Humane, but Not Nice: The Millions Interviews Amanda Goldblatt

Summer arrived suddenly the day I met Amanda Goldblatt on Northerly Island in Chicago to discuss her bold and impressive first novel, Hard Mouth. I arrived to find Amanda standing on a concrete embankment in Lake Michigan, with waves rolling over her feet. We chose this spot because of its intentional remoteness—it’s a caesura to downtown Chicago’s bustle. The peninsula that once housed the private airstrip, Meigs Field, has been re-envisioned, with fields of wild grasses and hills sculpted to hide the city’s skyline behind us.

We are unprepared for the sun and oppressive heat in a way that befits a discussion of a novel whose narrator, Denny, drops the trappings of her isolated suburban life to live in the wilderness, wildly unprepared and accompanied by what I imagine must have been a suitcase of snack bars, a handgun, and not much else.

We found refuge under a tree, outside a yacht club, with Canada geese and their goslings feeding noisily nearby, coming up to inspect us every so often. As you read, imagine a conversation interspersed by bird calls and caterpillars.  

The Millions: Hard Mouth is not a nice book, but it’s a humane book.

Amanda Goldblatt: I think I agree with that.

TM: And its main character, Denny, is not nice but ultimately she’s humane. I’m wondering what you were drawn to in writing about her not-niceness and alienation. I mean, it’s a cancer story but it’s not a cancer story, it’s a story about family, and yet it’s completely unsentimental. I really love that about the book.

AG: I was interested in thinking about a character who cared but wasn’t nice. In some ways it’s a book about empathy as a fact of existence as opposed to a positive character trait. I was interested in how empathy and closeness could be written about without kindness. Although Denny does have a certain amount of kindness, like she does with The Thing, the cat. I think there’s a begrudging kindness for her there, but it’s easier because the cat is not a person. 

TM: It seems like Denny’s kindness comes out of her accidentally having injured the cat. But that is a sense of responsibility for the cat. 

AG: Whereas she is taking no responsibility for her father, anymore. She’s meaningfully shirking it. I think you could make an argument that she’s projecting the care that she might’ve given to her father to the cat. But actually, I don’t think it’s a one-to-one thing. It’s more about being humane. It’s more about, you break it, you buy it. It’s a logical thing. It’s not about guilt and it’s not about kindness. 

TM: Denny is a good citizen, and she’s not a bad daughter. She’s not a good daughter either, but she has cared for her father in the past, and now he’s giving up. I saw her escape as an inability to process that.

AG: On the surface that’s absolutely what it is.

TM: She speaks at the beginning of “the compounding of bad behavior.” In some way I could read the whole book as kind of compounding of Denny’s bad behavior, and yet, she’s not so bad.

AG: You mean in the sense that she’s leaving?

TM: She’s labeled herself as “bad.” She generally isn’t harming people. She’s just neglecting to demonstrate care. It seems she doesn’t know how to and isn’t equipped to care. 

AG: She’s not equipped to grieve. That’s a key thing. If anything, the bad behavior that she is compounding is her inability to behave appropriately in response to the oncoming death of a loved one. Even by telling the story, and telling the story within the story when she talks about ruining an heirloom as a kid—she’s not unproud. She’s not unproud of doing that, and she’s not unproud of leaving town, going to the mountain, and not wanting to stay and watch her father die. If anything could be compounding of her bad acting, that is. In some ways she is luxuriating in these stories as part of her identity and enjoying the exhibition of that.

TM: Does Denny need to transgress in order to feel? 

AG: It seems like it, right? There’s a scene later in the book, where for no reason she pours a full bag of candy on the floor. I think that’s an example of her inability to not only process but behave in the way that she might be expected to behave, socioculturally. She just has to disrupt it. The book is a series of transgressions for her whether or not they’re larger societal transgressions. 

She’s an extraordinarily passive person. Most of the scenes of the book are her transgressing that passivity. I’m really interested in the idea of passivity. I think we all live lives with a lot of passivity. Many of us, most of us do. Just by the trick of what contemporary life entails. You spend time in transit, you spend time waiting, you spend time waiting for information. And so I think we all have a degree of passivity or, not to globalize it, I feel that I have a certain amount of passivity that gets knit into my life no matter how much I am doing in a given day. And part of that is being beholden to larger institutional systems. And part of that is for me just needing small breaks from processing the world. 

Denny has taken an almost lifelong break from processing the world. She’s made her life small enough that she doesn’t have to figure these things out. And so transgression is almost equal to action, is equal to emotion for her.

TM: I was wondering how much the suburban setting contributes to her sense of aimlessness or formlessness. There’s an isolation inherent to her character, in her nuclear family unit. But there’s also something so suburban about her alienation. I identified with the depiction of her coming of age in the suburbs and her sense of wanting to take agency but not knowing necessarily how to. Denny’s decision to go out to the mountain—is that an attempt to give herself agency, or is it an attempt to kill herself?

AG: I think it’s both. She’s not sophisticated enough, or self aware enough, to know which is true. She thinks about the move to the mountain as, if not an annihilation of the self, then an annihilation of the self that she knows. It’s hard for her to conceive of herself outside of the structure of the family and outside of the structure of her passive life. 

In writing the book, I thought a lot about how the suburbs are constantly built. I’m talking about a really specific inner-ring suburb outside of D.C. that is racially diverse, that is middle class to working class. That’s where Denny exists and that’s the kind of place where I grew up. But obviously the suburbs have a very large spectrum of possibility. 

TM:  It’s specifically suburban Maryland, between Prince George’s County, where I grew up, and Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

AG: But like, not Bethesda.  

TM: And not Potomac. 

AG: And not Potomac. It is a hyper-specific place, but also it happens to, for whatever reason, in some ways mimic a lot of representations of white suburban life that we’ve had in the media and in culture. Although, have you ever watched the film SubUrbia

TM: I haven’t, no. 

AG: It’s with Steve Zahn and a lot of other people. It’s directed by Richard Linklater. The thing I remember most about it is that it had a really good soundtrack. It had Sonic Youth on it, which was maybe not the first time I heard Sonic Youth in high school, but like one of the first times I remember really getting into them. It’s about a bunch of suburban kids waiting for an old friend, who’s a rock star now, to come back to town. There’s something very classic about it in that way—it has a Godot quality to it. That I can recall. There’s a lot of driving and strip malls, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t take place on the East Coast at all, maybe Texas, yet the quality of it felt familiar to me.

The constantly self-revising suburbs manage to always feel stagnant because the components are changing shape, but they’re not changing themselves. You still have the strip malls and the churches and the temples and the schools and of course the single family houses and the townhomes and usually low-rise apartment buildings. And maybe there’s a mall nearby and then maybe there’s a fancier mall if you go further. 

I’ve really gone down a rabbit hole here.

TM: The suburbs are important to the book. 

AG: Yeah, they are. Denny in some way has always used the suburbs and how she feels about them to be one of her self-defining characteristics. And the fact that she tolerates her environment as a fact of her life says a lot about the way that she tolerates herself as a fact of her life. And so, when she’s ready to go to the mountain, even if she is not interested in a direct kind of suicide, she is interested in partial self-annihilation.

TM: One thing that struck me is how compartmentalized she is. Which isn’t just a way of life limited to the suburbs. In some ways it’s inherent to our everyday lives, our ability to remain isolated while in touch, using technology. 

AG: Can you talk a little bit more about the compartmentalization? 

TM: I was very surprised when Denny got rid of all of her belongings. She got fired from her job and gave up the lease on her apartment. It’s empty for a few weeks at least. And nobody knows. Nobody is coming over. She goes to her parents’ house, she goes over to her friend Ken’s place, but there’s no intersection. I mean, other than what she allows others to know, and she allows them very little. 

AG: On the mountain she’s in search of complete solitude and she was in search of that in the suburbs. But when emotion encroached on that she had to remove herself from the situation.

TM: The irony is that she runs away to not complete solitude. 

AG: In an early review, someone mentioned that things sure happen to her a lot. It was being said critically, which is fine, I’m open to criticism, but also that’s kind of the point. Things can only happen to her because her transgressions are discrete and designed to make her further hermetic. And so in order for anything to happen, things have to happen to her. Otherwise it’s just a story about someone with complete control over their life, which seems entirely incredible to me.

TM: When she wants to put herself in the position of making something happen, she does this. 

AG: That’s true. 

TM: She’s active in a passive way. Like when she decides she wants to live life and she puts herself in the position to meet Hill. 

AG:  She’s a very good backseat driver.  

 She frees the flies, she gets fired, she sells all of her shit. She buys the things that she’ll need for the cabin and so on. She goes to the mountain. That’s pretty much all the gas in her tank. That’s her agency. The action is her agency. 

TM:  I do wonder where she’s telling the story from. She does bring some sense of wisdom, or or at least a sense of distance—”this is who I was then.” 

AG: At some point there was a specific vantage—she was telling the story to a particular particular person. But ultimately—this was in early edits with my agent—it became clear that that apparatus wasn’t necessary, that it could be disassembled. I actually like that a lot better. Any future Denny would have perspective. 

And the ending is so specific. It’s so specific and much more final than I ever thought I’d write in a novel or a story. I prefer stories with abrupt endings and no resolution. I think that having the mystery of where she is telling this story from allows for some give from the relentless resolution of the actual ending of the book. Which alleviates me a bit, as a writer.

TM: It’s a very precise end, but there’s ambiguity that allows you to read into what has happened since.

AG: Often, I talk to my students about killing off characters. My students are always killing off their characters. I have a lot of ideas why. Main characters, sometimes narrators—they just die and that’s the end of the story. I don’t always disagree with the impulse but I tell them, in an overly fatigued and jaded voice, Sometimes if you want the story to be sad, the sadder thing is that the character has to keep living. 

With Denny, there’s an element of that. She has this narrative of her life, but she remains unreckoned with as a person. And she’s perhaps trying to tell this story to understand who she wants to be or who she thinks she is. But there’s not any resolution of that. And so she has to continue, like all of us, to grasp in search of some kind of self fundament.

TM: There is a lack of catharsis. 

AG: How often do we get catharsis in everyday life?

TM: Even when you think you get it, you realize later…

AG: It doesn’t last. You can have something that you experience as catharsis and then it can reverse itself a week later, and then you’re not where you were but somewhere even further away because you no longer have the hope of catharsis. 

I’m much more interested in stories that don’t offer catharsis, as pleasurable as reading catharsis can be because it gives us some kind of hope. I’m interested in stories that are merely accounts of people and their understanding of their lives and their understanding of themselves in relation to narrative. So even though a retrospective narrator classically offers catharsis: “And that’s when I learned…” Denny can’t offer that. It doesn’t happen. 

I was flabbergasted that this book had as long a duration as it does. I mean, it’s short relative to what happens in it but I fantasize about writing a novel that happens in a day or a week or even a month and the kind of temporal urgency you get just from that.

I’m interested in talking about the language. 

TM: It’s something I thought about frequently while reading Hard Mouth.

AG: I’m really interested in using language to make concrete or materialize a narrator. I spent a lot of time on Denny’s diction and her word bank, how she used sounds, and what words would she not use? I had to delete a lot of grad-school words that were my words but not her words. I really spent time with the fine grain, like word choice, diction, and references. That’s what I’ve been most obsessed with as a writer—the idea of creating the performance of the narrator and understanding that language materializes the narrator. 

I’m interested in first person and I’m most often only interested in first person. Because I think of stories just like essays as a discourse of a single mind, it becomes necessary to configure the narrator, a character, as someone who is offering the story that is happening or has happened to them. And so having Denny’s retrospective narration became really important. I was thinking about where she might be and what kind of perspective she might have at the point of telling the story, and what perspective she would still not have. That all started with language and order of information and sentences and thinking about the tone, and tone as created by things like the length of sentences.

TM: I love that you build a character from language up.

AG: Always. It starts with this, a sentence. Or multiple sentences. I mean, with Hard Mouth, I started writing because I was scared that my father was going to die. He was diagnosed with cancer. And my running away to the mountain was starting a novel for the first time. It became important for me, in order for the trick to work, to understand a vocalized character separate from me and to really set about understanding her presence. 

TM: There are so many sentences that I am in awe of In this book. I came away with a sense that you are a stylist at the sentence level and care deeply about words. And so all of that makes sense.

AG: I’m interested in potent, not nice characters, characters that are specific or angular, in some way, emotionally—because I can imagine more extreme language in accordance with a character like that. There is a certain relief in writing the voice of a character who is not so nice. I have, I feel, a whole capability of communication that I don’t generally use because of the kind of person I am socially. It’s fun to use that language in a character.

TM: I was also thinking about Hard Mouth in relation to wilderness narratives. It’s even said by Monica, when she talks of traveling to Cyprus, and Denny is like, I would never, that isn’t my style. And Monica urges her to travel because she has time because it’s what people do these days. And ever since Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

AG: And Eat, Pray, Love.

TM: Yes, and Eat, Pray, Love — 

AG: Monica is more Eat, Pray, Love. And Denny, if she has to be part of the binary, is definitely more Wild, even though it’s a very different narrative.

TM: Does Denny offer a counter narrative to Wild? I have not read Wild. And I don’t know if you have either…

AG: I haven’t.

