Eleven Ways of Looking at a Sunset

1. Cotton Mather, third-generation New England Puritan divine, wrote in his 1721 pamphlet India Christiana that “we have now seen the Sun Rising in the West.” Mather’s conceit was allegorical, yet an aspect of poetry’s power is its refusal to let you forget the implications of the literal. In a fascinating bit of ecumenical consilience, an Islamic Hadith agrees with Mather that Judgment Day awaits for when “the sun rises from the West.” Both demand their hypotheticals. A westerly dawn, the blood-skied evening transposed to morning, would be such a strange sight that one wonders if the human mind would even be able to initially comprehend what was seen. An apocalypse of the subtle unexpected. Mather’s vision inspired my dissertation and would dominate the better part of a decade for me. The western dawn was striking to me, so arresting, that my reasons for that academic work flowed from this origin (even if the process was far from uncomplicated). Justifications for what one studies are always personal, but from that one line I built a personal cottage industry of bringing up Mather in incongruous circumstances, a familiarity with the stodgy, pudgy, wig-bedecked Calvinist I wouldn’t have anticipated. A dissertation is normally a method of working through some stuff. For me, among other things, I was working through sunsets. Technically I was writing about early modern representations of western migration, but I was really chasing the sun. Dusk feels like weight to me, when apprehension and beauty are comingled, an hour that prefigures death. I would cite Barbara Lewalski on Protestant poetics and Leo Marx on technology and the pastoral; Louise Martz on medieval traces in Renaissance lyrics, and Sacvan Bercovitch on Puritanism, but fundamentally all of that was just filler. I simply wanted a method to approach the dusk. 2. I’ve not been particularly drawn to Jack Kerouac since high school: With maturity, that affection fades. Still, On the Road has some beautiful passages, such as Kerouac’s description of a southwestern sunset: “Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.” Kerouac can be florid (what are these “Spanish mysteries?”), and he inserted four references to wine in just one sentence. There is something to that comparison though, making explicit the strange intoxication of the sun as it collapses from the sky. A sunset can be both joyful and dangerous. If the witching hour is when ghouls stalk the earth, then the gloaming period is reserved for those creatures called duende in Spanish, that vital mystery which Federica García Lorca claimed is impregnable within “everything that has darkness” in it. Pablo Neruda wrote that “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, / in secret, between the shadow and the soul.” Dusk is the hour of encroaching darkness and shadows; it’s when souls are most solid. Those are maybe the Spanish mysteries which Kerouac intuited. Describing a sunset is difficult, better to describe something else ineffable, like love or a shadow. 3. Kshudiram Saha in The Earth’s Atmosphere: Its Physics and Dynamics provides a soberer explanation of sunsets, writing that the intensity of a sunset is correlated to several different factors, including the process of the scattering, reflection, and absorption of light related to the size of the “particulate matter that may be suspended in the atmosphere” where “the degree of scattering depends upon the size of the molecules of particulars compares to the wavelength of the incident beam.” Saha explains that “light scattered is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the wavelength of the incident beam,” so that at sunset the “sky turns yellow or red because most of the blue is scattered away and lost” having to now pass through a “much thicker and denser layer of the atmosphere.” Sunsets, with their panoply of blues, bouquets of yellows, bushels of oranges, and engulfment of reds, will move through a specified choreography as the earth passes from day to night. Such is the anatomizing of twilight, so that when the sun is only 6 degrees below the horizon and dusk’s sky is the color of a robin’s egg we call it “civil twilight,” when it’s 12 degrees and the color of the wine-dark sea we refer to it as “nautical dusk,” and when it’s at it’s darkest before night’s blackness, dyed that color of perfect blue which is called “tekhelt” in biblical Hebrew, the color of the garment fringes for the High Priests dwelling in the Temple’s tabernacle, we call it “astronomical dusk.” 4. Painters are drawn to the golden hour, when solar light is evenly distributed and the Earth seems to softly glow. Claude Monet was particularly obsessed with how light diffuses through “particulate matter” (as Saha would put it). Monet explored shadow and sun as shifted across both seasons and hours. A striking portrayal of dusk is his 1904 Waterloo Bridge, London, at Sunset. In Monet’s painting, a hazy, blueish bridge disappears into abstraction. Particulars are subsumed into the melting glow of the polluted city at twilight, yet what luminescence refracts off said particulate matter! At twilight faces disappear, buildings and mountains become occluded, and the universe erases nature from our vision. Monet composed “a hymn to fleeting time,” as Carol Strickland explains in Impressionism: A Legacy of Light—an artistry whereby “One paints an impression of an hour of a day.” Monet calls forth that heavy hour, when in late summer there can be a stillness, and in many places (though not perhaps London) there is the intensity of insect shriek through the atmosphere. [caption id="attachment_105040" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Waterloo Bridge, London, at Sunset; Wikimedia Commons[/caption] Monet’s younger contemporary Edvard Munch depicted a different persona of the dusk in his celebrated, copied, imitated, parodied painting The Scream. Composed in four different versions, Munch’s indelible image of a contorted, wavy, abstracted man on an Oslo bridge screaming in mask-like pantomime is replicated in dorm rooms posters and on countless kitschy museum gift shop objects, from neckties to pillows. The Scream captures not just the beauty of dusk, but the horror; not just the solar grandeur, but the intimations of extinction implicit in any good sunset. As his fellow melancholic Norwegian, the contemporary author Karl Ove Knausgaard, notes in his preface to the Gary Garrels- and Jon-Ove Steihaug-edited Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, when viewing the works of Munch, one feels the need to exclaim “here was emotion, here was the abyss, here was the angst.” Knausgaard argues that even though “So much in our culture is rational,” we ultimately “have no words for the simplest of things,” including a fiery red sunset in late August. For Munch, the sky is nothing so much as coagulated blood coughed up into a sink. 5. When considering sunsets, it’s hard not to invoke that old literary critical cliché of the symbol, even though that word has been largely verboten from serious academic literary theory for half a century. Yet the sunset can’t help seeming symbolic of something greater than itself, perhaps even to an overdetermined extent. Mather saw Armageddon, Kerouac felt intoxication, and Munch heard a scream. Sunsets with their clearly delineated endings are difficult not to interpret as the last act, the final curtain call, the epilogue, death. So saturated with meaning, that overreliance on the setting sun in a novel, or a film, or a television show can’t help seeming easy. Jean Chevalier, in his indispensable The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, classified a number of concepts which the setting sun is used to represent. Of the direction of the setting sun, Chevalier writes that “West is the land of evening, of old age, of the descending passage of the Sun.” In her meditation on the relative cultural semiotics of light and shadow, The Millions staff writer Jianan Qian elucidates how a sunset is never just one thing, arguing that in classical Chinese poetry there is a melancholy about dusk, while in western poets from Carl Sandburg to Gustave Flaubert the hour is imbued with a sense of hopefulness. She asks, “Can we reserve a little space for our own, where we worship our shadows, not your light?” The great power of the sunset, as I see it, is in that marriage of both shadow and light. From Gilgamesh to Cormac McCarthy, west has been the direction where the sun rests and light is extinguished, the inevitable location of death. We see ecstatic vision of that blood-red sphere, like the ripe yolk of some cracked egg sinking downward into the bowl of the western horizon. A symbol can be a fallacious thing, however, especially as we justify our belief in the Westerly Kingdom of Death, as a sunset is of course nothing but an optic trick. Like the Flaming Lips sang on 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, “You realize the sun doesn’t go down / It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.” A sunset is finally nothing more than itself. 6. Humanity’s understanding of this illusion exemplifies the new rationality—of humanity’s rejection of symbol in favor of measurable phenomenon. Anticipating the Oklahoma-based rock band by a good five centuries, the man who would give his name to the accurate model of the solar system would write that “since the sun remains stationary, whatever appears as a motion of the sun is really due rather to the motion of the earth.” Heliocentrism predates Copernicus’s 1543 On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, but it was that Polish monk who would lend those models his name, his hypothesis later confirmed by Galileo Galilei, forever demolishing vestiges of the geocentric Ptolemaic model. Copernicus based his conclusion on a more parsimonious mathematics, eliminating the baroque system of epicycles that was previously required to explain anomalous celestial movements. In Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud, Peter Watson explains that the “traditional way to explain the heavens was in disarray,” so that the great genius of Copernicus was to simplify those models, even as in the process our exulted stature in creation would be displaced. Humanity was no longer at the center of reality, for the abolishment of the sunset was as if the abolishment of our significance. Novelist and journalist William T. Vollmann, in his incredibly unlikely Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, wrote that “What moves me the most about [Copernicus]” was his struggle to “free the human mind from a false system.” Famed Russian dissident and dystopian novelist Arthur Koestler didn’t completely agree; in his classic The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe, he opined that “man’s destiny was no longer determined from ‘above’” but rather from “‘below’ by ... sub-human agencies.” These things could determine our fate but “provide … no moral guidance, no values and meaning.” Koestler was not such a relativist that he’d deny the accuracy of Copernicus’s verified hypothesis; rather, he chose to acknowledge that sometimes mythos undeniably holds an appeal that can’t be exorcised by data. 7. Karen Armstrong writes in A Short History of Myth that “We are meaning-seeking creatures.” Armstrong, like Koestler, wouldn’t dispute Copernicus’s conclusions, but she would claim that it’s a category mistake to abandon myth simply because it isn’t literally true. She explains that mythology has never been primitive science or empiricism done poorly. Logos and mythos, Armstrong argues, are two different epistemologies; the former is concerned with what’s factual, the latter with what’s true. Myths can’t calculate the parabola of a satellite, they can’t sequence the human genome