Tag Archives: Winter 2017

Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations: Early Comics 1909-1919

Rube Goldberg
Sunday Press ($35)

by Jeff Alford

Even before he was celebrated internationally for his zany inventions, Reuben Lucius Goldberg churned out cartoons like a machine. He built his comics around a simple premise, typically a recurring punchline or structural gimmick. His 1912 cartoon I'm The Guy features repeated wordplay, with characters who "put the ale in Yale" and the "con in congress." The 1914 strip Old Man Alf of the Alphabet turns familiar acronyms inside out: in one cartoon, a poker I.O.U. is explained to actually mean "I'm Often Untruthful." Some strips were riddles, with literary titles hidden in silly scenes: "Next station is Ferno," a train conductor announces in one puzzle, while two passengers muse about how a friend named "Bill Dante" lives in town. "What does this awful mess represent?" the cartoon asks.

Between 1907 and 1938, Goldberg created over 100 different cartoons, and while many of them were short-lived, a few proved to have substantial staying power due to their delicate balance of social satire and relatable humor. From 1909 to the mid-1930s, Goldberg penned a single-panel comic called Foolish Questions that repeats the same sarcastically screwball shtick with each new iteration. Every cartoon depicts a person in the middle of particular task, interrupted by an onlooker who asks, stupidly, if they're doing exactly what it looks like they're doing. The interlocutor, naturally, receives a snappy reply. "Feeding the cat, Lemuel?" a man asks, as another man tends to his feline. "No, you herring, I'm biting the horns off a goat." Some can be quite sassy: "Going to school, Sonny?" a man asks as schoolboy tromps by. "No you simp," he replies, "I'm on my way to an undertaking parlor to meet a bunch of live ones."

The formulaic nature of Foolish Questions allows little room for flourish, but Goldberg manages to capture the early 1900s in a vaudevillian shimmer and trades social niceties for some bite. In one cartoon, a major world event is brushed aside: "Oh, has the pole been discovered?" a man asks as another man reads the newspaper, its front page screaming reports of recent arctic exploration. "No, you rummy-this is an account of a dog fight in a frying pan."

Foolish Questions laid the groundwork for the machine drawings that would transform Goldberg into a household name. Goldberg realized through the strip that he could sink into a gag and let that machine run until its wheels fell off. His inventive chain reactions were absurdist, imaginative feats: one, for example, depicts a "Professor Butts" wearing his "Self-Operating Napkin," which connects his soup spoon to a headpiece carrying an alarm clock, a rocket, and an exotic bird, all of which would somehow lead to an automated face-wiping. By the 1920s, Goldberg was everywhere, from syndicated funny pages to progressive art magazines like Tristan Tzara's Dada. Today, his drawings and, more importantly, his influence, can be found in major art museums: much of Dada's mischief and the momentum of Futurism can be chained backwards to Goldberg's pen. Jean Tinguely's kinetic sculptures, for example, owe a mechanized tip of the hat to the cartoonist's pointed dreams of useless complexity.

Sunday Press's Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations compiles over 250 of Goldberg's cartoons, including his complete Foolish Questions output for the Sunday Chicago Tribune from 1909-1910. To read them all in sequence is somewhere between mind-numbing, soothing, and positively transcendent. The book is beautifully produced, with the subtlest coloring that accentuates Goldberg's brilliant penstrokes and trailblazing lettering. But to have what is loosely the same joke repeated four times a page creates a bizarre new reading experience: the book's elegant presentation suggests there must be some way to unlock these gags and find some cohesive, metatextual glue between them all. Could there be repeated themes to the interchangeable variables of name, action, and put-down? Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations feels like a riddle in itself, like there must be a code to crack their screwy simplicity.

In the end, we may not need to put the gold in Goldberg; these cartoons make as much sense as "playing auction pinochle with a musk ox", and that's perfectly alright. Left to their wacky inanity, they showcase a writer committing wholly to a simple goof, and that commitment alone boasts a marvelous sort of artistry. Perhaps it is because these gags do not transcend into something larger that makes them so special. While they may risk oversaturation and feel at times repetitive, they hold a remarkable mirror to the wonderful ridiculousness of daily life, reminding us that even when we have nothing to say we find a way to say it, day after day.

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from unincorporated territory [lukao]

Craig Santos Perez
Omnidawn ($17.95)

by Robyn Maree Pickens

Where a banyan tree is adventitious, with its branches and roots growing in a promiscuous tangle, from unincorporated territory [lukao] by Craig Santos Perez is ordered and carefully wrought. Beyond this initial comparison however, Perez deploys the banyan tree as both metaphor and symbol of two interrelated political pairings: colonisation/decolonisation and militarisation/demilitarisation. The book pivots on the tension between these two pairings, and on another dichotomy: birth/death.

Like the branches and roots of a banyan tree Perez constructs a dense weave of themes that are bolstered by formal (linguistic, stylistic, typographic) techniques, a method he recounts in "ginen understory (i tinituhon)":

i taotaomo'na : the spirits of before also dwell within the space
of i trunkun nunu : the giant banyan tree, whose aerial roots fall
from branches, intertwine, fuse, and root // as time passes, new
trunks form until a single tree becomes an archipelago

Perez rarely uses language for singular meaning: "archipelago," for example, refers to the Mariana Archipelago of Micronesia in the western Pacific, and to the project of Chamorro self-sovereignty. Chamorro are the indigenous people of Guåhan (Guam) and the Mariana Archipelago. (Perez is Chamorro but grew up in San Francisco from the age of fifteen; he currently teaches at the University of Hawai'i.) In the above passage, "i trunkun nunu : the giant banyan tree" symbolises the project of remaking Guåhan into a place where "i taotaomo'na : the spirits of before" can once again dwell. The proliferation of the banyan tree into an archipelago is a metaphor of Chamorro self-sovereignty. As such the project necessarily invokes colonisation/decolonisation, militarisation/demilitarisation, and birth/death.

from unincorporated territory [lukao] is anti-colonial, as the title makes clear. Guåhan is an unincorporated territory of the United States. This designation entitles Guamanians to American citizenship but not the right to vote. Their island is used primarily as a military base for the U.S army. It is from this colonised, militarised position that Perez situates his anti-colonial/anti-militarisation suite of work. from unincorporated territory [lukao] is preceded by 2008's from unincorporated territory [hacha], 2010's from unincorporated territory [saina], and 2014's from unincorporated territory [guma']. Each collection is a branch, an aerial root of a giant banyan tree on its way to becoming an archipelago of self-sovereignty.

[lukao] means procession, a thematic that enables Perez to encompass Chamorro creation stories of Guåhan's origins; reflections on the chain of nations who have colonised Guåhan (Spain, Japan, U.S); his own familial history; religious rites; and the birth of his daughter Kaikainali'i (addressed as "[neni]"). These themes are distributed throughout the four main sections of from unincorporated territory [lukao] under five titles (one of which has five subtitles). This distribution enables variant iterations and repetitions of words, phrases, and typographic strategies such as: double forward and backward slash (\\ //); square brackets ([you] refers to Brandy Nālani, Perez' wife); faded type (for extinct birds); strikethrough text (for banned Chamorro birthing practices); italicised text (English translation of Chamorro words); colon with a space on either side, as in "i trunkun nunu : the giant banyan tree" (perhaps to give equal weight to the two languages); ~~~ as separatory devices, and # to indicate both digital saturation and recent (and on-going) political movements such as #blacklivesmatter.

This list, although fairly comprehensive, shines only small shafts of light onto a dazzlingly complex architecture that supports intricate, multilingual, multi-register layers of meaning. The use of the double forward and backward slash at the beginning and end of phrases (in some poems), for example, is not a typographical conceit, but perhaps instantiates kåntan chamorrita, a Chamorro practice:

. . . \\ they stood in circles and chanted rhymed
verses back and forth // [we] call this communal poetic form
kåntan chamorrita (which translates as to sing both forwards and
backwards
)

There are many paths that sing forwards and backwards throughout this collection, but a good one to follow as it braids is lukao : procession. The first appearance of lukao occurs on the contents page with three untranslated Chamorro words held between tildes:

~
hånom håga' hånom
~

Although not a Chamorro speaker, I take the phrase to mean: water daughter water. Hånom : water occurs multiple times throughout the collection, and one close translation of håga' suggests daughter, which is fitting given that the birth of Perez' daughter Kaikainali'i is central to from unincorporated territory [lukao]. Kaikainali'i's imminent arrival is captured in the unspaced closing sequence from "ginen understory (i tinituhon)":

should[we]go
tothehospital
lukao:procession

From birth, lukao leads the reader to Perez's grandmother, and the missionary strategy of the Spanish who colonised Guåhan in the mid-sixteenth century:

. . . // grandma lights votive candles,
dusts the wooden crucifix, and kisses her lisayu : rosary :
procession of prayers \\

This religious mandate and the impact it had on indigenous ritual practices is subsequently narrated in the second iteration of "ginen organic acts":

the spanish brought their god and bible, suppressed the story
of fu'una and puntan, and forbade the procession
to laso fu'a in humåtak bay

Fu'una is the first mother of Guåhan creation stories, and Puntan, the first father (Fu'una's brother). Laso fu'a names the creation point in Humåtak Bay where life began. The sacral procession to laso fu'a is made banal in the ersatz Liberation Day parade each July 21 when Guåhan "celebrates" their "liberation" from the Japanese by the Americans in 1944:

. . . The patriotic procession takes place on Marine
Corps Drive, our main highway

From civic banality, lukao cycles back to a recuperation and reconstitution of the original procession to the creation point in the third iteration of "ginen organic acts":

on that day in 2014, the cultural groups our
islands are sacred and hinasso* revived the lukao fuha, the annual
procession to humåtak bay in honour of fu'una and puntan \\
silenced for centuries //

{*the name of another group, which "translates as imagination, thought, memory, or reflection"}

In the fourth and final iteration of ginen organic acts, lukao returns to Perez's daughter Kaikainali'I ([neni]):

[neni]

walks to her, opens her arms // grandma kisses her cheek,
breathes deep her baby scent \\ lukao between four generations

