Warmth by James Croal Jackson

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Warmth

I want to fold the dog
into an origami pipe
smoke it
and forget this
was ever a dog

later I will want
this dog nestled
next to me
asleep
fire lingering

instead I
fold creases
into blanket
wrapping
out the cold

I can’t shake
but for what
it takes
to sleep
through dawn


About the Author: James Croal Jackson‘s poetry has appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Rust + Moth, Isthmus, and elsewhere. His first chapbook is forthcoming from Writing Knights Press. He is the 2016 William Redding Memorial Poetry Contest winner in his current city of Columbus, Ohio. Visit him at jimjakk.com.

Boy on a Rope by Julia Poole

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Powell woke to the sound of knocking. Disoriented, his eyes flicked around the murky room. He zeroed in on a lava lamp, the source of the empurpled veil covering everything. His body detected the comfort of a mattress, the softness of a blanket and comforter. Mouth dry, the sweet taste of alcohol-laced fruit punch lingered. He licked his upper lip. Strawberry. No, cherry.  Kristina’s lip gloss. Techno music reverberated from a room below. Booming bass matched the throbbing in his head. The room smelled of perfume, pot, and sex. Familiarity. Powell sat up, reached for a box of tissues on the nightstand. A couple of used condom wrappers – one chocolate flavored, one ribbed with lubricant – lay amongst a pile of wadded tissues on the floor at the side of the bed. After wiping his belly, he dropped the sticky clump, adding to the pile.  

Knocking resumed, louder, urgent.

“Hey, whoever’s in there…time’s up already,” said a guy from behind the door, voice pleading. Powell imagined a girl clung to him, hands playfully feeling him up, giggles turning into groans, maybe her tongue tickled his ear.

Powell stood, pulled on underwear and jeans. Nothing new on his phone. He flipped through a few birthday messages from yesterday. Seventeen. Fuck, he was old. No message from Lauren, Powell’s twin. He tried recalling last year’s message. Some funny shit about how she had struggled hours to make his passage into the world easy. “Happy BD, lazy ass! Party w/me tonight?” Lauren always reminded Powell she was the first-born by two minutes. He swallowed hard, twice, and put the phone in his jeans pocket.

Twenty, maybe twenty-five, minutes had passed since he had closed and locked the bedroom door. He spotted Kristina at the end of the bed, topless, curled up like a kitten, purring atop a furry blue pillow. Crouching low, Powell gently brushed long, blond strands from her face that reflected a soft purplish glow. She looked pretty good. The contour of neckline, flushed cheeks, delicate hands with slender fingers that worked him a bit quicker than he liked. Her breath warm against his skin. Green eyes, attentive, accepting. He liked the way she looked at him with approval. Voice soft, asking what he wanted, telling him she wouldn’t go all the way. Apprehension vanished. He no longer thought it foolish to be in a bedroom with a stranger just a week after Sonja had screwed him over. No guessing, no frenzied, awkward race to climax typical of hook-ups. Instead, a weird sensation, one that rushed through him the way he imagined currents traveled through wires. It was like that. Electric. Blistering. An unexplainable awareness, like she connected to him – Powell, the person, not just his body. The urge to accept this unspoken invitation overwhelmed, but it disappeared after he came and she withdrew her hands and mouth.

Strange, that feeling. It filled something absent, an emptiness. No, wrong word. It was bigger, vast, something that affected everything. Epic-void. Was that one word or two? Since Lauren’s death it was as if a part of himself no longer existed. Briefly, with Kristina, that spirit, that something was alive again.

Powell straightened and adjusted his jeans.  Not a stunner, Kristina, but unblemished, attractive enough. Yes, his friends would agree, she was attractive. A comforting realization. Like eating Mom’s chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven, filling him with warm. yummy gooiness. Calm. Peaceful. Satisfaction. He couldn’t remember the last time Mom had baked.

The guy in the hall pounded and shouted, “Get the fuck out!”

Startled, Kristina opened her eyes, legs unfurled. She propped herself up and for a second appeared unaware of her surroundings, fearful, ready to pounce. Her vulnerability was tangible, refreshing. Averting Powell’s gaze, she covered exposed breasts with one hand while fumbling through pillows to locate her bra and top.

Powell turned his back. The space in the bedroom now seemed smaller, confining. Air stagnate. Too hot. He resisted the urge to fling the door wide. Instead, he cracked the window and breathed. Autumn coolness. City noise. The fryer smell of a nearby restaurant. More door thumping, muted. The sound grew louder, the rhythm faster, a husky groan, and a high-pitched pant. God, couldn’t they wait? This house was Tyler’s. A guy Powell knew from playing lacrosse. A few days ago, Tyler posted the rager on Facebook. Everyone welcome. Parents out of town, probably in the Hampton’s. He wondered whose bedroom this was. The lava lamp perched atop a desk strewn with pamphlets from Planned Parenthood, Environmental Defense Fund and PETA, Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, a stick of pink deodorant, a few Hershey’s kisses and crumpled up foil wrappers. Draped on the desk chair was an Obama t-shirt, inscribed Hope below the presidential candidate’s red, white and blue striped face. Tyler must have a sister. Bohemian. Probably a tree hugger. Maybe Tyler’s sister was the girl grinding with the guy on the other side of the door.

Above the desk, a poster hung on a slant. Powell tilted his head and read aloud, “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

“Kurt Vonnegut,” said Kristina.

“Yep.”

Powell’s stomach growled, a reminder of his earlier plan to meet Max tonight. It didn’t seem fair to leave Kristina so soon after hooking up. Such a consideration had never crossed his mind before. There had been lots of party hook-ups – blow jobs, hand jobs.  He often listed hook-ups in chronological order. Tallied faces and bodies, pleasing images that frequented his dreams. The race to fill every moment of the day with something had left Powell exhausted.

The hallway bonking intensified. The door jolted. Hinges rattled. Powell piped up, “We’ll be right out.” Too late. The bam-bam crescendo ended with one freaking intertwined moan. Animalistic and uncontrolled. Sounded like every post-coital scream he had heard. A sly smile curled. Whiffing out sexual acts from behind closed doors was an instinctive gift that began years ago, when, as a child, he used to sit, sometimes huddled in a blanket with Lauren, to listen to his parents screwing in the shower. A frequent occurrence given Dad’s healthy libido and Mom’s propensity for cleanliness.

Powell decided Kristina would never act so whorish as the anonymous girl in the hallway. At least, this was what Powell wanted to believe. Kristina’s sexual experience was of no consequence. He imagined a future moment with his arm wrapped around Mom when he reassured her that Kristina was a virgin. Mom would believe it, just like Mom believed Powell’s sexual experience consisted of a few PG-rated make-out sessions. When Powell turned fifteen, Dad had supplied him with a box of condoms. The good kind, Dad whispered, speaking with that tone of voice that declared he knew what he was talking about.  Only the best for Powell. Life broken down into a few simple rules. Sex was an experience not unlike getting the oil changed on the Mercedes every three thousand miles or drinking a dry Pinot Gris with salmon salad. The box of condoms, unopened and probably long expired, laid in the bottom of his underwear drawer. Mom followed the rules and expected others to do the same. Mom seethed about Powell’s transgressions – he knew by the exaggerated sighs, the cupboard slamming, the way her lips pursed forming a thin, pink line – but she never spoke harshly to him. Never argued about the late hour he returned from parties or questioned his study habits. Never mentioned the wet dream underwear messes. She provided Kleenex and hand lotion on his nightstand and picked up the cum-filled balls of tissue from his bedroom floor, sometimes yelling at Cheetah, the scruffy mutt terrier for carrying the stinky wads around the house.

Powell looked over his shoulder and caught sight of Kristina smoothing out her hair and sweater. She tugged on a loose string of yarn, but it wouldn’t give. To conceal it, she twisted the string around her index finger. Her attempt to right what was out of place seemed innocent, almost sweet.

“Parker…just wanted to say…that was nice.”

So she wasn’t the smoothest person. Powell could live with that. The positives outweighed the negatives. Kristina would make a perfect first girlfriend. It was a moment they could look back on someday, laugh together, like it was an amusing part of their story, one just beginning, one he hoped lasted a long time. He tossed her the tissue box. “Better wipe your face.”

 

Powell hustled from the NYC West side home toward the Lincoln Center subway stop. Sprinting by Church of the Blessed Sacrament, he heard the pipe organ, thunderous and low, playing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” He thought of attending St. Patrick’s Cathedral when he was a child and how freaked out he was by the sound of the organ. Even more frightening was the ringing of the bells. Grandpap tried to calm him, tried to tell him the bells were holy, blessed. He said the bells had names like St. Joseph and St. Michael. Powell had envisioned men stuck inside the bells. He screamed. Mom carried him from the pew leaving Lauren on Dad’s lap looking sad and confused. It wasn’t the first time the twins were separated. It wouldn’t be the last. It was months before Powell could sit through mass without shrieking, and only later, with Lauren’s hand in his, would he avoid a fuss.

Powell sidestepped to avoid a pile of dog shit. He always left Cheetah’s poop on the sidewalk or on the grass in Central Park, where he knew the dog preferred taking a dump but he rarely took the time to walk her there. He was pushing it, breaking the poop law. Fact was he took pleasure from getting away with breaking rules. He didn’t know anyone who didn’t. Who would admit such a truth? No one he knew.

Powell skipped down the steps into the entrance of the Lincoln Center subway station, swiped his MetroCard as he had done a thousand times before, pushed through the turnstile and paced the platform waiting for the downtown train. A few people – goth teens, middle-aged couples, and a few shady-looking characters – stood around or leaned against the mosaic wall. Powell loved that mosaic. The Nefertiti-like goddesses and lithe dancers formed by small, brightly-colored tiles. The gold ones shimmered in the otherwise dank tunnel. Powell imagined Kristina as his Queen Nefertiti and the words flowed:

How did it come? Feeling attracted from the first look on.

Be united, though free, like each other, though free!

He repeated his inventive prose aloud. Poetry, his secret passion. He remembered one night lying under the covers, rubbing the silk trim of his red blanket. The nightlight glowed, spreading a fan of honey-gold against the wall. Grandpap hummed as he entered the bedroom, the edge of the mattress dipped when he sat on it. Gray stubble dotted his chin, and he smelled of pipe tobacco, smoky and sweet. He cradled a poetry book, thick, the spine cracked in several places. Grandpap pushed the horn-rimmed readers up his nose and read, his voice soothed and rolled like faraway thunder:

I was in the darkness;

I could not see my words

Nor the wishes of my heart.

Then suddenly there was a great light –

“Let me into the darkness again.”

Who was that poet? Keats? Frost? The downtown train approached. Powell smiled, waiting to hop on the train.

At Columbus Circle, Powell transferred to the C Line. Plenty of seats on the train. He slid into one and closed his eyes. Doors shut. The train chugged forward. “Next stop, 50th Street,” said the bored conductor’s voice. Powell reviewed Saturday night’s events thus far. It started with swigging his parents’ vodka to get an early buzz. If Mom knew, she expressed no disapproval. Arrived at Tyler’s home on the Upper West Side an hour after the party started. Grabbed a drink, thanked Tyler for inviting him. Surveyed the plentiful array of girls. Powell considered himself above average in the looks department. On a scale from 1-10, a solid 8.0, maybe 8.25. He always targeted girls for hook-ups who scored a notch lower – never lower than 7 and never, ever above. Stunning babes were almost always stuck-up bitches who didn’t put out with guys like Powell. No use pining over what he couldn’t have. Number 7 girls, thankful for the charming, attentive interest of a Number 8, put out in the hand and blowjob department.

Next stop, 42nd Street, Port Authority.

He had spied Kristina chatting with a small group of girls. She wasn’t as tall as Powell liked – he didn’t look good dancing with short girls – but there was something about her, the way she laughed like she meant it, the rhythmic motion of her hands when she spoke, a flair for the dramatic, he didn’t quite know. After grabbing a fresh drink, he entered their conversation. Learned the girls were sixteen and seventeen, from the same school as Tyler. Within 15 minutes, Powell coaxed Kristina to a corner of the dining room. Engaged in small talk. Fetched her a fresh drink and inched closer. She was unattached, hinted that there was someone interested, played volleyball, a vegetarian (surprise, not a vegan), liked Coen brothers and Wes Anderson movies (who didn’t), Broadway shows, English Lit, but math and science not so much. Her style was a bit frumpy: oversized sweater, cheap boots, too much drugstore perfume. She emigrated from one of those funky sounding Russian countries when she was eight. Her English perfect, he detected no residual foreign accent. Mom would hate her. Kristina lowered her chin, looked up at him as if he were the only person in the universe and batted her eyelashes splotched with too much mascara. Powell made his move, his favorite part of the hook-up prologue. He brushed a kiss across her cheek, and she snuggled closer. His arm snaked around her shoulder. A few playful tugs and she nestled into his embrace, melting. He whispered in her ear, his rugged nose nudged her cheek. Body heat merged, lips locked, tongues danced. Unspoken negotiations over, Powell led Kristina, giggling and tipsy, to an upstairs bedroom.

Afterward, they exchanged phone numbers. For Powell, uncharted territory. Not typical modus operandi, but a necessary step if he wanted to see her again. They hugged and kissed before parting. Reckless, kind of exciting, dizzy-like. Shit, when was the last time he felt happy? He couldn’t remember.

