, with its competing impulses of vandalism and vision”) and the films of Wes Anderson, which he finds “like the boxes of Cornell, or the novels of Nabokov, understand and demonstrate that the magic of art, which renders beauty out of brokenness, disappointment, failure, decay, even ugliness and violence—is authentic only to the degree that it attempts to conceal neither the bleak facts nor the tricks employed in pulling off the presto chango.” And he analyzes the process behind the writing of his acclaimed second novel (though first to be published), The Mysteries of Pittsburgh:

The truth was that I had come to a rough patch in my understanding of what I wanted my writing to be. I was in a state of confusion. Over the past four years I had been struggling to find a way to accommodate my taste for the fiction I had been reading with the greatest pleasure for the better part of my life—fantasy, horror, crime, and science fiction—to the way that I had come to feel about the English language, which was that it and I seemed to have something going.

While there are many moments that glitter with Chabon’s enveloping, beloved fairy dust, Bookends at times feels like a diluted version of what he says more imaginatively in his fiction. Still, while other artists influence and surround Chabon’s writing—as do his family, his pets, his location, and his upbringing—his own, of-the-moment voice, thankfully, always makes itself heard from above.


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Everyone Is Guilty:
An Interview with Rick Harsch

Interviewed by Anne Kniggendorf

Although known as a master of Midwestern noir, Rick Harsch is adamant that his most recent publication is not a crime novel. The author of the acclaimed “Driftless Trilogy,” he recently released his ninth book, Voices After Evelyn (Maintenance Ends Press, $19.95)

The story is firmly planted in the aftermath of a kidnapping in La Crosse, Wisconsin—real-life teenager Evelyn Hartley disappeared on October 24, 1953. Hartley was babysitting when someone broke in through a basement window. Harsch imagines the girl “unversed in panic simulating a scream no louder than the radio” after hearing “a foot slide across the basement’s floor . . . her uncivilized grasp of danger distorted by a cultivated belief that fails to destroy the hope riveting her to her chair as the wolf charges up the stairs in its death rush.”

Harsch taps into that community’s collective feelings and mostly unspoken thoughts about the crime, which is assumed to have been a murder. In his telling, one classmate, Adele, appears to split in two, going by the name Stella for most of that year even as she dives deep into a relationship with Bobby, a man more than fifteen years her senior. As an adult, Adele gains local notoriety for imprisoning a man in her basement. Speaking by phone from his home in Izola, Slovenia, Harsch says these poignant plot-points are unintentional, making the ones that were all the more electric and thought-provoking.


Anne Kniggendorf: What would you say your new book is about?

Rick Harsch: It’s about what people really lived like in the United States in a small river city in the 1950s. And to some degree, about the rippling effect of a generational type of crime, the type of crime that makes people stop and take a look at how things have changed in their town.

AK: What do you mean by “a generational type of crime”?

RH: The kind of shocking crime that happens rarely. But it’s not a true crime novel in the sense that most people who want to read a true crime novel hope it will be. It’s not about solving the crime, it’s about the ways that people react to the crime and the thematic importance of the crime—when the town realizes that they can no longer save their babysitters from their wolves.

AK: I heard that you’re categorizing this book as an oral history. Who did you talk to? How do you think of it as an oral history?

RH: I don’t think of it as an oral history—I think of it as a novel. It’s a novel presented as an oral history, but the voices are all mine. However, I talked to a lot of people—I did a lot of research, and got a lot of stories from people who grew up there. If you look at every single event in the book, from minor things in a coffee shop to major things like the wife who sleeps with whoever shows up first, about half of them are probably literally true. From what I know, all of the bars actually existed. The train station bar, called The Spot, that would deliver the drinks on a toy train? That existed. The Coo Coo Club existed, and it had the air vent in the floor to blow ladies’ dresses up and had the dildo in the bathroom to humiliate women who grabbed it. That’s all true.

AK: Why did you have to tell this story?

RH: The first novel that I published was the fourth one I’ve written. I was really happy because the third one I’d written, which still hasn’t been published, had been finished and came out just how I wanted it, but I was still at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and I had all this time left. So I came up to La Crosse and talked to a friend of mine, a guy I used to drive a taxi with, and he was telling me a bunch of typical taxi stories, and in a couple of months I wrote The Driftless Zone. The stories were just overwhelming, and all these stories were piling up and were all connected. But more specifically, the father of a friend of mine was alive during that time, and we talked about how he went a couple of times on searches for clothing or body parts or whatever—he was a really whacky old guy about the age of [the character] Bobby. So he turned into a character and that’s what did it more than anything. The background, or the environment, was built through all these stories.

