Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America, the latest book from the editors of the Brooklyn-based literary journal n+1, would seem to have arrived just in time. As I write, much of what Occupy Wall Street meant in 2011 looks as though it will be a memory in 2012. Major occupations throughout the country, including the flagship encampment at Zuccotti Park, have been dismantled. Others that remain, like the one in Washington, D.C., face the growing threat of eviction and the deteriorating weather of a North American winter in full effect. Mainstream media coverage, ambivalent even during the movementâs high watermark, has turned definitively to a more reassuring, if less comprehensible, strain of political theater in the Republican presidential primary. Whether or not this decline in profile and enthusiasm is permanent, the evident phase-change merits a look back at the movementâs first chapter.
The writings assembled in Occupy!âfrom the journalâs editors, as well as other writers and thinkers sympathetic to OWSâchronicle the movementâs first month and a half, from the settlement by protesters in a small park in New York Cityâs Financial District, to eventual expansions in Oakland, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Boston. The book consists of first-person anecdotes about life and activity within the occupations, as well as essays on various theoretical and practical aspects of the movement as it grew. Many of these pieces originally appeared in the Occupy! Gazette, a special newspaper printed by n+1, and on the journalâs blog where content about OWS is regularly posted. Also reprinted are speeches made at encampments in New York by Judith Butler, Angela Davis, and Slavoj Žižek. The bookâs account ends two weeks before the Zuccotti eviction and the subsequent Day of Action on November 17 that found some 30,000 marchers in the streets. The preface acknowledges that these events took place as the book was going to print, and its posture is one of defiance: “You can pull up the flowers but you canât stop the spring…The movement and this book are not over.” It sets the tone for much of what is to come, namely articulate endorsement of its subject. For all the collectionâs problems, mistaking its audience isnât one of them.
That Occupy! rests on that endorsement is a different matter. Since its formation in 2003, n+1 has steadily grown its reputation for culturally charged nonfiction and criticism among a readership largely of young intellectuals. The journal specializes in personal commentary on a range of fashionable left-leaning political and aesthetic issues, often postured against consensus. When the occupation became a groundswell, its writers were among the first sympathizers. But whatâs been selected here rarely earns the distinction of a published volume. Occupy Wall Street, when all is said and done, may end up as one of the most documented events in history because so many of its steps were self-documented (websites, photos, videos, whole infrastructures of communication and dissemination all supplying their own digital footprint), leaving much of the first-person content of Occupy! feeling redundant. Amusing though it can sometimes be, the recurring “Scenes from an Occupation” series from several contributors at Zuccotti is overly casual and lean on substance. One such exchange between author Sarah Resnik and filmmaker Astra Taylor entitled “Rumors” dwells on problems of information and misinformation among occupiers, as well as the incidents of sexual assault in the park. Seemingly aiming for the immediacy of emails and Tweets culled together from the moment, they squander the material for a well-structured and potentially interesting essay about the divergence between vision and reality, with respect to safety and (in this case, gender) politics at Zuccotti, the evidence of which otherwise begins to collect in the margins as Occupy! winds down.
By and large the collection is concerned with these occupations as living spaceâhow they function as social and political units, and how the occupiersâ efforts to create a sort of utopia (the word is as appropriate as it is conspicuously absent from the book) are fulfilled and frustrated. As the latter of that binary becomes more dominant in the depiction (the problems with vagrancy, the intractability of the general assemblyâs “total democracy,” the infamous drumming circles, and the overall incompleteness of the occupiersâ vision), the writers of Occupy! only ever seem to double down on their support: “Itâs problematic, to a certain extent, but the fact is itâs vital that the park continue to be occupied, and the other fact is itâs hard to get much done when youâre living there,” writes n+1 co-founder Keith Gessen. “They actually think that coming to a faraway city and living in a concrete park could lead to political change. And they might be right!” Later on he takes an occupier named Ray into his house when the weather goes badâgenerous to be sure, and later when he reads Rayâs blog entries about his recent homelessness, the piece takes an affecting turn. In the general haste to anoint the protest, Occupy! seldom touches the melancholic reality of the movement so deftly as here.
