Tag Archives: FALL 2015

Made in Detroit

madeindetroitMarge Piercy
Alfred A. Knopf ($27.95)

by George Longenecker

Some may ask how a writer with nineteen books of poetry and seventeen novels can have anything new to say, yet Marge Piercy’s newest book, Made in Detroit, is one of her most compelling. These poems are richly layered with unforgettable imagery and succinct narratives. While foremost a memoir about her childhood, there are poems about her Jewish heritage, the sea, the environment, love and socio-political issues. Each poem is a polished gem—descriptive, sensual, and deeply personal.

Many of the poems continue themes from her 2002 memoir Sleeping With Cats. In the title poem about her childhood in Detroit, she reminisces about her family’s poverty, the grittiness of the city, and her love of literature. “I dived into books . . . I suckled Detroit’s steel tits.” In “Detroit fauna” she reminds us that she grew up in a time that was sometimes more like the 19th century: “I am old enough to remember the sad / horses that pulled open-sided carts.” And “Things that will never happen here again” speaks of the toil and hardships of the World War II years. Here, Piercy reveals a profound awareness of aging:

I miss none of this. They were chores
not pleasures, but still I remember
and my age hangs on me like icicles
that bear down the branches of pine.

Piercy’s poetry is rich with images of the natural world. At times, as in “Little house with no door,” she is as elegant as Frost:

For decades it stood in the oak woods
not on any road but found only
by an old path half grown over:
a one-room house with no door

Several of her poems are about the sea, a ubiquitous presence where she lives on Cape Cod. In “The constant exchange,” one of the finest poems in the collection, she is reminiscent of the prophet Micah: “The ocean gives; the ocean takes away.” The poem is matter of fact as she speaks of the environment and of class disparity in the same breath:

The sea is restless and greedy. It mocks
the summer people with their million
dollar houses . . .
. . . chews them up to splinters, then
tosses their flotsam away . . .

Above all, Piercy writes lines that are so beautiful they bring tears. “The frost moon like a stone wheel / rolls up the sky,” she says in “The frost moon”; “The moon is a fishhook of bone.” With Made in Detroit, Marge Piercy has shown that she can still write narrative and lyrical poetry as good as any of her past verse.

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

Two by Dylan Horrocks

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen
Dylan Horrocks
Fantagraphics ($29.99)

Incomplete Works
Dylan Horrocks
Victoria University Press ($19.99)

by Stephen Burt

hicksvilleIf you want a graphic novel—no, let’s call them comics—if you want a book-length comic that’s wry and thoughtful and endlessly suggestive about the theory and practice of making comics; about the long international arc of comics history, which hasn’t bent all the way towards justice for creators (especially not creators from decades ago); about how comics fans misunderstand comics makers, and vice versa; about what separated (circa 1995) comic strips from comic books, superhero comics from other genres, mainstream comics from independent creations, loving caricature from satire from heightened realism; about (not least) the history of New Zealand: if you want all those things, and if you like comics, or novels, or films, that change their style and genre with every chapter, so that to follow the plot to the end you have to keep changing the habits by which you read—if you want all those things, you probably need, and you may already have read, Dylan Horrocks’s black and white masterpiece Hicksville.

Self-published chapter by chapter in Horrocks’s zines, collected in 1998 and re-published for North America in 2001, Hicksville told the intricately intertwined stories of the NZ indie comics maker Sam Zabel (a slightly bedraggled stand-in for Horrocks himself); the NZ-born, Stan Lee-like industry titan Dick Burger; and the American fanboy Leonard Batts, who comes to the village of Hicksville to research Burger’s life and discovers the secret history of comics—and maybe also of New Zealand—instead. It could be the Cloud Atlas of comics, unless it’s comics’ version of To the Lighthouse instead, being a meditation on travel, grief, familial love, and aesthetic success—there’s even a climactic lighthouse. It was, for nearly twenty years, the only thing written and drawn by Horrocks long enough to be a proper book.

But no more. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is, like Hicksville, a meta-comic, a story about what it means to construct and share fictions made out of panels, captions, pictures and words; like Hicksville, it presents a secret history ofsamzabel what comics could or should have been. It follows Sam much more closely than Hicksville did; it’s a simpler story, easier to follow, with higher production values (full color, for example), and a line that’s more consistent, cleaner, more “professional,” too. Older, married, a dad, not so much anxious or unsettled as anomic and depressed, Sam earns a living by writing the once majestic superhero comic Lady Night, whose current version—boobs, boots, blades, and nonstop battles—he abhors (Horrocks himself wrote Batgirl in the 2000s). Unable to work, Sam escapes into erotic visions; there he encounters Lady Night herself, who tells him “You’re a hack. Get used to it,” then disrobes and invites him to “make me your fantasy, Sam.”

Is it OK to use comics as wish-fulfillment fantasy? If it is OK, what do we do with the misogyny, and the power-worship, and the chauvinism, that turn up all over the history of comics (and, for that matter, in real people’s sexual fantasies)? If it’s not OK, why won’t those fantasies go away? They’re old questions, because they’re hard questions, and they come up in almost any art; but they’re especially pertinent to comics, because so many comics—so many good ones—have been either straight male “power fantasies” (to use Scott McCloud’s disapproving term), or reactions against power fantasies, “boring comics about my stupid miserable life that nobody wants to read,” as Sam puts it (he used to write those too).

Rather than writing either, Horrocks writes both, investigating the human psyche’s need to escape by exploring multiple escape routes. That’s what Sam, and Sam’s feisty feminist sidekicks Alice (a smiling twenty-something con-going fan) and Miki (a rocket-booted manga heroine) literally do, thanks to the Magic Pen. If you blow or sneeze on a comic drawn with that immemorial pen (as Miki explains), you enter the comic: “all you have to do is give it the breath of life.” If, for example, you gesundheit over The King of Mars, by the (made-up) 1930s-40s NZ writer Evan Rice, you will end up on Rice’s Edgar-Rice-Burroughs-esque male-fantasy Mars. “How come the men here are all bright red, but the girls are green?” a spaceman asks; the answer: “Women are from Venus and men are from Mars, of course!” Sam meets Miki on Mars, and Alice on Venus, and Sam Zabel becomes an attractively drawn meta-adventure, with excursions into several other comics’ secondary worlds.

If cartoonists cannot be “God-kings” (Rice’s status on Mars), how should they see their creations? “What if the whole point of fantasy is to go beyond the boundaries of the real?” If comics aren’t good for that, what are they good for? They’re questions you can give almost any comic, from Little Nemo in Slumberland to Hothead Paisan to Secret Wars, and Horrocks has clearly read a lot of comics: the more comics you know, the more references you’ll see in this one, to whole genres (including Japanese tentacle porn: don’t say we didn’t warn you) as well as to individual works. When we see Rice at a drawing board, Rice himself looks like Archie from Archie, but the panel looks like a famous page from Maus.

Sam Zabel is, mostly, a thoughtful delight, a celebration of Horrocks’s chosen medium, with powerful supporting characters helpfully present to save the day and to articulate running feminist commentary while a sad-sack viewpoint character—white, male, educated, and middle-class—escapes into one after another creation. To praise it that way is also to make clear its limits. Sam Zabel can seem like the Woody Allen of comics, albeit with better hair; his adventures with the Magic Pen are his Midnight in Paris, his Purple Rose of Cairo, his fifty-minute hour on the couch.

Sam may not be able to get outside his own head, but at least he knows it’s not the only head around. To re-read Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is to see an argument that comics will get better—aesthetically, politically, intellectually—the more they get made by people with different experiences, and therefore different fantasies, from the people (people like Horrocks, for instance) who have been likely to write them before. Your fantasies also depend on what your deepest feelings tell you that you need. For Rice, it’s illegal, impossible, or inadvisable sex, with busty green ladies; for Zabel, it’s a chance at real invention, and maybe the love of female fans. For infantry at Passchendaele, it’s not being gassed. And in order to make new comics—that’s the point Alice keeps making, with some glee—you have to find some way to like some of the old ones. “I’ve learned to take those imaginary worlds and make them my own,” Alice says, “subverting them to serve my fantasies.” [162] As she speaks, she’s surrounded by soaring superheroes, one of whom may have just let a bird poop on Sam’s head.