Next stop, 34th Street, Penn Station.

Powell shifted, spied a piece of lint on his jeans and picked it off. It was possible, hell, why not? He imagined a future when he and Kristina trusted each other well enough to say anything. Intimacy on a whole new level. Free to say whatever you wanted. Knowing you would be heard, understood. The way Lauren always treated him. Hadn’t she known how much she meant to him? Hadn’t she trusted that sometimes his words meant nothing, that teasing her was just a joke? He teased because he loved and trusted her.

Indescribable trust. That’s the quality he most wanted in a girlfriend. It was part of the epic-void. It was a quality he thought he had shared with Sonja. A line by Neruda came to mind: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” A lie, all of it. There had been no love with Sonja, and if he lived a hundred more years, he wouldn’t forget. Powell grimaced and looked at his watch. One block to the Starlight Diner. He was fifteen, maybe twenty minutes late. Max would be waiting. The train screeched, jerking to a stop. His headache ratcheted a notch higher. Powell stood by the door, and before it opened completely, he dashed through, next climbing the stairs two at a time.

 

“She wants me to bang her,” said Powell. He had taken a seat in the booth across from blond, blue-eyed Max, who, as usual, looked tidy. Clean-shaven. He wore slim jeans and a black t-shirt. Slouchy clothes were too hip-hop. His hair, Max’s crowning achievement, was styled with just the right amount of gel to appear like you could run your hand through it without spoiling the look. Hair nirvana. Max swept bangs off his forehead and sighed. He pulled a few paper napkins from a dispenser and placed them elegantly in his lap and tapped his fork on the Formica tabletop further adding to the cacophony of thrumming in Powell’s head. Countless drinks aside, Powell blamed the hanging lime green lights that stung his eyes like lasers.

“Where’s our server? I’m starving,” said Max. He picked up his phone and scrolled. Powell hated when Max ignored him. There was a lot about Max that Powell felt pissed about, the new friends he chose to hang with, his new habit of smoking cigarettes and joints, the way he spent much of his time alone. Truth was, Powell envied the way Max chose to do nothing as if being alone took no thought at all, like breathing, eating or whacking off. Powell worked hard filling every day to avoid being alone. He equated alone with the possibility of the epic-void opening beneath him, sucking him into the abyss. Since Lauren’s death, being alone was fucking hard work.  

“Back to Kristina. She wants me. Isn’t it great?”

“Surprised you know her name,” Max sniffed, rolling his eyes.

“Hey, I never let a girl blow me unless…”

“Unless you know her name. I know, I know.”

“I’m serious. I’m going to grant Kristina’s wish. She’s the lucky one. My first. I’m gonna do it with Kristina.”

Blow jobs and hand jobs were just making out. It meant having real sex. It was a rite of passage, a decision to take seriously and remember with a smile for years to come. No more hook-ups, no time wasted finding somebody to do something with, no more loneliness. Max had done it last summer with a girl he’d met at summer camp. The sketchy details left Powell doubting.

Max waved to a waitress busy wiping a counter. Looking at Powell, he said, “I don’t get it. Why mess around with the party hook-ups of the world when you’re so tight with that senior, Sonja? Heard she loves dicks,” Max’s eyes narrowed. “Even one like yours.”

Sonja.

Powell didn’t tell Max everything. Some things you don’t say aloud. Like how Powell thought Max a pussy for letting his mom cut his fingernails.

Sonja.

Like how Powell masturbated while watching Penelope Cruz movies.

Sonja.

Like when Powell, invited by Sonja, showed up at her house last Friday night after hanging at an Oktoberfest party where he downed vodka shots because it took too long to get buzzed from drinking beer, so drunk he couldn’t feel his sneakers touch the black and white marble tile in her family’s foyer and she kissed him, and he kissed her back, fantastic, like shooting up with 4th of July sparklers, and the solitude faded, disappeared. They ended up in her bed, clothes on the floor. She giggled, said she had never seen one like it and started licking. Powell told her he loved that, please don’t stop. He was on his way to getting the best blow job of his life with the hottest-looking girl.  They were friends. Powell trusted her.

That’s the way it could have ended. Should have ended.

But Sonja inched higher, body slithering over him until her eyes, hungry, greedy stared into his. Chocolate with flecks of bronze that glowed. Those eyes. He hadn’t seen that look before. She slid atop what she had been kissing. No accident, she closed her eyes, stole control and shut him out as if he were no longer there. But Powell was there. He felt a surge of adrenaline. His heart raced, like the time he stole a Prada scarf from Saks and a security guard followed him, nowhere to run, but Powell kept cool and walked out, escaped. There was no exit from Sonja. He tried turning, attempted to brush her off, but she wasn’t drunk like him. Her hands clamped down on his elbows, hard, her weight and determination crushed. He groped to speak but he was too fucked up, mouth dry, words shriveled. Everything moved too fast. His dreams of having sex for the first time, his way, the way he had dreamed about doing it a thousand times, died. Sonja’s groans grew louder, quicker. The bed spun. Powell fixated on the round ceiling light, dimmed, which reminded him of the moon and his speck of existence on Earth, because if he closed his eyes he would fall into a dizzying spiral, the epic-void yawned wide. Uncontrolled pleasure couldn’t mask the humiliation of being used. Fists clenched, he fingered the smooth ridge of scars that crisscrossed his right palm. This moment was real, like when he smashed the bathroom mirror after Lauren died. His eyes moved slowly from the ceiling to Sonja’s face, and he watched as she fucked him like she was proud of getting everything she wanted. Powell came, and it was a relief because, at last, he knew she would be off him and in his mind, he screamed, Stop, get the fuck off, you didn’t ask, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to go.

Sonja.

There’s a price for not saying words aloud. What if I had been sober, what if I had told her what I wanted, what if I had said no clanged like a gargantuan church bell rung by a boy, inexperienced and naïve. There weren’t any saints in that tower. Only Powell, weak, hands grasping, burning and chafing as they slipped on the prickly, thick rope. Powell no longer heard his thoughts. Max’s face snapped back into focus.

Smells, a comforting mixture of coffee and grease, hung in the air. Top 40 tunes floated from ceiling speakers. Taylor Swift sang about some guy. Sweet love gone sour. Same crap. The waitress arrived and poured coffee. Powell listened to Max give his order: gyro, no onion, tzatziki sauce on the side, fries, extra crispy, diet Coke, no ice.

“I’ll have two packs of aspirin, a cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate shake. More coffee, too, please,” said Powell.

“Sure thing,” said the waitress.

Awkward, the lack of conversation with Max. Powell uncrossed his legs and planted both feet on the sticky linoleum floor. He wanted to kick a hole into it. He wanted to bury himself. Maybe he’d drag Max with him. Maybe there, secreted away, he could tell Max what had happened and not be judged. How could he explain what he didn’t understand?

Powell surveyed the people in the restaurant, a compulsion he shared with Mom. And there she sat, he couldn’t believe it – Sonja, sitting in a booth with her besties near the front of the restaurant. How could he have walked right past her? His heart pounded as if it were trying to bust through his chest. He checked his watch and breathed. Powell imagined Sonja’s entrance: her hair styled the same as the others, long, sleek, parted down the middle, shaking her mane as if to say, Hey, look at me, I’m here, I look good, I’m hot. Sonja, her perfect breasts shimmying with every slinking step, her perfect pink lips framing perfect white teeth. Sonja, her ass sashaying just so in her perfectly fitted jeans, flopping into the booth with a bounce. Sonja’s eyes locked on Powell. Grinning, she tossed a quick wave. Her tribe stared at him and laughed. Powell acknowledged them with a nod.

Max droned about some dumb Netflix movie. A waitress wearing tight yoga pants zipped passed. She carried a tray loaded with breakfast food – eggs, bacon, waffles with melting dollops of whipped butter – and dinner food – cheeseburger with fries, matzo ball soup, liver and onions with boiled potatoes, and a gyro so loaded with fixings a large toothpick barely held the sandwich together. Wearing yoga pants was a privilege, not a right. After a second look, Powell decided she was privileged. He imagined Kristina in yoga pants, embracing her, his hands squeezing her ass.  

Max, Kristina, yoga pants, there was no diversion big enough to eliminate thoughts of Sonja. Gorgeous Sonja. Funny Sonja. Smart Sonja. She was a full nine, bordering on nine and a half and Powell had felt flattered by her attention. Sonja, older, savvy, a person plunging into adult life with all the confidence he wished he displayed. The intimate conversations, the way Sonja detailed her many sexcapades. She favored beefy, athletic types, liked experimenting with positions and places. Powell had listened, fascinated by every tryst. He dreamed of having sex with her but realized he didn’t stand a chance – too skinny, young and inexperienced. Mom said, “That Sonja, what a delight. Beautiful and so polite. Comes from the right family. You two have so much in common. Why don’t you ask her out sometime?” How could he have missed it? A proclivity for virgins, Sonja was like an express train barreling down tracks. He should have known. He should have kept his pants on. Hadn’t he tried? Not exactly. He said yes. At first. But hadn’t he said no? Powell seethed.

The waitress brought the food. Powell ripped open the aspirin packets, popped the four pills into his mouth and swallowed. The pounding in his head paled to missing Lauren, the ache constant, no matter what he did to fill the hours. Powell wanted to tell Max how much he missed Lauren, how sorry he felt for yelling at her that day. Stop complaining about your weight. Cut out the bag of chips you scarf down every day, and you’ll be fine. Repeating the awful words to Max wouldn’t change a thing. Like reverberating bells, Powell would forever hear those final words.

Max finished the gyro and wiped his mouth with a napkin. Half the cheeseburger and most of the fries remained on Powell’s plate. His headache reduced to a dull throb, Powell gulped the last of his coffee, lukewarm, bitter. Loose grounds grazed the bottom of the cup.

“You boys want anything else?” said the waitress.

Max and Powell shook their heads. For the last ten minutes, Powell had hoped Sonja and the girls would leave. They hadn’t. Sonja gestured a hearty come-on-over. Powell looked away and caught his reflection in the mirror that hung over the booth. The profile of his nose looked big. He feared, later in life, his nose would appear grotesque. The way old men had shrunken faces with gigantic noses and cartoonish ears. He noticed a few stray hairs, dark and pointy, the beginning of a unibrow. He made a mental note to pluck them later. He smiled, and for a moment Lauren’s image blurred into his. Tell me everything will be fine begged Powell. She dissolved. Alone again.

Powell estimated the walk to Sonja’s table would take fifteen steps, eighteen at the most. Dad advised proper asset management. Know your risks. Don’t overestimate your potential for gains. Evaluate losses. Most importantly, plan and execute with confidence.

Powell pictured himself moving, one foot after the other. The diner was quiet. Half of the tables were empty. The door bell twinkled. Four guys wearing Rangers gear sauntered in and took seats at the counter. Hockey game must have finished at Madison Square Garden. The men’s subdued demeanor signaled a loss. No surprise. Powell ran his hand through his hair and stood straight. Head high, he breathed. Be cool. Max faced the front of the diner, waved at the girls and walked. Powell followed, eyes locked on the door.

Sonja had posted on Facebook how great Saturday night had been, mentioning his name, crazy bitch, how he was like an erupting volcano. Powell responded with some positive shit he knew she would like. Thanks, Sonja! Great night! Fanjizztastic! A few days ago, in the school cafeteria, Powell had met Sonja and said, “Let’s be friends. No sex.” Whatever it took to get himself back from her, to get far, far away from the sad, pretty thing in front of him named Sonja. “Too bad, we get along so well,” she said, “could be a nice way to celebrate your birthday.” Her fingers, cool and soft, stroked his forearm. She whispered, “I know what to do, you know, to not get pregnant.” Smiling, she blew a kiss and walked away.

And now, Powell heard Sonja giggle. He wished he didn’t know her laugh so well. He fingered the scars in his right palm. He hoped Kristina would answer his text, the one he planned to send after he left the diner. She really was attractive. He imagined a time, soon, he hoped, when Kristina would spend the night with him in his bedroom. If she were a serious girlfriend, Mom and Dad wouldn’t mind.

Max stopped at the girls’ booth. Powell stopped, too. Sixteen steps. The voice of Lady Gaga crackled “Poker Face” through a damaged speaker. Powell looked at the girls. Their words and giggles pelted like freezing rain: went-to-Connor’s-party-you-shoulda-been-there-it-was-so-hype-Jack-did-a-bong-hit-Alice-puked-on-the-carpet-she-was-so-turnt-haha-Maranda-hooked-up-with-a-college-guy-you-shoulda-been-there…

Powell concentrated on the reflection in the window. He saw Sonja and the girls and Max talking, laughing. He saw a peek of Sonja’s fuchsia bra as she leaned across the table and flirted with Max. He saw himself, smiling and joking, elbows pinched, unmoving, a man suspended, like the suspended luminosity of the green lamps in the diner, like the suspended moonlike glow of the ceiling lamp in Sonja’s bedroom, like Lauren’s suspended hair floating above her submerged body in the claw foot tub. Like the boy in the bell tower, bells smashing metal on metal, deafening. You’re so difficult. I hate your drama. Why can’t you be more agreeable, like Powell? Mom’s last words to Lauren. Staring deeper into the reflective mirror, Powell sensed this could be the beginning of a fall into oblivion, an unknown place where Lauren may be, where the coveted and elusive something may exist. Fearful, he leaned, slipping. Yet something rose – a blaze of light, searing, but at the same time – calm, Almighty.