or program a computer. But Armstrong argues that it’s a positivist error to collapse mythos into logos, for myth is concerned not with explanation but with meaning. That the sun should be so present across myths is not surprising; even in our contemporary era there is something mysterious about a sunset. A preponderance of sun gods: Egypt had Amun-Ra; Greece and Rome had Apollo. During the Amarna Dynasty, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV discovered monotheism and rechristened himself Akhenaten, abolishing the pantheon in favor of the singular Aten, god of the sun. The “Hymn to Aten,” whose language was later echoed in the Psalms, chants toward its subject that “When you have arisen, they live, / When you set, they die / You yourself are lifetime and men live in you,” transfiguring all of existence by the cycle of the sunset. Rosalie David in Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt explains that the pharaoh had “embarked on a course of action which has been … interpreted as a ‘religious revolution,’” whereby this imposed “form of solar monotheism” was defined by the “creative energy of the sun.” With the changing of a single letter, Christians also worship the Son. After all, Psalm 84:11 reads, “The Lord God is a sun,” with all of the implications of death and resurrection that that endless cycle of dusk and dawn represent. David writes of how the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead drew “parallel between the sun’s passage from night to day, and the deceased’s emergence from the tomb to the daylight”—Pagan wisdom, for in the transit of orb there is a narrative of death and renewal told daily, as sure as Apollo or Sol Invictus led their chariots across the dome of the Earth. As logos, all such stories are literally untrue, but that’s the least interesting thing about them. Such stories aren’t cosmology, but what they tell us is that though the sun sets, it will rise again, with all that that formulation implies. In his 1957 classic Mythologies, Roland Barthes writes that “Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion.” At a frequency too high-pitched for most of us to hear, the sun god’s chariot still passes in transit from east to west. Laugh if we must at the strange contingencies of myth, but such narratives order our lives. When Mather looked westward across the massive expanse of that Hesperian continent where he imagined God’s Kingdom would one day dwell, could he have possibly imagined that at the terminus of this land there would be an empire of a different sort, devoted to the production of fantasy, albeit written in celluloid rather than mythos, in a place where Apollo’s chariot lands each dusk, and that we’ve elected to call Sunset Boulevard? 8. For most of human history, sunset meant something dangerous and intractable—the approach of darkness. In At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, A. Roger Ekirch writes that before the electric lights, the “darkness of night appears palpable. Evening does not arrive; it ‘thickens.’” Sunsets may be beautiful, but they bring “Night … man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror.” Camping can perhaps trick the city dweller into a simulation of that all-encompassing darkness from before the Industrial Revolution, but it’s a world that’s fundamentally inaccessible to us. Ekirch explains how “All forms of artificial illumination—not just lamps but torches and candles—helped early on to alleviate nocturnal anxieties,” yet even the brightest of candles flickers lower than the dullest of flashlights. This was an era where “bizarre sight and queer sounds” would come and vanish, a dark kingdom of the hours where “‘Night … belongs to the spirits.’” Perilous night, the totalizing regime of nocturnal darkness, would soon be banished. Artificial illumination steadily improved throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, with the mass production of candles, the introduction of burning coal, and the standardization of both oil and gas lamps. What would ultimately destroy those old gods was the birth of new ones, or as Ernest Freeberg writes, such was the awe generated by a “light that could burn without spark and smoke … [which] promised to turn vast swaths of night into day.” In his account The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, Freeberg explains that the invention of the electric light bulb was “rightly hailed as a ‘marvel’ and a milestone in human history.” Millennia of people had been terrified by the sun’s descent, fearful of whatever creature swallowed that disk every night. And in a bright, glowing second of filament, the darkness could be forever slain with a light bulb. Deicide by technology, for Aten and Apollo’s fickleness were ultimately tamed by Thomas Edison. 9. We may have abolished one master, but as Ekirch explains, so, too, was lost “a distinct culture, with many of its own customs and rituals.” Electricity has facilitated the never-ending thrum of commerce that defines modernity, so darkness may have been eradicated, but it’s been replaced with the tyranny of neon activity. Servant to such a master as this, there is something countercultural in reinvesting the sunset with its significance, in seeing it as that portal which shepherds us into the province of night, with all of those attendant differences. Imbued with more meaning than its Christian descendant, the Jewish Sabbath is ideally a temporal utopia, a respite from the gods of this profane world. Measured from Friday dusk to that of Saturday, Sabbath represents a re-enchantment of the sunset. Anthropologist and physician Melvin Konner writes in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews that the “Friday evening dusk was greeted as an arriving queen,” while the “Sabbath’s departure at dusk was marked with the rite of … separation.” Herbert Weiner in Nine and a Half Mystics: The Kabbala Today explicates the mystical symbolism of the “palace of the Sabbath,” writing that the period of time from dusk to dusk marks the “annulment of those divisions which characterize ordinary existence—between man and man, between mind and heart, idea and reality.” Dusk’s arrival abolishes our fallen world—at least for a day. The medieval Sephardic rabbi Avraham Abulafia writes in his poem “The Book of the Letter,” included in the Peter Cole-edited anthology The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, that the “Sabbath subdues all the days of the week,” or as I might put it: “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” That’s what it felt like when I was in high school, and my friends and I began to make a ritual of ending the week at a local hoagie shop in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, where in imitation of back-slapping old men we’d shake hands and genuinely wish each other a “Gut Shabbes,” ironically over cheesesteaks. Walking home in December, reflecting on a tradition not my own, I would have opportunity to observe the early dusk through the low winter sun; the way that the orange, lolling fingers of light rippled over cloudy, compacted gauze, and sometimes in moments of youthful exuberance I thought that I felt what Konner describes as the “consistency of the Sabbath… [its] seeming taste of heaven.” 10. There are the Pittsburgh sunsets from when I was growing up, when the red sky could burst from the low threading of hazy greyness, light refracted from both drizzle and the particulate pumped into the atmosphere from the massive coke processing plant south of the city, the dramatic hurried rush of orange collapse as the sun sank below the unfairly gorgeous hilly skyline, looking like it had been planned by a sacred conspiracy of divinities. Or, leaving by ferry from Hiroshima and approaching the stolid, painted red wood of the torii gate marking the entrance to the Itsukushima shrine, which seems to float on the water off of Miyajima Island, dedicated to the brother of Amaterasu, appropriately enough the sun goddess. This is the sort of dusk described by the 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho as encompassing the “twilight rain / these brilliant hued / hibiscus… / A lovely sunset,” where that beatific arch seems to connect the ocean to the sky as the fiery sun descends into the sea behind a fringe of green mountains on the distant main island—so beautiful that it seems incorrect. Or, the pyrotechnic psychedelia of the massive sun burrowing into the Pacific Ocean off of Waikiki Beach, a sunset which reminds you that there is something like outer space about the sea, a performance of your personal, immaculate insignificance in the presence of something that absurdly glowing. Hawaii’s sunsets are appropriately described by Sarah Vowel in Unfamiliar Fishes as “lurid.” As is twilight on that other ocean, watching the sun’s vital hemorrhage on a beach in Curaçao, looking like Derek Walcott’s description of the Caribbean as being where “the sunset bleeds like a cut wrist.” Or, the fragrant still of Central Park at dusk, when New York City is quiet enough, for just a second, that it charms you, air threaded with the warm charge of late summer, when that rectangular garden at the center of Manhattan allows you to contemplate such green thought in a green shade. Over the Hudson and New Jersey, the sun drops into that western home of the rest of the New World, and for a bit of the golden hour all of the light is refracted off of the glass, steel, and stone of Central Park West, the skyscrapers acting as prisms and mirrors for the sun, reflected a thousand times over in the windows of women and men. Or, the raspberry-tangerine sherbet skies of an early autumn dusk over the outfield wall of a minor league baseball stadium in eastern Pennsylvania; the increasingly quicker nightfall of the season now interrupting earlier innings. Crackle over the diamond as the temperature drops, and the lights on the scoreboard now so bright they hurt your eyes. In A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings, A. Bartlett Giamatti writes that the purpose of baseball in the fall is precisely that “It is designed to break your heart … when the days are all twilight.” And of course, facing west from the Glasgow Necropolis, scattered with monuments to textile factory owners and brewers, looking out over the dense, crooked labyrinth of that grey city, a misty Scottish sun lolling towards the horizon, where she shines off of the broken windows of faraway tenement high rises. This sunset, this smear of yellow and orange, this eruption of blue and red, giving off final light as if it were God’s fireworks display, standing in a cemetery and realizing what sunsets have always really meant. Emily Dickinson understood dusk’s indomitable logic when she wrote that “We passed the Setting Sun – / Or rather – He passed Us,” where her and her traveling companion are headed west “toward Eternity.” 11. Dusk is nature’s enjambment. In the midst of the muggy Anthropocene, when humanity has seemingly wrenched the very seasons out of their proper order, with Antarctic ice-shelfs collapsing and river banks receding in drought while revealing the marked warning stones left from those in the lean times of famines past, dusk provides us a talisman reminding us that even we have our limits. In the filtered, gloaming light of an irreversible sunset there is profound wisdom, the experience of finality and the understanding that “This, too, shall pass.” Dusk reminds us that we’re not in control, not even of our extinctions. The poetics of sunset speaks of endings and closings, apocalypses and death. The hour before evening is not just the most contemplative one of a day’s existence, but the most poetic as well. Drawing a close to the light which illuminated before into the promises of darkness. Sunset is the most beautiful hour.

