Largehearted Boy included Summer Brennan‘s The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America in their list of Favorite Nonfiction of 2015, calling it “an exhaustively researched and fascinating book that explores modern environmentalism’s intersection with the law.” View the full list here. Congratulations Summer!
Buzzfeed Books selected the cover of Lauret Savoy‘s Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape as one of its favorite covers of 2015. See the full list here.
November 20, 2015
There are so many ways to feel about sex, in life, and as many ways to feel about it in fiction. Long before we begin, we’ve begun—we’ve been birthed, after all, and nursed, if we’re lucky, and know so well, in infancy, in early life, the gift of intimacy between humans, the deep need to be touched, to be held. Infancy, intimacy: these are, to simply listen, almost the same word. Sexual, sensual: another pair, another confluence. I want to talk first about this confluence, and briefly about works of fiction in which the sexual is present as life force, verdant and eruptive, but not explicit.
I’m neither scholar nor expert, but I’m inclined to take a leap that lands me here: All good fiction has an erotic charge. You don’t have to write like Henry Miller to be sexy. There are certain writers and passages of writing it feels like going to church to read and I mean the church of rocks and trees and dripping breasts and bloody crucifixes, all. The place of the sacred. The work feels sacred. It proceeds in a condition of tremulous restraint, barely contained, unhelpable. It feels perilous; nothing is hoarded. No one is resting up for the next time, the next bright chance to bed down. Virginia Woolf is like this for me and Joy Williams and Melanie Rae Thon. James Welch’s Winter in the Blood; Sam Michel’s Strange Cowboy. Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness; Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. There is the soaring passage at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead”—the falling faintly, the faintly falling, the ecstasy of this; there are the amazed and plaintive stresses of James Agee’s “Now is the night one blue dew”—a transformation of the world of mass and volume into pure transcendent feeling. There is W.G. Sebald’s rapturous account of emergent moths in Austerlitz, the painful delirium of Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle;” the vision that brings the narrator of Denis Johnson’s “Work” to stumble forth and cry out: “Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and ways, and the miraculous balls of hail popping in a green translucence in the yards?”
I’m not thinking of cheap innuendo here but of the mutable shapes rapture takes, of variations on the gem-like flame.
Sex is of course varied, on the page as in life, in more ways than I can count here. There still appears to be something illicit about writing sex, and this is fine by me, good news to me, a crier from another corner who calls on the writer to be aware. Make it count. Make it weird and tender and private. Let it be flimsy if it is flimsy, perfunctory, crass. Let it be ravenous, drunk on the void, the wild desire to be flung back into dust and dream and tatter. A lot of sex happens in the line space in fiction—the door closes, and the rest is suggestion. Or it happens in a few lines—not because the sex is cursory, but because—as with a lover who rolls off and wants an assessment: How’d you like that, honey?—too much can readily be said. There is sloppy sex and sex that has been too much practiced. It becomes trivial; it’s glib. Sometimes it lacks imagination or is too much imagined and maybe because writers are shy of it, sex can be dreck on the page. I remember coming across the word “disconnected,” in a story, as in, “They disconnected.” This was the conclusion of a scene in which intimacy was the claim, even rapture. The language of trains uncoupling is sexier than this. Give me the transgression, I thought, the goop and gore—anything but what makes the body less body than machine.
So much is sexy, if we’re paying attention. It’s charged and makes you glad to live. The drowse of a bee in a buttercup. The way elephants stand together, touching. Song of the meadowlark, song of the thrush—well, I find these things sexy. Mark Rothko, Francesco Clemente. Most of modern dance and one silent film, the sexiest silent film ever, a sex scene in which only a hand is shown—the woman’s, pale as a lily, pulsing. The severe contraction of the visual frame on the extremity of the hand strikes me as a courageous and instructive choice, another less-is-more lesson, more proof of the radiant force sex can have, sensation firing in the body’s far reaches.
I think fearlessness is key. I think of Lynn Tillman’s slim volume Weird Fucks, of Eileen Myles’ quip about the blocky-figure-in-a-dress by which we are supposed to think WOMEN: that triangle, that–“What is that, my twat?” Myles says. I think of Christine Schutt’s exquisite Prosperous Friends and much of James Salter’s work, particularly the roving eye of A Sport and a Pastime. It is September and it is luminous and sex has the glow of the holy; it feels fiery, exultant, an affirmation of the hunger to live.