Nikil Savalâs account of Occupy Philadelphia ends on the verge of a similar turn, finding him worried about a recent decision that might alienate the city in the interest of symbolic defiance: “Perhaps there will be general assemblies in the future that are less about how to live, more about what to do. The decision may have woken everyone up from the self-love that had come to afflict our bitter celebration; after all, the point was never just to hold a park.” Savalâs implied disappointment stops short of exactly the sort of critique that is totally missing from Occupy! While the collectionâs portrait of the movement as an experiment in community-building is welcome, the absence of any significant opposition to even one of the movementâs various strategies is concerning. Instead, the question of OWSâs political efficacy is for the most part put on hold in favor of, for instance, Rebecca Solnitâs theoretical condemnation of violence as a protest tacticâas though any sane person could think violence was a feasible tactic against the government that introduced the Predator drone. Her invocation of the Zapatistas as a conceivable exception only resonates with the kind of historical that hampers the bookâs essay content from time to time. Kung Liâs piece on Occupy Atlanta toes a similar line, drawing a direct parallel between the occupation and the historic activities of the civil rights movement. To what extent can these comparisons be taken seriously? How great is the Occupationâs historical burden; how many causes must it undertake? This is the critique such comparisons open to the movement, but itâs never addressed. The cautious hopefulness of their endorsement and the historical entitlement that entails is assumed enough.
Mark Greifâs “Occupy the Boardroom” encapsulates all of the bookâs worst tendencies. Its tedium and insipid tone are only surpassed by the insignificance of the anecdote it relatesâabout failing to distribute some protester-authored letters to Wall Street bankers. The Occupy the Boardroom project was an online letter-writing campaign with those who objected to big banksâ legacy of predatory lending writing letters to the executives of those same banks. Greif describes his involvement in the projectâs physical efforts to deliver those letters to bank headquarters, predictably foiled by police and security. At one point, distressed that custodians have come to dispose some letters that had been thrown as paper airplanes by protesters, Greif vocally objects, “Hey, these are letters from individual American citizens, and youâre treating them like trash.” Whether Greifâs own piece fails to connect with the perceived nobility of his gesture, or it simply dawns on the reasonable reader that this gesture and others like it are vastly sillier than they are noble or even productive, the schadenfreude is almost too difficult to resist. Greif even seems to have misplaced the strategyâs efficacy as disruption: “What goes unsaid, too, is that not reading a personal letter written directly to you is a trespass that leaves us uneasy, an offense against everyone, as uncomfortable as tearing up paper money. It suggests fear, or contempt.” Or disinterest. The imagined aspect of psychological warfare might loom less large to those of us with not quite so romantic a view of posted mail. Tearing up paper money, thoughânow thereâs an idea.
If thereâs a corrective to such a piece of writing in Occupy! it would have to be Sunaura Taylorâs “Scenes from Occupied Oakland.” Taylor, sister to filmmaker Astra, brings the most comprehensive account of the intellectualâs encounter with an occupation, volunteering all of her enthusiasms, her disappointments, her fears, and her revelations about the experience as they come upon her. Whether or not itâs the fact that sheâs the only contributor thatâs reported actually sleeping at an encampment, or that her confinement to a wheelchair gives her a perspective on the occupation that wouldnât first occur to many (that of accessibility), Taylorâs prose is clear and appropriately dramatic, her narrative is more journalistic than others, and her conclusions are sensibleâneither shrill nor clouded unduly by ideology: “I am ashamed that I was so naïve about the cops in Oakland, but even more than this I am furious. I am furious that the police are allowed to brutalize people without being held accountable for their actions.”
For many, it was a similar realization that found sympathy with the protesters of Occupy Wall Street. And it was finally the seeming gluttony for punishment, for inertia, that for many turned the movement sour. Through Taylorâs eyes we see that the latter might have been the truest answer to the former. But nothing else in Occupy! connects the two with any fluency. Eschewing a comprehensive or critical outlook of the topic at hand, the collection satisfies its organizationâs need to have made a statement on the matter, even if that statement is mostly mild, flirting occasionally as it does with the insufferable. Timely though it seems, Occupy! as a published document is premature, where much commentary is made, but little is actually said.
Occupied! Scenes from Occupied America was released on December 17 by Verso. To purchase it, click here.
