Tag Archives: Fall 2018


Amir Or
translated by Seth Michelson
Sagging Meniscus ($22)

by Kenneth J. Pruitt

Reading poetry in translation always puts one in the position of wondering what one is missing. The nuances of cadence, the resonances of sound, and, most obviously, the subtleties of meaning all risk being sacrificed at the altar of wider readership beyond the poet’s native tongue. Wings, a bilingual edition of Israeli poet Amir Or’s thirteenth book of poems, demonstrates that this in-between-ness might be exactly what we need right now. The book is laid out with the English translations on the right acting as the mirror reflections of their Hebrew originals on the left, and since these two languages read in opposite directions, the reader gets a visual sense of the act of translation—quite a nifty trick.

Over two major parts of the book with several sections each, Or weaves themes of the multiplicity of the self, religion (although the author himself is a secular humanist), creation, nature, and the baselessness of time. At times, each section can feel like a methodically crafted poem cycle. At others, as with the first section, “Morning Poems,” the sections seem to act as windows onto the poet’s writing process, where each poem feels like a draft of another.

Another of the more notable sections of the book is “The Journey (A Diary).” Or carries the reader through not only different landscapes, but also the days of the week, ending the section with the title poem, “Wings,” here in its entirety:

Spread your wings, dear one, and look
around you at this beloved world—
don’t let your spirit fail.
Even in the depths of darkness
remember: you’re flying to the light.

After several more sections spent ruminating on spirituality, Or really hits his stride with “Poems of Reckoning,” the last section. Deftly using images and themes introduced throughout the book, the poetics here underscore polemics, as in “Tomorrow,” maybe the best poem in the collection: “For what we will be is all that we bit into— / the flesh of the poor, immigrants, Arabs, the old; / and we have no I except the ones we are— / where we looked for mercy, we found none.” The self as multiplicity, the failure of religion, the collision of past, present, and future: philosophical ideas are stitched together here to bolster an overtly political poem.

This is how poetry is useful. This is how poetry does something. With this newly translated edition of Wings, Amir Or is finally able to open a dialogue with readers in the United States. May we respond to the invitation.

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

A Certain Plume

Henri Michaux
Translated by Richard Sieburth
New York Review Books ($16)

by M. Kasper

Like his comic book compatriot Tintin, the writer and visual artist Henri Michaux (1899-1984) grew up in Belgium, traveled the world, and finally settled in France. In 1930, when he’d already published an experimental memoir and an unconventional account of a trip to Ecuador, Michaux’s gallimaufry of poems, prose poetry, and drama entitled A Certain Plume came out from the Parisian avant-garde publisher Éditions de Carrefour and ensured his reputation. Plume is the collection’s Chaplinesque main character, a self-portrait of the author perhaps, though, as Michaux says in a “Postface:”  “There is no single self. There are not ten selves. There is no self.

In the years that followed the publication of A Certain Plume, Michaux slowly but successfully pursued careers in both writing and painting, often melding the two. His visual art was Klee-like, proto-Lettrist. Much of his writing took the form of short prose, and trips—touristic, spiritual, and drug-induced—were a favored theme. His work is sometimes associated with the Surrealists (about whom he said in a March 1961 ArtNews interview with John Ashbery, “One values [them] less for what they wrote than for the permission they gave everybody to write whatever comes into their heads”), though he remained aloof from literary groups.

Michaux has been widely read and influential in American literary circles since 1951, when New Directions published Selected Writings: The Space Within, a compilation (including ten pieces from Plume) translated by Richard Ellmann. In the ’50s and ’60s, the Beats were also fascinated by Michaux’s psychedelic writing, translations of which were issued by City Lights, and New York School poets cherished his witty concision and visual sensibility; unaffiliated pioneers of latter-day American short prose like Marvin Cohen, Carol Bergé, and Russell Edson all acknowledged the impact, in particular, of the Plume stories. Since then, Michaux’s inclusion in major anthologies of French writing in English translation, as well as a couple of substantial selections from his prolific output, have made his offbeat, funny takes on everyday events and relationships—and what Ashbery called his “oozy metaphysical terrain”—familiar to many English-language readers.