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is terrific for what it is, but it’s also less complicated, less challenging—less indie, if you will—than Hicksville. As close to Sam’s perspective as it remains, it may get your hackles up if you are looking for both a new, and a thorough, critique of gender, exoticism, power and politics in comics, even though the volume wants, with an aching honesty, to join that critique.

incompleteworksWhat it can’t do—because it’s drawn so accessibly, and so consistently—is demonstrate all Horrocks’s powers. For that, there’s Incomplete Works, a selection of Horrocks’s briefer comics—some one page, some long enough to be short stories—made between 1986 and 2012, originally printed by Victoria University Press of Wellington, NZ, and soon available in a North American edition courtesy of Alternative Comics. In my ideal world all comics readers would own Incomplete Works, having devoured either Hicksville or Sam Zabel first. They would then recognize outtakes and dry runs for scenes from the longer works, such as new adventures for the ridiculous M&M-shaped jokesters Moxie and Toxie (whom Sam draws), as well as early, Morrissey-shaped versions of Sam. Horrocks’s readers would—in this ideal world—recognize homages to, and jokes about, the makers of international repertoire (Winsor McCay, George Herriman), and they would learn about real giants of Kiwi comics, such as Barry Linton, subject of an attractive eleven-page nonfiction feature profile in comics form.

Those readers would see, within Incomplete Works, fiction and nonfiction, clean exposition and teasingly used blank space; they would come to see comics—and maybe all art forms—as kinds of collaboration among the artist, the artist’s material, and the reference points, styles, precursors, the artist has known. Best of all, they would see the comics Horrocks drew on blank postcards in the 1990s, when he was visiting Europe or living in England, elegantly spare semi-pro affairs that limn his loneliness and his youthful confusion while also demonstrating the points that Horrocks has since made in essays about comics theory, such as “Inventing Comics” (a response to McCloud) and “The Perfect Planet: Comics, Games and World-Building” (in part a defense of Dungeons & Dragons). You can read these essays, and view other short form comics, on Horrocks’s site, www.hicksville.co.nz. In my ideal world, you would read them all. I don’t live in that world—no one lives in their ideal world, which is one of the points that Sam Zabel makes. But I can get us that much closer to it if I can get you to read Horrocks’s books.

Click here to purchase Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Incomplete Works at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Hicksville at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

A Philosophy of Walking

philosophyofwalkingFrédéric Gros
Translated by John Howe
Verso ($16.95)

by John Toren

In a pinch, walking will get us from place to place, though for the most part, we hardly think about it, except in so far as distances are concerned. We ask ourselves, how far is it from the parking ramp to the concert hall, anyway?

Frédéric Gros has a different view, which he shares with us in this collection of essays examining the phenomenon of putting one foot in front of the other. Though he never mentions it explicitly, it's pretty clear that when he isn't teaching philosophy at the University of Paris XII and the Institute of Political Studies, or editing Michel Foucault’s later College de France lectures, Gros is a long-distance walker himself. A number of the essays are devoted to specific elements associated with walking such as solitude, slowness, gravity, and repetition. Interspersed with these often insightful observations, which veer off into metaphysics occasionally, are chapters recapping the lives of philosophers and poets who embraced the peripatetic lifestyle in one way or another, including Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Gandhi, and Henry David Thoreau. A few of the essays are more broadly historical, as Gros takes a look at how walking figured in medieval notions of penance (through the notion of pilgrimage) and the role played by walking in the philosophic schools of ancient times.

From the opening pages Gros makes it clear that he's not interested in walking as "sport"—an activity that involves measurement, comparison, competition, and haste. Nor is he interested in convincing us of the health benefits of walking. And as for those long narratives in which walkers recount their adventures, he notes that most of the material in such books describes events that take place when the walker is not walking.

Thus severely circumscribed, his enterprise would be a little dull, except for the fact that Gros is adept at wiggling out fine distinctions between the various physiological and psychological states that walkers arrive at on the course of a long journey. In an early chapter on freedom, for example, Gros writes:

By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it's all very well for psychologists' consulting rooms. But isn't being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake—for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait—a stupid and burdensome fiction? The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone: for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the steam of immemorial life.

Such reflections are followed by an analysis of how it begins to feel to the walker when "outside" ceases to be a transition zone through which to pass on our way from one event to the next, and becomes the "element in which stability exists."

Gros repeats a few stories he's heard from the lips of aged mountain walkers about the trekkers who rush pass them: "They're afraid they won't get there, wanting to walk at that speed!" And he even goes so far as to draw philosophical distinctions between the superfluous, the useful, the necessary, and the essential. He is often successful at introducing an element of poetry into his analysis, as when he writes about slowness:

Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop, like the steady dripping of a tap on stone. This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar.

And just when an element of sameness is beginning to creep into his remarks, Gros mixes things up by devoting a chapter to Nietzsche's love of mountain hiking or Wordsworth's insatiable need to walk while composing verse. These chapters have a pleasant breeziness, free of serious literary analysis or labored attempts to correlate a given temperament with a specific walking style. For Nerval, walking was a part of active nostalgia. Kant was constipated, while Nietzsche suffered from compulsive vomiting. It hardly matters. These chapters are like the interesting people we might meet on the lonely path, with whom we gladly stop to converse before returning to the monotony (and liberation) of the miles ahead.

The historical chapters work less well, perhaps because genuine walking is a matter of individual initiative, whereas the efforts being described in these chapters tend to be institutional and prescriptive. Later chapters devoted to types of pseudo-walking—the promenade and the habitual daily outing, for example—return us to the subject at hand by way of contrast. "The walker of wide open spaces," he writes, "the trekker with his rucksack opposes civilization with the burst of a clean break . . . The stroller's walking activity is more ambiguous, his resistance to modernity ambivalent." After a few more pages of analysis, in which Walter Benjamin figures prominently, Gros concludes: "The walker is fulfilled in an abyss of fusion, the stroller in a firework-like explosion of successive flashes."

At times, while reading A Philosophy of Walking, I felt the urge to dig out my backpack, campstove, and maps; at other times, I found my thoughts turning toward an unread copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor's tales of walking across Europe. But Gros's book is remarkably successful at returning again and again to a few simple points without wearing them too thin, scattering his breadth of erudition lightly here and there for variety and emphasis. And in the last chapter, “Repetition,” he feels comfortable giving a more personal touch to the spiritual dimension of walking long distances, describing at some length the psalmistry of the open road. "Walking causes a repetitive, spontaneous poetry to rise naturally to the lips, words as simple as the sounds of footsteps on the road."

Gros makes walking sound liberating, mind-numbing, fulfilling, and monotonous all at once. Is any of this really true? I can think of one way to find out.

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

American Death Poems: An Interview with Scott Alexander Jones

Scott A Jones 2015
by Shane Joaquin Jimenez

Scott Alexander Jones is the author of two recent books of poetry, elsewhere (Black Lawrence Press, $13.95) and Carpe Demons (Unsolicited Press, $15), both published in 2014; another book titled That Finger on Your Temple is the Barrel of My Raygun is forthcoming from Bedouin Books. Each of his books is singular—elsewhere is a long poem about the fleeting passage of time, while the impressionistic Carpe Demons reads like a collection of Japanese death poems—but all of his work emanates from a Zen-inspired awareness of the ephemerality and absurdity of existence. As he writes in Carpe Demons: “The graveyard’s patient / As the landfill . . . ”

Scott and I met a decade ago as undergraduates at the University of Texas at Austin, where we both majored in English and worked in the Life Science Library at the Tower—the infamous site of Charles Whitman’s 1966 sniper massacre. We bonded over our shared appreciation for Allen Ginsberg and the cathedral-like solemnity of the Life Science Library’s reading room in the early morning. After graduating, Scott began a period of intense restlessness and travel, which only ended earlier this year when he settled down in Bozeman, Montana. During this period, Scott earned his MFA from the University of Montana, co-founded (with me) the literary zine Zero Ducats, and published his first chapbook, One Day There Will Be Nothing to Show We Were Ever Here (Bedouin Books, 2009).