TM:  I do know that the narrator follows a similar trajectory, like, I’m going out into the woods, I’m totally ill equipped, but I can’t deal with the loss in my life. But with Wild, at least, she found herself, she wrote the book, and connected with an entire community of people. Denny does not have that experience. I was wondering if you consider Denny’s escape as a counternarrative to the that of a young woman going out into the wild and finding herself. Or a resistance to that.

AG: Ultimately, yes. In the seven or eight years I was writing this book, there were a lot of books coming out, and not just Wild, that had a woman’s escape transfigured in completely different ways. I’m thinking about Catherine Lacey’s novel Nobody Is Ever Missing. And Laura Van den Berg’s novel Find Me. You have all of these female characters putting themselves in new contexts. 

I’m interested in art that reflects flaws as opposed to resolving flaws, or seeking to resolve flaws. Whatever deepens flaws is generally more what I’m into. I was much more informed by survival novels like Hatchet, by Gary Paulson. It’s a young adult novel about a young man whose plane goes down and he has a hatchet and basically just has to survive. 

Or, a movie I had watched, called Mara of the Wilderness, which is about a young girl whose parents are killed during a wilderness excursion, and, left there, she becomes this feral human.

TM: If Denny were part of the Donner party, she would have been totally fine. It would have met her expectations of life, of excitement.

AG: And of desperation. That’s the thing. She’s not someone who has had desperation. And yet there is a certain amount of desperation that helps to drive her to the mountain.

I was talking with some writers recently about why mean or antisocial or misanthropic female narrators or main characters have been so popular lately. Of course, no one would ever say that about a male narrator, main character. There’s been a lot of discourse about that. But we were talking about why it felt so empowering to write characters like that. I think it’s a real shucking of social expectation, female social expectation. Having a character who is humane but not nice, and having a story that is humane but not nice, is a way of claiming a less gendered-weighted representation of humanity in art, with a narrator who happens to be female.

TM: She doesn’t conform. She doesn’t make herself digestible. 

AG: No. Pathologically so.

TM: I’m curious about the end where Denny puts out the flame of the candle with her palm.

AG: It’s a lot.

TM: The action sums up her character, of being able to take action, but only when she’s able to extinguish something. She comes down from the mountain and there is no epiphany. Her realization is that life just keeps going on whether or not she cares. It’s just going to keep moving forward. But something has changed in her—she recognizes new capacities within herself.

AG: Perhaps it’s not a story of a self evolution, but perhaps it is one of self recognition. She’s not necessarily changing. She’s just expanding. It’s variations on a theme. 

TM: Which does seem empowering in this context. 

AG:  Absolutely. It’s funny because the idea of extinguishing a candle that’s been lit in your parent’s memory—if her mother had really truly cared about it, that could be a very hurtful gesture. But in this household it’s just a matter of fact. The candle would go out anyway. And in many ways I think that this is an existential novel that’s predicated on the idea that everyone dies and there’s no afterlife. Therefore, there will always only be death at the end.

Art credit: Amanda Goldblatt.

The Ascent of the Sick-Girl Narrative

1.
I recently saw a playwright I had studied with at a cafe. Her mother had just been hospitalized and this led to a discussion of how women’s symptoms of heart attack often present differently than the “typical” signs we’ve been told to look for. Nausea and vomiting, pain radiating up the arm, shortness of breath, fatigue and sweats. Not crushing chest pain. Gender plays a role in how an illness presents and how medications work, and it can affect prescription dosages too. Women make up half the population but most medical research is biased toward men. My grandmother also suffered from a few heart attacks with atypical presentation. It was a challenge to persuade her to go to the doctor then, or ever. While her reasoning was never explicitly stated, it was clear that she would rather die than spend more time institutionalized, which was how she passed a number of her middle years, due to schizophrenia.

Women make up a disproportionate number of mental health cases, too. We are twice as likely to suffer from depression. Twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder. At greater risk than men for developing bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder. As I have been thinking more about women and illness, I’ve been struck by the proliferation of memoirs about women’s illness published recently—and there’s more on the horizon, including Anne Boyer’s much-anticipated memoir, The Undying, recently excerpted in The New Yorker. There were enough that I started thinking of these memoirs within their own subcategory, what I came to call “sick-girl narratives,” a term that aligns with Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl. The only requirement for the Young-Girl is that “she” is a model citizen, i.e., consumer:
The Young-Girl is not always young; more and more frequently, she is not even female. She is the figure of total integration in a disintegrating social totality.”
The Young-Girl is ever consuming, is desirable; she is spectacle, a brand, a handle. In this way, the healthcare industry has made us all Young-Girls as our bodies have entered its labyrinthine system.

The healthcare industry is this country’s largest employer and accounts for nearly 20 percent of the GDP. It may not be apparent to readers of this site, but I have been working in healthcare for as long as I’ve been out of undergrad. My first degree was in pharmacy and for nearly 20 years I have been writing alongside working in hospitals, in long-term care, and now for a drug company. I’ve had a good glimpse of healthcare’s flawed systems as a provider as well as a patient.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that healthcare prices are rising and we receive fewer services in return—we’ve all felt the pinch. What does this mean in real-life terms, in our era of late capitalism? I am relatively healthy; my only real problem is a tendency toward depression that’s relatively under control. Even so, medical expenses are my largest monthly pay out, even taking into account the government credit. I am grateful for Obamacare, or rather, despite Obamacare being flawed and slowly being undone by many forces, I am grateful that I am able to afford the support I need. In 21st-century America, healthcare is a privilege few can afford, not the accessible and affordable service that it should be.

Our narratives have been shaped by the ways we experience illness, by the illnesses we live with, by the advertisements we see on TV that make us wonder if we are less happy than we should be, if our bowel problems could be eased, or perhaps our social malaise can be cured at the local ketamine clinics that now sponsor public radio. Illness is a lens through which we see ourselves. How could it not be? So much has been written on the experience of being ill, from Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag to Robert Burton and William Styron. But that’s not the point. The point is that the industry has its grip on our wallets and our bodies, and thus our minds. This has played a role in making medical narratives a primary focus.

Our bodies and their state of upkeep preoccupy us, in part because we are built for this, but also because our healthcare systems rely on this and our recurring needs. When we’re ill we have little choice but to forge ahead and try to find our way through the convoluted and often disorganized system. Illness takes a toll not just physically but also financially. Nearly half of people diagnosed with cancer drain their total assets within two years. As Tiqqun states: “The initial form of Biopower is a process of submission to and by the body.” The point I’m getting at is that our preoccupation with medicine isn’t coincidental. It’s systemic, and this plays a role in the stories we’re drawn to and the stories we tell, such as these memoirs of illness and specifically those of the sick-girl.

Let’s consider this rather sudden appearance of memoirs written by literary women who’ve published at least one novel. Each of their current books is devoted to chronicling struggles with an affliction, whether it’s addiction or mental illness or late-stage Lyme disease. It’s possible that their inclinations toward writing fiction have made them more adept at depicting the emotional terrain of their own lives. In memoir, the empathy the novelist would bestow upon her characters is turned on its head. As Leslie Jamison writes in her essay, “Empathy Exams,” about her job as a medical actor role-playing sick patients for medical students learning how to diagnose, empathy is a focused and discrete attention paid to another’s experience that requires an effacement of self: “Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard— it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.”  In the sick-girl narrative, the attention is turned inward to chronicle the author’s experiences of recognizing, treating, and living with illness. The empathy evoked is of the reader, who is encouraged to find compassion for the author’s account.

2.
In The Recovering, Leslie Jamison writes about her struggles with alcoholism while also attempting to disrupt our culture’s mythos of the alcoholic creative genius.  Jamison has stated that her intention was to elevate a multiplicity of addiction narratives while examining alcohol’s detrimental effects on some of the literary alcoholics who have been immortalized—from Raymond Carver to John Berryman to Jean Rhys to Denis Johnson (the list goes on). However, Jamison’s statement comes off as somewhat disingenuous when considered alongside the book’s contents. She isn’t employing Svetlana Alexievich’s methods of self-effacement by creating a tapestry of voices. Instead Jamison’s recovery narrative forms the backbone of the book, upon which these other compelling addiction narratives hinge. I mostly find Jamison’s account of her attraction to and subsequent struggles with alcohol solipsistic for the way that her story overwhelms the others. It’s not that she lacks empathy when retelling these stories. Rather, Jamison’s scrutiny and focus on her own struggles with alcohol dominate the book. Her intense first-person account overshadows the myriad other voices of addiction interspersed throughout the book’s 545 pages. (Mind you, I did first encounter the book on Audible, during a road trip where I listened to Jamison read her text for hours on end—there was no escaping her voice. It’s possible the book may have left a different impression had I first encountered it on the page.)

And yet, what memoir couldn’t be called solipsistic? It’s Jamison’s denial that The Recovering gives her narrative primacy that I find frustrating. Jamison aligns her plight with the struggles of the creative genius by placing them side-by-side. This is a longstanding trope of the “mood memoir,” writes Katie Rose Guest Pryal. The mood memoir is a subgenre in a long tradition of memoirs, including slave narratives and spiritual memoirs, told in order to give voice and authority to the oppressed. Daniel Paul Schreber is the author of perhaps the first contemporary mood memoir, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness—but, even so, his long trippy text is also part spiritual narrative. In his hallucinations, both God and demons spoke to him directly. In the preface, Schreber explains that his intent in writing the memoir is twofold. He wants to declare what has been revealed through his direct communication with God, and he intends to offer an explanation for his “oddities of behavior” and eccentric beliefs to the community he will rejoin when he leaves the asylum.

Guest Pryal writes that one of the four key features of the mood memoir is that it points to other well-known people who have lived with a similar affliction, in order to establish their authoritative stance and to imply this impairment can also be a gift. Jamison does this with a twist. While Jamison’s stated intent is to reveal the bleak toll alcoholism takes on even these wildly creative individuals—such as when Jean Rhys and her husband drank Champagne to calm their nerves as their baby lay dying at the hospital—I sense in this iconoclasm an underlying reverence for these myths. I mean, how awful and yet how wonderful that Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight exists. I think most young writers, myself included, have fallen prey to the myths of their literary heroes. It’s one thing to encounter an author on the page and another thing all together IRL.

In meeting Jamison on the page, I wish she had lingered longer with her moments of vulnerability. How tortured she was by the shame of her intense shyness and naiveté. How she questioned the contradiction of self-effacement despite her strong, driving ambitions. But she glossed over this for better plot points: We hear of her drinking excessively while pregnant, while wearing a heart monitor, drinking often and in ways that gave her access to communities with cachet, via parties at Yale, at the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop.  Jamison desired to live largely, like Icarus flying near the sun, and she fell. And yet, how far? This isn’t the question to ask of an author attempting to subvert the notion that a story must be original or extraordinary to have value. One point that does come through is that it doesn’t matter how far one falls, whether one drinks herself into a coma or never misses a deadline. The daily struggle to become and remain sober is as real and perhaps even more so when admitting the ubiquity of this plotline.

3.
“Pacing, they told me at graduate school, is one of the beginning writer’s biggest challenges, because a beginning writer wants to tell all the wrong things, or everything at once,” writes Esmé Weijun Wang in her book of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, that recounts Wang’s experience living with schizoaffective disorder and examines the scope of what living with schizophrenia means in its myriad varieties. The remark about pacing is made as she recounts preparing for an appointment with her psychiatrist, where they will decide whether she should receive electroshock therapy, used to treat severe depression and mania and a host of recalcitrant symptoms of mental disorders. Wang doesn’t discuss the treatment, its implications, the potential side effects of retrograde amnesia, or the treatment’s long history of use and efficacy despite its associated stigmas. As Wang prepares for her consult, she is deciding what to wear. Look too put together and her suffering will not taken seriously. Look too disheveled and she might be admitted to the psych ward.

I was befuddled by this emphasis on Wang’s preparation for the consultation rather than what transpired. The reader never learns the outcome, if she endured ECT, what her physician recommends. That couldn’t be her point, could it? Perhaps. This interruption gives way to more questions. Why does she stop here? Is Wang attempting to give a play-by-play account of her medical history? She certainly isn’t. Instead it seems she’s revealing how she must be hyperaware of her presentation of self and symptoms, as if she needs to enact an idealized version of her illness. Whose ideal? The doctors’? Or the industry’s? One that conforms just enough to the DSM? All of the above. It’s evident Wang adjusts her appearance so that her illness will be visible but just enough. Unlike Jamison’s role as a medical actor, Wang is enacting the symptoms of her own disease. Is this manipulative? Yes, and unfortunately it’s necessary. Wang has learned that this is a way she can navigate the system.

She then directs the reader’s attention back to her preoccupations: her fear, her ability and inability to negotiate the system, a nurse who blames Wang for her delusions during another hospitalization—a result of her lacking faith in Jesus, the nurse claims. Which opens another can of worms, including how is our system even called healthcare? This nurse is assumed to be the “sane” care provider, while it’s obvious that she suffers from her own delusions.