Now, with Richard Sieburth’s excellent contemporary and colloquial translation of the entirety of the 1930 publication, with facing-page French, we finally have an opportunity to read all thirty-four texts of this 20th-century classic in their original order and setting—and indeed, to read quite a few that were previously untranslated. Part One is comprised of the anecdotes explicitly featuring Plume, many familiar from frequent translation (see below); Part Two is a playlet; Three and Four include mostly miscellaneous short prose; Five, the final part, is made up of half a dozen free-verse poems, the last of which poignantly portrays the author’s mother’s death; and then, for this book, there’s an appendix with several extra Plume stories, written later, and the extended and important “Postface” that Michaux added to the collection for its bestselling second edition in 1938. Thanks are due to the publisher and to translator Richard Sieburth for this well designed and thoughtfully edited version. A Certain Plume is the fourth full-length work by Michaux that Sieburth has rendered into English; his experience with the author and long academic and translating career has made his afterword particularly worth attending to. It eruditely situates the book in its literary surround, provides close readings of some pieces, and sketches the biographical backstory that accounts, in part, for the collection’s abundance of death and mayhem.

Over decades, some of our finest translators from French have had a go at Michaux, giving us a wonderful opportunity for comparison. Here, to conclude this review, are six examples of “Un homme paisable,” the first work in the Plume sequence, and one of the most often translated. Sieburth titles it and translates the celebrated first two paragraphs (of eight) as follows:

A Peaceable Man
Extending his hands from his bed, Plume was astonished not to feel the wall: “Well, he concluded, the ants must have eaten it away . . .” And he went back to sleep.
Shortly thereafter, his wife shook him awake: “Take a good look, lazybones! While you were so busy sleeping, someone went and stole our house!” And indeed, stretching out on every side there was nothing but solid sky. “So it goes,” he thought.

Ellmann’s 1951 translation:

A Tractable Man
Stretching his hands out beyond the bed, Plume was surprised at not meeting the wall. « Imagine that, » he thought, « the ants must have eaten it up . . . » and he went back to sleep.
A little later his wife grabbed hold of him and shook him: « Look, » she said, « you slug! While you were busy sleeping somebody has stolen our house. » It was true, an unbroken sky stretched on all sides above them. « Oh well! the thing is done » he thought.

From Mid-century French Poets (Grove, 1955), edited and translated by Wallace Fowlie:

A Peaceful Man
Stretching his hands out of the bed, Plume was amazed at not touching the wall. “Well,” he thought, “the ants must have eaten it . . .” and he went back to sleep.
Soon after, his wife took hold of him and shook him: “Good-for-nothing,” she said, “Look! while you were busy sleeping, they stole our house from us.” It was true. Wherever he looked, he saw the sky. “Bah! it’s done now,” he thought.

From Darkness Moves, An Henri Michaux Anthology (University of California, 1994), edited and translated by David Ball:

A Peaceful Man
Stretching his hands out from the bed, Plume was surprised not to encounter the wall. “Hmm,” he thought, “the ants must have eaten it . . .” and he went back to sleep.
A bit later his wife caught him by the arm and shook him: “Look,” she said, “you good-for-nothing! While you were busy sleeping, they stole our house from us.” And in fact, sky stretched out uninterrupted on every side. “Oh well, it’s over and done with,” he thought.

From Someone Wants to Steal My Name and Other Poems by Henri Michaux, edited by Nin Andrews (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2003), translated by Richard Howard:

A Manageable Man
Stretching his hands beyond the bed, Plume was surprised not to touch the wall. “Think of that!” he thought, “the ants have eaten I . . ..” and he went back to sleep.
Later his wife shook him awake: “Look, lazybones!” she said, “while you were busy sleeping, our house has been stolen.” In fact, an unbroken sky stretched in all directions. “Oh well,” Plume thought, “what’s done is done . . .”

From Storms Under the Skin, Selected Poems 1927-1954 by Henri Michaux, translated by Jane Draycott (Two Rivers Press, 2017):

A Peaceable Man
Stretching out his hands beyond the bed, Plume was surprised not to encounter the wall. “Goodness” he thought, “the ants must have been eating at it.” And he went back to sleep.
Not long after, his wife grabbed him and shook him, “Look at that, you useless lump!” While you were so busy sleeping, our whole house has been stolen.” And in truth, a perfect sky stretched out in every direction around them. “Ah well,” he thought, “what’s done is done.”

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

The Climate Swerve:
Reflections on Mind, Hope,
and Survival

Robert Jay Lifton
The New Press ($22.95)

by Robert Zaller

Robert Jay Lifton set out long ago to be our catastrophist: the chronicler of the grim age of the twentieth century that included the two most terrible wars in history, and, with the advent of the atomic bomb, of a climate of terror that promises worse wars to come, if not a final one; the nightmare of totalitarian regimes that threatened human personality itself; the rise of apocalyptic cults and global terrorism; and the rupture of generational continuity that gave final meaning to individual lives. Lifton is probably still best known for his Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, but he has studied Nazi doctors, Chinese brainwashing, and the consequences, dehumanizing to victims and perpetrators alike, of what he has called “the genocidal mentality.”