This interview took place over e-mail over the course of several days, slowed at times by the vagaries of life—stomach bugs, work—and sped up at other times by deadlines and looming travels. I often typed out my questions in my home in North Portland with the lonesome cries of freight trains in the distance. I do not know what Scott’s soundtrack was.

Shane Joaquin Jimenez: I’d like to start our conversation by setting the scene. Where are you right now?

Scott Alexander Jones: This very moment, I’m looking up at log rafters in an office filled with old books and scrolls of topographical maps of nearby wilderness, like the Gallatin Range, which I currently live along the edge of and can see outside the window right now, along with some yellow flowers.

SJJ: Is this old office of yours where you write?

SAJ: Not particularly. I’m a pretty undisciplined writer, in the sense that I don’t write daily and never set aside a special time to write. Like Frank O’Hara, I tend to jot things down the moment an idea strikes, which could be anywhere: at a coffee shop, on a plane, in a park.

SJJ: Let’s talk more about this process. How do these moments of inspiration become books? In the words of Quentin “Q” Morewood, “What is the bridge from the water’s edge of inspiration to the far shore of accomplishment?”

SAJ: Lovely platitude. Here’s another one I can hear Rip Torn reciting pretentiously: “A poem isn’t finished, it’s only abandoned.” I forget who, if anyone, actually said that, but I tend to agree. Or at least I used to. I used to struggle to craft the perfect poem, revising compulsively, only stopping when I realized my focus had shifted into something entirely different and it was time (continuing with the maritime metaphor) to abandon ship and dive into something new.

These days, though, I usually just start with some sort of triggering vision and see what rabbit hole it takes me down, without any conscious agenda, and the words fall into place pretty naturally. Whenever I start a new poem, I rarely know how it’s going to end; I’m always trying to surprise myself with some strange lingering moment to end on.

SJJ: But why poetry? It seems like in the time I’ve known you, the trajectory of your work has taken you from meticulous craftsmanship to a Ginsbergian, Zen place of “spontaneous mind.” Is there something specifically about poetry that lends itself to following these triggering events? What ultimately appeals to you about poetry’s form?

SAJ: I think I like that poetry is time-based, with a set beginning and end—as opposed to, say, sculpture or painting. I just as easily could have gotten into film or video art, I guess, but it would’ve been more costly, risky, and required much more planning. With poetry, you can simply write down the vision as it comes and then move on to the next, without having to over-analyze or beat it to death.

SJJ: Can you talk about how you came to poetry?

SAJ: I started reading it in high school in suburban North Texas in the late 1990s, when I discovered Ginsberg, whom I’d never heard of, in an anthology. The risqué language caught my eye, and I ended up reading The Lion For Real aloud to the class. Everyone stared at me blankly, instead of laughing, like I’d thought they would, which let me know I was onto something.

SJJ: What books were you reading during the time you began writing poetry?

SAJ: Biographies and autobiographies. Dozens of them, mostly on or by dead writers: Walt Whitman, Emma Goldman, Gregory Corso, Lorca . . . These just popped in my head, and I’m wondering if it’s partly because each last name almost rhymes with the previous one. I’ve been trying to tone down the musicality in my writing, but a lot of it seems to be subconscious, like the sound of Whitman triggering Goldman triggering Corso triggering Lorca.

Back to your point, though, when I began writing a decade ago, in Austin, I didn’t just want to read what poets wrote; I wanted to learn how they came to write what they wrote, what kinds of lives they led, where they traveled, who they met. So I churned through a good deal of nonfiction. Which, I think, is what brought me to the underlying subject I can’t seem to get away from: impermanence (my first book was called, not too subtly, One Day There Will Be Nothing to Show That We Were Ever Here). Something about seeing the full trajectory of an interesting life, or at least the outline of one, helped me grasp how fleeting all these tiny moments are.

Which is where the Zen thing comes in. Increasingly, I’m drawn less to wordplay and more to passing moments distilled clearly and economically. Whitman said it best: “Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.” Or this great Japanese tanka poet from a hundred years ago, Bokusui Wakayama: “Eyes closed, you lean on a tree and listen to the sea. What is hidden in that distant sound?”

elsewhere1SJJ: I’m glad you brought up some recurrent themes in your work. You published two books last year—elsewhere and Carpe Demons—both of which deal with the insignificance of human life on geologic and stellar time scales. Are these books connected in any way? What structural and thematic similarities/differences do you think exist between the two?

SAJ: I hadn’t really thought of it before, but yeah, in a way they are like companion pieces, interconnected in that they both explore the broad concept of impermanence, both cosmic and personal, by zeroing in on specific visuals, landscapes, interactions, etc. But if the long poem elsewhere, with its color and fluidity, feels sad and slow like a Terrence Malick film (a graceful hand skimming the top of a wheat field), then Carpe Demons is more like David Lynch (something lurking in the dark corner of your room). If elsewhere laments impermanence, Carpe Demons thumbs its nose. If elsewhere is a dream, Carpe Demons is a fever dream.

SJJ: Intriguing distinction. I wonder, though, how this all ties into the notion of impermanence. Why is this such a resonant theme for you?

SAJ: The poets with the most staying power, I think, address universal experiences by focusing on the particulars of their surroundings, and a lot of them lived quite a while ago. Poets from centuries ago who seem to be addressing future generations, you can tell their worlds felt as real to them as this one does to us, yet they somehow tapped into the ephemeral nature of things. The most striking ephemeral poetry I’ve encountered comes from Japanese Zen monks and haiku poets, who often wrote a final poem before dying.

The dream/fever-dream distinction, for me, illustrates two different ways of responding to one thing. So, reflecting on impermanence, you can either be meditative and melancholic, or you can respond with humor and irreverence. Two Japanese death poems illustrate each of these approaches nicely. Over a thousand years ago, a nobleman named Minamoto-No-Shitago calmly and evocatively wrote:

This world—
To what may I liken it?
To autumn fields
Lit dimly in the dusk
By lightning flashes

Then, about five hundred years later, a Zen monk named Shumpo Soki, who had earlier written a poem threatening to behead the Buddha, gathered his disciples together and crudely instructed them:

No single bone in my body is holy—
It is but an ash heap of stinking bones.
Dig a deep hole and there bury these remains
Thus, not a grain of dust will stain
The green mountains.

Though drastically different in tone—one melancholic, the other abrasive and absurdist—each of these responses feels honest and deeply insightful. Two sides of the same coin. These days, I’m trying to find ways of hitting both of these registers at once.

carpedemonsSJJ: Readers can see these fingerprints of Zen all over your work. Both elsewhere and Carpe Demons begin, for instance, with epigraphs by long-dead Zen monk poets (Gizan Zenrai and Kokei Sochin, respectively). And the cover and poem “titles” of Carpe Demons all share the spontaneous no-mind-ness of ensō brushstrokes. But your poems also don’t shy away from random, everyday observations from your 21st-century life (“The redbrick porn theater / Horse rings in ruptured sidewalk”), which in a way is even more Zen.

SAJ: Yeah, I had forgotten that the epigraph for elsewhere ended up also being from a Zen monk. It was originally a transcription of something Daniel Johnston said at a small concert in a record store in the mid-1980s (which I ultimately couldn’t secure the rights to): “One more time. With feeling. Everybody. It’s gonna happen. You know it’s gonna happen. It happens every day. Billions and billions of people have already died. And you too will die. Sing along with us, won’t you.”

That’s about as subtle as a punch to the face, but I liked how the last thing he said was so collective and welcoming, “Sing along with us, won’t you,” like we’re all gonna die but we’re all in this together. Also, “billions and billions” was Carl Sagan’s go-to phrase, so I associate that with a sense of cosmic awe.

I’m glad you brought up that line about the theater and the rings in the sidewalk. I wrote Carpe Demons in Portland—right around the time you moved there, I think—and those were a couple of images I made note of outside the window of the coffee shop on SE Division where I wrote that book.

When I visited last spring, that area looked completely different, with lots of new tall buildings and boutiques where empty lots and dilapidated houses used to be. They were just starting to break ground on a lot of those places when I was writing that book, with jackhammers going everywhere, which probably helped inform the sense of flux. Also, the iron rings in the sidewalk, which are all over Portland, were used back in the day to tie your horses to, so that seemed to encapsulate the vanishing nature of things pretty well.