The hunger to live in my debut novel, Bird, finds its clearest expression in Bird’s children—the fact of them and their unruly love and Bird’s consuming love for them. One baby, two men in the house, and one of them is three feet tall. They’re all vying for Bird’s attention in the old animal way. “If I got a gun and shot him, Mama, would it just be me and you?” her boys asks.
Bird packs her boy off to school and, home with the baby, sinks into the indulgence of memory. Much of what she remembers is sex. Mickey and sex with Mickey, sex that is like a narcotic and a ritualized dance with death. They—what is the word? Fornicate? Surely this is the reigning f word—ugly, ugly, designed to make people never want to do it. Bird and Mickey fuck. They do a lot of fucking—in beds and on floors and in moving vans, in amusement parks and boulder fields. They are a little ravenous. Goody for them. They are young, and they’re in love, and Bird is grieving for her dead mother. Sex is in part a catharsis of this grief, a tumult of sorrow and joy. The line grows very slight for Bird and Mickey between wanting to die or live.
They live. They give in to a perilous boundlessness and prevail. The gift of Mickey is a gift Bird keeps living, and sexuality, sensuality, is the charge.
My approach to writing sex varied in Bird—the act happens between lines or compressed into a few lines or sometimes the scene is expansive—not Proust describing asparagus, but somewhat patient and attentive to detail. I am frank, at times, and not squeamish, I think; I think squeamishness makes us lonely. In one moment in a boulder field among rags of snow and shadows, Bird watches a beetle cross her feet, Mickey’s shadow merged with hers behind her, and merged with the shadow of the boulder Bird is standing up against. The beetle recalls for me the pale hand of the silent movie, the eye for the tiny, plus a cinematic sweep.
Bird becomes pregnant, no surprise, and after some months they lose the baby. They make their way to the ER, where a doctor “scrapes the mother in Bird out.”
“Scrape” is a brutal word here. I recognize this. I know that readers can feel punished by language like this and that many writers elect to avoid it. I have my reasons. It is not rudeness or the want to shock that motivate me to speak plainly, but a desire to accept what is. I admire Rubens, but I’m closer to Lucien Freud. I want to render the body precisely. I want the strength not to turn from the spectacle of other people’s suffering, their wild and freakish joys. The strength not to gloss. Not to shame. Losing a baby is grievous and messy. If we turn away from the fullness of this—in life and on the page—we damage the person living through it. She remains unseen. By erasing and refusing the experience, we erase and refuse her.
In today’s “Recommended Reading” column, Electric Literature’s ran Karen E. Bender‘s story “Anything for Money” from her National Book Award nominated collection Refund: Stories. Read the full story here.
November 17, 2015
I want to talk a little about talk, how talk and the filling of pages, the steady application of reasonably steady sentences, can be anathema to art. Is. How killing communication is: the success of seeing what one looks for.
We write fiction. Which is to say we hope to employ, or deploy, words that reveal or: words and constructions that are obedient to (serve as vehicles for) the revelations we intend. We choose these deliberately, and depend on them utterly, to be codified before we touch them: they are the ground held in common by seer and seen; by painter and viewer; reader and writer. They are communicative, melodic, narrative, perhaps pleasing.
But what of the elements one stumbles upon which are at once revelatory and dis-pleasing? Disruptive? Tempting to ignore? I mean not the words intended to reveal, but the words which reveal themselves to us, which stand on the stoop with their mouths sprung wide, uninvited (so we insist) and feisty, bound lustily, feistily, to nothing we hoped to say? These accidents, these unruly, unsummoned cousins, wreck, at best (at least belittle) our little chicken-hearted hopes of achieving the intelligently lucid. Pellucid, I want to say, having come upon so few chances to say it.
These forms—the form of the list, for instance, in Susan Steinberg’s “Isla”, or the coherent, titled fragments of William Gass’ “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” —these linguistic accidents (they run the gamut: flirt, seduce, alarm)—they are like lovers, dead, asleep on a train; like watching the fire engine pull up at your door. You pass a wreck on the highway someone is pulling your children from: they’re like that. You hope they are somebody else’s. But they’re yours.