Another September: Creating Life and Art in a Terrifying World

1. We arrive at the maternity ward late on a Tuesday afternoon in September. That evening, I’m scheduled to be induced. The day before, I received an email from Katherine: “I can't believe I'm writing you today. What absurd timing!” She said we’d received an offer on my new novel. She knew, of course, that I was about to have the baby. “Obviously please don't feel ANY pressure to respond to this right away!” I sent back a quick, happy reply. I called my husband, Jake, who brought home celebratory Choco-Tacos in lieu of champagne. A day later, my son is born. This confluence of events—the baby and the book contract—was in part by design. My book was not yet finished, but I wanted to have the offer in hand before the baby arrived. It was a decision perhaps more emotional than practical. At 41, I was overjoyed to be having a baby; I’d always wanted to be a mom. Still, I’d heard about the crisis of identity that could accompany new motherhood and worried that once I was a mother—and maintaining my full-time job as a professor—my writing, which had always been so grounding, would fight for space. If I had a book contract, though, it would mean I was writing a book, which would mean I was still a writer. Rather than intimidating, this felt clear and comforting. This book would get done. 2. We had spent nearly two years trying to get pregnant. The summer we got married, I stopped taking the pill. I read Taking Charge of Your Fertility. I started taking my temperature, timing my cycles. I emptied the top drawer of our bathroom cabinet and filled it with plastic-wrapped testing strips, one for ovulation and one for pregnancy, green and blue. That fall, three months after the wedding, I went in for testing at a fertility clinic, sitting in the waiting room that would become so familiar over the next two years. I wasn’t yet too worried. In the exam room, the doctor narrated the internal sonogram. Better-than-average egg count. Evidence of recent ovulation. A large fibroid on one side—it looked monstrous on the screen. Afterward, in his office, Dr. P told me what I knew: At 39, getting pregnant could take longer. There were more risks involved. Still, he said, given what he’d seen, he felt confident; they would monitor my next cycle and tell me when to have sex (this was the kind of impersonal personal directive I would become used to soon). Then we talked about books. Turned out he was an avid reader. I’d recently sold a novel, about a family, which was coming out the following spring. Funnily enough, one of the characters in the novel goes through fertility treatments. I’d done research for that storyline—imagine how much more detail I’d have had to work with now! There was, in that waiting room, a careful lack of interaction. Nobody spoke above a whisper, which seemed a nod to privacy, even though everybody knew what everybody else was doing there. Couples talked in low tones. Waiting husbands thumbed cell phones. A sign hung on the wall: Never never never never give up hope. A little cheesy, I thought, but sweet. There were no kids, per office policy, for they could be upsetting, though I found the absence of them almost more upsetting, the implication that our situations were so dire we couldn’t handle having a child in the room. I was going for regular appointments with Dr. P. Bloodwork, ultrasounds. Frequently, we talked about books. After two months, he ordered further testing. He prescribed Clomid. He recommended we start IUIs. He scheduled an HSG test, where dye would be shot through the fallopian tubes to make sure the fibroid wasn’t in the way. On the day of the test, we met him at the hospital, in the radiology unit. As directed, I’d taken eight Motrin before coming. It was a Friday in December, the waiting room still and silent. News of the Sandy Hook shooting was playing on the TV. Five years earlier, after the Virginia Tech shooting, I’d written a novel I’d since abandoned. I’d watched an interview with the gunman’s creative writing teacher, who tried to alert someone about the disturbing material she’d seen in his work. A writing teacher myself, I was haunted by this interview. I spent the next three years working on a novel in which a student writes a paper that suggests she’s depressed, suicidal; when no one intervenes, tragedy ensues. I sent it to Katherine, my agent, but after several close calls with editors, conceded something wasn’t working. Reluctantly, I shelved it. I wrote a novel about a family, about mothers. (I was always writing about mothers, even then.) For the IUI—to my mind, a sophisticated turkey baster—Jake was encouraged to stay in the room. “That way, if you get pregnant,” the nurse said, “you can say that he was there.” Afterward, as I lay still for 15 minutes, we speculated about our imagined baby, possibly being conceived that very moment. We were feeling hopeful—this was a new step, a further step. Maybe it would work. When a few weeks later, I tried one of the blue test strips—it was a Saturday, and we were going to a dinner party—we both felt heartsick. We consoled each other, reasoning it could take a few tries. But a new reality was settling into my bones. We drove to the party then sat in the parked car, me suddenly crying so hard we had to turn around and drive home. For the next several months, our lives were at the mercy of timing. I showed up at the clinic at prescribed hours. Bloodwork, ultrasounds. Mondays, I taught my classes then raced to acupuncture we couldn’t afford. Once a month, we received disappointing news. Hard as it was, Dr. P encouraged us to project into the future, to imagine what further steps we might regret not having taken—which was startling but ultimately simple. We couldn’t afford to do IVF; deep down, we didn’t think we’d need to. As the months passed, expectations were shifting. I struggled between feeling the need to stay hopeful—as if hope, like acupuncture, could increase our chances (because who knew: Maybe it could?)—and the need to be realistic, a constant negotiation between thinking positively and protecting myself. The tone of our appointments was changing too. Dr. P grew more somber. We rarely talked about books anymore. He told me he was retiring. That after six months of IUIs, he’d recommend stopping. “For people accustomed to doing whatever they set out to do in life,” he said, “this can be hard to accept.” It startled me: I hadn’t realized I was that person yet. Throughout those months, my writing felt unmoored. I had finished revisions to the family novel but hadn’t yet started something new. My job as a professor—and my other job, trying to get pregnant—was consuming and exhausting. People encouraged me to give myself a break from writing, but I was happiest when I was working on something, when I had another life running parallel to my own. My mind kept wandering back to that shelved novel—the teacher, the paper. I was starting to imagine a different version: A student writes a troubling paper for a college comp class, but this time the student is a gunman in a shooting. His teacher read the paper, which may have indicated he was violent, but didn’t intervene. It would be difficult to write—even more so now, when mass shootings had become so horrifically common—but I thought about the advice I often gave my own students: Take a small truth, a true fear or worry, and exploit it, push it to the nth degree. Dr. P had discouraged us from trying IVF. He was cautious about the odds, the expense. For it was extraordinarily, prohibitively expensive: approximately 20 thousand dollars. Covered by insurance in some states, but not Pennsylvania. Despite this, we decided to try it, just once. If we didn’t, we feared we’d always wonder. We used all the money we received for our wedding, which covered half, and family loaned us the rest. We filled out reams of paperwork and attended the injection training, where we met with a nurse in a tiny room. Tiny table, tiny chairs—everything felt kindergarten-sized. I understood the IVF basics: the drugs taken to stimulate eggs, the best of which were taken out, fertilized and put back in. Because pre-filled needles were (even more) expensive, we would prepare them ourselves. The nurse spread out her supplies. She showed us how to mix the hormones with the sodium chloride. How to inject air into the syringe. How to give a shot with a swift, unhesitating motion—like a dart, she said. As I watched, I started feeling faint. Something in me was shutting down. When she had us practice prepping a needle, I was trembling so much I fumbled it. Then I was crying, and apologizing. Because how many couples had done this? Millions? Obviously we could too. We took our instructions, drove to the pharmacy, put thousands of dollars on two credit cards and left carrying bags filled with drugs, vials of powder and saline, gauze pads and alcohol wipes and variously sized needles and a red bin that said, “CAUTION HAZARDOUS WASTE.” For the next few weeks, our dining table became an amateur pharmacy. Jake mixed needles and stuck them in my thighs. At the clinic, they monitored the results. When initially it seemed no eggs were viable, I started crying again in front of the nurse, a different nurse. This time I just pretended it wasn’t happening. There was a sign hanging from the ceiling about the exam table, like a mobile above a baby’s crib. Sometimes It’s Just When We’re About to Give Up that the Miracle Happens! And sometimes it’s not, I thought. Then worried I’d jinxed myself by allowing such a non-optimistic thought. The morning of the egg retrieval, we arrived early. I stashed my sweats and eyeglasses in a little locker, one of several little lockers. Dr. P was now retired. My new doctor was sarcastic and smooth. “Nice outfit,” he quipped when he saw me in the scrubs, a line I’m sure he’d used a million times. My bed was separated from the next bed by a thin divider. A gentle IV nurse prodded my hand for a vein. I tried to stay calm. Stay present. I could hear the woman in the next bed on her phone with her husband, chatting easily, as if she were getting a pedicure at the salon. For the next four days, we anxiously awaited reports on how our two embryos were developing—like a parent-teacher conference, getting reports on how our children had behaved. On the day of the transfer, we met with the embryologist back in the tiny room, tiny table. She showed us pictures of our embryos, printed on slippery black and white paper. One looked bumpy. “Low quality,” she said, apologetically. The other was smooth, but small. Gradewise, a C. I struggled to keep it together as I was taken into surgery. I tried to think positively—tried, by force of will, to twist my sadness into belief—as I was asked to confirm my identity and the little bundles of cells were handed into the room. The picture of our two embryos hung on the refrigerator door. They were microscopic, but looked like the surface of the moon. For the next 15 days, I attempted to stay occupied. It was June, so I wasn’t teaching. I returned to the new novel, scheduled a call with Katherine to discuss it, started taking notes. The blood test was at 10 in the morning. The nurse made her calls at 1:30 in the afternoon. I asked her to leave a voicemail so Jake and I could listen together. At exactly 1:30, as the phone rang out on the porch where I’d deliberately left it, I felt a blast of fear. When Jake got home, he’d stopped for flowers—consoling, or celebratory. We put the phone on the coffee table and sat together on the couch and pressed play. “Hello this is—” From her tone, I knew. It was careful and kind. “I’m sorry to tell you that your—” I remember thinking how strange it must be to be the person whose job it was to make those phone calls. “Please discontinue all medication.” We cried, then threw away the needles. We were done. Afterward, there was a period like grieving. We didn’t regret trying IVF, but didn’t second-guess not trying it again. In that way, at least, we were resolute. The harder part was re-envisioning the big picture. I’d always imagined being a mother. When finally I got married, I felt certain that would be next. To let go of that idea—turn toward a different kind of life, a version I hadn’t yet imagined—was painful. Dr. P had been right—“for people accustomed to doing whatever they set out to do in life, this can be hard to accept.” There were other options, of course, but I couldn’t yet think about them. My emotions were too raw. I was sad, and depleted. And angry. I was furious. My hair was falling out, common when you stop taking hormones. Jake and I decided to table the subject for a while, give ourselves the summer to recover. We went to Maine for a few weeks, to his parents’ summer house on an island near Portland. There were babies everywhere. Meanwhile, I threw myself into the new novel. It was difficult to write, but that difficulty felt like a good thing—something I could handle, pin to the ground. Quickly, the original idea began expanding. Other characters were appearing. The teacher’s teenage daughter, who struggled with anxiety. The teacher’s ex-husband and his new girlfriend; they were doing IVF. We began talking tentatively about adoption. That January, on winter break, I spent five days alone at the Jersey shore. I went to work on the new novel. Off-season, Sea Isle felt deserted. I took walks along the ocean in a freezing wind. I got up at 5 in the morning and wrote until dinner, sometimes later—the kind of work I always found energizing, but it was making me feel queasy, exhausted. It’s a testament to just how effectively I’d removed myself from the possibility of getting pregnant that I didn’t wonder at this (I chalked it up to pressure) or at the fact that coffee suddenly seemed repulsive, or that at night I was so ravenous I found myself ordering enormous sandwiches from the one open deli, or that the texture of my lip balm made me gag. When I came home and stepped inside our house, filled with the smell of pine, I felt a sweeping sickness. The Christmas tree must be rotten, I decided. Jake shrugged and dragged it to the curb. The next morning, I woke early. I tried to remember the last time I’d had my period. Five weeks ago? Six? I had stopped paying attention. After the months of constant scrutiny, it was too upsetting to pay attention. Because it no longer mattered—though the fact that I had truly no clue gave me pause. I went into the bathroom and reopened the top drawer. I waited, staring at the blue test strip. I checked the indications on the wrapper, sure I’d taken a green one by mistake. I took a second blue one, thinking the first might have been defective. I woke Jake, confused. Even after three blue tests, I didn’t believe it, not until that afternoon, when I went back to the fertility center and saw one of my old nurses, who took blood and confirmed, amused, that I was already seven weeks. If the story were fiction, I would dismiss the ending as unrealistic. A deus ex machina. Contrived, overly convenient. Offensive, even, in its narrative tidiness, an insult to all the women who don’t get pregnant, don’t get the happy ending promised by the signs and clichés. Our baby was due in September. My novel about the family would be released in May. That spring, giving readings, my belly was growing. People talked about the book, then wanted to chat about the baby. At a Q&A that summer, I was asked what I was working on next and I described the novel-in-progress. The teacher, the shooting. “A hard book to write,” I acknowledged. A woman raised her hand—I would think of her often, later—and asked, “Why are you writing it then?” 3. Unlike having a baby, writing a book does not rely on the mercy of luck or science. It is an exercise in discipline. An act of will. I’d expected that, with a newborn, the process would be harder in the obvious ways—lack of time, lack of sleep and focus—but I hadn’t accounted for the unique difficulty of writing a book on a topic like this. I hadn’t fully anticipated—couldn’t have, I’m sure—the intense emotional terrain that came with having a newborn. The acute feelings of tenderness, fear and protectiveness. The love so distilled it almost hurt. The susceptibility to sentimental commercials, inability to handle any story in which something happened to a child. The towering sense of responsibility, having this little being in my care. Suddenly my own health, and the health of the world, mattered differently; this was the world into which I’d brought my son. To dip into the novel—submerge in such an alarming scenario, imagining the aftermath of a shooting—felt almost impossible to bear. What time I managed at the computer was brief, unfocused. The anxieties of my characters merged with my own in an edgy haze. Instead of the steadying effect I’d been counting on, invariably I emerged from my desk feeling more frayed. That November, the three of us went to our local elementary school to vote in the primary, Theo nestled in a Bjorn against my chest. As we stood in line, he started to wail. The older woman in line behind me smiled and advised me to breathe deeply. She had seven children, she told me. I drew several long inhales, and Theo gradually stopped crying, little body lifting with my breath. In June, after my semester ended—and Jake’s school year, as a counselor—the three of us headed to Maine. It was still off-season on the island, sleepy and uncrowded. An escape. The evening we arrived, I printed out my hundred pages—roughly a third of the novel, or so I was imagining—and stacked them on the porch. In the mornings, I rose before dawn and started working. When Theo woke up, I nursed him. Then Jake took him for a walk or to the beach. Alone in the house, it was quiet and secluded, ideal for writing. But I had trouble sinking below the surface. I read and reread pages. Tinkered with sentences, trying to get traction. Distracted, I checked my phone. A mass shooting at a church in South Carolina. Nine people had died. As I returned to the pages, I felt a rising despair. Around my son, I tried to stay calm. Stay present. Delight in the simple joy he found in seagulls, shadows, the moon. In the middle of the night, his sleepy weight in my arms, the stillness of the island was so absolute I could faintly hear the ocean. The low moan of the foghorn was a comfort in the dark. But alone, by day, I began to worry that the novel simply wasn’t working. I felt guilty for the hours I wasn’t spending with Theo. Concerned that my anxiety—about the book, about the world—might be filtering down to him. I grew reckless with the manuscript, chopping scenes and sentences. I deleted the IVF storyline entirely—after the way things had turned out for us I somehow felt I didn’t have a right to tell it anymore. I began to wonder if pressing for a book contract had been a mistake—I’d imagined it would be grounding and motivating, affirmation that I was still a writer. Instead it felt like pressure, proof of my failure to make progress, only emphasizing the disconnect between who I’d been and who I was. One morning, sitting on the deserted beach with a fluttering stack of pages, it struck me that my main character no longer felt right. She had a different name, I realized—was a different person. I set about reimagining her completely, starting from page one.  Over the next school year, the novel slowly found its shape. Completing it was ultimately something I had control over. I wrote early every morning while Theo was still asleep. I bought a giant six-dollar bulletin board to chart the different storylines. Heading into campus on the subway, I edited pages, scrolled through headlines. Mass shootings in Oregon, California. I felt sick about the direction the country was heading, the world my son was growing up in. But the world of the novel was no relief. Instead of offering an alternate reality, fiction felt like a more concentrated version. I spent hours researching the psychology of shooters. I recalled an anecdote my parents used to tell about how, as a kid typing stories in my room, I’d come flying down the stairs and stop short on the landing—“I scared myself writing,” I’d say. The following June, we returned to Maine. I’d missed my first deadline, unsurprisingly. The new goal was August. Each day, I worked from dawn until early afternoon. After lunch, the three of us were often the only people on the beach. Meanwhile, 49 people were killed in a mass shooting in Florida. Donald Trump was named the Republican presidential nominee. The poem “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith went viral. “The world is at least half terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children.” It felt truthful and awful but also comforting and I reread it many times. 4. It is now another September, a little over three years since I walked into the maternity ward telling myself that if I had a book contract, my book would get written. That the contract would provide some sense of security, reassurance that my self as a writer was still intact. It was not so simple, of course. The world feels increasingly unstable. My mother self, writer self—the two are inextricable. The book, though, is done. I’d like to tell myself that in writing about something so pressing and frightening, I found an outlet for my own fears, emerged feeling more empowered. It sounds, I think, like a plausible ending. Convenient, but satisfying. Reassuring. If I heard that story, I might believe that it was true. Theo, now 3 years old, refers to me as Mommy, Mama, Mom. Except for when I’m writing, when he calls me by my first name. “Ellie?” he says, little hand rattling the doorknob of my study. Even at 3, he intuits that when I’m at my desk, I’m inhabiting a different role. “Ellie?” he calls. “Ellie? Are you there?” “Right here,” I answer, opening the door, scooping him up. Image: Flickr/jcooper971