Lifton is now in his nineties, and the century whose horrors he set out to record has passed into a new and no less ominous one. “Nuclearism,” as he has called it, is still very much with us, as the recent brinksmanship between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump reminds us, but the cloud that hangs most threateningly over us now is that of climate change. We didn’t need to break the atom to produce this cloud, but merely to poison the planetary environment, an insidious and largely invisible process glibly identified with progress and civilization.

Much of this devastation was accomplished in the twentieth century, as the human population—world wars notwithstanding—quadrupled, not only ransacking the planet’s resources and threatening its biodiversity, but creating in hyper-urbanization huge engines of consumption and pollution. Now, looking back, Lifton confesses to having come late to the climate story, although in retrospect the markers for him, as for all of us, were clearly there. But the hubris that gave us the century’s other disasters is, he contends, very much of a piece with one that preoccupies us now, and the mentality that produced genocide and nuclearism has given us our current crisis as well.

As Lifton points out, the story of nuclear proliferation has several points of affinity with the seemingly more diffuse narrative of climate change. In both cases, a sense of fated disaster has fit, especially although not exclusively in the Western mind, with apocalyptic expectations foreshadowed in sacred texts: the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Noah’s flood in the Old Testament—both tales of climate catastrophe in substantial part—and the Second Coming in the Gospels, with its presumption of an end to the terrestrial sphere altogether. Both the threat of a nuclear winter conjured up in the 1980s and the scenario of a world unhinged by rising sea levels and wild swings of temperature and precipitation seem to mirror (or for certain groups, to fulfill) the biblical prophecies. But, just as these latter have been interpreted as part of an ultimately beneficent divine dispensation, so, too, have “nuclearism” and climate change been embraced as potential opportunities and even as agents of good. Some hailed nuclear weapons as guarantors of world peace, since they were plainly too terrible to use; similarly, others now see climate change as a challenge to technological innovation and resource management. In both cases, the solution for the monsters created by modern science is more science.

At one extreme, the global crises of the bomb and the greenhouse effect lead to what Lifton calls psychic numbing, in which perils are minimized by wishful thinking; thus, the duck and cover drills of the 1950s in the U.S.A., in which schoolchildren were taught to hide under desks as protection against nuclear fireblasts and contamination, or, in the case of the noted physicist Freeman Dyson (a fervent advocate, as Lifton notes, of nuclear disarmament) the idea that the carbonization of the atmosphere will on balance be “enormously beneficial.” Then, too, there are the proponents of what Lifton calls climate nuclearization, in which reliance on nuclear power will solve the climate crisis, a position championed by James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first brought the latter to public attention in 1988. To be sure, militarists and energy profiteers have cynically argued that ever-expanding nuclear arsenals and unchecked carbonization are good for us; but that otherwise serious and reputable people make similar claims should give us pause. Psychic numbing is a very ancient mechanism, even in the minds of highly intelligent people: if reality frightens or offends you, deny it.

Lifton’s book could easily fit into this literature as well, but, as he points out, concluding that nothing can be done about seemingly overwhelming or intractable problems is itself a form of denial. The climate “swerve” of his title refers to is the emerging awareness over the past thirty years of the great ecological crisis we face, emblematized in the Paris Climate Accords. Nuclear weapons, to be sure, are still with us, but not, thanks to disarmament activists, the fatalism that once surrounded their inevitable use. It is easy to succumb to despair, but, Lifton says, the two-footed mammal that calls itself human has overcome innumerable obstacles in its career thus far, and the skills of awareness and adaptability that have created our current predicaments may yet with wisdom solve or at least mitigate them: “Of course it is very late in the game,” he concedes, “but at the same time far from too late.”

The Climate Swerve is, frankly, not a book that encourages hope. But if its nonagenarian author does not reject it, perhaps the rest of us can hang on to some too.

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The Ruin of Kasch

Roberto Calasso
translated by Richard Dixon
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux ($20)