Wang reveals again and again through her own encounters with the medical system that treatment for mental health operates on many tiers. Our individual experiences are modulated by the treatment we have access to and the healthcare systems we navigate. But so much about our experiences also comes down to personal interactions: the nurse who is attentive or stretched too thin. The dismissive doctor or the practitioner with a vested interest in isolating a difficult-to-pin-down diagnosis. Wang recognizes the importance of perception, and her role in what she signals to her providers. Her history as a fashion blogger helps her here. Again, I’m thinking of the Theory of the Young-Girl. The skills of manipulating her appearance, of the performance of everyday life (à la Erving Goffman) are inherent to her way of defining self. She’s very sophisticated in her presentation, in her appearance, and to be able to gauge how she will appear to someone else. She’s an expert navigator, generally able to recognize the difference between her perception and reality, and she’s largely able to see where these points converge. Dressing to impress or to seduce or to signal that she’s ill—it’s all about appearances.

Wang can pass as neuronormative in society and she’s aware of this, that this gives her autonomy and power and respect that’s not afforded to those who are less able, lower functioning, less intelligent. However, Yale wasn’t compassionate when Wang became incapacitated and was admitted to the psych ward. Wang’s expulsion, resulting from her psychiatric hospitalizations, and Yale’s later refusal to readmit her is shocking. It sends a striking message about how her mental illness stigmatized her, even after it was controlled.

Self-worth is an obsession that haunts Wang throughout the book. She often highlights her credentials as if she needs to prove herself to her audience. As if the reader needs a reminder that her capacities are far vaster than her diagnosis. As if she needs to remind herself of her self-worth. She says more than once that having gone to Yale is a signifier of her value. Similarly, she makes sure to remark during a speaking engagement that she went to a “prestigious university”: “That phrase, ‘prestigious university,’ was there to underscore my kempt hair, the silk dress, my makeup, the dignified shoes. It said, ‘What I am about to disclose to you comes with a disclaimer.’ I didn’t want my audience to forget that disclaimer when I began to talk about believing, for months at a time, that everyone I love is a robot.” Her emphasis on these external markers can be frustrating to someone who doesn’t buy into the institutional prestige machine, that credentials make for valuable people. And yet, I empathize with Wang’s need to demonstrate her value by reminding us of the intrinsic value of her personhood.

This focus on value is not coincidental. As Tiqqun writes, value is the standard measure of self, and that this image must be perpetuated and sold.  “The Young-Girl would thus be the being that no longer has any intimacy with herself except as value, and whose every activity, in every detail, is directed toward self-valorization. At each moment, she affirms herself as the sovereign subject of her own reification.” Wang’s personhood and intelligence has been devalued by her diagnosis—by the academy, by the healthcare system, by society—and so she reasserts her value again and again. But what about lower-functioning schizophrenics? What does this mean for those who don’t have a Yale admission? Wang speaks within this system of value, rather than questioning why she feels she must.

Without Wang’s delusions and hallucinations, which at times result in incapacitation, she would appear to be living a wildly successful version of a life. She is impeccable on paper—with a psychology degree from Stanford and an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her accolades include being anointed one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and winning a Whiting Award for her nonfiction. She married her college sweetheart who she met during her first tumultuous year at Yale. On the surface, she’s the epitome of achievement.  As Katie Rose Guest Pryal states, disability must be made invisible in the mood memoir. In this sense, it’s no surprise that Wang’s narrative has been embraced by People and the Today show. She demonstrates without fail how she’s an exceptional person. That Wang is exceptional is part of why it’s easy for the media, and the public at large to embrace her narrative, and her disability. Guest Pryal writes: “The rhetoric of these memoirs “tends to remove the stigma of disability from the author, leaving it in place for other individuals with the condition in question.”  So this is the trickle down theory of uplift.

4.
Wang knows mental illness is in her genetic make-up, with her mad great-aunt and her mother’s cousin who committed suicide and her mother, who at one point suggested that she and her daughter kill themselves together. Perhaps mental illness is also environmentally triggered, triggered through trauma. Wang encounters a neurologist who says that one day all mental illness will be linked to autoimmune disorders. Wang has flare-ups that appear with a fever, without a trigger, and she seeks answers, a cure. She wonders if late-stage Lyme disease could be a culprit—while also admitting that Lyme disease is a “belief system” of its own.  Late-stage Lyme is difficult to pin down, with many diffuse symptoms in people who often otherwise appear well. What they share is, “desperation based in suffering, and based on a system of conventional medicine that not only has no method of alleviating that suffering, but also accuses us of psychosomatic pathology.”

This accusation of psychosomatic pathology is no stranger to the sick girl. Think of hysteria of the old days and the water cure. Women with illness are viewed as less reliable narrators. Women with pain are more likely than men to be prescribed sedatives; they experience pain longer in the ER before being given an analgesic. Women experience the majority of chronic pain and yet the majority of pain studies focus on men’s pain. To be taken seriously the sick girl must appear ill, and if ill then also weak, and if weak, then she is less likely to be taken seriously. It’s a loop that’s easy enough to enter but difficult to emerge from healed.

Late-stage Lyme sufferer Porochista Khakpour is a friend of Wang’s and they seek Lyme treatment together in Santa Fe, N.M. Khakpour is also an author of a sick girl narrative, the aptly titled Sick, which explores her confluence of afflictions: addiction, depression, and late stage Lyme. Khakpour is a self-confessed sick girl of many kinds. “People ask me for advice, and I tell them to look elsewhere…I am not the poster girl for wellness,” she writes. “I am a sick girl. I know sickness. I live with it. In some ways, I am keeping myself sick.”

It’s impossible to isolate Khakpour’s symptoms as related to her individual illnesses. Her depression, addiction, and neurological  deficits from late-stage Lyme intermingle. She’s lived in exile most of her life, a child of the Iranian Revolution, whose family sought political asylum in the U.S. She writes that she’s never felt at home in the world. This alienation plays its own role in the manifestation of her illness. Her community has failed her, and now the medical industry is failing her again. They will be her audience, however, as long as she can pay them. Tiqqun writes, “The Young-Girl mortified her flesh in order to take revenge on Biopower and the symbolic violence to which the spectacle subjects it. The distress she exhibits overwhelmingly reveals, in its former aspect of unshakeable positivity, sexual pleasure as the most metaphysical of physical pleasures.” Khakpour’s photo, face forward, wearing a nasal oxygen cannula, would not be on the cover of the book if there weren’t enacting a form of seduction while playing up her sick girl visage.

She had originally planned to write a book with more of a conventional narrative arc, one of recovery and triumph, where she heals herself. It’s wishful thinking as this isn’t the path her chronic illness takes. Instead, it persists and she continues to seek medical care, and her life is a revolving door of practitioners who want to help, who try to help, who are quacks, who are incompetent, who lack time, who lack compassion.

I admire how Khakpour allows the unforeseen progression of her illness to reshape and muddy the conventional arc she’d planned. She follows it down its rabbit hole. This narrative off-roading, if you will, “reminded [her] that illness will always be with you as long as life is with you. And tragedy will be with you too.”  Khakpour’s multiple diagnoses have presentations that aren’t necessarily discrete from each other, that bleed into each other. It’s complicated. The comorbidity of mood disorder and late-stage Lyme, which some write off as “psychosomatic” doesn’t help her come off as a reliable narrator within the healthcare system.  She deserves and needs a sensitive and knowledgeable practitioner to suss out the etiologies of her pain. She can afford this, at times. But also, her medical expenses exceed her resources and she must rely on a GoFundMe, to offset her debts—a system that relies on the generosity of others, their compassion and empathy and call to action. Her narrative extends validation to others who are suffering without acknowledgment, but her story also validates her own suffering. As Khakpour writes: “And the deal with so many chronic illness is that people won’t believe you. They will tell you that you look great, that it might be in your head only, that is likely stress, that everything will be okay. None of these things are the right things to say to someone whose entire existence is a fairly consistent torture of the body and mind.”

One of the sick girl’s biggest challenges is having practitioners take her pain seriously. If her presentation of symptoms is evasive, non-specific, she must act the role of the weak woman in need of help. Her sickness doesn’t conform to the physician’s diagnoses, there are no effective treatments for post-treatment Lyme disease, i.e. the symptoms of Lyme disease that persist after a course of antibioitcs. Even the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s resources state a skepticism regarding symptoms that remain post-treatment. The sick girl is solipsistic because the system forces her to be preoccupied with her body, and she is preoccupied because she is suffering. She must follow her pain, listen to her intuition, in order to receive attention and care, to seek and find relief. And the general  disbelief from the system, when doctors don’t clearly see the results they’re looking for, turns on her itself. The sick girl questions her sanity. Khakpour makes too many ER visits to keep track of, seeks referrals and opinions, tries alternative therapies that cost up to $1000 a day. Think of all the energy her illness requires. Think of the monetary drain. Think of her adjunct’s salary and what she can afford. What she can’t afford. How she barely has the time or energy to teach. She’s not a model of health, but she deserves to be seen by doctors and followed by a team of healthcare providers. She deserves to have her pain taken seriously and a Lyme disease assay to be taken when it’s first suggested. This is not the story she lives out. This is not the system available in our country.

Without capital, without Biopower, without a man’s body, without a neuronormative mind there is less care available than there should be.  I wish we were closer to creating a network of support more focused on sustaining health than on the accrual of wealth, but wishing isn’t enough when it comes to one’s health. The repetition of chronic illness, of seeking help, of having to advocate to receive good care, is maddening. The industry thrives on it. And other industries also feed off it, including publishing, including the propagation of the sick girl and her narratives. So much is about what is made visible. One thing is sure: the suffering is real, and continues. As Wang stated, she doesn’t ever expect to be cured, and through our experiences we come to see ourselves anew: “I …do not consider it possible to ever be completely free of the schizophrenias. They have been with me for too long, I think, to be obliterated, unlike these more recent ailments, which feel like part of the wrong narrative, and make me wonder how many different types of sick girl I can be.”

Image credit: Unsplash/ Lacie Slezak.

I Don’t Want So Smooth a Shape: The Millions Interviews Laura Adamczyk

Laura Adamczyk’s stories are not for the faint of heart. Her stories involve sisters and estranged fathers and young men and women attempting to remake themselves, those “who commit to no life even [their] own,” there are lovers both potential and unrequited who are truckers and Lincoln scholars and La Quinta managers. They are filled with adults who are preoccupied with their own affairs or who aren’t to be trusted, and who fail or die regardless. Their children are forced into weighty situations and who, despite shared experiences, emerge with divergent memories and traumas.

Hardly Children‘s stories read as innocuous enough at first—yet as they unfurl this becomes questionable, ominous, the fissures become wider. These aren’t redemption narratives. Rather, they’re keenly observant and aware and unapologetic for this. Their narrators attempt to control their relationship to disappointment, to eke out a space and identity to call their own, however idiosyncratic. It’s as if entering American Gothic, you emerge from Saturn Devouring His Son. The stories in this volume have lingered with me long after most fictions do, haunting my psyche in unexpected ways. I spoke with Laura via email about her stories, their intricate structures, their ‘terrible characters,’ discomfort, and the new dirty real.

The Millions: With regard to writers, who are your idols, compatriots, agitators, influences? What short stories or collections do you return to again and again?

Laura Adamczyk: Édouard Levé, Lucia Berlin, Toni Morrison, Joy Williams, Diane Williams, Borges, early Michael Ondaatje. Denis Johnson’s short stories, Because They Wanted To and Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill, Esther Stories by Peter Orner. “The School” by Donald Barthelme, “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates.

TM: I’ve recently been deeply immersed in the works of Ali Smith, and in her book Artful she remarks that short stories are about brevity and the shortness of life and in this way their sense of time is elastic, while novels are about continuance and attached to the trappings of their time. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on stories and time, especially with regard to the way your stories will make striking leaps in time and perspective that refract and shift the reader’s awareness of the central action.

LA: I think I agree with what Smith says, as hesitant as I may be to make any overarching pronouncements about what one can and cannot do in stories vs. novels. But because of their brevity, short stories do have more of a mandate to make sharp turns if an author wants to expand the scope with regards to time. There’s no expectation that a story will have as encompassing a blanket as a novel.

I can’t say these leaps in time are something I think about intentionally while first writing a story—say, as in “The Summer Father” or “Girls.” It’s much more associative to the story’s prevailing timeline, but once I realize what I’m doing, I make it more strategic. Jumping forward here and there, but not everywhere. It works better as an accent, I think. Equal parts past and present, or present and future, would make things too even. I don’t want so smooth a shape. It’s a nice little trick, really. It often seems like the freedom of writing novels is that anything at all can be included—it’s a freedom of excess. With stories, that anything-goes sense must happen more pointedly. I can make big moves in stories, but maybe only once, and quickly.

TM: Perhaps this is part two of the above: You and I have discussed writing short stories versus the endeavor of writing novels and as I recall you had some very smart things to say about the ways story writing differs from novel writing, especially when it comes to structure. Do you consider yourself an architect of your stories? Are you methodical in configuring them? And to what extent do urgency and abandon come into play?