Motherhood Is Life-Shattering: The Millions Interviews Kirsten Lunstrum

Ten years ago, Kirsten Lunstrum was leading a life many young writers would kill for. Having published two well-regarded story collections before she turned 30, Lunstrum landed a tenure-track teaching job in the creative writing program at State University of New York at Purchase, the arts campus of the SUNY system. But in 2012, homesick for her native Seattle, Lunstrum and her husband Nathan, also a professor at Purchase, chucked it all and moved back West with, she says, “no jobs, no real plans for how to make life in the Seattle area work.” For nearly two years, the couple and their two children lived at her parents’ home as Lunstrum took adjunct teaching gigs at local colleges and her husband left academia altogether to become an electrician. Six years on, the move seems to have paid off. Lunstrum, now 39, teaches at a small, progressive high school near Seattle, and this week she's published her third story collection, What We Do with the Wreckage, winner of the 2018 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. In an exchange of late-night emails, Lunstrum talked with The Millions about her loyalty to the short story form, the strains of writing while parenting, and the many ways her experiences as a mother of small children informed and deepened her fiction. The Millions: You published your first two story collections, This Life She's Chosen (2005) and Swimming with Strangers (2008), while you were still in your 20s. Now, a decade later, you're publishing a third collection. So tell us first: What have you up to during those 10 years? Have you been writing all along? Did you stop for a time? Kirsten Lunstrum: The most succinct answer to that question is that I was simply living my life. Like a lot of people, the period of time between my mid-20s and mid-30s was a radically turbulent (but great) stretch of years. Between my first two books and today I finished a graduate degree, held something like 15 different jobs, moved house eight times, and became a parent. Of these changes, parenthood was probably the biggest. Actually, my son was born just three weeks after I turned in the final edits on my second collection—a well-timed entrance into the world, for which I thanked him in that book’s acknowledgments. Three years later, my daughter was born. It makes me laugh now, 12 years into parenting, but before my son was born I had a vision of myself writing away the long hours of his infancy while he napped in a baby-wrap on my chest. I had no idea (clearly) how all-consuming parenting would be. As I say this, though, I’m feeling aware of the flak I’m likely going to get for acknowledging that parenting played a role in the long silence between my books. There’s been a kind of literary applause recently for those mother-writers who refuse to discuss the effect parenting has had on their writing, and—to be honest—I find that refusal endlessly frustrating. The fact is this: Motherhood is life-shattering. I don’t feel it diminishes my voice as a writer or necessarily narrows others’ respect for me if I say those things out loud in a conversation about my writing life. Writing around the demands of my children’s needs—and my own desire to be with them (because I love them and enjoy being part of the daily and familiar routines of their childhoods)—has slowed my production of new work more than my pre-parenting self could ever have imagined. But being a parent has also completely reconstructed my sense of wonder, my sense of attention to the world and its details, my understanding of relationship and identity and vulnerability, and all of that shows up in my work now. I write less than I might have if I hadn’t chosen to become a parent. That’s just the truth. But my fiction has deepened because of the experience of raising other humans. To be fair to my kids, though, the other love competing for my time and slowing down my fiction writing has been my work life. I'm not a writer who can just write. I need to work a day job. I didn’t always know this about myself, and for a period I believed that what I really wanted most of all was the luxury of devoting all my working hours to my writing, but that was a misunderstanding of myself. I love to work. My work is teaching—which I did at the college level for about a decade, and then six years ago I became a high school English teacher at a progressive, independent school near Seattle. Being in the classroom gives me a sense of clarity and purpose and connection to community that writing doesn’t, and I’m daily happy to go to school and see my students and colleagues. But between teaching and parenting, my time is pretty fully consumed during the academic year, and so I get very little writing done during those months. This is all to say that it took me a long time to get this book written because I was busy (and happy) living. I never stopped writing, but I did write inconsistently, fitting my writing hours around my other responsibilities and loves. The stories in this collection were written in the very early hours of morning, before the kids woke up for the day. They were written late at night, in my dark bedroom, after everyone else in my household was asleep. I wrote these stories sitting in the backseat of my car during piano lessons, perched on the top bleacher at the natatorium during swimming practice, and locked inside my own bathroom (where no one could bother me). These stories feel hard earned in a way that those of my first two books didn’t, and I’m kind of proud of that, actually. [millions_ad] TM: I’m interested in this idea of a writer’s role as a parent enriching his or her work. Can you point to an element from a story in the new collection—a scene, a character, a plot point, whatever—that you couldn’t have written before you had kids? KL: I think the influence of my family is everywhere in this book. In a very direct (but significant!) way, the book owes its cover image and first story to my daughter. A couple of years ago, when she was a first-grader, she did her school “interest project” on the Tasmanian tiger, an animal most people (but not all—which is part of the animal’s intrigue) believe became extinct in the 1930s. In helping my daughter gather information for the project, my own interest was sparked, and I ended up reading several articles and a book on the extinction of the tiger, as well as sort of obsessively watching a YouTube video my daughter and I found—black-and-white footage of the last tiger (Benjamin) pacing his cage at the Hobart Zoo. In the video, Benjamin looks anxious and trapped, and the image of him circling his little cement paddock stuck with me for months. Then later, when I couldn’t get beyond the first couple paragraphs of a story I was working on, I remembered Benjamin, and the story (“Endlings”) came together. In the end, the story is about two characters who (like Benjamin) are “endlings”—the last of their line—and about how they navigate through the world carrying the trauma of that isolation with them. Like Benjamin, both of the story’s central characters bear their isolation very literally in their bodies, but their isolation is also defining in less visible ways—in how they see the world, themselves, and their relationships with other people. In a less direct, way, though—and maybe more to the point of your question—there are so many moments in these stories that came out of my experience with the daily reality of parenting. The story “Matter” is about a woman who becomes a mother through an international adoption, and then brings her son home with her to California. When the story takes place, her city has been evacuated due to the threat of encroaching wildfires, and she’s wrestling with how best to protect her son—to evacuate with him, though she knows that doing so will upset the very fragile stability she’s just managed to create in their new relationship; or to stay in place, keeping the routines that have proved essential for them both, but risking their safety. I researched and wrote the story in 2009. My own son was 3, and I was pregnant with my daughter. I felt—to be honest—worried about how I’d manage life with two children. During those early years of my children’s lives there were definitely moments at which I felt totally ill equipped to mother. Periodically, I’d experience a little fit of terror over what I’d committed to in parenting. How can I manage this? I’d think, overwhelmed. How will we make it to the other side? These aren’t the sort of thoughts mothers are culturally allowed to voice, though, and so I had a lot of guilt about them. The complexity of that, then—the incredible, fierce love of parenthood lived side-by-side with the real fears I felt about successfully raising my children—was what became the heart of that story. The other story I think of in response to your question is one titled “Tides.” It, too, circles the frustrations and—the word coming to my mind right now is suffocations—of parenthood and family life, but it’s actually about deep, committed love. And I suppose that’s really the best answer to what you’ve asked me here. What I could not have written before experiencing family life are these explorations of deep, committed love. I don’t think parenthood is necessarily the only entry point for writing the complexity of that love—not at all—but for me, motherhood has radically altered my identity and perspectives, and that’s been central to how I process everything, both as a person and as a writer. TM: This is your third story collection without a novel in between. Do you see yourself as primarily a practitioner of the short story or are you drawn to stories because you can write them in shorter bursts while keeping all the plates in the air in the rest of your life? KL: I love the story form above and beyond all other forms. As both a reader and a writer, I gravitate toward story first. I love the story’s ability to be precise, to push the boundaries of space and time and memory and point of view, and to lean a little closer (in its attention to imagery and use of repetition and play with structure) to poetry than a novel (with its heavier burden of plot) generally can. I love all of that. Stories are exciting reads—urgent and intense; and as a writer, stories never give me time to get bored (which I’m too prone to do). In the back of my mind, I admit, I have a fantasy about finally finding that novel I just have to write and then sitting down to write it. In almost 20 years of writing I’ve never gotten around to doing that, though, mostly because new stories keep interrupting me, diverting me. And also because when I have attempted novel-length drafts, what I’ve really ended up with have been linked story collections. That might be a product of my limited writing time, but I doubt it; plenty of novelists write around jobs and families. I think I’m simply a story writer. I’m solidly in the middle of my career, and I’m no less interested in discovering new ways into and through story—no less ambitious about improving—than I was when I began writing, so I suppose that says something, too, about where my heart is. TM: What a perfect segue to my last question: What’s next for you? What are you working on now that What We Do With the Wreckage is out in the world? KL: Like a lot of writers, I stopped writing altogether for a while following the 2016 election. I felt as if the breath had been knocked from me, and I just couldn’t put words on a page for a long time. I got involved in organizing with the Seattle branch of Write Our Democracy and volunteering with a couple of social justice groups in my local area, and most of my creative thought and free time in the last several months has been directed there. I’m slowly coming out from under the shadow, though, and I’m in the very early stages of a new story collection. I’d love it if this one could come together faster than Wreckage did—under a decade would be great!—but I’m going to be patient and see how it unfolds.  