It’s always a bit strange to me to see modern haiku and tanka talk about cherry blossoms and lily pads instead of, say, highways and light bulbs . . . I was just about to say this feels escapist, but I guess I’m guilty of never writing about modern technology like iPhones or iPads. I’m sure an actual Zen monk would find computers just as ephemeral as falling leaves.

SJJ: I find it really interesting how place can seep into one’s work, especially in poetry with all its elbowroom for inward, autobiographical exploration. You’ve lived in many different locales in your life—as varied as Austin and Missoula and Prague—and I wonder if you’ve found much connection between the places you’ve lived and the kind of writing you’ve produced.

SAJ: Absolutely. Moving to new places always gets the juices flowing, but it’s somewhat less quantifiable than just autobiographical and location-specific details (although, as we’ve discussed, what’s immediately in front of me is crucial to what I do). When I lived in Wellington, New Zealand in 2010–2011, the poetry I wrote was deeply informed by the landscape—the otherworldly beauty over there is pretty impossible to ignore—and I often described what I saw from the balcony of the rickety bungalow I was living in, overlooking downtown and the bay and Mount Victoria.

But that’s also when my writing style became—or at least I hope it became—a bit less precious and “poetry” (read with a snooty British accent) sounding. That’s the part that’s less tangible. Something about packing up and changing your surroundings completely seems to get the mind working in a different mode, allowing for more formal experimentation. The words come somewhat differently in new cities.

Also, it becomes much easier to reflect on experiences in previous cities after you’ve moved on. So, writing about New Zealand became easier when I was in Kansas, and writing about Kansas was easier in Prague. All this moving around—or rather, the obsession with the next place to visit, which, as I’m learning, often distracts from the present moment—was what elsewhere revolved around.

You were living in Seoul when I was in Wellington, and I remember you were working on a novel at the time. Did you have a similar experience with being able to write in a new style and reflect on past events more lucidly after moving from Colorado to South Korea?

SJJ: Absolutely. The title of elsewhere really gets at this experience, with all its nostalgic, wanderlusty evocations. Like you, I’ve always found it easier to write about a city when it’s in the rearview mirror, like writing about the landscape and people of Texas while living in New York and Boulder. And as you mentioned, I spent two years in Seoul writing about a summer I had spent a few years before living in the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris. For writers at least, I think it’s part of a natural, age-old process of trying to make sense of the past by arranging its details into a tidy narrative.

SAJ: What’s even more interesting is that everyone—not just writers—makes sense of the past by arranging disparate details into a coherent narrative. There’s a strong argument to be made for the whole notion of “the self” being simply the running story of our lives that goes on in our minds and that we tell others.

SJJ: That reminds me of something David Mamet once said: “There is no such thing as character other than the habitual action, as Mr. Aristotle told us two thousand years ago.” I think that you’re right that this extends outside of the page, to the interior lives of every person.

SAJ: Or to put it slightly differently, storytelling starts in the interior lives of every person—it’s biologically engrained in us all to tell and be drawn to stories, the way birds know to fly north—and writers simply capture this natural state and turn it into art. There are a few different theories, all of them compelling, for why people like you and me do what we do: to exercise the brain in cognitive play, to display skillful minds for the sake of sexual selection, to learn vicariously about culture and psychology, to come together around common values, or—by far the strangest option—to feed an addiction that stems from arbitrary glitches in our brains. Could be some combination.

I’m fascinated with how storytelling predates written language, how people have been telling stories for ages—maybe even since before we were human in the modern sense.

SJJ: This idea of a continuum of storytellers and writers has come up a few times in this conversation. I’m reminded of the following section from elsewhere:

I imagine you imagining me savantly
idiotic, replenishing

a century of sultry swimsuit
calendars with deadmen I will have lived beyond

You go on to list dates on which you will have lived longer than other writers who have meant something to you—April 6, 2018 for Rimbaud; January 8, 2052 for Corso; nine days after that for the dharma lion himself, Ginsberg. And I wonder, with your awareness of the fleeting nature of all things, do you see any futility to chronicling your experience through poetry? Or is it something else entirely?

SAJ: Man, will I really outlive Rimbaud that soon? We’re getting old. At any rate, excellent question. I don’t see poetry as futile—far from it, actually. Part of what got me into poetry has to do with what you just said about writers being part of a continuum of storytellers. There’s something almost spiritual about hearing people from the past, particularly the deep past, make the same observations as you.

Even Shakespeare reflected on the fleeting nature of things, writing toward the end of his final play, The Tempest, about how the world and everyone in the future “shall dissolve” and “leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” Or as Kerouac put it a few centuries later: “All you do is head straight for the grave, a face just covers a skull awhile. Stretch that skull-cover and smile.”

A couple weeks ago, Woody Allen told Vanity Fair: “You are living in a random universe. You are living a meaningless life. And everything you create or you do is going to vanish with the sun burning out and the universe will be gone and it’s over. My conclusion is that the only possible way you can beat [this conclusion] even a little bit is through distraction . . . Making movies is a wonderful distraction.”

Chronicling my experiences through poetry, at its core, is mostly just a wonderful distraction—something to pass the time, a slight step away from toiling over a Buddhist mandala and then sweeping it all away. Of course, instead of burning poems after they’re written, I find homes for them in journals and books. But poets, arguably more so than other artists, are unlikely to become famous or remembered, even for a short while, since poetry’s such an unpopular art form. So, you’re constantly aware that the journey is the destination. The process in itself of articulating a poem is the goal; the books are just afterthoughts.

Click here to purchase elsewhere at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Carpe Demons at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Guilty

theguiltyJuan Villoro
Translated by Kim Traube
George Braziller, Inc. ($15.95)

by Peter Grandbois

Juan Villoro has been a well respected and widely read writer in Latin America and Spain for many years, publishing five novels and eight short story collections along with numerous children’s books and a steady output of articles on sports and music for Mexico’s leading papers. Sadly, he has remained unknown in the U.S., at least until now. In large part due to winning the prestigious Herralde Prize for his novel El testigo, the independent publisher George Braziller, Inc. has agreed to publish two of his works beginning with Villoro’s hilarious and wildly absurd short story collection, The Guilty.

With famed serious writers like Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes, Mexican literature has not exactly been known for its humor, which is why Villoro’s work is so refreshing. That’s not to say Villoro doesn’t owe a debt to his literary forebears. Rulfo’s lyricism and Fuentes’ formal experimentation are on display in nearly every story in the collection. However, like any great writer, Villoro at once acknowledges his country’s literary history and extends it, moving into David Lynchian layers of unreality. Take for example the longest story in the collection, “Amigos Mexicanos,” where we follow a gluten-free American journalist named Katzenberg as he searches for an “authentic Mexican experience,” only to find it in a fictional kidnapping orchestrated by a scriptwriter looking to create a little publicity. Or take the story “Holding Pattern,” in which the main character spends his time waiting for a plane that may or may not ever arrive to take him to see his girlfriend. As he waits, he reads a book written by his girlfriend’s former lover, only to realize the book may be determining his reality.

Then there’s the disillusioned mariachi from “Mariachi,” a man whose life seems to be unraveling with each new success. “That night I dreamed I was driving a Ferrari, running over sombreros until they were nice and flat.” He yearns to escape the world of mariachis, but he is trapped by the very clichés that define that world. The climax occurs when he stars in a movie in which the special effects are noteworthy: “There was a scene where a biker came close to touching my penis and a colossal member appeared onscreen, impressively erect.” He seeks help from the movie’s producer only to find that everything in his career, including the meeting, has been carefully manipulated. In Villoro’s stories, sincerity is not possible. Everything is a manipulation. Each “reality” we think we inhabit is only another surface designed by a marketing team. As one character says in “Amigos Mexicanos”: “We live in a world of ghosts: copies of copies, everything is pirated.”

What makes this postmodern romp different from so many others is Villoro’s deadpan wit, captured in the eminently readable translation by Kim Traube: “It was the iguana’s fault. We stopped in the desert next to one of those men who spend their whole lives squatting, holding three iguanas by the tail. The man we called El Tomate, 'the Tomato,' inspected the merchandise as if he knew something about green animals.” Any translation is only as good as its translator, and this opening from “Mayan Dusk” beautifully conveys the humor living in the concise phrasing and matter-of-fact tone of Villoro’s prose.

