Essays

Priestdaddies

An evangelical Christian childhood is one long, unbroken game of The Floor Is Lava, but one in which the adults are playing too. You fall from the womb and the doctor sets you on a piece of outdated living room furniture and tells you not to touch the floor. You are told your every urge will be to touch the floor, that you were born wanting to jump headfirst into that floor, and that left to your own devices that’s exactly what you would do. Luckily, the very God who created that lava floor made a way for you to avoid this: walk all over his kid, instead. Talking about childhood with people who didn’t grow up this way can be a bit surreal, and finding a voice who did can make those memories feel more real than they have in years. Patricia Lockwood, acclaimed author of Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, and perverted patron saint of poetic weirdos on Twitter, relates her own strange and wondrous religious childhood in her new memoir Priestdaddy, and her story will resonate for anyone who grew up with a dad who found a friend in Jesus but counted few other peers. Lockwood’s father is a Catholic priest, and her childhood was spent in one church rectory or another in “all the worst cities of the Midwest,” as she is fond of saying in her author bios. Father Lockwood found Jesus at the bottom of the ocean while stationed on a nuclear submarine, after several dozen viewings of The Exorcist. When your salvation occurs on a warship at the hands of the director of The French Connection, you inherit a brash faith that is as likely to carry a gun as a Bible. Her father, who first spent time as a Lutheran priest before converting to Catholicism, has an affinity for both accessories, and Lockwood patiently and often hilariously sketches this singular patriarch in Priestdaddy. My own father was a minister as well -- one cut from the same colorful cloth at Lockwood’s -- and the echoes of my upbringing I found in her story brought back all the old comforts and confusions of my childhood. I grew up the son of a traveling preacher. He didn’t want to be the traveling kind. He dreamed of nothing more than having a small, country church to shepherd week after unchanging week, shaking the same wrinkled hands at the back of the sanctuary every Sunday as men gave him approving nods and widows placed both palms around his, looked up at him with damp eyes, and told him they could see glory the way he described it, and Jesus in the midst of it. It never worked out. A few churches took him on, but each engagement ended in unmitigated disaster after a few months. The search never really ended, it only wayfared longer in some forgotten corn and coal towns than others. We loaded into a puke-yellow camper van that was always spitting up some small but critical part -- a fuel pump, a fan belt -- and crisscrossed the eastern half of the country. Corning, N.Y. Mt. Morris, Mich. Port St. Lucie, Fla. None of these engagements paid much, if at all, so he worked full time through the week, and we would set out on the weekends in search of the promised land. We would generally find upon arrival that the promised land had lost half its businesses when the interstate had come in and bypassed it 10 miles away. These towns felt dusty in even the heaviest rain. My father would pull out a feisty sermon from his arsenal, deliver it to the echoing, half-empty pews, and then we would sample six variations on green bean casserole in the fellowship hall during the potluck dinner in his honor, which was often as not the only payment. He was the non-denominational preacher equivalent of a college band, spending a weekend on the road for just a few minutes on a stage, hoping to be discovered. He wasn’t part of a world-wide, millennia-spanning denomination like Lockwood’s father was; he wouldn’t have fit well within one. If there was a reward waiting from him, he would have to hack down his own trail to get to it. He saw himself as a voice crying in the wilderness, and it’s no coincidence the actual, geographical wilderness is where he most often found himself. The churches blur in my mind. The first to actually hire him was in southern Florida, and we left our life in northern Indiana behind only to discover it had been a fool’s errand. The church met in the living room of a house, and it didn’t take long for problems to emerge. They found out I was taking communion without being baptized, so a few days later my family and I entered the warm waters of Bathtub Beach and I received the spirit, spluttering in the salty wash, while my mom jumped above the waves to take pictures. After a few more weeks, my dad, never able to pick his theological battles, split from the elders over some hermeneutic minutiae and there we were on the Atlantic coast of Florida, an hour north of the Keys, with no more church than we’d had when we’d left the Midwest. We joined and parted with two more churches in the year we were in the Sunshine State before moving back to the flat table of Ohio farm country, where my dad pastored a dying, white clapboard church for less than a year before some conflict ruined the union. The situation got so bad we feared physical violence. I remember sitting in a booth at McDonalds while my parents and a pastor from a neighboring church drafted an escape plan to get the family out of the sanctuary in case we were attacked on the Sunday my dad was to make the announcement we were leaving. No violence occurred, but we drove into the woods in our camper van the next day to hide out for a week anyway. Like military brats, a preacher’s kids learn to make friends quickly and to lose them again without a thought. The wind stirs the branches in the grown-up world and suddenly the kids are packing up their rooms again, looking up a new town name in a Rand McNally road atlas, wondering if it’ll have a Dairy Queen. We carried “home” with us wherever we went -- spongy pink hermit crabs who could recite scripture. We knew words in Greek and Hebrew but didn’t always have time to learn our neighbors’ names. To cope with this permanent sense of displacement, my sister, seven years my senior, invented wild origin stories to explain why we had no roots. She surmised she’d been rescued by our parents from bad people in Detroit and ferried away to northern Indiana. She thought my grandfather might have been a spy, or maybe a Nazi (the truth: a telephone repairman). She spent hours digging through the drawers of an old wooden desk in a storage room in our trailer -- the desk I’m sitting at now -- to find secret documents to corroborate these theories. There had to be something to explain why we knew fewer than a dozen living relatives, why we rarely saw any of them, why my parents never bought a house, why we spent more time on the road in a camper than we did in our neighbors' homes, why we were homeschooled, why we never had time to make permanent friends. I’ve never been to the gravesite of anyone I share blood with; I don’t even know where those graves are. Lockwood’s dad moved her family from place to place as well, filling new openings in parishes in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City, and elsewhere. When you grow up this way, your family is your village, and Lockwood’s father was her family’s self-appointed Chief.  He is nothing you expect when you hear the words “Catholic priest.” He is married with children, for one thing, taking advantage of a Vatican loophole that allows men who are already married when they join the priesthood to maintain families. He lets off steam by playing shrieking, wall-melting electric guitar solos in his office, walks around in front of family and strangers in his briefs, and loves nothing more than a good testosterone-drenched action film. He is stubborn, at times brutish, and arrogant, but he loves fiercely. My father, like Lockwood’s, converted himself to Christianity as a young man, not long after meeting my mother. He grew up on the streets of Detroit, fatherless and socially awkward, and as a young adult decided (for a reason now lost to me, though at one time essential to family mythology) to read the Bible cover to cover. Somewhere around Isaiah he realized he believed in God. When your conversion comes at the pen of an Old Testament prophet, you inherit a faith that spits fire from a whirlwind, and you get a sense for where your life is headed right away. He married my mom, conceived my sister, moved the family to Indiana, and had me, all the while dreaming floating visions of a wooden lectern and a humble congregation. Like C.S. Lewis (sort of the Malcolm Gladwell of Christian theologians), my dad had a knack for breaking complex theological arguments down into simple logical puzzles in which only one answer could be right and one could be wrong. This had the effect of making these complicated ideas much easier for a layman -- or a six-year-old -- to understand, but it also stripped away the essential nuances of these concepts and presented them as false binaries. When we were children, we thought my dad a paragon of wisdom and higher thinking. His logic and discernment were unassailable. Like Lockwood’s guitar-wielding, brief-wearing priest of a father, my dad could be both magnetically charismatic and an unknowable enigma, impossible to explain to the uninitiated. He was an uncommonly gentle man whose calm composure could be as frightening as an alcoholic’s rage. He was an affectionate playmate whose spankings bruised our souls more than our asses. He was a man of wild imagination, crafting fantastical stories of outer space and prehistoric adventures, all the while instilling in us a conviction that all the fantasies of scripture were incontrovertibly true. And convicted we were, all through our childhoods and teen years. My sister dreamed of a martyr’s death, surrendering her life for the sake of the gospel like Nate Saint or Jim Elliot. I fell asleep at night to the horror stories of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. As teens, we shimmered with holy fervor, beautiful and bleak. Late in Priestdaddy, Lockwood perfectly encapsulates what it felt like in those days to live every moment vibrating along the taut strings of eternity: Everything signified. Everything I looked at was designed for my eyes. The fabric of existence was cut to fit me; all ceilings were as tall as I was high; each book in the library fell open and let the word ‘rapture’ leap toward me. The greatest gift of rapture was that it existed independent of the intellect; I needed no education to feel it. It was a capability, and born in the body when I was born -- a reflex that sprang back gold against the hammer. We held hands and closed our eyes and felt our bones glow, and when there was pain, we offered it up. We spoke back then of being on fire for god, of burning with sacred passion and fealty. It would be another decade before I realized it was the unsaved sinners in hell who really fit that description best, who blazed involuntarily for the glory of a fickle deity. My faith crumbled under the weight of the very logical arguments that had built it. My sister, too, quit those walls. But while we believed, oh, how we shined. For reasons best saved for another time, I decided to leave college after only one year and get married at 19. Neither part of that decision worked out in the long run. For very different reasons, Lockwood too missed out on higher education and got married while still a teenager. While the circumstances were profoundly different, it’s hard to shake the feeling there’s something unique about growing up in a weird religious home in middle America that predisposes one to both choices. Why get an education when revelation is free? Why delay marriage when you’ve already given your whole self away once to God? There was no guidance against these choices. Recklessness was baptized as maturity. I miss belief, as often as not. I miss when “everything signified,” when I was part of a heavenly army, when my soul was written in a golden book outside time and I knew my faith would echo through eternity. I miss answers. Sometimes, I miss the hope that any of this means anything. In Priestdaddy, Lockwood writes about how easy it would be to fall back into belief as an adult, how “just a gentle push and I would fall back into the old faith; I would believe it all again, everything.” I feel that propensity less than I do the ongoing saturation of my imagination and vocabulary with the glossary of belief. The floor was lava for the first two and a half decades of my life, and I jumped from Christological sofa to soteriological foot stool to eschatological easy chair so many times my language and thought structure warped permanently around that lexicon, heated from below. Lockwood, a poet many know for her irreverent blend of religious and sexual imagery, explains it thus: People do sometimes accuse me of blasphemy, which is understandable and which is their right. But to me, it is not blasphemy, it is my idiom. It’s my way of still participating in the language I was raised inside, which despite all renunciation will always be mine. The word ‘God’ does not fall out of the vocabulary, as the sun does not fall out of the sky; the shapes of the stories remain, as do their revelations. I was never fluent in tongues back when it mattered, but when I am left to myself, out come all the old worshipped words, those fondled verses tumbling on verses, onto the page which can hold and forgive them. I trembled at those same words for so many years. I’m not sure I’ve learned to forgive those verses that shaped and blistered so much of my childhood, that do still in reverberations so many years later. Twisting them, as Lockwood describes, is not only a way of “still participating in the language,” but also of exorcising the hurts that language inflicted. When my wife and I joke about “Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ beneath me, Christ bent over the back of my couch,” it isn’t blasphemy for blasphemy’s sake. It’s a child wearing a mask at Halloween of the very monster that’s kept it up at night in terror. And, of course, it is, as Lockwood indicates, a way to peek back in the windows, a way to assure yourself your home is still there, even if you’ve run away from it, even if you don’t want to go back. My parents never really did find home. They never found the church my dad had dreamed up. He rested from his search after the fiasco with the escape plan, and we stayed in one place for the next decade. He was always restless, and jumped at sounds in the night more than once, hoping his patience had paid off. Instead, after my sister and I were both married off (and before we both divorced), they became foreign missionaries. That fit. The missionaries who would visit our churches growing up were always a bit odd. They wore clothes that didn’t really fit, long flowered dresses and shirts tucked into pleated dress pants, and they never seemed to get our jokes. We looked at their kids a little warily and their kids looked at us a little warily till we inevitably discovered Freeze Tag is a language that transcends cultures. For the first two decades of my life we were that weird missionary family anywhere we went, even if we didn’t know it at the time. We just thought we were marked by God in some way. Everything signified, even rejection, even suspicion. And so, with the kids gone and no family graves to tend, my parents took a few months of Spanish and boarded a plane and went somewhere they’d have been outsiders anyway. My sister and I stayed here, wondering what it had all meant, what our origin story said about us, what fearfully and wonderfully encompassed in the context of our childhoods. I have washed the feet of businessmen in a church basement and I have carried a casket through city streets in a pro-life rally and I have wept through the night, imploring the Almighty on behalf of a lost soul, and now I don’t believe a word of it. Oh the depths of the riches. Everything signifies.
Essays