The Magic of Being Out of Touch: Ignorance as the Last Stand of Romanticism

Why did America put Franz Kafka in such a good mood? As his friend Max Brod remembered, Kafka worked on his ultimately unfinished novel about the U.S. with “unending delight,” a noteworthy state for someone much more likely to be brooding about the big three (guilt, your father, corporeality) or writing pained letters to a distant love. In Amerika’s most upbeat passages, Kafka seems to take pleasure in romanticizing about the “New World,” imagining the U.S. as a beacon of equality and a decent hard day’s work. In this sense, the novel echoes plenty of earlier literature on America. But more surprisingly, Amerika anticipates a newer form of Romanticism, one that is worth considering closely, because it has since become a major presence in fiction about the U.S. Briefly put, the New World got Kafka excited about the potential benefits—really, the transformational power—of being stupid: the magic of being out of touch. This was something more than anti-intellectualism. This was pro-ignorance. Consider Amerika’s final chapter, in which the protagonist, a young immigrant named Karl, has reunited with friends and found a job with the “Nature Theatre of Oklahoma” after a long series of frustrating losses and wrong turns. According to Brod, this was Kafka’s favorite part of the book, a section he loved to read aloud. And although he never finished writing the chapter, he apparently would hint (with a big smile on his face) that “within this ‘almost limitless’ theatre his young hero was going to find again a profession, a stand-by, his freedom, even his old home and his parents, as if by some celestial witchery.” This was new territory for Kafka: magical thinking and happy endings. But here’s what the happiness actually looks like: Karl and his friend Giacomo find themselves crammed into a train car on a long cross-country route. They become so giddy about the trip and the beautiful scenery they pass that they are completely oblivious to their immediate surroundings. The seats are so crowded they can barely move, and thick cigarette smoke makes it hard to breathe. Their cabinmates, who make fun of Karl’s and Giacomo’s naive excitement, pass the time by playing cards and grabbing and pinching their less-seasoned fellow travelers. Karl is stuck, in other words, in a low-paying and unpredictable job, in rough conditions, surrounded by people who get a kick out of harassing him. This trip is pretty clearly not going to be great. And the scene is able to suggest that Karl is rushing off to a blessed future only because he seems so dimly aware of what is actually taking place. We’re familiar with the idea that ignorance is bliss, but, in the spirit of Amerika, the last century of fiction about the U.S. has flirted with the stronger notion that ignorance can heal. We will never learn exactly how Kafka’s dense traveler was going to reunite with family, friends, and home. But we now have a long list of novels that connect similar dots, turning states of density into moments of reunion and reparation. My favorite example is Alberto Fuguet’s Las Peliculas de mi Vida, in which the 1992 Pauly Shore movie Encino Man becomes a symbol for finding love in America. The novel relates the life story of a disillusioned Chilean-American seismologist who is torn about returning to America after many years in Chile. When he finally decides to move to California to pursue a love interest he met at the beginning of the book—she’s an American immigration attorney, as if to hammer home the idea that the journey is national as well as personal—he writes her one last note: “I’d like and am afraid and hope” that we will meet again, he says, “P.S. I did see Encino Man … I thought it was pretty bad and—nevertheless—enjoyed it.” His hopes and fears speak to the possibility that love in the U.S. could change his life. His appreciation of what is arguably the most ridiculous movie of the ’90s shows that he’s ready. Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, in which the Nigerian protagonist, Ifemelu, falls in love for a while with Curt, a “relentlessly upbeat” American who “believed in good omens and positive thoughts and happy endings to films.” As Ifemelu explains, Curt is “admirable and repulsive in a way that only an American of his kind could be.” She eventually moves on. But her temporary attraction to Curt and the dense Americanism he represents helps the story eventually land where it does: “The best thing about America,” she claims near the end of the novel, “is that it gives you space. I like that you buy into the dream, it’s a lie but you buy into it and that’s all that matters.” Who knows what would have happened if Ifemelu had not found, albeit temporarily, this “space” of obliviousness? This embracing of the forcefully unintellectual appears again in the conclusion of Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, another novel about an immigrant’s journey to America. After a twisting and traumatic plot, Holocaust survivor Joe Kavalier has ended up living for several years as a recluse in Manhattan, unable to connect with his friends and family. And he returns to the fold by making a scene. In a stunt announced anonymously in the newspaper, he swings from the Empire State Building in an iridescent gold suit and mask. The stunt, channeling the comic books Joe loves (and creates), makes no sense. But it works. When Joe’s estranged wife and cousin later ask why, he responds, “I guess this was the point … for me to come back. To end up sitting here with you, on Long Island, in this house, eating some noodles.” Somehow, the act of thrilling onlookers in a golden bathing suit and boots has enabled the refugee to rejoin the family he might not otherwise have seen again. It seems we can’t stop imagining stupid entryways into American life. More recently, the second-generation Turkish-American Elif Batuman has styled herself as an idiot in The Idiot, an autobiographical narrative of her college years. In an interview, she refers to “moments of what felt like, in retrospect, stupidity” as distinguishing her path through Harvard to a successful career as a journalist and novelist. We could go on: In Don Delillo’s White Noise, the goofy experiences of familial love that only seem possible in grocery stores; or the concluding image in Delillo’s Underworld, a novel steeped in issues of immigration and race in America: a billboard for orange juice that might or might not radiate divine forgiveness and plenitude after a tragic death (“they stared stupidly at the juice …’Did it look like her?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘I think so’”). Salman Rushdie’s American novels are more concerned with violent emotions that can’t be escaped (see: Fury), but he alludes to the healing powers of American unknowing when, in The Golden House, he has the narrator dream that he could be reunited with his son “and jump into Doc Brown’s DeLorean and fly back to the future and be free.” I think this might be one of the last frontiers of Romanticism, informed by a stubborn unwillingness to give up on the idea that America is a place of new beginnings. Returns to childhood, the national volk, hedonism, intelligence: These have pretty clearly lost their punch. But ignorance, ironically enough, is a harder Romantic object to dismiss, because it’s the only mental state that can’t be accused of bad faith: It so obviously isn’t setting out to get anything done, so obviously isn’t part of a plan, how could it have an ulterior motive? Still, for perhaps obvious reasons, few literary or academic voices would admit to taking ignorance seriously. A notable exception is Avital Ronell, whose wide-ranging philosophical study, Stupidity, makes a case for its revolutionary potential. Ronell does not have much to say directly about American contexts, but at one point, referring to the blockbuster movie Forest Gump, she writes that “moral purity, American style, can be ensured only by radical ignorance.” This is, I think, the basic underlying hope that helps imagery of ignorance feel optimistic in fiction about the U.S. There’s something that feels desperate about all this fascination with American ignorance, especially at a time in which assaults against knowledge so powerfully shape our public culture—but Kafka’s brilliance was a form of desperation, too. And it will be interesting to see where the desperate Romanticism he foresaw ends up. Image: Flickr/Rakkhi Samarasekera

Kathleen Kent and Laird Hunt on Witches and Wickedness in American History and Literature

The concept of the witch has figured prominently, not only in American history but in American literature as well. From Cotton Mather’s cautionary essays to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Arthur Miller, readers have been held in thrall by accounts of accused practitioners of dark magic, primarily women. Vilified and persecuted, “witches” were often portrayed in earlier novels as confederates of the devil—evil, ugly and terrifying. In more modern-day novels the witch has been transformed into a powerful, often majestic figure, capable of both creative and destructive magic, and unmoored from patriarchal judgement and censorship. She is a force of nature, and the possessor of ancient healing arts. Laird Hunt: What was your earliest encounter with witches? Kathleen Kent: Thanks to my maternal grandmother, I had a unique introduction to the history of “witches” and, in particular, the Salem Witch Trials. When I was quite young I was told that I was the 10th-generation descendent of Martha Carrier, one of 19 men and women hanged in Salem for the crime of witchcraft in 1692. My only perspective before that had been what was usual for most children exposed to the Halloween-ish parodies of the supernatural: scary, unwholesome, devil-worshipping women who flew around on broomsticks, frightening peasants and livestock alike. When I asked my grandmother if Martha Carrier had truly been a witch, she told me, “There are no such things as witches, Sweetheart, just ferocious women.” From that moment on I became fascinated with the true history of the accused witches, not just in America but in Europe as well. I read everything I could find in the historical records about Martha Carrier, and she was truly a ferocious woman. After being asked by her judges during the witch trials if she had ever seen the devil, she responded, “The only devils I have ever seen are those sitting in judgment before me!” It started me on a lifelong quest to discover how the concept of the force-of-nature female—who in ancient history often served as a healer and a wise woman—became relegated to the role of evil sorceress, poisoner, seducer of men, and spoiler of crops. What were your earliest impressions of what a witch was? LH: Perhaps before I answer that I should relate something that I think will be of interest to you. When my aunt, Linda Wickens, who among many other talents is an expert genealogist and the family historian, learned what I was writing about, she sent me the chilling account of one of our own ancestors—my 9th great-grandmother, Elizabeth Phelps, of Andover—whose incurable fever led to the conviction and death sentence in Salem of Ann Alcock Foster. During Foster’s trial, after considerable coercion resulted in her confessing to witchcraft, she implicated Richard Carrier, who I believe was your ancestor’s son, in evildoing. I should note that it is not at all clear that Elizabeth Phelps, very ill at the time, was directly involved in getting Foster arrested for witchcraft. Indeed, Phelps’s husband seems to have been much more central in that regard. But the fact remains that my ancestor was a part of the story and not on the right side of things. The complexity of those events is so intense. Foster only confessed to witchcraft in court when her own daughter, also accused, pointed the finger at her to try and avoid punishment. Foster died in prison before she could be hung. My ancestor died of her fever around the same time. Death, always around the corner in Puritan New England, must have seemed omnipresent during those grim days. My own first memory of witches was from a British television show I watched when I was far too young in the 1970s. In it, a young nanny is revealed to be a killer. Her weapon of choice is a knitting needle. I cannot remember quite how magic figured in the program, but it was present, and it was dark, and the satisfied smile the nanny wore as she worked her needles was terrifying. So for me the notion of the witch has always been linked to the idea that the intimate, the familiar, the everyday, the safe is anything but. I wonder if you could talk a little about the ways in which Martha Carrier was ferocious. Ferocity is what links the female narrators of the last four books I’ve written, and it never fails to amaze me how frightening the ferocity of women is to so many societies across time and space. KK: That is so fascinating! And isn’t it interesting that your aunt is your family historian and, like my grandmother, gave you knowledge of your personal history. Women are often the lamp bearers in this regard—the keepers of the oral traditions and ancient legacies. Richard Carrier, whom you mentioned, was Martha’s oldest son. He was arrested to compel his mother to admit to practicing witchcraft. He refused to do so, until he was tortured, and then confessed to the trial judges that, not only was his mother a witch, but that he practiced magic as well. The irony is that had she confessed to being a witch, she probably would have escaped the hangman’s noose. Your female narrators, as in Neverhome and The Evening Road, are indeed ferocious, which, to me, means not only physical prowess, but a willingness to buck convention, to exist outside the boundaries of what’s considered culturally appropriate for women. There is bravery in this, but also it speaks to a woman’s righteous anger as a motivating force, which can make quite a few people uncomfortable. I think it’s particularly illuminating that women throughout history who have taken on the mantle of leadership, or even ownership over their own fates, were suspected, or accused, of witchcraft. Joan of Arc was burned as a witch. And even today Hillary Clinton has been referred to as a witch, the word taking on a derogatory meaning synonymous with shrewish, destructive, and untrustworthy behavior. It’s also interesting to me that every culture—from Europe to the Middle East to Asia—has its own history of witches. In Italy “La Strega” is feared, but she’s also respected and sought after for healing remedies. In the Carpathian Mountains, people still anchor the corpses of suspected witches into their graves with heavy stones or sharpened stakes. It speaks to an ancient fearfulness of a woman’s intrinsic and profound power: the power to bring life into the world, or, as in Medea’s case, to eradicate it. In your new book, In the House in the Dark of the Woods, it feels as though you tapped into some very ancient lore, women as healers, women as destroyers. What inspirations were you drawing on to paint your narrative? LH: It is interesting to think that the late 17th-century story you tell with such force in The Heretic’s Daughter and the slightly earlier Connecticut witch—or purported witch—activity I drew on when writing my own tale, as far away from the earliest 21st century as they might seem, have such ancient roots. I wonder if acute awareness of the ancient and maybe ultimately unknowable traditions you evoke so well, combined with the relative dearth of information about and awareness of those Connecticut trials that started in the 1640s, made my story swerve so emphatically out of history and into the twinned (at least here) space of fairy tale and horror. Having written about women contending with slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow in the first three novels of the loose quartet I pointed to above, I had the definite sensation this time out that I was still writing about these things even as I fell backward, or plunged more fully, into the murkier territory of magic and malice in the 1600s. I suppose I see it as all interwoven, all these dark, glistening threads of our shared history whose ends reach deep into the past, and felt the need here more than ever to recognize, as you put it so beautifully, the “lamp bearers” (and perhaps breakers) as being at the center of it all. [millions_ad] I drew as much on works like Cynthia Wolfe Boynton’s Connecticut Witch Trials and Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière as I did on works of feminist theory like Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa” and Victoria Nelson’s fascinating discussion of chaos and Dionysian excess, as opposed to Apollonian order, in The Secret Life of Puppets, not to mention Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Fable and fairy tale and the oldest initiatory stories were always in the mix as well. I have ever been partial to the versions that end both badly and interestingly. How about you? What were you drawing on and plugging into when you wrote The Heretic’s Daughter? KK: I love the expression that you used—“murkier territory of magic and malice”—which, for me, seemed easier to channel when I was writing about 17th-century New England than, say, 19th-century Texas. There were so many societal contrasts and opposing forces at work in the Colonial wilderness, which gave the story in The Heretic’s Daughter so much narrative tension. The Puritans were a European people who ostensibly came to the New World to escape religious persecution, yet they were violently opposed to other religious groups, such as the Anabaptists and the Quakers. They were self-described “saints,” yet they were incredibly fractious and litigious with their neighbors. They were mandated by law to attend church, yet the Colonial villages had many public houses and inns serving alcohol, and the court records are filled with accounts of adultery, theft, and violence of all sorts. There was no separation of church and state as we know it, and a Doctor of Law had to also be a Doctor of Theology, man’s law being made to copy, at least in theory, God’s law. In the Puritan mind, anything good that happened in life was divinely ordered; anything unwholesome, destructive or threatening—failing crops, dying livestock, sickness—came from the devil. The witch trials of 1692 were a natural extension of these beliefs. Smallpox, increasing retaliation from Natives, and an impoverished town (Salem) left too long without any steadying, spiritual guidance were written about extensively by contemporary figures who detailed in increasingly hysterical terms about the “growing miasma of evil” that seemed to rise up from the ground like fog. This hysteria was further fanned by the prevalent attitude that women, especially women who were mentally unstable, ungoverned by a man, or a burden on society, were up to no good; natural confederates of the devil because of their innately weaker constitution and moral capabilities. The “dark magic” unleashed on the villages of the Colonies, described in the source book on witches, The Malleus Maleficarum, and as noted by the witch trial judges themselves, were also an outgrowth, they believed, of women’s unfettered rage and licentiousness, which to me is a harkening back to the fear of the chaos and Dionysian excess that you referred to earlier. I traveled extensively through New England while writing The Heretic’s Daughter because the description of location for me is as important as the character development. The physical setting in your latest book felt very substantive and important to the story. Were you writing about any place in particular or is the setting purely imaginative? LH: I lived in Western Connecticut as a boy and continued to spend considerable time there afterward with many a deep plunge into the woods along the way. The streams, ponds, bushes, dense trees, and lichen- and moss-covered rocks of the world my protagonist encounters are very much informed by those I spent so much time surrounded by in earlier years. Having said that, I got a first glimpse of the story on a cold, rainy walk in the woods near Cherry Valley, New York, where the landscape is less compacted, so that was in the mix, too. As were eastern woods glimpsed in movies and described in books and stories like Hawthorne’s powerful witch tale, “Young Goodman Brown,” or his other, longer witch tale of sorts, The Scarlet Letter, both set in that Colonial wilderness you refer to above. I’m absolutely with you on the importance of description of location and have worked throughout my recent novels to draw heavily on actual, repeated engagement with place, whether that’s been rural Indiana, battlefields in Virginia and Maryland, or the Connecticut woods. Because, like you, I often work with the past, I have tried to be extra cognizant of how landscapes have changed and shifted as native peoples have been displaced, whole animal species like the passenger pigeon have vanished, and imported plants and trees and interloper insects have swept aside indigenous ones. The results have always been hybrids—spaces of recollection, research and imagination—which never quite were but, through the curious witchcraft of language and literature, somehow are. Image: Flickr/jive667