Interview: Don Winslow on Broken and the Jazz of His Crime Fiction
The acclaimed crime novelist discusses his new collection of novellas, his influences, and more.
Don Winslow is a testament to life as the best school of writing, as heâs as colorful as the characters who appear in his propulsive, sensual, political, and often brutal crime novels. An ex-private investigator, a rancher, a surfer, a hiker, a jazz enthusiast, and a journalist whoâs studied the intricacies of Mexican drug trade for his acclaimed Cartel trilogy, Winslow is a man of vast experience, empathy, and curiosity who dramatizes all perspectives on the criminal ecosystem, from the hippie stoner to drug czars to all the cops, reporters, immigrants, and imperiled children whoâre trying merely to get by.
Honing over the years a clipped-paragraph style, Winslow fashions novels that simultaneously suggest tabloids, op-ed pieces, and Norman Mailer-style epics. But his new collection of novellas, Broken, finds him working in more moderate and relaxed keys, after writing a handful of the biggest books of his career: The Cartel and The Border, the final installments of the Cartel trilogy, and the searing The Force, about a corrupt New York City cop.
Broken thrives on misdirection, opening with one of Winslowâs most violent pieces of writingâthe title novella, about a New Orleans cop who hunts the drug dealer who tortured his brother to deathâbefore seguing into mellower character studies that recall his earlier, chiller, more comfortably genre-based origins. In âCrime 101,â a jewel thief intersects with a rumpled yet calculating police officer; in âThe San Diego Zoo,â a bizarre case of animal armament leads to unlikely romance; in âSunset,â an aging bail bondsman, the titanic Duke Kasmajian, reflects on a vanishing way of life while overseeing a final chase, leading to lovely ruminations on scotch and West Coast jazz, among other things. The last two novellas, âParadiseâ and âThe Last Ride,â return the book to more violent and topical terrain: the American drug war and our governmentâs inhumane imprisonment of fleeing families on the Mexican/U.S. border.
These stories are all animated by Winslowâs ear for dialogue and feeling for place, particularly San Diego, which becomes a recurring symbol of a vanishing way of life, a paradise thatâs gradually being commodified into nonexistence. The Pacific Coast Highway, an ongoing subject of reverie in Winslowâs books, serves as a kind of circulatory system in Brokenâa route toward contemplation and healing. Throughout these stories, Winslow also rhapsodizes on the little elements of Americana that can offer transcendence, from the classic ballgame-and-hot-dog date to the ritualistic grilling of fish for fish tacos. Winslowâs juxtaposition of such details with this countryâs slide into political sadism suggests nothing less than the internal war to remain decent in an age of sensationalized heartlessness. (On Twitter, Winslow is a mercilessly astute critic of Donald Trumpâs lies, incompetence, and trademark callousness.)
Particularly given our current social calamity, Winslowâs Americana continues to haunt me. Ball games. Grilling with buddies with beers on the deck. Intoxicating sex with someone youâve just met by chance. These are heartbreaking things to ponder as the COVID-19 epidemic forces us into isolation. In this light, these rituals become even more fantastical, even more poignant, even more seemingly lost, than Winslow couldâve possibly intended.
How are you doing with this thing personally?
Iâm fine, thank you. My wife and I live way out in the country sort of north and east of San Diego on an old ranch, and it looks pretty much the same around here as it always does. Itâs kind of quiet and not many people are around and weâre hunkered down. Weâll just see how this goes, I guess. I have to tell you, it feels a little weird talking about a book during all of this. âOh, people are dying, people are suffering, letâs talk about me.â
Iâve felt the same way about writing movie reviews lately.
Right? But life goes on, I guess. I know Iâve been reading more and watching a lot of old DVDs and things, because we donât get very good internet service up here. So, you know, I guess we serve our purpose. [laughs]
I was reading Broken while COVID-19 was creeping into Virginia where I live, and, I hate to call art an âescapeâ because I think thatâs often a horrible reduction, but this book was an escape.
Well, I think escape is one of the purposes of art. I think it can be engagement and escape. Iâm not insulted by that at all. If people are entertained and it takes them out of this thing for a little while, God bless.
Broken is a collection of novellas thatâs arriving after a few of your weightiest and most political novels. Did you consciously think of it as a palette cleanser?