With the theme of lukao : procession, Perez weaves together the birth of Guåhan and his daughter, missionisation, religion, and the revival of ritual procession practices; through these manifestations Perez in turn encompasses Guåhan's historical and current colonisation and Chamorro resistance through reinvigorated ritual. The entire collection flourishes on this hinge of past and present: balancing loss with renewal, grief and anger with humor and touches of lyrical beauty. from unincorporated territory [lukao] holds the bitter (faded out calls of extinct birds) and the sweet (new life), as in the closing sequence from the fourth and last iteration of "ginen island of no birdsong":

i believe in the resurgence
of our bodies because
[we] are the seeds
ginen {from}* the last hayun lågu {native fire tree}
waiting to be rooted
into kantan chamorrita {to sing forwards and backwards},
waiting to be raised
once more into lukao {procession}

"kaaa-ah o asaina kaaa-ah o aniti"
"kshh-skshh-skshh-kroo-ee o asaina
kroo-ee kroo-ee o aniti"

{* = translation added}

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Attributed to the Harrow Painter

Nick Twemlow
University of Iowa Press ($18)

by Stephanie Burt

If you started writing, or reading, contemporary poetry in the 1990s, you may remember how disconnected from practical matters so many poets (mostly white ones) seemed; you may remember how many then—urgent questions about art and language and style spoke almost entirely (so it seemed then) to art and language and style. And if you've read what counted as contemporary poetry in the late 1960s, or the 1930s, you may already know what happens when once-detached poets get woke; how self-important, or shallow, the results can be. Poets write what they need to write, when they are acting as poets, whether or not it reacts to the news; poets, as Auden put it, seek "the clear expression of mixed feelings." Yet some of those feelings—especially in these rough times—can be "holy crap, I've been privileged! What have I missed?"; "Why do I keep writing poetry, when the world is on fire? Isn't it selfish, or pointless?" You may also ask (if you have kids) "How can my poems help my kids?"

All those feelings energize Nick Twemlow's disarming new book, Attributed to the Harrow Painter, which feels almost—but not quite—like a palinode, a taking back, of the more recondite, more evasive work that he and other members of his cohort were writing, and publishing, ten and fifteen years ago. It is, not by coincidence, also a book of autobiography, a book about parenthood (especially fatherhood), a book about realizing what you have inherited (like it or not); how you can inherit privilege and damage, shame and pride, at once; and what to do when you realize that your old conceptions of style no longer work for you.

For those questions, Twemlow has found a cadence that pursues disillusion, frustration, anticlimax, the sense that he and his past have let him down. He writes almost entirely in long demotic sentences broken up into choppy free verse, exactly right for flat questions like this: "Tell me / How your / Radical formalism / Saves lives / Exactly?" Or like this: "What do you need / To be reminded of your / Obsolescence? I can/ Go on, but do you need / Me to?" Such short lines, rich in anticlimax, dribble down the page for most of the book. What were the 1990s, for Twemlow? Answer: "We didn't just live / In a bubble, we built / The fucker breath by breath . . . We were students of something / Complicit / As two plugs of dirt."

Few poets so clearly committed, emotionally, to poetry have dwelt for so long on the dubious value of their own poetry, and Twemlow—whose poems do run long, like shaggy dog jokes—strives to convey the feeling that he is wasting his life: "These lyrics offer nothing, / Stolen & begged for, / They relieve / No one as they relive / The traumas . . . of my past, / Which I've grafted / Onto you." Twemlow sometimes prints the same kind of language as prose: "Why depict spiders skittering All over our dreams I didn't mean I didn't always Love my mother her Name is Robyn same As my wife." (No, Rain Taxi hasn't left out the virgules: that's how it looks in the book.) The Robyn who married Twemlow is Robyn Schiff, whose most recent book of poetry, A Woman of Property, pursues some of the questions that Twemlow asks—is poetry worth it? is art self-indulgent? what can we do for our kids, in these parlous years?—She and her husband have moved in opposite directions, he towards apparent mess and spontaneity, she towards the involuted and nearly Baroque.

Both address art history, too. The titular Harrow painter is one of those "people" art historians make up—nothing about him, beyond his work, is known. That work—ancient Greek vase paintings of beautiful boys—is regarded as minor, or inconsequential, as Twemlow fears or believes our poetry will be. "Classical Greece," like "civilization," like "poetry," promised a lot more than it can deliver now:

The great poem
Is chiseled rock.
The great poem
Rages with
White fire.
. . . . . . . . . . .
The great poem
Steals rolls
Of toilet paper
Every chance it gets.

"The great poem," we learn, might be no better, and no better for the young, than a tennis coach given to inappropriate touching: "I'm an artist, he told me." No wonder Twemlow's attention to visual art comes about almost reluctantly; there's more here about his teen and post-teen years, his smoke-filled hangouts with Kira, George, Andy, which might not be that different from poetry workshops, or urbane launch parties, with writers whose names you might know:

Poetry is super duper,
In a loop, say it with me.
I'm fine with all this
Pretend stuff
About how my friends are
My only real audience
Except didn't some of us
At least have slightly bigger
Ambition?

The word "slightly" hurts. So does Twemlow's admission, "Most of the poets / I've met felt ashamed": ashamed either of making their art merely personal (what the scholar Gillian White calls "lyric shame"), or of unrealistic, revolutionary vanguardist ambitions (radical critiques of capitalist language, comprehensible only to friends). They might be ashamed of their present lives, having settled in an English department rather than organizing Gulf Coast flood relief, and they might remain ashamed of their past, of the sexual trauma or class trauma or whatever trauma made them think creative writing would save them.

Attributed to the Harrow Painter talks back not just to White's idea of shame but to Ben Lerner's recent argument (in The Hatred of Poetry) that we look down on actual poems, and their authors, because no real poem can cash the checks that "poetry," that lofty concept, writes. Why does Twemlow use verse, if he's lost belief both in the old ambitions of verse (to be lyrical, to last forever, to save our souls) and in the new ones (to make us all modern, to attack cliché, to bring revolution)? One answer fits the kind of verse he chose: verse is the medium of introspection, of turning and turning back on oneself, of stopping yourself short as often as you go on. Twemlow's long poems (and they are long: "Burnett's Mound" lasts twenty-one pages) also partake of the offhand ongoingness familiar from book-length post-Beat works like Ariana Reines's Coeur de Leon and Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day: the verse fits not condensed conclusions but helpless impressions, reluctant notions, and unwanted, disorienting memories, as when Twemlow recalls being "So high coming / Back to [a high school] class one day, / Investing myself back into / My chair," and then, of course, laughing.

Is poetry just another fidget spinner, a way "To distract myself / From the need to / Distract myself"? Is there any point in "Conveying how just being / Just feels" when "My latest concern / Is our son"? Twemlow throws shade on the value of poetry, and and on the value of your time, if you keep reading him, but there is one source of value he never doubts: his and Schiff's son Sacha (named in the book). What kind of poetry can make the world more valuable, or safer, or more fun, for Sacha? If such a poetry exists, can Twemlow write it?

Maybe not—who knows?—but, having given up on older defenses of poetry, Twemlow can try. The title poem tells a sad, disturbing story, one whose ending I won't give up; the poem, and the story, ultimately suggest poetry, like the other arts, exists not because it can save us, but because some of us can't help but make it, and can't help but want it, or want more of it:

Sometimes,
You read the wrong thing
At the wrong time
& poof! There it goes
All getting under your skin
For life!

Twemlow once worked reading commercial screenplays—anti-poetry, as it were; proposals for spectacles; he "learned to hate / Reading anything / That was for sale." Poetry might even sell—it might get you a job—but it's still a kind of resistance to practicality, to spectacle, to being told what to do, or doing what sells. So is toking up and skipping class, but poetry stays interesting for longer, at least when you're an adult. Poetry won't answer your scariest questions, but it can certainly help you ask them; poetry also—because it can be very short or very long; because its lines give writers a way to stop, or reverse, or restart, our sense of time; because it lets you listen to yourself—can help you address your own past; you might even find out what, if any, of your prior thoughts, of what you once thought you had to say, rings true.

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The World to Come

Jim Shepard
Vintage ($16)

by Ray Barker

1987's holiday film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles has nothing on Jim Shepard's recent short story collection, The World to Come. Nearly all manner of transport is explored: ship ("HMS Terror"), train ("Positive Train Control"), horse-and-buggy ("The World to Come"), and even hot air balloon ("The Ocean of Air"). Readers familiar with Shepard's previous short story collections would expect this; the title story from an earlier collection, Love and Hydrogen, depicts forbidden love aboard the doomed Hindenburg, after all. That story, and the majority of the ten here, are quintessential Shepard, mining historical events to illuminate human emotions.

As in his previous work, the primary sources Shepard consulted in the course of his research form the backbone of the bulk of his stories. (The list of those sources, offered in the books acknowledgments, could serve as its own experimental short story.) And as before, Shepard's tales are most effective when framed by a particular historical context. One can easily see this, for example, in The World to Come's opening story, "Safety Tips for Living Alone." In it, tragic and true events are filtered through the private lives of a handful of the husbands and wives affected by the collapse of a radar tower in Texas, 1961. The collapse of "Texas Tower no. 4 became one of the Air Force's most unlikely achievements and most lethal peacetime disasters, marooning nineteen wives including Ellie Phelan, Betty Bakke, Edna Kovarick, and Jeannette Laino in their own little stewpots of grief and recrimination." Shepard walks the reader through actual events with grace, offering both an instructive history lesson and a profound exploration of how regular lives are affected by national accidents.

Less successful is "Intimacy," an unintentionally ironic title as it is the least intimate story in the collection. Detailing the before, during, and after of a hurricane hitting sections of Australia, along with its devastating effects on three characters, the accumulation of details just pile up, with no broader significance. It almost reads like someone doing a sub-par imitation of Shepard.

When he's on, however, Shepard excels at creating authentic voices, regardless of the character. Journal entries form the narrative for "HMS Terror," where real-life Navy Captain and arctic explorer John Franklin's "lost expedition" is described by fictional crew member, Lieutenant Edward Little, from 1845 to 1848. As the unfortunate expedition progresses, the thoughtful entries slowly reveal a new tragedy each day:

Two more died in the night and when we set off in the morning two others, when it came time to pull, were unable to tighten their traces. We haul until everything goes black before our eyes. We sink to our chests in ponds of meltwater a quarter-mile across. My feet at days' end are yellow and wooden and swollen, and the toenails sugarcoat with frost while I inspect them. The soles have started to peel off.