A Space Ripe for Experimentation: The Future of Print Literary Journals

Most writers I know submit to online journals first, and, in some cases, exclusively. Online publication often happens significantly faster than print, can reach a much wider audience, and the pay is -- sometimes -- competitive. Thanks to the innovative designs of some journals -- like Paper Darts and Diagram -- the days of online lit looking like endless variations on Blogspot templates are long gone. And yet, people continue to print literary journals. Even though they’re cumbersome, labor-intensive, and more expensive. Even though it’s not clear whether anybody actually reads them. Even though some back issues of Barrelhouse (the journal where I’m non-fiction editor) have been piling up in various editors’ basements for years. In February, I joined thousands of other writers at the annual AWP Conference, at which several hundred exhibitors were selling books and literary journals, and many people were happily stuffing their tote bags. Among writers and editors, there is clearly still a demand for print. If we accept the premise that editors will continue printing, then the question isn’t “Is print dead?” but rather: what should print do to distinguish itself from digital? How can we justify the existence of this product in the face of cheaper, more accessible alternatives? Last year, when I proposed to the other Barrelhouse editors that we go fully digital, I was unanimously outvoted. And then a week after I finished writing this essay, we started discussing it again; our poetry editor, Dan Brady, argued that we were running out of ways to innovate within the form of the print journal and had to move on to bigger challenges. We’re an independent literary journal and small press that is fundamentally opposed to raising funds via Kickstarter or submission fees, so half of our time is spent hustling to raise money, and most of the remaining energy is devoted to trying to get the print product together. Steven Seighman, founder of Monkeybicycle, which went fully digital in 2012, described the process of producing print issues as “overwhelming” and “unsustainable.” In every way, our lives would be easier if we stopped printing issues. But if we’re going to continue making this thing, then we need to think about what we can do to make it distinct from online journals, and how to make it a viable enterprise. To work through this problem, I talked with the editors of more than 20 literary journals, asking for their visions of the role and future of print issues. Fetishizing the Physical “For me, the print thing has to do with a desire for substance when fewer things are physical,” Barrelhouse co-founder Joe Killiany says. “I like the feel of books, I like the feel of albums.” Fiction editor Matt Perez adds, “People develop more of a relationship with a book…Having it around, on your coffee table, in your bag, on the back of your toilet, etc., feels a bit more like a relationship.” Most editors I spoke to offered some version of this answer first. But, given all the drawbacks to production, acquisition, and storage of print journals, there has to be more to a print journal than fetishizing the physical artifact. There has to be more than the smell of the pages or the tactile pleasure of holding a book. I already own lots of books. Why do I need to feel or smell more of them? Emphasizing Design The design possibilities online are seemingly endless, but they are distinct from those in print. Using the physical object as a basis for creating a journal that is not only beautiful to look at, but interestingly laid out, editors can make their print issues into something that cannot, exactly, exist online. McSweeney’s is the obvious example here, but there are plenty of others. Andrew Mitchell, co-founder of Outlook Springs, describes the print journal as, “A space ripe for experimentation.” In discussing his relatively new journal’s aesthetic, he says: I realized that if you’re going to create these beautiful, concrete objects, then you really need to think about them as their own separate thing; in other words, though the writing itself is most important…the Object, too, needs to be treated and considered as an ‘object.’ It can’t just be a container for the work. Each issue follows the conventions of a literary journal, but also includes playful touches like advertisements from fake companies and fake MFA programs, all of which are located in a single fake town. They create a secondary text beyond the primary text. They, “treat it as an art object, with its own set of sensory experiences that we would play with.” Nick Greer, editor of Territory, an online-only literary project about maps, adds that the print product should, “Explore the idioms of its medium, stuff that either isn’t easily replicated in/translated to other media, or stuff that enjoys and interprets the tropes and conventions of its medium.” Greer’s email included some especially ambitious suggestions, like bricolage, pastiche, and disappearing ink. He adds that the history of print is so rich that it has more potential than any other form to be self-referential, to toy with readers’ expectations and emphasize the evolution of the object itself. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that until four years ago, we at Barrelhouse were devoting so much energy to reading submissions and shaping the contents that we’d neglected to think about what the actual issues looked like. Like many editors, we took for granted the most basic elements of printing: ink, binding, quality of print, etc. For years, Barrelhouse was printed at one size, with the same font, layout, and printer, and then one day, editor Dave Housley dropped a dozen new journals on the table in front of us. “These journals all look great,” he said. “And ours looks like shit.” We realized then that, although we’d been happy with the older issues, many of them now looked dated and boring. We changed printers, changed page sizes, added an art director, and reconsidered everything about the way our journal looked. If you’re asking someone to spend money and space on storing your magazine in their house, you have to give them as many compelling reasons as possible to want to hold on to it. The obvious counterpoint to all this design talk is to note the sustained success of a journal like One Story, the design of which is as simple as possible. It’s an intentional simplicity, though, an obvious aesthetic choice, which Territory’s Thomas Mira y Lopez describes as making you feel like, “you’re the recipient of this treasure meant just for you.” One Story editor-in-chief Patrick Ryan thinks the design is appealing to both writers and readers: [We want to] showcase one outstanding short story all by itself. No bells or whistles. A physical object that comes to you in the mail, that you can carry around in your pocket, that you can read and collect, or pass on to friend, or leave for a stranger…To be an author and to have an issue of a magazine be solely dedicated to your story is pretty wonderful. Focus and Depth  Beyond the stripped-down design, One Story’s distinguishing feature is that each issue highlights a single, sometimes quite long, story. They create a space for longform storytelling that might otherwise not find a home online. The clearest distinction between most print and online journals is the length of the pieces they’re able to run. With rare exceptions, you just can’t publish something longer than 2,000 words online and expect many people to read it. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, but as an editor, I can assure you: an online story, no matter how masterful, begins losing eyes the moment the reader has to scroll down more than once. I have one friend who reads whole books on his phone, but most other people I know barely have the patience to read a full text message on their phones. Print gives you space to develop a longer narrative. It lets a story breathe. Readers have fewer distractions, and they also open a book with the understanding that the book will demand their full attention. Please indulge me as I state something obvious: it is much less distracting to read from a book than it is to read online. Nate Brown, managing editor of American Short Fiction, says, “Printed works of fiction demand your sustained attention, and books are single-function machines: you open a book, you read it, you close it, you set it down, and you go to sleep.” ASF, like many print journals, also runs online issues. And while they do publish some shorter pieces in print, Brown argues that one of the primary functions of the print issue is to run these longer stories and essays. As online publishing becomes the norm, the form of contemporary fiction and essay has changed to accommodate the needs of online readers. Flash fiction, once considered a niche genre, is published widely now. Writers are cutting their stories ruthlessly to meet strict word counts. This may well be an overall positive development; few things in this world are as intolerable as a bloated short story that goes on for 1,500 words too long. But I admit to often feeling unsatisfied by essays I read online, which read more like ideas of essays, written in very nice language but either underdeveloped or edited to the point of hollowness. Some stories just need more space. I’ve become convinced that print journals should be printing even longer stories and essays, giving homes to works of prose that otherwise can’t be published elsewhere. This is why in the next issue of Barrelhouse, we’re going to run a novella-length essay, inset in the issue itself with its own cover. If I wanted to, I could find three to four excellent essays to run in the same space, but why not exploit one of the strengths of print -- people go to it to look away from the rest of the world -- to showcase an essay that might otherwise never be published? The Future of Print When I asked Christine Gosnay, founding editor of The Cossack Review, what editors should do or change if they want to keep producing print issues, she gave me an answer that reframed the conversation for me: If a magazine's editors want to keep printing books, they should. It should be because they have a very clear editorial vision: they want to put this type of thing into this type of binding and show it to as many people as possible because they have a passion for what they're selecting. That extremely ambitious and cohesive outlook is what can tie a book together into something different from an online issue, which is more likely to be shared piecemeal amongst different groups of people and possibly ignored. There are more eyes online, but there’s even greater competition. The whole point of a print journal is to create a singular work that speaks for itself. The design matters, and the specific pieces you publish matter. Everything matters. But what matters most is that you believe deeply in the artwork you’re creating and that you’re proud to present it as a cohesive whole to your readers. They may not read it cover-to-cover (I rarely do that even for issues of Barrelhouse), but they can experience the issue as a single entity representing a particular aesthetic. The heading for this section is overstated, because I’m not smart enough to predict the future of print. Most editors I spoke to said they were determined to keep printing issues, despite all the effort, time, and money. Each is taking a different approach, but the consensus is this: the biggest mistake any editor can make is to stop pushing to improve his or her journal, to produce print issues thoughtlessly and without trying to innovate to justify all the other inconveniences of physical media. As Greer says, “If you’re worried about evolving to keep up, it’s already too late. Those who evolve don’t see it as evolution or some kind of other painful but necessary metamorphosis, they’re just swimming in it, breathing it.”
Essays