AK: So the book was more character-driven than driven by the plot point of the murder?

RH: Yeah, but the murder comes with . . . It’s all like a bad joke. My favorite is the “My car is okay” business. That really happened. I knew a guy, and he’s in there, Gerard—he’s maybe ten years older than me—and he remembered with great pride being taken with his entire family to a gas station, and he said he never forgot how proud he was that they got his sticker. Their car was “okay”—they had nothing to do with the crime, and a gas station attendant proved it. I have no idea what that has to do with character . . . It may be the whole reason why Bobby worked at a gas station, I can’t say for sure. You’ve got to think about what would you do if you were working at a gas station, and they told you, “Check the trunks for blood and any other evidence, and if it’s okay, put this sticker on there.” How would you have felt at the age of 17 or 25, you know?

AK: I don’t know. That’s a weird thing.

RH: I would have been drunk with power. There was that, and then the decision to give every single adolescent of university age male a lie detector test. They really did hire a crazy outside investigator and didn’t fire him until he’d already done a horrible job. There’s a nonfiction book about the case with even more stuff I didn’t know, but a really good book remains to be written.

AK: I can’t help but ask about the structure of the book and your decision to include a chorus. What made you decide that the chorus was necessary?

RH: I think that’s a gut thing—instinct, intestinal. There are so many things that radiate from that crime, and a lot of strange things involved. For one, for a town its size, La Crosse produced two great film directors: Nicholas Ray and Joseph Losey. So there’s one thing, the cinematic connection. Then there’s Ed Gein. You know Ed Gein?

AK: No, I don’t.

RH: Oh, okay. Well, he’s the guy who Psycho was based on; he was Norman Bates. He was from La Crosse, but he lived in Plainfield, Wisconsin when he was caught. I don’t know how many people he killed, but he dug up bodies, and he had a mother issue. He would actually wear his mother’s hair and a dress and dance in the moonlight. Know your mass murderers! Ed Gein was probably one of the first nationally known killers. He used to live in La Crosse and when he was caught, two detectives from the Hartley case were sent to Plainfield to interview him. They were back the same day, so whatever clues they had, they were able to eliminate him immediately. There are still some people in La Crosse who believe that it was him.

Another part of the chorus, this is what this leads to, is that many, many people believe that they know where Evelyn is buried—at Losey Boulevard and Jackson, because it was under construction at the time. Or that Ed Gein did it. In the air in La Crosse there’s a chorus, there are all these beliefs about what happened. Then there’s the imagination, and I think it’s the second chorus that gets at this—envisioning Evelyn from the killer’s point of view, seeing her in the house and watching her. When something like that happens, it’s such a vivid event. A town where, as soon as this happened, people who couldn’t afford drapes put newspapers up. Nobody worried about their windows at the time, and then you have something like this, a very stark, simple visual crime—people imagine what happened. The combination of all these things made me put in a chorus.

AK: In a lot of places you have somebody saying that a disaster is either diverted or forestalled by hope, and so there’s this collective feeling—I don’t know if it’s disbelief, or ignorance, or wishful thinking, or what it is exactly, but what does that choral sense of hope say about this world you’ve created?

RH: I don’t see the hope.

AK: Oh, really?

RH: In my own feel for the book, the hope is in the transgressions of the characters, their freedom.

AK: That they’re continuing to live and do as they please, you mean?

RH: Not all of them, no. They’re going on with their lives, but it’s not as opposed to doing something about crime. It’s not set up that way. For instance, you have the relationship with Bobby and Stella, which is transgressive. There’s hope in that—hope in flaunting, so to speak, the rules, and behaving freely. That’s where I see hope. Also, I guess, in the manic joyful moments that people actually had in the ’50s. We probably have a similar notion of the ’50s—these very powerful images from one or two television shows, the Father Knows Best type of thing, that probably you’ve never seen. Neither have I. It’s the Eisenhower dull ’50s, just as the United States kind of collectively went to sleep and made money off the interest. It actually was a pretty vibrant time with also a great deal of social difficulty. There were still problems with the enormous number of people back from the war and trying to make lives for themselves. The ’50s were a complicated social decade, but you know, in any particular place that you’d go, you’d find people of lesser means having a hell of a time whenever possible, which may be just the way life is anyway.