As the horror unfolds (records indicate the crew eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive, at least temporarily), the narrator reflects on his still-felt romantic failures with a former classmate, and his personal failures are contrasted with the epic one. These entries, and Shepard's "historical fiction" in general, are not a dry telling of events, but rather evocative re-imaginings of a history that is told precisely and personally.

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The Clouds

Juan José Saer
Translated by Hilary Vaughn Dobel
Open Letter ($14.95)

by Erik Noonan

For the most part, contemporary fiction consists of dreams just about to come true, except that now and then a voice interrupts our slumber party, to invoke the tradition of Don Quixote and Lazarillo de Tormes. In this spirit, the anglophone reader who craves some profondeur in her divertissement will take pleasure in a new translation of The Clouds, a 1997 novel about madness in a millennial wasteland by Argentine author Juan José Saer (1937-2005).

His wife and sons having gone ahead to the seaside, Pinchón Garay, a Parisian academic from an unnamed city in the Southern Hemisphere, receives a disk from an old friend containing a transcription of an 1835 manuscript passed on to her by an archivist, and sits at his computer to read. The narrative relates a journey from Santa Fé to Buenos Aires, undertaken in August 1804 by a psychiatrist named Dr. Real, his guide Osuna, and five people who will become the inaugural cohort at Las Tres Acacias, an insane asylum soon to open at their destination: Prudencio Parra, who has gone mute and concentrates all his energy in a balled-up fist; Sister Teresita, a nun who has been reformed by the ladies of the evening she set out to reform; Troncoso, an aristocrat more at home in the company of the elemental forces of the universe than in society; Juan Verde, who crams everything he wants to say into the phrase Morning, noon, and night and never says anything else; and Juan's little brother, Verdecito, who expresses himself with every vocal sound imaginable except articulate speech. Beset by the terrible heat of the llano, the interpersonal dynamics of the group, their own maladies, and a gang of marauders led by the dreaded violinist-bandit Josesito, the little caravan makes its way to the closing pages of the story, whereupon the weather breaks, in the form of the clouds of the title, followed closely by a wildfire that lays the countryside to waste while the travelers take refuge in a lake until the blaze surrounds and passes them.

In this fiction, a doctor, the safeguard of the community's health, is the transmitter of civilization. The ruling passion of our narrator is bureaucratic—this is not an intrepid adventurer, but an efficient administrator—yet the chief pleasure of the book is Dr. Real's subtle commentary upon the action. Fearing public exposure as a psychiatric patient, Troncoso only ceases his antics when the doctor appears, while the latter remarks: "By revealing that connection to reality, he eased my concern, though only to an extent; experience has generally proven that, beneath that deceptive meekness, frenzy often grows impatient." When some local prostitutes adopt an adversarial stance toward the hypersexual Teresita, Real observes that "what the women took as an affront on the little nun's part, was, in a way, an homage she paid them." Reflecting on human behavior, Real reveals himself to be a naturalist: "A group of butterflies that all unmistakably perform the same motion at the same time puts our categories of individual and species to shame." In Saer's neoclassical prose, the simultaneity of the themes—life as a mere sojourn in the midst of transience, sanity as fortitude before dissolution, the cultivation of habit as the survival of culture—recapitulates the balance of the diction (epithets qualifying substantives) and the complexity of the syntax (subordinate clauses qualifying main ones), and this architectonics traces a line at the edge of barbarity, somewhat like the one that was thought to exist during the Enlightenment, but did not.

The trek of this crazy crew, a society in miniature, is an allegory for the transformations of a post-colonial, post-global Hispanosphere, gone astray in a wilderness of totalitarian regimes, corrupt democracies, and popular revolts, monsters born from the union of Evil and Reason. In Hilary Vaugn Dobel's excellent English version of the text, Juan José Saer visits us from an era that is like and unlike our own: "We were the effervescence of what lived," he writes, "things that vanish, in the very instant they arise, to that place we call the past, where no one ever goes," except sometimes in a novel.

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The Science of Things Familiar

Johnny Damm
The Operating System ($26)

by John Pistelli

In the interview that concludes this hybrid work, poet Johnny Damm confesses, "I'm a cis, white, straight man: I have privilege on top of privilege, and my voice certainly doesn't require amplification." While such a confession, with its histrionic air of noblesse oblige, almost always sounds more like self-aggrandizement than self-criticism, it does help to orient the reader ethically and politically in Damm's aesthetic world. The Science of Things Familiar is a collage whose startling juxtapositions try to shock readers into awareness of the various subtexts—emotional, sexual, racial, environmental—of twentieth-century American popular culture.

Damm explains in an afterword, "Poetics and Process," that the "things familiar" of his book's title-itself borrowed from a nineteenth-century textbook-are "music, film, and (comic) books." The "science," he leaves the reader to understand, is the critique of ideology: an explanation of the material circumstances that brought these "familiar things" into being, with an emphasis on the exploitation and oppression underlying them.

Damm works in the disparate modes of appropriation, pastiche, and confession, sometimes all at once. Bookended by faux-scientific textbook diagrams with poignant titles—"Diagram of Your Breath," "Diagram of Your Touch," "Diagram of What Remains Unsaid," etc.—The Science of Things Familiar also includes comic-book cut-ups, mock entries in a biographical dictionary of film, a critical essay with confessional footnotes, and more.

In The Science's first third, Damm arranges collages of panels from old Classics Illustrated comics and replaces their expository and grandiloquent narrative elaborations on canonical literature with his own bittersweet lyrical prose:

Walt Whitman feels a sharp need to look out the window but pauses over the drawn back curtains and rolls the sinewy fabric between his fingers. There's a word for this, he thinks. There's a word.

The irony in this section, with its clash of the stagy old comics' pomposity against a contemporary so-sad-today sense of self-conscious sorrow, has a light touch.

The book's next two divisions are more polemical. In the middle third, Damm explores, via a Borgesian parody of a film dictionary, the exclusion of women from cinema. The third section returns to comic-book collage, this time to explain the class- and race-based marketing decisions that segregated American popular music into white middle-class norms (pop, rock) defined against poor-white and black music construed more as folklore than art.

Damm certainly addresses serious topics, and his treatment of them is often arresting—for instance, in the last section, machine-gun onomatopoeia ("rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat") borrowed from war comics exemplifies the racial and economic violence underwriting the music industry. As important as this subject matter is, though, Damm's information is not new, and his implied outrage, while well-intentioned, has become a somewhat rote gesture among right-thinking writers. More impressive because more unpredictable, and thus riskier, is the impassioned re-writing of Classics Illustrated comics that opens The Science of Things Familiar. In these pages, Damm fulfills his title's implied promise to return the familiar—whether canonical literary works or old comics—to the strangeness from whence they came.

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Irradiated Cities

Mariko Nagai
Les Figues Press ($17)

by John Bradley

"we are still in the before the after : before the before the after," writes Mariko Nagai, reflecting on the nuclear disaster that took place in Fukushima in 2011. The nuclear focus of this book-on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, and Fukushima-feels quite timely, given our nation's stance on North Korea, which means it makes for uncomfortable reading, as it should. The book, with both its prose and photographs, is quietly and chillingly effective.

Not only the topic, but the consequences of nuclear warfare confront the reader here. Take this description of a victim of the Hiroshima bomb: "something is dismantling him from within : hair keeps coming out in fistfuls, & he is sleeping more : bloody nose & erupting ulcers on his lips : he cannot keep anything inside his body & lies there in his own vomit & diarrhea : things are breaking down inside, the body is collapsing from inside out & they don't know what it is . . . ." The use of the colons, as can be seen, blurs cause and effect. Everything is connected to everything else. Nagai uses the colons this way in all of the thirty-two prose poems in the book, even for the closing. There's never a period to provide closure, even at the very end of each piece. The colon is the perfect punctuation for this book, as it's logical, neutral, and inevitable.

This punctuation usage creates a challenge to the reader, however, as each piece (usually a page long) must be read without pausing. Nagai holds the reader's attention, though, with her shifts in tone and voice. In the piece on the Japanese fishermen irradiated by an American bomb detonated in the Pacific during a test on March 1, 1954, for example, the author weaves in this statement from Edward Teller, dismissing the death of a fisherman: "it is not from radiation, but from underlying liver cirrhosis compounded by an infection : it is unreasonable to make such a big deal over the death of a fisherman . . . " One wonders what the U.S. would say if Japan or Russia or North Korea gave this response to us.

Interspersed with the prose, the book features eighty-eight black and white full-page photographs. While the prose makes the reader confront the effects of the radiation, the photos approach the nuclear legacy much more indirectly. For example, the photo that accompanies "This Mysterious Disease," which contains the graphic description of the "dismantling" of the body, we see earth and shadows. The photo is titled "Shadows in the Hiroshima Peace Park," and the shadows soften the harsher prose. This happens throughout the book. In a photo found in the chapter on Fukushima, entitled "Farm Boots at a Temporary Dairy Farm," we see only farm boots, two of them numbered with a black "23." The ordinariness of the boots, the reminder of the chores of the farmer, brings to mind the safe images of cows and milk. Only implied are such questions as these: Is the milk being checked for radiation? What are the standards? How can the consumer know if food and beverages are really safe? The boots can also remind us of the boots of the workers in Fukushima, trying to "clean up" the nuclear disaster.

In "Rumors of Distant Disaster," Nagai closes with this calm yet frightening observation: "on a distant shore, a government is making hundreds & hundreds of suns, to reorder the politics of the world : on this short, all is well : because they tell themselves : on a distant shore : it all happens on the distant shore : it can never happen here :" This ironic warning should be heeded by all, and yet the reader may wonder: Will these words be heard by those making the "hundreds & hundreds of suns"? The author deserves much praise for making us gaze with her into the nuclear abyss.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Habit of Mind: An Interview with Jennifer Egan

photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem

Interviewed by Allan Vorda

Born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco, Jennifer Egan is known by readers of The New York Times Magazine as a journalist, and to many more readers as one of the pre-eminent fiction writers of our time. Since her first book, a collection of short stories titled Emerald City (1993), she has published the novels The Invisible Circus (1995), Look at Me (2001), The Keep (2006), and A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), the latter of which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the LA Times Book Prize.