Max nudged Powell’s arm. Powell blinked and searched for the dazzle of light. The reflection had vanished leaving night’s muted darkness and the soft glow of a street lamp, the post of which appeared tilted like a car had struck it. Something had been there. My light. I saw it. A surge of relief enveloped Powell.

“I said, see ya around,” said Sonja. The girls laughed.

“Yeah,” said Powell. Like fucking never.

And then Powell was through the door, inhaling deep, the city’s oxygen pure and new.

Powell and Max walked east on 34th Street toward Penn Station.

“God, that Sonja is screaming hot. Remind me again why you don’t want to be with her?” said Max.

“I think she likes sex too much. I’d rather take the lead with someone like Kristina.”

Max nodded; he didn’t question. It felt like the old days when he and Max understood each other and life seemed predictable, almost easy. Powell’s strides were long and quick. His body relaxed as the distance widened from Sonja. Everything about tonight meant something. First, Kristina, and then the light, and then moving past. Powell felt empowered by an unexplainable peace. It was the same self-possessed calm that blanketed him as a child when Grandpap tucked him in at night and recited poetry. Grandpap said poems were as good as prayers. Powell was a whiz at memorizing. Once he heard a poem, he could repeat the lines word-for-word, even though he didn’t understand them.  

Powell and Max waited for the light to turn at 9th Avenue. A bus cruised through the intersection. A poster on the side of the bus advertised: “West Side Story – See the Broadway Revival of the Leonard Bernstein – Stephen Sondheim Tony-awarding winning show!”

“Stephen Crane,” said Powell.

“Who’s Stephen Crane?”

“A poet. Grandpap loved his poems.”

Max nodded. The walk light appeared. Crossing 9th Avenue, Powell wondered if Kristina had seen “West Side Story.” Even if she had, maybe she would go with him. He typed a message to Kristina, pressed send and out it traveled into the epic-void.

 

 


About the Author: Julia Poole is a speech-language therapist and writer of fiction, memoir, and essays. She has published in MOON Magazine, Dime Show Review, and Motherlode – Essays on Parenthood. To learn more, visit her website at JuliaPooleWrites.com

Rubber Love by Karen Petersen

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Rubber Love

Miss Tina, resplendent
in stilettos and fishnet,
lace-up black bustier,
size 38c,
cracks her whip
and he trembles,
waiting
for the pleasure
of her key
in his lock.
He’ll roll over
and play dead,
bark like a dog,
croak like a frog.
Whatever she wants.
You see,
on a bad day
she’ll give even the devil
the blues
But on a good day
she knows all
the right moves.


About the Author: KAREN PETERSEN, adventurer, photojournalist and writer, has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications. Most recently, she was published in The Saranac Review in the USA, Antiphon in the UK, and A New Ulster in Northern Ireland. Her work has been translated into Spanish and Farsi. In 2015, she read “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” at the Yeats Festival in Santa Fe and at the KGB Bar in NYC. She is currently at work on Four Points on a Compass, a collection of her short stories from overseas. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Vassar College and an M.S. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

 

Sex Worker by David Stromberg

Amnon Ben-Ami, Woman with Two Heads, oil on paper, 2008


 

It was a miserable April in Paris. The temperature hovered just above freezing and there was a constant threat of rain. I’d flown from Boston for an academic conference asking scholars to present “notions of proliferation” in “historical pragmatics.” Someone on the organizing committee had read my article on “tragic foresight” in Harold Laski’s Liberty in the Modern State and invited me to speak. The organizers had a “global vision” and welcomed any American that would fit their agenda.

At the reception, the evening before the conference, I ran into Thomas Neuerdorf, a recent doctoral graduate I’d met at the last pragmatics conference in Norway. I found him less self-important than the other so-called scholars and went over to say hello. He smiled when he saw me and raised his wine glass.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said to him. “I’ll have someone to drink with at the end of these boring days.”

He laughed.

“Why do you bother crossing the Atlantic for this?”

“The department pays for my ticket.”

As we clinked glasses one of the keynote speakers, Rolf Gerhardt, came and greeted Thomas in German. Rolf was wearing a shiny light gray suit and sporty black-framed designer glasses. Thomas and I wore muted pants and sweaters. I’d seen Rolf at the conference in Norway too—a hotshot from Tübingen who’d coined the term “irrecorded history.” It was supposed to describe histories that had been first “recorded” then “wiped out.” I’d argued two years ago that we had plenty of words that already said the same thing: suppressed, censored, erased, denied, revised. But the term caught on and there was no way of dissuading anyone from using it. I’d told Thomas that I hoped it would go out of style by the time we met in Paris. Instead Rolf was giving a plenary talk on the continuing evolution of “irrecordedness” in pragmaticist theory.

After a few German pleasantries Thomas introduced me to Rolf – who merely smiled from behind his black framed glasses and nodded with his round cheeks before going off to say hello to someone else.

“What a jerk,” I said to Thomas as Rolf walked away.

“You didn’t like him in Norway either.”

“What’s to like? He’s trapped in his own ideas.”

“You think so? I’m not so quick to judge.”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “He’s trying to convince you of something he barely believes himself.”

“Are any one of us really convinced of what we have to say?”

 

The reception ended early and most people went back to their hotels. The conference was at the Cité universitaire at the edge of the city but I’d rented a small room in the center of the Latin Quarter—so I could experience a little bit of Bohemian Paris. On the way back, watching people on the metro and streets, I thought about what Thomas had said. In a way, he was right, and none of our ideas were really convincing. Tragic foresight was actually no better a concept than irrecordedness since no one in the real world cared about theories. So-called experts like us were as ignorant as anyone else. It’s just that we pretended to know more than we really did. The least we could do was to admit that history wasn’t about the hidden meaning of form and syntax—that it was about human experience.

The next morning I decided to scrap my prepared talk and focus on what history was really about: people. After a long day of lectures, about everything from Mongolian Tengrism to postcolonial expansionism, I got a chance to present my position. I used my panel to say that if we, super-educated professionals, couldn’t find a way to connect to a larger part of society we would kill the humanities for ourselves and for generations to come. I said that we had to rethink our entire methodology and put the human being at the center. We had to find a language that would preserve our scholarly integrity while making it accessible to people who really cared about history. If we were so smart, I said, we had to find a way to speak about all these important events without losing the interest of those we were serving—the public.

Of the four aging professors who’d come to hear my presentation only one deigned to respond. He told me I was missing the entire raison d’être of scholarly investigation and said my intransigent blindness was an obvious symptom of American ignorance and hypocrisy.

“May I ask when you last visited the insignificant and inferior American continent?” I asked him.

“I wouldn’t waste my precious research time,” he said. “It’s enough to hear the echoes of arrogance from every American publication that reaches me right here in Paris.”

I politely suggested to him that as a rigorous researcher he would perhaps recognize the value of seeing things for himself.

That more or less ended the session. Everyone went out to the hospitality table to pour themselves coffee. I went out into the hallway thinking about how things always got mixed up. I’d spoken from the heart—and all it had done was instigate hate and anger.

I looked up and saw Thomas holding two paper cups.

“Coffee?” he asked.

I took the coffee and said the session had been a disaster. He apologized for not attending and explained that his doctoral adviser had been speaking at the same time. I told him it didn’t matter—the whole thing had been a shouting match. He asked what I’d said and I explained the gist of my presentation.

“You came to a conference on historical pragmatics and said that theory doesn’t matter?”

“I said what I believe. I’m a person. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

“Not at a scholarly conference.”

 

Thomas and I went to the day’s last panel together. As we came out he said he was having drinks in the Latin Quarter with a few conference participants—mostly doctoral students and postdocs—and asked whether I’d like to join. After my presentation I wasn’t sure I could contribute to any conversation. But since it was on the way back I figured I’d tag along for a quick beer and then call it a night.

We ended up going to an English pub just next to the Panthéon and by the time we arrived the others had already grabbed a booth in the back. The place was crowded—it was happy hour and the cold evening brought everyone inside. I sat at the end of the booth next to a German doctoral student who introduced herself as Janne. Thomas sat across the table next to a Dutch postdoc named Marleen. There was also a French research assistant named Jacques who’d helped organize the conference, a British postdoc named Lawrence who’d suggested the pub, and a young American professor named Betty sitting in the far corner.

“I didn’t know there were any other Americans at the conference,” I said across the table.

“Either way,” Betty answered, “we’re surrounded by Continentals.”

“I’m not Continental,” Lawrence said, “and I’m also not American.”

“So you basically don’t have allies,” Jacques said.

“In our country,” answered Lawrence, “we call that a state of distinction.”

“In ours we call it independence,” Betty countered.

“In my country we don’t really think those things,” said Marleen. “We keep to ourselves and try to respect others.”

“And expect others to keep to themselves too,” said Thomas.

“Naturally,” said Marleen. “Don’t you?”

“We’re not really in a position to decide about others,” said Janne. “We’re focused on respecting people’s rights.”

“In the most efficient way,” Thomas added and started laughing.

 

At some point a waitress came over to take our order. I asked for a beer and I remember that Thomas did the same. I don’t remember what everyone else had except for Janne—who ordered white wine. I also remember that the drinks arrived quickly.

Janne asked me what I’d presented at the conference and I told her about my speech. She laughed and said she’d heard someone at the hospitality table complaining about me. Apparently they said I’d ranted incoherently for twenty minutes and then insulted the only person who was trying to give me constructive criticism. I said that to me it felt like I’d tried to present some personal beliefs about the future of the humanities and had been attacked for my national affiliation. She laughed again and said it sounded like my interlocutor and I had attended two different presentations.

Most of us had finished our first round and Betty suggested we stay for dinner. I was hungry so I agreed—as did the others. We ordered our food and Betty said we should all do shots together. Without really waiting for any response she told the waitress to bring us seven shots of rye whiskey—which she said was what they drink where she came from. When the shots arrived she stood up.

“I want to make a toast,” she said. “I think it’s only fair that we all acknowledge, together, what makes us historical pragmaticists. And that thing, I believe, is our shared instinctual tendency to face history where it really happens—not on the level of extraordinary worldly events, which are all outer show, but in the internal realm of language, which is always soft, engulfing, and mysterious. It’s what brings us together and also what will change the way that history is taught and understood. Cheers!”

Betty raised her drink, downed the whiskey, and slammed the glass on the table as she settled back into her seat. The rest of us followed suit—raising our shots, crying Cheers, and drinking. The whiskey burned and I was glad we’d ordered food.

 

I asked Janne what she was presenting at the conference. She said she’d spoken earlier that day and that her research involved rape testimony, specifically the way that linguistic structure reflected trauma. Her main claim was that the way women spoke about rape—and not only the things they said—could tell us about their experience. She believed her research would be relevant to police investigating assaults and to psychologists working with domestically abused women. In her opinion too much attention was put on the details they told and not enough on the language they used to convey those details. Her hope was that this research would introduce language analysis into rape historiography across the world.

I was bowled over by the compassionate and thoughtful tone Janne used to speak about her research. I’d have expected someone working on a topic like this to be angry at the very existence of the crime.

I said this to her and she smiled faintly.

“I do get angry,” she said. “But I’m not a policewoman. I focus on ways that I can help—and I’ve found that after something like this happens women need to be understood. That means that the people listening need to be more familiar with how women talk about their experiences.”

“I’m very sorry I missed your talk,” I said.

 

We finished dinner and had several rounds of drinks. I looked at Janne—she had pale skin, straight dark hair pulled into a short ponytail, and piercings up and down her ears. There was a tiny black star tattooed onto the nape of her neck. Her brown eyes projected a combination of strength and caution. I was about to ask her whether she would be willing to email me her presentation when Thomas waved his hand to catch my attention.

“Betty says she has some wine up at her hotel room. She invited us to come up. What do you think?”

“It’s just around down the street,” she added from the corner.

I hadn’t planned on drinking into the night—but I was enjoying Janne’s company and didn’t really think I’d go back to the conference in the morning.

“Do you feel like joining?” I asked Janne.

“I’m staying across the hall from Betty,” she said.

 

Everyone paid their bill and we all went outside. At the door Lawrence and Jacques said they wanted to get some sleep before tomorrow’s long day at the conference.

“Sleep when you’re home,” Betty said with the ring of alcohol. “This is Paris!”

“I happen to live in Paris,” Jacques said.

Lawrence raised his eyebrows.

“And I happen to like sleep.”

They left and the five of us headed downhill: Thomas, Betty, and Marleen walking up ahead and discussing something loudly while Janne and I lagged behind. She asked me why I’d decided to change the topic of my talk that morning. I told her it had to do with questioning myself. I said I wished I could think in more practical terms, like she did, but that my mind worked differently and always made things abstract. She said she didn’t think one way of thinking canceled out the other and that they were both important. I thanked her for indulging me but insisted that there her project was probably more convincing to most people than my mad hatter speech.

“The mad hatter isn’t supposed to convince anyone,” she laughed. “He’s supposed to make people ask questions.”

“Which makes him annoying.”

