Tag Archives: Winter 2014-2015

Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era

arthurasheEric Allen Hall
Johns Hopkins University Press ($34.95)

by Andrew Cleary

Watching politics without understanding the rules of the game is like watching a sporting event without any knowledge of its rules or traditions: it may seem to be a competition of some sort, but there is no way to know who is competing with whom over what. As with sports, large segments of the population have no emotional investment in these ongoing political competitions and manage quite well in life without paying any attention to who is winning or losing.
—W. Russell Neuman, The Paradox of Mass Politics

Neuman’s words may explain why it can take the work of a historian to tell how a man like Arthur Ashe could come to change the rules of the games—politics and sports—that ruled his life. Eric Allen Hall’s biography of Ashe is assiduous in giving context, ever-traceable in its sources, to the tennis player’s life: his childhood in segregated Richmond is recounted with a summary of how de jure segregation ruled the lives of American children; his coming of age as an athlete and ROTC member includes sketches of the Civil Rights Era on campus and in Vietnam; his ascendance to a globe-touring professional with public demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa includes glosses on the competitive structure of world tennis and the Cold War arrangement of power between the segregated nations of America and South Africa.

Ashe was not the first black athlete to compete in professional tennis, nor the first to win a Grand Slam title. In both cases the first was Althea Gibson, who won the U.S. Nationals a decade before Ashe won it in its rebranded U.S. Open form (and who went on to a successful professional golf career after her retirement from tennis). Both Gibson and Ashe were coached by Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, who, as Hall explains, encouraged all players under his tutelage to follow in Jackie Robinson’s footsteps:

Johnson knew that Jackie Robinson’s ascension to Major League Baseball had as much to do with his temperament as with his athletic abilities. Beaned, spiked, and taunted by racially motivated bench jockeyers, Robinson remained calm and composed, allowing his bat and feet to do the talking. . . . “His assumption,” Ashe wrote of Johnson in his diary, “was that if you wanted to get into a poker game, and there was only one game in town, you had better learn to play by the prevailing rules at that table.”

As Jackie Robinson pointed out in I Never Had It Made, this display of what Hall elides as “temperament” was a profound struggle to perform as “the image of the patient black freak,” inured to degradation from public policy on high down to the lowest dugout chatter. Temperament for an individual may work something like how James Baldwin described culture for a group of people: “not a community basket-weaving project, nor yet an act of God . . . [but] nothing more or less than the recorded and visible effects on a body of people of the vicissitudes with which they had been forced to deal.”

After winning the U.S. Open in 1968, Ashe began a years-long public and private struggle against South African apartheid. He applied for a visa to compete in the South African Open, and was promptly rejected. He signed on to a public call for sanctions against South Africa. When his world tennis ranking slipped from second to eighth and he failed to make the finals of the 1969 U.S. Open, French Open, Australian Open, or Wimbledon, Ashe was called on to answer charges that his “off-the-court issues” were depressing his athletic performance. “I must try as far as possible,” Ashe told the Los Angeles Times, “to shut out everything but tennis. But, of course, I can’t shut out the color issue. I think about it all the time . . . Is it possible to be a tennis player first and a black man second[?] It has to be. If I put the priorities the other way round I’ll be a poor tennis player and therefore a less effective black man.”

In 2014, Jason Collins played the last months of his professional basketball career after publicly coming out as gay. In announcing his retirement the following fall, Collins reflected on his earlier dread of coming out and being tarred with “the dreaded D word” as an excuse for teams not to hire him. “You know what a real distraction is? Maintaining a lie 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for most of your career, for most of your life. The energy involved in hiding the stress, shame, and fear of being gay is a full-time job. With all that removed, I was like a new person.”

This may echo Baldwin: “It is part of the price the Negro pays for his position in this society that, as Richard Wright points out, he is almost always acting. A Negro learns to gauge precisely what reaction the alien person facing him desires, and he produces it with disarming artlessness.” And it may be considered progress of some kind that the dissembling that has exhausted Collins is that which has guarded his sexuality, rather than that which forced Ashe and Robinson to fit their full personalities through the keyhole that American society allowed for black athletes to enter professional sports.

Or perhaps the mask fit better for Ashe, who by Hall’s account was as much a reserved intellectual as he was an explosive tennis player. As a teenager, Ashe first began to receive national attention for his wins in junior tournaments, like the National Interscholastic Championships in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Ashe won the 1961 final in straight sets. “Of course,” Ashe later recalled, “there was a great deal of fuss about being the ‘first black’ . . . to win at Charlottesville, etc. Those comments always put me under pressure to justify my accomplishments on racial grounds, as if sports were the cutting edge of our nation’s move toward improved race relations.”

In the decades since Robinson’s death, Major League Baseball has integrated to something approaching parity with wider American demographics, as just over 7% of players in 2012 were black, compared to 13% of the overall population. The league, meanwhile, has embraced the late pioneer, subsuming his persona into its ongoing campaign to identify the business interests of a multibillion-dollar corporation with a pageantry of American tradition, racial progress, and military parade. For his part, Arthur Ashe’s name graces the tennis center that hosts the U.S. Open; that tournament has seen no African-American male champion since, though Serena and Venus Williams have each taken the title twice.

It remains to be seen whether the example of players like Collins or Michael Sam, who in 2014 was the first openly gay player to be drafted by the National Football League, will have such effect on their sports as that of Gibson, Ashe, and Robinson. The legacy of the earlier players may still speak through the fact that neither Collins or Sam, players of color themselves, needed to perform as doubly best in sport and personal conduct in order to play professional sports. May it also not require the work of such careful scholars as Hall to recover their humanity from their symbolic status,

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2014-2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France

villageofsecretsCaroline Moorehead
Harper ($27.99)

by Douglas Messerli

Although the short foreword to Caroline Moorehead’s Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France makes it apparent that this work will be covering new material, the narrative itself begins rather slowly. Its first chapter, “Mea culpa,” centers on a few specific French-Jewish families, most of whom simply could not imagine that the pre-war anti-Semitism stoked by the likes of Charles Maurras, Xavier Vallat, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and others would have a significant effect. They felt safe in their homeland. As the elderly Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré had declared: “After the Dreyfus affair, anti-Semitism will no longer ever be possible again in France.”

But with the defeat of the French by the Nazis, and the sudden split of the country into Nazi-controlled and Vichy-ruled territories, everything was turned on end: new edicts against the Jews were almost weekly posted. What once seemed impossible became a shocking reality these families suddenly had to face, some of them breaking up, sending the children and one parent into relative safety while the other remained behind to close up affairs or to follow when a safe haven had been reached.

If Moorehead’s work begins as a slow-rolling narrative of some individuals directly affected by these radical changes, it quickly moves, with ever-greater urgency, into an almost breathtaking adventure tale. As we learned after the war, Jews were hidden in various places throughout France, and others were helped to escape through Switzerland and Spain. Yet large numbers of French Jews, particularly as Eichmann and others in Germany demanded more and more roundups, were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz, Belsen, and other camps; at first these included primarily “outside” European Jews who had escaped to France from various countries, but by the end of the war the steady trainloads of children, middle-aged, and older Jews included nearly anyone the Gestapo and the Vichy government could ferret out. And the people who hid them were also arrested and sent off to prisons with few proper accommodations (no plumbing, little food, in many cases not even beds) and with high death rates. Particularly after the Allied attacks in November 1942 on northern Africa, which led the Germans to retaliate by marching into Vichy territory, the attacks on Jews, immigrants, and French citizens increased.

Most of this has been well documented in the hundreds of books about World War II and Vichy France. But what Village of Secrets reveals is startlingly different from the history of the country in general: it represents such astounding exceptions that, after reading this book, one feels a bit as if he or she has actually participated in history itself.