Changing Our Narratives through ‘Days of Our Lives’

1. Just weeks before the presidential election, after the release of the recording in which Donald Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women as he headed to the set of Days of Our Lives, my mother called me. While most people talked about the words that came out of a presidential candidate’s mouth, my mother didn’t mention Trump. Instead she said, “It’s Nicole! The woman in the video. It’s Nicole Walker from Days.” My mother works from home, and as a kid I watched Days of Our Lives with her any weekday I wasn’t at school. The shows were so packed with golden-hued flashbacks, it was easy to catch up on what I missed. In our basement apartment, I witnessed glamorous women in mansions plot to destroy men who wronged them while my mother read the newspaper next to me on the couch we’d dragged in from the adjacent garbage room. For my mother, the soap opera was a background soundtrack to the country’s various crises. Only every now and then would she peek up from the paper to watch. While the villainous Stefano used hypnosis to try to seduce noble Marlena, or while the abusive Curtis blackmailed social-climber Kate, my mother would scream, “He’s a jerk!” I could never tell if she was hollering at the man on screen or a politician in the paper. Then Nicole showed up in Days’s fictional town of Salem, sleekly blond, clear-skinned, and hiding a mysterious past. I was 11, frizzy-haired, freckled, and trying only to conceal how mysterious the future seemed to me, how weird I found the specter of adulthood, or at least boobs. When the handsome Eric Brady fell for Nicole, I paid fierce attention to her wiles—the way she swayed her hips, the way she looked at Eric, what she did with her hands during soft-focus make-out sessions. But Nicole wasn’t just beautiful. She was tough. She would fight if she was treated unfairly or if she faced obstacles to love. At one point in the show, believing she’s successfully killed her older wealthy husband, Nicole begins to fall for her step-grandson. Later, she tries to sabotage the facial surgery of his love interest so that she, opera singer Chloe Lane, is permanently scarred and no longer competition in Nicole’s romantic quest. My mother and I laughed together as Nicole plotted her surgical revenge. Even the most abominable actions on Days could lose their power when my mother pointed out how ridiculous they were. “It’s an absurd storyline,” she’d say. With those words, she’d dismiss the rising music, the threat of loss, shame, heartbreak. Then she’d scream at the paper, “You total jerk.” 2. By the time I started commuting to high school on the subway, I found myself less interested in following the drama of Days than the drama of my own life, slight as it might have been. One afternoon, while I was sitting on a packed subway with my eyes closed, flashing back to an interaction with a crush during French class, I felt a pressure against my thigh. A tall man sat next to me, a few bulky plastic grocery bags covering and spilling over his lap. I wasn’t sure if I was being touched by the man or his bags. If this were a scene on Days, dramatic music would swell. The man’s eyes would shift, his sketchiness as loud as a red-plumed hat. But instead the man just gazed ahead as the subway clanked in its rhythmic way. The train was crowded during rush hour and people touched each other accidentally all the time. I didn’t want to seem like a hysterical child. I didn’t want to make even a tiny scene. I slipped out of my seat and stood with the rest of the commuters. At the next stop the man with the grocery bags stood and leaned close. “You have nice hips,” he said, his breath all over my face, and then he sped away. I spent the rest of the ride reading and rereading headlines of a newspaper someone had left on the subway floor, trying not to think about how gross I felt, how angry I felt at the man for not only groping me, but for getting the last word. I kept focusing on the headlines at my feet: Somewhere else, people were being killed for reasons that didn’t make sense. Somewhere else, people were starving, disease-ridden. Somewhere else, other girls didn’t go to school at all. We reached my stop. What happened next happened fast. As I exited the train, a guy on the platform smiled, grabbed my crotch in passing, then boarded the subway. The doors shut, the train left, and I stood unmoving on the platform. Something about how both these offenses happened to me one after the other, without a single word from me, made me hazy. One alone would be an occurrence—but two felt like a freakish, melodramatic pattern. Days had taught me about freakish, melodramatic patterns in love, hate, and betrayal, but my assailants weren’t men I knew. They had no narrative significance to me. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell my mom about what happened. But when I got home and sat on the couch with her in front of the muted TV, it just spilled out: Not just one guy had grabbed me, but two. “Two!” I said and laughed with as little wobble and as much irony as I could muster. I thought my mother might blame me, tell me I should have been more alert on the train. Or maybe she’d just laugh like she did at the craziest plot lines on Days and say, “Two? That is absurd.” She didn’t blame me and she didn’t laugh. Instead she started to tell me about the time when she was a teenager walking down the street with her sister, both of them eating ice cream. An old man grabbed her sister’s butt, then walked away. My mother, fresh off a reading of The Feminine Mystique, shouted after him. The man turned, said, “Now, girls,” his condescension only enraging her more. My mother, who had finished her ice cream, grabbed her sister’s cone and shoved it in the man’s face. Then she ran. When she got home, adrenalized and giddy, she told her boyfriend about what happened. He shrugged, not impressed. He said the man was probably at home getting off on the memory of what she’d done. And then my mother took my hand and her voice got angry, the way it did when she was talking about a politician. She told me the boyfriend had wanted to diminish her, to make her feel foolish for trying to get the last word, to make her feel like even in enacting revenge, she could never be the heroine, but only the sexual object. “That boyfriend sounds like a jerk,” I said and felt older, adult in the way I’d been watching for when I watched Days. What happened on the subway seemed different now, too, not like two absurd moments, but rather like points on an absurd storyline, stretching back to before me, tying me to my mother. The next day, I got back on the subway to go to school. Sometimes I thought of those men, what I’d say if I saw them again, but I never did. 3. When I saw the clip of Nicole Walker and Donald Trump, it didn’t feel like I was watching a soap opera or an escape. It felt like a flashback. Of course, it wasn’t really Nicole Walker in the clip. It was the actress Arianne Zucker, trying to be nice, to do her job. Yet I couldn’t help seeing the soap character I’d admired in my childhood, couldn’t help imagining a lost episode of Days of Our Lives where Nicole bugs Trump and hears what he said about grabbing women. I imagined her plotting a revenge that involved babies switched at birth, evil twins, plastic surgery gone awry. But why was it easier for me to envision a female character exacting vengeance than a woman who existed in reality? I needed to do better. I closed my eyes, remembering how silent I felt when I got grabbed in the subway, and how powerful I felt when I told my mother her boyfriend had been a total jerk. When I again imagined the clip of Arianne Zucker and Donald Trump, my mind made a dramatic switch worthy of a soap opera. Instead of Nicole Walker, and instead of the actress playing her, it was my mother I envisioned now, holding an ice cream cone like a sword, ready to change the storyline however she could. Image: Flickr/IrishFireside

Meghan O’Gieblyn Wryly Guides Us through the ‘Interior States’

In her preface to this often stunning, always measured debut book of essays, Meghan O’Gieblyn captures her essayistic identity in a quote from William James: “The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of the old order standing.” Interior States is an examination of the Midwest and the self—a wry, ambitious catalog of what happens when a writer abandons belief yet retains a religious language and latitude. O’Gieblyn grew up in “a dwindling Baptist congregation in southeast Michigan, where Sunday mornings involved listening to our pastor unabashedly preach something akin to the 1819 version of hell.” “Saved” at 5 years old, she entered Moody Bible Institute at 18. There, the Word was literal and absolute. But don’t fall for the “widespread misconception that biblical literalism is facile and mindless.” Rather, the peculiar erudition of Christian literalism “is even more complicated than liberal brands of theology because it involves the sticky task of reconciling the overlay myth—the story of redemption—with a wildly inconsistent body of scripture.” A former evangelical whose audiences are primarily secular—think Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Guardian—O’Gieblyn calls out the lethargy of contemporary American culture. “I developed a physical allergy to NPR,” she writes, suspicious of narratives that center the narrator and, in doing so, praise that narrator. She thinks they are somewhere between self-satisfied and self-congratulatory: “It seemed to me then that we suffered from the fundamental delusion that we had elevated ourselves above the rubble of hinterland ignorance—that fair trade coffee and Orange You Glad It’s Vegan? cake had somehow redeemed our sins.” As a pox against that mindset, O’Gieblyn would “unwind by listening to a fundamentalist preacher who delivered exegeses on the Pentateuch and occasionally lapsed into fire and brimstone.” During those long drives home from her night class, charged by a cadence which stirred her, about a God in which she no longer believed, “I would slip into a trance state, failing to register the import of the message but calmed nonetheless by the familiar rhythm of conviction.” That need for conviction—perhaps more its hymn than its literal message—enables O’Gieblyn to arrive at interesting and refreshing conclusions. She laments that “at a time when we are in need of potent metaphors to help us make sense of our darkest impulses, Protestant churches have chosen to remain silent on the problem of evil, for fear of being obsolete.” Here O’Gieblyn carries what she calls the evangelical Protestant tradition of public profession. These essays are her peculiar testimonies. More than anything else, they are stories of the Midwest, where exists “a profound loss of telos, the realization that the industries and systems that built the region are no longer tenable.” Her literal and metaphorical home, the Midwest has been “less a destination than a corridor,” a place where you can easily develop “an existential dizziness, a sense that the rest of the world is moving while you remain still.” The Midwest breeds outward kindness and inward skepticism. “When you live at the center of the American machine,” she writes, “it’s impossible to avoid speaking of mechanics.” She’s a welcome guide through this machine. “Awareness is not the same as perspective; sometimes the former is an obstacle to the latter”—aphorisms paint the atmosphere in this book. O’Gieblyn earns her pronouncements. In an essay about subtlety, that which she proclaims her “chronic foible,” O’Gieblyn shares “when I finally abandoned my faith, I believed I was leaving this inscrutable world behind”—an evangelical world of impossible theologies, in which God was absent but longed for. “But as it turns out,” she knows, “the material world is every bit as elusive as the superstitions I’d left behind.” Rather than a jeremiad against the Christianity of her youth, Interior States asks her former faith to return to its previous authenticity, one lost to a consumerist sense of worship. O’Gieblyn retains what she calls “an abiding anthropological curiosity” to her past life, and it has created a curiously powerful result. She’s a writer who speaks in tongues—Biblically trained, and yet now her own—and who understands America from the middle. After finishing Interior States, I returned to the William James essay that O’Gieblyn so appropriately quoted. He finishes that piece with a meditation upon the value of pragmatism: “Rationalism sticks to logic and the empyrean. Empiricism sticks to the external senses. Pragmatism for her part is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact—if that should seem a likely place to find him.” O’Gieblyn is a writer worth trusting, a writer who audaciously, and stylistically, seeks truth.