The others had reached the hotel and Betty turned around.

“Come on you two!”

We caught up with them and entered the lobby.

“So which would you rather do?”

Betty was looking at us waiting for an answer.

I wasn’t sure what she was talking about so I glanced at Janne—who seemed to also be lost.

The five of us packed tight into a tiny elevator and started going up to the third floor.

“Do about what?” I asked.

“Did you miss the whole conversation?”

“It seems we did. “

“We’re asking a hypothetical question,” she said. “If you had to choose between begging on the street in the middle of the day and working as a prostitute at night—which would you choose?”

The elevator stopped and we all tumbled into the hallway toward Betty’s room. It was a small space with a bed and two chairs. I stepped inside and stood next to a window overlooking the street while Thomas walked over to the sink to uncork two bottles. Janne went to her room to bring a few extra courtesy cups. Once the bottles were open, Betty, Thomas, and Marleen spread out across the bed while I sat on a chair in front of the window. Janne came back and sat in the second chair next to a small writing table. We filled our cups with wine and toasted to the success of our conference.

“So!” said Betty. “Which would it be?”

I’d forgotten the question.

“Prostitution or begging?”

I didn’t really understand what they were talking about. I wasn’t sure it was worth answering. I looked over at Janne and hoped to find her as disinterested as I was. But she seemed lost in thought.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I’d prefer to be a prostitute.”

I was taken aback by Janne’s answer.

“And you?” Betty asked.

It felt like a trick question.

“Can I have more than two choices?” I asked. “Can I be a street musician?”

Betty refilled everyone’s wine glasses.

“You have to choose one of the two,” she said.

She lay down on the bed next to Thomas and began caressing his leg with her hand.

“I’m not sure,” I said and turned to Janne. “Why would you choose prostitution?”

She shrugged.

“It’s less humiliating,” she said. “You’re not on the street in the middle of the day.”

Her answer didn’t seem to fit with everything she’d said about trauma.

“What about you?” I asked Thomas.

“Definitely prostitution,” he said with a smile.

There was sarcasm in his voice—he clearly wasn’t taking the question seriously. I also noticed he had his arms around Betty’s waist.

“And you?” Betty insisted again.

I wish I could have taken things lightly too—producing a wry comment and making everyone laugh. But something stopped me. The same thing that had made me change my topic that morning. It was a sense that people should stand up for what they believe matters.  

“I would never choose prostitution,” I said.

Betty produced a big grin and took gulp of wine.

“Why?”

I took a deep breath. I knew that I should probably not tell the truth. I could see from the faces around me that whatever I said would be misconstrued. And yet I just couldn’t stop myself from saying what I believed.

“It’s simple logic,” I said. “You’re pushed into either prostitution or begging because of some extreme difficulty. You need a way out but you want to avoid public humiliation. So you choose prostitution. You think that this way you won’t feel ashamed in front of others. But you haven’t really solved the problem of humiliation. Because you’re a person too and you can’t hide from yourself. The shame’s still there.”

Betty gulped the rest of her wine.

“And what if you have a baby that you need to feed?” she asked.

“Then you probably shouldn’t be putting yourself in compromising situations,” I said.

“Who do you think you are?” she said and slammed her cup down on the table.

“Excuse me?”

“You think you can dictate what’s shameful to other people?”

“Not at all,” I answered. “It was Janne who said she’d choose prostitution to avoid humiliation.”

“So you appropriated her answer and turned it on its head for your own moralistic purposes.”

“No,” I said. “I simply pointed out the oversight in that particular logic.”

“Because you obviously know what feels more humiliating to someone else.”

I looked at Janne hoping for support but she had a strange expression on her face. It took me a moment to realize it was disappointment.

“You agree with her?” I asked.

“Your attitude is a little patriarchal,” she said.

“She asked me a question. I gave her an answer. I was just trying to be logical.”

Janne looked over at Betty.

“I think he’s trying to put himself in someone else’s shoes and saying that prostitution would be humiliating for him.”

“What he’s trying to do,” said Betty, “is put his shoes on someone else.”

I looked at Marleen sitting silently on the corner of the bed. She was the only person who hadn’t said anything.

“Do you agree with them?” I asked.

“Actually I don’t know if I’d choose prostitution either,” she said. “But your logic isn’t very considerate from a feminine perspective.”

I looked at Thomas—whose legs were entwined in Betty’s.

“I wasn’t thinking about feminine and masculine,” I said. “I was thinking about human.”

“Your human,” Marleen said, “is male.”

Betty sat up on the bed and pointed her finger at my face.

“As a former sex worker,” she said, “I would like to assure you that your perspective is anything but human. I got myself through graduate school showing men how I masturbate online—and it also put food on the table for my daughter. So don’t talk to me about shame or logic. Talk to me about responsibility.”

Betty lay back down on the bed and Thomas caressed her shoulders and head. Marleen sat silently in her corner. Janne crossed her arms and sat back in her chair. Whatever affinity had grown between us over dinner was obviously extinguished.

I looked at my wristwatch. It was nearly two in the morning and I suddenly decided that I didn’t want to skip the last conference day. I’d come all the way here and managed to alienate just about every person I’d met—the least I could do was to go and listen to my colleagues talk about their work.

“I think I’ll go,” I said. “We have a long day tomorrow.”

Thomas looked surprised.

“Already?”

“There are some panels I wanted to hear.”

“What for?” Betty asked. “You’re learning more here than you ever will at the conference.”

I got up and started putting on my coat.

“We didn’t mean to gang up on you,” Janne protested. “It was just a conversation.”

I finished the wine in my cup and put it down on the table.

“It was a very interesting conversation,” I said. “But I think I’ve had enough.”

As I got up I saw Thomas raise his hand to get my attention.

“Wait for me,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”

For a moment I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. He and Betty had their hands all over each other. They were already in her bed. I’d assumed he’d spend the night.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Wait for me downstairs,” he said.

Betty scowled. Not only had I offended her honor but I’d also ruined her seduction.

I lowered my eyes and walked out of the room without looking anyone in the eye.

 

I took the elevator downstairs and waited in the lobby. I was about to give up when I heard the elevator called upstairs. A few seconds later it came back down and when the doors opened Thomas stepped out.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Don’t you want to stay?”

“I’d better go,” he said.

We walked out of the hotel and stood in front of the building.

“Aren’t you staying somewhere nearby?” he asked.

“On the other side of the hill,” I said.

“I’ll walk you.”

We headed up back toward the Panthéon in silence. The streets were deserted. The air was cold and dense. Paris held none of its famous charm. It was just a cold city at night. I looked over at Thomas and saw tears streaming down his cheeks.  

I didn’t know what to say so I put my hand on his shoulder. I wanted to reassure him that he wasn’t alone.

“Don’t do that,” he said.

I removed my hand and we walked in silence.

“What happened back there?” I asked.

“I was being passive,” he said, “to see how far it would go.”

“Did you want anything to happen?”

“I think I just wanted a little attention.”

A few minutes later we reached my building. I offered Thomas to sleep on the futon. It was nearly three o’clock and his hotel was near the conference venue at the edge of the city.

He shook his head.

“I like to walk alone at night.”

He’d stopped crying and I shook his hand goodbye. Neither of us had gloves and the handshake was cold.

Thomas continued down the street and I went into the building. As I began to climb the staircase it suddenly occurred to me that he was mourning someone he’d loved dearly. And I couldn’t explain the feeling but the higher I climbed the stairs the more I got the sense that whoever it was had killed herself.

 

In the morning, despite myself, I went to hear Rolf Gerhardt’s talk on the evolution of irrecordedness. When I got to the main auditorium I looked for Thomas. But he wasn’t there. I took a seat in the back where there were less people. Looking toward the front I saw Janne sitting with Betty and Marleen. Someone nearby smelled like old sweat and I considered changing seats. Instead I took shallower breaths.

After an enthusiastic introduction and round of applause Rolf got on stage and began his talk. He spoke with a serious and pleasant voice—measured but not too heavy. His ideas were simple and clear. There wasn’t anything risky about what he said. He gave an overview of what he’d proposed in his early articles and then surveyed how those ideas had been applied by others in their work. The whole thing lacked any controversy. With each word he preserved and extended his place in the scholarly community—making himself one of them without challenging anyone’s position. He managed to get up in front of a hundred people, say very little, and elicit a sense of common purpose that earned him another round of applause. It was brilliant.

When the talk was over I went out to the hospitality table. Janne was standing there pouring herself a cup of coffee. And so was Thomas, who noticed me walking over.

“You’re here!” he said.

“I looked for you,” I answered. “Were you inside?”

“I was up front,” he said, “just next to Janne.”

“I didn’t see you.”

“Join us for coffee?” Janne asked.

“I guess so.”

She and Thomas stepped over to one of the round bar tables while I went to pour myself a cup of coffee. When I rejoined them they were talking about the presentation.

“I was just telling Janne about our conversation at the reception,” Thomas said.

“Which part?”

“About your assessment of Rolf,” she said.

“Listening to him today,” Thomas continued, “I suddenly understood what you were talking about. His ideas don’t exactly come together. He has one or two insights into the way that history is told, and then he gets lost in generalities. When you criticized him in Norway I didn’t understand what bothered you so much. Even at the reception I thought you were being harsh. But after hearing him today I realized you were right. There’s something fraudulent about his brilliance.”

I sipped at my coffee and looked at Thomas, suddenly remembering the tears that had flowed down his cheeks the night before. He seemed cheerier now, less bothered, but in the corners of his eyes I could still sense the loss that had appeared on his face.

“I’m not sure I was right about anything,” I told him. “And if I was, I’m not sure what good it does.”

 


About the Author: David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar. His publications include four collections of single-panel cartoons, including BADDIES (Melville House, 2009), which  The Los Angeles Times called “fantastic.” He has published translations in The New Yorker, Partial Answers, and Asymptote, and fiction in Ambit, Atticus Review, KGB LitMag, and Chicago Literati. He is author of Narrative Faith: Dostoevsky, Camus, and Singer (University of Delaware Press, 2017) and editor of In the Land of Happy Tears: Powers of the Yiddish Soul (Delcorate/Random House, 2018).

Artwork: Amnon Ben-Ami

Music Swells By Zephir O’Meara

Untitled


Music Swells

I tell my kids don’t worry
You’re not the ones
That gentrification is there
It’s happening
We’re not forcing anyone out of their homes

I want a big tent daddy, like the homeless ones have
I want one of those

We warm this house
You’ve never really been hungry
You’ll never really be hungry
Not if I can help it under this roof you eat
When they don’t finish their plate
When they casually demand breakfast
When we’ve been playing at the park well past dinner time

What part of the movie is this
Are we at the end
Has the redemptive bit happened already
Or is this part of a training montage
Where nothing we say really matters
As music swells to determine mood

Circle back around again it’s always food
For good or ill
Sitting around a table
Breaking bread is important
Systemic institutional ritual
Politics makes strange bedfellows should ever be discussed at the table

Is there anything more wondrous than smashing something
A bottle on cement
Priceless ming vase
A dropped pint
If you don’t know maybe you need to smash something
Maybe you need time to slow down
Think about what you’ve done
Think about what you’re going to do next
Because at this rate you might never catch up


About the Author: Zephir O’Meara’s writing has appeared in the Oakland Review, Be About It, sPARKLE & bLINK, Naked Bulb Anthology, and other secret places. He has three cats, two kids, and a dog.

Second Act by Chad Koch

Untitled (ohgodi'msosorry)


I’m unzipping my pants when it really sets in that I’m about to have sex with a furry. The man I’ve met on a furry dating site stands in front of me adjusting the Velcro on the crotch of his fur suit. He’s dressed in what looks like a Mickey Mouse costume except softer, like one of those giant stuffed animals won at a carnival. I studied biology in college, but I can’t recognize what animal he’s supposed to be. I think some sort of gazelle, but the fur is purple, so it could actually be a fantasy animal like a kirin or one of those unicorns that have psychic powers.

“I’m going to do your back first,” he says and has me lie on the massage table. He removes his paws or hooves and struggles to pour oil onto his human hands without getting any on his suit. His studio apartment is freezing and all I can think about is draping his animal body over me. The suit even has the smell of fur, a mixture of BO and steamed rice.

For my part, I’m dressed-up in a fluffy tail that represents a Siberian tiger, a t-shirt with a tiger face on the front, and my baby blue boxer-briefs, which have nothing to do with tigers. I’m just a beginner. If I knew when I started exploring the furry scene that I’d be here two hours later, I would’ve at least bought white mittens beforehand, like I’ve seen on the internet. All I had in the apartment was one tarnished gardening glove under the sink, and when I put it on I looked like a Disney Afternoon cartoon parody of Thriller era Michael Jackson.

“Remove your shirt,” he says, and then reassures me with, “I won’t bite.” I don’t have a response that involves an animal-based pun, but I’m trying. I slip out of my shirt, and the hair on my neck rises when the oil touches my back.

“How’s that feel, Toby?” he says in a Barry White deep voice, obviously not his voice, his fursona’s voice. Toby is my fursona name. Toby the tiger—I thought that was pretty clever. Fursona is like the inner spirit animal they talk about in yoga class, but is enhanced in that you are the spirit animal. He rubs the back of my shoulders, the oil heating with friction from the opposable thumbs he shouldn’t have.