Egan's new novel, Manhattan Beach (Scribner, $28), is set during the World War II era, a time when women were newly permitted to take on industrial jobs that once belonged to the men, now soldiers fighting in the war. The novel follows the interwoven stories of Anna Kerrigan, the only female diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, her father Eddie Kerrigan, a bagman for the mob who has vanished under mysterious circumstances, and nightclub owner Dexter Styles, Eddie's mobster boss.

I interviewed Jennifer Egan on November 6, 2017 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston before the author's reading at Rice University for the Inprint Reading Series; we ended up discussing her latest novel of course, but also travel, beauty, and Rockford, Illinois, among many other topics. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation (transcription by Shawn Vorda).


Allan Vorda: Before getting into your latest novel, Manhattan Beach, I would like to briefly discuss some of your earlier writing. Emerald City, a collection of short stories, often depicts characters who initially might be described as not worldly or perhaps naïve, yet who experience some epiphany or awakening. I am thinking of Sam in "Why China?," Sarah in "Sacred Heart," and Rory in "Emerald City." Was there a particular enlightening experience that you can share that contributed to your own self-awareness.

Jennifer Egan: Yes. I took a year off between high school and college, and I went to Europe and traveled with a backpack. I flew to London, got a Eurail pass and traveled around Europe, which a lot of European kids did and probably still do. I didn't see too many Americans. It was very alienating in certain ways because my family was in San Francisco and, of course, those were the days without cell phones or the Internet. It's hard even now for me to imagine this. I felt very cut off and I think in that cut off state, I discovered that writing was an essential part of my connection to the world. It was an epiphany, although I don't remember a specific moment when it happened. I remember by the time I came back I knew I wanted to be a writer. I guess you can't really ask for more from a year off, right? I knew what I wanted to do with my life, but like so many discoveries I've made, it really came through adversity.

In other words, it was not a fun trip in many ways. It was very hard. I felt very isolated. I wonder sometimes whether anyone experiences that isolation anymore. I wonder whether without that isolation I would have discovered I wanted to be a writer. I don't know nowadays if I would have. I don't know if I would have been just chatting on Instagram the whole time and never reaching that discovery.

AV: How have your other traveling experiences affected you as a writer?

JE: I think a great deal, because I'm very influenced and informed by place. That's my entry point into fiction. I think it starts with the fact that I'm originally from Chicago, but my parents divorced when I was two. I moved at seven to San Francisco with my mother and stepfather, and the textures and feeling of that place were very different than Chicago. Right from the start I was attuned to the fact that in some ways geography and biography intersected. I used the places that I had been and experienced as both a traveler and a citizen very heavily. In fact it's the only part of my own life that I knowingly use in my fiction. So, in some ways, the places I've been offer me stories to tell. They're my access points.

AV: Several of the husbands in Emerald City are unfaithful leading to divorce. Charlotte Swenson, the protagonist in Look at Me, observes of her one-night stand with a married man: "It was obvious he was a regular cheater. So many were." You are a happily married woman with children, but should readers read into your characters that you do not have a high opinion of men in general?

JE: I think that would be presumptuous on the part of the reader because I think there are also a great many happy marriages in my work. However, it is fair to say that I have witnessed a lot of broken marriages. My parents divorced when I was very young so I didn't grow up with an example of a very happy marriage in front of me.

AV: Taking a line from Look at Me, Charlotte ponders: "Seeing her mother beside her annihilated that hope, leaving Charlotte to wonder whether someone so unbeautiful as herself would be allowed to go on, to have anything. Wouldn't someone more beautiful get it, whatever it was?" You seem to have a lot of references to women's beauty or even their unattractiveness. I'm curious what your concept of beauty is and its importance to women in general.

JE: I think we live in an image-saturated world, a culture in which physical appearance ends up having excess importance, in which people of all sorts are focused, have to be focused, especially younger people, on this self-marketing. That's really what social media is on some level. I think physical appearance has outsized importance in our culture and no one has much of a choice but to care about it. I think that's unfortunate in certain ways. It impacts people in ways that are different for every person, and I think it often has very little relationship to their inner lives. I guess I feel that physical appearance is a bit of a distraction, but it ends up mattering more than it should in a culture permeated by mass media.

AV: Throughout several of your stories you mention Rockford, Illinois. I believe your mother grew up there, but did you spend any time there and what is it about Rockford you like to use as a reference?

JE: I did spend a lot of time there because my grandparents lived there. Until they both passed away, I would go there in the summer and other times. I think what interested me in Rockford is it is a quintessentially industrial, mid-sized Midwestern city, but whose industrial peak gradually subsided over the last century. When its industry gradually began to die out, and to some degree its economy, its identity also changed. When other changes happened, like the highway systems in the 1950s, which left downtown Rockford sort of like a shell of itself. There were a lot of trends one sees all over America that were manifested in Rockford. I guess what I found interesting is it seemed like a way to look at a larger phenomenon in the progress and decline of American cities; yet it was also a place that I knew well and for which I had an affection because of my childhood.

AV: When writing fiction and doing your research, do you have time to read for your own pleasure? If so, do you feel this distracts or energizes your writing?

JE: I am definitely always reading for pleasure. For Manhattan Beach, I was reading mostly about the first half of the 20th century for several years. There's always the danger that what I'm reading starts to make a stamp on what I'm writing. What I find is if that happens, the influence tends to fall away in later drafts. I don't really worry too much about it. I love reading and I'm very inspired by it. I'm always looking for ideas and approaches. It's true I might grab onto an idea or approach that doesn't really fit in the context that I'm working in, but I can usually spot that at a later point and let it go.

AV: You state in the book Why We Write: "Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do." What kind of writing provides nourishment for you?

JE: First of all, I like to read fiction and non-fiction, but ideally writing that has a strong intellectual bedrock and a deep structure of ideas. Writing that is ambitious and pays attention to the music and rhythm of language.

AV: Manhattan Beach is your first novel since A Visit from the Goon Squad. What was the genesis of the story? Tell us about Lucille Kolkin—did you base any of Anna's character on Lucy?

JE: Lucille Kolkin was a woman who corresponded with her husband during World War II in a series of letters that are now at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and they're wonderful letters. I discovered them in 2005 and it took me a few months to read them all since I had limited access to the library. The reason I was reading these letters was to try to learn about the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Lucy was working after her husband, Al, had joined the navy. I did not base Anna on Lucy, but I felt like Lucy was kind of an inspiring spirit in all of it, because she was sassy and strong. Lucy was crazy about Al—head-over-heels in love—so it was very sweet to read the way she wrote to him. Certain little anecdotes from her experiences did find their way into the book, but it's hard to remember because I read interviews and interviewed so many women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. So I can't quite say to what degree I've used details from Lucy's experience, but certainly she was one of many voices in my head that provided a kind of texture of women's experience at the Yard, apart from all the stuff I made up.

AV: Since we are talking about the letters that Lucy was writing, hasn't this become a lost art? Nowadays people just correspond by email and writing by script is gradually disappearing.

JE: They don't know script, even my kids don't know script. It's very unsettling. First of all, who prints their email to save it? What are we going to do? We'll have no correspondence of which to have a record. Not only is the handwriting in Lucy's letters wonderful, but she and Al also made diagrams of things for each other. For example, at one point she kissed the letter paper, which was so eerie because you could see the little creases of her lips. It was like she did it yesterday! There was a human element that is simply not present if you read email. You're interfacing with a machine, not a person. One time Lucy was on a streetcar and her handwriting would be messy and she'd say, "Oh, my stop is almost here!" and it's just so much more intimate than reading email. There were a few letters that were typed, but I think that was because someone had typed them later to make them easier to read. Even a typewriter was an unwelcome intrusion into this prose. I wrote letters for a lot of my life. I have lots of letters that people wrote to me. I still save cards and notes, but no one writes letters. Yes, you might get a thank you note, but who writes a handwritten letter? I don't even do that, and I handwrite my first drafts. Future generations are going to have nothing. We're going to have screenshots of people's Instagram accounts to see what they were doing and thinking.

AV: The story of Manhattan Beach is set primarily in the 1930s and ’40s in which ethnicity plays a key role. "Dexter liked the Irish, was drawn to them, although time and again they had proved untrustworthy. It wasn't duplicity so much as a constitutional weakness that might have been the booze or might have been what drove them to it. You wanted a mick to help you dream up schemes, but in the end you needed a wop or Jew or a Pollack to bring them off." Can you explain to readers, who were not part of that generation, what it was like to be Irish and the ethnic differences that existed that you bring out in your book?

JE: First of all, it was very strange to use terms like that. My husband is Jewish, and when he was reading the book the first time, he was really shocked to find that I was using the term shylock or shyster in the first chapter. He was brought up short by that because it's an ethnic slur and the book is full of ethnic slurs. There was no way to be true to the period without making those characterizations. I spent a lot of time talking to the painter Alfred Leslie, who was very much a part of the abstract expressionist movement, and had a wonderful career and is still very active in his 80s. Leslie said people identified each other ethnically, but there was actually less ethnic prejudice than today. That was the first thing you wanted to know about someone, right up front—you're a mick, I'm a wop, he's a Jew, and this person is a Negro. Once our ethnicity was established, now let's move on. According to Alfred, we now have this fallacy that everyone is the same, which is not true, and ethnic tensions are actually made worse by the fact that we don't acknowledge our differences right up front. If you read someone like John O'Hara, it's striking how insecure Irish-Americans were. The Irish came to America in large part because of the famine, which was a catastrophe arising from the really cruel and negligent treatment they received from the English. The Irish already had a chip on their shoulder. Then they came here and they were treated pretty badly. It's amazing to think of how that prejudice has disappeared. I mean, who isn't Irish? We're everywhere! But there really was a strong sense of ethnic identity and also of insecurity and inferiority.

AV: This was a long time ago, but I remember my grandfather in Evanston who would look out his window and refer to a neighbor walking down the sidewalk and say, "There goes the Swede." I was just a kid, but to call your neighbor by his ethnicity and not even his name was very telling of those times.

JE: I never even thought of my name as an Irish name until much later. Chicago is one place where Irish-Americans have an ethnic identity, and definitely Boston, but not so much in New York.