In one small region of Vichy France, something remarkable happened. There a protestant pastor, André Trocmé, with his wife Magda and their three young children, began a revolution that was to change everything we know about French history. A strong supporter of non-violence, Trocmé preached to his worshipers the idea not only of pacifism, but of what came to be described as a “conspiracy of good.” These quiet, almost silent families, who themselves had through the centuries suffered their own forms of persecution, determined to take in Jewish, Spanish-Republican, and other endangered children and adults.

Trocmé’s small hometown of Chambon-sur-Lignon had already become known for its healthy summer air, and had built large hotels to cater to children and their parents who suffered from chronic asthma and lung diseases. In winter the snow cover made the community, approachable primarily through a single rail line, almost impassable. For all these reasons the location was quickly perceived by the numerous brave individuals and organizations that had already banded together to help save children and adults from Vichy prisons as a possible destination. But even they might not have imagined what soon would transpire.

Not only were Trocmé, local innkeepers, teachers, and authorities willing to help, but numerous local farmers, shop-keepers, and clergymen in small surrounding towns joined in. Farmers, both Protestant and Catholic, willingly housed numerous children, mingling them, in some cases, with their own families. Priests, along with a few Catholic leaders, actively supported—in some cases even more radically than Trocmé—the underground activities. Rescuers within this region and from elsewhere set up connections, links, and codes to bring children to the region and, when fear grew near the end of the war that the Gestapo was moving in on the Plateau operations, created methods of escape and plans to sneak the children over the Swiss border. Forgers created new passports and other papers; doctors offered medical services; boy scout leaders led the children on hiking and camping trips to keep them fit; and the mayors of the small towns not only “looked the other way,” but actively participated in the cover-ups. In some cases, it appears, even Vichy and German authorities collaborated with the underground figures by warning them and failing to carry out Nazi demands.

Trocmé’s bravery and sometimes fool-hardy outspokenness, as well as his village’s exceptional activities, have been well known for several years; what Moorehead reveals are the intricacies, for better and worse, of that commitment and, more importantly, the fact that the entire region was filled with equally brave and sometimes even more daring individuals—all of whom together saved thousands from capture and possible extermination.

Detailing the vast network of these underground activities, Village of Secrets valiantly succeeds in separating myth from fact. Although at one time it was estimated that 5,000 people may have been saved in the Haute Loire, Moorehead suggests it was more likely from 800 to 1,000, with perhaps 3,000 more passing through and taken away to safety. The truth is just as astounding—that these small, isolated communities should have contained a population so like-minded in their humanistic values and equally tight-lipped about their activities in a time of so little food and so many personal threats to their lives is almost beyond imagination. Yet few of the natives, at War’s end, felt like they had done anything out of the ordinary.

Everyone who went through the experience was changed, some finding it difficult after the war to reintegrate into the Jewish community, others becoming notable figures in Israel, the United States, and other nations to which they scattered after the Holocaust. But all felt blessed just to be among the saved few who survived the German occupation of France. Pierre Bloch—one of the children central to the book’s narrative, now living in a kibbutz in Lebanon—expresses his wonderment of this experience: “We lived a very big adventure, an exceptional moment of time and place. It was something extraordinary to be young, engaged at a moment when France was so dark. There was something in the air, in the spirit of the people, that none of us ever forgot. All my life I have tried to live up to that moment.”

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2014-2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Language Lessons: Volume 1

Edited by Chet Weise and Ben Swank
Third Man Books ($60)

by Brian Laidlaw

Third Man Records has been at the forefront of a vinyl-record renaissance for over a decade, releasing a string of albums whose physical forms are every bit as beautiful and compelling as the music they contain. With Language Lessons: Volume 1, Jack White’s label makes its first foray into literary publishing under the newly launched banner of Third Man Books, with similar excellence and swagger.

lang less 3

To call Language Lessons a “book” is an understatement; the release is packaged like a vinyl box set, and includes two LPs of recordings, a hardbound anthology of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and five broadsides of poetry and art. In its preface, Chet Weise explains how he and co-editor Ben Swank saw Language Lessons develop out of their DIY-style reading series (called Poetry Sucks!) in Nashville. He writes, “We decided that, like the PS! reading series, the anthology should include all types of voices: from pens to keyboards, from vocal cords to guitar chords.” Weise also notes that the anthology includes “authors recognized by the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award alongside those experiencing the excitement of seeing their words in print for the first time.”

If we imagine that a traditional literary anthology is like spending an evening at the opera, then Language Lessons is like stumbling upon a late-night open mic at your local bar. As with any open mic, there are moments of both sublime genius and occasional shortfall, wide oscillations between brashness and shyness. There are memorable selections from longtime luminaries including C.D. Wright and Frank Stanford, and a strong assemblage of poetry and prose by newer generations of authors like Wayne Miller, Nicky Beer, and Zachary Schomburg. But Language Lessons truly breaks ground by placing these established academic-literary writers alongside spoken word artists, punk rockers, and folksingers, making a convincing case that these performance-based genres of writing deserve to be included in conversations about contemporary literature in America.


Although not officially a “writing about music” anthology, music certainly serves as a uniting theme for the work in Language Lessons. The Beat Generation’s stylistic shadow looms large in many of the pieces, in which high-energy, comma-connected images attempt to mimic the cadences of improvised jazz, rock, and blues. Across the wide selection of writers, one also begins to notice certain verbal tics that appear over and over: poets self-consciously reversing and rewriting lines within poems, fiction writers using shocking sentence fragments to close a section of prose. These overused gestures skirt the line of cliché, but they also develop into a meaningful common vocabulary, like a chord pattern or a blues scale: something for all artists to share, and to make their own.

Some of the pieces serve simply to sing the praise of particular songs or bands, or to reminisce about intersections of popular music and personal history, but the strongest ones use music as a touchstone for deeper arguments about race, class, and gender. Adrian Matejka’s poem “Tyndall Armory,” in which he recounts an early Public Enemy show, ends with the passage:

. . . And when Chuck D mugged
the stage, African medallion swinging
like left hooks, baseball cap pulled down
so low his eyes were the idea of eyes,
the heat in that room was enough to make
any Tom reconsider his friendships.

Language Lessons is full of stunning moments like this one: they remind the reader that, at their best, literature and music can lead the charge in periods of political upheaval and social change. With earth-shaking lines like these still ringing in one’s ears, it can sometimes be a letdown to then turn the page and find a poem about wasting time on the Internet, or about being hung over, or about tendrils of frost on window. But that’s the beauty of Language Lessons’ open-mic-style ethos: each writer has his or her allotted time onstage, and has been given the editors’ implicit blessing to use that time however they see fit.


In the preface to Language Lessons, Weise astutely predicts, “You’re not going to like all of it. You’d be a nutjob if you did.” This is a refreshing premise for an anthology, and it speaks to the profound sense of inclusiveness and optimism at the heart of the DIY movement. As much as any hand-stapled, mimeographed zine, Language Lessons comes across as both a labor of love and a physical embodiment of a vibrant scene.

Click here to purchase Language Lessons: Vol. 1 at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2014-2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Looking for the Big Doom: An Interview with Trevor D. Richardson


photo by Erin Deale Richardson

Interviewed by Simon Wilbanks

Trevor D. Richardson is the founder of The Subtopian Magazine and the author of Honeysuckle & Irony (Rainy Day Reads Publishing, $16.95) and American Bastards (Subtopian Press, $14.95). His most recent novel, Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files (Montag Press Collective, $19.95), has been described by Underground Voices Magazine as “a road tripping, rebellious adventure into the black heart of a failing republic and an in-your-face hallucinatory romp that brings the traditions of Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, and Alan Moore into one cohesive epic.” I sat down with Trevor for a conversation at a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon to discuss the all-too-real plot points and ideas in his novel.