You meant to say father and instead said child. You meant to say girl and said me.
What to do? Drive on? Look away? Throw the bolt on the door?
Look away, and you stop the mess happening. True. It is your art, not your life; you make it, and so can choose sensibly against it. Insist: it is not my house on fire; that is no child I made. Let it pass; give it time, and things feel normal again. You can let the story proceed in keeping with your expectations. You can, in other words, pursue the way away from the trouble that is in you. You will likely save yourself the embarrassment of watching a high school friend raise her hand after a reading and ask: “Why did you write that book? You used to be such a nice person.” Reviewers will likely read you without resorting to the bewildered assertion that you distance through affect; that you are more poet than storyteller; that you have let your want to fuck around lead you off from the real and the humane.
But who is to say what is real, after all? To whose authority, whose code of conduct, must we defer? Is my reality yours? What gets called experimental fiction, as we know, manifests resistance to this authority. It resists convention, thwarts the code. But for any art to matter, it has to manifest resistance to something more than convention. Else it is frivolous, petulant, unnecessary, false.
Experimental fiction. How can we keep calling it this? Imagine somebody saying to you, Let’s experiment with being in love. Let’s experiment with building a bridge. The term is absurdly provisional. It is a flimsy sack into which a thousand unlike things have been thrown. That we have labeled it at all, or tolerated a label, is unfortunate, maybe dangerous. The label provokes argument; it corrals us into resisting the other, and draws us away from resisting, sufficiently, ourselves. Am I mouthing off, I have to ask myself—clinging to, discarding, out of habit? Am I coercing? Fishing for words that serve to reveal, but looking askance and fuzzily at revelations that run counter to my intentions? Am I finding what I am looking for or looking for what is there?
A label, a gathering of writers under any one awning, muddies the reckless inner need from which art issues.
Art has to resist itself. And allow itself, naturally. We uncover—through long scrutiny—an imperative that nudges us forward, allows the language we mangle daily to be foreign to the ear again. We find a form at once in keeping and radically at odds: the methodical list of Susan Steinberg’s “Isla”, let’s return to, which orders the unorderable mess of a pitiful, monstrous father, a daughter hoping for love. 1. Never tuck the napkin. 30. I can still get a young girl. 56. Cut smaller pieces. Do you want to choke? 64. I’ll never let you starve. 97. The only good German is a what, sweetie? The only good German is a what German? Come on, sweetie. 130. I love you sweetie. How about that?
The list frees Steinberg (releases her) requires her (holds her) to the task of saying the unsayable. The list, inherently static, is what keeps driving her forward.
We hold to and release; fight and flee, as we wish to, as we must.
My boy, when his papa left for a two-month road trip, said, “I wish there were a robot of you and you could just stay here with us, Papa. Robo-Pop could go and he would see everything and bring back pictures. Then the real you could stay with us.”
Go on, go on, we say: Stay.
We depart and we remain; seek at once to be purposive and disruptive.
Steinberg’s list is a means of progressing, and of mustering resistance. The crazy tube costume of Martha Graham’s “Lamentation” is a means of remaining, of embodying what cannot be shaken. Dance is movement. It exults in the freedom of movement. But here is Martha Graham who sits her dancer on a bench, confined head to toe by an elastic sleeve. The dancer is never going to get out of that thing, but look at her, look at her move.
We want to move. My girl says to me, “Mama, pretend you are the mama and I am your little girl and you are cooking dinner.”
I am the mother cooking dinner, but I have been asked, haven’t I, to go? To be elsewhere and other? Wind? To be a tree that she comes home to?
We begin early in life to accommodate the pull of the strange and the familiar; we experiment, fluently, because so much of what we know and feel comes to us unworded. We say things, as children, for the first time; language is plastic, its usage unsanctioned. “I don’t know,” says my boy, “if I can eat this pizza. The cheese looks a little awkward.”
Awkward? Write it once and you are obliged to recur to the error elsewhere; the recursion makes a bound world. Even the associative leap—handiest to poets—is not a departure, but a movement between things. It is bungee jumping from a trestle bridge; it is Molloy’s hat, sprung back at him, from the elastic limits of its tether.