AK: Part of the transgression business that you’ve mentioned . . . Is there guilt in that? Anybody could be guilty of killing Evelyn, right? And there’s so much guilt over the transgressions as well. Does it feel to you like everybody’s implicated?

RH: On one level, yes; what Steve says on page 70-71 (that “everybody is fucking guilty”) is more or less how I view it. What he’s talking about is how the people of note, the people of power, the people of hand-wringing, the people of conventional thought, don’t question what they’ve done, as we don’t question what we’ve done with civilization. I think what he says is “Why leave the forests if this is the best you can do,” you know, we can’t even protect our babysitters. And so, it’s a criticism of the entire civilizational structure. I’m always interested in how women read the book, because in my mind, it’s a nice stick in the patriarchal eye. But I don’t always get that response. For some—and it doesn’t seem to matter in terms of gender—Stella is the favorite character. In the end however, Stella fails; as a fifteen-year-old, she acts like a high school girl for a moment, gets caught up in the high school fight. Yet that’s the worst she does. Otherwise, she’s rather wise and strong. So is she guilty? She has her one-night stand, and she revels in it, and she has, to my mind, the sanest view of it. Maybe better not to tell Bobby, but Bobby would probably be okay with it anyway. What’s been hurt? Nothing, it’s been a great night. Does she want another night with Louis? Maybe in a couple years. She puts it all in perspective and sees nothing but the beauty in it.

AK: Why is the character Adele only referred to as “Stella” when she’s younger? I know Bobby nicknamed her that . . .

RH: That’s why.

AK: It seems so pointed, as if they’re two different characters. She’s so young . . .

RH: That’s inevitable. She really is two different characters, and mainly because of . . . This would be sort of a book secret, I guess, but to me, she’s the one who embodies the change wrought to the town. She’s the character who’s the most clearly affected by that time period.

AK: Adele is a pretty creepy woman—the business of keeping Larry in the basement. It looks like that has something to do with sort of retroactively taking control of what happened to Evelyn by locking the ghoul in the basement rather than allowing it access to the house like Evelyn’s killer.

RH: That’s nice; I never thought of that.

AK: I also wondered about Stella’s scream. She says she was able to suppress that scream only until Bobby was dead. There’s a lot about the scream in the text. Going back to the idea of generational crime, this seemed like a generational scream, and I wondered what your intention was with that.

RH: I think that’s the kind of thing you’re not supposed to ask writers.

AK: Oh, damn.

RH: To me, if the utter horror of the horrible is going to be expressed by anyone in that book, she seems like the most qualified.

AK: Is it generationally appropriate? Is that what you mean by her being the most qualified—her age and her gender and her proximity to everything?

RH: Yeah that, and that despite her age and her gender she’s the most free, her and Bobby also—they’re comrades in petty crime, but she’s precociously so. And we don’t know what Bobby was like. There’s a hint that he was in the war, but we don’t know what he was like when he was fifteen. But she’s ahead of the game, and she’s the most free, the most transgressive. What happens when the babysitter is taken is that they solve the crime or they don’t, but they never get to the underlying cause of it. That’ll never happen. It is a scream against life and civilization, and she’s got the most right to that.

AK: And by the underlying cause you mean the societal ill?

RH: Yeah, civilizational nonsense. Community makes a great deal of sense. It all makes sense. Two families get together because they can work a little less and earn a little more. That’s the start of it, and it ends up with what we’ve got. It’s horrific on every human level. There are those who, from early on, see or intuit that there’s just something wrong with these rules that we’re given, and violate them just by instinct— but with intellect. That’s why she has the conversations with her friends. That’s why she likes Evelyn, because Evelyn just happens to be someone who let her cheat. Of course, her friends are going to hate everybody on that economic divide. But she says, “Wait a minute, that’s unfair. She was nice; she let me cheat.”


Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Mere Chances

Veronika Simoniti
translated by Nada Grošelj, et al
Dalkey Archive ($17)

by Garin Cycholl

In Veronika Simoniti’s “On the Mainland,” the narrator goes to spread his late wife’s ashes. He starts with Provence as a destination, then settles on Tuscany—it’s closer. He crosses the border from Slovenia into Italy, the ashes in an urn “firmly wedged among the other stuff” on the front seat. But along the road, he passes an ocean liner biding its time in a slim canal. Rethinking the ashes’ destination, he takes the urn aboard and falls asleep, only to be awakened by a workman who invites the mourner to his home for coffee. When the man returns to his car, his wife’s ashes are gone.