SIMON WILBANKS: As I finished the last few chapters of Dystopia Boy, a few phrases jumped out at me: “They look for the big doom, the period at the end of the American sentence. Everybody misses the point”; and “The end will come a little at a time, not in one death knell blow. Things start ending as soon as they begin. . . . Watch for signs of the end. Watch for the story behind the story.” This theme of our own ambivalence as the whimper that brings about the end seems to be the real backbone of the novel.

dystopiaboyTREVOR D. RICHARDSON: I always say that your only motivation for writing a story should be to write a good story. I don't believe you can go into it with an agenda like trying to change people's minds or spread the word for some cause—anything pedantic like that and people see right through you. But with Dystopia Boy, I broke my own rule. When I wrote this, I had a singular goal in mind: to use your phrase, I wanted to show a world where the ambivalence of the people led directly to their own destruction. Dystopia Boy is not about a zombie war or a robot uprising, it isn't about nuclear fallout or a plague. It's the story of our own laziness in the face of evil taking us down a path that leads directly to the demise of our own democracy. If the world of Joe Vagrant and the Watchers and Audrey and all these characters has any plague, it would just be that people don't do anything about evil until it has become so big and so pervasive that the only way to stop it is to fight and die.

SW: Let's talk about The Watchers. Where did they come from? Were they influenced by Edward Snowden and the NSA?

TDR: Believe it or not, my book was already finished before the Edward Snowden thing happened! For the folks at home, Dystopia Boy is narrated by an agent at a fictional (at least I hope it's fictional) federal surveillance cabal called the Watcher Security Agency. Through an elaborate network of hidden cameras, satellites, tracking programs inside the Internet, bugs in our appliances, cars, gaming systems, phones, etc., they watch us and analyze everyday Americans for undesirable behaviors. These agents are implanted with microscopic chips in their brains and along the optic nerve that record and process all information that they view and wirelessly upload it to a central server. That one element, commonly referred to as the “Thought Chip,” is what makes this story science fiction. Nearly everything else, apart from the fact that it is happening in the near future, is pretty well grounded in reality.

SW: So well grounded, in fact, that parts of it began to come true before it was even published.

TDR: You're right. When the story broke about Edward Snowden my gut sank. I didn't think about privacy or unconstitutional behaviors; my first thought was, “Aw, man, now they're going to think my idea was just ripping off this news story.”

SW: I thought you were going to say your first thought was that you called it and were proud of yourself.

TDR: Maybe I should have, but I just felt like it was going to affect the integrity of what I thought was an original idea. Then, not too long later, the story breaks that by 2015 unmanned aerial vehicles, “drone planes,” would be legal over American soil. Another image I came up with for the book for no more academic purpose than I thought it seemed super creepy.

SW: So talk more about how you came up with the idea for these Watchers. It sounds like you've been working on this for a while.

TDR: I actually started writing this book in 2007, but quickly set it aside because of Obama. It was still the Bush years and the cultural vernacular of the time was laced in conspiracy talk: 9/11 was an inside job. The Patriot Act will destroy freedom and privacy. Guantanamo Bay. Torture. That quote from Ben Franklin about sacrificing freedom for security and deserving neither. Patriotism versus idealism.

For a guy that writes the kind of stuff I write, the atmosphere of America was palpable. Only one problem. We were already into the primaries for the next election and this book idea was nowhere close to finished. I saw me completing a book that was all about America eating itself from the inside out and trying to publish it in an America high on a climate of hope and “Yes, we can!” I knew Obama would win, and I knew it would mean a dry spell for my particular brand of dystopian fiction. So I set the book aside and let it marinate for a few years. When I felt it was time to revisit the novel, I started completely over and was much happier with the result.

SW: It sounds like you felt things would go back to the way they were if you just gave it enough time. You seem to be saying that the ideas of the first draft were influenced by the Bush administration and this new book, the version you published which is filled with concepts and echoes from more recent events like the Occupy Movement or the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, came out of what I guess you could call the Dystopia of the Obama Administration.

TDR: It wasn't an assumption, I knew it. It's the cycle. And it is a cycle because there has been no fundamental change in decades. That's the message of Dystopia Boy, things are getting worse because each iteration of our government is like making copy after copy for so long that the image is breaking down. Most post-apocalyptic stories have America dying from some radical disease or some violent trauma, but we're really just dying from Alzheimer's.

SW: Interesting analogy. So I want to ask, did you get the idea for the Watcher Security Agency from the conspiracy talk of the Bush years? What was the source of this modern, Orwellian organization?

TDR: Believe it or not, it was my parent's minivan in high school that first gave me the idea.

SW: How does that work?

TDR: In the early 2000s, my folks bought a new van and it was white—this was in addition to the white Jeep Cherokee we already owned. So we started realizing these white cars were everywhere and I made this joke about it being a cheap way of policing the roads. Like, when you drive, if you see a car coming towards you from a ways off that might be a squad car or whatever, you slow down. You can't help it, it's practically reflex. The idea was, what if it was being done deliberately? Flood the market with white cars that people might think are cops, make them pay their own money to get these things on the road, and then reap the rewards.

Then, a few years later, we all start hearing these rumors about the “HD changeover.” You probably remember this, the idea was that broadcast networks were going to be changing to high definition and, if you wanted to be able to receive the signal, you had to either go buy an HD television or this little converter box. I got to thinking, “Hey, wouldn't it be crazy if these new appliances had little hidden cameras and audio bugs in them?”

SW: You're saying that they were making us use our own money to fund their police state for them. The costs of putting cameras into every home in America would be astronomical, but the cost of getting some corporations to agree to put these things into their equipment would be minimal and they might even turn a profit since all of us television addicts are going to rush out and buy the hardware whether we like it or not.

TDR: Yeah, exactly. That was the gag. From there it was just a few short steps to imagine who would be on the receiving end of these transmissions and, once I had these Watchers in mind, I just had to figure out what the story they were watching would actually be about.

SW: Which brings us to the elements of your story that impressed me the most. Your book starts out with an interoffice memo from the Watcher that has just finished transcribing the “Thought Chip Record,” that is the audio-visual files stored digitally in their server, into a hardcopy file. I remember thinking I was very clever for realizing that the book in my hands is meant to be a pirated copy of that transcript this Watcher is so carefully trying to keep secret. The first page, in fact, is a cover sheet for a Top Secret document and there are all sorts of little clues planted throughout the story. What gave you the idea to try to give a plot-based explanation for why your book exists?

TDR: I've been asked this a lot and if I had known that people were going to fixate on the choices in construction that went into this book rather than the story itself, I might have tried to do a better job of it. But, as it stands, the simplest explanation is to give some credit to Chuck Palahniuk.

SW: Author of Fight Club.

TDR: Yeah. Do people not know that? Okay. Well, Chuck obviously wouldn't remember this, but we spoke briefly at a reading in Dallas that he gave in 2005 and I came away impressed by one concept above all others. He said he liked to use “non-fiction forms” to tell his fictional stories. Maybe the easiest example is his book Survivor, which is supposed to be the transcript of the flight recording taken from the black box of a hijacked plane. The narrator, piloting the craft, is telling his story, out loud, to the flight recorder and we are supposedly reading it after the fact. That extra element of breaking the fourth wall really inspired me and I wanted to try to come up with my own original non-fiction form. It went so far that I not only created a government agency that might have a printout of some strange occurrences, but I also needed to come up with a reason why they would go to print when things would typically be stored digitally. This gave me the idea to start the book out with Joe, the protagonist and leader of a hacker revolution, infecting Watcher headquarters with a virus that makes their equipment and their operating system unreliable.