LA: Form and structure take more control in some of my stories than others. It’s nice when that happens because structure can be something I struggle with. It’s a relief when I come upon something like the conceit for “Gun Control,” for instance. That was maybe one of the most fun stories in the collection to write, despite the subject matter. I did a lot of free associating, just writing down whatever as it came—the opposite of how I usually write. In that story, a pattern eventually emerged, and I went back and shaped it. But it’s often hard for me to get into so free, so playful of a space. For other stories, the form and structure feel a lot less intentional, like I’m stacking one thing on top of the other until it’s as tall as it needs to be but solid enough not to fall over. Sometimes it’s just like, Am I done? I think I’m done. But I’m always working under the mandate that the story should never be longer than necessary. Like reducing fractions—get it all the way down.

TM: Hardly Children is such an apt title for this collection. The title comes from a story about children who are becoming adults in a time when boys in the community are being murdered by bands of men—at first this premise seems a bit mythic (and reminiscent of Stephen King’s It) but then a protest scene becomes anchored as the list of dead boys’ names are called out. At that point the scene changes utterly, evoking the Black Lives Matter protests and the ever tragic and growing list of boys and young men killed by police. Children don’t find refuge in these stories—there’s always fear or terror or some unnamed unknowable danger or loss lurking just beyond and the adults have ambivalence towards children too. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the children in these stories and what the title means to you.

LA: For me, the title points to two things: children thrown into adult situations, into peril, and often stunted adults acting in childish ways, in a manner that we might not consider fully adult. I think the ways these children and adults overlap has to do with language. There’s often a threat lurking, even if it’s as yet unknown. But neither the children nor the adults form language around their trauma or fears: the children because they are not yet able, and the adults because they’re too afraid to do so, because they’d rather ignore or bury those fears.

In the context of that story, “hardly children” is also a way to disparage those victimized, the same way young black victims of police violence or young (often) female victims of sexual violence, for instance, are made to seem older than they are, more dangerous, more adult, and therefore somehow deserving of their terrible fates. They’re hardly children, hardly angels. It’s an attempt by those in power to justify the horrible things they do to vulnerable individuals.

TM: Tolstoy’s adage, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” applies to your stories in the most delicious ways: the tensions and refuges of sisterhood, the experience of being a child captive within a family and its circumstances. The precision with which this dystopia is captured is unique—like in “The Summer Father,” where the middle daughter fleetingly feels joy and of wanting it “so bad but knowing it as something that will peak and then flow away.” Also, in that story, the youngest sister is consoled by sleeping with a tiny (and I imagine unwieldy) toy vacuum. What draws you to exploring the boredom, despair, hatred, affections, and airlessness even, of these circumstances?

LA: Most generally, I think what draws me to these circumstances is that family is not chosen. You have absolutely no control over who your parents are, who your siblings are, etc. Later in life, people can certainly seek out and create their own, separate families—friends, lovers, co-workers, political comrades, etc.—and can shed their biological families if they want to, but most of your childhood isn’t up to you; your family, for good and ill, isn’t your choice. It’s interesting to me to see how those people relate to each other over time, the way they can move closer together and further apart. More specifically, more personally, I’m drawn to such circumstances because, well, I’ve had those circumstances. I have two sisters with whom my relationship has transformed and shifted. And I have a lot of specific memories of and with them to draw from. Camping and bickering and dancing and talking and not talking, etc.

TM: The narrators of these stories are always onlookers, often grasping—through memory, interjection—to understand their circumstances and/ or claim their distance. Perhaps what I’m drawn to most is how your female protagonists are self-aware and uncomfortable and are utterly unapologetic for this. What role does discomfort have in your fiction, in these depictions of family, and is it a source of feminine strength?

LA: I once heard that those who can’t act observe. That might sound reductive, but it’s at least partially true for some of these characters. A lot of them either can’t act or don’t feel like they can, so they see, they notice. It’s adaptive, to become a sort of supreme noticer, and I believe there is a certain power, and yes, a feminine power, in that—to see and try to make sense of what you see. Because women are so often expected to be caretakers, to keep their distance, to let the discomfort lie, is a way of rejecting those expectations. But that’s also a generous way of seeing some of these characters. Many of them just can’t handle engaging more fully, so they seek out spaces of their own, which often tips them into isolation.

TM: Considered together, the stories in Hardly Children echo some kind of Dirty Realism—definitely the female and finer half (like Bobbie Ann Mason, Angela Carter, and Jayne Anne Phillips, who were included in Bill Buford’s genre-defining issue of Granta). In Buford’s intro he quotes Phillips to say their stories consider “how things fall apart and what is left when they do.”  In this case perhaps Hardly Children is next-generation dirty—saucier, dirtier, and darker, not just witness to, but unafraid to protest? To what extent have the dirty realists shaped your thinking for or against the short story? I’d like to say these stories are also riddled with something like Lispector’s passion and Kristeva’s abjection. In what ways do you hope to break open the form?

LA: There are times when I can remember exactly what I was reading when I wrote something, but short of that I have a hard time either directly placing myself alongside or diverting from other writers. So frequently the challenge is just to get something down that means something to me and that might mean something to others. It’s hard to see yourself sometimes, you know? That having been said, I read a lot of those writers as I was coming up, and have absorbed that style to such an extent—I put a similar value on the dirt and the gunk, the specific detail—that it’s very much a part of me. It’s like a French cook trying to verbalize the influence Julia Child had on their food. For so many, she’s the standard. I told a friend I wish I could strip away specific memories and experiences so that I could view my work more objectively to see what I really think of it. But objectivity is impossible, especially if you’re the object.

TM: What lure does the Midwestern landscape hold for you?

LA: Even though it’s a cliché, I appreciate the blankness. I like the feeling of characters being left with only their terrible selves.

A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

The year began with Mexican beaches and ceviche and morning yoga during a much-needed sanctuary from Chicago winter and the latent anxiety that was plaguing me. This was an ideal setting to engage in the drama of someone else’s fucked-up life and fraught desire—perhaps I was seeking catharsis of some kind? Well, if so Elizabeth Ellen’s auto-fictional novel Person/a, provided it. Person/a is a tale of a once-requited turned unrequited love cum obsession, accompanied by a crumbling marriage (no surprise) and self-imposed isolation. The novel includes emails and chat sessions and text messages and almost like a preface, rejections to Ellen’s manuscript queries. It’s all so wonderfully messy and unnerving, it feels like it shouldn’t hold but it does. In an age where I Love Dick has been subsumed by the mainstream, Person/a still reads as raw and suppurating. Fleur Jaeggy’s I am the Brother of XX didn’t fare as well at the beach. No fault of the book that the sun was too adamant, the breeze too gentle for its dark melancholia, its haute cynicism. It’s better read on a bleak winter day, when the air is already laced with desperation. I am not sure how one writes so beautifully about melancholy, how to make envy so alluring, and yet Jaeggy’s a master.
 

Obsession runs through yet another favorite — Lynne Tillman’s Men and Apparitions is an obsessive’s compendium. The sprawling novel contains anthropological disquisitions on photography and our cultural inundation in images, and ends with the narrator Zeke’s attempt to delineate the new masculinity belonging to the sons of second wave feminists. Zeke’s survey on the “New Man” ends the novel, with questions Tillman had posed to male subjects accompanied by a selection of answers. Tillman’s choice to open the novel to a survey of voices conjures a conversation from Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, where the narrator argues that novels are not very good at conjuring our contemporary reality and that documentary fiction, such as Svetlana Alexeivich’s “novels in voices” seem to do a much better job.
 
Despite my skepticism about any dog-centric story (the dog here being the narrator’s inheritance from the titular dead friend), The Friend became my constant companion for a few short days. Nunez plays with the conceit of the novel in a way that brings the “truth” of the main narrative into question, it’s a wonderfully surprising turn, and that’s as much as I’ll say to avoid spoiling it.
 

Many of the novels that stayed with me hijacked my expectations of what a novel is or can do. Dubravka Ugresic’s novel Fox was sly enough to seemingly shift forms while reading. I knew it was a novel going in, and yet by the time I was in the thick of it I questioned this until I was assured the book was definitively nonfiction. But then there were moments that gave me pause — such as when on a butterfly hunt, Nabokov’s companion’s skirt flies up to reveal a butterfly resting on her pubis. What’s true and what’s not?  Fox is cunning and places this ambiguity at the forefront, for the novel is  concerned with what makes up a narrative and, specifically, how stories come to be written.
 

Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is nothing like Fox in its material — confronting a deep-seated ambivalence and desire about becoming a mother — and yet both books retool the novel’s form. Heti engages with the I Ching as a dialogic partner as she delves into an inquiry about whether Sheila and Miles should have children, and with uncanny results. (Incredibly, Heti notes that the answers from her coin tosses have not been manipulated.) If you aren’t subsumed by the desire to have children, if you’re female and an artist and that window of opportunity is closing, how do you decide? Heti’s commitment to exhausting the question illuminates fears wedged in the crevices of my own mind, such as how can you be both writer and mother without some type of neglect or resentment towards one or both roles? (which I know isn’t true, and yet…)
 

I picked up Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks while visiting family in a small coastal town in Oregon, a town serendipitously much like the one where the book is set. Being there I felt even more subsumed by the lush language and descriptions of the coast and dense forest, and was in awe of the nearly mystical powers possessed by herbalist abortionist whose power is derived from her knowledge the natural surroundings. Also, I was delighted to learn that ‘red clock’ means ‘womb’.
 

Delight is  just the word I’d use to describe reading Sabrina Orah Mark’s story collection Wild Milk, whose tales are surreal and playful and seem deceptively simple despite their profound linguistic and imaginative play. Rita Bullwinkell’s collection Belly Up is just as playful and profound, though her stories delve deeper and darker. They floor me with unexpected turns, slippages into the surreal, and their vast emotional registers.
 

I’m a little late to the party, as everyone’s championing Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel, but I just encountered her Find Me this summer. I read it twice, and became obsessed with its own obsessions with memory and loss and what’s inaccessible, its esoteric theories about immunity to the ongoing epidemic, and the fracturing effects of trauma and absence. On Joy’s ever-meandering bus ride, all seems like a dream: the bus is never heading where she thinks, she keeps getting deterred on her way. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for life, or perhaps she’s she lost her mind? I love that both readings seem plausible.
 

Unlike Joy, Sequoyah in Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking knows where his mother is (she’s incarcerated); though like Joy he’s suffered abuse and has been shuffled through the foster system. He’s so tender and adrift, but finds connection in his relationship to his older foster sister Rosemary, and their shared Native American heritage. They’re all so flawed and awkward and completely alive on the page.
 

The dead do talk in Shelley Jackson’s Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children. It’s an enigma of a novel about a boarding school for stuttering children whose impediment, or rather, gift, allows them to effectively speak the dead’s voices . The novel is a linguistic and imaginative feat, as well as a gorgeous object to behold. Interspersed between chapters is documentation of artifacts, images, and illustrations, which only an imagination as wonderfully freaky as designer Zach Dodson could pull off. Is it a cliche to say it’s enchanting? Though Riddance’s main obsession is with a murder mystery, at its core it’s also a philosophical consideration of translation and writing, and the voices that exist beyond the grave.

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Image and Appropriation: On Lynne Tillman’s ‘Men and Apparitions’

How many times have I checked my Instagram feed since I attempted to start writing this review? I have lurked on the Internet and seen sulking selfies and sultry men posing with plants and a green glow framed in darkness; I have witnessed cats playing with a Ping-Pong ball, a humble brag shot of mail received and photo “memories” of past AWPs. With Wi-Fi always at the ready, we are armed during our waking hours with iPhones and Androids and multitudes of screens; we are inundated in images like no age previously. We are the “Picture People,” “addicted to images, in all their varieties,” declares Ezekiel “Zeke” Hooper Stark, cultural ethnographer, sufferer of indecision, New Man, middle son, and protagonist of Lynne Tillman’s grand and sprawling new novel, Men and Apparitions.

What does it mean to come of age amongst this glut of images, and how does this alter the way we as a culture perceive? This is one of two central questions asked in Tillman’s Men and Apparitions. As a 38-year-old man, Zeke is situated on the cusp of multiple transitions—from the analog to the digital, from dark room to Polaroid to cell phone selfie. In his lifetime a photo has gone from a way of remembering and memorializing to a throwaway—something evanescent. Zeke is old enough to have a childhood immortalized in the family photo album yet young enough to be fully fluent with digital media. New media’s proliferation has brought about a more fluid and abundant display of images, expanding possibilities of self, and notably, with regard to the “Men” in the novel’s title, new tropes of masculinity. We’ve gone from the iconic tough cowboy of a Marlboro Man, then appropriated by Richard Prince, re-appropriated by Brokeback Mountain’s gay lovers, and by now signals of masculinity have morphed somewhat, though not entirely.

Another transition to consider: Zeke is one among a generation of sons of second-wave feminists who have matured into adulthood. The second central question of Men and Apparitions is how has their idea of masculinity expanded, and has it expanded in commensurate ways? The answer is murky. Zeke doesn’t question the way he performs tropes of masculinity, the way he is on autopilot, with his wife and his advancing academic career, until he encounters personal failure and betrayal. His wife leaves him for his best friend, triggering a crisis (he has dissociative amnesia, wanders Europe, tells people he’s Henry Adams). This rending makes real something he already knew intellectually, that identity is fluid not static. And he starts to discover his depths, to discover his true work, doing investigative work to explore and define this new masculinity, what he calls the “New Man.” Photography plays a role in this redefinition too, Tillman implies through Zeke: “To perform gender there must be an image to base it upon: this is who a woman sits, this is how a man walks.” If nothing else in this book is clear, we are performing ideas of ourselves all of the time.