by M. Lock Swingen

In conferences and symposiums, Roberto Calasso, one of the preeminent men of letters living and working in Italy today, can sometimes be heard to describe the tradition of literature as a kind of living creature, a veritable “serpent of books” winding its way through the centuries and epochs, wholly engulfing cultural periods, places, personalities, criticism, philosophy, and myth. The interlinking vertebrae are forever multiplying and rearranging as the serpent devours its way through time and space, but in Roberto Calasso’s magnum opus, a series of interconnected volumes that he began with The Ruin of Kasch in 1983, the Italian man of letters aims to dissect and study the anatomy of this living creature during some of its most crucial perambulations through our collective history. Although the encyclopedic series of volumes in Calasso’s oeuvre take on wildly different subject matter—Greek mythology, classical Indian philosophy, and pagan imagery, to name a few—they uniformly share a method and style that is the trademark of Calasso’s art form: Each volume is made up of a densely layered pastiche of citations and quotations, genealogical studies of philosophical ideas and concepts, epigrams and aphorisms, and penetrating character profiles of the writers and thinkers whose work defines a time period. Richard Dixon’s recent translation of The Ruin of Kasch reintroduces the remarkably erudite and genre-defying universe of Roberto Calasso to a younger generation of English readers who are perhaps unfamiliar with his work.

The heterogeneous and ever-revolving cast of thinkers, artists, and hangers-on who populate the brimming pages of The Ruin of Kasch circle around the three foremost subjects of the book: ritual and ancient sacrifice, revolution, and the origins of modernity. Significantly, Calasso has chosen the historical figure of Talleyrand, the crafty French statesman and diplomat who managed to hold onto his head during the French Revolution, as guide and interpreter designated to lead the reader through the thick and gnarly pages of Calasso’s labyrinthine tome. Possibly, Talleyrand also provides the key that unlocks the interrelatedness of the daunting subject matter, if they are indeed interrelated, which proves a constant and nagging question that confronts the reader at almost every turn of page. Prepare for detours and forays that follow no discernible trail. Just shy of 400 pages, Calasso manages to quote everyone and everything from Baudelaire, Goethe, the Upanishads, “Das Kapital,” the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius (from whose collation of African myths the title of the book is drawn), and several hundred other works in several languages. If books had a maximum capacity of weight and persons like elevators do, The Ruin of Kasch is definitely breaking code. Calasso’s principle model, the German critic and literary theorist Walter Benjamin, once aspired to write a book that consisted of nothing but quotations. Calasso has very nearly achieved just that.

The book opens during the French Revolution, that classic episode of modern history, where the collapse of the ancien régime presented the downtrodden and oppressed an unprecedented opportunity to take control of their circumstances and refashion them according to a conscious plan or set of principles. Nobody before in history had ever had such an extraordinary chance. The absolute monarchy was overthrown. The nobility were overthrown. The Catholic Church was shuttered up. In the middle of all of it we find Talleyrand. Calasso writes: “Talleyrand’s role above all was that of master of ceremonies—but this was an age where ceremonies had lost their meaning, an age that claimed it could do without them, while it stumbled at every step. At that point Talleyrand offered his arm, impassively—and helped find a way out of the embarrassment. But what ought to have caused alarm was his distant gaze in proffering help.” Calasso’s uncanny ability to uncover the true character and significance of historical figures derives from the vast source material that he unearths and wields with the ease of a scholar, but his aims are never academic despite all his learning: Calasso instead wants to reveal character like a novelist. For example, while comparing and contrasting the two historical figures of Talleyrand and Lafayette, which Calasso sets up as a kind of dramatic foil in one passage, he writes:

Lafayette is the true opposite of Talleyrand. They are born and die within a few years of each other, both have illustrious ancestries, both are involved in everything. Lafayette, convinced from the very start that he is moving with the times, is especially eager every now and then to strike historic poses, and in the meantime to survive. He has an unshakable capacity not to notice. Talleyrand also moves with the times, follows trends, changes his shirts and his allegiances. But this is not why he is not forgiven. On the contrary: it is felt that his amorality is consistent and faithful, that his ever-moving and restless waters conceal some solid, ancient rock that resists the ravages of time much better than the papier-mâché of Lafayette.

Of course, the transition phase from the ancien régime to the new order wasn’t a pretty one, to put it mildly. The euphoric liberation initially felt by the downtrodden and oppressed led eventually to what is infamously known and aptly named as the “Great Terror,” a time period characterized by the vacuum of power ushered in by the total collapse of the ancien régime and the subsequent frenzied power grab, where beady-eyed and murderous tyrants and opportunists competed ruthlessly for supremacy. Enter Robespierre, another heavy hitter during the French Revolution. The line between political opposition and treason blurred. Political crimes now became so widely defined that nobody felt safe. The former nobility and just as many revolutionaries were now being executed for their counter-revolutionary potential alone. Exit Robespierre. Many were shot or drowned, but most died under the instrument that would eventually dispatch the king: the guillotine. Introduced in April 1792 and designed as a humane means of execution by rational men who touted the progressive policies and ethos of the Enlightenment, the guillotine unleashed rivers of blood and claimed an unprecedented number of sacrificial victims unseen in that era. It is this necessity for government and order by bloodletting that leads us to the mythological tale at the heart of The Ruin of Kasch.