SW: How much of this drive to create your own “non-fiction form” led to the different ways that you played with narrative point of view?

TDR: I'm not the most sophisticated writer; most of what I do is simply because I think it would be neat. In establishing a new non-fiction form in the narrator of Agent Anders, the Watcher that spies on Joe, I realized that I had effectively put a face on the classic disembodied third-person narrator. I didn't plan to do it, but once I realized it happened I wanted to really play around with that. Technically, I would say that Dystopia Boy is a first-person narrative. Even when you are reading the “Joe does this” or “Joe feels that” parts of the book, it is still coming from the mind of Anders himself. Yet it seemed kind of interesting to me to think that whoever the classic third-person narrator was, even if you just imagine it to be Charles Dickens himself or whatever, that it is just a first-person narrative insofar as it is coming from the mind of the guy telling the story.

This made me decide to give Anders a bigger role and I wound up with two distinct storylines: the past that Anders was watching and the present story of what was happening at the Watcher Security Agency during this one crazy day.

SW: Yes, but as the story goes on, you have Anders download Joe's entire file into his Thought Chip, an apparently dangerous procedure that results in him experiencing the memories of Joe from his point of view. In short, your first-person narrator who is telling a story as the third-person narrator is forced inside of the story and becomes its first-person narrator. The fact that this is actually accomplished and not totally confusing is an achievement in itself. But you don't stop there.

TDR: No, later on Joe leaves the past storyline and becomes a kind of ghost in the machine, a technological glitch that shows up as a waking hallucination and keeps Anders from being able to do his job. So, I guess that would be an example of the third person invading the first instead of the other way around. This cross-over between the two storylines got really fun when I had the idea to have what Anders calls “Phantom Joe” lead Anders through some of the files. I imagined it like Virgil leading Dante through the rings of Hell in Inferno, though a book critic compared it to the Ghost of Christmas Past leading Ebeneezer Scrooge through the visions of his younger years. That might be more accurate.

SW: So let me get this straight. From a remark from the guy who wrote Fight Club, you came up with the Thought Chip and the surveillance files. Through the glitches and hacking of the Thought Chip, you managed to come up with all sorts of story-based excuses to turn all the rules of narrative perspective on their head, and you just made it all up as you went along? Was any of it planned?

TDR: The only thing I had planned was that I wanted one of the later chapters to wind up being a loose take on the first story I ever published. It was called “Safety Factory” and it was published by Word Riot in 2005. I had that as something I was aiming at and, being that it pertained to alien abduction and paranoia, it inspired a lot of Joe's misplaced fear of aliens out to get him. Otherwise, my usual love for creative characters trying to make the world a better place was what I had to guide me and I just kind of followed these characters where they wanted to go.

SW: One last question.

TDR: Better make it good.

SW: The story of Joe's life, an abused kid running away and becoming a wandering musician, eventually becoming the leader of the Hack War, and a lot of the stuff in there about “the power of dreams,” Joe's drug use, and talk about creativity as the hope for our future . . .

TDR: I don't sense a question coming on.

SW: What I mean to say is, how much of that do you actually believe?

TDR: I get asked this a lot. To put my own spin on an old feminist joke, if it's the businessmen that have brought us to where we are now, maybe it's time for the artists to have a turn at the wheel. Here in Portland, there is a strong art community and with it come signs of how to run a better society. The artist can work for the sake of the work itself. The artist can think outside of their own mind and opinions because that is the only way to create something new. Most artists are liberal-minded, more accepting of diversity. I really do believe that if more people were pursuing self-expression in some creative field then we would watch a lot of the old constructs, traditions, and assumptions melt away, one person at a time, until they sounded as outdated as the cotton gin or Jim Crow Laws.

There is another message in this book that I didn't know I put there until it was all over: the American Revolution never ended. We have to fight it every day. However, we can't fight it with guns or violence anymore. We can't really even fight it with organized protests because they're too easily ignored. What we need is a new awakening, a call to intellectual action, people reassessing and taking responsibility for their own minds. Stop asking how everyone else is wrong and start asking yourself how wrong you are. Then lead by example. Joe and his band start a revolution just by playing music and helping to feed the poor—that's it, they use art to rebuild the world around them and they don't ask for permission or support from anyone but themselves. It might sound naïve, but when I look at how my pursuit of writing has taken me from a staunch conservative, religious bigot to a liberal, hippie-Commie that I am today, I can personally attest to the life-altering power of art, and I hope more people find it.

Click here to purchase Dystopia Boy at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2014-2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Bald New World: An Interview with Peter Tieryas Liu

petertieryas-webInterview by Berit Ellingsen

Peter Tieryas Liu is the author of the short story collection Watering Heaven and the recent novel Bald New World (Perfect Edge, $16.95). Set in a future where everyone has gone bald and making wigs has become big business, Bald New World is the dystopian tale of two friends, filmmakers Nick Guan and Larry Chao, who “choose to explore the existential angst of their balding world through cinema.” Their picaresque quest takes them to places in both China and America, and makes the book satisfying as both a surreal thriller (complete with conspiracy theories and digital cricket fighters) and a smart philosophical take on the construction of the self.

Although Liu’s fiction, non-fiction, and reviews have been published in Electric Literature, Gargoyle, Indiana Review, and many other places, he has also worked as a technical writer for LucasArts, the gaming division of LucasFilm, and as Technical Director for Sony Pictures on films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Alice in Wonderland, and Men in Black 3. Perhaps it’s no wonder that his work blends literary excellence and science fiction fun so seamlessly.

Berit Ellingsen: Which literary genres, if any, influenced Bald New World the most, and why?

baldnewworldPeter Tieryas Liu: How would you label Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody? It’s part ballad, part operatic, and has a hard rock climax, but it’s the cohesion that makes the work so compelling. I’ve never thought about books in terms of genre. My main focus is on whether it tells a good story and if I like the characters involved. Steinbeck and Melville have been as much influences as Harlan Ellison, Pu Songling, Cao Xueqin, and Philip K. Dick. Gail Simone, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, and Alan Moore write graphic novels and they’ve had as big an impact on my work as the literary greats. When you go back and look at the first literary works, there is no division between religion, science, philosophy, biography, and myth. If you get technical, the Odyssey and even the Bible could be considered mind-bending works of genre (there are parts of the Bible, like in Ecclesiastes, whose poetry and contemplations in life are unsurpassed). It sounds odd, but when I wrote Bald New World, I didn’t approach it as science fiction, but more as a personal tale that takes place in a strange futuristic world. I think that had a lot to do with my reverence of science fiction works; I honestly didn’t think it had enough hard science to warrant the categorization. So it’s not so much specific genre works that have influenced me as just good storytelling in general.

BE: How does your work as a digital artist/animator influence your writing?

PTL: Being surrounded by some of the most talented people in the world inspires me to think about the world in different ways. While technically I am a digital artist, I fall more under the programming umbrella of things, so it exercises a different part of my brain (creative versus mathematical coding, which can also be creative, albeit in a different way). And that’s a good thing in that I’m always able to get this mix of both technical and artistic expression. It’s also fortunate because after a whole day of work, I can shut the programming part of my brain down and do my writing, and each is like a vacation from the other.

BE: What do you do if inspiration is flagging? Do you have any particular tricks against writer's block?