Prescient and Precious: On Joan Didion

I have had some dim and unformed sense, a sense which strikes me now and then, and which I cannot explain coherently, that Joan Didion is an extraordinarily gifted and prescient writer whose enterprise seems to me to be poisoned by something that may or not be fatal: she can be cloyingly precious. Didion’s preciousness is on full display in her new book, South and West, a sampling of notes for two magazine articles that never got written.  The “Notes on the South” section consists of observations Didion made as she drove aimlessly from New Orleans through Mississippi and Alabama in a rented car with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, in the torpid summer of 1970.  The shorter “California Notes” section is a series of stray reflections while Didion was trying to write about Patty Hearst’s trial in San Francisco in 1976. The prescience that justifies this slight book’s existence is contained in a single sentence: I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. This “unformed sense” may have seemed outlandish in 1970, but the election of Donald Trump has anointed it with an aura of prophecy.  But was it so outlandish?  In Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in the presidential election of 1964 -- the year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act -- five of the six states that voted for the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, were in the Deep South.  Before 1964 it would have unthinkable for Southerners to vote wholesale for the party of Lincoln; today it is unthinkable that they would not.  So 1964 marked the beginning of the wholesale tipping of the country to the right, toward the Republican party, toward the red-state ethos that spread from the South and became strong enough to elect the unlikeliest of presidents.  Joan Didion was one of those rare people who voted for Goldwater.  After segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace took up Goldwater’s far-right mantle in the 1968 election, with nearly identical results, Didion would write, “The thought that the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.” Six years after the 1964 election, Didion and Dunne set out on their road trip along the Gulf Coast.  One day the couple drove through Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, which Didion calls “peculiar country.”  Here’s why: There were run-down antiques places, and tomato stands, and a beauty shop called Feminine Fluff.  The snakes, the rotting undergrowth, sulphurous light: the images are so specifically those of the nightmare world that when we stopped for gas, or directions, I had to steel myself, deaden every nerve, in order to step from the car onto the crushed oyster shells in front of the gas station. I had a visceral reaction to this passage, something close to anger.  I thought, Get out of the car and pump the fucking gas, already, or catch a plane back to L.A. where you belong.  Later, Didion reports: It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken.  Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody? My anger resurfaced.  What horseshit, I thought.  You couldn’t bring yourself to kill a mosquito. After reading South and West three times, I have come to realize that my visceral reaction to such passages misses the central point.  The central point is that ever since she burst onto the scene in 1968 with her stunning collection of New Journalism, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion has been playing a role.  Her fragile, remote, bewildered, haughty persona is a construct, a fiction, a way for her to give voice to the writing.  She is not the first writer to do this -- Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer come immediately to mind – but she is arguably the first to get readers to conflate reality with her fictionalized persona and its hardware: the cigarettes, the Corvette, the cool gaze, the Céline sunglasses ads, the perpetual drip of dread.  As Emmett Rensin wrote recently in The New Republic, “Her constructed personality is so well rendered that we are often willing to suspend our judgment and believe in its reality.”  I believe he’s right about this, and I also believe that this is the central problem with Joan Didion.  She gets a pass because, well, because she is capable of prescience, wisdom, and gorgeous sentences.  She is allowed to inhabit a constructed -- and frequently annoying -- personality because legions of readers are convinced that the payoff has earned Didion a suspension of judgment, a disinclination to remain aware that her constructed personality is merely a pose. In his introduction to South and West, Nathaniel Rich writes words that are intended as high praise but that strike me as an unintended exposure of the source of this problem.  Rich lauds “the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance.”  The operative words here are cool and empyreal.  “Cool” has long been the default adjective to describe Didion’s personal style and her approach to observing people and turning her observations into sentences.  But “empyreal” seems to me to be the true killer -- this notion that a writer operates from on high, far above the grubby lives of people who set their husbands on fire in Volkswagens, people who live in trailers with the air-conditioning on all night, who go to cosmetology school and wear pink Dacron housedresses and drink beer out of cans and name their daughters Kimberly or Sherry or Debi.  There is no possibility for such a writer to inhabit the lives of her subjects, to achieve empathy; the only possibility is preciousness and cool detachment, which produces observations that always come back to the primary importance of the observer, and the secondary status of the observed. At the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention in Biloxi, for instance, Didion writes: The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold.  All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.  Does it matter where Taos is, after all if Taos is not in Mississippi? And yet Didion’s aloofness from these people has gotten her snared in a trap. “When I think about New Orleans,” she writes, “I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.”  In her best books -- among which I would include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Where I Was From – Didion is obsessed with the very things she disparages here about New Orleans, particularly the absence of style.  The San Bernardino Valley, as she wrote in the ground-breaking essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” is “the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or Sherry or Debi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school.”  Style doesn’t get any more absent than that. This obsession with class, heritage, style, and the absence of style has opened Didion, inevitably, to charges that she is an “elitist.”  This is a serious sin in a society that tells itself it is “classless,” but it strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing for a writer to be, provided it doesn’t negate the capacity for empathy or lead to preciousness.  Was any writer more of an elitist than Marcel Proust?  Or Henry James?  Or Virginia Woolf?  Or Flannery O’Connor?  Arguably not, but that didn’t stop the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison from writing a takedown of Didion way back in 1979, in an essay so dyspeptic that it flirts with both lunacy and hilarity.  “Didion’s lyrical angst strikes me as transparently ersatz,” wrote Harrison, who went on to call Didion “a neurasthenic Cher” and “a lyricist of the irrational” whose “imperialist mentality” led her to vote for Goldwater, among other unpardonable sins.  Grizzuti identified Didion’s preciousness as a source of her popularity: “That coddled singularity/superiority is, I am afraid, one of the reasons readers love Didion.”  But in Grizzuti’s eyes, there is no worse sin this: “Didion’s heart is cold.” The charges have merit, but since South and West is a Joan Didion book, you know there will be gem-like sentences. Here are a half-dozen random samples: “A little girl with long unkempt hair and a dirty periwinkle dress that hung below her knees carried around an empty Sprite bottle.” “A somnolence so dense that it seemed to inhibit breathing hung over Hattiesburg, Mississippi at two or three o’clock of that Sunday afternoon.” “When I left Basic City a train was moaning, the Meridian & Bigbee line.  One is conscious of trains in the South.  It is a true earlier time.”  And: “Maybe the rural South is the last place in America where one is still aware of trains and what they can mean, their awesome possibilities.” “We crossed the Demopolis Rooster Bridge over the Tombigbee River, another still, brown river.  I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South.  A sense of water moccasins.” “On weekday afternoons in towns like Winfield one sees mainly women, moving like somnambulists through the days of their lives.” “The kudzu makes much of Mississippi seem an ominously topiary landscape.” “The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.” Another of the book’s delights is Didion’s portrayal of the Deep South through its motel swimming pools.  Like Neddy Merrill swimming home through a string of Westchester County pools in John Cheever’s indelible short story, “The Swimmer,” Didion swims her way across Dixie, filing regular reports on the water quality.  In Biloxi: “The swimming pool is large and unkempt, and the water smells of fish.”  In Birmingham: “I went swimming, which occasioned great notice in the bar.  ‘Hey, look, there’s somebody with a bikini on.’”  In Winfield: “There was algae in the pool, and a cigarette butt.”  In Oxford: “Later when I was swimming a little girl pointed out that by staying underwater one could hear, by some electronic freak, a radio playing.  I submerged and heard news of the Conservative victory in Great Britain, and ‘Mrs. Robinson.’” In addition to such gems, this book produces an outsized irony.  The meat of the book -- if a 126-page book can be said to be meaty -- was supposed to lead to a magazine article, a “piece” in Didion-speak, that her editors at Life magazine referred to as “The Mind of the White South,” a nod to W.J. Cash’s masterpiece, The Mind of the South.  Indeed, Didion doesn’t talk to a single black person, preferring instead to spend her time with New Orleans aristocrats, white women in laundromats, the white owner of a black radio station, and Walker Percy, who serves up gin and tonics.  The closest Didion comes to acknowledging the plight of black people in the South is a memory of a girlhood visit to her father’s military posting in Durham, N.C., when a bus driver refused to leave the curb until the Didions had moved to the front of the bus, where white people belonged according to the iron dictates of Jim Crow.  Here is Didion’s closest encounter with a black person during her 1970 trip: “On that same afternoon I saw a black girl on the campus: she was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey, and she was quite beautiful, with a NY-LA coastal arrogance.  I could not think what she was doing at Ole Miss, or what she thought about it.”  Tellingly, Didion doesn’t bother to ask.  This section ends with a simple epitaph: “I never wrote the piece.” The irony is that the 13-page section of the book called “California Notes” also failed to produce the hoped-for magazine article, but it led to something much bigger. “This didn’t lead to my writing the piece,” Didion reports, “but eventually it led to -- years later -- Where I Was From (2003).”  That book, a reappraisal of Didion’s long-held myths about her family, her native California, and the rugged individuals who settled the place, is among her very finest writing, and it’s entirely driven by her thoughts on class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.  With deadpan scorn, she sums up the bankrupt myth of the “frontier ethic”: “Show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.”  The inconvenient reality, from the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford on through big agriculture and the aerospace industry, is that the rugged individualism of the frontier ethic has always been supported by generous infusions of federal tax dollars.  Where I Was From is such a richly reported and deeply reasoned book that it’s hard to believe it grew from the closing pages of South and West.  But one thing must be believed: the fact that a major publisher has brought out these jottings in a handsome $21 hardcover is proof that Joan Didion can do no wrong because, quite simply, she was canonized a long time ago and readers have come to love her constructed personality and its coddled singularity/superiority.
Essays