I remember when I first moved to New York and got my phone number. I was working at a temp job calling the phone company. The woman gave me this great number that was really easy to remember, and I said, "Wow, thank you, that's such a nice number!" And she said, "One Irish girl to another," and it was so surprising. She had recognized my name as Irish and she was looking out for me. I don't think I'd ever had that experience before.

It's interesting to think about it in light of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the idea of whiteness as a construct. I really understand why he says that, because you rarely hear the word "white" in the first half of the 20th century. White—what did that mean? You were a wop, you were a mick, you were a Pollack, you were a Jew. The idea of all those people being combined into a category called white is something people from those ethnic groups would have had trouble comprehending. The Irish, for example, tended to hate the Italians. They certainly didn't see themselves as bound to Italians by any shared "whiteness."

AV: I once read the Irish were paid less than black people in the late nineteenth century because they were considered the lowest class of people. And yet due to Irish fortitude and pride, they built themselves up and made great lives for their children.

JE: The Irish had a lot of problems—alcoholism was extreme, physical abuse was rampant, and consequently so was a lot of abandonment. There are a lot of similarities with the urban poor that we now think of as being more often African-American: a lot of children raised without fathers which often leads to further fatherlessness. A lot of strong mothers holding families together. My character, Eddie Kerrigan, grows up in the Catholic protectory in the Bronx, and I think some of those buildings—or at least the grounds—still exist. A lot of the guys on the Irish waterfront did come from that protectory, but growing up in an orphanage did not necessarily mean you were an orphan. A lot of these "orphans" were kids whose families just abandoned them or couldn't raise them because they had so many children. Actually, it was Alfred Leslie who first that told me about this. He didn't know about the Catholic protectory because he was Jewish, but there was another orphanage where members of his family were placed, even though they weren't orphans. This kind of fatherlessness and rootlessness and trauma really existed in these Irish-American families, and it perpetuated a lot of pain that took quite a while to work through. And the alcoholism persists: my father and my uncle were alcoholics for decades before they became sober.

AV: Anna Kerrigan has a special relationship with her handicapped sister. Why did you create Lydia? What secrets does she know about Anna?

JE: I don't really create characters. I start writing and I see who enters the story. Lydia was there right from the beginning. I questioned that. I was unsure that I wanted to write about someone who was handicapped. But she felt inextricable. She's in some ways the fulcrum around which a lot of the story turns. So I rolled with that. I often don't feel I'm in control of who populates the stories. As long as I feel they organically need to be there, I just try to the best job I can to tell their story.

I think the main thing she knows about Anna is that she has a sexual history, which was not an acceptable fact for an unmarried girl at that time—certainly not a young teen. Although there was plenty of sexual activity going on, which is another thing Alfred Leslie talked about. He said in these tenement neighborhoods there was a lot of promiscuity among young kids. This placed girls in a strange position because the mores governing their behavior were very different than they are now. This often had very little to do with the reality of the situation, yet it led to a lot of guilt and bad feeling. Anna's parents are somewhat estranged, partly because of Lydia. Her father finds it impossible to feel good about his handicapped daughter and his difficulty in being affectionate towards her has created a huge divide in his marriage. Anna alternates time with her mother and her father; yet she says very little about either world to the other parent. Lydia, in a way, is the only person that synthesizes Anna's family life. She's the connection. It's through Lydia that Anna experiences her whole self, her whole life, and that continues when she develops another secret life that neither of her parents know about.

AV: Manhattan Beach is partly about the evolution of women's rights brought about by the Great Depression and World War II when women got involved in the workforce. Can you talk a bit about the role of women during this transitional period in our history?

JE: It was an incredible period for women. I always knew this in a vague way. Women were called upon to do work that they'd been told all their lives they could not do. The fact is they did it very well and then they were told they could not do it anymore. Rosie the Riveter was a propaganda campaign designed to get women to do industrial work because they were needed so badly. One of the women I interviewed for the oral history project, who was an amazing welder, talked about how she had become so proficient and so excellent at welding during her time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that she wanted to use those skills later, but she was laughed at when she applied for welding jobs. All of this came home to roost in the women's movement and the '60s counter-culture. There was no way to make this discovery go away and I think it was a really head-spinning moment for women. Interestingly, I think a lot of them really did just go back to much more domestic women's work and lives. They were back to the telephone company or to be secretaries. It's not true that they stopped working, although that's what some people say about the '50s. But that wasn't possible for working class families. The women still had to work. A lot of the women that worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard had already been working; they were just doing more of these 'women's jobs'—lots of telephone operating, secretarial work, and childcare. So they went back to that kind of work. If they could afford not to, then they didn't work. It was really their daughters that had to lead the charge and say we need to rethink all of this. The war in general was such a time of tumult. Women's lives were one of many different kinds of accepted patterns that were disrupted. I think that a lot of what happened in the '60s, in terms of the civil rights movements and all kinds of other things, were the result of that disruption. They sort of skipped a generation and then they really came to the fore.

AV: Anna wants to be a diver to repair naval ships which was considered a man's job. Why did you choose this role for her and what kind of research did you do?

JE: I don't know why I chose it. I was interested when I learned that deep-sea diving was a part of ship repairing and I saw a picture of an old diving suit, with the spherical helmet. I was very moved by that. The sea is a deep inspiration for this book. In a way I followed the sea into the various different elements of the story. One thing about using the ocean in fiction is that it's both real and metaphorical. I guess it was exciting to follow the sea into its physical manifestations and also reap its metaphorical rewards. Anna is trying to understand things that she can't see. The thought of her physically walking around the bottom of the sea just seemed incredibly thrilling to me. I couldn't resist.

AV: It is not just Anna but many of the female characters in your novels and short stories who exhibit mental toughness and the ability to eventually make sound decisions. Is this a theme you consciously try to address in your fiction?

JE: I'm always interested in strength and weakness in both genders. Stories of surmounting odds are not that interesting. We've all read those stories. I'm just as interested in marginal people who cannot master mainstream culture, both male and female. In the end, I'm more interested in those people than the ones who manage to triumph.

AV: Dexter Styles has a high opinion of himself. How should we judge Dexter?

JE: I guess the only way I can answer that is that in art and in life, I'm not very interested in judgments. I think that people are contradictory and imperfect and my job as a fiction writer is to try to capture those imperfections and to try to condense some form of the complicated mess which is human life. Judgments don't interest me; they're always reductive.

AV: Literary critic Matthew Carl Strecher wrote that Haruki Murakami has the unique ability to "include movement in and out of the protagonist's mind." I think the same is true of your work. How do you make each of your character's thoughts ring so true?

JE: That's one of the key things I think about with a character: their unique habits of mind. I think we all organize reality in our own way and a lot of that has to do with our individual past and our experience which is unique to us. Finding the way a person interprets reality and makes it legible for him or herself is the number one thing I try to find about every person. I have to find it. If I can't find it, maybe that means I shouldn't be in that person's point of view.

In other words, if I'm going to go into a point of view, I am making a promise to the reader that I can deliver the habits and mind of that person; if I can't, I haven't earned the right to represent that person's point of view. This actually happened a little bit in Manhattan Beach. I go in and out of various points of view, mostly with my three major protagonists, but a little bit here and there with other people like Lydia and her mother Agnes. At one point I was in Agnes's point of view a lot more, but what I found was that I couldn't give the reader much more than the reader already knew about her. So I pulled back on her point of view because I was not delivering on my promise to the reader to justify my presence inside her mind.

AV: All of your books are excellent, but is there one you personally like the best?

JE: Look at Me is my favorite. It's flawed, but it's the most ambitious in my opinion. I have not topped it. I'm still trying. It is all about understanding the deep mental landscape of individual characters. This is the number one goal I have as a fiction writer. This is one thing fiction can do that other types of media—film, YouTube, video games—cannot achieve, which is to deliver a deep knowledge about how someone else's mind works.

My fear was that lovers of Goon Squad—and that's where I found a lot of my audience—might not like Manhattan Beach. I've had that happen before. For example my novel The Keep, which was a gothic thriller, is where I found a whole world that loved the gothic. Yet the gothic readers weren't so thrilled with Goon Squad since there's nothing gothic in the book. I feel I ask a lot from my readers to make these transitions with me, but I'm finding that I'm getting a better reaction than I thought I might from people who loved Goon Squad. A number of people have said, "Look, I don't like it as much." They're honest with me about that. That's okay, they've given it a try and in some cases really enjoyed it. I'm hoping my next book will be a companion to Goon Squad. I'm happy to keep those readers with me and move back into that territory. If I can do it well is the big question mark.

AV: To quote from Goon Squad: "Time's a goon right? You're gonna let that goon push you around?" Your readers have waited seven years before Manhattan Beach was published. How long before Jennifer Egan knocks out that goon so we can read your next book?

JE: [Laughter.] Very fair question. I'm hoping, and hoping should be italicized, to be publishing every three years from now on through the rest of my career. I can't have those long gaps anymore or I won't get done what I want to get done. There are a number of reasons that this book took so long. One reason was that Goon Squad had such good luck, and I spent a lot of time trying to capitalize on that luck by speaking and traveling. Also, my kids were still young so I was with them the rest of the time. Now that they're teenagers—they've got their own lives to some degree—they don't want my help and involvement to the degree they once did. In fact, they're probably a little relieved that I'm not at home constantly right now. Frankly, it's just time for me to pick up the pace. I hope it will be every three years, max four, and never again seven. Of course, you say never and you find out you're not in total control, but I feel adamant that I don't want to have those gaps anymore. One concrete way I try to prevent it is while I was writing the first draft of Manhattan Beach, I also worked on the first draft of another novel for the first eight months. I actually have a lot of material which I need to type and get into, but that's very different than having nothing. That is where I found myself in 2012, two years after my last book had come out, and starting on page one. I don't want to let that happen again.

AV: Winning the Pulitzer Prize must be a blessing and a curse. You get all this popularity and sales, but then you're sitting at your desk writing you must feel this enormous pressure that you need to duplicate that success. Can you share what this has been like?