PTL: Take breaks, write non-fiction, play videogames, watch films, go on a trip, attend a museum exhibit on defunct art forms, listen to a ukulele concert, try to learn salsa (and fail), chat with telemarketers, plan out a supercomputer that can interpret calculus into emotion, translate dog speak into cat purrs, fast, gorge on buffets, have a good glass of champagne, beat games I’d never heard about (like Terranigma, which is superb), read random books outside of what I’d normally read, read books I’ve been meaning to get to forever (Don Quixote, I’m coming!), lose at Poker, dream about childhoods I never had, Twitter about Facebook and Tumblr blog about WordPress, debate movie inconsistencies with friends, try to solve crypto-zoological conundrums, ponder the Solway Firth Spaceman, ponder the implications of the Wow! Signal, pretend to be a trashcan for a day, pretend to be a storm cloud for a day, and more until the spark of an idea hits . . .

BE: Is there any particular question you wish people asked about your writing?

PTL: I think most people ask the general writing questions; it’s the specific ones related to my work that I love. One in particular I’d enjoy answering for Bald New World is: five months since release, what do I think of the work, especially in light of the reviews and literary criticisms? I’m honored by every review out there and each makes me think about my work in different ways. I’m eager to read connections people make, thematic bridges, the way it touches people personally, just as much as I enjoy reading the things people really disliked and various critiques.

BE: If you became bald, would you wear a wig? Why or why not?

PTL: Bald all the way. I think bald is super cool. I think a wig every once in a while for a costume party would be a blast. But bald is bald, and I would never want to hide that. Also, I’ll eventually get there from natural causes. When that happens, I’ll either Larry David it or shave it all off.

BE: In Bald New World democracies like Europe and the U.S. aren't doing very well, dictatorships like China and North Korea seem to be doing much better, and market forces control everything. Do you see this hyper-consumerism as a bad or a good thing?

PTL: First off, North Korea is pretty horrible in Bald New World. The NK spies that hide in Beijing have it better just because their job is to kidnap people for enslavement to North Korea by luring them with the promise of beauty and bliss. But, without delving into plot spoilers, what happens to one of the spies later in the book makes it clear they live under brutally savage conditions. On a deeper level though, this is a fascinating question because it gets back to a question of identity. While I’m ethnically Asian, I view myself as an American. I grew up here, am indebted for all the opportunities I received, and I love the culture of e pluribus unum (I might also point out that in Asia, they all viewed me as a Westerner). In that sense, it may seem like I’m more critical of aspects of America I don’t like, but it’s only because I want to see change for the better (in Bald New World’s case, rampant gun violence and obesity being two issues I specifically target). Because I’m a foreigner in Asian countries and I’m mainly there as a tourist, I don’t feel as comfortable making broader judgments, especially without being aware of the full social and cultural context (why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye?). That’s why I often cringe when I read non-Asian accounts of Asia because, even if well-intentioned, they’re so full of broad generalizations aimed at caricaturing and mocking things they don’t understand, they feed a stereotype that, unfortunately, has ramifications for Asians living in America who are globbed together. In terms of hyper-consumerism, I don’t think I’ve ever met one person who thinks it’s a good thing, not even marketing people I know. Consumerism itself isn’t bad, but when it becomes the end-all of anyone’s existence, the dehumanizing cycle that ensues makes life one dreary hell. To quote Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.”

BE: The virtual insect fighting in Bald New World reminds me of William Gibson’s short story “Dog Fight,” where people compete by controlling a virtual plane with their minds. What inspired the idea of virtual insect fighting?

PTL: I have a fascination with bugs; their existence is a stripped-away version of our own lives, only on a microscopic level. I recently visited CERN, and hearing all the theories on the universe, it made me wonder, what would ants trying to explain freeway traffic sound like? I was watching a special the other day about these parasites (Leucochloridium paradoxum) that only breed inside bird intestines. At the same time, they can only grow inside snails so after the birds crap out the parasites, these snails eat them. The parasites grow inside the snail, and when it’s time for breeding, affect their brains (by causing a deficit in light detection) so that the snails expose themselves (the parasites burrowing into the snail eyes resemble caterpillars) and make them vulnerable to birds again, and the cycle repeats.

I knew I wanted cricket fights in Bald New World, just because they were so big in China. But the idea of a virtual interface came to me while I was stuck in Los Angeles traffic one morning, frustrated, wondering why we were going nowhere at the same time. Traffic is the perfect metaphor for the modern condition and the morass of society. Cars are the allegory for our individual lives. We think we have control over where we’re going, but we don’t. That made me think, what if pilots could actually drive these crickets? From there, it wasn’t a big leap to make it virtual (especially since I’d just tried out the Oculus Rift at a conference earlier that day). In the original outlines, there was a lot more about the various schools of fighting, historical rivalries, etc. I cut most of that out as it became extraneous to the main plot. But it’s a world I wouldn’t mind revisiting.

BE: The scene where the protagonist loses his teeth is one of the most dramatic in the novel. Where did that idea come from? Do you ever have one of those nightmares about your teeth falling out?

PTL: I had all four of my wisdom teeth pulled out in one procedure, and for almost a week, my mouth wouldn’t stop bleeding. All I could eat was soup and Gatorade, so even now, whenever I drink Gatorade, I remember the smell of blood in my mouth. A couple years back, a filling I had went bad and necessitated a root canal. But every time I went to the dentist, they told me I was fine. I woke up with massive migraines, my teeth throbbing in pain. It made eating miserable. I changed dentists and the new one told me I needed a root canal. During the surgery, even with the anesthetic, I started feeling excruciating pain as the oral surgeon went deep. I hated it. While there are tortures that are far worse, Bald New World helped me to deal with the lingering memories of that trauma.

As for dreams, there’s the old wives’ tale that if your upper teeth fall out, someone older than you is going to pass away and lower, younger. I’ve had my teeth fall out in several dozen dreams and, fortunately, never once has anyone passed away. I’m so happy when I wake up and realize my teeth are still intact. I hope my teeth stay with me forever.

BE: What are you working on now?

PTL: My next book is with my agent and I’m also hoping to make some headway on a Bald New World game prototype. I also hope to catalog and write about some of the stories behind some of my favorite RPGs growing up.

Click here to purchase Bald New World at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2014-2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish

eroticdollMarquard Smith
Yale University Press ($40)

by Jeremy Biles

Half a lifetime ago, just after college, I attempted to become a collector of mannequins. At that time, I had not yet learned of the Surrealists’ fetishistic embrace of mannequins; I had not witnessed Duchamp’s endlessly enigmatic Etant donnés, nor dwelled upon de Chirico’s disquieting muses. I did not yet know Hans Bellmer’s iconic poupée, nor had I encountered the famous sculptural assemblage by Salvador Dali, the one comprising a pair of mannequin-passengers crawling with live snails and ensconced within a taxi cab—the “Rainy Taxi” that inspired the title of this very magazine. My desire to acquire mannequins was, or so it seemed to me, a native, naïve, instinctual inclination, born not of my then-incipient interest in Surrealism, but rather driven by a vague erotic compulsion to surround myself with inanimate humanoid figures. I imagined their forms—stiff but curvaceous, mass-made but elegant, fixed but discombobulated—populating, in a sense even animating, my small apartment in all their uncanny stillness.

So I queried nonplussed department store managers, asking for unused mannequins. I scoured the dumpsters outside malls, hoping to procure discarded torsos or disembodied limbs. It was a strange, perverse, obsessive practice, this hunting for bodies amidst the garbage. In any case, I never managed to acquire any of the longed-for figures. (Paying for them was out of the question.) They remained at once conspicuous and out of reach—visible in shop windows and on department store floors, yet seemingly unobtainable. My collection thus remained a dream. Always seeking what I never obtained, I asked, and still ask, What precisely was the object of my obscure desire? What was it that I really wanted, in wanting these mannequins?