The Ballad of Thom and Joseles: Communities of the Carnal Heart

1. Joseles’s Song Yo canto historias De nuestros cuerpos Durmiendo en la luna Que nunca se olvida… … no me dejes solo como un pajarito enamorado con aire pero sin sus alas My friend Joseles died last summer.  He went missing near Palm Springs in mid-June, and turned up behind a strip mall there in July.  An off-leash dog found his body.  A lot still isn’t clear about how Joseles landed naked in an alley, but what does seem clear now is that he’d been partying at a nearby gay resort, or boys’ club.  Since I embrace the utopian potential of spaces like the bathhouse, I felt an especially pressing need to understand the tragedy, its causes and implications. Joseles and I became friends in college.  We belonged to the student labor coalition, formed a protest affinity group for direct actions, and played in a feminist punk band on campus, Joseles on guitar and myself on bass.  In San Francisco, where Joseles worked for a low-income housing clinic and I for a service workers’ union, our crew made up the membership of Pride at Work, a queer-oriented team of activists for economic justice.  We still played music sometimes; I kept my bass amp at the home Joseles shared with a handful of our friends, where he wrote the song above.  While I lived in a collective nearby, Joseles’s housemates went further: they combined all their possessions and organized the place accordingly, right down to communal beds and lubricant. Our circle from the Bay dispersed; I left years ago, and others followed.  It felt impossibly surreal to see everyone again outside the church, dressed in black in the desert heat.  I spent time with my old friend Diego, reconnecting and piecing together Joseles’s final months.  I learned that Joseles had been ill, jobless, and essentially homeless.  His boyfriend had kicked him out, after which he had couch-surfed until moving back in with his mom there, in Cathedral City.  He’d begun to pursue teaching credentials before he disappeared. Meth spread through gay party culture not long after effective HIV medication; apparently Joseles started slamming up north.  His last boyfriend came down for the funeral, and learned from someone at the boys’ club that Joseles had been there the weekend he vanished.  His host at the club claims to have dropped him off at a bus stop after a weekend of partying, but he also claims not to know about the drugs on which the coroner eventually blamed Joseles’s death.  I’m angry that the police and even a private detective stopped short of determining how his body ended up behind a furniture store.  News reports kept repeating that he “was using gay dating app Grindr,” as if to say, “but of course.” Even without knowing exactly what happened, my greatest anguish was the idea that we as a community failed Joseles.  And it was worse because to an extent, I understand what he might have gone through.  My work in San Francisco had already placed enormous stress on my body and mind, but within nine months of leaving for a new, related assignment, I’d landed in a hospital myself.  I only told a few people what I was dealing with, none of them from our circle back in the Bay.  And it wasn’t just me.  Diego told me he had also endured a mental health crisis, sometime between mine and Joseles’s.  The three of us thrashed about in different directions; Diego bounced back more quickly than I did, but I can imagine how Joseles didn’t manage.  I found myself wishing that even if we couldn’t all have stuck together, we could more easily have plugged into other communal structures that would have seen us through. In a twist Joseles would’ve loved, our friend’s small dog shat all over the church floor, at which point the whole pew of us had to stop crying.  Now his online presence consists mostly of death records, but for a while one could still see traces of his life: fundraising in drag, advising Tenderloin tenants, identifying as a “border Xer.”  And there’s this, which he pinned on the Christian Left Facebook page a few years back, expressing an ideal of bodily and spiritual integration: When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below and the below like the above, and when you make the male like the female and the female like the male, then you will enter the Kingdom. -- Jesus in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas 2. Thom’s Verse In a disturbing coincidence, Joseles’s death echoed that of fellow Stanford poet Thom Gunn.  Gunn too died using meth and was left by an unknown witness, likely a lover.  Joseles and I were in college then, but Gunn, 72 when he died, had a penchant for exactly the type my friend would become: unemployed and semi-homeless, with a habit.  Yet those supplying Joseles were likely Gunn’s own sort: successful, white, and older.  Gunn’s final book, Boss Cupid, includes a handful of poems on seduction and speed with young partners.  In “Front Door Man,” he asks Cupid about one such visitor, “Are you appointing me/ To hold him safe tonight/ Or use him for my delight?”  Gunn died in his own room, unnoticed by his housemates until later in the day. Gunn and his partner, Mike Kitay, met at Cambridge.  Gunn came west for Kitay’s military service, and to Stanford for an M.F.A. in 1954.  He joined the Berkeley faculty in 1958, but gave up tenure there in the ‘60s to escape department meetings.  Starting in 1971, Gunn and Kitay lived in the Haight on Cole Street, sharing a house with lovers and friends.  Until Gunn died, and later Kitay, residents faithfully adhered to a schedule of designated cooking nights, eating together each evening.  Edmund White considered them “commune dwellers,” and poet August Kleinzahler called it “an unusually stable domestic situation by any standards.”  In his 1992 book The Man with Night Sweats, Gunn depicts that sense of tight-knit community as expanding well beyond his home: The warmth investing me Led outward through mind, limb, feeling, and more In an involved increasing family. Contact of friend led to another friend, Supple entwinement through the living mass Which for all that I knew might have no end, Image of an unlimited embrace. Gunn uses the past tense because as in many of the book’s poems, he goes on to mourn the ravages of AIDS.  While the literary world had often dismissed his earlier volumes on gay life in San Francisco, this one was a hit.  But following it with Boss Cupid, Gunn reminds his readers that the entwined limbs’ embrace was an unapologetically erotic one.  In “Saturday Night,” he laments the passing of that age, when bathhouses represented a “community of the carnal heart.”  He writes of that time, If, furthermore, Our Dionysian experiment To build a city never dared before Dies without reaching to its full extent, At least in the endeavor we translate Our common ecstasy to a brief ascent Of the complete, grasped, paradisal state Against the wisdom pointing us away. 3.  A City Never Dared Before Gunn lived much of his life by the principle of free love: a deliberate transcendence of socially prescribed coupling practices.  Communal play settings can be a part of this and often are -- but for those of us eschewing the nuclear model, chosen family like Gunn’s is essential. The concept of free love has an estimable past.  Historically it has revolved around rights for women and gays.  Many of its advocates have associated marriage in particular with colonial-style social control.  Free love (also called sex radicalism in the past) was especially fundamental to communally- and culturally-minded feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, Natalie Barney, and Lou Andreas-Salomé.  All of these women prized both their personal independence and their close ties to lovers and friends.  Wollstonecraft and her partner William Godwin lived separately in their shared Polygon home.  Expatriate Barney hosted legendary Left Bank salons at the Villa Trait d’Union, a similar conjoined domicile with lesbian partner Romaine Brooks.  Andreas-Salome, a pioneering psychoanalyst of women’s sexuality, set out to found the Winterplan commune with Friedrich Nietzsche and Paul Rée while declining to marry either.  In her anarchist classic Marriage and Love, Emma Goldman made a passionate case against hegemonic monogamy and the bourgeois family unit.  Bolshevik diplomat Alexandra Kollontai promoted free love while founding the Soviet Women’s Department (unsurprisingly, Joseph Stalin put the kibosh on that message). Leading up to the 1967 “Summer of Love,” the cause gained greater traction.  Seeking to cross received boundaries, thinkers, artists, and activists advanced what Michel Foucault called “a different economy of bodies and pleasures.”  In the popular narrative of Aquarian-era free love, men abdicated responsibility while women bore the costs of family planning.  Certainly this is a constant from Hester Prynne to Billie Jean.  But back in the Bay Area, a number of projects more seriously explored different styles of intimacy.  One of these was San Francisco’s Kerista group, which practiced a regimented form of communal relationship: four clusters of six or seven people sharing flats in the Haight, rotating partners according to a schedule.  Keristans widely publicized ideas we now associate with polyamory.  Beyond that, the men obtained vasectomies and received nine-point tutorials on cunnilingus.  As a clan they put out comic books, engaged in public “Gestalt-o-Rama” rap sessions, and ran a successful tech business.  Another East Bay group has since the ‘70s lived in purple-painted buildings it calls the “MoreHouses.”  They held the first public demonstration of a female orgasm, and still host related workshops. While the gay bathhouse may have entered the public consciousness in the Stonewall period, records in the U.S. date back over 100 years, when the Gershwins managed one such New York facility.  The baths grew in popularity over the midcentury -- and in the ‘70s, with sites like the Barracks of Gunn’s poem, the BDSM club took root.  Fetish art, commercial dungeons, and a gay leather scene had all existed underground.  But determined sex radicals like Cynthia Slater brought kink practices into the light, amid scorching controversy within the LGBT and feminist movements.  San Francisco’s early gay pride parades banned nascent SM groups like Slater’s, and feminist conferences splintered over the subject of power play.  Noted personalities like Foucault and Robert Mapplethorpe patronized the exclusive Mineshaft in New York and pansexual Catacombs in San Francisco.  Painfully though, by the time the close community understood HIV well enough to effectively quell its spread, Foucault, Slater and Mapplethorpe had all succumbed. Apps like Grindr have changed bathhouse culture, moving more action to private venues, while kink is available for mass consumption at San Francisco’s annual Folsom Street Fair.  Meanwhile in the ‘90s, all-night discos morphed into circuit party club-crawls, like Folsom’s Dore Alley for men and Palm Springs’s Dinah Shore week for women.  In Cape Cod, early artists’ colony Provincetown has become legendary for gay tourism and festivals.  The fall Women’s Week, for instance, pitches itself “between a safe haven and a party.” At the same time, mixed households of polyamorous individuals are dotting major cities’ landscapes.  While providing an accepting environment for residents’ relationship choices, complexes like the Bushwick Hacienda function less like cooperatives than adult dorms.  Burning Man, or as Joseles called it, “white people act crazy week,” is basically a circuit party with many straight attendees: sex, drugs, and copious spending.  He once went with only a shopping cart, making a salient point about the so-called “gift economy.” Viewed from one angle though, Burners descend from Kerista.  The Keristans believed in science, and took up early Apple computers as a way to generate income for the commune.  They rented the machines out of a shop they called Utopian Technologies, and soon offered training, support, and repairs.  By the late ‘80s the business, then called Abacus, became Northern California’s top Macintosh dealer.  The commune shared the profits equally among members, but plenty of Keristans still identified less as techies than hippies.  Many removed themselves to more tranquil lives in the redwoods or Hawaii, but some remained in San Francisco and joined other companies.  The wider shift to yuppie swinger culture, along with the AIDS epidemic, points toward the state of the scene today: a reorientation of free love from a communal commitment to a transactional experience. Thom Gunn’s household lived on in the Haight, but other gay libertines found life in the cities too compromising.  With family roles a feminist battleground, groups of radical lesbians had moved to rural areas to develop land trusts and invent a shared life.  One contingent of gay men followed a similar path, and might hold inspiration for a carnal community future. 4. Entering the Kingdom Harry Hay was a sailor, stunt-rider, Stanford dropout and Kinsey subject active in the Communist Party.  He founded pioneering gay rights group the Mattachine Society in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, in 1950.  In 1954 he met his life partner and took on a role in his kaleidoscope business, and in the 1960s they helped start the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO).  After Stonewall birthed the Gay Liberation Front, Hay chaired its Los Angeles chapter, coordinating events like a “gay-in” at Griffith Park.  He and his partner spent the 1970s in New Mexico, where they were involved in gay and indigenous causes.  They returned to LA in 1978, and planned a gay retreat to Arizona for the following year.  The ashram space they booked there was for 75 men, but three times as many came.  Participants found the four days transformative without drugs as Hay urged them to “throw off the ugly green frog-skin of hetero-imitation.”  The men studied botany, health and healing practices, and spiritual matters, joining in performance art and erotic rituals, dressed in little but bells and rainbow makeup.  They called themselves Radical Faeries. The next year they convened a group of 400 in Colorado, where they discussed a desire for their own communally held land.  An existing leftist collective at Short Mountain in Tennessee had mostly dispersed; the Faeries took to the spot and created a community land trust.  The group continues to inhabit the location, and more recent transplants there have found ways to protect the land and care for aging communards.  Today, about 20 men live in home-built cabins on site and hold major gatherings twice annually.  They have a network of outposts in other states and countries, and a neighborhood of other queer collectives -- younger and more diverse -- has sprung up around them in middle Tennessee.  The Faeries there use solar power, spring water, and wood fires, grow their own food and eat nightly meals together, operating on consensus. Before I left San Francisco, my fellow radicals and I had talked about eventually creating a settlement where we could provide shelter and fellowship to each other and others.  Rather than the countryside, we hoped to set up somewhere more urban, believing that together we could do more for people around us.  Soon our lives pointed too many disparate ways; we were in our mid-20s.  Maybe that particular group wasn’t designed to last. Yet life’s crises aren’t all behind any of my friends or me.  Most of us will face infirmity of one kind or another, regardless of habits or careers.  Those who reject the sequestration of the patriarchal-style family can’t just replicate it individually, where isolation is even more dangerous.  Social events and hookup apps might offer chances for play, but without a net of close, caring companions, they can never suffice.  We have to carve out communal space for our own ways of living and loving.  We might not all share sex toys or go off the grid, but we can save economically and environmentally by aggregating supplies and equipment.  We can facilitate exchange of ideas in a way that benefits our wider community, and collaborate on projects without having to run a start-up.  We can share aspects of our play without needing to all sleep together, and cultivate honesty free of judgment.  We can look out for each other’s health, and if we worry for someone, seek to reduce harm.  And if one of us dies in our 70s pursuing a good time, at least we will have made it that far. We have nothing to lose but our frog-skin.
Essays

