Tag Archives: spring 2001

THE ADVERSARY: A True Story of Monstrous Deception

The Adversary by Emmanuel CarrèreEmmanuel Carrère
Metropolitan Books ($22)

by Josie Rawson

Monstrous, indeed. Among us there are the petty impostors: small-time sharks, little white liars. We all know them, or are them—little harm done. And then there are the monstrous frauds, the epic deceivers who author autobiographies so outrageous they change history. These figures are legion among gurus (think Rasputin). They haunt the halls of money (Trump) and politics (Kissinger). But perhaps the most fascinating among them are those without the benefit of the big stage, who lead otherwise mundane lives and would have died into anonymity had it not been for their monstrous crimes (Bruno Hauptmann comes to mind–the carpenter who came out of utter obscurity to kidnap and murder Lindbergh's baby).

Add to the ranks of these sometime nobodies one Jean-Claude Romand, a Frenchman now serving a life sentence for the outrageous shotgun murders of just about everyone he was related to: wife, son, daughter, mother, father. He'd been such a good Christian, a well-to-do doctor! neighbors remarked. Wrong. A loving husband, a family man. Wrong. A savvy financial advisor to his friends. Wrong. On nearly every count, anyone who claimed to have known Romand had been wrong about him, which was part of his genius. Emmanuel Carrère, his countryman, takes up the hard task of trying to decipher a man so hell-bent on keeping his double-life charade a secret that he'd annihilate anyone who might expose him. The investigation's success is slightly limited by an awkward translation into English and Carrere's penchant for steering his prose into the muck of solipsistic reverie, but look past these minor infractions and you'll begin to realize the extent to which Romand's grand hoax and evil rampage have altered French society.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Katherine McNamaraKatherine McNamara
Mercury House ($15.95)

by Jason Fischbach

In 1976, a young poet disgruntled with the anthropologists, both living and dead, of Western academia, went North in search of living culture. As the author says in the early chapters of her book: "I needed to know about living people: what they are, wore, thought, said; what they hoped for; what they dreamed; who their children were: . . . I wanted a writer's shock of experience, a recognition of complexity, a real account of what it was like out there." After bumming around Anchorage, Alaska for a few years she took a job teaching poetry in a small Athabaskan village deep in the Interior. From there she began a fourteen-year-odyssey travelling throughout Alaska seeking story and truth from the Native populations. Narrow Road to the Deep North recounts her experiences during this journey.

As McNamara travels from one village to the next she begins to learn things about Athabaskan culture, especially regarding gender roles and relationships. She is disturbed by the silence of the land and its people. Slowly, she develops personal relationships with Native storytellers and is told the stories of the animals; the silence is broken. McNamara discovers a terrible spiritual struggle between the Native cultures and the encroaching culture of consumerism and capitalism. Alcoholism and domestic abuse run rampant in both white and Native populations. The clashing cultures have upset the myths of both cultures, as well as long-standing and comfortable traditions and customs, especially those of gender roles. As McNamara writes: "The world has changed. Great Powers are at play; every possible human behavior has come out of the dark and once more into the open. We are astonished and distressed. The world divides, as Alaska divided, into small and smaller groups of us. Fear grows; uncertainty feeds it, and smothers our courage. We stammer. We don't know what can happen next."

McNamara proceeds to lay out a fascinating web of spirituality and its social ramifications. She is given a small pouch of Wolverine toe bones by an unlikely suitor and begins to dream. She is drawn to women of spiritual power and learns from them. The poet in her interprets these dreams and lessons within the context of Alaska and what she has experienced. The reader too is drawn into the towns and villages of Alaska and starts to understand. At one point, McNamara recalls a conversation with a Native friend: "'If women have their own power,' I said, 'and animals have their spirits; and if medicine people can be either men or women: then, what do men have that is their own?' 'They are the providers,' she said, surprised I had to ask."

Like a skilled weaver, McNamara is able to combine all the threads that make up modern day Alaska into a clear, believable picture. It is a place of confusion and suffering. To provide, men must now compete with each other in a capitalistic system over which they have no control. They no longer have hunting stories and animal myths to guide their actions or give them comfort. They are confused and act out violently in frustration against each other and the women they love. Meanwhile, the animals are crying because they have lost contact with humans. They are trying to talk to women, but the women are afraid to listen. They are bearing the burden of their dying culture; physically, through the fists of their men, and spiritually, through their lack of myth and tradition. They don't know what to do with their own powers.

It is interesting that McNamara seems to accept the gender roles inherent to certain Native populations. Certainly, the author abhors the abuse, mistreatment, and fear often found in such situations, but she doesn't ridicule or ignore the gender beliefs that give rise to them like so many writers who extol the virtues of Native cultures tend to do. Instead, she embraces these beliefs, and is rewarded with a deeper understanding of the Athabaskan culture. Even though at the surface the men appear to hold dominion over the women, McNamara learns that men have only the superficial power of aggression and competition while the women have a more spiritual power, tied to the animals and the creation of the world.

In the end, McNamara realizes the Wolverine came to her to show her purpose. As a poet, she came to Alaska to teach the power of language, with which we can sing, praise, and speak the truth. She came to demonstrate the link between language and spirituality and how important it is to the formation of culture and social systems. She helped her Native friends realize that the animals are still speaking, but they are using a new language to match the new and changing culture of Alaska. In having done all this, she has also taught us to listen.

Despite the publisher's insistence that Katherine McNamara's story is about one woman's spiritual journey, Narrow Road to the Deep North is better read as a selective documentary of Alaska. From the beginning, it is clear that the author is making a conscious effort to distance herself from the subject matter. For example, she falls in love with a young Athabaskan man and lives with him in his village for a long while, but she reveals very little personal information about their romance, their relationship, or their break-up. Instead, McNamara speaks of their relationship in a cultural context through the lens of a retrospective anthropologist—and by treating her own life's story as a cultural artifact, she is able to avoid the romanticism which plagues this genre of writing.

McNamara, however, is still a poet, and her chronicle remains intensely vivid and insightful. It is perhaps one of the most informative and accurate stories ever written about the spiritual culture of Alaska. Certainly, it is one of only a small handful of books about Alaska without a political agenda. Narrow Road to the Deep North does a wonderful job of traversing the romantic pitfalls surrounding Native American storytelling and writing on the American Wilderness. The reader is rewarded with an accurate view of Alaska, and thanks to the power of the poet, an enlightening view of the human condition.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the present

From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques BarzunJacques Barzun
Harper Collins ($36)

by Eric Iannelli

Encyclopaedic in scope, engaging but demanding in its account, From Dawn to Decadence is a brilliant synthesis of five centuries of cultural development from the keen mind of Jacques Barzun, a highly respected critic and historian with nearly thirty books to his credit.