Those writers I am hungriest to read sacrifice ease and fluency—forego the temptation to add, resist the lure of convention, are wary of the strength of the will; they believe in affect, the work the word does on the body. They apprentice to William Gass’ Iron Law of Composition, to a shared desire for a story to seem to “have leaked like a blot from the single shake of a pen.” Gass writes of “the exasperatingly slow search among the words I had already written for the words which were to come, and the necessity for continuous revision, so that each work would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound…”
It is hard to want to seek it, this swelling around a wound. The reading public says, for the most part, move on. Entertain us. Make it flashy. Tell us how to feel. Readers are early on schooled away from the susceptibility, the nimbleness a writer hopes for. They are satisfied with the code, with claims of feeling passively received, with the glibness of the funeral oratory. They want the sensational, not the sensation, not the thing written from the inside out. Catastrophe, awe, sexual ecstasy, the deliriums of the spirit—these are garbled states, else we go speechless. Inherent to Gass’ law of composition is the recognition that a word is utterance—that a growl a shriek keening might well say it better.
William Gass, like the amazing Tuvans, exults in the marriage of the animal and the sublime. In an age given to the next new thing—a new technology, a fresh musical instrument–the Tuvans’ fealty to creaturely limits is ever more remarkable. They move inward, explore the sounds they can embody given the bodies they inhabit. Given the anatomy of the human voice: the pouches and apertures; the vestibules and chinks; the nine lubricated cartilages of the larynx. The Tuvans create a sound that sounds like something turned clean inside out: something in which the qualities of remaining and departing, of dissonance and melody, mystery and order, are mightily infused. The throat-singing the Tuvans preserve narrates the world they know; it describes the contour of valley and mountain, enacts the mood and movement of the wild and of the shepherded animal. A song is a tree exploding in winter. It is unaccomodated man, standing on a ridge, famished.
Listen for the voice, I say, that escapes, and comes around behind you.
Whether we are talking about the Tuvans, Pavarotti or Axel Rose, it is clear that the voice, the audible expression of the life force, is being pressed through a channel considerably smaller than it is. That constriction, that swollen restraint, requires that we give our attention to the here and now, to the timber and pulse of each syllable. This remaining within is the source and consolation of art. We have one life which, no matter how messy it is, is daily fined down, is one narrow band strung through a dazzle of possibilities. One life, says art: Go to it.
Gary Ferguson’s book The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness was shortlisted for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s 2016 Book Awards. The award was established in 1965 to honor the Pacific Northwest’s most distinguished authors, and the winners will be announced in January. View the full shortlist here. Congratulations Gary!
Teresa Jordan, author of The Year of Living Virtuously: Weekends Off, was awarded the 2015 Utah Book Award in Nonfiction. The Utah Book Award was established by the Salt Lake City Public Library to honor exceptional achievements by Utah writers and to recognize outstanding literature written with a Utah theme or setting. View the full list of winners and finalists here.
November 10, 2015
Karen E. Bender, Refund.
Refund, novelist Karen E. Bender’s first short story collection, is a National Book Award finalist. Its theme: how money becomes the defining issue of the early twenty-first century. Bender reads from the book at Prairie Lights on a trip back to Iowa City, where she studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Money is the collection’s organizing principal. But, points out Caitlin Macy (New York Times Book Review) “Bender’s subtler preoccupation is the eroding effect of emotional want. With the exception of a few stories set in New York and Los Angeles, the neighborhoods that Bender’s characters inhabit are notable only for their Target- and Walmart-accessible featurelessness. Home is “a community splashed onto an area that should have remained desert” or “a midsized city in South Carolina.” These are places “people ended up,” not places they move to with any conviction. Businesses fail (in one story it’s website construction; in another, appliance repair), and collaterally, so do marriages.”
Meredith Maran (Los Angeles Times) notes: “Taken separately, each of the Refund stories is an impeccably constructed miniature, a ship in a bottle that makes the reader wonder how the author got all that detail, all that craft, into such a small container. Taken as a whole, the collection is a 13-stop journey into some richly imagined worlds.”
We’re thrilled to introduce a new website for Lauret Savoy, author of the book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. Please visit ReadTrace.com to learn more information about Trace, to subscribe to her newsletter, to order the book, and to connect through Twitter and Facebook.