Why the Link Between Edward Gorey and John Bellairs Remains Unbreakable

In the second episode of the first season of True Detective, entitled “Seeing Things,” the characters Rust Cohle and Marty Hart are investigating the murder of Dora Lange in the year 1995. Their investigation leads them to a burnt-out, crumbling church in the middle of a desolate Louisiana swampland. Upon exiting the car, Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) looks to his side and sees a flock of birds rise from the ground. The birds soon begin to synchronize their movement, forming a sign or symbol in the air. For a moment, Rust looks puzzled -- or as if he has experienced deja vu. Then, without a word, he moves on, and the detectives continue toward the burnt-out church. Three years ago, while I was watching that specific scene in that specific episode, it immediately reminded me of something, but I couldn’t place what it was. Watching the scene play out, the setting itself gave the scene a sense of foreboding, while the random hallucination added a thrilling sense of mystery and the fantastic. It reminded me of books I had read as a child -- young adult horror books. Ones with remarkable covers that had frightened and enchanted me as a boy. But the names escaped me. I finally found relief after a series of Google searches (as one does). The books that one brief scene in True Detective had dredged from my memory were by a young adult author named John Bellairs. And the cover art that stood so vividly in my mind, pen and ink drawings full of shadowy forms and eerie faces, were by the artist and illustrator Edward Gorey. In his lifetime, from 1938 to 1991, John Bellairs authored 15 young adult horror books. His work is distinguished by three different “series” that focused on a particular teenage boy protagonist: Lewis Barnevalt, Anthony Monday, and Johnny Dixon. In each series of books, the protagonist becomes wrapped in a mystery that involves fighting some force of evil: deceased knights, maniacal wizards, or British occultists bent on destroying the world. John Bellairs’s most famous young adult novel was his 1973 debut, The House with a Clock in Its Walls. But the Bellairs books I knew best as a child were those in the Johnny Dixon series. In them, Johnny, who lives with his grandparents in 1950s Duston Heights, Mass., because “his mother was dead and his father was flying a jet in the Air Force” (an actual description from The Secret of the Underground Room) finds himself involved in frightening adventures with his friend Professor Roderick Childermass. Professor Childermass is an active professor in his 70s who is cranky, smokes Balkan Sobranie cigarettes (one of the oldest brands of luxury tobacco in the world), an expert on the occult, and loves to bake cakes (with fondant icing) and other complicated desserts with Johnny. What gives the Johnny Dixon books much of their appeal is the frank way in which matters of the occult are treated by the characters. Professor Childermass is known to say things to Johnny like, “You were right when you said the ghosts of the living sometimes appear to people,” without further explanation. Leaving aside how profound a line like that is when closely analyzed (it is truly something Joyce might have included in the Scylla and Charybdis episode of Ulysses), the forthright and simplistic acceptance of elements of the fantastic is charming, even to an adult reader. There’s no messing around in theories or justification. The logic is simple: some things are just true and they are also just scary. “John’s stories regularly feature some sort of horror or and supernatural,” says Craig Seemann, who runs the comprehensive John Bellairs website, Bellairsia. “Examples of someone trying to bring about the end of the world, someone attempting to find a way to extend his natural life by supernaturally stealing the life of someone younger, or someone seeking revenge from beyond the grave are all presented as genuine. That is, these are very real events that are taking place with lasting repercussions and it is up to our heroes to find the courage do the right thing.” Now, this all might sound like well-trod territory in a post-Harry Potter world, but what set the Bellairs books apart, and perhaps ingrained them so deeply in my memory, were Edward Gorey’s cover illustrations. Before his death in 2000, Gorey had a long and fascinating career as an artist, one that took him from the Art Institute of Chicago, to the Poet’s Theatre at Harvard (working alongside Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and others), to a position at Doubleday in the art department, to printmaking and producing experimental theatre in Cape Cod during the latter part of his life. Gorey’s greatest career success is perhaps his costume design on the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula, which won him two Tony Awards. However, what he may very well be best known for are his covers for John Bellairs’s novels. “To me, Bellairs and Gorey are a single, two-headed beast,” Grady Hendrix told me. Hendrix is an author of horror and science fiction novels and one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival. “The covers and the illustrations by Gorey felt adult, not geared for kids, and that made all the difference. Whereas a lot of children’s book illustration at the time was joyfully colored with rounded curves and soft textures, Gorey’s drawings were a funereal black and white, with barbed edges and spiky textures.” Indeed, Gorey’s illustrations give off a sense of hopelessness and terror. Very often they perfectly match and heighten scenes from the novels. In The Chessmen of Doom, Johnny, Professor Childermass, and Johnny’s trusty sidekick, Fergie, are investigating a mystery on an island in the middle of lake Umbagog in Maine. A storm drives them into a chapel. “The chapel was empty. Rows of varnished pews stretched before the communion rail, and on the altar six tall candles burned. Before the rail three coffins stood on sawhorses.” Inside the chapel, they encounter a “man in a long black cassock...His hands were pale and bony, and his face reminded Johnny of a skull. His red-rimmed eyes burned in deep-set sockets.” Gorey’s corresponding illustration in the book’s frontispiece shows a man dressed in a long, black robe, with a skull for a head. Behind him, six thin, white, candles are lit, their bases shaded with heavy ink lines. The man faces Johnny, the Professor, and Fergie, each one with a uniform, non-plussed, almost childish look on their faces. Below them sit three identical coffins penned fully in black. For many readers, it is nearly impossible to separate Bellairs from Gorey. “I used to stare at the Gorey covers and frontispieces, matching them to scenes in the books,” says Leanna Chappell, a 36-year-old librarian and head of youth services at the Swanton Public Library in Ohio. “Gorey does a great job of conveying creepiness without being gratuitous, and the books have a similar feel.” Seemann draws other parallels that extend beyond the duo’s collaboration in print. “I’ve always found Gorey’s work to be wonderfully disconnected from anything contemporary, call it Victorian or Edwardian or Weirdian,” he says. “This goes hand-in-hand with John’s novels: novels written of a time-period long after the event. John’s books are of another time, but a place strangely familiar.” However, despite their interwoven legacy in the minds of readers, Bellairs and Gorey never met.  A member of The Edward Gorey House Museum in Yarmouth, Mass., went so far as to say that they may never have corresponded. Andreas Brown who helped Edward Gorey establish the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust (and who was a friend of Gorey for many years) acknowledged this to likely be the case. “I haven’t seen any correspondence between them in the archives. They would send him the manuscript and he would read it and then do a cover that he thought was appropriate for the story,” Brown told me in a phone conversation. “It doesn’t mean there couldn’t be two or three letters in miscellaneous correspondence. But as far as we are aware, they never communicated.” At 84, Brown has spent a large portion of his time immersed in the life and work of Edward Gorey. They met at the legendary Gotham Book Mart in New York, which Brown bought from Frances Steloff in 1967. After helping Gorey set up his trust, Brown served as something of a financial guardian angel for the artist. And the picture Brown paints of the relationship between Gorey’s illustrations for John Bellairs’s novels is one merely of a professional obligation. “Gorey was at that time doing jobs that he wasn’t always happy with,” Brown says. “Publishers were putting deadlines on him. But at the same time he needed the money.” In fact, according to Brown, later in his life, Gorey wanted to disown his cover illustrations for Bellairs. “He called me up one day and said, ‘Let’s get all of the Bellairs work out of the archives.’ He just didn’t think it represented him and what he was trying to do. He saw it as his grunt work.” The relationship between authors of children’s books and their illustrators is traditionally more of a professional arrangement than close collaboration. Usually, a publisher will keep the author and illustrator as separate as possible in the publication process so as not to throw any complications into production. However, there have been iconic author and illustrator pairings that have broken this unwritten rule, such as Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake and A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard (who illustrated the Winnie-the-Pooh books) among others. And Gorey’s disconnect from those beloved illustrations would most certainly come as a shock to readers who still cherish John Bellairs novels. “There are not as many anymore,” Leanna Campbell told me based on her experiences at the Swanton Public Library. “But they're still out there, especially fans of Gorey's work.” Indeed, they are still out there, especially on Twitter, where readers still show their appreciation of Bellairs’s with snapshots of pages from the book featuring their (or their kids’) favorite quotes. Or, more likely, they are sharing their favorite Gorey cover. Even Brown, when asked to explain why people might still have a fondness for the Gorey and Bellairs pairing, was able to find a fond memory. “There was an exhibit of Gorey’s illustrations for the Bellairs books at Gotham Book Mart. I don’t recall what year,” he told me. “We had sketches and preliminary drawings and things like that. A large portion of the people that bought them were young guys from Wall Street. They all read these books when they were in elementary school. The show sold out very quickly.” Like those young guys from Wall Street, I had read John Bellairs books in elementary school. But the names John Bellairs and Edward Gorey had receded into my own memory until a single scene in True Detective pulled them back. It would be tenuous at best to say that a prestige television show -- one full of more grotesque horror than any Bellairs book or Gorey illustration -- about a fraught partnership reflects in any way on the relationship between the two men. So, I won’t try to draw any conclusions there. Instead, after re-reading several of the Johnny Dixon books, which I ordered online in a rush of excitement to research this story, the only conclusion I can come to is that John Bellairs’s stories and Edward Gorey’s illustrations still make a perfect match. The moments of horror in Bellairs’s fiction are abrupt and unsettling: a glance towards a window reveals a pale face pressed against the glass, a ritual is performed with a bloody human skull, in the catacombs of chapels our heroes encounter the mummified bodies of monks. And on every cover, there is a Gorey illustration capturing one specific moment of despair exactly as it is described on the page. Craig Seemann articulated the creative synchronicity between Bellairs and Gorey through an anecdote once told to him by Al Myers, who was a friend of Bellairs at Notre Dame. According to Myers, he and Bellairs were browsing a bookstore and came across The Fatal Lozenge, an illustrated alphabet book by Edward Gorey. According to Seemann, “Myers says that Bellairs was particularly fond of Z, which was illustrated with a Zouave [a class of French Army infantry members in the 19th and 20th centuries] hoisting an impaled baby on a bayonet with an accompanying verse. In short, Bellairs appears to have been an early fan of Gorey’s work. The Fatal Lozenge was published in 1960. It’s odd to realize that in less than 15 years, John would be a published author with Gorey as his illustrator, too.” So, in many ways it doesn’t matter that Gorey and Bellairs may never have met, or that Gorey saw his illustrations for the books as nothing but a means to an end. Sometimes, for whatever reason, some things in life just fit. And something you see as inconsequential, a job, a relationship, a tossed off song or illustration, can wind up defining your legacy. Some things in life are just true.
Essays