Zeke is obsessed with photographs, especially their role in forming and reifying identity. In his work as a cultural ethnographer, he analyzes relationships in family photographs—birth order, gender relations, and how this is portrayed, i.e. “how does that ‘fact’ become an image for the family?” Through Zeke we learn of his family’s obsessions: of his mother’s intense connection to her ancestry through their images, of his hatred for his insensitive brother Bro Hart (oldest), and the selective mutism of Little Sister (youngest), with whom Zeke feels a quiet and robust solidarity. We learn of their family propensity to depression and suicide through Zeke’s meandering mental cataloging, just as we learn of his ex-wife’s immunity to failure, and of the nearly mythological status of ancestor Clover Hooper Adams, wife of Henry. And yet it’s striking that in this novel so focused on images, filled with images even, we don’t ever “see” Zeke, either through his perceptions of the physical world or through photographs. While I’m inclined to interpret a photomontage before the final section as Zeke’s personal collection, and wish some of these faces to be his, it’s never defined as such. Certainly my desire to “see” Zeke influences my reading, and the novel’s consideration of images and interpretation leads me to question why I want this. That somehow this “fact” of Zeke’s existence would confirm my own intuitions. As if he weren’t a fictional character. As if the photo were evidence. As it is, we only see through him, and rarely if ever glimpse the physical world around him.

Zeke, however, does describe and analyze the expressions and posturing and framing in photos, and some are included in the text. Early on he describes a series of photographs by Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, and specifically, one of a child standing in a crib on the lawn of a suburban house: “The picture was shot from the child’s POV, from behind his head, so the shot was low to the ground. The child looked out from his crib, the view was cone-shape, of street, houses, a car. It was a child’s eye-view, a Christina’s world. A new theoretical world, with a new eye wide open.” This description provides a key to understanding the reader’s relationship to Zeke, and Tillman’s as author. I couldn’t help but read this as a nod to Tillman as author/photographer who turns the reader’s gaze toward the world with a Zeke’s eye-view, or rather, to witness through Zeke’s filter of a mind, which is analytic, punny, and always thinking.

It’s an authorial wink, too. Tillman has written male narrators before, though her only novel from a male perspective is an older gay man in Cast in Doubt. Women authors write men all of the time, and vice versa. What’s striking in this instance is the intimacy of voice, and Zeke’s focus on defining masculinity, his intent of reappropriating Henry James’s feminist ideal of the 19th-century’s self-made New Woman (Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer, for example) to define the 21stt century’s New Man. Or rather: Henry James wrote in drag then; Tillman is doing it now, inquiring into the status of the New Man as a second-wave feminist. Gender is performance. Writing it is too. It makes me wonder, too, what nuances Tillman as a woman perceives, what she misses too. The attempt is certainly ambitious.

Much of the book’s first section is a Roland Barthes-like disquisition about the image, all from Zeke’s point of view. It includes a consideration of images and photos scattered throughout the text. Zeke states: “Images don’t mean as words mean, though people (and I) apply words to them.” However, these images are very much a kind of language too: a transmission of postures and facial expressions and gestures and framing; they tell stories, of identities, of the eye behind the camera’s lens, of pasts, of inheritance, of how we are seen and how we wish to be seen. The photograph creates and reinforces mythologies and narratives, about members of a family or a social group and their interrelationships. It makes me think of the four Brown sisters, photographed by Nicholas Nixon every year for more than 40 years. Always standing in the same order, with subtle changes in their gestures and faces and expressions; the most striking changes are in appearances: haircuts or a change in weight. The series captures their relationships over time and forms an intimate story. While the Fox sisters aren’t mentioned by Zeke, he traffics in contemporary photography and culture (riffing on O.J. Simpson, the Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner, Bernie Madoff, John Cage) and a network of 19th-century Americans associated with Clover Adams (Henry Adams, the James brothers, etc., etc.)

As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, “All images appropriate.” Zeke too considers appropriation in many dimensions: how we fall in love with projections, our aspirational branding and signification. He doesn’t state this directly, but this fantasy of transformation is the foundation of the American Dream: “Portraits of selves reside inside or beside portraits of desirable or desired others, too. The other’s desired life is a fashion or style, there is no inner to the outer-wear. Fashion and style rule because the shopper assumes the style of the designer and imagines it’s his or her own. When in fact he or she is merely branded. (See Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.)”

Erving Goffman is a touchstone for Zeke, as are Sigmund Freud and Clifford Geertz and a smattering of cultural anthropologists and thinkers, but it’s through Goffman and his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that he considers performative qualities we bring to the daily interactions that define us. In effect, Zeke confirms Goffman who confirms the old Shakespearean adage—“The world’s a stage” — in that the roles we play and the way we convey (and betray) ourselves is a choice, or a repetition. Habits, they make you. Or they become you. A disruption can also change you. As Zeke remarks at the beginning of Men and Apparitions, he’s been conjugating breakfast for his entire life. It seems relevant here to tie in Tillman’s writing on the gaze and the desire in Cindy Sherman’s photos, from an essay in The Complete Madame Realism:

[Sherman’s] photographs are not about her. They are about us. Human beings want to look at themselves, and the ubiquity of the camera and its photographic products demonstrates that obsession. People construct ways to look at themselves and others. It is an incessant desire, impossible to satisfy, which creates more pictures. Humans stare at each other longingly, or with disgust, anxiety, curiosity. People watch people, as if everyone might live in a zoo or be a zookeeper…Sherman’s art registers the restlessness of people to see who they are, or who they might be or become. And what will happen to them.

Tillman, through Zeke, is not asking how should a person be or how does the world look, but rather, how does a person become? And how do images complicate these notions of ourselves and this desire to become someone else?

Zeke’s rhythm of thinking, his patois, his clipped observations, his tendency to employ maxims evoke a far different mind than the narrator of Tillman’s previous novel, American Genius, A Comedy, whose smooth recursive thoughts loop back on themselves, riffing on skin, memory, and American history. And yet, what unites their voices is Tillman’s commitment to writing the drifts and vagaries of the mind, attempting to capture the generation of ideas on the page, and to stay with them over an extended period of time—here for nearly 400 pages. The depths Tillman plumbs seem almost paradoxical to a novel so intensely focused on surfaces and photography. It’s as if Tillman is acknowledging that life is life, but the active life occurs in the interface with the mind. Thinking is life. Zeke’s inaction or as he puts it, his “Hamlet disease,” is pitted against a multitude of photographic surfaces. Zeke’s depth begs the question, how does coming to know Zeke through voice differ from knowing him through an Instagram feed? And do the profusion of images surrounding him threaten depth of character, as in, will our surfeit of images lead us to understand, or “see” character or personality differently? Think of the balderdash on Twitter, the sound bites, the seduction of social media feeds, selfies. The fragmentation already.

The novel ends in fragmentation. A field study, “Men in Quotes,” was performed and collected and arranged by Zeke, but his observations merely order the responses by subjects interviewed about their roles, their love lives, their relationship to masculinity. Of the largely heterosexual pool, some are confused, some admit to repeating their fathers’ lechery, some admit to desiring partners who are equals and more independent than their mothers, some aren’t mystified by women while others still are. Zeke articulates his idea of the New Man as a reappropriation of James here. too, but with a twist:
Guyville in Jeopardy: The New Man is analogous to Henry James’s New Woman, but change for him isn’t about his greater independence; it’s about recognizing his interdependence, with a partner, in my study, usually female, even dependence on her…He must recognize different demands and roles for him, and for her. A New Man must investigate the codes that make him masculine, and the models for hetero-normative behavior. And make him who he is or was, make him what he never believed had been ‘made.’
This new awareness of interdependence between sexes seems all the more timely, and fragile too, given the resurgence of the strong man, partially as backlash to this new masculinity. As this recent headline in The Guardian states, there’s a crisis in modern masculinity. This too is shifting, not set. “We think we can be whatever we want to be,” says one subject in Zeke’s field study.

“Men in Quotes” is a collection of observations more than a summation, and it’s meaningful that the voices are not mediated through Zeke. It’s also curious to note how this section nods to the final chapter of Susan Sontag’s On Photography—“A Brief Anthology in Quotations”—which collates an assortment of quotations relating to photography; this in itself nods to Walter Benjamin’s cataloguing of quotations documenting the shift to modernity in Paris in The Arcades Project.

Earlier in On Photography Sontag observes, “A photograph could also be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations.” Men and Apparitions, then, appropriates Sontag’s linguistic equivalent of the photo album with “Men In Quotes,” and in doing so marks its own shift in voice. Ending the novel with prismatic voices speaking to the many facets of the New Man is a deliberate opening of form to other voices, and quite literally, too. The responses from interview subjects are in fact responses to questions Tillman posed to a small survey of  interlocutors identifying as male, age 25 to 45, and “Men in Quotes” features a glimpse at their candid responses with Tillman’s Zeke acting as a guide. Could this making room for other voices also mark a shift towards a new form of novel? It opens up possibilities. The gesture expands upon a form used in David Shields’s Reality Hunger and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, where the proximity and ordering of quotations creates a narrative of its own. Like setting images side by side. Like in the best books, where readers’ imaginations are coaxed to leap. Men and Apparitions is a loose and beautiful baggy monster of a novel that opens in on itself like a fun house hall of mirrors. What a tremendous experience it is to walk through, never quite sure who’s who or what you’re looking at.

A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

2017, I resented you and your Twitter feeds, the obscenity of your news stream. The skyrocketing of petulance and greed. The normalization of hate. It was a year of half-read books: too difficult to concentrate. But books, they were also, for me, bright stars against the dark night of our political nadir. Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book tore a hole in my soul. A semi-autobiographical novel about the break-up of a marriage: think Scenes from a Marriage, think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? set with West Virginia as its backdrop. The sad, clever, and at times woefully misguided Scott chronicles the fallout of his marriage to Sarah, ICU nurse and self-appointed caretaker of helpless things. It’s a sad beautiful song of bleakness and alienation lined with sunbursts of tenderness and redemption.

I loved Jess Arndt’s slender gem of a story collection, Large Animals, for its ways of seeing. Arndt’s uncanny observations give life to desire, to despair, to the smallest things. In her stories, the mundane is drawn anew—waves appear “like sandwich foil that had been crumpled up and hucked away,” a refrigerator’s shelves, like a rib cage. The embodied sensuality lies in stark contrast to the narrators’ struggles with the physical encumbrance of inhabiting a body with breasts, and fantasies and fears associated with having them surgically removed.

I’ve spent months teasing out relationships of teenage girls in my fiction, and sought out other fictions that depict the young girl with complexity: their surly, backbiting, tender, loyal, and vulnerable ways, the ferocity of their attachments. Megan Abbott’s Dare Me did this brilliantly well; I am loath to admit I so enjoyed a book about a team of high school cheerleaders, but, oh, I did. The girls are drawn with such intelligence and wit.

Edith-May, loner and protagonist of Coco Picard’s graphic novel Chronicles of Fortune would hate cheerleaders, I imagine, as much she hates bachelorette parties, and for this (and many other reasons) I adore her. “If I have to eat a penis lollipop I’ll die,” Edith-May tells her roommates (who consist of a mountain that’s grown in her city apartment and a crocodile she took in from the roof). Edith May’s superhero alter ego comes to life after the death of her mother, though she only appears at night and suffers from ennui. Together they encounter ghosts and healers and moth populations and find ways to grieve. Kate Zambreno’s powerful, lyric processing of her mother’s death in Book of Mutter is an artful encomium and stunning homage of a book that at its center conjures Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”  I’m in awe of Vivian Gornick as a thinker and reader and of her powers of observation with regard to the city (New York) and of her love/hate relationship with her mother in Fierce Attachments. I’m still not over Patty Yumi Cottrell’s beautiful and devastating Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, whose narrator returns home after her brother’s suicide in an  attempt to piece together his reasons and instead finds her parents inhospitable and in denial. And last in this line of loss is the first Elena Ferrante I’ve read—Days of Abandonment—consumed in what now seems like a prolonged summer haze.