The U.S. lags behind the rest of the world in publishing translations, and if this book is any indication of what we’re missing, it’s a real shame. Villoro made me believe in the power of postmodernism to reflect back the multiple surfaces of our own highly constructed and often fictional lives. To do so while making the reader laugh out loud is no small feat.

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

Loving Day

lovingdayMat Johnson
Spiegel & Grau ($26)

by Elizabeth Tannen

“Race doesn’t exist, but tribes are fucking real.” So declares Warren Duffy, the middle-aged, recently divorced comic-book artist who narrates Mat Johnson’s Loving Day, a novel as richly entertaining as it is smart. Warren, like the author, is mixed-race, born of an Irish father and African-American mother. Also, like the author, he appears mostly white. “I am a racial optical illusion,” Warren tells us. And: “I don’t like feeling white. It makes me feel robbed. Of my heritage. Of my true self. Of my mother.”

So powerfully has this tension driven Warren’s life that it’s led him to Wales, and marriage with a Welsh woman, because surrounding himself with whiteness has reinforced his blackness. When the novel opens, Warren has come home to Philadelphia, where he is grieving not only his failed marriage and comic book store back in Cardiff, but also his father—whose dilapidated Germantown mansion is now his.

Johnson has described this book in an interview as his “coming out as a mulatto,” and above all the novel’s arc chronicles Warren’s slow embrace of his mixed-race identity. He’s spent his life consumed by the fight for admission into the black tribe, of which his light skin marks him as an “asterisked” member. He rejects the concept of biracial, and the notion of a mulatto tribe; in the novel he states, “Mixed people are just a kind of black people anyway.”

Generous use of that antiquated word, mulatto, is one way in which Loving Day subverts our usual framework of discussion around race. Another is its celebration of tribalism itself—a value that is, essentially, un-American. We like to imagine ourselves immune from the needs to belong, to depend. We prefer post-racial mythologies in the same way we prefer post-historical ones: we use the past as ornament, not as identity.

At the center of Loving Day is a pair of love stories: between Warren and the newfound teenage daughter that surfaces soon after his homecoming, and between him and a love interest, Sun, whose physical resemblance to himself is so striking that he observes on sight she could be his twin, and who serves as his foil when it comes to views on race. He and Sun first encounter one another at a comic conference, but she resurfaces as a teacher at Melange, the utopian, militant mixed-race arts and educational center that holds together the novel’s characters and themes.

Johnson has a knack for pulling off the semi-surreal, and Loving Day does a deft straddle between the realistic and the bizarre. He also has a gift for comedy. Some readers might be turned off by Warren, immature and openly sex-crazed, irresponsible and often self-loathing. But others will be charmed by his relentless, self-deprecating humor and brutal, vivid sense of self—as complicated and contradictory as that self might be.

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

The Folded Clock: A Diary

foldedclockHeidi Julavits
Doubleday ($26.95)

by Lindsay Gail Gibson

“Often,” as Virginia Woolf observed in a 1929 essay, “nothing tangible remains of a woman’s day.” By nightfall, “the food that has been cooked is eaten”; eventually, even “the children that have been nursed have gone out into the world.” The Folded Clock, a new work by Heidi Julavits, echoes Woolf in its opening query: “Today I wondered What is the worth of a day?” Subtitled A Diary, this luminous piece of life-writing poses possible answers to that question in each of the entries that follow, creating a complex composite portrait of the consciousness that persists amid “soup spills and dirty dishes and lengthy logic proofs meant to coerce tired, inarticulate people to bed.”

On the battlefield of everyday existence, diaries represent a kind of mnemonic triage. Like the household designs of Charles and Ray Eames, which Julavits adores, The Folded Clock performs this function even as it meditates on its own form. The author of four novels and a founding editor of The Believer magazine, she describes herself in these headlong terms: “I edit and teach and at times desire to be a clothing designer or an artist . . . and I write everything except poetry and I am a mother and a social maniac and a misanthrope.”

Julavits’s latest work shores up her memories against life’s rough-and-tumble, detailing semesters at Columbia, summers in Maine, residencies abroad; her marriage to the writer Ben Marcus; her musings on art and aesthetics; the time-lapse photography of her children’s growth. More than a mere calendar of doings or an almanac of emotional squalls, however, this book is an attempt to pin down effervescence, a sketch of the self that has sprung up in the cracks of these roles, occupations, and dreams.

The Folded Clock reproduces the format of her childhood diaries, opening each entry with a deceptively simple “Today I.” As an adult, this formula lends itself to a tone of whimsical deadpan, a habit of presenting off-kilter occurrences as utterly humdrum: “Today I ordered ten toy stethoscopes from a party supply company”; “Today I went to a neighboring town to see the gallery opening of the woman inundated by motherhood”; “Today I started reading a book called How to Navigate Today.” Reminiscent of writers like Miranda July and Sheila Heti, this tone preserves only kissing distance between miraculous and mundane, casting the author as realist observer of a world not quite identical to our own.

For Julavits, “today” functions as a formal conceit, a vault from which, with a gymnast’s agility, she executes temporal and associative leaps. Billed as “an accounting of two years of my life,” The Folded Clock shuffles the deck of days: June abuts March, July follows October, May and January meet. The work that results prefers recurrence to resolution, and its nonlinear timeline may represent an attempt on the author’s part to slip the traces of plot—which she associates with novel-writing, and with which she has lately become disenchanted—in favor of a more episodic mode.

The published journal’s implicit promise is to catch personality ungroomed, before its morning toilette; to provide a warts-and-all portrait of the author in conversation with herself. The Folded Clock bears stronger resemblance to the pianist’s impromptu, a work whose painstaking composition mimics spontaneous, improvised play. Likewise, these entries engineer an intimacy more akin to two confidantes’ tête-à-têtes than a wiretap on another’s thoughts. It’s no accident, perhaps, that the making and maintaining of friends—those most quotidian seductions—play a major role in The Folded Clock: the author’s blend of anecdote, disclosure, and self-deprecation mimics the idiom of a deep but platonic bond.

Julavits is quick to interrogate her own motives for charming us, fretting that, in “trying to be charismatic . . . I probably didn’t tell the truthiest truths.” Perhaps not. By taking full advantage of the formal prerogatives at her disposal, however, she has produced an authenticity rarer and more startling than truth unadorned. Her diary returns at intervals to a male friend’s assertion that, when it comes to intimate partners, “Men want a relationship, but women expect a world.” Readers also require worlds of the books we devour, and The Folded Clock delivers one, fully formed.

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


gentlessnessDan Beachy-Quick
Tupelo Press ($16.95)

by M. Lock Swingen

When the aesthetic climate of our age champions recursive internet memes and pop culture references, irreducibly knitted mash-ups and bottomless wells of meta-this and meta-that, the poetic corpus of Dan Beachy-Quick, in contrast, hungers refreshingly for source and origin. The poems of his latest book, gentlessness, sift through the modes of expression of the literary past in order to instantiate the poetic immutability of the lyric voice. In other words, Beachy-Quick does not merely trawl the literary past in order to reference his forebears; in gentlessness he summons the voices of the past in order to reanimate them in all their originary power.

In his pursuit of source and origin Beachy-Quick places himself somewhat cockeyed in the tradition of the High Modernist poets, such as T.S. Eliot, who revived expressions and forms of the past in order to reconcile an agonistic present. However, whereas Eliot wandered a wasted European landscape in a nostalgic effort to stitch together the detritus of Western civilization, Beachy-Quick can be seen to trail rather the poetic path of Ezra Pound. Pound likewise beckoned personas, voices, and forms of the literary past but with the intent of nourishing and progressing his own literary epoch. Where Pound gave the early 20th century the voices of 12th century French troubadour poets, for example, Beachy-Quick offers us the voices of Beowulf, Wordsworth, Bradstreet, and Pound himself.