Beginning with the a look at the post-Renaissance ("a moveable feast") zeitgeist and Martin Luther's posting of his 95 Theses in 1517, the author sets out to trace dominant trends in cultural history. During this process he simultaneously aims to curb the excesses of revisionism, clear up common misunderstandings, and exhume words--particularly "culture" itself--that have been reshaped through successive generations. This grand task involves rescuing the Victorian Era from its putative prudery, as well as the Medieval Era from the misconception of it being wholly unenlightened and artistically stagnant. Farther on, Barzun untangles the twisted net of Darwinism and awards Lamarck his rightful place in the evolutionary debate, then examines the political correctness and multiculturalism our own time holds so dear.

With the authority and confidence of Dante's Virgil, Barzun guides the reader through these conflicting views of history, highlighting the existence of particular themes in the last five hundred years of Western cultural life. Some of these include SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS (he uses the capitalisation himself), a "mental state" of individuality without limits; ANALYSIS, or "the breaking of wholes into parts," a fundamental process of science but new to art; SPECIALISM, with its threefold appearance in intellectual, scientific and educational circles; EMANCIPATION, "indeed the immediate appeal of all revolutions"; PRIMITIVISM, the desire for a break from the demands of urban life and technology and a return to simpler modes of living; and INDIVIDUALISM, an effect of emancipation and cause of self-consciousness. Unlike historians with an agenda, Barzun does not force his account to conform to these themes, as a statistician might skew data to support a hypothetical trend. Instead he notes their reappearance and discusses its relation to precedents.

Contrary to most platitudes, Barzun suggests it is ennui--that is, "boredom and fatigue"--which is the driving force of change. He also has no reservations in correcting things he finds to be absurd or simply mistaken, such as personal attacks levelled at the Irish-born satirist Johnathan Swift or the multitalented William Hazlitt, who he describes as "Criticism personified." These short biographical sketches found at various intervals within the text help to illuminate the outstanding figures in Barzun's narrative. They also expose the reader to important names that have been eschewed by the frivolous curriculum now in place in most Western schools, grammar and graduate alike.

As always, in a work of this size and scope, certain details are bound to go missing. Barzun's selections for persons who merit inclusion are excellent, but I do question the elision of some names, particularly those around the fin-de-siécle. Eugéne Atget, a failed actor turned photographer in Napoleon III's France, is one of these because of the duality of his work. Some two decades of work in the form of 2500 negatives was sold in an official capacity to the Caisse National des Monuments Historiques, in which he used this new medium to document the existing Parisian cityscape as the drive for "progress" and cultural superiority engendered radical architectonic changes. Atget's photography received formal recognition from Man Ray and Ansel Adams, giving his work the artistic status it had been lacking.

Similarly, there is Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2, which appeared for the first time at the New York Armory show in 1913. But an exhibition four years later featured the "fountain," a wall-mounted urinal, presented by the enigmatic R. Mutt (also Duchamp). More than the motion he had captured on canvas, the urinal was an overt attack on the conservative, or "philistine," sensibilities of the crowd. The ironic Fountain perhaps speaks more to the goals and outrageous effects of the combined Modernist-Surrealist-Dadaist movements than motion in Cubist painting.

In his essay on the Edwardian Age, Stefan Collini writes in the January 19 issue of the Times Literary Supplement: "It is always difficult to distinguish fact from fantasy in narratives of cultural decline, since tendentious selection and culpable exaggeration usually combine to misrepresent the nature and scale of actual changes, until all the delicate shadings of grey are crayonned over in deepest black." That particular caveat, summed up rather nicely, is wholly applicable to the closing pages of From Dawn to Decadence. Barzun sees the effects of emancipation as leading to a sort of social entropy, or a chaos theory as applied to mankind.

The author's commentary about the late 20th Century is especially unsettling because of the strong degree of truth--not, as some might argue, academic indignation or cynical senility--within the observations. He argues that the same agencies once established to protect individual rights (the ACLU comes to mind, as do the infinite divisions and sub-divisions of modern bureaucracy) now hinder the same individuals they sought to protect, operating at the expense of good sense and efficiency. Contemporary education, based on the suggestions of Dewey and Campell, has gotten rid of the fundamentals (Latin, Greek and classic literature, for example) in order to concentrate on practical application and determined egalitarianism, the latter of which results in attempts to teach the unteachable and make schoolwork entertaining. The subject was covered well in the late Allan Bloom's socio-academic polemic The Closing of the American Mind, which Barzun unfortunately does not mention. Similarly, Will Durant's The Story of Philosophysupplements the general narrative of From Dawn to Decadence well, but receives no formal recognition.

One may apply Barzun's theoretical analysis to other aspects of modern life. Because of its obsession with emancipation and individualism, the Western world has become not anti-historic--which implies some knowledge of history--as it is a-historic, much like the Dadaist declaration that "I don't want to know if any man lived before me." Contemporary artists, for example, attempt to explore new territory without a solid grasp of the old. Their output is of superficial quality, isolated from the context offered by tradition. On a more general level, the very notion of rights in Western society has devolved into farce, with everyone demanding his voice be heard. All this takes place under the rousing rebel yell of democracy, when the fundamental principle of democracy is majority rule. This last advent, socially speaking, creates a tyranny of the common man over his gifted counterpart--in short, it is the lamentable rise of the "demotic," not "democratic," in fashion, music, and the arts--a decline expedited by the Lowest Common Denominator strategies propagated by the monolithic advertising and television industries. Barzun offers a very stunning prognostication of the year 2030, one in which a corporate-controlled future parallels the Middle Ages in terms of socio-political structure and general creative lethargy. Decades, maybe centuries, later a new Renaissance will occur with the discovery of our current texts, by then "classic" literature.

The poignancy of this dystopian prediction is heightened because it arrives in 2001, which has been declared the European Year of Languages by the European Union and Council of Europe. This event celebrates Europe's multilingualism in light of current studies indicating that English will soon become the dominant tongue of the Western world. Not only does this suggest the gradual displacement of other major languages, rich in words that have no Anglophone counterpart, it also hints towards an additional drawback in which the dominant English tongue will be the inarticulate, antiseptic version found in the business world and the "techspeak" of computer gurus.

Barzun also prefers to focus on classical music, which seems a bit misguided in his treatment of early 20thCentury. This is a time when jazz emerged out of New Orleans, Chicago and New York and set the United States dizzy during Prohibition. The innovation of jazz, with its back-alley origins and apparent absence of structure, captures the spirit of the times (justifiably termed the Jazz Age) better than Mahler, Debussy, Ravel and Tchaikovsky. Yet the ignorance of classical music among a large percentage of the Western population possibly calls for a greater treatment of the subject, in which case Barzun would be undeserving of such criticism.