A similar line of inquiry drives Marquard Smith’s The Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish. Switching the gender of Freud’s famously preoccupying question, Smith opens and closes his book by asking, “What does man want?” More precisely, “What is the nature of man’s—or rather men’s—intimate and erotic relations with inanimate human form?” Much as my erotically impelled search for mannequins took me through the back corridors of malls in search of capitalism’s cast-offs, so does Smith’s account of men’s erotic attachments to dolls, mannequins, and their ilk open onto an investigation of capitalist modernity. But whereas I never apprehended the object I desired, Smith finds what he is looking for: the answer—or at least “one” answer—to the question of what motivates the peculiar desires behind that “most polymorphous perverse sexuality: male heterosexuality.”

In arriving at that answer, Smith undertakes to “tell a story of the ‘invention’ of (male) heterosexuality.” Central to this story is the erotic doll. Smith offers a consistently fascinating, wide-ranging, and often penetrating discussion of “how and why . . . the erotic doll, or the doll figured erotically, emerged and endured as [a] powerful and provocative figure.” His main concern is thus “with how men’s intimate and frequently erotic relations with inanimate human form are constituted visually and materially in historical, cultural and aesthetic networks of modernity.”

Smith’s account of the role of the doll in modernity’s shaping of male heterosexuality draws upon (but also critically departs from) Thing Theory. Smith trains his attention on the doll as a thing, an object, in all its “historical and material particularity,” thereby “foregrounding . . . the doll’s capacities and functionings.” He is less interested in what the doll means (as a metaphor, for example) than on the phenomenological dimensions of “what the doll does, the work that it performs.” This emphasis on the object is expressed in the “three threads” of the book—genealogical, phenomenological, and thing-ological—that “interweave throughout” the book’s three sections.

Section one delineates and elaborates the categories of Pygmalionism and animism. Named after the mythological Greek sculptor who fell in love with a female form of his own creation, Pygmalionism denotes a form of paraphilia characterized by a “love for a thing of one’s own creation, as well as a love for inanimate form and for the prospect of that form’s animation.” Smith recognizes in the Pygmalion story the libidinal nature of creative transformation, arguing that “animism’s animating possibilities work to articulate the nature of a love and desire for inanimate form in general and the erotic doll, the doll eroticized, in particular in the visual and material culture of modernity.” Once created, of course, this doll form “elicits a craving and provokes behaviours and acts”—acts such as attempting to copulate with it, for example. This context informs Smith’s characterization of the doll as an erotic object, a “fetish, a thing, a commodity, a possession, an obsession, an object of desire, an object of love, of worship, of adoration, devotion, an object of lust and even an object for sex.”

Erotic dolls are not, however, merely proxies for human love objects, but are “independent things as such.” Smith attends to the materiality of dolls—wax or fabric, for instance—arguing that the fetishistic character of dolls has to do with desire oriented toward this very materiality. He thus rejects the Freudian concept of the fetish as a substitute object that covers over a loss or lack. For Smith, the fetish is not a symbolic representation, but “a re-presenting, an intensification, an intensifier.” The erotic desire for the fetish aims at “the thing itself as such”—the doll qua artificial, manufactured, and material. The doll is thus aligned with the Marxist commodity fetish, a “part of capitalist modernity’s mass-manufacturing” that conditions male heterosexuality, which is caught up in a “general economy of unproductive and non-recuperable polymorphously perverse practices” deflected from the aim of sexual reproduction.

Section two elaborates this history of the erotic doll as a “fetishistic figure of desire” through four studies. Smith first examines the case of Oskar Kokoschka, who commissioned a life-sized doll of his beloved but unobtainable Alma Mahler—a doll he beat, beheaded, and buried. Forwarding an intricate analysis of the peculiarities of this troubling story, Smith demonstrates how touch, as opposed to sight, is the sense that discloses erotic engagement with the materiality of the thing itself.

In his following discussion of Surrealism’s fascination with mannequins, Smith argues that the shop-window dummy, rather than the “Surrealist object” as such, speaks to modern “capitalism’s capacity for generating an erotics that, in creating the perceived conditions of its own undermining, undoing and demise, affirms all the more so its means, power and will.” Attending to the “history, materiality and technicity” of the dummy as well as the Surrealist mannequin allows him to “speak of and argue for an erotics of artificiality in modernity.”

Focusing on two contemporary forms of erotic dolls—the sex doll and the RealDoll—the next two studies further suture erotics to artificiality. Smith concludes that the mass-manufactured sex doll “has become not only a substitute but perhaps even a model for actual sex. The sex doll,” he writes, “is an option, a choice, a preference.” Thus erotic attachment to the doll expresses a “desire to anthropomorphise and animate objects, and a wilful [sic] self-alienating.”

Alienation is also a key aspect of Smith’s account of the RealDoll phenomenon. Although Smith appears reluctant to cast moral aspersions upon the owners of RealDolls, what he says of the disturbing instances in which they mutilate or brutalize their dolls extends to his view of relations to dolls more broadly: “It speaks of the impossibility of intimacy as a form of knowing, a coming to know, a making known . . . of the innermost . . . nature of the self, of another, of a thing.” The agalmatophile—one sexually attracted to a doll or statue—“senses simply a forever dissociating reflection of his own narcissistic self-alienating.” And yet, in this, “he is no better or worse than the rest of us.”

The final section of The Erotic Doll juxtaposes Duchamp’s Etant données with Bellmer’s poupée. The mannequin at the center of Duchamp’s masterpiece “refuses the logic of the fetish as synechdocal substitute”; it is, rather, a “distorting machine for the perverting of vision.” Smith sees distortion as a positive “activity” of “changing” keyed to “the logics of time, eroticism and transformation itself.” He thus draws readers’ attention to the manner in which the famous “anatomical peculiarities” of Duchamp’s mannequin—its curious labial contours, for instance—are produced through the very materials and “process of its making.” The particular circumstances of that material process—having to do, for example, with the molding of the mannequin’s parts—are not incidental or trivial, but are “built into its very constitution.” The mannequin is everywhere constituted as distorted, and this material distortion piques desire.

The distortions of Bellmer’s famously de- and re-composable doll are of a different sort. Smith discerns in the poupée a “rhythm or logic” animated by an “assembling-disassembling-re-assembling impulse.” Following Bellmer himself, Smith treats the doll as an anagrammatic form, subject to virtually limitless reconfigurations that generate “new desires.” Attending to the history of the doll’s manufacture as well as Bellmer’s proclaimed erotic desire for this object of his own making, Smith casts the doll as a “commodity fetish . . . a paraphilic fetish . . . and an idolatrous fetish.”

If Bellmer’s doll, like the other erotic dolls Smith discusses, is a fetish, it is indicative of “capitalist modernity’s magical thinking.” The fetish, as Marx recognized, confuses “persons and things.” In so doing, it sets the stage for the “invention” of male heterosexuality—its “own recognising and figuring of the individual as both a person and as a thing. It is these ‘qualities’ between persons and things that gave birth to the distinctively modern desires that pulse through and between them.”

So what does the doll tell us about male heterosexuality? What, finally, does man want? Smith’s answer to this “mocking” and “largely rhetorical” question is this: “man dreams of infinite celibacy and total autoeroticism. The doll—as inanimate or animate, willing or unwilling, possessed or possessing, acted on or acting on, a thing with an inexplicable vitality that seems to generate its own laws, demands and desires and, in so doing shapes man’s understanding of his erotic attachment to such form and to himself—is this dream incarnate.”