Beachy-Quick moves from one literary period to another, resurrecting voices, melodies, tropes, and obsessions in sections whose titles map distinct literary periods: “a short treatise on the nature of the gods,” “heroisms,” “puritanisms,” “romanticisms,” and “modernisms.” In the first of these, Beachy-Quick recalls the powerful voices of Greek poets Homer and Virgil:

Write an ode and evict the gods, O gods
And goddesses, hear my voice and lean out
Just a little, and give my song light, so what
Is blank is seen, O lean over and give
My song melody, so what is seen
Won’t fall apart, O lean out, you gods

In addition to these sections, gentlessness opens with “monadism: a proem” and also interludes with a long poem titled “overtakelessness.” In an interview with the Kenyon Review, Beachy-Quick extrapolates upon his close relationship with the literary past. “I feel just as keenly that the words I use contain . . . a history of uses—often by the poets and writers I most love—which carry forward in nearly occult ways in my own poems,” he explains. “Even more than an appropriation of works and lives, I suppose I think of the poem as a kind of conjuring and a kind of repair.” What distinguishes Beachy-Quick’s poetry from his more obliquely ironic contemporaries, whose allusions can sometimes verge on extraneous and murky, is that Beachy-Quick conjures the voices of the past in order to embody them completely. His poetry does not mime or reference the Romantics, for example; it possesses and conjures them. In the section “romanticism,” Beachy-Quick employs the sonnet form:

Gnats breed, mind broods, a cloud in the air
Breathes out one breath until the cloud is gone,
And the sun pours down heat in glaring hours
That prisms wings as thought prisons song.
The grass dreams other dreams than those the crickets
Conspire—dreams of being those taut lyre-strings
Pulled up to the sun despite the thicket’s
Maze; . . .

Here Beachy-Quick embodies the very poetic preoccupations and song of a Wordsworth or a Keats. In a time when writers avoid old school images like “a cloud in the air” or “lyre-strings,” Beachy-Quick’s revitalization of these Romantic tropes seems almost courageous.

In addition to Beachy-Quick’s resurrection tour through different literary epochs, the poet is also always concerned with the very material of language that recalls these voices and summonings. In an essay for the Boston Review, B.K. Fischer hones in on this aspect of Beachy-Quick’s prose and poetry. “Like so many of his peers,” Fischer writes, “Dan Beachy-Quick came of age in the heyday of post-structuralism in American universities. The lessons of Derrida infuse his work with a persistent awareness of language’s contradictions.” In gentlessness Beachy-Quick indeed returns again and again to one of the central tenants that poststructuralist theory imbued into his work and generation at large—that is, that language is never totally here nor totally elsewhere but somewhere always between. Beachy-Quick extrapolates on this central attribute of language and of his poetics in the aforementioned Kenyon Review piece: “Language asserts and betrays its own materiality, seems always more than and less than an object . . . Part of the nature of the material is its metaphoricity, its pointing at that which it isn’t, and in pointing, verging into what it’s not.” In the eponymous stanza of gentlessness, Beachy-Quick writes:

gentlessness is a word
to describe that
which must deny itself
to exist.

In spite of Beachy-Quick’s self-aware preoccupation with the contradictions and pitfalls of language, the poet abstains from reveling in the poststructuralist fixation on absence, instability of meaning, and the impossibility of origin or truth. On the contrary, Beachy-Quick’s poetic voice is urgent, generous, and, above all, unabashed in its singing for the presence of the literary past. “A fragment acts flagrant but is not,” he writes. Elsewhere, in the opening volley “monadism: a proem,” Beachy-Quick affirms:

sing me open to swerve error astray
but prayer makes a point inside
of infinite angels so sin learns
a song to sing o source asleep

Beachy-Quick’s poetry embodies what Emerson once reminded us—namely, that “every word was once a poem.” gentlessness searches for the source of language, that poem in every word, in a time when our aesthetic mainstream maintains a constant distancing from the wellspring of art.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Vietnam Today: An interview with novelist David Joiner

davidjoinerby Garry Craig Powell

David Joiner is a U.S. novelist currently living in Kanazawa, Japan, although he has spent more than a decade in Vietnam since he initially visited the country in 1994, when he was the first American to live in Bien Hoa city since the end of the war. His debut novel, Lotusland (Guernica Editions, $25), focuses on Nathan, a young American journalist living in Saigon. Nathan finds himself torn between love and duty, vocation and worldly success, when he simultaneously receives intriguing offers from Le, a poor but talented female lacquer painter, and Anthony, an old friend who wants him to help run a successful real estate business. With its complicated cast of characters and evocative settings, Lotusland is likely the most vivid novel set in post-colonial Southeast Asia that contemporary readers will encounter.

The following conversation with Joiner, whom I have known since we were in graduate school together at the University of Arizona in 1998, took place by electronic mail.

lotuslandGarry Craig Powell: Although I know Lotusland quite well, having read a number of drafts of it, I don’t remember its precise inception. Could you tell us a bit about how you got the idea for the novel, and what aspects of it seized your attention?

David Joiner: I don’t know that a specific idea led to the inception of Lotusland, but I do remember wanting to fill a niche in U.S. literature about Vietnam. I wanted to set my novel in contemporary Vietnam, during the time that I was writing it, and have it turn the page on the war we fought there. I find it regrettable that America’s focus on Vietnam remains squarely on the war. Even though the war ended in 1975, virtually every U.S. novel, movie, and play that deals with Vietnam does so by resurrecting the war. In many ways that makes sense because the event had such a huge impact on the U.S.—and in fact on the world—and much of the literature that came out of the war has been incredible. But forty years on I feel like we should look for a different perspective on Vietnam.

GCP: That’s certainly one of the most refreshing things about the novel. Rereading the published version, it struck me that although there are two ostensibly very different plots in the book—and I think they are of equal importance, unlike the typical novel’s plot and subplot—both are thematically similar. In both Nathan’s romantic relationship with Le and his blurred friendship/business relationship with Anthony, the conflicts come about because there are serious issues of trust. Was that deliberate and planned?

DJ: Yes, it was. I think issues of trust mark all relationships, no matter where one lives. But in Vietnam, where it can be difficult for people to meet on equal levels—economically, socially, historically, culturally, etc.—I think these issues are especially salient. One needs to be rather careful there both in business relationships (as with Anthony) and romantic ones (as with Le and Huong). After all, legal protections in Vietnam hardly exist. Also, Vietnamese people in general distrust their government, the police, and others in positions of power. That distrust often filters through to everyday relationships, which play out dramatically in the novel.

GCP: Another fascinating aspect of the novel is the complexity and ambivalence of the main characters. You aren’t afraid to show them as inconsistent. Le’s reticence and dishonesty causes Nathan a great deal of suffering, which makes us sympathise with him, yet he withholds his true intentions from Anthony too, and while he doesn’t downright lie to him, he certainly misleads him. And Anthony, in spite of his apparent generosity towards Nathan, has ulterior motives. So there’s an intricate pattern of deception or at least lack of frankness, which may be symptomatic of relationships in a developing country like Vietnam, where money corrupts everything. Am I on the right track here? You could take it a step further and say that material interests have made liars and cheats of people everywhere.

DJ: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that money corrupts everything, but it certainly is corrupting. One often hears stories of people getting in trouble for something, fairly or unfairly, but managing to evade punishment by paying off people in high places. And people there know the power of money just as they do anywhere, but it’s particularly insidious in Vietnam because no obvious model of upstanding behaviour really exists for people to follow. The government is corrupt at every level, and the police force essentially exists only to enrich itself. Why should society be any different from those who wield power and grow rich through no honest efforts of their own? And to get ahead in life, as Anthony and Huong have been able to do after marrying, one often has to do things that others might consider unethical. I wouldn’t say they are liars and cheats, nor would I characterize most Vietnamese as such. Most Vietnamese I know, in fact, are lovely. People do find themselves in unfamiliar and difficult circumstances sometimes, and poverty often suggests a reason why people do things they likely wouldn’t do if they were better off. Poverty in Vietnam is not uncommon, though it’s usually not of such a desperate kind like you find for example in India.