Calasso recounts the tale of a prosperous African kingdom that lends its name to the title of Calasso’s book—Kasch—where the king reigned supreme but where an order of priests would also consult the stars and according to the course of those stars calculate the hours and pronounce judgements and sometimes order the execution of the king and the installment of a new one. The king would also choose companions to die with him. In the tale of “The Ruin of Kasch” the king chose a famed storyteller named Far-li-mas to accompany him to his death. One day, the king invited Far-li-mas to the court to recount his stories and fables. Calasso writes: “Far-li-mas’s story was like hashish. When he had finished, all were swathed in a benign unconsciousness. King Akaf had forgotten his thoughts about death. None of those present had realized that Far-li-mas’s story had lasted from the evening to the morning.” It went on like this for some time, joyfully. But the priests also kept a fire upon which they would heap the keepers of the fire as sacrificial offerings to God. One day, the sister of King Akaf was appointed the keeper of the fire. Sali-fu-Hamr was very afraid and did not want to die. Sali also loved Far-li-mas and did not want him to die. Sali also loved her brother the king and did not want him to die. But the calculation of the course of the stars according to the priests ordained it. In the tale of “The Ruin of Kasch” Sali confronts the order of the priests. She says:

“Great are the works of God. But the greatest of them is not his writing in the sky. The greatest of them is life on earth. I came to realize it last night.” The priest said: “What do you mean?” Sali said: “God has given Far-li-mas the gift of telling stories, as he had never done before. This is greater than the writing in the sky.” The chief priest said: “You are wrong.” . . . Sali said: “Then show me I’m wrong, that the writing in the sky is more powerful and greater than life on earth.”

The conflict between the priests and Sali is interesting here. For a modern reader, it isn’t very difficult to understand the motivation of Sali: Who the hell wants to be sacrificed? Clearly, there is a sharp line drawn between the protagonist and the bad guys here. But is it really so? We need to consider the time period. After all, it’s not like our ancestors didn’t know what they were doing. In early settled agricultural societies like the land of Kasch there permeated in the people an extreme sense of dread and fear over man’s tenuous place in the natural order. In contrast to the lifestyle of bygone nomadic hunter gatherers, the people who settled down to build and to plant began to experience the natural world as an endless source of chaos and terror. Gone were the days of following the rhythmic provisions of nature, like the hunter gatherers did, where there was always enough food over there if there wasn’t enough food over here. To say the least, that level of trust in nature’s merciful bounty was completely absent in the early settled agricultural societies, where a living had to be tortured and coaxed out of a specific piece of real estate. Imagine trying to predict the time for planting, for harvesting, for when the frost will set in or when the rains will come or when the river is going to flood the plain. Anxiety becomes a way of life. Planting a month late one year could lead to the collapse of an entire civilization.

One of the most striking similarities among early settled agricultural societies in this regard is the emergence of the awareness of the heavenly bodies and the course of the stars and the establishment of a priesthood dedicated to tracking those movements of the night sky. This desire to interpret and even potentially control the environment is almost entirely absent from hunter gatherers, who of course understood the environment astoundingly well, but they did not seek to control it. At first, the priesthood still understood the natural forces in terms of an omnipotent will that drove events and brought joy or catastrophe. Basically, they took everything personally. But the priesthood eventually made a tremendous discovery. They discovered that you could bargain with the future. If you let go of something valuable or even something that you hold most dear that sacrifice would grant you a moral claim that you could redeem in the future. In other words, the discovery of sacrifice is the concession that something valuable has to be given up in order for something even better to happen later on. One must embrace sacrifice and death voluntarily in order to move forward and progress. Hence all that burnt lamb smoke and all those firstborns tied to posts.

But Sali thinks the land of Kasch has progressed beyond the need for all the bloodletting and all the sacrifices. And she does have a point here. One of the ways to mark and identify the development of early settled agricultural societies is by tracking the maturation and increasing level of mastery displayed in the calculations of the heavenly bodies and the course of the stars in the night sky. The priesthood began to arrive at the understanding that there existed some kind of impersonal, mechanical order to the universe that ran like clockwork. They began to map out their earthly territory in less personal terms. If the priesthood had developed progressive means that allow society to take possession of the environment, why sacrifice to God? In the land of Kasch the crops are always planted on time. When the priesthood arrives at the court to listen to the stories of Far-li-mas, Calasso writes:

As morning approached Far-li-mas raised his voice. . . . The more powerful his voice became, the more its sound echoed in the people. The hearts of the people rose against each other, as in battle. They raged against each other, like the clouds in the sky on a stormy night. Flashes of anger clashed with thunderbolts of fury. When the sun rose, Far-li-mas reached the end of his story. The confused minds of the people were overwhelmed with indescribable amazement. For when those still alive looked around them, their eyes fell on the priests. The priests were lying on the ground, dead.