“It feels puurrrrfffect.”

As he makes his way over my shoulder blades, I think about how I ended up in half a furry costume whispering animal noises to a complete stranger. The short answer is that I have begun my second act. You know, the second part of your life. The thing parents say to you when you’re thirty-two and still working at In-N-Out Burger—“don’t worry son, you still have your second act!” But my second act isn’t as interesting as having arrested development and playing Call of Duty in my parents’ basement.

My second act began when the partner of my life, the man I graduated college with, the man I got my first real apartment with—the one with the dishwasher and laundry—left me for another man. My second act began when the man who taught me how good a tongue feels between my toes, the man who stayed overnight on our first date telling me “I’ve been waiting for you all my life”—appeared at the bathroom doorway ten years later and said instead, “I don’t even know who you are anymore.” My second act began when the love of my life left just one of his work shirts when he moved out, and I wear it, even though it’s two sizes too big and has a coffee stain on the cuff. It smells like him, not the cologne he wears, but the thin smell of his skin, of his life—faint, but enough. That’s the kind of second act I’m in.  

“A little harder,” I say to my playmate. “I want to feel some pain.” It sounds awkward as it echoes off the unpainted walls. It sounds like porn which eases my shoulders so that they rest on the table. For a moment I think I’ve chosen wisely by trying out this furry thing. That my desires to be with someone decked out in soft fur, something warmer than my lonely body, is the perfect remedy, the safe haven where only pleasure is allowed. For a moment, there’s total relaxation, and my jaw slackens, a bit of drool slips out, and a soft grunt escapes my lips. I’ve finally found something I can enjoy again.

At least until he starts punching my spine. I wonder if I’m being a bad playmate with this stranger. I wonder if being new to the scene is making me selfish and naïve and only concerned about my own orgasm. So I moan out his name. “Ooohhhh.” But I don’t even know his name, so I stop moaning. He moves to my side and lights four small candles on a table in front of me, like a birthday cake.

My ex never forgot my birthday. He planned it months in advance, and took the day off to clean the apartment and get me little gifts—a chocolate truffle, movie tickets, some sexy underwear—like the twelve days of Christmas. On my last birthday, I’d gotten an email from my ex. I was so surprised I couldn’t open it until lunch. It didn’t say happy birthday or, as I’d hoped, I miss you. Instead he asked me to repay the security deposit.

“You need to get out of your headspace,” my furmate says. The kneading of his fingers is intense now like the weight of a steaming iron as it smoothes out a twisted bed sheet. The kneading hits something, like a bruise, or a pimple, or cancer. I imagine him continuing to rub this spot. He’ll say “I feel tension here” or “this is the center of all your pain.” I’ll think back to when I returned to an empty apartment with a pile of keys on the table, a plastic cup flipped in the sink, a single stray button. I’ll say “yes” to my furmate and the pain will cause my eyes to well with tears, an obvious metaphor for the disintegration of, not just my relationship, but my life. Then he’ll press down hard on the tumor, I’ll beg him to press down harder, until there’s a sharp pop and we share a long sensual howl.  

But it doesn’t happen. He passes over it a second time and then moves on to my ass. He asks me to lower my underwear and slaps my rump. And then he pauses. I feel his breath on my ear and he says, “I’m going to do your thighs now. Lift up your tail for me. Let yourself go.”

And I really do try. I growl and grind my thighs against his polyester covered chest, hoping to create a static charge that flashes through us both and sets off wild orgasmic ecstasy. He thrusts back giving me everything he has to offer. But the shock never comes. My arms give out from under me and my voice breaks into a whimper.

 


About the Author: Chad Koch is a founding editor of Foglifter, a queer literary journal. He recently received his MFA from San Francisco State University, where he was editor-in-chief of Fourteen Hills. He’s the recipient of the Leo Litwak fiction award from Transfer Magazine. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Transfer Magazine, Sparkle & Blink, The North American Review, The Madison Review and Eleven Eleven Journal.

Post-Industrial Idyllic by Natasha Dennerstein

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Post-Industrial Idyllic

 

East 12th Street, Oakland, the decaying light industry
harmonizes with the warehouses, alongside the BART line,
the disused freight train tracks, the bridge to Alameda.

The signs are a song: American Emperor,
Overseas Asiatic Coalition, Union Meat Company,
Five Harvest Wholesale and Fidelity Packaging,

where cheating-ass boys in unsmogged cars
get side-eye from their side-bitches in the back-lane
or get BJs from CDs on the DL.

East 12th Street, where the pot-holes hum in B minor
and the gas-stations and auto body repair yards
sing a chord with the discount furniture warehouses.

You find your tune again, by the meccano drawbridge
under the overpass, over the railway crossing,
fantasizing better days to come.


About the Author: Natasha Dennerstein was born in Melbourne, Australia, to a family originating in Belarus. She worked as a psychiatric nurse for many years, which gave her an interesting perspective on the human condition. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University. Natasha has had poetry published in many journals including Landfall, Snorkel, Shenandoah, Bloom, Transfer, Red Light Lit, Spoon River Poetry Review and Foglifter. Her collections Anatomize (2015) and Triptych Caliform (2016) were published by Norfolk Press in San Francisco, who will also be publishing her novella-in-verse About a Girl this Fall. Her recent chapbook Seahorse (2017) was published by Nomadic Press in Oakland.

Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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Stay With Me
by Ayobami Adebayo
Published 2017 by Knopf
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-0451494603

By Noah Sanders

At the heart of Ayobami Adebayo’s unsettling debut novel, Stay With Me, there is a common villain: men and the consequences of their prideful ways. This is a book about men being duplicitous with women at the very highest level in order to maintain the masculine identity bore into them, seemingly, from the moment they’re pushed into the world. It is a novel about lying to those you care about—your family, your friends, your wife—to ensure that you are always viewed as the highest order of man, that your self-proclaimed biggest weaknesses are never exposed. The novel, set in Nigeria in the politically fraught days of the early 90s, drops its main characters—strong-willed Yejide and her husband Akin—into the toxic cesspool that is the oftentimes conflicting needs of traditional Nigerian culture, strongly held religious beliefs, and the suffocating presence of a dysfunctional government. Adebayo’s characters are tossed about in the frothy mix of this noxious stew, their actions products of trying to find their own way through the demands pressed upon them by family, God, and country.

Yejide, unhappy product of the traditional polygamist belief system embedded in Nigerian culture, falls hard for Akin and decides to marry him if they live with one rule: no other wives. They will eschew the demands of family and friends and live with, and for, each other only. Yet, Yejide is seemingly barren, and without being able to provide Akin with a child and under the gun of parental pressure, the promise is broken, and Akin secretly marries, pushing Yejide to try and conceive any way possible in hopes of saving their marriage.

It is no spoiler to say that Yejide does conceive successfully (many times throughout the book) and that each child she brings into the world brings its own wash of all-consuming sadness. Yet, in the Nigerian culture of Stay With Me, children and the act of giving birth is not only a woman’s gift, but her duty, and though Yejide’s children, and their invoking of her own past, drive her to depression, near-madness and a clinical coldness, it is assumed by her and those around her, that she will have more. Tradition demands it.

Tradition—cultural and religious—encircle our main characters in Stay With Me, laying a path that leads them toward bad choices and broken relationships. Akin, dishonest to say the least, may truly love Yejide (and his actions, in a skewed, unhealthy way support this) but he has been inundated with the belief that he must be a man of certain type and to achieve that he must bury himself beneath an identity that isn’t his. His actions are driven by the suffocating aspects of the traditional role of men in Nigerian society. He is supposed to provide many women with many children and when he can’t, he passes the guilt of being unable to on to Yejide, regardless of its traumatic consequences. Yejide herself, truly the central character of Stay With Me, is traumatized by tradition as well. Her mother dies in childbirth, and she is stigmatized, nearly shunned by her family because of its implications. She accepts the blame for being unable to conceive, because tradition says it can only be her fault, and as much as she pushes back against the confinement of tradition, she’s born of it, so she accepts the fault. Tradition is a part of her, and her journey, beautifully human in the hands of Adebayo, to free herself from it is the driving force of the novel.

Adebayo uses gaps in her storytelling as a narrative tool, purposefully avoiding explaining certain situations so their eventual reveal will best buoy the growth of her characters. As the book progresses and its secrets are slowly teased out, the characters’ perception of each other and the reader’s perception of them is slowly shifted, until it feels as if everyone involved is looking at entirely different people. As well as it works in terms of the development of Akin and Yejide and the slow dissolution of their relationship, it leaves Adebayo with a lot of loose ends to tie up in a short period of time. This is a well-written debut, but the ending feels cluttered and rife with pages of exposition as the scandals behind Akin and Yejide’s relationship are explained and connected, the gaps filled in.

There is a profound sadness that runs through Stay With Me, a sense of loss and responsibilities thrust upon the novel’s characters, indicative of what might be seen as a depressing novel. Stay With Me is about broken people living in a system that perpetuates their inability to repair themselves, together or separate. These are human beings forced through the sieve of humanity—the very worst of it—and though it isn’t pretty, they come out whole, different but whole, on the other side. Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel is a book that drags you down to some truly dark places, but in the end, she still manages to find a little light.

Review: Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard

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Autumn
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Published 2017 by Penguin Press
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0399563300

By Noah Sanders

“I want to show you our world as it is now,” Karl Ove Knausgaard writes to his unborn daughter in the opening chapter of his new book, Autumn. What follows is just that: short essay after short essay after short essay digging into the author’s ideas about very specific, very mundane objects and abstract concepts. He ponders piss, the labia, mouths, frames, chewing gum, lightning, August Sander, vomit, rubber boots, and much more. The essays, though ostensibly tied to the autumn season and aimed at creating a moment of reflection for the daughter he will soon welcome into the world, are more than anything just an opportunity for Knausgaard to wax philosophical (amongst other things) about his life, his past and the very world that we all live in.

Knausgaard is the internationally acclaimed author of the 7-book My Struggle series—a massive autobiographical undertaking—and is a master, quite possibly the master, of sussing deep, deep meaning from the most banal of things. If the sheer word count of My Struggle is too much to grasp, Autumn is like a condensed primer for Knausgaard’s particular style and way of thinking. Each piece—none longer than three pages—is Knausgaard’s almost stream of conscious mental noodling on a subject, any subject, of his choice. But, Knausgaard’s ability to derive complicated, yet clearly explored, interpretations is thrilling. The reader finds themselves devouring each short entry, trying to see where he’ll go, what tendrils of fascinating thought he’ll form on the subject of say, “Piss.”

In “Piss,” one of the books strongest pieces, he writes, “The little stench in one’s own piss stands in roughly the same relation to the great stench as the single cigarette does to death: it produces a faint titillation.” From there he connects the shame of pissing oneself to the last time—as a 15 year old at camp—that he himself pissed himself and how after he realized he wasn’t going to be caught, he thought, “oh God, how delicious it is to pee yourself.” Knausgaard toes the line of pretentiousness, but never stumbles over it. His pieces are the work of a big time thinker, but he isn’t trying to beat his readers over the head with how smart he is. There’s humor and poignancy strewn throughout, and they only serve to deepen the enjoyment of Knausgaard’s voice and style.

A reader can get lost amongst Knausgaard’s thoughts about such a wide spectrum of subject matter, but there are running themes—if not any kind of narrative. In “Frames” Knausgaard writes, “Identity is being one thing and not the other,” and this concept, of being something born out of comparison to whatever it is you are not, is sprinkled liberally throughout the book. “Lightning” is more memorable than the other components of a storm—wind, water, clouds—because it is framed against the familiar: “Contrary to lightning and thunder, which only occur now and then, during brief intervals which we are at once familiar with, and foreign to, just as we are at once familiar with and foreign to ourselves and the world we are a part of.”

Items only gaining import in context, plays nicely with Knausgaard’s theme of understanding huge concepts by focusing on singular parts. A human to Knausgaard, is too much to consume at once, so he focuses on a single body part, deriving their existence from the contextual clues. Which, though this may be grasping at straws, seems the point of the book: a sort of cliff notes of the entirety of the world for his daughter to be. In “Stubble Fields” he writes, “Since the main thing in the upbringing of children or in living with children is precisely to ensure that they get the feeling that the world is predictable, that it is graspable and at all times recognizable.” Which Autumn helps to do, it shows us the underlying meanings in simple things, making connections—heady but comfortable connections—between, well, everything. Knausgaard has created an abstract map of his own thoughts, and in doing so has crafted a sort of existential “how-to” for his soon to be born daughter.

This isn’t a book to read from start-to-finish, though the bite-size pieces make it somehow, strangely bingeable. Though themes do emerge as you plow through “Infants” and on to “Cars,” Knausgaard’s meandering thoughts can lose a bit of their luster if too much is consumed at once and not every piece is as strong as say, “Piss,” though all of them are at worst food for thought. Autumn is a book to digest slowly, over the course of a month or a year or even a season.