Is this the dream that drove my own manic desire for mannequins? And should Smith’s conclusion be read not only as a diagnosis but as an indictment of my desire—and, somehow, of male heterosexual desire? Did—does—my fascination with mannequins reveal my sexuality to be the invention of capitalist modernity? I don’t know. But at best this seems to me to be only part of the story. Maybe like all dreams, this erotic dream, embodied in the doll, contains what Freud calls the “dream navel”—the unfathomable blind spot that “reaches into the depths of the unknown,” both calling forth endless interpretation and refusing any final interpretation. Much as the mannequin embodies an uncanny materiality—lifelike and lifeless—the dream navel announces a presence-in-absence, an animated emptiness, endlessly producing interpretations, and endlessly refusing any final interpretation.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2014-2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

I am the Beggar of the World

iamthebeggarLandays from Contemporary Afghanistan
translated by Eliza Griswold

photographs by Seamus Murphy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($24)

by John Bradley

In my dream, I am the president.
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

This is a landay, an oral two-lined folk poem composed and sung by Afghanis. Consisting of twenty-two syllables—nine in the first line, and thirteen in the second—the poems usually do not rhyme, but in Eliza Griswold’s translations they often do, to add more zing to the English versions. The above landay, which provides the title phrase for this fascinating volume, gains even more poignancy when we know the circumstances behind it: in a refugee camp east of Jalalabad, an elderly woman named Ashaba watched over her dying husband. She felt helpless and afraid, emotions to which her landay gives a startling voice.

Landays are primarily composed and sung by Pashtun women in a culture where they are not to be seen or heard. That most of the women who compose and sing them are illiterate and voicing forbidden thoughts makes the folk couplets even more remarkable.

Griswold was initially drawn into the world of landays after hearing about an Afghani teenager who called herself Rahila Muska. Pulled out of school by her father, who feared she would be kidnapped or raped by warlords, Muska (“smile” in Pashto) turned to landays, which she heard on the radio. Soon she was calling the program to share her poems. When her brothers discovered she was composing poetry, they beat her. In protest, she set herself on fire and died. Here is the only landay that survives her (her notebooks were destroyed by her father and brothers):

I call. You’re stone.
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.

Like many landays, this piece resonates because it speaks to the fate of most Afghani women, isolated by fathers and brothers in a society of arranged marriages, where a woman’s choice of her life partner is usually ignored. The lover in this poem, if not the male chosen by the family, may be afraid to respond to his beloved due to threats of violence. The second line of the landay can also be read as foreshadowing Muska’s demise.

Although landays are often about love and heartache, they cover other subjects, such as politics, separation, and war. While they usually comment on serious topics, when laced with humor they can sting, as seen in this poem:

Making love to an old man
is like fucking a shriveled cornstalk black with mold.

Griswold’s comments on the poems throughout the book provide needed context; her notes on this particular landay demonstrate the difficulties of translation. Here’s a literal translation of this poem: “Love or Sex or Marriage, Man, Old / Love or Sex or Marriage, Cornstalk, Black Fungal Blight.” Griswold didn’t know what to make of the poem until, she tells us, she was shown a blighted cornstalk—then she knew why the women who heard the poem recited were laughing. No wonder men fear landays!

Besides offering a window into Afghani culture, landays also relate the history of Afghanistan. Where a landay once referred to British soldiers occupying Afghanistan, this later became Russian, and now American. Words such as remote, for remote control weapons, and drone, for unmanned aerial vehicle, appear:

My Nabi was shot down by a drone.
May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own.

The author of this poem has lost her son to an American drone and vows vengeance, an all too common event in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The black and white photography by Seamus Murphy complements the poems in subtle ways. In a picture of dozens of tents pitched in the desert, we see how survivors must live when their villages are destroyed. The note on this photo, “Dasht-e-Qala, Takhar Province, November 2000,” however, provides only skeletal information—it’s a shame more background is not given. It’s also too bad that the book doesn’t include the stunning color photographs of Murphy’s in the issue of Poetry (June 2013) devoted entirely devoted to Griswold’s landays.

For those who want to know more about the people of Afghanistan, how they view love and war, how they mourn, and how they survive, the poems and photographs in I Am the Beggar of the World offers much to entrance and disturb.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2014-2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Greenhouse

greenhouseLisa Gluskin Stonestreet
Bull City Press ($14)

by J.G. McClure

Until reading Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet’s The Greenhouse, winner of the 2014 Frost Place Chapbook Competition, I didn’t know what a chapbook could do. I’d read plenty of moving chapbooks, sure. But to create, in only twelve poems, an experience as urgent, as real, and as necessary as The Greenhouse is astonishing. The chapbook traces the complex and conflicted feelings of a new mother caring for her son. Stonestreet’s language—lyrical yet intimate, expansive yet concise—renders vividly the speaker’s own birth into a new life.

Take a look at “Like That,” which opens:

The first time
I leaned over and swept the tip of my smallest fingernail down into

the whorl of your ear (bigger than your elbow), and you yelped
in violation:
forgive me

it is no longer my ear
(little boat, little shell I carved)

flushing pink, even now, at the embarrassment, the satisfaction

sliver-moon of yellow wax:
tiny victory.

While the opening line could lead into any number of sentimental and expected firsts, Stonestreet turns instead to something much more surprising for its ordinariness: removing a bit of earwax. In noting that the baby’s ear is bigger than his elbow, Stonestreet subtly shows how strange, how other this little body is. The baby, too, recognizes his distinct identity, yelping in violation of the boundaries of his body. The divide between the two—represented visually through the stanzification hinging on “forgive me”—is vividly realized: the child has his own life, and the mother must ask forgiveness from that which was once part of her. The assertion of both affection and possession in “little boat, little shell that I carved” is a wonderful insight into the tiny power struggle playing out between them. And yet, though separation is everywhere in these lines, so is connection: the baby feels both embarrassment and satisfaction at this intrusion. In this way, when the section lands on “tiny victory,” there’s a rich ambiguity regarding who, exactly, has been victorious: both mother and child have won and lost. The poem continues:

Lovers say, I did not know

where my body ended and yours began.
I did not know. Even yesterday when you laughed,

reared back, your head

quick-snap against my upper lip, both of us

laughing and then me still laughing, eye-sting, drop of blood
at the crown of your head, panic—

oh, mine. This morning

holding, rough/soft, drawing my tongue
up under my lip, compelling—

Like that.

Again, we see the tension between separation and connection: the two are so connected that for a moment the speaker cannot tell the baby’s blood from hers. Again, Stonestreet’s talent for subtle yet telling moments shines: she is relieved to realize the separation between their bodies because it means that the baby has not been injured. But implicit in that feeling of relief is a deep connection: her care for the child is so great that she is relieved by her own injury.

There is much more to say about the poem, but for the sake of showing more of what The Greenhouse has accomplished, fast-forward to “After Dropping My Son Off at Preschool”:

The world slowly coming back. The luxury of stepping outside


where is outside?
rehearsing for years now

I was a bubble, a greenhouse, a lens—

clear, like water, present like water, spreading, reflecting
ratcheting down the viewfinder

self being a place encompassing a small boy

Step outside yourself, ma’am, and no one will get hurt

Nobody got hurt, not seriously.
It’s a goddamn miracle.