Dragons Are for White Kids with Money: On the Friction of Geekdom and Race

I love Stranger Things, not just because it is pure nostalgia for the films that helped shaped my early childhood, but for the simple fact that in the opening scene, a young child of color is playing Dungeons & Dragons with no shame.  It is hard to be a geek more often than not, and when you are a geek who also happens to be a person of color, things only become more complicated. There is a certain racial coding to geek and/or nerd culture. The required reading of geekdom, whether fantasy (Lord of the Rings, the Cthulu Mythos, or Conan) or science fiction (Hyperion, Dune, or Ender's Game) are novels that focus on predominately white characters, featuring tokenism at best and downright racial animosity at worst. The canon of fantasy and sci-fi authors is overwhelmingly white. In the classic early-'90s show, Family Matters, it is easy to see such.  The uber-geek extraordinaire Steven Urkel can’t dance, lacks style and panache -- he’s the antithesis of cool.  When he invents a machine to turn himself into the perfect lover, Steven creates Stefan Urquelle, a suave, handsome, stylish young man who instantly wins hearts.  Really, all that happened is that Steve went from a coded “hyper-whiteness,” as Mary Bucholtz puts it, to simply being what audiences expect a young black man to be.   His extreme intelligence as Steven is marked as white while his more corporeal attractions as Stefan are marked as black.  It is code-switching taken to the extreme. With the expectation that geekiness is an embrace of whiteness, what happens when you are in fact not white? I am a geek, and I am Chicano. Over the course of my life I have learned to be both things proudly, but this presents a paradox. How can I justify my geek-cred while also maintaining my street-cred? Often, I cannot. I am a geek, and I am a brown man, and this has earned me a lot of shit from both sides. On the one hand, I can run a D&D campaign about how poorly certain races like half-elves are treated, and my group will rail against the injustice of it all, but if I bring up any real-world situation of inequality, I get the cold shoulder at best or at worst booed down and given “focus on the game” lectures. As Junot Díaz allegedly said: “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 in Elvish, but put in two lines of Spanish and [white people] think we’re taking over.” But growing up around my more working-class family, I was teased for reading, and I was especially teased for reading books like Redwall or Lord of the Rings. That fantasy crap was for losers, gueros, and jotos. Some of my family even thought that Dungeons & Dragons was a gateway to Satanism and possession. (This was long before the Harry Potter sensation and attendant pushback.) In high school in Los Angeles, I had a hard time creating a network of geeks simply because the price of entry into the geek world was too high, or my friends simply did not want to associate themselves with something so clearly “white.”  The insults that my small band of geeks endured while we played Magic: The Gathering or discussed Dragon Ball Z were pretty inventive.  Even now, some of my students snicker or laugh derisively when I make fantasy or science-fiction references, simply for the fact that, and I quote: “Dragons be for white kids with money.” It's hard to argue against this reasoning when the most popular fantasy novel and TV series since Lord of the Rings features a platinum-blonde white woman saving thousands of adoring and helpless brown people. You’d think that when I found geekdom, I’d be welcomed in with open arms, but my ethnic identifiers have often caused friction.  One of my favorite geeky pastimes is Warhammer 40K, a tabletop miniatures game.  I have played this game off and on since I was about 12, and its sweeping background of grimdark science-fantasy hits a lot of my geek buttons.  Some years ago when I was building an army, I wanted to paint my soldiers to be more reflective of me, my family, and my friends.  When I asked an employee at a store how I would paint darker skin, he laughed.  He both didn’t know how you’d go about doing this because he hadn’t thought about it, and he thought it was silly that I wanted to do it.  I have played against armies with not so subtly painted SS symbols on the sides of tanks.  When I have spoken Spanish to one of my few Latino gaming friends I have heard in response, “No speaka tha Taco” from a passerby. After a lot of years, I have met a good number of others like me, but even when gathered together, there is still the underlying restriction of “don’t be too ethnic.”  If you want to make an observation about how something was casually or not-so-casually racist or commiserate in some shared experience of prejudice, you have to do that quietly, to the side.  That is not something to be brought to the forefront of the conversation in mixed company.  To some of my friends or acquaintances in the geek world, I am just too sensitive about these things, or they never really think of me as “Mexican." I am too educated, too financially secure. If I am a little too loud, have a bit too much sabor at times, it can be awkward.  In short, when I violate the codes and tenets of geekdom, I am reminded of my transgression, and in some cases, ostracized for it.  And to some of my friends, students, and family, I speak “too white” or “forget where I came from.” I cannot be myself without violating either of these expectations, so I must either switch between personae depending on the situation, or learn to accept the friction.  And I am not alone.  There are many, many non-white geeks. A lot of the standard stigma of geekdom is starting to subside as it becomes more and more mainstream and thus marketable, but some stigmas clearly die harder than others. Geekdom is now massively profitable, and so geekdom is expanding because those who profit from it understand that a larger audience is better for the bottom line. There are now celebrity geeks, although they are overwhelmingly white. But I am not alone, even if it once felt that way.  I have seen how much my local game stores and comic shops have changed, and I’ve gone from being the only brownish face in a store to being one of several, and depending on the geek endeavor, one of many.  Even games are changing now, and one need only compare the '70s artwork from Dungeons & Dragons to the artwork released today to see the whole shift in representation, both with women and people of color. There is progress; we now have an unapologetically black super hero series in Luke Cage. There is BlerDCon (Black Nerd), and Blerds (the term is typically inclusive of any non-white nerd) even get a shout-out in a song (thanks Childish Gambino). Of course, this doesn't mean everything is awesome, as you can see the pushback against this greater representation, whether it's Gamergate or the stink over the Hugo awards.  There are plenty of voices lamenting that SF and Fantasy are moving away from this paradigm, and most of them pretend that Octavia Butler didn't write “real” SF or that Ted Chiang is “just ok.”  If geekdom was never coded as hyper-white, why then is there such a loud resistance to the inclusion of non-white, non-male, non-binary, and non-heterosexual stories and characters? Geek culture is changing because its demographics are changing, but work has to come from all sides. We Blerds (or whatever nomenclature you prefer) need to also take an active hand in creating geek culture, especially continuing the increase in authors of color engaging in these genres. This of course is often easier said than done, since access into these worlds has not been smooth. The geek world needs to open its doors to us, giving space and visibility to non-white creators and characters.  The geek world needs to stop pretending that it is only a white world. Plenty of properties are starting to do this, but white geeks need to shut their peers down when there is pushback against this inclusion. As people of color, we cannot enforce strictures of racial or cultural credibility through something as simple as our goddamn hobbies, and as geeks, we cannot tacitly accept that being geeky means embracing a rejection of racial or ethnic identity, or allowing others to dictate that non-white cultures are non-normative. In short, we need to live in the friction. Because we are awesome, even if that's hard for others to see. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