Simoniti’s stories in this collection explore those moments when place slips beyond one’s imagination and into the limb; moments, often in the corners of a strange city, when one looks for a semblance of what’s real. In his great essay, “Mapping Home,” Aleksandar Hemon calls this a need for a “personal infrastructure” against the impact of dislocation. At points, one has to present the facade of a self in a world of dissolving borders and unknown place. When things resonate with “uncanniness or distance,” Simoniti’s tales similarly offer a new way into the uncertain and unbound geographies here.

Things have weight in the stories of Mere Chances—languages, walks along train platforms, and especially loss. Hearing the “homey clatter of plates” in an Italian city, a young Slovenian woman reflects, “This is exile.” Lifted out of Europe and set down by her family in Bolivia, a schoolgirl observes the weight that “the old world” still has on her grandmother’s memory. Her grandmother continues to live in that old world, ignoring the Bolivia that surrounds her; the granddaughter calls her grandmother’s adaptation “forgetting from the back.” Dislocation forces other adaptations in Simoniti’s stories. Do even the dead remember “other worlds?” Refiguring his identity, a man recalls his father’s development of a noiseless typewriter, not-so-noiselessly concluding: “I was not my father’s masterpiece.”

One thing that is lost in these stories is a coherent, bounded Europe. Simoniti’s characters move through unmapped and imagined Europes. They travel in a range of weighty glances, erased borders, and accidental substance. One attempts to sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal. Another, propelled by a terminal cancer diagnosis, heads for Portugal, “to peer through the cracks of Southern Europe’s most reclusive people.” These characters’ essential skill is an ability to “dissemble,” a capability to present all the marks of some identity that is expected, a semblance of a known or anticipated world even as that world is in the process of disintegrating. According to the narrator of “Portugal,” “This isn’t running away . . . it’s just something I need to do before I run away for real.”

The narrator in “On the Mainland” surmises, “It doesn’t matter where exactly you transform into new substances . . . abroad is a place that’s different.” He recrosses old boundaries, loaded with the weight of “losing” his partner twice, having “mislaid [her] for good.” He returns to his corner of Europe, his task on that odd (and very real) line between finished and incomplete. His conclusion, in Nada Grošelj’s wonderful translation: “Let me know, by the way, if there are any such words as home and abroad on the other side.”


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In Jerusalem and Other Poems

Tamim Al-Barghouti
translated by Radwa Ashour
Interlink Books ($15)

by Dustin Michael

The subject of walls dominates the political discourse of the moment. This has prompted some examination of their functionality, of the privilege of those they protect and the suffering of those they obstruct—and of “the wall” as a symbol of separation between nations and individuals. There has even been discussion of Israel’s border wall, much of which stands within the West Bank. This stretch of Israel-built barrier is routinely touted as an effective model by proponents of a U.S./Mexico wall, while the converse argument might best be summarized by Robert Frost, who famously wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Frost’s “Mending Wall” notwithstanding, the poet’s perspective is almost entirely absent from our current conversation. This is unfortunate, as the poet is capable of crystallizing the experience of separation and longing, and of presenting more succinctly and eloquently than the politician or the pundit. However, those who are interested in such a perspective will find it on full display in the collection In Jerusalem and Other Poems by Palestinian poet Tamim Al-Barghouti.

Al-Barghouti is a poet of the displaced. The ache of a homeland lost or walled-off rings out through his poems, beautifully translated here from the Arabic by Radwa Ashour and himself. Each of his poems’ speakers exists in a world of barriers both seen and unseen, and each one moves through its cordoned-off creation with an urgent awareness of the dangers and challenges waiting in the shadows of those walls: the government, the desert, depression, hunger, thirst. Al-Barghouti’s poems remain inward-looking and reflective even when they become bitterly sorrowful and reactionary. For example, “The State” compares the government and the oppressed to the hyena and the deer—the predator and its vastly more numerous prey. Were the oppressed to turn all at once, the poet posits, the oppressor would be crushed “bone and all.” This, he laments, rarely happens. “The deer do not fear the hyena much,” he writes, “they only doubt themselves.”