Review: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

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Sour Heart
by Jenny Zhang
Published 2017 by Lenny
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0399589386

By Noah Sanders

The main characters of the loosely connected stories in Jenny Zhang’s debut short story collection, Sour Heart, are, each and all the young Chinese daughters of recent immigrants to New York City. They are all struggling, to various degrees, to make do in the new world they’ve arrived in. They do so without the presence, or influence of adults. Instead, these girls—nine and ten on average—have other kids in similar situations to depend on, to learn from about life lessons. From their parents they garner overbearing, co-dependent support, fear, and the trickle-down effects of the trauma of the past. From their peers they gain the basic foundations of life filtered through the skewed perspective of youth. In the grey area in between, Zhang manages to explore the struggles of young girls who are just grasping what struggle really is. She does so with a dark, biting humor that lays out the small tragedies and the even smaller triumphs that define the lives of these children.

The world of Sour Heart is not an especially pleasant one. Zhang’s New York is a desperately impoverished world. Families dig in dumpsters, apartments collapse, broken cars are pushed into rivers—it is a grim world, one where parents must sacrifice “everything” to make it suitable for those they’ve brought into it. And to do so, they must work two or three or more jobs to put measly scraps on the table. Sour Heart exists in the absent space between their children and them. Zhang’s cadre of young girls are given lives but lives but without standard forms of parental guidance. In “We Love You Crispina” the parents are loving to the point of including their daughter in the petty crimes they commit just to survive. In “Our Mothers Before Them” the parents are drunk and needy, demanding and damaged. These kids are told to “succeed,” as if the unknown outcome of their lives gives sound reason for their parents to flee China. They are asked do so without support, without parents, without anything but their youthful peers to give them meaning.

The parents in Sour Heart, though chronically absent, still pass along their influence. The traumas of growing up, and escaping Communist China, come through as, sometimes, nostalgic memories, but are racked with half-remembered pain and suffering. All of this gets, consciously or not, passed down to the next generations. “I was her receptacle,” the narrator of “Our Mothers Before Them” says of her mother, “and I permitted her to speak endlessly.” There is much talk of “sacrifice” in Sour Heart, and Zhang never allows for it to feel particularly selfless, or beneficial. It is instead, a necessity for survival, no matter the cost.

There is a pervasive, suitably childlike grossness in Sour Heart. Zhang’s characters rarely have set a toe into their teen years, and the curiosity, humor, and enjoyment found in the exploration of body fluids and body parts hasn’t dimmed a bit. There is more than enough descriptions of pooping, farting, and pissing as well as detailed descriptions of the smell of vaginas. The main character of “The Empty The Empty The Empty” spends an afternoon allowing her friend to examine her vagina. She describes the smell as a combination between her sandals and “these fried anchovies my parents ate.”

Zhang is a skilled portrayer of the kid’s point of view and the grossness, though often times overused, isn’t used in vain. The casual obsession with sexuality clashes with their maturity-lacking descriptions because these are little girls being pushed into adulthood without any real guidance. This becomes most apparent in “The Empty The Empty The Empty,” the collection’s best story, the narrator so convinced of her own perfection, so desperate for confirmation, that she allows herself, and her strange young friend Frangie, to be pulled into a particularly sad sexual scenario, authored by a girl just a tad older, a tad more experienced. As a storm crashes outside their small apartment empty of parental guidance, the narrator’s age and inexperience rears its head. She offers whispered promises of Cheez Doodles and shopping trips as she assists in the forced deflowering of Frangie.

It is difficult at times to call the ‘stories’ in Sour Heart ‘short.’ For the most part, these are borderline novellas, long, dense pieces of first-person narration. As good as Zhang is at capturing the voice of a child, it oftentimes feels like the same child, with a slightly different experience but a similar voice. The characters bleed together, and by the end of the book it’s a blur of petulance and fart descriptions. The length can work to her advantage; in “The Empty The Empty The Empty,” the page count gives Zhang time to build up our perception of the narrator, making her eventual turn all the more painful to experience. Mostly, the length of each story feels excessive and exuding of an atmosphere that becomes stale over the course of the book.

There is a sense in the length and the blurring of characters over time, that maybe we’re being asked to see the immigrant experience depicted here as a collective one. That each of these girls, different as they are, are living in the same world, dealing with the same issues, struggling just to survive. It’s a strong point Zhang’s writing often times highlights, but too often, it’s buried beneath the weight of so much.

Review: The Misfortune of Marion Palm by Emily Culliton

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The Misfortune of Marion Palm
by Emily Culliton
Published 2017 by Knopf
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1524731908

By Noah Sanders

The opening line of Emily Culliton’s excellent debut novel, The Misfortune of Marion Palm, is a deceptively simple set-up for the rest of the book: “Marion Palm is on the lam.” The book does revolve around the disappearance of its titular main character, but it is equally concerned with the effects—both good and bad—of her vanishing on those around her. Marion Palm, as the book begins, has stolen $40,000 from her employer—an upscale private school her daughters attend—left these same daughters in a CVS, and has taken off for good, leaving her ineffectual husband, Nathan, to sort it all out. This isn’t a book about a grand escape, though. Marion doesn’t roam far and her goals are neither specific nor especially ambitious. She runs because she needs to escape the person she’s become—a mother, a part-time employee at a prep school, a wife. She runs to shed the disguises she’s worn for so long, to rediscover who she once was. Culliton, a writer to keep an eye on, allows Marion’s disappearance to be a catalyst for the entire Palm Family—Nathan and the two daughters, Jane and Ginny. This a story about the people we become, the complex identities we don and what occurs when those identities are removed, voluntarily or not.

“She’s been disguising herself for years,” Culliton writes early on when Marion decides to chop and dye her limp, brown hair, “and this is another round.” Marion is the type of character restricted by her lack of ambition, her lack of knowing just what it is she wants to do. The author paints her as a sponge of sorts, a generally inoffensive person who’s overly helpful, who allows others to spill their hopes and dreams and fears and insecurities, but never exposes her own. Over the course of The Misfortune of Marion Palm—a title that seems more and more relevant the deeper you get into the book—we see the choices, or the lack thereof, that have made Marion’s life. When Marion and Nathan, a clueless trust-fund kid, have sex for the first time, Culliton writes, “In a rush he enters her, and it’s the first she’s had sex without a condom, and the feeling breaks her apart. Nathan’s selfishness courses through her, but she feels entirely required.” Marion, up to her escape, exists only to please others, a job she is quite good at. But the identity, a helpful mother and wife, grows heavier and heavier, her only alleviation the small control she feels when she embezzles. Which she does, a lot.

Even Marion’s escape is small and compartmentalized. She thinks about leaving New York City, but gets worried at the train station and instead books a cheap flop near the park. She dyes her hair and sleeps for long periods: “Marion feels as if she is repairing herself. She administers carefully to her own needs.” It’s hard to say Marion is on the run, because her escape is pockmarked by inertia. She never leaves New York City; she doesn’t even leave Brooklyn. Her escape is an interior one. She sheds the skin of everything she’s done to become the person she always was underneath. If “it’s most likely two children, Nathan, and a decade [that] have altered Marion on a molecular level,” then her familial flight is in pursuit of the whomever she was to begin.

Her disappearance has a similar effect on those she’s left behind. Nathan, a philandering poet with almost no idea how to exist on his own, is suddenly forced into the role of a single father. So consumed by his maintaining his own imagined identities—great dad, great husband, great writer—he never even searches for his missing wife. He simply expects her to come home. It’s a part of the identities they’ve created: Marion the responsible one on whom everyone can depend, Nathan, not so much. In Marion’s absence, he suddenly realizes “he has been making himself up for years” and that the person he’s made himself up to be isn’t that great of a person. His response though, is to barricade himself inside his house, turn even more inwards, to start a blog that paints his life in the rosiest of situations (missing wife or not).

This is an assured debut. Culliton slowly expands from the first page, gaining weight and credibility as the book, and the “search” for Marion, continues. There are a bundle of narrative threads in the piece, but Culliton doesn’t get lost, each character—socialites of varying ethnic backgrounds, a vengeful school board, a detective searching for a missing boy—getting just the right amount of space, until she’s able to, with clear, concise, often beautiful writing, bring their lives back together again. She manages to do so with surprise and humor, and the sort of assured narrative choices writers far more experienced struggle to bring to the page.

Culliton doesn’t give her characters easy outs in The Misfortune of Marion Palm. To rediscover themselves, both Marion and Nathan willingly take on new identities, effectively switching out their old, used up lives for less worn ones. It seems that perhaps we are, from our birth onwards, nothing more than what others believe us to be, our true selves always being minimized, until there’s nothing left. Or until you decide to take it back, to run like Marion Palm. But even then, you’re only running from the identity you were to the identity you’ll become next.

Review: Beast by Paul Kingsnorth

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Beast
by Paul Kingsnorth
Published 2017 by Graywolf Press
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1555977795

By Noah Sanders

The story of Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast is a simple one: a man, mythically alone on the moors of England, descends into madness. Beast, the second novel in Kingsnorth’s thematically connected trilogy (The Wake, set 1,000 years in past, the first book in the series) places us into the mind and shoes of recent hermit, Edward Buckmaster. We know almost nothing about Buckmaster. He has departed a life where he was, “an item, an object, a collection of gears, a library of facts compiled by others,” and with it, his wife and children. He has come to the moors to build a new home, a place where he can “wait for the presence,” a place where he hopes an ascetic lifestyle will lead to new revelations. An event happens early in the book—Kingsnorth leaves the specificity of events to reader—and Buckmaster, up to this point a stereotypical, sort of raving hermit, finds himself wounded, unaware of his past (near or far), entirely alone and obsessed with finding the “beast” of the title, which he believes stalks him. As his obsession grows, so does his madness, and we the reader, locked up in his frame of mind, are dragged along with him. There is the sinister paranoia of a madman at work in Beast, a wary paranoia that infuses every moment, every tiny detail, leaving the reader on edge, waiting for Buckmaster to find the Beast, or the Beast to find him. A clear cut conclusion is not Kingsnorth’s aim though, instead, the true enjoyment in the book the author’s beat-by-beat recollection of Buckmaster’s slow, steady, extremely intense decline into another state of being.

To say that Beast is told through the first-person narrative is truthful, but underwhelming in capturing what Kingsnorth does here. Edward Buckmaster is, aside from a few memories, a few more hallucinations and the Beast itself, the only character in the book. The reader spends the entirety of the novel locked in the mind of a man who has chosen extreme solitude and is now paying for that choice. Buckmaster’s obsession with finding the Beast becomes a compulsion-driven search through abandoned towns and the eerie, cloud-covered natural world he’s found himself in. Time and time again, Kingsnorth alludes to the true beast at hand, Buckmaster himself, his old life and family abandoned for a hermit’s existence. “I crawled into the house like a dog,” he says, or “I shuffled like a broken creature,” the primal descriptions casting the narrator as the real darkness at the heart of the book. Though short in page count, Buckmaster’s downward spiral is dense and taxing, rife with wild leaps of emotion Kingsnorth is laudably able to pass directly on to the reader.

Kingsnorth, who’s The Wake was lauded for its use of an invented pseudo-language, clearly enjoys playing with the standard form of the written word. The writing is sparse and impressionistic, the emotional swings of Buckmaster broadcast through his sudden lack of punctuation, his occasional stutter-step in thinking. Words are repeated, topics are leapt between, the thin line between Buckmaster’s reality and a series of visions that grow more frequent and more strange as the book progresses more and more blurred. Kingsnorth’s writing captures all of it, brands it into the reader’s brain, and then leaves them wallowing in it. “there is nothing to eat here” Buckmaster thinks “and i cannot eat anyway until i have looked into its eyes it would bring me terrible bad luck to eat before i have looked into its eyes it would be an indulgence it would take me away.”

As Buckmaster waits—for the Beast, for a “presence,” for the meaning of his life to appear—the reader waits as well. We live in the moment with Buckmaster even as his brain roils in dreams and hallucinatory episodes, even as he rants about man’s damage to the Earth, the mundane taxation of modern society. We wait, fists clenched, teeth gritted, for the secret of the Beast and the world in which the Beast lives to come to light, for Buckmaster to meet his demise, for the squinting horror looming just on the periphery to finally make itself known. But we wait in vain. Kingsnorth isn’t interested in drawing conclusions. Like Buckmaster we can wait forever for a meaning to arrive, but it’s in the journey, the waiting itself, microscopic and tinged with mania, where the true meaning lies.

Review: The Lauras by Sara Taylor

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The Lauras
by Sara Taylor
Published 2017 by Hogarth
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0451496850

By Noah Sanders

No matter the literary accolades thrust upon Sara Taylor and her second novel The Lauras, know one thing: The Lauras, at its heart is a classic adventure novel. A story of two anti-heroes, on the run from lawmen and lovers alike, in search of the buried treasures of the past. Hell, there’s even a treasure map, speckled with x’s that most certainly mark a spot or two. There’s monsters to be fought, secrets to be revealed, and in the end, the gleaning of knowledge about one’s self and one’s familial past is worth far more than its weight in gold.

Woken in the middle of the night and thrust into a car by her roguish mother, the narrator of The Lauras—Alex—unwillingly hits the road. One moment a nerdy, outcasted teenager, the next the sidekick and navigator on her mother’s continent-spanning journey through her past. Armed with only a well-worn, well-annotated map, her mother’s ingenuity, and, well, a gun, the pair careen across the United States of America seeking to rectify past sins and tie off the loose ends of a life lived on the run. Each stop is an opportunity for the author to reveal another facet of Alex’s mom’s childhood in foster and group homes, to the reader and to Alex herself. Houses burn, children are kidnapped, guns are pulled—every pit stop presents a new obstacle, mental or physical in which our heroes must surpass. Every break in the road another nugget of the past is revealed. The Lauras is a slow saunter down memory lane, each step forward another step further into the past.