Fear and Literati in Las Vegas: On ‘The Believer’s’ Move to Sin City

ZZ Packer donned a judge’s robe and banged the gavel for a trial argument-themed reading inside an old federal courthouse. Later, Miranda July read aloud the sexual fantasies of 30 women in her audience. And before each of those, Luís Alberto Urrea shared psalms about his Tijuana childhood as hummingbirds bobbed, a coyote yipped, and the sun fell behind sandstone bluffs at Red Rock Canyon, where the first reading took place. The “American Dreams” festival on April 21 to 22 in Las Vegas was as quirky, earnest, and sprawling an occasion as you’d expect from a happening co-organized by The Believer magazine and Black Mountain Institute (BMI), the literary center based at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Jim James from My Morning Jacket performed. And Dave Eggers interviewed Carrie Brownstein about her serial reinventions as a rock star, writer, actor, director, and wedding officiator. Young talents from UNLV’s creative writing program and McSweeney’s 826 workshops took the stage. The inaugural event was a welcome twist on the staid book-fest format. But it was the weekend’s nuptial vibe that left me, and other local and visiting writers, most intrigued for what’s yet to come. After 14 years in the McSweeney’s family The Believer is moving to Las Vegas to be edited and published at BMI. Joshua Wolf Shenk, the institute’s executive director, joked during “American Dreams” that the two had started dating during the festival planning process, and this being the wedding capital of the world, they’ve decided to elope. The magazine’s founders, Vendela Vida and Heidi Julavits, will act as consultants while Shenk -- author of Lincoln’s Melancholy and Powers of Two -- will serve as editor. The Believer was on a printing hiatus in 2016 but will re-launch in that form on August 1. As before, its contributors will be based around the U.S., but BMI is seeking a managing editor to work from Las Vegas. To recap for those who are skeptical: Yes, a national arts and culture magazine that prides itself on earnestness will be headquartered in Sin City. Indeed, Las Vegas has a thriving literary community (which, ahem, also includes the lit journal I help edit, Witness). The fact that there’s a “Man Bites Dog” newsyness to some of this is precisely why it has transformative potential. The vows columns might note that The Believer and Las Vegas share a certain weirdness, both being colorful products that were designed to spite the landscapes that bore them. A wedding toast might say that bringing indie culture to the ultimate resort town is a great McSweeneyian adventure. But who cares about that? I’m excited for it because Las Vegas is always troubled, always relevant, and so an ideal place for the literati to set-up a magazine bureau. Julavits, The Believer’s founding editor, said during a pop-up reading on the eve of “American Dreams” that Las Vegas was already the magazine’s spiritual home. One of its most-heralded (or depending on your view of fact-checking, notorious) essays was John D’Agata’s “What Happens There” about a Las Vegas teen suicide and the affecting, tawdry details that surrounded it. That essay’s title nicely deleted Sin City’s promise to keep all misdeeds local, and the book adaptation, About A Mountain, followed suit with a collage of facts and interviews that evoke stark human truths about Southern Nevada. The region's economic woes, toxic policies, social isolation, and impending environmental crises have rarely been so poetically aggregated. But that book came out in 2010. Here are some 2016-2017 facts about Nevada’s national standing that deserve a fresh look: third highest unemployment rate in the U.S., number one in underemployment, sixth in home foreclosures, third highest drug overdose and suicide rates, number one in gambling addiction, 51st in public education. Hopes are that while The Believer will remain unfettered in its scope, Las Vegas will influence its creative and moral urgencies if not directly inspire another essay or two. More than 75 percent of the state’s population lives in the Las Vegas Valley, where there’s obviously much to glean about the American experience. Nevada also has the largest percentage of undocumented immigrants in the nation, a tense urban-rural divide, public lands fights, and a water shortage attributed to climate change. During his savage journey into this desert Hunter S. Thompson stated that the American dream resides “somewhere in the Las Vegas area” -- not somewhere on the strip. Yet when it comes fiction, festival participant Laura McBride’s debut book We Are Called to Rise, Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, and Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch are the only recent novels I can think of that captured this city as more than a row of shimmeringtowers packed with gamblers and prostitutes. At a bar in the El Cortez, Las Vegas’s oldest and most-revered budget casino, right before the pop-up reading on the festival’s eve, I listened to the local poet and festival reader Angelo Ligori riff about the way people describe the building’s smell. “It’s always like cigarette ash and broken dreams,” he said, “carpet cleaner and addiction, perfume and sadness -- a specific detail and like a grim takeaway.” I laughed, knowing I’m guilty of those myself. Yet I prefer former BMI fellow Timothy O’Grady's assessment that casinos are “like morgues for the half-dead,” my own footnote being that thanks to a few strong unions, the resorts also allow tens of thousands of low-skill workers to enjoy middle-class lives. While Vegas is known as a “last chance city for last chance people," it’s a place, too, where a cocktail waitress can provide her kids with good healthcare and purchase a home. Locals are keen for Vegas stories that show more depth and nuance, and which look beyond the stip. At the El Cortez event the readers had to compete with slot machine bells and jackpot music every time a door opened to the room, which encapsulated the challenge writers face in breaking through the cacophony of noise and lights that leave anyone curious about this city googly-eyed. Taking instead a bird’s-eye view reveals how pernicious that distraction can be. Both Donald Trump and Steve Wynn, the Republican National Committee’s finance chair, have their names written in gold letters on the skyline, and Nevada’s largest newspaper was purchased in 2016 by their ally, billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. A local first-amendment lawyer once told me this is the last American oligarchy; anyone interested in exploring that issue should fly out. But, to ride the bird-eye metaphor to its grave, it’s also a place where light pollution kills. Birds come here to feed on moths and end up smacking into reflective glass. Fortunately, “American Dreams” wasn’t devoid of politics. At the courthouse reading ZZ Packer delivered a farcical New York Times bestseller list for the Trump era in which books like What to Expect When You’re Expecting Political Change and To Russia with Love made the cut. At the Red Rock Canyon reading, Heidi Julavits shared a madcap sex dream involving the 45th president, and then when a helicopter flew overhead, she yelled, “Oh f---, here he comes!” There were immigration stories and lyrical calls for resistance. By turns poignant and gonzo, it offered the boost of idealism, humor, and anger that Southern Nevada has been desperate for. At one point Brownstein said, “Las Vegas is a good place to cry alone in your car.” That joke rubbed some locals the wrong way. But if, when The Believer settles in, it turns its gaze on this landscape, with more how and why to go with that quickie gross impression, perhaps the same locals will shed a few cathartic tears. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Essays

Make Contributors’ Notes Great Again

1. A couple of weeks ago, browsing through a literary magazine, I turned -- like most writers -- to the final section: the contributors’ notes. As my finger traced over the two dozen or so names, I felt a giddy mixture of apprehension and excitement: Who did I make it in with? Am I sandwiched between a 68-page Joyce Carol Oates story told from the point-of-view of a Steve Bannon-a-like and a Ron Carlson piece waxing romantically about his boyhood in Utah? No. All were unfamiliar names -- a combined mass of the up-and-coming MFA students of America, a respectable mid-tier covey of professors, and one or two writers from outside of the academic system. The series of quasi-biographical statements made references to a wife here, a dog there, a college town somewhere in the Midwest. The contributors’ notes manifested as potted CVs, detailing professorships, university press books, semi-prestigious fellowships, names of MFA programs. Almost 90 percent of the biographical space listed the other literary journals the writers had been in, other places readers could hunt down their work. The stream of journal titles became an indicator of stature, a look-see-here, I’m in the Kenyon Review! And you’re not. My own note was just as guilty of journal-shaming. Still, in my time reading literary magazines, I’ve read some egregious proclamations, including one obscure novelist declaring his work to be the heir to Franz Kafka’s oeuvre. On other occasions: I’ve ripped out the cutesy baby pictures published in Glimmer Train; I’ve wondered if anyone contacts the writers who include their e-mail addresses and Twitter handles; I’ve laughed at writers’ insistence on providing wacky lists of mundane and weird jobs, these romantic notions of the literary outsider. 2. Some years ago, I published a short story involving an ever more fractious dialogue between the contributors of a made-up journal The Tenure Quarterly Review. Arranged as contributors’ notes, the story assaulted the ponderous and solipsistic nature of the genre. To complicate matters, the story had its own tumultuous publication history. For some inexplicable reason, the story’s title and my name appeared above the journal’s real contributors’ notes and my story was nowhere to be seen. My name hung there as the author of other people’s lives. When I showed a close friend the magazine, he joked I was the Creator, the God of these poets and fiction writers. In truth, I was much less than this. I was an embarrassed MFA student. No doubt there had been a botch-up at the printers, or someone had figured out the actual contributors’ notes were more compelling than my story. When I wrote the story for workshop, the year before, our teacher Matthew Vollmer had been putting together an anthology for Norton. Co-edited by David Shields, the book -- Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts -- included stories that used the postmodern apparatus of inventive form. We read such stories as Robin Hemley’s “Reply All” (e-mail chain), Rob Cohen’s “The Varieties of Romantic Experience: An Introduction” (lecture), Rick Moody’s “Primary Sources” (works cited), and Daniel Orozco’s “Officers Weep” (police blotter). At the time in workshop, Vollmer termed such work artifact fiction. A good deal of the forms were nonfiction and taken from academia or the world of employment. When the class took on this writing challenge, it occurred to me this sort of form appropriation were our last impotent jabs at the jobs we had left behind or were facing post-graduation. The day of my workshop, one smart aleck noted how my chosen form had already been done. I glanced up, mystified. The student went onto discuss Michael Martone’s 2005 story collection Michael Martone, an entire book of fictional contributor notes about Michael Martone. Very quickly I realized I had written an imitation without ever having read the original. Worse than feeling parasitical, I felt derivative. After class, I bought a copy of Martone’s book, but stopped short of reading it. I changed my story from revolving around a single character to be polyphonous, with each new contributor’s note having its own voice and role in the story. After some polishing, Vollmer liked the differences from Martone’s set-up and encouraged me to send out the story. Within a couple of weeks, a journal snapped up the story. After the misprinting fiasco, it took a long while for the story to be seen in print. E-mails to the editors went unanswered. Facebook requests were denied. It was not until AWP the following year that I managed to convince one of the higher-ups to run the story properly. In my follow-up e-mail, I included a very short and sober biography; a contributor’s note so dull and bland it would be invisible. 3. Let’s call this essay what it is: a call-to-action. We have the chance to make contributors’ notes better. Perhaps “Great Again,” if you are of a certain political persuasion. Yet, thanks to Mr. Martone, fictionalized pieces feel too done, too passé. Whereas polemics against Donald Trump seem too obvious, too prone to a $1 billion lawsuit. Emoji are too 2010. Morse Code panders to the longshoremen hipster crowd. We need to go post-genre, post-text. I envision the final pages of our nation’s literary magazines to be invisibly divided into sections: each one the equivalent of a blank 4x6 notecard. The voids offer up slates for others to write-in their dreams and aspirations for us. MFA cohorts, parents, well-wishers, or frenemies can fill the spaces. They can rewrite the lives of the writers’ loved/hated ones and ink the lucrative book deals or vanity-publishing ventures. As God-like Creators, these others can tell the stories of agents, editors, cats (both living and deceased), supportive husbands and wives, bitter writer spouses, divorce lawyers, potential bunkmates. And, yes, even the names of future children. Or perhaps we should avoid these pseudo-omnipotent hijinks, and leave the spaces untouched, like a gessoed canvas. The post-text era of contributors’ notes allows us to focus on what matters, 10, 20, 30 pages back: the work. Image Credit: Flickr/Ramunas Geciauskas.
Essays