And, yes, one could rightly say with Barzun that homosexuality has enjoyed a greater degree of freedom beginning in the early 20th Century. Yet one must also remember that as late as 1960, whole paragraphs in J.R. Ackerley's novel We Think the World of You were bowdlerized because of their homoerotic content. A recent reissue of the so-called "definitive edition" still excludes many of those passages. Thus the certainty of social progress and acceptance is still dubious. Similarly, the author owes a large debt to the American philosopher William James, who is cited four times by page 25, and receives a fair amount of attention as his chronological place in history approaches, but Barzun also might have benefited from the insightful quips of Eric Hoffer, another straight-talking American philosopher who possessed an acute understanding of human nature and life in the 20th Century.

In spite of these minor quibbles, however, From Dawn to Decadence remains one of the most instructive books of its kind; neither blinded by academic haughtiness, nor softened by the wish to please everyone at the expense of accuracy. The index alone is a remarkable achievement. One section is devoted to proper names, complete with dates of birth and death, and bold page numbers to indicate a higher degree of concentration on the subject instead of a casual reference. The other section lists places, events and themes in acute detail. Some forty pages of endnotes serve as superb guides for further research and historical disclaimers. Furthermore, the text margins are peppered with quotes from central personalities and Barzun's own bracketed suggestions of books to read for better understanding. One might add that he is not above recommending his own work where appropriate.

From Dawn to Decadence opens with a dedication "To All Whom It May Concern." It would be a shame if this did not include even the casual reader. The revelations found within these pages are no less than essential for anyone who seeks a better understanding of the socio-political development and, equally as important, one's own place in history. Few books in recent memory are as accessible, interesting, and unashamed of controversy.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

TRANSLATING THE UNSPEAKABLE: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity

Translating the Unspeakable by Kathleen FraserKathleen Fraser
University of Alabama Press ($19.95)

by Charles Alexander

Kathleen Fraser takes the poem as space of revelation. This is the self. This is reality. Not clear. Not even repeatable, paraphrasable. The poem translates the unspeakable by bringing it into language while leaving it unspeakable. Robert Grenier in 1972 wrote "I HATE SPEECH," against the comfortable voice-based poetics that still dominates American poetry. Such opposition is necessary. Yet Kathleen Fraser opposes nothing; rather, she illuminates the possible, the page's verbal explosion, with wide-eyed openness. These eighteen essays combine an adept and mature poetic vision with an almost-naïve sense of coming into a poetry for the first time. In this particular combination she joins Robert Duncan as an essential companion in our late and continuing poetic adventures.

Fraser's approach to poetry begins and ends in experience—the particular life of a woman, a life of "non-presence," finding its way "within the inhibiting field of established precedent," toward an articulation that in no way recovers it for that established field. Fraser never felt at home with acceptable and prescribed definitions of poetry, and was both shattered and enlivened by the entry into her world of "exploratory works by modernist women writers," yet also "did not feel comfortable pursuing the combative tone that often accompanied the arguments" for a radicalized poetic practice. Fraser thus enters the territory not from the standpoint of polemics, but rather out of necessity. Experience won't be tamed. It requires a poetry that allows for ellipsis, palimpsest, nonclosure, disruption, and all possible radical methods known or to be invented by women and men who cannot be cordoned into neat corrals.

To create essays that explore the relationship of life to poetry, Fraser has invented a way of proceeding that is both discursive and filled with intuitive leaps. The book begins with Fraser's recreation of her entry into poetry and its destabilization by the idiosyncratic idiom reinventions of Wallace Stevens, his poetry's undoing of all ideas of order; it continues with the most compelling meditation on motherhood and art-making that I have ever read. From there we move to Fraser's creation of poetic community through her editing of the influential 1980's journal, HOW(ever), and to essays on the development of her practice of poetry. Her poetics of error, where she has chosen "to incorporate the sight and citing of a literal error or ‘typo'" as poetic material, lead her to commit to a writing process "based more in close scrutiny and attention to what was going on in the writing itself," rather than on notions of authorial intention or acceptable poetic form. Once in the open (the open field, the projective space), Fraser commits to it entirely. Her poetics thus concludes the opening section of the book, followed by an accounting of modernist women poets (Fraser's natural forebears) who had been erased, and a final section of essays on the poetics of line, time, poetic form and shape, field, and the necessary instability of poetry.

If there is a flaw in this book, it is in the regulated flow of its essays. One might imagine less progressive structure and more stunning constellation, in which the poetics, the autobiography, and the recovery of modernist women interpenetrated one another, rather than being kept separate in neatly honed sections. Such a structuring would parallel Fraser's sense of the possible space of the poem, in which centrality, digression, and speculation all work together as a translation of the unspeakable.

I want to attend to some specifics in Fraser's essays. In the opening section, "Auto . Bio . Poetics," Fraser's autobiographical accounting of her work as mother and writer begins as an immersion in language.

I. monologue

Catching two words. Pulling apart and re-Pasting a paragraph on the same night spiders crowd and come pushing out from the closet door at the actual child.

Working in the next room without knowing this, to hear him tell of it years later and to hold this. Nights of long fear.

To sorrow the poem, to sorrow and tear at its lines, to open its vein. Looking for blue. Expecting it.

Instead, to find red. Scar tissue. Long hollow empty place. Quill of a feather.

Writing lines, watching lines elasticize and tatter, not knowing how to solace the dark, child's eyes open/eyes awake, with mind yet struck in infant night-terror. An otherness you know nothing of. Can you put this? Can you hold it quietly?

Deferral. To other's book.

What may be most striking here is the absolute refusal to create a dichotomy of mother and artist as separate spheres. Artist is an act of motherhood, tearing, fear, blood. Mother is an act of catching words, pasting paragraphs, living language. The stance allows one act to interfere with the other, but not to separate. "To book as in to foal. To son" is the essay's title. Even motherhood's lack of time and space for writing is what creates writing:

To let the poem pour from the closet, long erratic music-tugging lines and word horde of the broken-in-on nightlight.

This essay is singular in its abjurance of discursive form. It pauses, breaks, meditates, changes—moves as the kind of poem Fraser elsewhere calls for, "the movement of poetic language as investigative tool. An open field, not a closed case."