Tree Time and Mortality in the Eyes of Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Powers, and Ursula K. Le Guin

1. Trees tell time when they cease to live. Concentric bands show up clean and countable, the index of so many wet and dry seasons past, but only when the end has been determined, when no more rings will be added. The tree is always recording, but it takes chopping it down to render the story legible, to make counting count for us. Dendrochronology—the science of studying time by way of trees—is a postmortem practice encircled by beginnings and endings. We need an end to make sense of what came before. This, according to Frank Kermode’s classic study of literature The Sense of an Ending (1967) is what makes apocalyptic narratives so appealing: An ending provides the frame in which to plot out our concerns. Feeling ourselves on the way to something is infinitely preferable to being simply out here, somewhere. It is partly this “sense of an ending” that makes climate change so difficult to conceptualize and to confront in narrative terms. Climate change, after all, should not be thought of in terms of an end but rather on the order of many ends, ends with varying temporalities and which will unevenly affect life distributed around the globe along different axes of power and privilege. Disaster movies notwithstanding, climate change poses what literary critic Rob Nixon calls a “representational challenge” to narrative. We need new narrative modes, Nixon says, for registering the “slow violence” of environmental collapse, the many endings resistant to—or unavailable to—attention-grabbing denouement. At least one major critic and novelist, Amitav Ghosh, has argued that this task is anathema to literary fiction all together. Climate change, Ghosh argues in The Great Derangement, is beyond the conventional novel form. Yet the Anthropocene, one of the most important terms to emerge from recent discussions regarding climate change, attempts to overcome this narrative impasse. However one feels about the term—disagreements abound regarding when it started, about what we should really call it instead, and about whether it is a geological epoch at all—the notion of the Anthropocene tries to force in some of the narrative parameters that we so crave. As many have pointed out, the Anthropocene suggests not only a beginning to the human story but also—projecting forward—an end. The qualifications for a geological epoch indicate that a scientist should be able to discern the stratigraphic rock boundaries of the discrete period in question. Because every epoch previous to the current Holocene began and ended long before humans existed—and because the Anthropocene itself is still in formation—we are for the first time tasked with considering an open rather than closed chapter in the book of the earth. As historian of science Robert V. Davis explains, if the Anthropocene is to be accepted, it is only because, in the future, “retrospection will show the present as having been shaped geologically by man.” The many smaller ends of climate change slip past our narrative conventions, but the Anthropocene promises—however bleakly—that the end is foreseeable, at least from some future finality looking back. This despite the fact that, as philosopher Claire Colebrook points out, there may be no humans left to do the looking. Some of the strongest material evidence for the Anthropocene comes from studies of ice core samples, but at least one instance of dendrochronology helps make sense of the epoch’s strangely anticipatory narrative logic. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) depicts film’s most famous scene of tree ring reading by way of perhaps the world’s most famous species of trees. Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) and Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) travel north from San Francisco to the John Muir forest, where they stand amidst Redwoods. When asked by Scottie what she is thinking, Madeleine responds, “Of all the people who have born and died while the trees went on living.” Scottie responds professorially: “Their true name is Sequoia sempervirens, always green, ever living.” “I don’t like them,” Madeleine says. “Why?” “Knowing I have to die,” she answers. The pair walk from the living trees to a nearby cross section of a tree that is suspended by a sign, a “Redwood round.” The camera pans across the tree cross-section slowly enough for us to read the white flags which mark historical events at various rings: “1215 Magna Carta Signed,” “1776 Declaration of Independence,” etc. At this point a swell of eerie music prepares us for what Madeline says next, as she reaches her hand to the wood. Pointing to one and then another ring just inside the inner edge of the round, she says, “Somewhere in here I was born, and here I died. It was only a moment for you, you don’t notice.” Madeleine’s seemingly absurd statement works within the complex plot of the film: In short, she is possessed by a long-dead ancestor, and so this idea that she—inhabited by a past personality—can point to rings indicating both her birth and death makes a sort of spooky sense. Hitchcock certainly had other things in mind, but we might consider Madeleine’s words as the pronouncement necessitated by the projective schema of the Anthropocene. Here we humans were born, and here we died. She stands at the vantage of the future which looks back to read the opening and closing of homo sapiens as it is scored into the planet. We have come and gone; the trees and their story of us remain. This, after all, is what Madeleine feels so poignantly: all the people who died as these trees, impassive but watchful, continued to live. The Anthropocene invites us, like Madeleine, to see our existence bounded in a time that trees, the planet—the tellers of the story—surpass. Standing poised over the containing record, we see the story entire. The tree thus acts as a partially satisfying symbol and harbinger of a distant future end, a seeming permanence against which our narratives can unfold. 2. The cover of Richard Powers’s new novel The Overstory (2018) superimposes rings radiating outward atop what appears to be a Redwood forest. Each ring contains a different time: from day to night to day, and seemingly across years, too, as the small figures on horseback suggest. That The Overstory is about both trees and time is perhaps the simplest thing one could say about this environmental epic. Powers follows close to a dozen distinct storylines across centuries. Trees are characters alongside the people who form these multigenerational sagas—sagas that, by the novel’s conclusion, connect and blend. Forest ecology is an explicit focus of much of the novel—especially as focalized through Patty Westerford, an ecologist whose fictional The Secret Forest is a nod to the real-life The Hidden Life of Trees, by forester Peter Wohlleben. But even when characters aren’t musing over or discussing the life of the forest, the novel reinforces on the level of form the sense that trees offer profound testament to duration and interconnection. Trees testify to a life both older and stranger than any we commonly perceive, and The Overstory is largely an experiment in scrambling—or splicing, in botanical terms—temporal orders: What happens when trees bend to the whims of human time? Usually, the novel suggests, they break, or are broken, at which point we are able to observe time, and thus ourselves amid the rings. This, the novel insists, is what is happening in the age of environmental catastrophe: Trees and the planet they sustain are forcefully sped up to our pace, a doomsday clock, and we are confronted by the repercussions in the downed wreckage that follows. But how does human life look and feel when put in terms of old growth and legacy trees? More expansive than we can easily imagine, it turns out. Good fodder for Powers, who, as Jeff Karnicky explains in his review of the novel, “Tree Time,” has the uncanny ability to build an entire narrative world around a single prevailing motif. Powers keeps tree rings always in mind as the novel moves forward, with small images of tree cross-sections adorning chapter and section breaks. Throughout, too, various characters refer to and reflect on tree rings, whether in conducting actual dendrochronological research (as in the case of the ecologist character) or when thinking—as in Vertigo—of all the events that transpired at various points in a given tree’s ring record (a historic flood, a father’s death). Poignant in relation to Madeleine’s words in the Muir Woods is one haunting scene that closes a major section of the novel. Nick, the artist figure of the novel, returns home to a scene of tragedy, of death, which he immediately flees: Nick blunders through the front door, trips down the porch steps, and falls into the snow. He rolls over in the freezing white, gasping and reviving. When he looks up, it’s into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal, and bare against the drifts. All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by the branches that wave their semaphores against the bluest of Midwestern winter skies. Passive and watchful, the tree—a “sentinel”—is the permanence under which the little human dramas unfold. This is the way it should be, Powers suggests: Human stories mix, meander, and sputter in the understory of a larger life always proliferating above our heads, rooted sprawling under our feet. It is our poverty of imagination that keeps us dull to this life. A voice seemingly belonging to a tree—or to all trees, perhaps—makes this clear in the opening page: “All the ways you imagine us—bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal—are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.” On the scale of civilization, missing the half of it means we will “lose by winning” the war against nature and necessity, as one characters puts it. Towards the end of the novel, Powers actually uses one character to explain this problem in terms of the novel form itself. Ray Brinkman is in bed, his permanent place since a stroke that laid him low dozens of pages before. He listens to his wife read him books, working through “The Hundred Greatest Novels of all Time.” All of Powers’s characters are cognizant to some degree of the impending direness of environmental collapse, and Ray is no different. These thoughts follow him even into his interaction with books, which he understands to be fundamentally limited and limiting. “To be human,” Ray thinks: is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people. It is difficult to know where Powers stands in relation to this statement. Is The Overstory a book-length refutation of Ray? Does Powers claim that a novel—this novel—can in fact do what Nixon wants and also accomplish what Ghosh says is beyond the scope of literary fiction? That is, can a novel render legible and compelling “life” as “mobilized on a vastly larger scale”? Or does this moment in The Overstory betray the novelist’s own doubts about his project? Is Ray the puncturing problem that Powers feels is always there, nagging? Whatever the case, the novel asks us to consider whether novels can indeed impress the overstory. [millions_ad] 3. In a recent interview, Powers cited Ursula K. Le Guin as inspiration for his environmental epic. He has in mind her classically environmental fiction—specifically, the novella The Word for World is Forest (1972). This science fiction shares with Powers an interest in confronting human concerns with the sublime expanse of forest ecology. Like The Overstory, Le Guin’s story wends conventional characters together with rooted ecologies more complex, interdependent, and surprising than anything we ambulatory beings can grasp. (Powers may also be thinking of Le Guin’s wonderfully weird “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” which expands on the sublimity of plant power in ways that I will not spoil here.) It makes sense for Powers to see in The Word for World an important predecessor to The Overstory, but given the centrality of trees, the more important comparison is actually a lesser-known piece of fiction by the late great Le Guin. “The Direction of the Road” (1974) is a “tale" in Le Guin's preferred fantastical sense of the term. Collected recently in The Unreal and the Real (2012), one of a two-volume set of collected works from Saga Press, the tale spans a mere seven pages, yet it asks the same questions that animate Powers’s 500-plus-page tome. But in asking the same questions, Le Guin’s tale comes to substantially different conclusions. Much like The Overstory, “The Direction” is an exercise in point of view. While Powers begins with a tour de force opening from the perspective of a tree/trees only to then affix to human concerns, Le Guin’s entire story is narrated by a tree. But Le Guin lets us figure this out on our own through the first few pages. We get to know the tree: proud, dutiful, a bit inflexible and wooden, perhaps. The tree tells of its long life, its watchful stance over a century that sees horses give way to automobiles give way to traffic. Throughout, Le Guin plays a trick with relativity and perception in a way that I will let you explore on your own. (The provocation: How might a tree—a rooted tower—see the world? As she herself explains of her process in David Naimon’s recent Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, this is quintessential Le Guin. Change one rule, one significant parameter, and explore the repercussions all the way down.) As usual, however, the most important moment of the tale arrives at the end. A car on the bustling road beside the tree smashes into its trunk. We might expect that the tree is done for, is mangled beyond recovery, a minimalist drama of the collision course we’ve set the warming planet on. This may have been the finale in the hands of a lesser writing. But for Le Guin the point is—as usual—almost completely the opposite of the expected. In the moment before the car makes contact, the driver looks up at the tree, and the tree feels itself seen in a wholly new and unwelcome way. “He saw me under the aspect of eternity,” the tree tells us. “He confused me with eternity. And because he died in that moment of false vision, because it can never change, I am caught in it, eternally.” The driver dies, and in his final moment, he makes the tree eternal, an injustice it can hardly bear, a cruelty it objects to passionately. “Eternity is none of my business,” the tree bemoans: I am an oak, no more, no less. I have my duty; I have my pleasures, and enjoy them, thought they are fewer, since the birds are fewer, and the wind’s foul. But, long-lived though I may be, impermanence is my right. Mortality is my privilege. And it has been taken from me. The tree is barely scathed. It is left standing, as if a permanent, unshakeable part of the landscape. And this is the tragedy. 4. The Overstory is about the human inability to comprehend “tree time,” to borrow Karnicky’s phrase, a scale of hundreds if not thousands of years, and about the death of trees that follow in the wake of this continuing and perhaps inevitable misunderstanding. Joining Madeleine in Muir Woods, The Overstory suggests that we see in dead trees the catastrophe in full, written in rings as if having already occurred. Le Guin’s tale, on the other hand, is about a tree that demands the dignity of death. In the Anthropocene, a tree that clings to “impermanence” as a “right” is a reminder that the very idea of permanence is human. Powers makes of trees a would-be permanence felled low by human hubris, but Le Guin suggests exactly the opposite—that it is our misunderstanding that makes of trees a permanent fixture in the first place. Le Guin’s tale is an elegant reminder that the tidiness of the end—as if final and absolute—exists nowhere but in our collective desires. A problem as overwhelming as climate change would seem to require the complexities of the long-form novel. We need not just characters but generations of characters; not just arcs but intersecting webs. Powers provides all of this and more, and there is much to commend in his remarkably synoptic and sprawling masterpiece. The Overstory is a deftly choreographed weave of human stories overshadowed and branched in extensive canopy. But even with this achievement in mind, Le Guin’s compact fable tugs as a necessary critique. Telling stories about the timelessness of trees risks forgetting that death is, of course, a natural part of life, even in the Anthropocene. There’s something in the comparative simplicity and compactness of Le Guin’s tale that insists on a perspective we hardly stop to accept, a voice lost amidst the din of our clamoring narrative needs. In our eagerness to find the end where there are only ends, the tree is made subordinate to a human story that is thereby circumscribed that much tighter. The novel form has been pronounced dead by more critics through time than perhaps any other art form, and we will not further challenge its seemingly eternal, vampiric existence here. But even as the novel should continue to play an important (if vexed) role in addressing climate change through narrative, we would do well to hear the still, strange voice of an oak tree that has not yet died but hopes to do so, perhaps one day soon. This tree has something to say: If they wish to see death visibly in the world, that is their business, not mine. I will not act Eternity for them. Let them not turn to the trees for death. If that is what they want to see, let them look into one another’s eyes and see it there.