Hopelessness is always standing guard in these poems, but Al-Barghouti shows his readers secret paths to reassurance and comfort. His message is not one of futility and fragmentation, but of perseverance and acceptance. The lines, “God willed the brilliant incongruity / Which sees a person broken when they’re whole / Whole when they’re broken . . . / And most valiant when wounded,” from a poem titled “Joy,” reveal the poet’s rugged spirit and serve as a synecdoche of sorts—the drop of water in which the ocean of Al-Barghouti’s poems can be discerned.

Al-Barghouti’s voice arises from a specific place and historical moment—his poems primarily address the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine—but American readers will find resonances in his work, as well as warnings, as they consider the possibility of a wall on their own border, and the shadow such a wall might cast on another people, as well as on themselves.


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small siren

Alexandra Mattraw
The Cultural Society ($20)

by Andrew Joron

Sirens, whatever else they may be, are surely communications, soundings to alarm or to allure. The poems in Alexandra Mattraw’s recent collection small siren perform both functions at once, signaling that language—that great bridge between thoughts and things—has begun to sway dangerously yet beautifully, and that its structural stresses are approaching the “yield point” of the sublime.

A “yield point,” we are told in the book’s endnotes, is a term used in structural engineering. Mattraw deploys the term at key places in her text, quoting a nineteenth-century engineering manual: “The yield point refers to the load at which solid material that is being stretched begins to flow or change shape permanently.” It’s not hard to see how this term could apply to poetic making. Moreover, the quoted passage is reminiscent of another nineteenth-century writer’s take on the cultural effect of capitalism: “All that is solid melts into air.”

To us, living in the twenty-first century, the meltdowns of meaning instigated by capitalism’s acceleration of history have become second nature. Traditional practices, and the discourses that support them, are going extinct as rapidly as most animal species. Caught up as we are in the matrix of the media spectacle, we barely notice their disappearance. By now, we have accepted the ways that meaning, right before our eyes, can “flow or change shape permanently.” Thus, writing that represents an existence composed entirely of yield points defines a new brand of realism.

Nonetheless, it is resistance to fluidity that seems to challenge and inspire this poet. The book’s pages are veritable blueprints that take us “inside the construction.” With their frequent mention of “trusses” and “rituals” (the social equivalent of trusses), not to mention their conspicuous deployment of slash marks and colons as structural underpinnings, the poems seek to check and guide the overflows and failures of meaning inherent to poetic language. In a melting reality, the mirage of an enduring pattern emerges as an obscure object of desire. Here, flow and fracture lend themselves not to deconstruction, but instead become the building materials of a new “reconstruction.”

One poem’s title states “You must build a new bridge before demolishing an old one,” implying that meanings must continue to cross the divide (between subject and object, you and I) even while reconstruction takes place.

you collect trusses / always iron X’s climb horizontal

ladders / a crane made of triangles / blue jays confuse

with trees / rare silence

full of itself / river glass

cracks / effortless white tusks / in your error /

measure honest use / four cables hold

In the poem entitled “Truss Brudge,” it’s made clear that linguistic (re)constructions serve as key supports for human interaction. The primacy of the encounter between self and other—another recurring theme in this book—is rendered here in constructivist terms: “Two parts fastened so tight that overloaded, joints produce only direct tension. You, I, and the your between. . . . Truss members are pinned together or their plates are riveted.”

Throughout small siren, the poet at once questions and makes visible the verbal bracework of our relations to others: how even the most effervescent meaning is riveted to mind, how our grammars provide “sway bracing” against the vicissitudes of love and death. There is a cool objectivity, something of an engineer’s measuring gaze, in the poet’s assessments of whether, and how long, the language-bridge between I and thou can endure.

The ever-present threat of structural failure, a sense that life must be conducted within swaying constructions, imbues these lines with tense vibrancy. Suspension bridge as lyre: the poems are tightly strung, the notes plucked carefully by the player.

In the end, however, the cables cannot hold. Following a poem (“Reconstruction: Christchurch, New Zealand”) that describes buildings destroyed by an earthquake, the collection’s last four poems consist of words scattered across the page, as if in the aftermath of a collapse.