Part two of the essay, "dialogue," presents "A" speaking with "B," where "A" is the mother/author of the earlier monologue, and "B" is a more traditional questioner who begins by doubting that mother and artist might intertwine in a positive way: "B: But in the story, the child seems to be an obstacle . . ." For the mother, "A," the struggle of art with mothering leads to a breakthrough in the conception of the poem as something in which "everything kept breaking-in on continuity" eventually even to a poetics in which "Beauty, as I'd been taught to think of it, no longer interested me in the same way." Instead,

Unexpectedness, chaos . . . That mark of a seismograph across an empty score.

I find this essay courageous and unlike anything else I have ever read concerning how poetry is made, and how art and living might encompass each other.

Fraser's embrace of an "open" poetics, one that acknowledges Charles Olson's conception of "composition by field," yet differs significantly from Black Mountain poetics, is worthy of note. It is in the background of every essay in this book, even in memories of youth when Fraser felt that the traditional, formal, left-justified and regularized poetic form simply did not fit what she needed to write. A significant antipode of Fraser's formal dynamic was to be found in the work of women writers whose works were not available to Fraser as a young woman, because their contributions to modernism and early postmodernism had been ignored or erased. The work of Dorothy Richardson, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, H.D., Lorine Niedecker, and Barbara Guest, and that work's recovery by feminist scholars at the same time that Fraser was developing her mature poetic, gave Fraser a launching pad. Stein's "re-grammaring--its refusal to submit," Richardson's "abstinence from conventional plot and the avoidance of verifiable climax," H.D.'s use of palimpsest and reinvention of myth, Loy's "discretely ecstatic pleasure in the dense thicket of uneasy word/song/syntax" that willingly asserts the value of being "out of place, contingent, never to remain static or held in thrall by another's personal or poetic agenda," Niedecker's condensation to "reveal the radiant power of individual words minimally framed," and Guest's requirement that a reader must "put together ‘a meaning' via the subject's angles, materials, functions, and planes; we must read the gaps, the overlapping clues," all lead Fraser to enter her own open field, and to investigate and celebrate, in HOW(ever), the work of women who are willing to jump into the gaps, the interstices, the unknown—to proceed "without a net."

The marginalization of the women mentioned above, as well as her experience as writer and mother, gave rise to a feature that distinguishes Fraser's open form from Olson's. While Olson states that there is only one possible form for the material under hand, and one senses a firm establishment of authority in his pronouncements about and practice of field composition, Fraser's experience of "contingency," "the incidental," "the inessential," and "instability" (all concepts addressed in the book) lead her to an embrace of open form as the only possible way to translate uncertainty, hesitation, and a radical sense of dislocation—ideas that seem foreign, if not antithetical, to our sense of Olson, although ideas whose application to Olson may lead to a revelatory deconstruction of his work. In addition to opening the page up to a visual/structural dynamic for the poem, Olson also is a key figure because of his "declared move away from the narcissistically probing, psychological defining of self," which "helped to provide a major alternative ethic of writing for women poets who resisted the ‘confessional' model for their poems."

Translating the Unspeakable also illuminates the work of Fraser's contemporaries who embrace the visual space of the poem as space of enactment in which meaning is discovered or engendered rather than portrayed, a space in which closure is never a necessity, and which may even be seen as the space of "the real."* In the essays "Line. On the Line. Lining up. Lined with. Between the Lines. Bottom Line." and "Translating the Unspeakable: Visual poetics, as Projected through Olson's ‘Field' into Current Female Writing Practice," Fraser presents the work of Hannah Weiner, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Susan Howe, Barbara Guest, Frances Jaffer, Beverly Dahlen, Ntozake Shange, Maureen Owen, Dale Going, Laura Moriarty, Myung Mi Kim, Meredith Stricker, Mary Margaret Sloan, Norma Cole, Catherine Bowers, Susan Gevirtz, and others who turn "to language as an active principle." Taken together, and contextualized with relation to early writers like Emily Dickinson as well as to visual artists like Agnes Martin and male colleagues similarly willing to write from the margins of approved poetic discourse (and Fraser writes eloquently of many of these men in this book and in other essays not collected here), the writing Fraser illuminates constitutes a poetic endeavor that beautifully complicates our poetry by bringing to it a dimensionality that "invites multiplicity, synchronicity, elasticity . . . perhaps the very female subjectivity proposed by Julia Kristeva as linking both cyclical and monumental time."

I want to end with a word about Fraser's poetry, excerpts from which provide epigraphs for the sections of Translating the Unspeakable. Fraser has always been a poet whose lyric transcendence and devotion to beauty (such as the painting of Giotto) have obscured for some readers her formal radicalism. Yet precisely what Fraser finds in Giotto's details is his "break from the artistic conventions of his time." Make no mistake—Fraser's poetry provides an entry into a radical arena in which meaning is contingent, uncertain, in which our cherished preconceptions are unhinged.

The New comes forward in its edges in order to be itself;

its volume by necessity becomes violent and three-dimensional

and ordinary, all similar models shaken off and smudged

as if memory were an expensive thick creamy paper and every

corner turned now in partial erasure . . .

("Wing," 1995, reprinted in Translating the Unspeakable)

Her poetry is only the most imaginative part of a project that includes this book of essays, the editing of HOW(ever) and the website how2, and which embraces the work of innumerable colleagues, the totality forming what we may see as one of the most significant poetic enterprises of our time. It is a project of and from the margins, a project that will not be tamed:

"Telling it slant," slide-rule poetics, improvising one's relation to language as often as is necessary, graphics of recursive inquiry, determined & indeterminate cadence. Not to be tamed.

*For a discussion of "the projection of a new realism" that is critical to innovative contemporary poets such as Fraser, Hejinian, and many others, see Hank Lazer, Opposing Poetries, vol 2 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, pp. 29-30).

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

SIXTY YEARS OF ARKHAM HOUSE

Sixty Years of Arkham Housecompiled by S. T. Joshi
Arkham House Publishers, Inc. ($25.95)

by Kris Lawson

Unless you're a fan of horror and weird fiction, or a devotee of small presses, you're not likely to have heard of Arkham House. Founded in 1939, Arkham House has published nearly 200 books of fiction and poetry. Sixty Years of Arkham House, compiled by Lovecraft biographer and horror fiction editor S. T. Joshi, is the publishing house's own retrospective. Tellingly, the book limits its explanatory text to two essays and numerous notes; the bulk of the volume lists all the works published and their dates and contents. An odd addition is the list of "lost Arkhams," books that were announced or planned but never came into existence, typical of Arkham's concentration on the fantastic and the imaginary.

Based in Sauk City, Wisconsin, Arkham House was the brainchild of August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, both friends and correspondents of H. P. Lovecraft. Two years after Lovecraft's death in 1937, Derleth and Wandrei, despite being impoverished writers themselves, decided to start Arkham House in order to bring the writer's fiction, poetry and collected letters before the public.