Well, itâs an interesting way of putting it. Iâm not sure Iâd put it exactly that way, but I know what you mean. These were stories that I had had in my head for a while with the exception of the final one. And I knew that they were too substantive to be short stories but they were certainly not going to have the epic bulk that you alluded to. If I may use a different analogy, Iâve been sort of running ultramarathons for the last 20 years, you know? And so it felt it would be refreshing to run a middle-distance.
Thereâs a clever structural misdirection in this book. Itâs called Broken and fans of your recent work may have a bleak expectation. The title story certainly fulfills that expectation, but many of the stories are warm, comparatively light character studies. At what point did you begin to consider that pervading arc?
Pretty early on. The three middle stories [âCrime 101,â âThe San Diego Zoo,â âSunsetâ] Iâve sort of had in my head for quite a while. The titular story was a bit later. And then I thought that this collection really needed a bookend, a story that matches the feel of âBroken.â And so then that structure became apparent to me. I think a lot about jazz because I listen to a lot of jazz. And sometimes thereâs that kind of opening statement, the melody thatâs being written down, you know, and then you go off into this middle phase where people are improvising on that, which, sometimes, tonally, is very different from where you started, until you circle back to the opening theme. In the case of this book, we open and circle back to brokenness.
So you have the same interests as your character Duke then?
[laughs] Yeah, which comes in handy, you know? Jazz has been a big thing with me since I was a kid and I took an especial interest in West Coast Jazz, you know, though I like other stuff as well. And so that was just fun to write and kind of visit.
To continue this jazz metaphor, particularly the idea of riffs on a theme, the broken motif is certainly in the lighter stories, too, just expressed differently.
Yeah, exactly. Not to torture this metaphor, which is kind of fun, but you know thereâs going to be a certain chord progression that youâre not going to completely depart from. Well, some jazz does, but the kind of jazz I really love doesnât. And I know who I am as a writer and as a person; many of these themes are going to come out anyway. In terms of chord progression, I was always very clear about the order of the stories.
Did you write the stories in chronological order?
Not exactly. Again, I knew what the order was going to be, but Iâd been working on some of these stories for a while. Iâd been working on âCrime 101â for a couple of years and never quite âgot it.â I had the opening line of âSan Diego Zooâ in my head for literally years. But I didnât know what it meant. It was a line that struck me funny.
When I read that, I thought, âThis is a new Winslow. Where the hell is this going?â
We live out on an old ranch and brush clearance is a huge issue because of wildfires. I had a bunch of downed trees and somebody asked, âWhy donât you get a chainsaw?â And a buddy of mine, this old cowboy, was standing next to me and said, âGiving Don a chainsaw would be like giving a revolver to a chimp.â [both laugh] Which sadly is true. Iâm notoriously clumsy and not very mechanical. And he was right: I probably wouldâve cut my hand off, or my leg off, or something. Well, somehow that line evolved in my head into âNo one knows how the chimp got the revolver.â It stuck in my head for years, and when I was committing to doing these stories and trying to figure out what was the next thing after âCrime 101,â I typed that line out and just made the rest of it up. I was playing that great game âwhat if?â I did not know how the chimp got the revolver until I typed the end of it.
Whatâs striking about âThe San Diego Zooâ is that itâs genuinely, unforcedly sweet, especially coming after âBroken,â which is a bitter pill to swallow.
âBrokenâ is one of the toughest, harshest pieces Iâve ever done. It was fun to go to sweet, you know? And I agree with what I think youâre saying: that thereâs a very fine line between sweetness and saccharine. But thereâs not much chance of my crossing over into that. [laughs]
Did you consciously perceive a relationship between âBrokenâ and The Force?
Of course. Iâd written that big cop book, and I knew there were going to be similarities here. But I also knew there were going to be important differences, and I very deliberately set âBrokenâ in a completely different location to help achieve that, but sure I knew the reader would say âthis is kinda like The Force.â
The Force is one of my favorite books of yours. I think you have a daring, uncomfortable empathy with your antihero.