Yet, even in dispersal, words create fields of force (syntactic, semantic) between themselves. Such forcefields then provide a foundation for the reconstruction of a space of meaning. The final phrase of the book is cast in the conditional, as an opening of possibility:

a cry

that could have

room

To be free to move, any meaning must be smaller than its own space of possibility. A “cry that could have room,” therefore, must always be a small siren.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Unloveable Characters:
An Interview with Evan Fallenberg


Interviewed by Ben Shields

Evan Fallenberg, novelist, translator, and university lecturer, lives in two very different parts of Israel. He has one home in Tel Aviv at the intersection of Rothschild Boulevard and Sheinkin Street, the most central location possible in the country’s most metropolitan city. His other home is ninety minutes north in the old city of Akko, where he runs Arabesque, a boutique hotel and artist residency. When we spoke by video call, he was in Akko, his face illuminated by a warm light with an Ottoman era wall behind him.

Fallenberg’s neighborhood in Tel Aviv is synonymous with urban Jewish culture. He’s a stone’s throw away from Rega, the former location of Café Tamar, which was a left-wing and artistic hub of downtown Tel Aviv for over 70 years. In Akko, a city best known for its Crusader ruins, his neighbors are predominantly Arab. He is a professor in the Department of English Literature and Linguistics at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, a town just outside of Tel Aviv, where he teaches creative writing workshops, translation seminars, and other humanities-based courses.

Our interview coincides with the publishing of The Parting Gift (Other Press, $23), his third novel, and we ventured into discussions about his craft in general, as well as his prolific work as a translator of Hebrew. The novel, told in the form of a long letter, is disturbing; the narrator has just arrived back to the United States from a long stay in Israel, initially to study at an ulpan (Hebrew immersion school). Since returning, he has been staying with Adam, a graduate school friend and recipient of the letter, for four months, though all that time Adam has known nothing of the narrator’s chapter in Israel. The narrator reveals that he met Uzi, a spice merchant in the north of the country with whom he rapidly developed a passionate, animalistic sexual affair. Uzi’s machismo intoxicates him when things are good; when they’re bad, it becomes mere male entitlement. Uzi, with his spice business, ex-wife, and children, became the narrator’s new universe; how he has come to leave that universe is the letter’s subject. Most remarkable about The Parting Gift is the way Fallenberg constructs in prose precisely what it feels like when someone close to you slowly unmasks himself as untrustworthy and paranoid.


BEN SHIELDS: Why do you write?

EVAN FALLENBERG: When I was in my mid-thirties, life felt oppressive and I was desperate for a creative outlet. I was trying to be an Orthodox Jew in that period of my life, and it didn't go very well. I was choking, and needed something creative. I've always been a person of language, and so creativity for me meant words, and that's how I became a writer. But this is the way my brain is wired: making up stories all the time. I'd been doing it without writing them; I was a liar as a kid. But my lies weren't hurtful—they weren't meant to trick people. I just wanted to see how much of a story I could tell and get away with.

BS: So you are very much a late bloomer.

EF: Fellow writers seem to have been writing since they were eight years old and wrote their first novel when they were eleven. Not me at all. I think that part of the reason I didn't write until my mid-thirties was because I never believed that I would write a novel at the level that I like to read. I was finally desperate enough to let myself try.

BS: Were you raised an Orthodox Jew?

EF: Not at all. It was something that I adopted for a period of my life when I was in my early twenties and looking for meaning, looking for connection to this thing called Judaism. I'm glad today that I had that period in my life because I learned something and I'm not afraid of it. I can walk into any Jewish community in any synagogue anywhere in the world and know what's going on. But the practice of Orthodox Judaism, all the rules and regulations, just didn't suit me.

BS: You raised your children Orthodox?

EF: My two sons are, like me, not religious today. Each one of us at a different period and independently of the others made this decision. My ex-wife is still religious. She was Orthodox from birth and she's very open minded, very liberal, but Orthodox, and we're all respectful of one another.

BS: What classes are you teaching at Bar-Ilan University?

EF: I've only ever done workshops before, but I offered to teach a brand new course that is absolutely killing me—and I'm loving it at the same time. The idea is to take texts from mythology, the Bible, Shakespeare, whatever, and see what different artists in different genres have done through the centuries. I’m trying to make it as connected to life here as possible, including taking my students (half of whom are Arab, half Jewish) to a production of Salome at the Israeli Opera. Last week I did a class on how the Bible has been used in the arts. It's insane, there's so much material.

BS: How has being a translator affected your writing?

EF: When my first book came out, there were a couple of reviewers who referred to my ‘unusual’ use of English. And I realized by their examples that other languages I speak, particularly Hebrew, were pushing through. I found that knowing Hebrew has enriched my English. Knowing any other language enhances your appreciation of your own language.