Derleth and Wandrei poured their money into the new enterprise, and Derleth took over editorial duties while Wandrei served in World War II. Soliciting orders through ads in the popular magazine Weird Tales, Derleth hoped to get enough subscriptions in order to publish 1,268 copies of Lovecraft's The Outsider and Others, a collection of short fiction. At $3.50 a book—an expensive price at the time—Outsider's pre-orders numbered only 150, but Derleth went ahead and had the whole lot printed anyway. This was typical of Derleth, and Arkham House hovered on the brink of financial disaster for many years. Derleth stored unsold books in his own house, commenting wryly at one point in his essay "Arkham House: 1939-1969," that "a small publishing business like Arkham House could afford very little overhead."

On the heels of their initial Lovecraft offering, the next book to be printed was a collection of Derleth's own short stories. After returning from war, Wandrei began to edit collections of Lovecraft's letters, which were eventually published in five volumes. Lovecraft's stories and novels, elaborate, multi-layered tales of the supernatural (though Lovecraft preferred the label "weird fiction"; his personal philosophy posited that there was no supernatural, only human inability to perceive the handiwork of vastly powerful alien beings who ruled the universe), were to become solid successes for Arkham House. Although their sales remained small, this limited success encouraged Derleth and Wandrei to collect Lovecraftiana, compiling Lovecraft's marginalia and writing essays about Lovecraft's life and influence on them as writers.

Arkham's catalogue grew to range from the classics of the genre (J. Sheridan LeFanu, Walter de la Mare), to pulp fiction writers such as Lovecraft's fellow Weird Tales alumnus Robert E. Howard, to more modern writers (Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith). But Derleth wanted to find new writers of "weird fiction" as well as famous names such as Lord Dunsany, Ray Bradbury and A. E. van Vogt. He published the first collections of short stories by Bradbury and Fritz Leiber, both of whom came to dominate the fantasy field. Arkham survived its first decade but their support base declined drastically in the early 1950s, as customer reaction to competitors flooding the horror/supernatural market brought a slump in the market. Competition also forced Arkham to raise its prices, but it continued to produce only hardcover books. (The press didn't issue its first paperback until 1979.) Derleth continued to search out new writers and even resorted to printing a few vanity books for authors willing to pay the costs in order to keep Arkham afloat.

Along with collections of essays, fiction, and poetry in the "Arkham Sampler" and "Arkham Collector," Derleth and Wandrei printed some of their own novels, as well as those of their friends and associates. Derleth also wrote and published what he called "collaborations" with Lovecraft, finishing story fragments or fleshing out Lovecraft's undeveloped story ideas. As Lovecraft's critical reputation has grown, due in no small part to Derleth's efforts in promoting his work, these "collaborations" have not, ironically, stood the test of time. Derleth's original work better shows his writing talent. Responding to accusations that he was profiting from running Arkham House, Derleth wrote defensively, "Far from growing rich on the proceeds of Arkham House, the fact is that in no single year since its founding have the earnings of Arkham House met its expenses." He contributed part of the earnings from his own writing to the company accounts, and his prodigious output continued throughout his life. A workaholic, Derleth not only ran Arkham House but also managed to write 150 books of his own before his death in 1971.

Later editors brought their own style to Arkham House. James Turner took over in 1975 and shook up Arkham tradition by not only concentrating on new writers at the expense of the old, but also daring to print the first outright science fiction titles in the early 1980s. Science fiction was a wise addition, and has come to dominate Arkham's present-day list, with works by Lucius Shepard and Ramsey Campbell. But it was their emphasis on the authors of an earlier era as well as printing numerous volumes of poetry that has given Arkham House the aura of an elder statesman in the world of genre publishing.

Arkham House books, originally sold for as little as $3.50 in some cases, are now among the most collectible of supernatural fiction. For first editions, prices now run as much as $600. After sixty years in a very specialized field, Arkham House has outlived its competition and managed to survive in a world where the major publishers are consuming each other in order to survive. Derleth, of course, would have liked that image.

Editor's note: for a review of Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters by H.P. Lovecraft, see our accompanying print edition (Spring 2001, vol. 6, no. 1)

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

NOT A CHANCE

Not a Chance by Jessica TreatJessica Treat
FC2 ($12.95)

by Rebecca Weaver

Not a Chance, Jessica Treat's second collection of fictions, is catapulted by its characters. These off-kilter characters constantly blur the lines between imagination/reality and sanity/insanity because they are rendered with amazing accuracy, detail, and even compassion.

Many of Treat's characters aren't aware of the world around them—or of their own memories—quite enough to make sense of their lives. When they do something, they don't know if they actually did it or dreamed it, which can become quite problematic. In the story "Radio Disturbance," a voice on the radio reminds Julia of her ex-therapist, who owned a house in Connecticut. Having gleaned her therapist's address from the receipts of their sessions, Julia then "dreamed" that she went to the therapist's home, yet described the contents of a linen closet in that home with such detail during a session that Julia could see said therapist doing a mental inventory of such a closet.

The line between reality and imagination is an obsession in this collection. With a nervous laugh, Treat's readers are forced to confront questions such as: what is imaginary about what is real? And what is real about what's imagined? In "Not a Chance," the main character tells the story of a friend's affair. Because the cuckolded husband pleads with her to help him, and because she's been given her friend's forgotten notebook, the narrator embarks on a journey to find her disappeared friend. She tries to imagine her friend's affair, and spends so much energy in this act that by the end of the story, the two women begin to merge. Treat's use of language as the point of entry between worlds is evident as the merger appears: "I still had her notebook and every so often I lifted the cover to stare at its scrawled pages, as if its contents weren't already etched into me . . ."

Though there is simple enjoyment in reading this collection, Treat demands close attention as well—readers must be careful not to miss the sentences that effectively deepen and charge the story. For example, "Dead End," though different from the others in voice, shows Treat's mastery at subtlety, her ability to slip important details into the narrative. It is a letter written to "Jacobo," the narrator's ex-boyfriend, one which tells him at the beginning that he's being watched. As the story progresses, readers discover that Jacobo is being watched by an assassin the writer has hired, but that fact becomes less and less surprising the more we read: "I go to none of the restaurants we went to together, not that one in midtown where you suddenly showered parmesan cheese on my head (why, I can't remember, but of course not before you'd chanted, 'you understand nothing!')."