From that day on no one else was killed or sacrificed in the land of Kasch. Calasso goes on to recount that King Akaf lived happily to the end of his days, when he died of old age. Far-li-mas succeeded him as king. Wise men came to seek the new king’s advice and counsel. All the princes from foreign lands sent Far-li-mas gifts. But the success and achievements of the land of Kasch sowed envy in the hearts of the neighboring lands and kingdoms. When Far-li-mas died the neighboring lands and kingdoms broke their treaties and began a war. The war marked the ruin of the land of Kasch.

Sacrifice, Calasso writes, “is the cause of ruin,” but also, “the absence of sacrifice is the cause of ruin.” After recounting the mythological tale of “The Ruin of Kasch,” squirreled away somewhat inconspicuously in the middle of the book, Calasso then runs through an exhaustive and sometimes baffling gloss of the tale’s possible meanings but also the possible meanings of the nature of sacrifice itself. One of the theories of sacrifice that grips Calasso’s imagination is the theory of the scapegoat, formulated by the social scientist and philosopher René Girard. Girard theorized that when disagreement and discord threaten to tear apart the delicate social fabric of a community, one of the methods through which the people restore order and harmony is by designating an outside party or victim onto which everyone in the community can direct their rage and antipathy. Usually, a totalitarian ruler prescribes the outside party or victim whom also not-so-coincidently justifies the totalitarian ruler’s own rise to absolute power. It’s a sort of three step process. Citizen 1: “I’m going to kill you.” Citizen 2: “Please don’t kill me.” Citizen 1 and Citizen 2, intermediated by totalitarian ruler: “Well, let’s all kill them then.” The subsequent discharge of violent energy that had been heretofore bouncing around the community reaffirms a cathartic feeling of collective identity. It works like a charm almost every time. Calasso quotes Girard directly on the obvious drawback of this formula: “This is the terrible paradox of desires in men. They can never agree on the preservation of their object; but they can always agree on its destruction; they never reach agreement with each other except at the expense of a victim.”

This problem brings us to the last great subject of The Ruin of Kasch: Calasso’s very subtle polemic against modernity, which was ushered in by the turmoil and monumental bloodshed of the French Revolution, the harbinger of our modern political landscape. Essentially, Calasso’s argument is that the disorder of the contemporary world is a legacy of the collapse of earlier societies in which the ritual of sacrifice played a crucial role. Calasso writes: “History can be summed up as follows: for a long time men killed other beings, dedicating them to an invisible object; and then, from a certain point, they killed without dedicating this act to anyone . . . Then the simple act of killing remained.” What, then, was the real significance of all those rolling heads during the French Revolution? There were so many of them leveled at the scaffold of the guillotine. It is difficult sometimes not to wonder if the revolutionaries ever came to regret the brutal efficiency of that machine. Do all those tumbling heads embody something like the tremendous realization of the priesthood in “The Ruin of Kasch” that one must sacrifice the old ways of doing things in order to move forward and progress? Or do they perhaps represent the killing of the priests themselves? Or were they merely those poor sacrificial victims à la Girard that crudely held the community together in a time of crisis? It is a question that haunts the formidable mind of Calasso. Since 1789, in any case, few countries have failed to experience their own revolution, and in all of them there have been revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries looking back at what exactly happened in France in the hopes of finding inspiration, models, patterns, and warnings. In the thick and gnarly pages of The Ruin of Kasch Calasso contemplates the prophecy of the guillotine more seriously and more thoroughly than perhaps anyone else living today.

In the most revealing gloss of the mythological tale of “The Ruin of Kasch” Calasso writes succinctly: “This is a story about the passage from one world to another, from one order to another—and about the ruin of both. It is the story of the precariousness of order: of the old order and the new. The story of their perpetual ruin.” (139). Of course, he could just as well be talking about the French Revolution—or the inheritors of it, whom would be us—and that struggle since time immemorial between the values of tradition and the relentless forward march of progress. And yet in all that chaos and pandemonium of 1789 there was one man who rose above it all, almost effortlessly: Talleyrand. No matter how tangential or free-wheeling the pages of The Ruin of Kasch become, and they do become pretty damn oblique and sometimes even schizoid in their unyielding digressions, they always seem to curb back inevitably toward the historical figure of Talleyrand, the center of gravity in the expansive universe of Calasso’s mind-bending tome, where data and information and analysis is always whirring past the reader at the level of warp speed. In the end, why did Calasso choose Talleyrand to guide us Virgil-like through the overflowing pages of The Ruin of Kasch?