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.
Essays

At the Firing Squad: The Radical Works of a Young Dostoevsky

1. At 28, Fyodor Dostoevsky was about to die. The nightmare started when the police burst into his apartment and dragged him away in the middle of the night, along with the rest of the Petrashevsky Circle. This was a group made up of artists and thinkers who discussed radical ideas together, such as equality and justice, and occasionally read books. Madmen, clearly. To be fair, the tsar, Nicholas I, had a right to be worried about revolution. The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and it was obvious throughout the world that something was happening. In addition to earlier revolutions in America and France, revolutionary ideas were spreading like a virus around the world through art, literature, philosophy, science, and more. To the younger generation and Russians who suffered most under the current regime, it was exhilarating. For those like Nicholas I, whose power depended on the established order, it was terrifying. So these revolutionaries, most barely in their 20s, were hauled off to the Peter and Paul Fortress, a prison that contained some of Russia’s most vicious criminals. After months of isolation broken up by the occasional interrogation, Dostoevsky and the rest were condemned to death by firing squad. They were marched into the cold. A priest allowed each man to kiss a cross. Then shrouds were draped over their heads, which did nothing to drown out the soul-crushing sound of soldiers raising their rifles as their commander cried out ONE!...TWO!... WAIT! someone cried. The tsar had changed his mind -- the prisoners would be spared! Dostoevsky and the rest had been victims of a hilarious prank Nicholas I sometimes played on prisoners, staging mock-executions before sending them off to Siberia. When the condemned men heard they had been “saved” by their benevolent tsar, some immediately lost their minds. But not Dostoevsky. He held on and endured two brutal years in a Siberian prison, before enduring another two brutal years in the army. His life wasn’t exactly easy after that. But in large part because of all that suffering, he would grow into the author of such classics as Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and more. Plenty of readers know about the later, mature Dostoevsky, but far fewer know about the young man he once was, the one who thought he was moments away from execution. His presence in front of a firing squad may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Dostoevsky’s later writing, in which he was a ferocious opponent of the young generation’s revolutionary ideas, and an equally ferocious defender of the tsar’s authority and the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s no exaggeration to say that Dostoevsky felt the very soul of Russia was at stake. Ivan Turgenev, in his short novel Fathers and Sons, coined the word “nihilists” for these young radicals, who seemed hell bent on smashing the existing society and replacing it with one founded on values inimical to people like Dostoevsky. They were an existential threat to the nation and they are presented as such throughout all of Dostoevsky’s later works. Sometimes their ideas are the focus of his attacks, like in Notes from Underground, which is essentially a rebuttal to the socialist arguments made in What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, (a book that, more than any other, inspired those who would later instigate the Russian Revolution). Other times, the youth of Russia are the explicit enemy. The plot of Demons was directly inspired by the murder of a Russian at the hands of a group not all that different from the Petrashevsky Circle. In fact, Dostoevsky later acknowledged in his Diary of a Writer that, as a young man, he himself might have been swayed to commit such a horrible act. Clearly, the post-Siberia Dostoevsky was a different man than the one who faced down that firing squad, to put it mildly. So how do we understand this abrupt transformation? Perhaps the best way is by exploring Dostoevsky’s early major works -- Poor Folk, The Double, and Netochka Nezvanova -- which offer invaluable insights into just how Dostoevsky became Dostoevsky. 2. Poor Folk, Dostoevsky’s first novel, is in some ways the most atypical novel of his career. First, it is his only epistolary novel, composed of letters between a poor old man, Makar Devushkin, and Varvara Dobroselova, a poor young woman he helps support financially (to the extent that he can). They live humble lives, and struggle with daily life rather than colossal questions about existence or morality. Compared with a book like Crime and Punishment, Poor Folk feels small. The author’s focus is on meticulously outlining the dreary existence that those on the outskirts of society quietly endure every single day. When Varvara receives a flower Makar has bought her, she is overwhelmed with gratitude, and when a father is able to help pay for a birthday gift for his son, he is equally ecstatic. A flower and a birthday gift -- these are important not as symbols but for what they are, tiny tokens of the love that make life bearable. Of course, there are tragedies, too. Friends and family are lost, and the devastation is all the more profound because Dostoevsky’s poor folk have so little to lose. The persistent need for money is always on characters’ minds. Given the extraordinary sympathy Dostoevsky shows his characters and the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle, criticism of society throughout, it’s easy to see why Vissarion Belinsky, the most important Russian critic at the time, deemed it the first “social novel.” It was emblematic of the kind of literature many involved in revolutionary circles thought was the way of the future -- the novel as a cry for social justice, a working-class weapon. Poor Folk is a fine novel, and Dostoevsky demonstrates the kind of negative capability, to use John Keats’s phrase, that would allow him to create characters like Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov, who are discussed by scholars to this day as if they were real people. But it’s absurd to think Poor Folk would have become the national sensation it did and launch the 23-year-old Dostoevsky to literary superstardom had it not been the right kind of book at the right time. Dostoevsky likely didn’t set out to upend the capitalist system with Poor Folk, but it certainly fit in well with a growing trend in literature that focused on the downtrodden and weak, along with the shameful indifference of a society that allowed such suffering to persist. Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat,” also caused a sensation in Russia (and is actually read and written about by Makar in Poor Folk). It also highlighted the indignities that the poor had to endure every day, but like many of Gogol’s stories, there is a supernatural element, in this case involving a ghost. Poor Folk has no such supernatural element. It is painfully, unflinchingly realistic. Consequently, Belinsky and others praised it and predicted nothing but great things for the newly-arrived genius. 3. You’re in your early 20s, your first book is a major national success, and the most influential literary critic in the country has literally declared you are a genius. How would you react? Maybe you’d take the fame and flattery in stride and stay level-headed. But Dostoevsky didn’t, and by all accounts, he became an insufferable jerk. Worse, he was an incredibly sensitive insufferable jerk, unable to handle any criticism. And that was all he got after Poor Folk. Everything he wrote was one commercial disappointment after another. At first people like Belinsky thought it was a temporary slump, and Dostoevsky would bounce back with another great social novel. But Dostoevsky continued to experiment with different kinds of stories, none of which suited the political climate of Russia at the time or the taste of the very critics who had made Dostoevsky a star. In the eyes of most literary circles, Dostoevsky was just a one-hit wonder. One of these “disappointments” was his second major work, The Double. From the very first page, it’s clear that this is not another Poor Folk. It feels like a different species of literature altogether. For one thing, whereas his first book focused on two characters and a community of other people in their lives, The Double is all about Goliadkin, a nobody who finds merely existing a difficult task. He is nervous, jumpy, paranoid, awkward, and incapable of a sane conversation. At multiple points, people interrupt his jumbled, meandering monologues to confess they have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. And this is before his exact double, also named Goliadkin, gets hired at his office. But the similarities are only skin-deep. This Goliadkin is a success in every way that the first Goliadkin is a miserable failure, and the new version gradually begins displacing the original from his own life. The story becomes increasingly bizarre until it ends the only way the life of someone like Goliadkin ever could -- total insanity. There are many things to admire about the hallucinatory world of this novella. The surreal nature of Goliadkin’s double anticipates the dialogue between Ivan Karamazov and the Devil in The Brothers Karamazov. Second, the inner monologue of Goliadkin shows Dostoevsky already toying with the idea of excessive-consciousness as sickness that will become a hallmark of his greatest novels. The plot is almost secondary to the maze-without-an-exit that is Goliadkin’s mind. And third, just writing this novella was brave. Dostoevsky could have stuck with what worked and cranked out another Poor Folk, but he chose to stretch himself beyond the social novel, to not write in the service of any ideology. Belinsky and others didn’t see it this way, and the flops kept on coming right up to the point when Dostoevsky was arrested in the middle of the night. However, he was at work just then on his first full-length novel, which he believed would redeem his literary reputation. We’ll never know what the public’s reaction would have been to the full novel because it was never finished. Only the beginning chapters were completed and, by the time he got back to writing many years later, he had moved on to other projects. However, fragment or not, the parts of Netochka Nezvanoza that do exist are worth our attention because, compared to Poor Folk and The Double, this is the closet the young Dostoevsky gets to becoming the Dostoevsky we all know today. 4. This story is also another outlier in terms of structure -- while Poor Folk was an epistolary novel, Netochka Nezvanova was meant to be a kind of Dickensian story that would cover the life of its protagonist from childhood to adulthood. Think of it as David Copperfield, only with more mental breakdowns and sadomasochistic relationships. Dostoevsky can’t help injecting the story with the kind of increasingly-acute psychological realism he does so well. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the fact that, for nearly half of the existing text, Netochka, the little Dickensian soon-to-be orphan, is completely overshadowed by her explosive stepfather, Efimov. Efimov is a clear precursor to the Underground Man, whose life is a stark warning that we need to live our lives, not dream our way through them. Efimov’s dream is to be a great violinist, but alcoholism and his petty nature drive him to poverty, along with Netochka and her poor mother, who sadly fell for Efimov’s self-narrative that he was a genius destined for glory. If Efimov’s story ended there, his degradation would just be a compelling portrait of a man’s gradual ruination. But this is Dostoevsky, so it’s only the beginning. Although Efimov knows on some level he will never be an internationally famous violinist, he clings to the idea that he is the best violinist in the world. It doesn’t matter if no one else knows it -- he knows it, and that self-delusion becomes the foundation for his life. His whole psyche becomes nothing but a jumble of rationalizations he comes to define himself by. If he isn’t the world’s greatest violinist, he’s nothing. And when he hears a violinist who is undeniably greater than he ever was or could be, we see what happens when a man wakes up from a dream he’s been living for far, far too long. There are other shades of the later, great Dostoevsky to be found in this unfinished novel, but Efimov alone testifies to his development as a writer whose understanding of the human condition would become infinitely richer than anything that could have been explored within the predetermined confines of a social novel. 5. Each of these works hints at the kind of writer Dostoevsky could have become. Had he followed Poor Folk with another social novel, stuck with the surrealism of The Double, or written more Dickensian bildungsromans like Netochka Nezvanova, we would be talking about a very different Dostoevsky today, if we talked about him at all. But instead he synthesized the best elements of all these works and enhanced them with the profound understanding of human nature he began to develop in Siberia. Of course, it’s not necessary to read any of these early works to appreciate Dostoevsky, one of the few writers who can scream in print. But the arc of his literary life becomes all the more fascinating when we consider Dostoevsky’s early career, when he was still figuring out what to scream about, and had his hardest days, and greatest works, still ahead of him. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.