Taylor layers the stories of each sojourn along the road with Alex’s mom’s own recollections of the past, of her interactions with a series of women loosely referred to as “The Lauras,” of her life before being defined as a mother and a wife. The character of the mother is an absolute joy to take in. She’s familiar—you’ve seen her on cracked sidewalks outside of grocery stores, huffing down cigarettes in the humid swamp of a Southern afternoon—but Taylor doesn’t allow her to be a stereotype. The hard shell and predatory sense of being a loner she wears like body armor is softened by her own memories, the stories of her past she passes along to Alex. “I didn’t realize my mother was a person until I was thirteen years old,” Alex says. By the end of the novel, as richly conceived as she is, she might as well walk right off the page. Alex’s discovery of who she is can be likened to realizing that your mother used to be a storied bank robber—Jesse James or Billy the Kid. And when Jesse James is on the road, well, she likes to spin a yarn.

Taylor manages, with writing razor sharp but infused with a soft, colloquial warmth, to add a sense a vulnerability to the character of the mother. She’s tough as nails, but light as air, liable to drift away if she’s not tethered down. Alex is her only root, and the madcap dash across America is not only her way to make good on a few promises, pay off a few debts, but to pass along the family tradition: adventure. “I wonder if that’s how all the great explorers felt,” Alex says on one long stretch of driving, “hungry and sick and just hoping that they could find some land so that they could get that boiling-hot-fit-your-whole-body-in-at-once-bath they’d been madly wanting.” Because as much as she learns about her mother on their trip, it is the love of the road, the quest, the sheer, simple act of setting out for a destination, map in hand that becomes the great lesson passed along.

The Lauras is best when it’s moving, the interaction between Alex and the mother on their long hours with four wheels on asphalt comfortable and well wrought. Small stops along the way can be wonderful—a moment in Minnesota with the gun and a tattoo shop owner is particularly amazing—but when the duo touches down, Taylor lets the story get loose and it loses focus and steam. There’s a lengthy thread about Alex’s gender and sexuality—kept vague throughout—that runs the course of the book that seems to have great meaning for the author, but she never commits, at least on the page, to why it’s important to the story. One could find meaning in Alex’s genderless life—perhaps when you hit the road, your nothing but a traveler, gender and sex left at the first off-ramp—but Taylor never puts it on the page and it seems too big an aspect of the story to be left to a reader’s imagination. It is instead a rare slow-down in book that could only be described as a cracking yarn.

Aside from its flaws, minor and based in ambition they may be, The Lauras is a fantastic read. Taylor’s way with words and characters and setting revels in the folksy clichés we associate with the South, but her writing never lets them feel forced or lacking depth. “She’d not written the book on how to disappear forever and never be found,” Alex says about her mother at one point, “but she’d read it plenty of times.” It seems Sara Taylor has as well.

Review: The Bear Who Broke the World by Justin McFarr

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The Bear Who Broke the World
by Justin McFarr
Published 2017 by Wheeler Street Press
ISBN 978-0997613148

Memories of childhood often evoke the notion of simpler times, this idea that our lives were much less complicated when we were young. The problem is, our lives weren’t any less complicated then, than they are now. Our memories of childhood only seem simpler because they no longer exist—they’re essentially figments of our imagination, shaded by the setbacks we’ve faced during the years spent trying to understand adulthood. The retrospective nature of looking back, this grappling with the intangibility of memory, is the center of gravity in Justin McFarr’s debut novel, The Bear Who Broke the World. The reader is always reminded how strange childhood is, how unsettling the world of adults can be when seen through the eyes of someone gaining a true awareness of the ways things really are.

The novel takes us through the summer vacation of Daedalus Stephen O’Neill, the ten year-old narrator who wants nothing more than to create the kind of memories he can look upon with starry-eyed nostalgia. “My first memory from the summer of 1976,” he says in the novel’s very first line, “should have been the sound of a school bell ringing like freedom or the sun on my face as I jumped onto my dirt bike.” Alas, that’s not in the cards for Stephen (as he understandably refers to himself). His mother, Rose, works long hours to support him and his brother Demian; his father had abandoned them when Demian was a toddler, running off to New York in order to become a poet. The other adult in their house is Rose’s boyfriend Ken, an overeducated Berkeley grad who’d rather spend his days smoking grass, listening to records, and debating American foreign policy than looking for a job—or after two young boys. Stephen resents Rose, as she seemingly loves Ken more than she cares for her sons, and much of the novel revolves around how the ways the boys try to escape their home-lives, while Stephen tries to understand the root of his mother’s neglect.

Because of the themes of love and abandonment, there are many heartbreakingly sad moments in The Bear Who Broke the World, but McFarr softens much of the tragedy through his loving depiction of Bicentennial-era Berkeley, Oakland, and Fremont. Landmarks like the UC Theater, Moe’s Books, and the Claremont Hotel remind us this is an East Bay story, while details such as Wacky Packages, Claremont/Cockrum-era X-Men comics, and the “Proud to Be” PSA’s that used to run on KTVU place us in a world that no longer exists. Stephen’s world is a sad one, but it’s one rendered with careful precision and populated by a compelling cast, such as Seneca Reed, the object of Stephen’s affections, his one chance at the eventful summer every young boy craves. There’s Stephen’s friend Trevor, and Trevor’s brother Art, the burgeoning punk rocker who helps Stephen find an outlet for his adolescent rage. And then there’s the local drug dealer Kirby Johnson, a mysterious figure who haunts the neighborhood like an inversion of Boo Radley and punctures Stephen’s child-like notions of justice.

This book’s one, true strength is McFarr’s clarity of vision. Because The Bear Who Broke the World is a mostly plotless novel with a lot of side characters and digressions, McFarr firmly places the reader in Stephen’s interiority. Stephen is a sufficiently reliable narrator who exemplifies the horror of a childhood in which adults leave children to fend for themselves. We are taken through every painstaking moment of a young boy’s summer vacation, while he unpacks everything that happens to him, painting a very honest portrait of childhood. In short, the reader is in very capable hands. This is a book that not only knows what it wants to be, but what it should be.

Review: The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

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The Dark Dark
by Samantha Hunt
Published 2017 by FSG Originals
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-0374282134

By Noah Sanders

Samantha Hunt’s new collection of short stories, The Dark Dark, looks at the everyday struggles of life through a softly supernatural lens. Her characters, mainly women teetering on the edge between breakthrough and breakdown and their oftentimes oafish male counterparts, find solace and repulsion in their most primal urges, build sex robots to save the nation, and slip between the veil of animal and human. At the core though, Hunt writes about the unknown and its power over us. “The Dark Dark” of her title is a broad spectrum—the shadows at the end of a bed, the affairs of our spouses, the shallow, frightening expanses of our nightmares—and Hunt builds connections to the mundane in every inky, black corner. The very best of Hunt’s short stories use the vaguely magical as an entryway into an exploration of life’s major moments and themes, nearly all of the morbidly beautiful stories held within a flashlight illuminating its own unknown.

If we aren’t all a little scared of the dark, then we’re at least frightened by the unknown. Hunt understands this deeply. The stories in The Dark Dark plumb the depths of what “the unknown” is exactly, but also how the effects of peering into it (or not), affect us, good or bad. In “A Love Story” (the collection’s strongest piece) a woman, paralyzed by her own fears of the bad in the world that could happen, sends her husband to deal with a potential intruder. In the stillness of the night left in his departure, her mind expands, the possibilities of who she could be and who she is now, unfolding outwards. In “Love Machine” a loving relationship between two men never sees fruition, but its damning effect of what it could have been follows them through their lives. What could’ve been sits on one man’s shoulders like an immovable weight, the cost of lifting it immeasurably high.

In Hunt’s words, it isn’t what lies in the closet that’s important, it’s the attempt, or the lack thereof, to figure out just what it is that adds meaning to her character’s lives. Two strangers sleep together after one kills the other’s dog in “The Yellow,” opening a rift in time and space that somehow brings the dog back to life. Instead of finding joy in the reanimation of a beloved family pet, they decide to kill it again, the act peering behind the slim curtain of their lives too much. Even if you finally see the monster that lives under the bed, in Hunt’s world, the best option can be to stuff it back in, try to pretend that everything can, and will, revert back to normal.

Hunt’s writing manages to meld a soft, almost rural feel (her characters seem to always be returning to some Midwestern heartland) with an angular sense of the unnatural. Each story throbs with an existential dread you might find in a schlocky horror novel, but with Hunt’s skill as a writer, it adds a near constant rise to the hairs on the back of your neck. Without rhyme or reason, you worry, from the first page of each story, about where these characters are going to be taken, where they might eventually lead themselves. In “Wampum,” an older suitor’s advances towards a much younger woman are seen as “Either he’ll chop her up into body parts or he’ll drop her off at the house.” Hunt describes the half-consumed carcass of a fried chicken in “The Story Of” as “The hen had been split open down the middle, unzipped like a parka.” And though both stories are apart seemingly simple, human interactions—a man courts a teenager, a woman wants to get pregnant—Hunt’s prose keeps the reader on edge, forces you look over your shoulder, to keep an eye on the periphery.

Finding the balance between definitively supernatural, atmospherically haunting, and genuinely moving isn’t an easy task. The best stories—“A Love Story” amongst them—use the supernatural to propel themselves into new and unusual places, but are still rooted by the presence of simple, universal, human moments. Early on in the book—“All Hands” in particular—Hunt’s scale tips too steeply towards the odd and unknowable, the reader to left to muddle out just what the hell occurred.

In general though, Hunt confidently walks the line between off-kilter and human. The stories in The Dark Dark entertain with their clear-eyed peek into the strange presences looming just out of our sight, but its Hunt’s ability to use these to craft meaningful observations on the shared moments of human life that allows them to transcend. Though not every story shines as brightly as the next, each and every one of them peers into the dark, attempting to illuminate.

Review: A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause by Shawn Wen

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A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause
by Shawn Wen
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$15.95 paperback ISBN 978-1941411483

By Noah Sanders

In modern day America, mimes get a bad rap. Sure, there’s good reasons: the pasty-faced makeup selection, the perpetual confinement within invisible boxes, the invasive clown-like aspects of their entire schtick—all are, in this writer’s opinion, rankle-worthy qualities. Yet, as you will learn from Shawn Wen’s poetic collection of essays, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause, miming (or the miming of one, er, mime in particular) was, for a spell, a popular enough form of entertainment that it graced the couches of late night hosts and filled theaters with eager, anticipation-filled fans. Wen’s book focuses solely on Marcel Marceau, the most famed mime of the modern era, peeling back the layers of his life, exposing the demons that lived below his foppish effect, his near-total commitment to his work and the invisible box his life became because of it. Through the lens of his biography, the author sheds light not only on Marceau’s life and art, but also on the layered, complicated beauty of the craft itself.

A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause (the name of a record the mime made entirely composed of a twenty minute silence and then applause) follows Marceau from his birth to the early days of training under Charles Dullin at the School of Dramatic Arts through his ascension to a household name in America and beyond and the three wives, miming school and a staggering collection of artifacts he left behind. It is Wen’s great ability in this slim volume that each facet of Marceau’s life she briefly touches on becomes an separate mirror, their combined reflections forming a detailed image of the man. To simplify, Marceau was an asshole. A man so consumed by devotion to his art, and to the mute qualities of that art, everything else—his family, his friends, the press, his own image—became fodder for his work, meat to be sacrificed to his artistic gods. A survivor and revolutionary participant in World War II, Marceau contained multitudes of emotion just beneath the surface. Miming became the outlet for those emotions. “He found no formula for the end of suffering,” Wen writes, “No formula to stir up empathy and understanding. Just a formula for one man.”

Through breathtaking descriptions of Marceau’s work as his most famed character—a Chaplin-like clown named Bip—Wen is able to showcase how Marceau used his art to explore his own inner suffering. If Marceau’s life off the stage was marred by a singular, self-obsessed dedication to being a mime (and portraying himself thusly), his ability to create imagined worlds out of, literally, nothing on stage, seemingly became his only way to outwardly express the range of emotions bubbling just beneath the surface. Wen, writing of Marceau’s daughter Camille, writes, “Her father was entirely inhabited by his art. Mime was his way of building the world as he wanted it to be.”

Marceau surrounded himself with artifacts collected on his travels and showcased at a property he owned in Berchères. The house is described by Marceau’s daughter as ‘a physical manifestation of [the world as he wanted it].’ Wen fills the second half of the book with detailed descriptions of Marceau’s collections—masks, icons, weapons, a catalogue of cultures from around the world—the artifacts reflective of the world Marceau tried to bring to the stage, the world he wished truly existed.