The answer, surprisingly enough, seems clear. Talleyrand was the only political figure who was able to leap frog from one regime to another and another during a time when most other political figures had their heads rolling on the scaffold whenever a regime change occurred. Widely detested for his cynicism and duplicity and extremely useful for the same reasons, Talleyrand held positions of power through the ancien régime, the French Revolution, the Directory (the constitutional republic until Napoleon seized power), Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration, and finally during the return of the citizen-king Louis-Philippe. “While every municipal partisan spirit was at last finding his metaphysics in the vision of the Party,” Calasso writes, “Talleyrand maintained the indifference of the sky and the water: mutable, elusive, unscathed among many faiths.” For Calasso, Talleyrand perhaps represents the essential problem posed in the dense pages of The Ruin of Kasch: How do we know who to sacrifice if the art of politics is now about surviving the grip of events? Clearly, it is precisely the evasive fluidity of Talleyrand’s politics that makes him the first true modern man of our time.

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

Tell the Machine Goodnight

Katie Williams
Riverhead Books ($25)

by Greg Chase

Set in the year 2035, Katie Williams’s Tell the Machine Goodnight envisions a dystopian future, though it’s one that largely resembles our own dystopian present. People clamor to make physical contact with celebrities and offer thousands of dollars for their stray eyelashes or strands of hair. Handheld screens enable users to track the precise movements of friends and lovers. Powerful corporations based in the Bay Area promise increased well-being to the entire American populace—or at least to those who can pay for their services.

But there is one major innovation in the world Williams describes: the Apricity machine, exclusive property of the Apricity Corporation. Its name derived from an archaic word for “the feeling of sun on one’s skin in the winter,” the machine provides clients with customized recommendations to increase their happiness. The process is simple and painless: a “contentment technician” presses a cotton swab against the inside of a client’s cheek, inserts a saliva sample into the machine, and reads out the results. Most people receive recommendations of the bland and wholesome variety (more on this point later): Eat tangerines on a regular basis. Arrange fresh flowers. Put a warm blanket on your bed. Still, they seem to work; the service has a 99.97% approval rating.

This intriguing premise allows Williams to explore a number of weighty philosophical questions: What makes us happy? How can we know? Even if we did know, would this knowledge actually help us become happier? What, if any, are the drawbacks to pursuing happiness? Why might a person choose to forego this pursuit? Told through multiple perspectives, the novel examines how a range of characters address and confront these questions.

The central figure is a contentment technician named Pearl, chosen for her position because she possesses—so her boss tells her—“an aura of wooly contentment, like you have a blanket draped over your head.” Phlegmatic disposition notwithstanding, Pearl is deeply worried about her son Rhett, a thoughtful sixteen-year-old recovering from a severe eating disorder. In one section of narration, Rhett refers in passing to Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in which the ecstatic happiness of an entire community is founded upon the horrific suffering of a single child. The allusion is apropos, since Rhett himself displays a powerful inclination to resist the culture of happiness maximization around him, refusing his mother’s requests to sit for the Apricity machine. In the terms of another dystopian cultural touchstone, he is the kind of kid who would take the red pill.

A number of the novel’s most compelling storylines explore the relationship between individual happiness and social harmony. One chapter focuses on Pearl’s boss Carter, whose standard contentment plan features such platitudes of happiness maximization as “Adopt a dog” and “Smile at your wife.” One day, however, trying an updated machine, he receives a new and surprising result: “Remove all chairs from your office except your own.” This recommendation gives Carter free rein to act on his inherent desire for dominance, and he soon discovers how much he enjoys the confusion and humiliation of his chair-less subordinates. Relatedly, we learn that the standard Apricity machines redact “violent or illegal actions,” replacing them with asterisks. After Pearl swabs Rhett’s cheek in secret and runs his sample through the machine, she finds to her dismay that his contentment plans consists of a single asterisk, prompting her and readers alike to wonder what perverse or destructive desires are hiding behind this inscrutable punctuation mark.