In the novella "Honda"—roughly a third of the collection—Melanie Maddox is a wildly dysfunctional freak. First she steals a dog. Then she "mistakenly" steals a Honda that looks like her own and invents for herself a son named Honda. Every person that Melanie encounters she transmutes into influential people from her past. For example, she uses an elderly woman's phone and since the woman reminds her of her first grade teacher, the woman (in Melanie's mind) becomes that teacher. Melanie even goes as far as to write a letter to the woman and ask her to sign herself as "Mrs. Barlow": "p.s. I hope that when you write me, you'll sign your real name, Mrs. Barlow. I can't help preferring it."

Melanie's voice is one of absolute self-delusion: as much as she expresses confusion about why her life has become the mess it is, that same voice enunciates many reasons. After hitting a crow and running out of gas, Melanie is picked up by Vicky, who's immediately made into "Miss Vicky," another former teacher. Later in the book, Melanie is accused of harassment by Vicky. Here Treat's skill at powerful understatement rises to hilarious effect:

. . . accusing me of harassment: I was lurking about on her property, spying on her, phoning and then hanging up on her—she had all sorts of amusing and not-so amusing theories about me. I might have laughed (why would I want to hang around that swamp she lived next to? That spooky lake, her house that looked like an architectural nightmare?).

It would be easy to think of Treat's novella and the other stories here as fun to read because we readers like to think that we will never be as insane, confused, or pathetic as the characters in Not a Chance. Yet that's the beautiful danger of these stories and Treat's telling of them: How do we really know that we'll never cross that blurry line between sanity and insanity?

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

THE FOX FROM UP ABOVE AND THE FOX FROM DOWN BELOW

The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below by Jose Maria ArguedasJose Maria Arguedas
Translated by Frances Horning Barraclough
University of Pittsburgh Press ($19.95)

by Peter Ritter

The Peruvian writer José María Arguedas shot himself in the head on November 29, 1969 in his office at the Agrarian University in La Molina. Ever considerate, he planned his death so that it would not disrupt the university's schedule. He also left behind what must be the most ambitious suicide note in history: precisely detailed directions for his funeral, along with a diary of his descent into melancholy and the unfinished manuscript of his final novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below). The author's preparation for his felo de se, it seemed, was also his life's work.

Normally, the posthumous publishing of a fragmentary manuscript after a writer's suicide is a vaguely unsavory endeavor, like vultures trying to pluck profit off a corpse (consider Hemingway's True At First Light). Arguedas's novel is a special case, however; first, because the author fully intended it to be read after his death, and second, because Arguedas is a neglected master of Latin American fiction. Once compared with Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arguedas has, in the quarter century following his death, been reduced to a footnote. This first English translation of his final work is, then, less an attempt to capitalize on the writer's genius than a welcome and long-overdue effort to introduce it to readers outside of Peru.

The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below is also something of a coup given the messy state in which the author abandoned his work (equal in every way to the messy way in which he abandoned his life). Less a novel than an accumulation of novelistic elements, Arguedas's cri de coueralso includes long sections of "diary," in which the author expands on the various thematic threads of his story, recalls his traumatic childhood, offers his thoughts on Peruvian culture, and outlines his reasons for suicide. "I'm writing these pages because I've been told to the point of satiety that if I can manage to write, I will regain my sanity," he explains in the first of these entries. "But since I have not been able to write on the topics chosen and elaborated, whether small or ambitious, I am going to write on the only one that attracts me—this one of how I did not succeed in killing myself and how I am now wracking my brains looking for a way to liquidate myself decently . . ."

It's apparent early in The Foxes that Arguedas had already come to see his situation as a struggle between the earthly pursuit of his work and the temptation of an easy exit. These same polar forces define the novel, which the author envisioned as a reflection of his personal torment upon the canvas of Peruvian society. The title, taken from a Quechua myth which Arguedas had earlier translated, refers to the opposite mythical symbols of life and death, as well as those of modernity and Peruvian tradition. What Arguedas finds in both his own life and in the changing Peru of the 1960's is a world pulled apart at the seams by two Furies, one representing metamorphosis and the other oblivion.

The stage for the novel itself is Chimbote, which, in 1969, was the largest fishing port in the world. It is also representative of a society in painful transition: during the capitalist boom of the '60s, millions of peasants had streamed out of the Andes to coastal towns like Chimbote. Because they did not speak Spanish and had no skills, the Quechua peasants were relegated to the fringes of society, settling in vast, putrefying shantytowns and taking dangerous work in coal mines or in fisheries. Arguedas, who spent years living in Chimbote, offers a sprawling sociological portrait of its inhabitants: prosperous fisherman, mad preachers, whores, naive American priests, pig farmers, small-time bosses, and dignified squatters from the hinterlands. Arguedas, who was an ardent socialist (his wife was later jailed for her connection to Sendero Luminoso), finds examples in this bewildering cross-section of the various ideological factions fighting to control Peru's heart: the liberation theology of the priests, the messianistic faith of the Andean squatters, and the reigning capitalism of the bosses.

Arguedas was no ideologue himself, however. For all the fervor of his socialist rhetoric, he is primarily concerned in The Foxes with illuminating the existence of Peru's multitude (as a young man, the author spent years with Andean Indians, and later became a well-known ethnographer). The result is a sort of cultural anthropology, written in the loose, profane tongue of the people. Each character, from the mad Indian street preacher Moncada to the unionizing pig farmer Don Gregorio, speaks in a distinct dialect—a correlative, in Arguedas's conception, for the cacophony resulting from the clash of traditional and modern Peruvian culture. If there is any lingua franca to unite these disparate voices Arguedas suggests, it must be that of solidarity, the vocabulary of the oppressed in response to assimilation and poverty. Incomplete as it is, The Foxes stands as a link between magical realism and historical materialism—in other words, a passionate polemic clothed in myth.

Given the vernacular intricacies of Arguedas's work, Barraclough's translation is something of a miracle (imagine trying to render Finnegans Wake in Chinese). Somewhat less successful is the deluge of academic commentary accompanying this critical edition. While much of the context is welcome—one needs a working knowledge of Peruvian history and language to make even half-sense of Arguedas's writing—the drawn-out argument that the author's suicide was a meta-fictional gambit necessary to complete the novel rings oddly false after the profusion of life that Arguedas actually committed to the page. The author says as much as needs be on the matter through his foolish, obscenely alive pig farmer: "A dead man, when he speeds up the livin', so to speak, it's a legitimate right."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

HEAD

William Tester
Sarabande Books ($19.95)

by Kelly Everding

Whether you're stuck in your own head, trying to get into someone else's head, losing your maidenhead, or aspiring to godhead, William Tester's Head will speak to the particular condition of self-consciousness unique to humanity. In a language that twists the vernacular into a lyrical condensation of image and conveyance, Tester moves fluidly between mind and body as each feeds off the other to create an erotic charge, a sense of grace to be in the world despite its many failings. The characters in this collection of short stories are trying to eke out some semblance of a life, trapped between the secular world and hints of the divine, and the only thing that drives them is primal fear.