Stonestreet again immerses us in complexity. From the seemingly straightforward celebration of “the world slowly coming back,” we move into the “luxury” not of free time, but of stepping outside of the self. And even that complication is further complicated: the speaker is unsure where “outside” might be. The most recent years of her life are seen as mere rehearsal, practice toward a goal she still has not reached. In contrast, the speaker is much more confident in describing what she was; in describing this past, she gains access to more lyrically beautiful language and a more certain tone, asserting that the self was “a place encompassing a small boy.” But in doing so, we are reminded that the boy is no longer encompassed; he is now going off into the world. At this moment, the reverie breaks, and the ironic voice of the mock policeman enters. This humor grounds the poem in the contemporary, negating the risk of becoming too elevated, too Poetic (with a capital P). At the same time, it highlights the absurdity of asking someone to step outside herself—how is such a thing possible?—while reminding us, too, of the urgency of the need to do so. Impossible as the demand may seem, the speaker has managed it: “Nobody got hurt, not seriously.” Yet even at this moment of apparent triumph, the speaker can’t take credit or satisfaction: it is not her own accomplishment, but “a goddamn miracle.”

Once again, there is much more to the poem, far more than a review can cover. Suffice to say that The Greenhouse is one of those rare and wonderful chapbooks that is brilliant on the first reading, and even more moving with each return. It accomplishes in only thirty-five pages what so many books fail to do in a hundred. This is masterful work.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2014-2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Paper Lantern & Ecstatic Cahoots

Paper Lantern: Love Stories
Stuart Dybek
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($24)

Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories
Stuart Dybek
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($14)

by Robert Martin

paperlanternLet’s get one thing out of the way: Stuart Dybek is a genius and a master of the short story form. His stories are anthologized, taught, scrutinized, and worshipped. He is a MacArthur Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, winner of the Lannan Award and an O. Henry Award. His name is etched into MFA-program syllabi with the likes of Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Alice Munro, Junot Díaz, and other writers who have perfected their corner of the genre. But something has always set Dybek apart, even in such company. The simultaneous release of Paper Lantern: Love Stories and Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories helps pin down what makes Stuart Dybek so unlike any other writer of short fiction today.

In Paper Lantern, the more traditional of Dybek’s two new books, each of the nine stories employs a hybrid of narrative and poetic structure that derails a plot in pursuit of a tone, a fleeting nuance of experience rather than a self-contained arc. The opening story, “Tosca,” uses the image of a man standing before a firing squad to examine operatic haunts of memory. “Oceanic” uses a common prop—a striped beach umbrella—to cohere disparate stories of longing, fantasy, and nostalgia; as the narrator of that story describes it, “Remembering was like trying to call back a dream whose fragmented imagery and troubling emotion had bled into her waking hours. Its protean transformations defied the logic of language and the linearity of a story.”

Dybek has long been interested in protean transformations—sudden and instinctual changes in a story’s direction are one of the qualities that set his work apart—and these stories are happy to defy the logic of language and the linearity of story. This, however, makes the volume’s subtitle troubling. To call the book a collection of “Love Stories” is a misnomer at best, at worst a red herring. These stories do each deal with passion, or romance, or longing, or multiple emotions that humans can endure when enduring other humans. But the endings of these tales (if you can call prolonged sequences of self-referential tangents “endings”) are rarely those of shared happiness or marital bliss or romantic stability. Dybek is at work with something more primal than convention. His stories meddle with the bond between language and emotion, between narrative and identity, between memory and experience.

This isn’t to say that story is entirely absent, it just isn’t located in the same places as in traditional narratives. Early on in Paper Lantern, Dybek provides a handy signpost for the reader: “I’ve never been conscripted to serve in a firing squad or condemned to stand facing death—at least, not any more than we all are—but in high school I once qualified for the state finals in the high hurdles, and I know that between the ‘Aim’ command and the shot there’s time for a story.” Indeed, the gaps in action are where Dybek finds his true subjects—the meandering and fluid impressions of his characters, the impulses that pull humans out of their habitual existences and back into the magic of actual life. These moments of quick diversion lead to new narrative avenues, and they read like the literary equivalent of taking a raft over a waterfall: free, frightening, exhilarating. They are the hallmark of Dybek’s craft as a writer, his definitive tactic as a stylist.

ecstaticcahootsPerhaps for that reason, the companion volume, Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories, comes across as an enigma. By “Short Stories,” this subtitle means “short-short” or “flash fiction”—most of these tales clock in under two and a half pages, and some are as brief as a paragraph. Unfortunately this form doesn’t provide nearly enough time for Dybek’s trademark cascade of narrative misdirection. Some of these tales are playful, some are dour; on occasion they resonate, but often they read like abandoned experiments, failed ideas that the author was too fond of to discard entirely. After the repeated exhilarations in Paper Lantern, these exercises underwhelm.

The strongest pieces, it isn’t surprising, are those that would have felt at home in Paper Lantern. “The Kiss,” for example, is a clear companion to “Oceanic,” spanning books in a way that suggests a larger connection (Paper Lantern already has a loose “connected stories” feel, with many of the stories sharing a narrator or borrowing characters). Ecstatic Cahoots’ “Córdoba,” perhaps the best story in either book, is a paean to romantic longing—yet finds itself outside of the “Love Stories” collection. All this suggests that these books speak to one another, and given their simultaneous publication and similar branding, they deserve to be read as a single collection rather than separate books with separate aims. It can even be helpful to treat Ecstatic Cahoots as a single entry in the larger realm of Paper Lantern: the collection as a whole embodies the same structure as the longer stories. Making our way from story to story, we’re set loose on a current of language and impulse, and interrupted on occasion by startling moments of exhilaration.

Readers who are prepared for Dybek’s stretches of seemingly aimless drifting, who don’t expect to be steered toward the routine stops along a storyline, will find plenty to admire in both of these books. Anyone less confident in these challenging works, rest assured: you’re in the hands of a master.

Click here to purchase Paper Lantern at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Ecstatic Cahoots at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2014-2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Madness of Cthulhu

madnesscthulhuEdited by S. T. Joshi
Titan Books ($15.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

If one is interested in the eerie, dark, and cosmological instead of the gory and graphic, one might regularly return to the writings of Howard Philip Lovecraft (1890-1937). Lovecraft’s stories are more profound than scary, but they certainly can be eerie. He had a philosophy and style that, as scholar S.T. Joshi notes, conjoined the macabre and science fiction. Older supernatural horrors like vampires, witches, and werewolves had lost some of their terror in the Scientific Age of the twentieth century, but people could still worry about things that could come from the stars.

Inspired by authors such as Poe and Lord Dunsany and by the science of astronomy, Lovecraft hit a nerve when writing about cosmic horrors. He pointed out that there are things older than us to which we are vulnerable, strange things that we can barely imagine or comprehend. These ideas still resonate and chill, and Lovecraft has gained a following with his hybrid-genre tales.

As one sees here and in other tribute anthologies, Lovecraft has an almost cult-like following. Joshi, a weird tales expert, is an anthologist of note who does a fine job here. There are many famous authors included, including John Shirley, Caitlín R. Kiernan, and Robert Silverberg, and most of them have penned original tales for this anthology. All the stories were inspired by Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936), a novella about cosmic visitors who situated themselves in Antarctica; accordingly, the assembled stories have mostly been set in the north and take place in both the present and the past.

Not everybody agreed with Lovecraft’s perspective—the opening story is Arthur C. Clarke’s satirical “At the Mountains of Murkiness” (1940). There is the occasional joke, but more often awe and pathos; most of the storytellers take Lovecraft seriously and passionately. While their tales are by definition derivative and do not posses the authenticity of Lovecraft’s originals, they testify to the fact that so many writers have shared and been inspired by his vision.

Though Lovecraft can be disturbing, he remains of interest for those who seek “the weird,” and stories such as “The Call of Cthulhu” have become downright canonical. Science may not have found the visiting intergalactic monsters that he wrote about, but it is still possible to worry about strange things from the night skies that might already be here, waiting. These authors assembled in The Madness of Cthulhu give credit to a writer whose angst has reverberated into the present; these stories are a dark reminder of the cosmos we cannot ignore.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2014-2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015