BS: When you're writing fiction, do you start extemporaneously with a fragment that you follow free associatively? Or do you work with an outline?

EF: I have been very lucky with all three of my published novels, and with the one that I'm working on now. I start writing with a complete story in mind, the whole narrative arc. Sometimes it even feels like it comes out of nowhere. I clearly remember waking up one morning when I was still working on my first novel: It wasn't from a dream, but I was kind of in that state between. I had this idea for a story—I jumped out of bed, wrote two pages of notes and said, I will come back to this when I’ve completed my first novel because I don't want to be one of those people who's got all these starts and never finishes anything. So I only came back to it a year and a half later, and it was the entire arc of what became my second novel. That has happened to me now basically four times. There are a lot of deviations, though, so I see it like a map—I know where I'm driving, but on the way if there's something interesting over there I may follow it.

BS: Part of what’s so gripping about your new book is the first person narration. Do you have early drafts of The Parting Gift in the third person?

EF: No, it was always always first. This narrator was so demanding—I mean, he wasn't having it any other way, it was clear. It was like he was saying: my voice or nothing, I'm not working with you if you don't let me tell the story the way I need to. Don't hate me, Ben, but I wrote the whole novel in ten days.

BS: Oh my god. Yet it took a year and a half to incubate?

EF: Yeah . . . I had these incredibly long days where I just never stopped typing. I wrote 4500 words a day for ten days, and I realized I had a draft of the whole novel, precisely the novel I’d wanted to write. It obviously has gone through revisions since then, but in my own personal writing history, it’s the book that's closest as published to its original form. I was cooking that novel for eighteen months much more than I’d realized. I did not know that that was going to happen—I don't expect I'll ever have a writing process like this again.

BS: Thrilling. Incredible. Now, I sort of think about making a character like acting. There are the two methods: Stella Adler’s which is all research based—if you're playing a Roman Emperor, you should go to the library and read about what it was really like to be Emperor Augustus—then there's the Lee Strasberg method, which is all about drawing from your own life. If you're playing a Roman Emperor and there's an emotional moment, think about when your dog died at age seven. For most of us, we operate somewhere on a spectrum between those two. With you, is it more drawing more from your own life, or more invention and research based?

EF: Even when I try to start with someone I know, as soon as I start writing I see them as that character. The more I work with them, the farther away from the real person they go. And then the trick of it, of course, is to spend as much time as you can with the characters. The main character in my second novel was a dancer and choreographer, and I had to learn a lot about his world. So I learned about how he would have studied dance in Poland in the 1920s. I learned about what his dance life would have been like in the Royal Danish Ballet at age fifteen. I had to learn about what it would have been like to create the Tel Aviv Ballet, which I made up, in the 1940s, when I have him coming to Israel, because the culture here at the time was anti-bourgeoisie. Ballet was such a bourgeoise art, and people did not embrace it in Israel.

So I needed all that background. Not being a dancer myself, I found a woman here, she’s a Danish-born ballet dancer, choreographer, and teacher. So I went to interview her about ballet and Denmark. I asked her to give me a ballet lesson so that I could feel what he was feeling in his body. I wound up taking two years of ballet lessons with her. It was really fascinating to me. Once I started studying with her, I understood how this man would have walked through life. He carried his body in a way that the rest of us who are not dancers do not carry our bodies. And it shapes his personality in a certain way. I needed to do all of that so I could write this character faithfully. I felt I couldn't do him justice until I went to that deep level of knowing him. I had given him as a birthday the twenty-second of February 1922, which is all twos. I actually went to an astrologer about that date. I said, I want you to do a chart for a person born on this day, but this is a character I've made up. We had a fascinating conversation, it was amazing, but at the end she said to me, “You don't know him well enough yet.” And I said to myself, I know him, I have been working on him. I've done ballet lessons! I have done research! A couple months later, I was on a transatlantic flight. I wasn't thinking about the novel. And suddenly, I thought, whoa! He’s not gay! This character is straight. I had gotten him wrong. I had to completely rethink many things about the novel, and how the actions of the novel were transpiring. All of that for one character.

BS: I loved the research component of essays in college, especially history. But then when it came to writing the actual paper, it became too tempting to fabricate. In fact, one time I got a paper back that got a good mark. But at the end, the professor said, “a couple of things, though, I think you're just making up.”