Williams has created a world rich with narrative possibilities, but some of these are not pursued as fully as they might have been. Carter’s experiments with the modified machine are the focus of one early chapter, after which point the novel essentially abandons his story, despite the important questions it has raised about how this culture handles those who derive happiness from exerting power over others. Another chapter is narrated by Rhett’s stepmother Val, who works as a “freelance namer,” helping companies determine what their products should be called. Tied with Rhett for the book’s most interesting character, Val has a traumatic, disturbing past about which she refuses to speak, and her narration is punctuated by fascinating observations about the histories of words (including “stepmother,” “mask,” “cruel,” and “machine”). But the novel doesn’t give her nearly the attention she deserves. We also don’t hear much about the production of Apricity machines, and the lack of detail on this subject feels like a missed opportunity, since attending to the chain of production might have allowed Williams to investigate further how fulfillment for some is founded upon the exploitation of others.

Another word root relevant to Williams’ novel is that of “happiness” itself, which comes from the Germanic “hap,” meaning “chance” or “fate.” Implicitly, the novel invokes this linguistic history by raising questions about the extent to which happiness truly is a matter of individual control, even in a culture saturated with technological devices meant to facilitate its attainment. On the one hand, some of Williams’ characters simply seem fated to enjoy more happiness than others. On the other hand, the ones on the road to happiness may not be those we would initially expect. At one point, trying to track down an Apricity machine, Rhett thinks that, if he’s lucky, one of Pearl’s will be stored in the closet. Upon finding the machine just where he had hoped, Rhett thinks, “it turns out that I am lucky.”

Click here to purchase this book
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Silver Girl

Leslie Pietrzyk
Unnamed Press ($17.99)

by Mary Lannon

Set in the 1980s in Chicago during the Tylenol murders, Leslie Pietrzyk’s emotionally resonant and timely Silver Girl tells the story of a fraught relationship between an unnamed working-class narrator and her best friend, the upper class Jess who has recently broken off an engagement. Each girl also has a complicated relationship with a sister.

It’s telling to place this well-crafted novel within the evolving tradition of the bildungsroman. Unlike the classic bildungsroman—defined by a male protagonist’s adventures in the larger world—early novels about women’s coming-of-age focused on what critics call “the marriage plot,” detailing the female protagonist’s journey to marriage. These narrative differences were due, no doubt, to the novel’s origin as a middle-class entertainment that reflected the gender roles of its milieu. Though novels have evolved to tell stories of other classes and other women’s roles, the marriage plot narrative remains with us, and in most marriage plot novels a minor part of the action concerns the main character and a friend or sister from whom she seeks counsel and with whom she bonds.

Pietrzyk’s book flips the traditional script of marriage plot novels by making Jess’s broken engagement merely a backdrop to the central drama of female bonding. The underlying dynamics of the friendship are well explored from the beginning:

After Jess and I met way back on that first day, she told me I was the only girl in the dorm she could stand for more than a couple of hours, the only person who understood her. She wasn’t that hard to understand, I didn’t think, but I understood not to tell her that. She wanted to be understood. Not me. This is how we knew we could be friends.

Throughout, Pietrzyk continues excavating this relationship: “Jess was afraid of fear, confusing it with weakness, and her solution was to bully herself into doing things that terrified her. I was the opposite, so used to fear I felt nothing.”

An equally noteworthy theme that’s also timely is Pietrzyk’s depiction of class dynamics. For example, she precisely captures the poor unnamed narrator and her families’ attitudes about class: “We weren’t poor-poor, not Secret Santa poor. My parents didn’t believe in crying, and they didn’t believe in charity.” She renders the emotional costs of poverty: “My fury was a living thing rattling my chest. I’d been born understanding a price tag was tacked on everything.” And she elucidates the class difference further with her renderings of the wealthy Jess’s lack of concern for money: “she didn’t like to hand-wash in the disgusting dorm sinks, so she threw away hose when they were dirty but still good.”

The novel jumps back and forth in time—a good choice on Pietrzyk’s part, as it increases the narrative drive of this hard-to-put-down book. Perhaps Silver Girl's only flaw is that it is a bit overstuffed, with abortion, incest, death, homophobia, artistic coming-of-age, infidelity, the Tylenol murders, and more all playing a part in the plot. Pietrzyk hardly needed all these propulsive elements, for the friendship and the sister relationships are so vividly rendered as to remind us that the richness of female bonds are more than enough to fill the lives of women and the books about them.

Click here to purchase this book
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Revisiting the Journey:
An Interview with Craig Thompson

by Eric Lorberer

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

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

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

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

CT: No no, it is real time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EL: No.

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

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

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

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

CT: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EL: And you were seeking them out?

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

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

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

EL: That’s sort of a relief.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nick Drnaso
Drawn & Quarterly ($27.95)

by Steve Matuszak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature

Gloria Fisk
Columbia University Press ($60)

by Erik Noonan

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

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

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

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

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

by John Toren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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