In parts of Silence, there’s a feeling that Wen is trying to refute the stereotypes now associated with mimes. Marceau was a true artist, his miming a layered, complex interaction between physical movement and emotional depth. Simple refutation isn’t Wen’s aim though, rather the author seeks to highlight the difficulty, dedication and mastery involved in miming at the highest form. Miming is, quite literally, the creation of characters, sets, and props out of nothing but a single person’s physical interaction with a crowd. Wen’s abilities as a writer are no joke, and she recreates the magic that occurs between mime and audience with eye-opening clarity. Silence does push back on our mime generalizations, but it also leaves the reader with a notion of its power in the right hands. If our respect for the craft has diluted, if not disappeared altogether, it says nothing about miming’s artistic value when performed by an actor of Marceau’s immense talent. It isn’t that miming is something to be ignored, even hated, but rather that the quality of miming has degraded. Or as Marceau himself once said, in response a reporter’s question about why Americans hate mimes, “Because most mimes are lousy.”

As striking as the writing and Wen’s observations in this book-length essay are, they are bolstered by the actual layout of each page. The author has chosen to place her words—scant as they may be—between stark, wide margins of white. It reminds one of words drifting on an all-white sea. The design becomes a visual representation of what miming, in the hands of a master like Marceau or Charlie Chaplin, could do: create worlds out of nothing. Wen’s book seeks to disabuse the notion that anything is created out of ‘nothing’ though. Instead, miming at this level, for Marcel Marceau at least, is the product of subsuming everything internally, sacrificing an external life in pursuit of artistic epiphany.

Review: Hollow by Owen Egerton

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Hollow
by Owen Egerton
Published 2017 by Soft Skull Press
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1619029408

By Noah Sanders

Even the most non-religious amongst us has somewhere along the line stumbled across the story of Job. A devout family man from the Old Testament, Job’s faith is, to put it gently, tested by the spiteful, sometimes petty hand of lightning-tossing God. His family is stripped from him, his health worn down to near-deathly capacity, his entire being—both physical and mental—crushed beneath the hand of an all-knowing, all-seeing deity just so God can see how far he can fall before he loses his faith. In Owen Egerton’s new book, Hollow, he revamps the story of Job into modern times to ask questions not only about the extent of our faith, but what it is we choose to believe in. This is a dark, gritty, and nearly depressing novel that finds a former religion professor repeatedly striking rock bottom, but Egerton is able, even in the deepest, darkest bowels to drag his main character through, to find a bleak, often laugh-out loud, streak of humor.

Oliver Bond has bottomed out. A former professor of religion in Austin, Texas, he has lost his young child, his wife, and the life he once knew. Bond, smug and intelligent in the appropriately obnoxious ways, finds himself living in a metal shack, unable to pay rent, trying to figure out just what he did to make everything go so very wrong. Lyle, his chain-smoking, drug-dealing, laxly criminal, compulsive liar of a ‘best friend’ turns him on to the idea of the Hollow Earth, an age-old conspiracy theory that posits a second world inside the one we know accessible by gaping holes in the North Pole. Searching for anything to help him find purchase, Bond, barely a believer, grasps the loose threads of Lyle’s crackpot theory. On the edges of his life are other, even more destitute characters—a dying man quietly smoking himself to death, a Russian prostitute and her abusive, dangerous pimp, and a former student still trolling the edges of danger and seduction. Bond searches for funds for a scam-feeling expedition to the Hollow Earth, and as he spins further and further out of control, Egerton weaves in the events that lead Bond so close to the edge. This is a book about a man trying to find his way back to the light, small and distant as it may be.

In Hollow, Egerton asks an age-old question: “If there is a God who delineates our path in life, why would that path ever lead into the darkness?” Bond has lost his child, and unable to cope with the loss of his wife, he now perches precariously on the edge of homelessness and trauma-induced mental illness. Bond is a former academic, a bright mind with an observant, spiritual bent, and through his purview, Egerton is able to chronicle the fall from grace, and the nail-wrenching struggle to pull oneself back up. Bond is, like Lyle’s beliefs of the insides of the Earth, hollow, gutted by the tragedies that have befallen him, attempting to fill the empty space inside with whatever he can. He wants to believe, in the idea of the Hollow Earth, in the frayed threads still connecting him to his ex-wife, in the friendship between him and the dying Martin, hell, in anything that might give him reason to believe what has befallen him has reason. It is a quietly beautiful rumination on what it means to have faith, and what we do when that rug is suddenly pulled out from underneath us.

Egerton is relentless in his abuse of Oliver Bond. If his past is riddled with hardship, his present life dips from pretty shitty to almost unbearably bleak. By the end of the book there has been murder, betrayal, a swing into mental breakdown and more; all of it an intricately wrought narrative that seeks to expose the very core of whom Bond is. Amazingly enough, as pitch black as this book gets, Egerton still finds humor in his characters. Almost entirely, these are characters as close to the bottom as possibly could be, but there’s a morbid sense of humor and of existence that threads through all of them. Lyle in particular is a one-liner machine, a knuckleheaded believer who, in trying to help Bond, pulls him further away from who he really is.

There’s a believable sweetness in Bond’s relationships with Lyle and Martin—his dying friend—and it stems from Egerton’s warm, evocative writing and his ability to take big philosophical ideas and imbue them with simple, yet revelatory statements. At one point Bond, as close to the end of his rope as possible describes his mental state: “The universe is not killing me. The universe is not saving me. The universe is just here.” As straightforward as the statement is, it illuminates the theme of the novel—Bond wants nothing more than to find a reason for why so much shit has been heaped upon him, but in the end, his fate (if such a thing even exists) is his own. And even if there’s nothing above, or nothing below to believe in, he can find a way back from the bottom, by the power of his own two hands.

Review: Chemistry by Weike Wang

 

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Chemistry
by Weike Wang
Published 2017 by Knopf
$24.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1524731748

By Noah Sanders

At face value, Weike Wang’s Chemistry could be very well one of “those books”—the quirky, style-over-substance variety that reads well, but evaporates like an errant sugar high moments after consumption. In the early goings, Wang’s narrator—a failed Chemistry PhD on the edge, and in the midst, of a mental breakdown—reads like the epitome of urban cuteness. A first-generation Chinese-immigrant, she approaches her world—Boston—and her small group of friends, with a worldview that’s almost perfectly off-center. Her pithy explanations of basic scientific theories become her primary way of understanding her interactions with her co-workers, students and friends. In the opening portions of the book, Chemistry rests neatly on the line between engaging beach-read and idiosyncratic character study. Wang’s clipped sentences are both engaging and often times amusing, drawing the reader in to what could be vacuous fun, but when she’s got you hooked, she springs the trap. Though framed in an enjoyable and easily digestible style, Chemistry is not only a fascinating character study, but also a deep dive into the legacies our families leave us and what it takes to come to grips with them.

As Chemistry starts, Wang’s nameless narrator’s life is, in her view, spinning out of control. She’s realized that the science experiment that will make or break her PhD candidacy is never going to come to fruition and her scientist boyfriend, Eric, has left her, and their dog, when she’s unable to commit to a married life together. Without the columns of science and Eric to support her, Wang’s narrator is forced to analyze her own existence—past, present and future. Wang bounces between the different time periods with ease, incorporating the narrator’s memories of her time with Eric along with her time in the lab and her childhood with two aloof and verbally abusive parents seamlessly. The book never breaks from its eccentric styles and the plot is never dragged down by weighty exposition. As the book gets closer and closer to the end, and as the narrator starts to pull apart her own life with the help of cuckolded best friend and a therapist, the reader is drawn closer and closer to the truth in ever-tightening spirals.

The reader experiences the small, but heart-breaking revelations about the narrator’s family and the long reach of her upbringing in what feels like real time. Like atoms ricocheting off into the great unknown, each small, peculiar moment—an interaction with a student, a walk with her dog, a bike ride in the frigid Boston winter—sends the narrator down into a previously unexplored universe of self, which in turn pulls her down into another, on and on, until the layers of discovery cross time and space.

This is a book at its big beating heart about family, and the way we are defined by our mundane histories, and the narrator’s act of exploration into her own past becomes centered on her mom and dad and their relationship with her and each other. When we first encounter her father and mother, they are typical pushy immigrant parents—her father a self-educated tyrant, her mother a dramatic primadonna prone to throwing things—but Wang dips back into their back stories as well, slowly stitching their past with the narrator’s past before showcasing the marks they intentionally and unintentionally left upon their daughter. The descriptions of the narrator’s interaction with her family are some of the most keenly observed in a book full of amazing observation, but Wang, a talent everyone should keep an eye on, through the eyes of her narrator, lets us see the arc of time, how one event or action or way of thinking continues on down the line, shaping the people we become.

What’s most impressive about Chemistry though is how it’s always an enjoyable, buoyant read. As dark as this book gets, Wang never the flighty and over-analytical way her narrator thinks and speaks. You can flip to any page in Chemistry and find not only a quotable line, but one that begs to be dissected further, all of them imbued with an off-kilter, often times hilarious, wisdom. “There is no such thing as a perfectly still molecule,” the narrator says, “Even in solids, the molecules keep moving.” Or, “I find it interesting how often beauty is shown to make objects around it feel worse.” The quickness of thought on display is marvelous, and it grabs the reader upfront and pulls them, with haste, into the life of this bizarre, fascinating, in the end, wonderful character.

Wang’s debut novel is a remarkable piece of fiction. It is the rare combination of original style and original thought that doesn’t get bogged down in either. The author is able to evade the pitfalls of quirkiness, instead using it to her advantage in crafting a character that exists on her own plane of uniqueness. If Wang stopped there, this would be still be a book to devour, but she doesn’t. The oddball stylings of her narrator become the fuel to power a book, and a character, that reflects soulfully on the triumphs and travesties of our childhoods. And in doing so, Wang has written one of the best books of the year so far.

Review: Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim

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Dear Cyborgs
by Eugene Lim
Published 2017 by FSG Originals
$14.00 paperback ISBN 978-0374537111

By Noah Sanders

If you’ve ever spent a single moment in a writing class, you’ll have probably heard the one platitude that seems to stretch throughout all: “Show, don’t tell.” It is, of course, the idea that in writing, you should trust your reader’s intelligence enough to just dump the guts of your book—its theme, its character development, its narrative arc—directly on to the page. Instead, authors, to varying degrees of success, bury their ledes in symbolism and plot and the interactions of their characters through dialogue in the hope that their readers will be experienced enough to find, or decipher, meaning within.

Dear Cyborgs, the experimental work of science fiction by Eugene Lim, holds to this maxim with a death-like grip. Lim’s short, sometimes satisfying, novel is a nesting doll of vignettes, both broadly science-fiction and emotionally intimate. There are definite themes to which Lim is addressing—art, revolution, the concept of invisibility—and in various forms they make themselves known, but the author’s means of delivering these themes is so abstract, reading Dear Cyborgs becomes a chore of literary detection. We, as readers, are tasked at so many times—with so many characters and plot points—to, well, figure out just who’s who and what’s what, that the themes Lim has artfully buried become overly difficult to identify.

To describe the plot of Dear Cyborgs—a scant 163 pages—isn’t an easy task. There are four main narrative lines as the book begins: two childhood friends lose contact, a group of four friends meet nightly to discuss the philosophical bends of their lives, a super spy meets the same villainous woman over and over again, and this same villainous woman abandons her family to try and find meaning in her own life. Dissecting the philosophical meanderings of any of the four main plot-lines (not to say the smaller, stories-within-stories that comprise each of them) is a task within itself. His quartet of artists-cum-philosophers are the most blatant in their philosophical noodling—their conversations act as reflections and prompt for the ideas in the more opaque sections—but even within them, Lim seems reticent to just lay out what he’s trying to say. One character, speaking of another character’s decision to use fast food chains as her place of meditation, speaks to the shortcomings of doing just that, nicely summing up a bigger idea in the book: that just existing within the corrupt means of society might not actually be that bad. “Maybe Muriel,” he says, “should use [these shortcomings] to proceed with her own desires—at least those desires that she can somehow maintain as her desires, as somehow independent and free and not deformed by these humiliations and degradations.” The response from the listeners is an awkward silence, as if the author himself, suddenly aware of laying his own cards out on the table, can’t fathom the possibility.

It becomes frustrating, because Lim has written a book rife with interesting ideas. Each of his plot-lines run, somewhat, parallel to each other, all of them asking a similar question: what do we sacrifice for our art, for our own form of revolution? And Lim, in his own cryptic way, answers these questions, but the work to dig out these answers, dust them off and put them on the shelf, is too much. It’s a book that demands a second read—even a reading guide, if one was available—but finding your way down its labyrinthine path once, may be enough.

The final chapter of the book is the decoder ring for everything that’s come before. It’s Lim’s attempt to throw back the curtain, and show just how the magic trick was pulled off. And yes, it does clarify, somewhat, that there was method to Lim’s madness, but it doesn’t make the process of getting to that point any more enjoyable. And perhaps, this is exactly what Lim hoped, that by challenging his readers up to the very end, that his ideas would transcend his plot. That in writing a book about art and revolution and their limitations, he would have to create his own work of art with its own limitations. Perhaps an ‘enjoyable read’ isn’t what Lim was reaching for, instead, maybe, he wanted to craft something that somehow, as it exists on the periphery of genre, felt familiar enough for readers to want to decode, even if failure was the inevitable outcome. Regardless of what he intended, the book loses itself in its vagueness, the occasional burst of understanding a life-preserver to cling to as the reader hurtles forward. Sometimes, just sometimes, a little bit of telling, just makes the show a little more bearable.