EF: Nailed! And then you knew your future was in fiction and not in academia.

BS: The Parting Gift is epistolary. And I would think that from a craft point of view, the character of Adam, to whom the book-length letter is written, would be one of the most difficult parts of the writing. It’s sort of like a house of cards: how much to really say about him? How often should you remind the reader that this is addressed to Adam?

EF: I didn't have much trouble with Adam, he was so clear to me. My publisher, Judith Gurewich, is an extraordinary woman; and one of the things that she did with me was sit in her home for three days and we read aloud the entire novel. It was really amazing. She herself is a Lacanian psychoanalyst, so what she was bringing to the text was incredibly rich. We had a lot of conversations about Adam. I hadn't talked to anyone about Adam—before this, I had five readers who had looked at the manuscript, but nobody had ever really mentioned Adam, and I hadn't felt any need to think too much about him. Then she started questioning and I began to think more deeply about this Adam character. I did make some changes then, but I also fought for him as he was, I didn’t want to flesh him out too much. Because it's epistolary, you are stuck in the head of one person with an agenda; I couldn't go too far away from his perspective. But this did give me more of an opportunity to think about who Adam was, what his relationship was to the narrator.

BS: I think the book would lose half of its intrigue and quality without the Adam component. Are there epistolary novels that you love that inspired you to write this one?

EF: There are two that I had in mind. One was by Michael Frayn, a writer I love, his novel The Trick of It. Also, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Alexis made a huge impression on me when I first read it in my twenties. Alexis is a young married man leaving his wife. And the novel is a letter to her explaining why he has to leave her. It's actually because he's a homosexual, but he can't say that word. It's always couched in beautiful language. I didn't set out to write an epistolary novel. But then it gave me a lot of license to write nasty things in the narrator’s voice. In letters, we’re manipulative, telling a story the way we want it to be. From my first book—people would say to me, “Your character isn't very lovable.” I seem not to write lovable characters at all, and that doesn't bother me.

BS: Does it not frighten you to create characters who are unlikable, especially in the first person?

EF: No, I really enjoy it. I think of myself as a pretty nice guy. But it seems to me that one of the great tragedies of humankind is that we're stuck in our own bodies and our own minds forever. With books, you get to live somebody else's life. If they're written well, then they feel real. And you get to experience what other people experience. I remember that Carson McCullers got in trouble with one of her later books because she wrote something about a character smelling their own farts and not being repulsed by them. People were aghast at this. And I think it's hilarious that she wrote a line that behind closed doors people might have thought, but nobody dared to say. I really love that. People actually have these thoughts. Why not talk about it?


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Spring 2019

INTERVIEWS

Everyone is Guilty: An Interview with Rick Harsch
Master of Midwestern noir Rick Harsch describes his newest book, a novelistic oral history about a real crime: the kidnapping of a teenager in 1953 La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Interviewed by Anne Kniggendorf

Unloveable Characters: An Interview with Evan Fallenberg
Novelist, translator, and university lecturer Evan Fallenberg discusses his newest novel, his craft, and his work as a translator of Hebrew.
Interviewed by Ben Shields

POETRY REVIEWS

small siren
Alexandra Mattraw
In small siren, poems sound the alarm that language—that great bridge between thoughts and things—has begun to sway dangerously yet beautifully. Reviewed by Andrew Joron

In Jerusalem and Other Poems
Tamim Al-Barghouti
Al-Barghouti is a poet of the displaced; the ache of a homeland lost or walled-off rings out through his poems, beautifully translated here from the Arabic. Reviewed by Dustin Michael

FICTION REVIEWS

Mere Chances
Veronika Simoniti
Slovenian author Simoniti’s stories offer a new way into uncertain and unbound geographies. Reviewed by Garin Cycholl

The Washington Decree
Jussi Adler-Olsen
Originally published in 2006 in Denmark, Adler-Olsen’s newly translated political thriller is a prescient commentary on current American politics. Reviewed by Poul Houe

NONFICTION REVIEWS

A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings
Raoul Vaneigem
In the second edition of this seventeen-year-old book, philosopher Raoul Vaneigem expands his scope to cover virtual rights and misuse of technology. Reviewed by George Longenecker

Bookends: Collected Intros and Outros
Michael Chabon
Bookends collects a series of brief essays, introductions, afterwords, and liner notes about things Michael Chabon holds dear. Reviewed by Erin Lewenauer

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019