In the first story, "Wet," the hungover Nim (a recurring character in many of the stories) and his brother Jim are caught between storms—one coming down on them from the sky and the other coming from their stepfather Lloyd. Forced to push Lloyd's boat through the marshy, alligator-ridden lake as Lloyd unrolls barbed wire (an effort to control and own the drenched and unpredictable Florida land), Jim and Nim are confronted with the refuse of old cars, ghosts, their certain death. As thunder and lightning threaten above them, so does Lloyd threaten them from his boat, until they give in to their fear of being electrocuted and swim to shore, abandoning Lloyd to his fate. "‘He'll kill us,' Jim says. ‘If the lightning quits.' ‘Yeah, but what if it doesn't,' I say." Nim survives his childhood, as well as work, sex, the many break-ups with girlfriends. Throughout it all, he is followed by the presence of God, an offstage character who may or may not take part in his life.

Water or wetness is a pervasive element throughout these stories, just as it is on earth and in our bodies. Water can drown us or grace us by baptism; it shows our fear through sweat and our sorrow through tears; it is the ejaculate, the climax of our passions. All of these bodily manifestations of wetness make an appearance in Head. In "Bad Day," the protagonist is practically drowning in sweat and tears as he sleepwalks through his workday, only to abandon it in the end. "Nervous sweat soaked me, beading up wet on my face and neck. I was sopped with it! I wiped at the sweat, but it wouldn't come off. Why pretend it would?" And just as important as wetness is the electric—for alone or in combination with water it can fire our neurons, enlighten, or kill. In "The Living and the Dead," a nameless drifter floats through Italy, picking up tricks, but unwilling to get too close to people. He awakens from his sleep at the side of the road to a fierce storm. "The lightning hit. Out in front of me, a fence with white posts like a photograph negative netted a field of black hills, and I stumbled until I felt the fence guiding me. Buzzing, its cold wire sang like another mind." Later, "I was ecstatic, but there was no one around I could share this with. My heart singing, hugging the neck of pure terror. . . . I felt lit up inside." These moments of near death and deprivation bring Tester's characters closer to God. "When things like this happened I cursed God. Then immediately, I would see the far lights of a semi. This happened again and again out alone like that, and suddenly, here comes some saving light."

In Head, Tester has tapped primeval motivations that go back to incipient man, and juxtaposed against the quotidian workings of modern society, the terror heightens to an alarming degree. His characters become disaffected and disconnected from people at key moments in their relationships, and when this happens—when they are so deep in their own heads—they fall back on instinct. In "Where the Dark Ended," the protagonist loses himself as he attempts to make love:

She kissed me, yet I couldn't think of our kissing. I wasn't there, all kinds of noise in my head. I could feel my heart. I moved on top of her, sweating—and cupped wetly half into her body, I slid inside, bending myself up in her, but terrored, and I collapsed limp in pure fear, my mind blazing.

". . . What's happened, what is it?" Britta whispered. "You've left."

I didn't say anything.

I didn't kill her and run.

By saying this, of course, there's the scary chance that this is a viable reaction. But between societal law and raw instinct, Tester's characters walk a thin wire that in moments of grace sings with divine intent. These are truly necessary stories filled with sentences that consistently surprise with their rich lyrical force: "She relit herself a snubbed-out Kool"; "Us in all-day sky and dirt, last year's pasture, this year's combed-in early corn." The language is chewy and twisted, shocking us out of our complacent English. Winner of the 1999 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and selected by Amy Hempel, Head is well worth searching out—worth the trip out of your own head.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

THE HOUSE OF GENTLE MEN

The House of Gentle Men by Kathy HepinstallKathy Hepinstall
Avon Books ($13)

by Kiersten Marek

Margaret Atwood has described a moment in high school as she crossed a football field when a "large invisible thumb" pressed down on her head and granted her a poem, a "sinister" and beautiful gift. Atwood's keen sense of the mysterious process of writing made me wonder about Kathy Hepinstall and the genesis of her first novel, The House of Gentle Men. At an early age, Hepinstall, like Atwood, seems to have gained exclusive access to a disturbing and luminous world.

In this mesmerizing narrative, the year is 1941 and the place is Louisiana. Hundreds of soldiers are training in the backwoods before going off to war. In the midst of this historical moment of collective lust and fear, Hepinstall creates a netherworld called the "House of Gentle Men," a place where men will do whatever women want.

Hepinstall begins like a realist, describing the Southern staples of life: Spanish moss and magnolia, mayhew jelly and pickle jars, but soon the prose takes a turn for the quasi-surreal. A teenage girl in the South, setting off into the forest to practice the age-old ritual of infanticide? The premise is unlikely, but soon the reader is deeply involved in the lives of Charlotte, the central heroine, and her impulsive and bizarre brother, Milo. The two are outcast teenagers who must fend for themselves in the wake of their mother's death by immolation. It would almost be nice if Hepinstall glossed over some of this tragedy, but she constantly lures the reader in. Her scenes of the strange bordello love being practiced at the House of Gentle Men have the cadence of Tennessee Williams; at the same time the dialogue and action portray men abdicating to women's desires. The effect is a place akin to Superman's Bizarro world, where everything is simultaneously the same and opposite.

Hepinstall draws her scenes with details that latch on and won't let go, from the sound of flames burning skin (like small kisses), to the way a mother cuts her beloved child's fingernails, right down to the mental contortions of a man raping a woman. The points-of-view in this novel keep switching but the writing stays the same—cool and exact, exquisitely rendering scene after scene of human sorrow, lust, fury, rebirth. Hepinstall follows each character through their traumas, not abandoning them (like so many contemporary authors) before the story is really over. With the steady hand of inspiration, she makes discernible both the atrocious depths and the inimitable latitudes of human experience.

With regard to representing the atrocious, Hepinstall recently confided in an interview that critics have accused her of not liking men. Fortunately she is too wily to be pigeonholed. "Of course I like men," she responded. "I think, for all their faults, men don't have that vague disappointment in women that women have in men." In the more synchronous world of The House of Gentle Men, there is very little to disappoint.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

LIBERTY'S EXCESS

Liberty's Excess by Lidia YuknavitchLidia Yuknavitch
FC2 ($12.95)

by Jeremy Russell

Reading Lidia Yuknavitch is like watching someone marking a map of America with black dots on all the toxic waste dump sites. You aren't quite sure how she knew to mark those particular spots, but know only that her aim is unerring. And with each successive denotation, the black dots are closing in. A swath of them is bearing down it seems on the one spot on the map that you don't want there to be a mark, the spot where you are standing.