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People is a brilliant book of interlinked stories that revel in wordplay, and that depict the lives of temporary workers in the UAE and their families and their interchangeable identities in the eyes of the state. In contrast, these characters are so vivid on the page—a woman tapes together workers who have fallen from tops of buildings; a son throws his grandfather’s ashes into a river; a suitcase sprouts legs, a man devours, and in devouring, becomes a plane. Dispensability is key, too, in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, which tracks a group of refugees housed in Berlin through the vantage point of their tutor, a recently retired college professor. We see Richard’s privileged life and its relative continuity (despite the fall of the Berlin Wall), his companionship of friends who are like family and have grown old with him, and the stark contrast this poses to the lives of the refugees he befriends and attempts to help. They’re survivors of genocide and oppression who escaped via harrowing journeys. They are  subject to bureaucracy without rights, subject to prejudice against their skin color and origins, shuffled at the whims of the state, condemned for the burden they pose while not being allowed to work or to settle there. The disregard for the men’s lives is staggering—as is their suffering, the ways state’s intercession only perpetuates the shuffle and undercuts their humanity. Go, Went Gone, is an important book. It’s impossible to read and not take a long, hard look at how we’re all implicated.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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An Inheritance of Lost Mothers

1. Observe. Akerman.
In Book of Mutter, Kate Zambreno writes of how she remembers her mother always cleaning, scrubbing the floor on hands and knees, the house her domain and her garden her reprieve. At the end of her life, when time was short, her mother laments how she had slaved for her family. Was cleaning a form of exorcism for her? Perhaps. Zambreno draws a parallel between domestic labor and the endless task of doing and undoing in art-making with a nod to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman as an example that encompasses both. It’s a three-hour film of a woman tending the kitchen, feeding her son, taking occasional gentleman callers — the housewife in her element as durational performance. Zambreno writes:
To be a housewife in the old mold, was to live by the rule of erasure. One day’s operating around pretending nothing occurred, no mark made. Ordering one’s life by rooms.
But also: Akerman refuted this role too. In her first film Saute Ma Ville (Blow Up My Town), she’s a young girl unskilled at domestic labors, making a mess in the kitchen, attempting to mop but absolutely not adept, pouring wine and eating spaghetti alone, humming to herself. A misfit in the kitchen, who lights the stove and lays down her head on the burner. The screen goes dark as it explodes. It’s an exorcism of domestic labors, a deathblow to housewifery, a desire to not just to walk away but to blow it all up.

Despite this domestic dismantling at the beginning of her career, Akerman continued to return to the home in her work. Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, primarily unfolds within the confines of her aging mother’s apartment, with the exception of scenes of landscape interspersed: trees flailing in the wind, the camera moving through seemingly endless barrenness. The film is a tribute to Akerman’s mother and her habitual space of existence. Through Akerman’s own restlessness and itinerancy, we see how she is anchored by her mother’s presence.

And so it’s important that Akerman films their Skype conversations. Her mother asks why she does this and Akerman responds, “I want to show there’s no distance in the world.” The film is a way to negate their inevitable distance approaching through death, to hold on, to make the present permanent.

The film captures the gradual but marked progression of Akerman’s mother’s physical decline over months, perhaps years. It captures their patois of shared intimacies and inside jokes, their mutual adoration, as her mother loses autonomy. Soon she can’t eat by herself or swallow her food. By the end she’s barely able to stay awake. Akerman with no home but her mother makes this chronicle of her physical decline even more devastating to witness.

At one point Akerman sets up the camera in a way that the image evokes a Mark Rothko with its swaths of color juxtaposed. There’s a wall, the door, and the sliver of room between, through which her mother’s body moves unaware of the camera’s eye. We hold onto this movement, watchful and meditative.

The end of the film is marked by a silence. The apartment empty, dark, hollow.

Akerman’s mother died shortly after the end of filming.

Months after the film’s release, Akerman committed suicide.

2. Absence. Rothko.
It is April, I am visiting the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. I am not sure why but I thought the chapel was a gallery and that the canvases would be more like those commissioned for the Four Seasons in his later period — the deep red hues fiery enough to envelop if not consume, the color of Henri Matisse’s decadent “Red Studio,” a color that inspired Rothko to become a painter.

But the chapel is a chapel and the 14 paintings here are a variation on black, muted, somber, meditative. They draw in the viewer in a more subtle way. It takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the chapel’s dimness — a pall pale in comparison to the tropical scene of palm trees, vivid blue sky, shrill bird calls, just beyond the doors.

The colors reveal themselves slowly — black in shades of charcoal gray soon take on distinct hues — muted purples and deep greens. The triptych hung at the back of the chapel begins to undulate as I gaze: gray skies, purple storm, dust clouds and through them a tower, disintegration, falling away. It’s not entirely different than looking into Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Nets,” the sense of dissolution and the eternal — all and nothingness.

I come to the chapel twice. The first time a meditative man sits in the center of the chapel, with a notebook before him. His body revolves from painting to painting in a clockwise fashion.

The next day I return and the man who had been in the center the day before now sits on a bench and periodically raises his arms, his legs. I sit on a cushion on the floor, with my back to the door, and I stare into the triptych again. Sitting here conjures a dream I had the night before: I’m standing in Lake Michigan, with water all I see before me, rising and choppy with storm, engulfment. The water drawn in the same hues as the paintings. I sense the possibility of drowning. But also, a raft.

Rothko conjures thoughts of my mother and of her absence. My mother is alive and yet I have struggled all my life with her absence, her depression, and mine, my fears of leaving her alone with her sadness even as a child. In some way it’s an inheritance of lost mothers — I the inheritor of her loneliness, as her mother was institutionalized when she was a young child. An affinity for Rothko is one of the few appreciations I’ve shared with my mother in my adult life. I think of this staring into the vast openness of the painting, the canvas like a black hole, falling into absence.

My aunt and mother visited me once during my years living in Brooklyn, and we went to see Red, John Logan’s play about Rothko’s life and work. I’ve come to equate Rothko’s later years with this play, this color that I was expecting to see here in the chapel. In the play, Rothko tells his assistant, “There’s only thing I fear in life…One day the black will swallow the red.” Perhaps it’s fitting that I’ve forgotten the black in favor of the red: the red was the play, the red was my mother so alive that night, touched by Rothko’s idealism and passion, his arrogance and melancholy, his discipline and rage. We both recognized some aspect of my father in his character, with mutual love and disdain. My mother was so present. It dawns on me now with distance that this darkness, this black of Rothko is also her, and more familiar than red.

3. Exorcism. Zambreno.
Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter is an elegy, an archive, a palimpsest of fragmented memory. The book is built around the absence of her mother, who died from lung cancer more than 10 years ago. Its writing is an act of exorcism, ostensibly, but as I read further, I realize it’s also a conjuring, a wish to make her mother’s absence present.

“What does it mean to write what is not here? To write an absence,” she wonders. She wrestles with the desire to conjure and in doing so, to purge; she struggles with its impossibility. It’s like walking through a series of empty rooms, once occupied, in an attempt to reinstate the former occupants. How to move forward? It’s a Beckettian dilemma: “…I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

When she writes “I would like to see the house on fire. The crowded theater of my mind,” she evokes Akerman’s doing so. She aligns her project with Louise Bourgeois’s Cells, specifically her “Cell (Choisy),” pictured on the cover of Book of Mutter: a white model of Bourgeois’s childhood home, set behind a fence, with a guillotine blade hanging just above — the severance imminent.  She quotes Bourgeois speaking of her artistic process:
To have really gone through an exorcism, in order to liberate myself from the past, I have to reconstruct it, ponder about it, make a statue out of it and get rid of it through sculpture.
This book is a repository of Akerman’s pondering and conjuring, which it seems becomes a process of accretion and erasure, not to rid but to write and to conjure again: “Over a decade now, my multiple attempts at reconstruction…”

It’s as if the book’s language has broken with the weight of sorrow. Just as when Zambreno first recalls her mother’s white dress worn to her graduation and can’t bring herself to write that this is the dress her mother is buried in, as if in doing so she would kill her again.

If Book of Mutter is darkness, intimate, fragile, poignant, a book of grappling with her mother’s death, it’s Zambreno’s first book, O Fallen Angel, that’s the exorcism, fiery with intellect and passion. A grotesque American Gothic — filled with vitriol for capitalism, for suburban comforts, for American solipsism. It’s a takedown of the Midwest archetype, reproductive futurism. and the hegemony of Mommy, dimwitted, fat-assed, always well-meaning. Mommy here is guillotined by cruelty and in this fairytale — she deserves it.

But from the beginning, Book of Mutter is already undone. The text is fragmented, blown open as the author struggles to articulate absence, to write a book with its central figure missing. We encounter Zambreno’s mother through pieces, assemblage — the contents of her purse (tissues, tobacco); the altar of her bathroom cabinet (Clinique lipsticks, powders, Vaselines); the photos (her mother in the floppy hat, with her ex-husband, “someone else’s wife”); their matching outfits.

The objects are talismans, just as her lists of female artists are potential surrogates. To find a narrative through art, through others, is one way to both elevate her mother and to share this loss, to make it closer to comprehensible. Like Sylvia Plath, like Anne Sexton, her mother a tragic figure. Like Roland Barthes, like Henry Darger, motherless, she mourns. Like Bourgeois, she attempts to break from it. But in the end nothing is “like” her mother’s death, nothing compares, nothing is or can replace her mother. It’s her loss, her grief, her own and tremendous. And yet, as author she also becomes a réalisatrice playing and replaying, flipping through her archive of memories, orchestrating —  like watching films again and again — attempting to extract an essence.

Zambreno casts her mother as lead, mysterious beauty, with cigarette, Coach purse, floppy hat. If she’s present here in literature, it seems there is the potential of moving on.

And all the while Zambreno asks, is this exorcism, like her mother’s cleaning, an endless pursuit? As readers we witness her interrogation of the art as she’s making, her purging alongside her memory’s refrain. It’s a mutual understanding she’s leading us through, an unearthing of how to continue while unable to. From Darger and Bourgeois she asks this too:
Was art for both of them — a form of exorcism, to be able to channel and control, their abandonment, their past?” A form of survival.

Encouraging People To Fail: The Millions Interviews Patty Yumi Cottrell

The first story of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s that I encountered was about a harsh school mistress chastising her students during a trip to the zoo. Her voice struck me as singular, her characters, haunted, abject, and captivating. They still do. But don’t take my word for it, read her “Young Robert,” read her “Peace.” She has said that when she writes she pictures herself “as a lonely old man who has just taken a room in a decrepit boardinghouse. He sits at a desk and tries to write himself out of the present moment. Anything can happen.” Yes, anything can and does happen in her stories, but also this lonely old man stands beyond time. There are switches of wood, bedbugs, and pitiable schoolmistresses. Her first novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, has garnered comparisons to Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, and Robert Walser.

Patty Yumi Cottrell and I spoke at length via email about her novel, her fascination with Thomas Bernhard’s houses, and the “grotesquely strange” human soul. For our correspondence, we agreed on a prearranged process: each message would be written after having taken a walk, and each message would contain an image. What follows are are the results.

Dear Patty,

Before my walk today I put on a jacket I haven’t worn in ages because it’s 70 degrees in February — in Chicago. I detest the long winters here and relish this interjection of warmth, but I also can’t escape how obscene it is to enjoy this first wave of global warming. When I put on the jacket, in the pocket I found a fortune from last year. It says “You will be awarded some great honor.” And I thought, what an auspicious beginning to our conversation. Of course I am thinking of your novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, and how each time I read the book it succeeds in both destroying me while making me laugh and my heart swells with empathy for Helen as she attempts to piece together the reasons behind her adoptive brother’s suicide. I’ve never read such a delightful yet devastating novel about suicide and loss. I would posit: I think Helen would hate the phrase “my heart swells” — she wouldn’t want it. I do think she wants to be seen, and she isn’t by her family. She is in her 30s, shares a cramped studio apartment in Manhattan with a roommate, and is estranged from her adoptive family. When her adoptive brother kills himself, her parents don’t reach out to her, they let her Uncle Geoff make the call and he emphasizes that no one expects her to come home for the funeral. She does return to Milwaukee, to seek out clues to her brother’s suicide, attempting to keep her grasp on the universe, it seems? She’s unhinged and, yes unreliable too, yet as I see it she’s perhaps the truest, sanest person in her family: unable or unwilling to play their games of social propriety, keeping up appearances, she’s blamed for not forging a connection. For her severity toward her family she was once called admiringly “a coldhearted bitch.” Perhaps this ability to tell the truth, or at least her truth, and cause (their) displeasure is where Helen is/was divergent from her adoptive brother?

Anne,

I like what you’ve said here. Thank you. I don’t know what’s the truth or insane or sane. I wrote the book in a state of feeling unhinged and uncertain about reality. Life was unraveling. In a way, it was the perfect moment to write a book. Or to begin writing.

Helen is a fairly resourceful character despite all of her flaws. Her investigation is about discovering the truth, but even that seems problematic, as if anyone can ever know the truth about a person’s life and death. I think that’s impossible, so the search itself is flawed. I can empathize with that choice though. She does the best she can considering the circumstances and who she is. That’s pretty admirable even if she’s kind of an asshole at times. Her brother is my favorite character though. He’s tender, delicate, and strong.

Right now I’m in the desert. It’s clearing to come out here. The plants are special. Two men just walked by me and one of them said, “It’s very Chinese.” I kind of hate overhearing other people’s conversations.

Patty,

I love eavesdropping, the glimpses into other conversations, intruding on an intimacy you haven’t earned, briefly, then falling out. I like peering into windows of houses for the same reason, imagining how the lives within intermingle and part. Today I walked past a large modern structure under construction, the house looks like a series of connected boxes and has large desk in the front window — but from my vantage point the window appeared to contain another smaller, cozier house.