A Melancholy Tightrope Act: The Beautiful Spectacle of Sabrina Orah Mark’s ‘Wild Milk’

The stories in Sabrina Orah Mark’s newest collection, Wild Milk, are as careful, diamond-sharp, and surprising as the narrative poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Dorothy, a publishing project, which is committed to “works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women,” has, for nearly 10 years, proven an ally to genre-bending writing. Mark’s book is on a par with the best work they’ve put out, such as Leonora Carrington’s The Complete Stories and Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest. By turns absurd, fantastic, and autobiographical, these stories—all living in the exciting space between the traditional short story and the prose poem—build upon the world Mark has been constructing for 15 years, starting with The Babies (2004) and Tsim Tsum (2009). Within a single story, the register will shift with breathtaking speed from a fairy tale or Hasidic folktale to a Beckett play and then, in the blink of an eye, to the fiery candor of confessional poetry. At one moment you’re arrested by Mark’s wit, her penchant for puns and malaprops, and the next you’re soaring into the visionary territory of mystic literature. As in “Tweet,” when “following the Rabbi” on Twitter transforms into an actual ritual procession, the metaphorical becomes literal and the literal becomes metaphorical, much like Kafka’s play on Ungeziefer in The Metamorphosis. First and foremost, however, this collection is about family and its various hoods—motherhood, step-motherhood, daughterhood, sisterhood, childhood, fatherhood, grandfatherhood, grandmotherhood, et al. Each of these roles is shot through with joys and obsessions and is taxonomically open, in that the roles shift and blur when emotional (or imaginative) pressure is applied. The narrator’s personas circle around an array of family members, such as the incorrigible brother Gary, a husband named Poems or Louis C.K., a usurping Sister, sons who metamorphose into daughters, a stepchild named Ugrit, a father shrinking (quite literally) before the specter of a pogrom, imaginations of mothers like Hillary Clinton and Diana Ross, and literary parents such as Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein. Although Wild Milk is much more than the sum of its parts, a collage of lines from the stories “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt,” “Mother at the Dentist,” “For the Safety of Our Country,” “Spells,” “The Maid, the Mother, the Snail, & I,” and “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” can provide a small window into Mark’s unique world: “Poems cries so hard a cloud bursts, and children spill out”; “A man can only wait for his wife at the dentist for so long until he wanders outside to buy a newspaper and never returns”; “Under his left eye appears to be a small patch of moss where a flower could grow if only he believed in himself a little more”; “I dream my sons return to me, floating through the kitchen with bundles of wood”; “I read somewhere that some Jews escaped Poland by hiding in coffins”; and my absolute favorite: “With a stone in his hand, Mendelssohn reaches all the way into the bucket, past the hole, past god, and summer, and almonds, and shame, and the ocean, and mice, and love, and fevers, and worship, and snails, and teeth, and lilac, and forgiveness, and a song about a bucket with a hole in it, and past all the children singing the song, and past their children singing it, and their children’s children, and past my broken heart until he reaches the oldest water and wets the stone.” To read a Mark story is a beautiful spectacle, to experience a wonderfully choreographed tightrope performance. But it’s a melancholy performance, too, since none of her characters are expert funambulists. They are nervous, tender, cruel, funny, and messy human (and sometimes nonhuman) beings. Wild Milk is not fantasy untethered to our historical moment. The social commentary is cutting, sometimes on the nose and at others skillfully oblique: Mark’s narrators are bruised by an economy that doesn’t properly value teaching and creative writing, in which a patriarchal boy’s club (represented by “Donald … the man none of us will ever be”) presides over a moribund academic job market; the current presidential tragedy is given its day in court; age-old anxieties about miscegenation are addressed with bitter irony when Grandpa—who cannot escape his own legacy of persecution—grudges the narrator’s marriage to a black man; and the unabated ripple effects of the Holocaust are still felt powerfully by her Jewish characters in their inner and outer lives. In short, Wild Milk is original and unforgettable—without a doubt my favorite book of 2018.

Reading Vonnegut to Cope with Death

I received the call late on a Saturday night. I live in Europe, far from my home in the U.S., so receiving a call from my mother at 10 p.m. my time (1 p.m. her time) was never unusual. But when the tone of her voice on the other line was a distinct “Hi,” choking the usual sing-songy enthusiasm to follow, I felt a lump in my throat. “They found your dad,” she said, “He’s gone.” I then immediately collapsed into my wife’s arms. After a night of sobbing and pacing, I managed to fall asleep. The next day, I found odd ways to cope: I rewatched funny YouTube videos in order to escape from reality. I watched old detective shows that would normally keep my mind occupied and soothe my anxieties. Following a few messy, stumbling phone calls from friends and family, I found myself unable to carry my own bones through this particular loss. I don’t have a religion or god to fall back on. I turned my back on that as a teenager, and ever since, I’ve managed so far to find peace in music, poetry, and philosophy. Metaphors about death and grief are a dime a dozen; you’ll find plenty of words that are, as I discovered, virtually helpful to no one—“all that lives must die” (Shakespeare), or “death doesn’t change us more than life” (Dickens). Once I found myself confronting the complexity of grief, tepid words from my literary heroes didn’t seem to do the heavy lifting I originally hoped for. Another famous literary phrase that comes to mind when we think of death is “So it goes.” This is, of course, the quasi-absurdist response found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, given after every instance of death in the novel (a novel about World War II, so you can imagine it happens quite a lot). Although this phrase is hardly a comfort, it bespeaks the way I had always approached death—sometimes scratching my head, sometimes with cynicism, and sometimes with a shrug. What happened during the grieving period wasn’t so much answer-seeking. I wasn’t cursing the heavens, kneeling in the dust and beating my breast, asking, “Why, God, why?” Instead, I found myself wondering how I could simply exist comfortably anymore. How can I act kindly toward others, when I felt nothing but anger? How can I avoid blaming the world and the people around him for taking him away from me? I then remembered what Vonnegut once said to a group of students at Case Western Reserve University. After asking what life is all about, he delivers the answer: “We are here to help each other get through this thing … whatever it is.” This short phrase seemed to solidify for me something I was missing: a philosophy of life that, in its lightness and simplicity, told me exactly what I ached for during the grieving period and epitomized the type of person I should aspire to be. This echoes, as well, the beautiful phrase Malachi Constant utters in The Sirens of Titan: “The true purpose of life, no matter who is in control, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” It’s no secret that Vonnegut was not religious. A self-described humanist, Vonnegut became the American Humanist Association’s honorary president in the early ’90s, succeeding Isaac Asimov in what he described as a “completely functionless capacity.” In the short text God Bless You Doctor Kevorkian, originally read as a radio broadcast, he says, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I'm dead.” Vonnegut, though, didn’t seem to have the acute hostility toward religion that one expects from us atheists, especially today. I share, in fact, his fascination with and affinity for the anodyne symbols, imagery, and comforts that people find in religion. This idea comes through full-force in his novel Cat’s Cradle. The novel depicts the story of Jonah, a writer whose growing fascination with the scientists involved in the atomic bomb leads him first to meeting the children of a famous physicist, then eventually to the fictional island San Lorenzo. The novel reflects a uniquely blended critique of both religion and science. “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be based on lies,” Jonah says in one of the beginning chapters, “will be unable to understand this book.” The significant part of this passage isn’t the “based on lies” part—rather the word “useful.” Useful things that make life bearable can nevertheless be based on lies. The name for this, according to Vonnegut in a later collection, is “Foma”—“harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls”. Scientists, on the other hand, are not depicted favorably in the novel. While science as such might engender a curiosity with and concern for truth, often enough the human cost has been cast to the wayside. The same people who gave us efficient means to connect with one another also gave us efficient means to blow each other up. While Jonah is interviewing Dr. Asa Breed—the supervisor to the (fictional) Nobel Prize-winning physicist Felix Hoenikker—she defensively replies to his questions, “All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race at all.” Jonah’s reply: “That’s putting it quite strongly.” The point is that, while religions derive from fictions and lies, they nevertheless bring peace and comfort. They do make us perform silly rituals and spout meaningless mantras, imparting false assurances through fanciful stories. But these alone hardly harm anyone. Science, by contrast, with the hubristic pursuit for technological advancement, has a track record of grave human consequences—the expression of which we can find in such catastrophes as, say, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other such nuclear disasters. When my father died, he was alone. At the time of his death, an illness which controlled much of his life ultimately led him to collapse on his bedroom floor. It wasn’t until his brother called for a welfare check that he was discovered in his house. Alone. Probably dead for a few days. So it goes. Although I have some idea of what his last moments were like, I still don’t have clarity. What I do fear, and what causes me the most pain, is the realization that he must have been so afraid. He wasn’t ready to die. Not then. Throughout his life, my father was a man of little complication. He grew up in a middle-class family in the Midwest. He came close to joining the Naval Academy, but then instead moved to New York in his early 20s to become an accountant. When I was growing up, my father had a light touch about him—an openness and willingness to laugh that was utterly contagious. My sister and I never had to be extraordinary, and it was almost impossible to disappoint him. My parents divorced when I was a teenager. In the years since, I saw my father go through more divorces, setbacks, and job lay-offs. During my adolescence and into adulthood, I witnessed his losing battle with his body. I watched him sink even deeper into alcoholism while the cirrhosis slowly took his liver, his mind, and then his life. At his memorial, my sister and I both read eulogies. She went first, and I followed. After telling a few stories about my dad and even making a few jokes at his expense, I read a passage from Cat’s Cradle. In the novel, the people of San Lorenzo follow the fictional religion of Bokononism. And when their dictator, “Papa” Monzano, is on his deathbed, Dr. von Koenigswald arrives to deliver the last rites of Bokononism. It’s a prayer that beautifully expresses gratitude toward life and beauty, and to me, it stood as the perfect way to end a eulogy. Although it’s originally written with two voices, with “Papa” repeating each line, I cut out the second voice and read it more as if it’s a singular prayer: God made mud. God got lonesome. So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!" "See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars." And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud. I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done. Nice going, God. Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn't have. I feel very unimportant compared to You. The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn't even get to sit up and look around. I got so much, and most mud got so little. Thank you for the honor! Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep. What memories for mud to have! What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met! I loved everything I saw! Good night. I will go to heaven now. I can hardly wait... To find out for certain what my wampeter was... And who was in my karass... And all the good things our karass did for you. Amen. I concluded my eulogy with this, crying through the line, “thank you for the honor!” (I also skipped over the last three lines about “wampeter” and “karass”—other Vonnegut-isms for aspects of religiosity.) For weeks after my father died, I realized that these lines were helping me cope with his death. Because I don’t know what my father’s last words were—or if he even had any final words—I continue to read these lines as if my father said them to himself. I know full well that this is false (not least because, as far as I know, my father never read Vonnegut), and I don’t convince myself that it’s true. Rather, imagining that my father loved everything he saw, and that he felt it such an honor to be alive, is consistent with the man he was and the life he wanted. As for me, reinterpreting his final moments with the Bokononist prayer may be a falsehood, may be a lie; in fact, it’s a foma—a harmless untruth meant to comfort my simple soul. Image: Flickr/Seabamirum