JE: I thought that I wouldn't feel pressure, but I totally felt pressure as it turned out. I think because of the delay, and I was very rusty when I finally started writing again, and the fact that I was taking on writing a book outside of my lifetime, was especially hard for me. I had always used times and places from my life. I did feel a worry about doing a horrible job and really being pounded for it. It was hard. I'm relieved that Goon Squad is not my last book anymore. The goal is always to keep getting better. The danger with having a book be so rewarded is that it starts to take on this iconic quality, and it can be hard to move past it. The big danger is not that you feel bad or that you feel worried, but that you actually cannot continue to improve. That's the biggest concern. I really hope that I've moved out of that weird loop of worry.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Of Mongrelitude, The Absolute Letter, and In Memory of an Angel

Of Mongrelitude

Julian Talamantez Brolaski
Wave Books ($18)

The Absolute Letter

Andrew Joron
Flood Editions ($14.95)

In Memory of an Angel

David Shapiro
City Lights Publishers ($14.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Every year a number of poetry books are published that seemingly don't receive the attention they deserve. Three such titles published in 2017 are Julian Talamantez Brolaski's Of Mongrelitude, Andrew Joron's The Absolute Letter, and David Shapiro's In Memory of An Angel. I discovered myself deeply engaged, for different reasons, with each of these collections. All three are fine examples of small press experimental-leaning poetry and each poet dazzles with an approach to language uniquely their own.

Of this group, Shapiro is the elder statesman, now in his seventieth year. He has published many collections of his own poetry since co-editing, along with Ron Padgett, An Anthology of New York School Poets (1969), including New and Selected Poems in 2007. In Memory of an Angel, borrowing its title from Allen Berg's violin concerto, charts the wondrous course poetry has wafted across his life. As remarked in the opening poem, "1963," "It is you, it is you / I keep following." No doubt Shapiro wasn't cognizant at the time that he was heralding a romance with the ubiquitous "you" of poetry that he has relentlessly pursued ever since:

I want to do for you
what the wheelbarrow
did for the good doctor

I want to do for you
what the lipstick
does to the lips

I want to do to you
what a naked foot
does to clothed grass

I want you to do to me
what the moss
does to the moss garden

I want you to do with me
what a stone garden
does to Eternity

The delight Shapiro takes in language's play is found upon every page here. He pays testament to the avowed nature of the relationship of poet to word. "Oh word your friend / Formless astonishing and alone." The poems achieve a natural balance, demonstrating poetry's role as interaction site between the powerful poles of playful engagement and sacred practice. "You send me longish letters. / Therefore, God exists." Shapiro mixes literary tropes with a slight frivolity, delighting in light-handed mercurial whimsy that is nonetheless heartfelt when shifting from one line to the next: "It's morning. Dawn has brought the ships out. Dawn keeps breaking our ships. // Can I tie your hair again?" Best of all, he knows that it's poetry's prerogative and not his own to decide what poems he's been given to write: "No, I didn't write my poems, but I heard the mermaids / singing, and they were singing to me."

Andrew Joron's The Absolute Letter opens with "The Argument; Or, My Novalis" a mini-manifesto calling forth a poetic practice established around how "letters of the alphabet" may be witnessed "dissolved into vibrational patterns." This idea fully informs Joron's approach to writing poetry. He is devoted to the belief in an aural assonance existing between words, a direct organizing alphabet of reality: "The world is itself composed of the letters of the Absolute." His approach is musical as well as mystical at heart: "& the wound so wound, the sound so wound." Words are unveiled then veiled then unveiled again, each instance being a further unfurling of divergent combinations of sense and sound. Vowels are exchanged and rearranged, words bounce off one another in an ever-transforming cascade of echoes. Reading becomes utterly tonal, heavily invested in the cosmic play of language's ephemeral presence:

No surer treasure than the trap of my ape-shadow.

Starting from the homonym of home—

My nature a frame in fracture.

Shall I then pose X, expose my scar tissue?

Empirical to tough, the cost of empire—

What sound so wound, so round, so ruined?

As words get unpacked in a poem the meaning is examined. What's said gets unsaid, only finally to be said—sometimes expanded, other times contradicted. The examination is one of the ultimate pursuit, a chase after what informs our understanding of the real:

The Person wears a headdress, a dress of thought.

The Person is male with female characteristics, fallen into autumns
of stain & substance. His sin is a cinema of seeming, a body—sign of
both & neither meeting, teeming.

The Person wears what is: a "melancholy cloud." My closed system.

His signs point backward. His eye wants what it cannot have.

Taste waste, the One without mouth, the Eye ever over I.

Icon of the blackness of Blankness, icon of the Whiteness of Witness.

Cite I, seer: O deafened hour, defend ear.


Julian Talamantez Brolaski captures the terrain of poetry's future. These poems look backward within Western literary traditions while projecting ahead to what's yet arriving. This is the language of song society and is in dire need of hearing. Not to pay heed is to risk the peril of failing the continual advancement of our arts:

to have not foregone ones ancestors
to have rilly meant what one said
to have earlier been one way and than another w/o contradiction
above all to have not playd ones friends false

I gather that "mongrelitude" is Brolaski's own coinage, and it calls to mind the state of being a mutt, a haphazard result of incongruous yet happy joining. Brolaski's spelling of many words is also idiosyncratic, with just the right hint of archaic Old English. The language of these poems is itself thus mongrel in nature. Brolaski celebrates the visionary free mixing of all peoples, languages, and sexes into one, rewriting poetic lineages to align with present necessity:

marcabru uses the word 'mestissa' to describe the shepherdess his
dickish narrator is poorly courting
which paden translates 'half-breed' and pound 'low-born'
and snodgrass 'lassie' but I want to say mongrel, mestiza, mixedbreed
melissima most honeyed most songful
what catullus called his boyfriend's eyes
honey the color of my dead dog's eyes the stomach of the bee

Decidedly gifted lyrically, Brolaski is the poet set down in the right time and place to point out to the rest of us the direction our tongues are headed. Here's where they're going and the means for us to get ourselves there as well, if we listen.

zukofsky reciting hiawatha
in yiddish on a lower eastside streetcorner

artur schnabel doing bach
lipan apache singing in lakota

of all the bill and coo
that makes es wooing parlous

who swindle a soup
divers' showers and thir shammies

one star in thir square
of skye

amador you don't need
to get fucked up to see visions

All three of these poets confirm what many readers can palpably feel: it's an exciting time for poetry.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Twelve Flags, Books 1 - 3

Klaus Kolb
Self-published

by Jim Kozubek

In the spring of 1938, four-year-old Klaus Kolb wakes up to a rhythmic "shrap, shrap, shrap" of Nazi Stormtroopers marching past his house in Goerlitz, the oldest city on the eastern angle of Germany. The black, white, and red flags with cross-like symbols that the soldiers carry became the first flag in his life in a vivid 800-page memoir that spans four paperback volumes.

Klaus and his childhood friend Norbert spend much of the first volume growing up plying the German forests and schools in their Lederhosen emblemized with Edelweiss flower and stag shields, roughhousing and getting into trouble, and managing to slip enrollment into Deutsches Jungvolk, or German Young People, the Cub Scouts equivalent of the Hitler Youth.

To be a child born into the era of the Third Reich is perhaps as conflicted a struggle as to grow up being persecuted by it. German phenomenologists gave us the term lebenswelt, or lifeworld, for the given, shared world of everyday experience; if Heidegger was right, a life has no explanation or ethic outside of its context. Klaus shows living under a nativist, autocratic regime, seemingly grasping for control amid a nihilistic undertow-is impossible to sidestep. He must learn quickly. Give the kid a break. He's only four. But, then again, he can already sense he is into something deep.

Klaus had an older brother, also named Klaus, who while under negligent supervision of a babysitter, had climbed to the top of a 1,000-foot water tank along the railroad tracks, where his father had worked. He fell. His mother was not yet through coping with the first Klaus's death, and after the narrator, the second Klaus, reports his sister dies in childbirth, his mother takes her own life. The only thing young Klaus has to remember of his mother is her wedding picture. Klaus's father soon remarries Irmgard, a courthouse secretary. His father takes a job as a master mechanic of air conditioning units for Wiessner Maschinenfabrik. This is a family already living on second chances.

• • •

In our moment, memoir is in vogue with the rise of multivolume efforts by Karl Ove Knausgaard, some notable contributions by Paul Auster, and others, which may represent a countertrend to the technocratic rise of big data, machines, virtualization, and a marginalization of the world of experience. There is no more physical a world than the one reported here. There have always been masters of the quotidian, such as Nicholson Baker, who also wrote extensively about the forces that shaped the rise of Nazism, and mind-shifting metaphor writers, such as Michael Chabon, whose Moonglow recollected his step-grandfather's survival through World War II. The memoirist inherently struggles with a sense of memory at risk of disappearing and an urgency to write, and at the same time, with doubts of who exactly is qualified to write a memoir. As Chabon's friend tells him in Moonglow, the only difference between you and me is that you wrote it down.

If a memoir requires something more than writing down an encounter, it's a keen sense that things could have always gone differently, a report of a world of contradictions, and a chronicle that reports on culture and interlocks with major events. Klaus's memoir-edited and co-written by veteran Florida Today newspaper reporter Linda Jump-reads as a storybook with photographs and drawings that chronicle the times. As a six-year-old boy, he receives a Zuckertuete, or sugar cone, which is a kind of giant Christmas stocking that children receive on the first day of school and includes not only candy, but school supplies. He learns that not all children get them from their parents-his first lesson in economics. But as his gifts soon run out, he learns to be industrious. He includes drawings of a three-person bicycle he built; a four-stall rabbit hutch he built during the emaciating times of war, when his family runs out of food; a picture of a wagon he and his childhood friends build to collect scrap brass. "If you don't help, then you are responsible for our solders' deaths, if they can't get cartridges from your scrap brass," the children are scolded.

For Klaus the absurdist plot throughout his life is that one authoritarian regime, the nationalist Nazi, is replaced by another, the communist Soviet, and his only channel to independence seems to emerge from the rugged survivalist ethic of his apolitical father who repeatedly evokes Nietzsche: "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." Whether Klaus will survive never seems to be a given, and just as he comes to loathe his father's unbending personality, it proves to be the ethic that saves him. In the end, he earns his freedom and proves to redeem his own father, helping him through a work conflict. The arc of their relationship is what turns a chronicle of war-torn eastern Germany into a story.