GCP: As a State-of-Vietnam novel, Lotusland is a rich and textured portrait of the country that reveals both the worst things about it—the corruption, the poverty, and the tawdriness—and the best: the beauty, not only of its landscape and art, but often glimpses of transcendent beauty in quite ordinary scenes, as well as the humanity of the people, their present sufferings and their brave attempts to overcome the trauma of “The American War.” I was particularly moved by the descriptions of the Agent Orange victims, and fascinated by the detailed depictions of traditional lacquer painting. Not many writers can plunge the reader so deeply and intensely into a foreign environment. How do you do that?

DJ: If it’s a State-of-Vietnam novel, then by necessity it’s one seen through the eyes of foreigners. That’s the perspective I know, and I can write from it authentically. As for plunging the reader into a foreign environment, I’m not sure how much I’ve actually done this with Lotusland. Setting is important to my aesthetic, though, and I’ve always been fascinated by, even moved by, both the natural and urban landscapes of Vietnam. It’s kind of a wabi-sabi ethic, where one finds beauty in the potential of things, in their imperfections. To me, no other country possesses the kind of beauty Vietnam is endowed with, and because that beauty, that aesthetic, really can’t be replicated in the West, I need to paint scenes with a certain type of brushstroke to ensconce readers in the place itself. Vietnam is also eminently observable. So much happens in the streets and sidewalks of the cities, especially, that the life lived there is a gift to anyone drawn to writing. One’s senses are overwhelmed at every moment, one feels enormously alive there, and I don’t know how that could be kept out of any writing about Vietnam. I have a tendency to write imagistically, and to using setting like drapery—not to obfuscate the reader’s vision, but to hang it as close as possible before their mind’s eye so they not only see it but feel surrounded by it. That’s the hope, anyway.

GCP: You succeed in your aim of “surrounding” the reader with the setting. I think you do that by using all your senses, not just visual images, but sounds, smells, tastes and sensations too. It’s a heightened reality, a more intense one than we normally experience. As in much of the best writing, in Conrad for instance, the setting becomes a character. It’s not merely backdrop: it plays a vital role in determining the fates of the human characters. I think you also immerse the reader in your lyrical prose. You must have an excellent ear for the music of English to be able to write so beautifully, so euphonically. Is that something you consciously developed?

DJ: I’m not sure . . . I think most writers of literary fiction possess a love of language, otherwise they wouldn’t write. If I’ve succeeded in developing an interesting voice, it probably has much to do with what I’ve read. I started Lotusland in the middle of an intensive re-reading of Yasunari Kawabata’s oeuvre. I remember using multicolored highlighters to mark up old copies of Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, to study and learn from them, and later typing out all of the former on my laptop. I was interested in how he did what he did in those novels—their indirectness, the power of silence, their pacing, the rhythms and deceptive simplicity of his prose (or the translation of his prose). In fact, the first scene of Lotusland is my homage to Snow Country. My novel, too, starts with a scene on a train, though his is more beautiful than mine, and more successful.

GCP: You’re very modest: allow me to disagree, although I’m with you on the brilliance of Kawabata. But let’s go back to setting. The novel is set mainly in Hanoi and Saigon, the two biggest cities in the country, in the early twenty-first century. Why did you choose to set it then and there? Since two of the main characters are Americans, why didn’t you set it during or right after the war?

DJ: First and foremost, I wanted to write about places in Vietnam that I knew well, and I know Saigon and Hanoi pretty well—I’ve spent nearly ten years in those two cities. Also, both cities have changed dramatically since I first encountered them twenty-one years ago, and I’m sure my subconscious found both places fertile ground. There are other reasons, too. I wanted to veer far from typical wartime portrayals of Saigon and Hanoi—both novelistic and journalistic—and I wanted to present Hanoi, especially, in a way that managed to express its beauty. Hanoi is richer than Saigon with respect to the arts, and Vietnam’s lacquer painting tradition was developed in the north. In terms of its temporal setting, Lotusland only works as a contemporary story, and so that choice was deliberate. I also wanted to share with readers how Agent Orange continues to affect people in Vietnam three generations since the war’s end. Agent Orange is frequently in the news in Vietnam, yet how many people in the West realize the extent to which it continues to ravage people’s lives? Finally, as I mentioned before, I didn’t want to write another Vietnam War story. I was more interested in finding a different narrative about Vietnam, in inviting readers to step outside of that well-trod literary landscape.

GCP: And yet, even though the war has long been over, one feels its shadowy presence throughout the book, sometimes in completely unexpected ways—for instance, in the apparent lack of bitterness the Vietnamese feel towards these men from a recently enemy country. What makes this interesting, for me, is wondering how genuine it is. To what extent have the Vietnamese really forgiven the Americans (and the French who preceded them) and to what extent are they forced to be agreeable, because they, the Americans, are richer, and may be able to offer them jobs and visas?

DJ: That’s a good question. I assume it’s genuine. Vietnamese, friends and strangers both, assure me that they have forgiven but not forgotten what the U.S. did in Vietnam, and aside from a few drunks I’ve run into in Hanoi, no one has made me feel uncomfortable for being an American or blamed me for what happened forty and fifty years ago. Further, young Vietnamese people often don’t show interest in the war. The war bores them, it’s something they’re forced to read about in school, to tune out when their parents and grandparents start talking about it, and it’s part of many state-run programs that offer no appeal to the young. I’ve met college-aged students in Vietnam who thought their country had fought against Australia rather than the U.S. And yes, I do think that people make a distinction between “America the War Machine” and “America the Land of Opportunity.” Getting to America is still viewed as a way to better one’s life. And, by association, to better family members’ lives. That’s the story of quite a few Vietnamese people who came to the U.S. after the war, and who continue to come. Everyone remembers the success stories, which are often endlessly circulated, and people tend to see themselves in those who’ve done well. The Vietnamese, if I may generalize, are some of the most hopeful and forward-looking people I’ve ever met.

GCP: Another thing that I find engaging is the complexity and unpredictability of the characters’ motivations. For instance, the young Vietnamese women who interact with Nathan and Anthony are all materialistic, but Anthony is just as crass in his own pursuit of wealth, and Le’s apparent manipulativeness turns out to be more complex than it appears, and is arguably balanced by her genuine devotion to her art. I also admired the way the various conflicts—over whether Nathan should dedicate himself to writing or simply accept the very comfortable lifestyle Anthony offers him, and whether he should keep his promises to his friend, to whom he owes money and a job, or be true to his heart and pursue Le—are tangled together. Although Nathan is in his late twenties, Lotusland is a sort of bildungsroman, isn’t it? Nathan is forced to work out for himself what is really important in life, perhaps a little belatedly—though maybe nowadays, since people mature later, the bildungsroman has to be about people in their late twenties or even older.

DJ: I think that’s right. In Lotusland, Nathan struggles to learn what’s most important in life, and unfortunately he makes mistakes, some of which hurt people along the way. But this is true of most foreigners I’ve met in Vietnam. The country offers many a chance to leave behind their own countries and the messes they’ve made of their lives there. Many people travel to Vietnam on a whim and decide to stay to reinvent themselves. Many foreigners I’ve met in Vietnam have only learned in their sixties and even their seventies what’s really important in life. Or some have known all along, but for various reasons they’ve been prevented from living how they want to, from being the kind of person they dream of being. As a writer, I find the idea of “reinventing oneself” interesting. It’s a theme that’s passed through the lives of many older Vietnamese people I know, too—leaving Vietnam for the U.S., for example, and reinventing themselves there; and maybe later returning to Vietnam and reinventing themselves yet again. One also sees it among U.S. vets who come back to Vietnam and settle there. They often have demons they must grapple with in both countries, but the ones in Vietnam are frequently gentler, more welcoming, and—to go back to something we spoke about before—more forgiving.

As for materialism in Vietnam, I don’t think it’s as deep-seated as it is in the U.S. or many other developed countries. At least not yet. Vietnam may become as materialistic over time. I have a number of Japanese friends in their sixties and seventies who tell me that they recognize post-WWII Japan in Vietnam’s fervor to rebuild the country.

GCP: So to some extent we can see the novel as an indictment of capitalism in developing countries, but it’s also about the rootlessness of many westerners: Neither Nathan nor Anthony really belongs in the States any more. Why is that? Have they simply been lured by the exotic to Asia—are they what Edward Said has pejoratively called “orientalists”—or is there more to them than that? Are they adventurers or just misfits?