One of Yuknavitch's primary talents is to make the deep, often hidden, flaws of our culture—those toxic waste dumps—explosively manifest. The words on the page obey their own gravity. Even when you do not understand the direction or there is no narrative to follow, they drag you along. Skip around in Liberty's Excess and wherever you set your eye is an invitation.

There are so many different techniques, however—innovations as well as the begged, borrowed or plain stolen—that the work is uneven, inconsistent, surprising and daunting, then abruptly beautiful, meaningful, terrifying. In the semi-science-fiction "Citations of a Heretic," which switches abruptly between prose and poetry stylings throughout, Yuknavitch describes the talents of certain actors and her description is a fairly apt description of her own work:

How the players play is not very consistent. Some of the women are bad actors, and so they are pathetically reduced to mimicry and mime with bits of pleading here and there; like so many idiotic parrots fluttering and screeching. They are of little use to us. They are killed quickly—the rush is quick and fades immediately. But there are those few who rise like fluttering, wrestling angels to meet the voice and corpus of their past, and in an irreducibly physical clash they shake the stage with an echo which surpasses the thing itself . . . and the rapture is sublime.

Truly, the rapture is sublime, but do not plan on getting all the way through Liberty's Excess in one sitting. Although she has the skill to make the morbid mocking and the disturbing humorous, Yuknavitch prefers sick irony. The truth is not pretty and it's not fun, not the truth Yuknavitch has such unflinching access to. Rather than a quick read, Liberty's Excess is something to be savored one drop at a time, like a poison to which you are building an immunity.

Take for example the story, "Beauty," which starts with a description of the main character's cancerous conditions—"Beauty had a tumor pulsing behind her brain, near the left earlobe, near the surface of the skin"—and ends with her death. The story is a litany of symptoms, a list of pestilences. Gorgeous descriptions of disgusting diseases mount. Like Job, Beauty has been blighted with all manner of physical ills and the only relief from the awful reality of her plight are her musings on a new Hollywood film she is composing in her head. "Near-corpse that she was," notes the droll narrator, "she knew enough that this, I mean her story, would make a superb TV drama." She knows that her story has a chance, because the media have made heavy weather of the recent increase in abandoned newborns, which somehow means that "a uterus-less, tumor-headed, breastless, cancerous, lopsided, burned-out pregnant woman might have a shot in there somewhere." Beauty may die, but her movie is made and is up for an Academy Award at the end of the tale.

The figure of the tortured artist repeats throughout Liberty's Excess. Usually that figure appears as a male, the husband of a particular woman, an academic (here perhaps is a hint of autobiography, as Yuknavitch teaches Creative Writing and Cultural Studies at Pacific University and San Diego State). The wife is an ex-junky, and the tortured husband apparently a drunk. In "An American Couple" he is described as sneaking bottles of wine into his studio to drink alone and cry. His art is "a series of abstract portraits, faces coming apart, eyes, mouths bleeding into forms and color. Screams and smiles indistinguishable from one another." When a guest at his opening asks him why all of his faces look tortured, like they are in pain, the wife (and narrator) watches as "he says, the next time you are in a passionate kiss with someone, open your eyes. Think about what their face looks like. That close. That familiar. So familiar you can't bear it. Then he walks off, taking one of the bottles from the table with him."

There are more fictions dedicated to these two characters than any others in the collection, though other recurring figures include a female heroin addict or former addict, a woman who is burned alive at the stake, and the archetype of the wanton academic. But there are several fictions that do not function on the level of figures at all; instead they inhabit a form akin to journalism. Take From The Boy Stories, a series of sketches in which Yuknavitch imagines what was going on in the heads of actors like Harvey Keitel, John Malkovitch and Johnny Depp while they were making some of their most powerful films—Bad Lieutenant, Dangerous Liaisons and What's Eating Gilbert Grape in these cases. The best of these sketches is, however, the one that breaks this pattern to describe "Chuck Palahniuk talking to Lidia Yuknavitch about Brad Pitt talking to Chuck Palahniuk about Fight Club." Memorably, Palahniuk says:

[Brad's] breath is jackknifed in his lungs and his face is nearly flying off. He leans down in that heavy breathing and his face is in mine and he grabs my shoulders, my shoulder rising a little up to meet his hands, and he says, "Thank you for writing this fucking part. This is the best fucking part I've ever had in my life."

Which, whether truth or fiction, is entirely too plausible. As is much of Liberty's Excess.

The book is a catalog of frog mutations—here's one with five legs, here's one with three eyes—displayed for your perusal. Amazing, if sometimes depressing. And if you never really cathect onto anything, it is because many of the fictions are more intellectual puzzles, literary origami, than narrative. The best of them combine both the puzzle and narrative aspects, as does "Cusp." "Cusp" is set in a town in Texas on the very edge of the desert, at a home directly next door to a brand new prison. The story's main character, a nameless young heroin addict, is inextricably drawn to the prison as if it came equipped with its own gravitational field. Soon enough her life is orbiting around its inmates, as she alternately spies on them and slips them drugs and/or sex during visiting hours. She becomes more and more arrogantly attached to the world she imagines inside, until her brother turns up as a prisoner and delivers a shocking revelation. As you might expect from a Yuknavitch fiction, the truth does not set her free.

"Cusp" elicits the broadest range of emotions in the entire book—fear, empathy, sorrow, and anger. Elsewhere, the main emotions that these fictions express are impotence and despair, if not quite ennui. And some of the stories try too hard, scream too loud. For instance, in "Waiting to See," a janitor is creating a complex futuristic cityscape in miniature from the junk he finds while cleaning a planetarium after the weekly laser show. Then, one day, he finds a severed arm. The arm supposedly forces him to realize that the future he envisions is going to be totally inorganic and therefore inhospitable and horrible. But wouldn't a potted plant have been just as out of place under one of those chairs surrounded by Coke cans and potato chips? And couldn't it have caused him the same epiphany? The arm only serves to shatter the suspended disbelief that the janitor could be a hidden genius. Nevertheless, other pieces are like diamonds, perfect effective tools for cutting through the glass between the reader and the read to leave themselves lodged like a splinter in the mind's eye, never perhaps to be removed, painful in their naked truth, burrowing deeper the more you ponder them. Though you must reach through the shit of the world to get to them and may feel like wiping your hands on your pant leg every time you turn a page, there are many gems in Liberty's Excess.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

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