• • •

Klaus is a boy when his father moves the family down into a valley. Klaus suspects his father may have done this to make their lives harder, since the nearest city Goerlitz is now "five miles up a hill" and an overhead tram clatters by at 2 a.m. waking up his step-mother, to whom his father comments "you'll get used to [it]." One night that tram did not come, and his mother woke up. Looking out the window, there was eight feet of snow. His father was right. "The void had startled her."

Irmgard, her daughter Ilse, new baby sister Anne, and Irmgard's mother Oma, become Klaus's family. A mirror apartment on a second floor holds the Jobke family, whose only child is Norbert. "He was a sweet-looking blonde boy with blue eyes and dimples in each cheek . . . the epitome of Aryan beauty." Klaus's father encouraged rough play like wrestling so they would "grow up to be 'real boys.'" "Frau Jobke didn't like the roughhousing, probably because her son usually lost," Klaus writes.

The parents build a fenced-in sandbox in back, which Klaus and Norbert jokingly call "the animal cage." Father asked each day "did you nail Nobert?" One day, throwing rocks, Klaus hits Norbert in the head, and he "fell to the ground, bleeding profusely" while he "screamed like a pig in a butcher's hands." Klaus received an angry strapping, but Norbert never seems to win, and things get even harder for him as his mother babies him, washing the greasy patina from his Lederhosen and breaking the "unwritten rule about Lederhosen; never, ever wash them." Apparently Frau Jobke hadn't heard of that rule. Norbert gets ridiculed at school with lashings of "Lookit the sissy" in his "bright, new-looking stiff shorts."

Downstairs at the Milchgeschaeft, or milk store, the cash register rings each time the clerk sells milk in a half-gallon aluminum can. There is no chocolate since it is spared only for military officers for mood improvement, but the children get an occasional orange or lime since Hitler's army had occupied southern territories in Italy. Grocery store customers pay to use the "ironing machine."

Klaus and Norbert form a unique bond. "Still each of us boys lived as an only child. The Third Reich encouraged large families, and in fact rewarded and created idols of women with large families." Klaus recalls women with at last four children received a bronze cross, those with six a silver, women with eight children a gold cross. One woman, Frau Haberland, did have eight. For it, she was disheveled and "looked like a witch in my Hansel and Gretel book," Klaus recalls. Younger mothers were bitter and despised her for getting extra grocery vouchers, "the exact opposite effect expected by the Nazi government."

The reality of war continues to seep into their lives. Onkel Ernst learns to alter a radio crystal to listen to the BBC under a bed blanket to hear their version of the political news broadcast in German, even as listening to foreign stations and Allied broadcasts was strictly forbidden by the Nazi government. Klaus's father, a mechanic, manages to avoid the military by focusing on manufacturing textiles and machines needed in the war effort. When Aunt Erika gives Klaus a toy tank, his father makes him return it, citing his family's policy of no "war-related toys." At the same time, his family encourages self-reliance, his father teaches him blacksmithing and Onkel Ernst tests him to "tell him with my eyes closed which type of bird was singing, based on their voice."

This was the way of the old world. His father grew up "following centuries of journeymen who traveled mostly by foot from master to master through Europe to lean a variety of trades. He followed secret symbols to find master blacksmiths, master wagon makers, and other professionals in their trades who were willing to take on a journeyman. . . . Those symbols, written in chalk on the frame of the front door by the other journeymen, might indicate, for example, a taskmaster, a master who paid poorly, a place with sparse or poor food, or a poor tradesman. At one, father told me, the symbols indicated that the master's wife was troublesome."

His father wants Klaus to spend time learning the trade of a blacksmith on Sunday morning, while his mother sometime secures his escape across an old iron bridge spanning the Neisse River, to a simple church masterfully crafted oak wood doors. Norbert's parents were atheists, so he never attends, but both the boys suffer tutelage of Klaus father in the blacksmith workshop. When they bang their hands, his father chides, "Hey, you wimps, hurting and bleeding are part of the fun. Go outside and piss on your hands. It's antiseptic and warm."

One Christmas, Klaus and Norbert both receive tricycles, and form a tricycle gang, albeit one with no leaders. "I think we practiced unplanned, some sort of junior democracy while we grew up in a National Socialist dictatorship under Hitler's regime." At the same time, he was only allowed to play with "approved" friends who spoke High German, and at school, the Russian Bolsheviks were depicted as growling wolves attacking children and children learned to repeat the slogans of the party. By June 1941, the school was chosen to be an active producer of raw material for silk production, for military parachutes. The students planted mulberry bushes, and school officials received thousands of silk moths, which were kept in teacher's conference room in cartons and crates on top of the huge table. Each student is responsible for one hundred moths, kept in 72 degrees Fahrenheit, while each moth makes three hundred to four hundred eggs, each the size of a pin. Twenty-five silkworms produce a pound of silk, and if a German parachute canopy weights sixteen pounds, it takes forty thousand silkworms to one parachute. The classroom takes field trips on Sundays to sing folk songs to injured military men back from war. The moment is troubling for the young children, and the first real confrontation with the realities of war.

• • •

Klaus father moves the family to the country to a tiny little village of Garsedow, northwest of Berlin, which is not even on a map. His father declares this is "a wonderful opportunity for our family" which will "toughen up the kids." His father is part of a new project to make fibrous materials for military uniforms using a new technique that creates fibers from straw. The plant works to remove of toxic gasses that are a byproduct and puts to work 106,000 war prisoners.

In the country, Klaus is exposed to farming, and unhappily witnesses the "blood-letting and cooking of all the parts of the animal"; on one occasion "a farm hand slaughtered a pig but it continued to squeal and wiggle after the axe plow." His father gets eels from the marshes at night. "They are still-wiggling eels were put into the hot fry pan, I could sense their pain." He finds maggots in soup, one afternoon, and nauseated, involuntarily vomits. His mother sees the maggots ahead of dinner but his father makes them put the food on the table. The country life will make the family stronger. "You baby them too much at home," he tells the mother.

In May 1942, Operation Millennium is conducted as a thousand-bomber raid by the Royal Air Forces, dropping 1400 metric tons of explosive in just over an hour on the city of Cologne. Young German street fighters held up 20 mm cannons which fired 800 rounds per minute, and heavy pivoting search lights guided air defense cannons shooting two-pound self-exploding rounds. Klaus father watches the firestorm outside a bunker in the open air, positioning himself atop a bridge. "It was beautiful," he says.

Early in 1945, Klaus senses the tide is turning. He meets Dorle Sonnabend, a 15-year-old girl who lives a flight above, and her sister Hanna, who introduces them to a friend who participates in the Hitler Youth. Germany needs soldiers. Klaus qualifies for Adolph Hitler Schule, to train to be an elite leader of the third Reich. "I'm afraid," he lets slip to his father, the only thing, perhaps, he could have said to seal his fate. "All right boy, then this would be the perfect place to cure your damned rabbit heart." Germany has manufactured underground, the first jet fighter, the Messerschmill Me262, but it is too little, too late. In March 1945, families hide in a fortified bunker, walloped by five-hundred pound bombs. Klaus is secretly hoping for an Allied victory.

On April 12, 1945, American tanks come rolling in. A black soldier breaks into their house. He snaps a stick of some sort in his hand. Putting it into his mouth, "his tongue was bright red, his teeth were the whitest I had ever seen. He motioned with his finger for me to come closer, to take the rest of that stick. My sisters froze to the spot as I walked toward him, past the rail gate. The man kneeled to my level, and handed me the stick. 'Danke,' (thanks), I said. I looked at the stick, but was unable to read the writing on the label around it. I broke off a small piece and slid it into my mouth, the same way the man had. 'Oh my God,' I told my sisters when I rejoined them. 'This must be chocolate."

• • •

In the summer of 1945, the children reclaim the forest. Norbert's father was missing from deployment on the western front, and was never seen again. The boys are free to wander in this post-war wasteland for what are months in this summer and explore abandoned barracks at Leschwitz Strasse, which had its barbed wire perimeter bulldozed down with tanks. "In order to survive, we sometimes had to throw our convictions overboard, and had to lie and even steal. Stealing for food was even sanctioned . . . small lies were tolerated by parents and authorities."

Norbert finds a handful of bullets, a few yards of machine gun belt, and they fill their pockets with the rounds. A classmate tells them how to put the munition in a sturdy hole to pry apart the bullet from the casing and retrieve the black gun powder, which Klaus and Norbert spill into their pockets. "We created our own fireworks. . . . I placed a handful of powder in a rotting tree stump. Next, I rolled up a piece of newsprint and lit the top of it by focusing a sunbeam through my magnifying glass."

"Fire in the hole!"

The boys singe their eyebrows and front hair and return home with blackened faces, but return to the abandoned camp many times, stealing wood, copper wire and any resources. One of the boys, who pees out fires, earns the nickname "firetruck." Klaus's father takes the group camping, teaching them which mushrooms are edible and identifying their names, which he said he learned from "an old Bush woman." By morning, the boys notice that father had slept in the same tent with Frau Jobke.

It had been so cold that it was necessary to keep her warm, he said.

• • •

By October 1947, two years after the invasion, the family moves to a small village in Weinhubel. On the eve of 47th birthday, German police officers knock on the door and take his father to the police headquarters in Goerlitz. The Soviets have a collective punishment program, and begin to document father's items, now in hands of Soviet occupiers. His family is thrown out of the apartment, and move in with grandmother Oma. Since then, mother is high strung each time the doorbell sounded.

Klaus is into his teens as Hitler statues are replaced by statues of Stalin, Marx, Engels, Lenin. A Soviet flag is replaced by an East German flag. The Gestapo is replaced by the Russian Stasi and the German People's Police. Most of the institutions he once knew are now people-owned properties. In school, he is bombarded with a narrative that everything he ever knew was invented in the Soviet Union-the lightbulb, the postage stamp, steam and combustion engine, bicycles, airplanes, subs. This is simply a new authority. "Germany, above all," is now replaced by "Trust your party, your party is always right." Families are torn apart. Klaus never sees Norbert again.

Oma's brother Otto marries Frieda from Minneapolis, Minnesota; they send pictures of Frieda working at her new publishing house which recently acquired a Mergenthaler Linotype typesetting machine. They also send CARE packages which are residual from the war and can be purchased. "In truth, nobody in East Germany had a family in the Soviet Union capable of helping anybody," he observes. Surprisingly, one CARE package includes a cake in a box. When they look at the instructions it says "just add water." No one can believe it. When they pull it out of the oven, it is so impossibly delicious that Klaus declares it to be a "miracle in a box."