I have been thinking so much about houses and dwellings in relation to your book: what a house means to Helen’s adoptive parents, Helen’s own shared studio that her brother thought suited her, the homeless woman in Helen’s chapbook: “How to Survive in New York on Little to Nothing.” Helen admires doorways, and her brother too says he wants to keep doors shut — metaphorically. Can you talk about the houses in your book, what a doorway offers, the threat a door poses? What does one’s dwelling say about them? And also of your fascination with Thomas Bernhard’s house?

Anne,

The space of the house is one of inertia and avoidance. The furniture is off-putting, the rooms are suffocating and at the same time places of rest. No one in the house knows how to communicate with one another. I don’t know what the doors represent. It’s weird to talk about doors without thinking about the band The Doors. They’re not that cool, but when I was in high school I used to love them. A friend and I would try to smoke really gross weed and drive around and listen to them. What a recipe for disaster and trouble!

I was just telling a friend how sometimes I Google street view some of my houses from childhood. I walk around the neighborhood and look at the plants and trees. I have no idea if that’s normal or not. In my favorite house, which was in suburban Pittsburgh, I had my own bathroom. There was a skylight above the toilet. I always thought that was weird. It’s my favorite house because there I was the most miserable. Every day I can wake up grateful I don’t live on Wedgewood Drive anymore, so that’s kind of a gift.

I love looking at images of Thomas Bernhard’s houses in Austria, how their exteriors seem harsh and weird, like his writing. That mirroring between his houses and his writing appeals to me, maybe because I’ve been a lifelong renter, scrounging around for scraps to inhabit. You never saw where I lived in Brooklyn, but my bedroom was windowless, the walls were curved, there was a foot of space between the bed and these dressers that had been in the bedroom for years before we moved in. One day, I was cleaning behind them and I found a few bullets.

Patty,

Childhood misery can become such an attachment. It’s a conundrum. I just saw that Whistler’s “Mother” is on view in Chicago — I was forced to stand in line to see it as a child, and when I actually saw it I thought people were crazy. It was so overrated, so muted. My first thought hearing of its current tour was disbelief that it’s still this thing — but also, that I want see it. Will I have a different experience? It was the first piece of art I detested.

Helen’s childhood misery is demonstrated as one long act of refusal. Makes me think of Bernhard’s misandry, but then also it’s Bernhard I think of with the balding European white male apparition. I sense an anxiety of influence but also of disconnect, that Helen isn’t his heir, can’t be. He may be Helen’s father’s wet dream but as the biological daughter of a Korean woman, there’s so much distance. The balding European man, too, is helpful in some way isn’t he? How do you see his role? What does Helen need? I’m also curious about writers you read as a child, and now, who are your influences/guides?

Anne,

I feel certain you will love that painting as an adult because it will remind you of that exact moment you realized it was possible to detest a piece of art.

I like what you’ve said about anxiety and disconnect. I tried to see clearly this balding European man, but from where he came or what’s his role, I can’t say. I don’t know. I think it’s okay to admit that. Brandon Shimoda linked his appearance to whiteness and suburbia. I think the European man could be an accumulation and materialization of those suburban experiences. But I don’t really know. For me, writing this book was about freedom. I wanted to work with a voice in which anything could materialize at any point. That freedom is the main thing that compelled me to continue on, even when I had trouble. So Helen is sitting on a chair, starting to freak out a little at her inability to communicate with her parents, and a balding European man appears. In my opinion, that’s perfectly reasonable.

Let’s see, when I was little I liked Anne of Green Gables. I related to her situation as an orphan and outsider. As an adult I’ve probably been the most influenced by my friends who are artists and musicians. Many of them live in Milwaukee and Chicago. I admire people who have figured out a way to navigate the madness of this world. Russell Westbrook, Bill Callahan, Jesse Ball, Fiona Apple, Renata Adler, Kara Walker, etc.

Patty,

When put that way, I see the balding European man as a kind of proxy for Helen in her adoptive parents’ house, whether imagined, hallucinatory, or not, he is a needed (albeit aloof) companion in her investigation, and an injection of Western rationality. As in, he assures her there are clues and thus a logic behind her brother’s suicide. Though I guess there is, really: Helen discovers he orchestrated his death in a way that he didn’t engage in his life.

For me the suburbs surface in the blandness Helen’s brother attempts to hide behind: the white rice, the vanilla ice cream, the ways he hid his difference. I’m thinking too of lies he tells to appease: the interest in fly-fishing, the professor he told Helen he assisted. It’s generous and tragic, this denial. He’s very good at keeping secrets.

To me, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is very much about navigating the madness of a world where more time and energy is spent in denying or mitigating the extent of its madness. Beauty lies in acknowledging this, and finding a way through it? I just saw Annie Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya, and I was so relieved and frustrated to see Uncle Vanya fail at any attempt of ordering his life. It was cathartic. He couldn’t even hit, let alone kill, the man he took shots at! Helen’s adoptive brother is perhaps as forlorn as Vanya, but he has agency, and, well, he succeeds.

This navigating the madness of the world: is this process ever past tense? Perhaps the beauty of finding a way through it lies in showing that it’s possible? How is anyone supposed to live with anything? Helen asks this of Elena and now I ask it of you.

Anne,

The navigation of the madness of the world is endless. I agree with you, that Helen’s brother does have agency, and perhaps integrity, too.

I don’t know how anyone lives with anything. I do the best I can, but there are days I just want to zone out and watch the NBA and listen to Royal Trux and smoke a cigarette, if I smoked cigarettes, which I do not. I used to smoke a lot. I remember Jesse Ball suggested lucid dreaming an impossibly large cigarette, to cope with the effects of withdrawal.

In my opinion, the way through the madness is to see things clearly, to allow yourself to be surprised, and to have a sense of humor. Now that I’m looking at what I just typed, it sounds like advice for a marriage. Not that I’ve ever been married. Maybe another way to navigate the madness of the world is to not get married. This is what I’m thinking today. It might change tomorrow.

Oh, Patty, I loved smoking too. I had my first cigarette on my 14th birthday; later that year I was caught smoking in the graveyard at school. As I recall my mother was pissed but amused — something in line with:

“The continuous work of our life is to build death.”

That’s Simone de Beauvoir quoting Montaigne in the opening line of her Ethics of Ambiguity, which I just started rereading. As soon I read the sentence I was struck by how it’s a defining tenet in STDTP.

And maybe life is like a long marriage? I feel like Helen needs new coping strategies, the waterfall coping strategy is soothing, but like bad self-help, the Fiona Apple coping strategy was perhaps more effective?

Your narrators can be so severe, abject and so gripping. I’m thinking of Helen, but also the narrator of your recent story in The White Review. I know you spoke of freedom being significant to writing the novel, but what draws you to a character?

Anne,

That quote from Montaigne reminds me of the Bernhard phrase from his novel Correction: “deathward existence.” A page after “deathward existence” appears, there is, “The question has always been only, how can I go on at all, not in what respect and in what condition.”

Out of context, that line seems dramatic, but when I came across it, I remember finding it dry and funny and serious.

In general, I am repulsed by my characters, and yet, I’m drawn to them, sometimes I even admire them. I like characters who are engaged with their world, their circumstances, their flaws. I have a fondness for neurotic and delusional humans, so why wouldn’t I write about them? I think my short stories are closer to poems and drawings in terms of content and form, rather than traditional short stories with fully developed characters and plots. I draw my short stories with thin, ugly, haphazard lines. So the characters themselves can be thin and flat. They stay the same, because there’s not enough space in the stories for them to change.

Patty,

I’ve passed a number of sidewalk lending libraries during our exchange, and whenever I have I’ve peeked inside. Perhaps because I’m already thinking of your novel, I’ve been surprised by how the titles engage:
Twenty Things Adopted Children Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew (I could see Helen’s adoptive parents having this book, but also it failing to bridge their distances)
Contribuer à votre succès (a French, bougier version of Helen’s guide: How To Survive in New York on Little to Nothing)
Esmé Wang’s The Border of Paradise (opening with a passage about never having known someone who killed themself, never having read a suicide note)
Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena
This last book I took. Most of the correspondence is one-sided, Kafka’s letters published in a series without Milena’s responses. He writes of lung health and sanatoriums and Milena’s critiques of German spas. One of Milena’s essays in the appendix concerns whether letters of notable people should be published. She chastises those who are disappointed by artists lives —–“If you are disappointed by an artist, my dear girl, this is only because you haven’t understood how to find him, and don’t know how grotesquely strange the human soul is.”

The grotesque strangeness of the human soul! This is what you’re saying about character, no? I then thought of Egon Schiele, the way he conjures this too. Perhaps your work is neo-expressionist?  It made me wonder, which books, which visual artists/movements do you feel your work shares an affinity with?

Anne,

I love Esmé Wang’s The Border of Paradise. You should go back to the sidewalk library and get it. Go, immediately! I’m excited for her next book, The Collected Schizophrenias on Graywolf.

I own Letters to Milena, but haven’t opened it. I don’t know if I’m afraid to, or what, but that line you’ve quoted makes me want to read it. It makes me sad that Milena’s responses do not exist. Isn’t that sad?

You’re right about the grotesqueness of the human soul. I like Egon Schiele. I don’t think I’d align my work with any artistic movements. I pick and choose the artists I like, disregarding time or movements. So I like Brueghel, Kara Walker, José Lerma, Glenn Ligon, Allison Schulnik, Mark Bradford, Tintoretto, etc.

I think my work has a lot in common with Tyson and Scott Reeder and John Riepenhoff, and many other artists from Milwaukee. They were all part of this scene at The Green Gallery, one of of my favorite places in the world. We would play basketball on the weekends and have dance parties in attics. All of this informs what I write about and how I see the world. There’s a lightness to what goes on at The Green Gallery. It’s never heavy-handed, it’s playful and fun. John Riepenhoff and his brother Joe were some of the first people who acknowledged me as a musician and artist. So I would align myself with them. Of course, I was a failure as an artist and musician, and that’s why today I write. But I’m in debt to them because they encouraged me to fail. And that’s a beautiful thing to do for another human, to encourage him or her to fail.

Painting by John Riepenhoff.

A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, Kristin Hersh’s chronicle of her long and complicated friendship with the musician Vic Chesnutt, was the first book I picked up this year, and little did I know then that its title would set the tone for what was to come in the following weeks and months. “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” is a pact Hersh and Chesnutt made, with regard to their music, with regard to their lives, and through her book Hersh attempts to come to terms with the loss of her cranky, tender, and at times cantankerous friend who died from an overdose on Christmas 2009.

But 2016 followed much in suit, full of broken promises, full of much sucking and dying, heralding the loss of visionaries David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen, whose lyrics and music provided a soundtrack for my coming-to. I can’t help but think their absence has set us further off-kilter as we stumble into a future aligned with Cohen’s dystopian vision:

“the blizzard of the world / Has crossed the threshold / And it has overturned / The order of the soul.”

Books like Fanny Howe’s Indivisible offered refuge. When reading Howe, I sense the necessity of writing as if breathing, of seeking the sacred alongside the profane. “Snow is a pattern in this story,” she writes, and it is; she follows the singularity of experience against an awareness of the multiplicity, community. Protagonist Henny resists complacency; an act that causes her discomfort tells her she’s doing something right: “I forced myself, as I sometimes do, to go to the place I dreaded most — to the place that was so repugnant, it could only change me.”

With depth and melancholy and bitter humor, Jacob Wren’s Rich and Poor pits narratives of a greedy billionaire CEO against an impoverished laborer focused on one goal — killing the CEO. The apathy of the wealthy and those in power, their ability to act with impunity, without conscience, and with cruelty towards laborers and those on strike resonates too deeply with the times.

And now, rereading Rich and Poor in light of Donald Trump’s election brings a different clarity. The mechanisms at play have been in place, and will continue, or not, depending:
The roulette wheel spins and the numbers that come up are the ones that win. If you were a left wing activist in Germany in the twenties or thirties there would be little you could do to stop Hitler. And yet it’s important to believe there is always something you can do, to lie to yourself a little, because at least then you have a shot.
This may be couched from the CEO’s perspective, but the question stands: how does one reconcile the impossibility of making a difference in the world while attempting to live as if you still can?

Fantasies, or rather, delusions and the way these delusions imposed upon others can have deleterious results, even a kind of violence, is what intrigued me most about Charles Arrowby in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea. I read this book while staying at my aunt’s house beside the ocean for two weeks, and I could deeply understand Arrowby’s desire to retreat from his hectic theater life to a refuge where he could reflect and write. But in doing so he fools himself into thinking what he lacks is what he desires, and he goes to great lengths wrecking havoc on other’s lives with his hapless grasping.

I also read Brandon Shimoda’s Evening Oracle while staying by the sea. The ocean is filled with water and whale and fish and ships and detritus, and together they comprise its vastness, even if when we think ocean, we think body of water or perhaps its outline on a map. Evening Oracle is a collection of poems that contains the sea and herons and plums and crossing vast distances; it also features other poet’s poems and excerpts from many email messages exchanged. The plurality of voices together remain spare, taken together form a patchwork quilt of a document.

Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers is a book I carried with me for much of the year. Opening its pages is like entering a portal to elsewhere, dipping in sloughed sleep from my head, or rather maybe pushed me further in. Mommy is such a tender term and yet here it’s slippery and laced with contempt: mommy is caretaker, mommy is authoritarian, and with her swarm her body multiplies. Mothers eat moons, rats devour rabbits and pigs, rats crawl through corpses, flesh is rotting, it’s a garden of earthly delights as all hell breaks loose.

Perhaps this masochism and curiosity with messy and failing bodies explains too why I go to Adam Phillips for insight into human desire, motivation, fantasies, and our (at times) delightfully misguided ways. This year it seems we’re no closer to knowing what we desire, in fact as a plurality we seem to be drifting even further away. The Beast in the Nursery and Terrors and Experts go hand in hand, pitting the capacity of knowing against the ability to be absorbed, investigating what we’re avoiding with the thriving business of distraction, the tantrums we throw when we feel deprived, the curiosity that drives our inquiry into the unknown, the unrelenting desire for power and control.

Lynne Tillman’s story “Madame Realism’s Conscience” is a good place to start, when thinking about power and the presidency:
Those who ran for president, presumably, hungered for power, to rule over others, like others might want sex, a Jaguar, or a baby. Winning drives winners, and maybe losers, too, Madame Realism considered. Power, that’s what it’s all about, everyone always remarked. But why did some want to lead armies and others wanted to lead a Girl Scout troop, or nothing much at all? With power, you get your way all the time.
Madame Realism, Tillman’s alter ego, is a divining rod to offset the cartoonish post-factual state, and so I consider the newly released Complete Madame Realism as part of the antidote. And, I remind myself, with the end of this year, a new one begins. Will I read differently? Yes, I’m certain. I will start the new year with a more auspicious title, or one that’s better equipped for what’s at stake — perhaps Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, or Patty Yumi Cottrell’s forthcoming Sorry to Disrupt the Peace.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Baby Fever: On Belle Boggs’s ‘The Art of Waiting’

Who has baby fever? Belle Boggs does. Or rather, she did before she had her daughter. An attempt to understand this self-described “child-longing” during her trials with infertility treatments and her inability to conceive was one of the driving forces behind writing her book The Art of Waiting.

As Boggs writes, in Scandanavia this phenomena is known as “baby fever,” and has been studied by sociologist Anna Rotkirch, who believes this desire is not a social construction but rather the expression of an instinctual longing. Rotkirch conducted a study where she placed an ad in a paper that asked people to write in with their baby fever experiences. She was flooded with letters recounting dreams of babies every night, of the need to touch onesies, of the desire borne of holding a child, of the agony of not having one.

Not everyone has baby fever, thank goodness. I don’t have baby fever but I am prone to obsessive thinking and my curiosity about this specific obsession and the ways that I’m not in its thrall is part of what drew me to Boggs’s The Art of Waiting. Also, Boggs is a smart and attentive writer, and her book is championed by Eula Biss and Leslie Jamison — two writers who’ve helped stake out a distinct corner in the medical humanities. The Art of Waiting promised to engage in a multifaceted dialogue, not just with Boggs’s experience with infertility treatments, but also with the broader cultural implications that lie at the intersection of child-longing and infertility and reproductive technologies, their benefits but also their detriment, and what this child-longing means for us as human animals and whether we have a choice in it.

The first half of the book delivers on this, for the most part. Boggs offers an engaging and empathetic description of her inability to conceive, the way she felt personal failure. Excluded from the natural rhythm of life, Boggs became even more keenly aware of mating among human and nonhuman animals, the ways that some species like marmosets depend on the suppression of reproductive capabilities because of limited resources within a community. She considers too mating in captivity, how at a North Carolina zoo, one female gorilla mates to conceive while another is given birth control as she’s groomed to take over in case the child is rejected.

Boggs considers the possibility of never having children, and briefly arrives at “the conscious possibility of a new purpose, a sense of self not tied to reproduction,” though with regard to the book, this is fleeting. She considers Virginia Woolf’s bareness and, as counterbalance, her creative output. Boggs writes too of the ways that her students become surrogate children — and how they never ask why she doesn’t have biological children, because, she surmises, “they think they’re enough.”

But of course they aren’t. We know this as readers, and it’s easy to consider Boggs’s dilemma with compassion. But also, she might want to go one step further and ask, why isn’t it?

Boggs holds the reader close as she tells of her travails and heartache associated with her inability to conceive. She writes of watching Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with the high school English class she teaches. She points to the way that George kills the imaginary son in the last scene, and wonders if this killing was cruel or necessary. Boggs looks at this tendency toward surrogates among infertile couples, how Virginia Woolf wrote in her story “Lappin and Lappinova” of a marriage held together by a shared investment in their imaginary “private world, inhabited, save for the one white hare, entirely by rabbits.” Boggs too has a place within this lineage: she writes about how she and her husband unwittingly created an imaginary stuffed animal family when they first married, how they’d bring them out for holiday meals, but that later, after not being able to have children, this seemed more like a masquerade that embarrassed and pained her, and so she stuffed them in a basket with other bric-a-brac and shoved it all under the bed.

And sometimes Boggs’s imagination is too willing to shove ideas under the bed. She writes wistfully: “Nonhuman animals wait without impatience, without a deadline, and I think that is the secret to their composure.” This is an oversimplification of animal experience and it doesn’t interrogate or even attempt to consider the ways that other animal species might long to mother. Anna Rotkrich found — as Boggs pointed out — that a longing for children and to mother is instinctual. So why would Boggs assume another animal species would not feel this? Perhaps they’re at a loss to express it — to her.

Boggs’s interpretation gestures toward other species but is inherently anthropocentric. She conjectures rather than wonders, and this shuts down the possibility of delving deeper, to interrogate, research, consider, and perhaps even attempt to find companionship, an alliance, or at least acknowledge the mothering and longing that any animal might feel.

Of course we all have limited life spans and periods of fertility, and while animals may not be aware of or able to communicate this longing and desire in human terms it doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected by a similar longing. When I was a child I was gifted with a book about Koko the gorilla who was taught human sign language as part of a graduate student’s experiment. Koko asked for a cat but was given a stuffed animal. She knew the difference and signed, “sad.” When she was given a kitten she mothered it as if it were a child. How is this not mothering? And why did Boggs, when writing and researching this book, not try harder to think about the experience of the nonhuman animal beyond her own anthropomorphic fantasy?

Boggs writes too with sympathy for the gorilla at the North Carolina zoo who’s forced to take birth control, but she also assumes that this gorilla doesn’t feel her longing: “To wait without knowing [one] is waiting.” Maybe not her longing, but how does she know what this gorilla thinks? Isn’t this pure conjecture?

Boggs looks to the nonhuman animal, to these gorillas, seemingly to expand the conversation about motherhood beyond species. But instead she uses them as a screen for her own longings. To speak of longing: what longing must salmon feel to swim upstream from their adult habitats back to their birthplaces so that they can spawn and, as a result of this journey, die? Perhaps if Boggs had encountered Jakob von Uexküll’s theory of umwelt she might have considered that the gorilla has a distinct sphere of existence, that its methods of communication and perception don’t necessarily translate to terms she can understand.

The onus was on Boggs to delve further, to have researched the ways these animals long or don’t long for motherhood. To consider what this child-longing might mean for nonhuman animals, what mothering means beyond one’s own progeny. Wouldn’t that have reinforced Anna Rotrich’s research that baby fever is instinctual? I can’t help but wonder, if this gorilla had been taught human sign language like Koko, would Boggs have been able to make the same proclamations? And if the answer is no, it seems that this is an inherent flaw.

But also, Boggs’s observation denies that many human animals do wait without impatience, that we don’t measure our personal success and failures by our reproductive capabilities, that perhaps we might recognize that a child could bring personal fulfillment, but that we don’t measure our worth by it.

Among those of us who aren’t natural caretakers, bringing a child into the world might signify an end as much as a beginning. I recently sat up late with friends, all of us in our late-30s or early-40s and childless and okay with it — we realized how we would be obligated to care for a child. A child demands an investment in petty conversations at times. A child is always brilliant in its parents eyes. At least until it develops its own mind. It’s easy to talk about from the outside, I realize.

I see too how a child can be a source of fascination, of seeing anew. I have seen friends’ lives replenished and nurtured, a newfound satisfaction with life brought on by the presence of their children. But what about the idea of not having children? What does this mean historically? Boggs talks about how in the period after WWII zero families thought it was ideal to have no children. That’s changed now, or common sense tells me this. But has it really? Despite waiting longer to have children, the number of women without children in their early-40s is falling. The Washington Post recently featured a profile of philosopher Travis Rieder who works at the Berman Institute of Bioethics and who published a book about the ethical imperative of limiting reproduction. We can limit our carbon footprint most significantly by choosing not to have children, and, with significant climate change and its consequences in our near future, Reider offers a radical suggestion for action to take now: “Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.”

Reider himself has a child, and admits this was largely a concession because of his wife’s desire to have a child. But in The Art of Waiting, these types of ethical considerations are largely superficial or left untouched. The pressure to reproduce within families is one that we need to shift, Reider argues. And this isn’t entirely different from the “reproductive futurism” and the indisputable cult of the child that Lee Edelman described as a driving force of our heteronormative society in No Future. Edelman posits that the jouissance and non-reproductive sex associated with queerness is precisely what threatens the cult of the family, this continuous process of self-perpetuation. In the 12 years since Edelman’s book, perhaps tables have reversed, so that the idea of not reproducing is now a way too to perpetuate life.

But what I’m pointing to is that The Art of Waiting for all of its intelligence and care and research isn’t invested in considering the broader cultural and ethical contexts of assisted reproduction, of whether or not this desire to have children should be fulfilled. Or whether alternative forms of mothering when one can’t carry a child to term might not conform to Boggs’s idea of mothering, but could be just as dynamic and fulfilling.

Of the privilege of having the choice and resources to choose IVF, Boggs discusses the financial investment, how costs can reach close to $100,000, and how some states have laws that mandate health insurance cover at least part of this. Boggs’s answer is that she largely supports making infertility treatments more accessible. Of course she does. But it’s also more complicated than she’s willing to grapple with.

It seems that an obstacle to Boggs’s consideration of motherhood, infertility, and medicine is that she did conceive. That her great longing was fulfilled. With the help of contemporary medicine she was able to bring a genetic child to gestation, a child that she carried within her womb. She had this child and perhaps it’s unconscionable for her to truly consider the alternative forms of mothering and meaning-making and mothering through care-taking, for children not her own genetic makeup, for other species even. She says that she and her husband consider adoption, but do they really? I don’t get the sense that this was a serious consideration — adoption is someone else’s choice, but not Boggs’s, and despite being down on their luck, they were privileged, were able to invest in IVF and conceived a daughter during their first course.

Perhaps my expectations were set because of Biss’s endorsement. Her own book, On Immunity was also published by Graywolf. As someone who’s sat through an eight-hour class on vaccination and administration schedules and live versus dead vaccines, I can vouch that the straight science is rather tedious. But Biss stumbled into a rabbit hole when deciding whether or not to vaccinate her son and with which vaccines, and accompanying her as she finds her path through this is fascinating. Her son anchors the narrative, but provides more of a stepping off point to discuss the cultural history: the ways that milkmaids didn’t contract smallpox because of their exposure to the virus through a cow’s udders. About Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, Dracula’s need for blood as a critique of capitalism, and about how choosing not to vaccinate as a privileged, less-at risk family, isn’t ethical. That immunization is about the community, and as much as we’d like to think of our bodies as distinct islands, we’re truly interconnected.

While Biss states that the decision to vaccinate her son was an ethical decision, one that she felt she had to do despite its risks, Boggs also states that IVF was the best choice she and her husband ever made because they conceived their daughter. And while she may believe this personally, she says this without reflecting on its ethical underpinnings, like what this means for the habitability of our planet. Boggs talks about the ways infants vie for resources in the wild, but not the ways limited resources will play out for human and nonhuman animals in the near future. Many people are choosing not to have children for the good of the planet. Because of the carbon footprint. And to not consider this interconnection in this highly personal decision is an avoidance I can’t not think about, perhaps fixate on, in relation to this book and discussion.

Maybe it is enough for Boggs herself to “[tell] the stories that don’t get told, the ones some people don’t want to hear,” of what she and her husband learned before they had their daughter — of the little known difficulties and travails of adoption, the infertility message boards and support groups, the way that passion and pleasure are replaced with clinical monitoring and pharmaceutical intervention and hormonal regulation associated with in vitro fertilization.

But The Art of Waiting isn’t memoir. It lacks the interrogation and consideration of what it truly means to mother beyond the heteronormative definitions of vaginal birth and sharing your offspring’s DNA. Boggs looks to nonhuman animals for answers but lacks interspecies empathy, or openness to other possibilities — perhaps because she doesn’t care to ask, perhaps because she now has a natural-born child, perhaps because it might cast the best decision that she’s ever made in a more muddled light? It’s obvious Boggs considers herself a success story. With patchwork she’s found a heteronormative solution, in fact, it seems that her answer is that she wishes similar luck for other who long for children. That they might not have to wait so long. This is unfortunately where the discussion rests.