DJ: There’s probably some or all of that in both characters. You find many expats unsure of their futures. For most, living in Vietnam is an adventure, and the quality of life there is often better than it is in the U.S.—unless you’re extremely wealthy and well-connected back home. The weather in the south of Vietnam is great, you don’t have to work all that hard, the food and coffee remain cheap and some of the world’s best, people are friendly, travel opportunities are plentiful, it’s easy to make friends, and the women are beautiful. A man, particularly, can live like a prince there—and be treated as an important personage. The lure to stay can be far stronger than the lure to return to one’s own country. And while Nathan and Anthony have both encountered this in Vietnam, Anthony is the one whose identity has formed around near-overnight success and wealth. And it changes him. Just like it changes so many of us. I don’t think that either of them are misfits, and I’m not interested in writing about misfits, anyway. I think both are quite earnest about their lives—about finding ways to become more happily rooted.

GCP: Much great fiction dwells on that theme. In Robert Musil’s opinion, the only question worth the attention of intelligent people is how to live happily, and naturally place and way of life play a part in that. Good fiction is always about a specific place and time, and yet Lotusland also manages to be universal. How is that achieved? What would you say to someone who told you that he or she wasn’t interested in Vietnam?

DJ: I don’t think that life in Vietnam is so foreign that people anywhere couldn’t relate to what happens in Lotusland. People could learn much about the country by reading my novel—or at least about the way one person sees Vietnam, as an American. If someone told me they weren’t interested in Vietnam, then they’re not likely to be interested in any place other than where they are. I do think Lotusland develops certain universal themes—love is one, finding one’s place in the world is another, learning to do what is morally right is one more. I’m not sure how that’s achieved in literature. But I think that writers as well as readers should have a wide range of experiences, and be curious about them afterwards, and care about them deeply, in order to deal with such themes successfully. Sometimes, though, I think it’s a crapshoot. What writer can say with certainty that his or her novel will be viewed as universal?

GCP: You’re right, you can never be sure. I’m not sure it’s a crapshoot, though. That implies luck and I think it has more to do with skill. Isn’t it a matter of writing so convincingly about characters from a specific time and place that no matter where you’re from, you feel you know them and can learn from them? And to take that point further, do you worry that readers won’t find your characters likeable or will be unable to identify with them? All of the main ones have serious flaws. Even Nathan is not only less than transparent with his friend Anthony, but also, in spite of some misgivings, accepts an “arrangement” with Le whereby in return for his help in getting her a visa, she becomes his girlfriend, which may strike some as sordid. Why didn’t you make him purer and nobler?

DJ: Characters need flaws to be interesting, to seem more human, and for readers to feel they can connect to them. I was interested in developing Nathan’s character in such a way that readers would root for him, while probably rooting against Anthony and even Le. And then I wanted to turn things on their head near the end to show that Nathan was flawed too, and that Anthony, for all his faults, was understandable. People are complicated—their intentions, good or bad, are often not well understood—and I wanted to show that. Hopefully on the final pages we see the characters on the threshold of becoming better people, of becoming less selfish, of figuring out their relationships and also their dreams. Nathan and Anthony are recognizably American, as American as any characters in fiction, and I never really worried that readers wouldn’t identify with them. I didn’t make Nathan purer and nobler because that doesn’t particularly interest me in fiction, and I don’t think he would come across as believable that way. But he’s also not terribly sordid. He tries to be pure and noble.

GCP: And what about the female characters? Some readers, familiar with the stereotypes about Asian women, may be surprised by how strong and aggressive they are. Would you agree?

DJ: Absolutely. Vietnamese society is changing at lightning speed, and stereotypes like these are subject to change, if they were ever even all that true. Of course Vietnam is still a Confucian—that is, male-dominated—society, but one sees Vietnamese women everywhere who are stronger in mind and body than their male counterparts.

GCP: Your next novel, Burning Green Sun, is also set in Vietnam. Would you tell us what it’s about and why the country fascinates you so much? Do you see yourself following in the footsteps of writers like Graham Greene and Marguerite Duras, or even ones from the colonial era like George Orwell, Joseph Conrad, and Somerset Maugham? Are you writing about “The White Man’s Burden,” and is that still relevant?

DJ: It’s a near-total rewrite of the first novel I ever wrote. It’s set in the early 1990s in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam and in Phnom Penh and the northern stretches of the Mekong River in northeast Cambodia. The characters are mostly river researchers—a French hydrographer; two American cetologists; a Cambodian ichthyologist; an American drifter who has left the U.S. for good, married a local Delta woman, and taught himself about life in the Mekong Delta; and an American traveller. Both countries fascinate me. In the case of the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia, the natural settings are mesmerizing. I’m also fascinated by, and admire, how people live in such seemingly wild and untameable environments. There’s a kind of genius in how people have learned to make lives for themselves on the river, and there’s often a sense of seeing the world as it used to be hundreds of years ago. A great whirlwind of change is passing through the cities of Vietnam and Cambodia, but in the countryside there’s a feeling of ancientness, of an ancient slowness, of something we’ve long lost sight of and fail to appreciate now.

And no, I don’t see myself consciously following in the footsteps of the great writers you named. It may be useful to do so—to keep the bar raised as high as possible while writing—but I never thought like that. It would be crazy for me to. As for your question about “The White Man’s Burden,” I’ll let others decide if I’m writing about that, or if such a thing is still relevant, but personally I’ve never considered it. Perhaps I should have, but I simply wanted to set an authentic story in contemporary Vietnam that might lead readers on a different path than the one that inevitably arrives at another war story. Perhaps that is a white man’s burden after all.

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

Before and During

beforeandduringVladimir Sharov
Translated by Oliver Ready
Dedalus Europe ($19.99)

by Lori Feathers

Short of acquiring fame, our earthly lives are destined for oblivion. For a time after we die we live on, so to speak, in the memories of friends and family who survive us. But when they too die, any real understanding of the life that we lived or the person that we were is gone. Alyosha, the narrator of Vladimir Sharov’s Before and During, seeks to rescue the dead from obscurity.

Set in Moscow in the mid-1960s, Before and During feels like two conjoined novellas, so apparent is the shift in style and direction between its two parts. The first takes place before Alyosha is admitted to a psychiatric hospital to be treated for his sporadic blackouts, the second during his residency at the hospital. In the novel’s opening pages Alyosha begins writing a Memorial Book in reaction to his own memory loss—although he can’t remember episodes of his own life he is seized with the duty to record the lives of others, to memorialize the lives of the dead as a way of resurrecting them.

In the hospital Alyosha resumes work on the Memorial Book, but now attends exclusively to the memories of the hospital’s elderly patients, many of them former high-ranking Soviet officials who use the site as a retirement home. Here Alyosha becomes convinced that his project has messianic importance—God has abandoned mankind and will return only if he faithfully records his fellow patients’ memories. Without their inclusion in his Memorial Book, man’s greatest error—his retreat from God—will be repeated endlessly.

Sharov’s characters, loyal to their Russian literary heritage, struggle with theology—they long for God’s comfort and despair when they disappoint him. But at the same time they deny a role for God in Russia’s future. They recognize that godless communism has rent a hole in society’s emotional wellbeing and yet, except for Alyosha, they do not recognize a place for God in fulfilling Russia’s destiny to lead the world into a brighter future.

Sharov’s novel confronts big, philosophical questions and frames them in an interesting context, but the book stalls under the weight of its ambitions. Too much, both stylistically and narratively, is attempted, creating a disjointed and chaotic impression at times. The juxtaposition of the French writer and socialite Germaine de Staël with Alyosha—her fantastical, long life and disregard for death versus his preoccupation with death—should amplify Alyosha’s philosophical journey; instead, her story distracts in the great number of pages devoted to it and Sharov’s stylistic shift to magical realism.

Nevertheless, Before and During justifies Sharov’s place as one of contemporary Russia’s most significant literary voices, and Oliver Ready is most deserving as the winner of the 2015 Read Russia Prize for his remarkable English translation of it. The novel’s theme that a life is nothing more than others’ memories of it may feel bleak, but memories, as witness to our past, also offer hope: that humanity can avoid repeating history’s mistakes, that we can free ourselves from committing the same unpardonable crimes against our fellow man.

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