One day, the doorbell rings. It is a letter to his mother informing her that her husband is still alive in Bautzen, twenty-five miles east. When she goes to see him, he is "but a shadow of a man who was taken away from us, skin and bones and hollow eyes. He walked upright, but did not have even the hint of a smile." The family learns he was sentenced to twenty-five years in labor camp.

In the meantime, Klaus finishes a three-year apprenticeship in twenty months. He once managed to avoid joining the Hitler youth, but now he is tasked to enroll in Freie Deutsche Jugend, or Free German Youth, a socialist youth movement. The boys are eager to use their energy and skills from the war on anything. One shows how he trained to parachute jump, and can leap from tree, falling into a shoulder roll at the last minute. He knows he must join in order to advance to master mechanic. The youth movement is voluntary, but without it, impossible to be admitted to a university. His collective group is led by Lawd Jowl, a socialist leader, who hypocritically wears yellow crepe-soled West German shoes. Klaus wishes to abscond westward, but he has free education and must take care of his mother. "I disliked the politics of the new ruling socialist/communist ruling class . . . I blamed the system for deporting my father, and confiscating my family's private property."

Klaus must join the "circle," and he picks Yokstanzgruppe, folk dance ensemble, in which he plays the accordion in Youth World Festival, and is able to travel to West Germany for the first time. He sees a Trabant, and a Cadillac six-cylinder engine which "whispers while it works."

"None of the engines in East Germany ever whispered."

Klaus receives a scholarship for college in Meissen. He goes, fearing his father wouldn't respect his son as an intellectual. There he buys a motorcycle with roommate, takes up jazz music.

• • •

On June 17, 1953, Klaus and his bandmates are returning from a concert, when they are stopped by the Volkspolizei, or German People's Police, and held up. The rowdy boys disobey their orders and begin marching in lockstep. They don't get too far. A Russian UAZ 469-type military jeep stops them ahead. One of the boys, Christian, mouths off, and due to this he is banned from school. Klaus later learns a worker's strike named the People's Uprising began the morning before, a strike blamed on western films and agencies, but triggered by rising quotas. Three hundred masons at a building on Stalin Allee in Berlin put down their trowels and marched. Soon the uprising had swelled to forty thousand protesters there, and it grew to more than one million protestors in over seven hundred localities. This is the sort of crime and uprising which led to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Twenty thousand Soviet soldiers and eight thousand German police quelled the uprising. Klaus and his friends, under the stars in the country, had no idea what they had been caught up in. "My friends and I had unwittingly joined the cause, in a small way." By now, enervated, by the Nazi and now the Soviets, they sing a song.

Our thoughts are still free; No one man can guess them
They slip and flee past, like light nightly shadows
No one man can know them. No hunter an shoot them
Therefore it is so true: Our thoughts are still free.

He is now entering his rebellious teens. Meize, his girlfriend, is in the picture, as he takes up music as a semi-serious occupation. He is fascinated by arts, rather than the blue-collar ethic of his father. He buys a Leica camera-indeed, the first professional style camera-and takes it with him to photograph the 15th-century Albechtsburg castle. A bridge guard confiscates his camera, bashes it open and steals the film and destroys it, disrupting the intricate mechanics.

By September 1954, he is a working on a college radio broadcast, and leaves a secret code over the air to the dates his band should meet and join up to play swing numbers from Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Louie Armstrong. Among their favorite tunes soaked up from an AFN broadcast from West Berlin is a swing time version of "American Patrol," by Glenn Miller. The boys spend time barnstorming the countryside and playing Western jazz music in an East German underground music scene. Klaus works as a camp counselor as part of his socialist duties, and pulls off a magnetic performance one night as an armchair hypnotist, which wins him the affection of a 40-year-old counselor named Marianne. He is startled when, waking up in the middle of the night, she is in his room, "her small perky breasts bobbing up and down, faintly lit by the moon."

Then there is a surprise. His father returns, after seven years, and "looked better than I remember," but Klaus knows his father will be tremendously disappointed by his dropping out of school, his obsession with music and his bent into an "intellectual." His father asks to go for a walk. The walking gets faster. His father explains that he joined the Ministry of Heavy Industry, a Stasi work camp, and was home with an eight-day pass. He is chief reviewer of German briquette factory. "How did he advance from a political prisoner to a government position?" Klaus wonders.

"I will tell you some day, but not today, not yet," his father says.

His father now has a spy identification name, and was himself informer, an also was being monitored by the Volkspolizei, the German People's Police. He says they must leave East Germany.

Klaus and his father surreptitiously flee to West German, and despite some tense moments at a train station crossing the border, are able to make their break.

• • •

Father's brusque personality doesn't work well in the professional world of Western Germany. His company Stuttgart-Kaltental wins a major contact with Christian Dierig AG in Augsburg, a maker of weaving machines. His father takes the company owner's son under tutelage to expose him to their "revolutionary air conditioning technology," but he is abusive to the young man, at one point scolding him, "Don't you have anything but fodder in your brain, fellow?" The owner's son decides to pursue college and gives up interest in the plant. The owner chastens Klaus's father. "I recommend that you not be so harsh on your son Klaus either. Don't break his interest and enthusiasm for the job. He has a great potential with our company, and could become a great field engineer."

But the men are doing well in East Germany, and move to a new flat in Stuttgart, deciding it's finally time to send for their family through a letter in code to elude the Stasi. "The males of a certain breed of birds have been building nests in the Swabian countryside. Ornithologists are waiting for the females to arrive anytime now." But not all the women come. Oma stays, noting "An old tree should not be transplanted." Ilse stays, now engaged. Mother and Anne travel to East Germany, where they find Klaus and his father living in a 1950s-style modern apartment with an "obligatory kidney shaped coffee table." Mother notes "this place is worse than where we were in East Germany."

By the third volume in the memoir, Klaus is now in his twenties, but the writing begins to read like a travel log. There are Instagram-style pictures of food, beer, and cars-many, many cars-as he travels to through Europe, Iran, Pakistan. It is exactly what to expect from writing from someone who is incredulous that they are free from the confines of Eastern Germany. By now, I know way too much about installing and maintaining commercial dryers and air conditioning systems, which is the trade that continually sends Klaus on remote assignment around the world. But the redeeming plot feature is that for the first time in his life, Klaus is finally close to freedom, but still is tasked with busting through the lock of the last authoritarian in his life: his father.

Klaus takes to learning the business of installation and maintenance of textile dryers. While in France, one night he slips out with some friends and has Pernod, making it to work the next day, not to give father pleasure of saying "I told you so." Work is tough. Once he is hit on the head by a twenty-five-pound chunk of concrete, to which his father says "just work if off." And Klaus can never do right by him:

The next day Father discovered a flaw in the work my crew and I had done. I was in the process of correcting a mistake my crew had made. He decided to call up my entire group of helpers to reprimand me in front of them. He did it long and loud. I was ashamed, appalled and disgusted. . . . I started crying, as my anger against him welled suddenly. Why in the hell do I have to go to this job? Why does he make me hate him? What's the fastest way to get back to Germany? Now that he doesn't have my little sister Anne around to pick on, that makes him terrorize his son? Why is he so narcissistic? Did all those years in prison remove all compassion and feeling? In that moment, I lost all interest in working with my father. His harsh criticism of me in front of coworkers was too much for me. The walk along the railroad track back to the hotel was solemn. We did not talk.

Klaus takes a hiatus. He travels to a war monument in the Epinal American Cemetery in Vosges, France, the resting place of five thousand U.S. soldiers. "The beauty and solemn silence of the resting field, overlooking a bend of the Moselle River a hundred feet below, overcame and touched me. I thought, if I had been born a couple or three years earlier than 1934, I might have been one of the young men who fought in World War II. Perhaps my body would be in a similar graveyard on the German side of the river. I slowly walked back to the railroad, overtaken by a deep sadness." Outside of authoritarian rule, Klaus perhaps for the first time confronts a deep void.

• • •

In February 1957, the plant manager gives Klaus approval to work on his own. He is finally able to buy his first car, a Volkswagen Beetle. He heads out on maintenance assignments to Holland, Austria, France, Czechoslovakia, United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Iran, and Pakistan. Klaus takes a ride on Comet D106, one of the first jet airplanes, and builds his travel log. We get pictures and stories of snake charmers and lessons of how Iranian carpets are made, and taken down to pools to wash and prepare them for sale. He takes pictures of Dutch wooden shoes in Holland, an Alphorn performance high in the Swiss Alps. He takes a hike, and for the first time, encounters an Edelweiss flower on top of Swiss Alps. This is his world.

But his father needs him in the end. He fails to grasp the culture of Pakistan, and the textile workers revolt on him, preventing him from completing his installation project. Klaus, who has experience in Pakistan, returns with his father to Lahore and mends fences on his behalf to salvage his career. Meize, his former girlfriend, tracks him down. She also needs him. He admits he and Meize are "infatuated with each other," but he tells her he is unable to make a commitment. This is where attachment theory might come into application. But he has to keep traveling, has to keep moving.

He meets a young girl who lives downstairs, Silvia, who is apparently fine with him traveling the world and rarely being at home. (One has to wonder what the women in his life really think). When he gets married to Silvia, his sister Ilse doesn't attend, he recounts, for fear of Stasi. He dedicates the book to Ilse and Anne, "although their recollection of specific situations in our early lives at times tend to differ a bit from what I remember."

Klaus is obsessed with cars, but even they cannot enable him to exceed the limitations he still seems to be trying to break away from. He buys a Ford Taunus 12 M, a sports car, and while traveling racing down the Autobahn in the drizzling rain with Silvia's mom, he somersaults the car. He experiences a blackout. Both survive, miraculously unscathed. He promptly returns to work, walking forty-five minutes to work each day, and scolding himself for the mistakes he made driving. You've got to hand it to the guy, he takes his hits-no excuses. But by now, even Europe seems too small, and as the fourth and final volume of the memoir begins, he is heading to America.

Click here to purchase Twelve Flags Book One
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Click here to purchase Twelve Flags Book Two
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Click here to purchase Twelve Flags Book Three
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018