An uncomfortable empathy is a good way to put it. A little frightening. I spent a lot of time with cops in doing that book, but I have my whole life anyway, because I was a private investigator. I had a lot of cop friends, and I really did feel an empathy with Denny. Iâm not trying to make moral judgments about my characters. I might have them, independent of the book, but itâs not my job to create good guys and bad guys; itâs to create as realistic people as I can, and get the reader close to them. Iâve sat down with a lot of objectively evil people: serial killers, psychopaths, drug folksâyou name it. None of them define themselves as monsters. They have a point of view, we might loathe it, but they have a point of view.
âSan Diego Zooâ is dedicated to Elmore Leonard and âCrime 101â to Steve McQueen, which makes sense when you read that story, though it feels very Elmore-y to me too.
Absolutely. And Michael Mann. I donât run from my influences. Iâm very happy to proclaim them, and one of the great thrills of my life was spending an hour with Mr. Leonard. We were in the same room one time very early in my career on my first book, and I was too shy to go up to him. And then later, I mightâve done a film with him, which didnât work out, and he died, sadly, shortly thereafter. But I got to be on the phone with him for an hour.
Did he live up to your expectations?
Oh, even more. I donât think I said five words. He got on the phone and said, âDon Winslow, you were two-years-old when I wrote 3:10 to Yuma.â Which was the most charming way of putting me in my place. And I said, âYes, sir, but I tried to read it.â And he laughed and told stories for an hour, nonstop. It was me, my agent, his agent, and him on the phone. And I was standing in the rain. We were living down on the coast, and we didnât get good cell reception in our apartment. In fact, if you stepped two feet closer to the beach you couldnât get cell reception. So, I went outside, and it was one of those rarely raining Southern California days, and I stood in the rain for an hour listening to Elmore Leonard. I wouldâve stayed there all day.
Thatâs got to be one of those moments you keep in your pocket.
Absolutely, man. Absolutely.
Iâm not trying to blow smoke, but I think youâre playing on Leonardâs level these days.
Well, I wouldnât say that, but thank you, I try. We all revere him in the genre. And heâs one of those guys youâve never heard a bad word about. Or Michael Connolly, whoâs terrific. Or Lee Child or Dennis Lehane. These guys, whoâre so huge and so great, are genuinely nice people.
Thatâs great to hear. Iâm a big crime book guy.
Yeah, apparently. [laughs] And you know I dedicated another story in Broken to Raymond Chandler, whoâs the granddaddy of us all, and if I write for another hundred years Iâm never gonna write as well as him.
Your Chandler story, âSunset,â may be my favorite in this collection.
I have a fondness for that story, which I wrote from beginning to ending. I sat down, started typing and almost literally didnât stop until it was over a few days later. I just knew the story.
To borrow an element from that story, to belabor another metaphor, it has the feel of scotch: Itâs mellow, thereâs depth there that doesnât announce itself.
Well, thank you. I wanted to write a sunset story that was a little mellow and was a little mature, and talked about some older guys, you know? And talked about loss of a lot of things: loss of loved ones, loss of a hero, loss of a certain kind of life.
Thereâs an additional commonality to these stories that affirms the âbrokenâ theme. In every one, thereâs a decisive moment where a character essentially says, âScrew it, Iâm going to act for decency, against the fabric of my surroundings.â
Yeah, frankly youâre the first person whoâs picked up on that. I think the ultimate question of crime fiction has become the ultimate question for all of us in these times that we live in, and Iâm not happy about that. For me the ultimate question of crime fiction has always been, for the characters: How do you to attempt to live decently in whatâs basically an indecent world? Increasingly, weâre living in an indecent world.
To piggyback on that, this book offers a vision in which people must act apart from mass politics, divorcing themselves from the media maelstrom. Is that fair?
I think thatâs fair. In some ways, in all these stories, thereâs a return to older values. The last story, Iâm sure you picked up on it, is a neo-western, quite obviously. And I thought it would be more interesting if I made that guy a Trump voter, a conservative.
Yeah. I follow you on Twitter and I know what your feelings about Trump are, which I share. But I like that you donât editorialize the conservative at the center of âThe Last Ride.â
It just struck me as a more interesting slant on it. And then this guy changes his mind, you know, and goes back to what I would think of as those older western values.
Thereâs an image in âThe Last Rideâ that I donât think Iâve seen in a western before. That startling image paralleling the heroâs fate with that of his horse.
I went to college in Nebraska and worked on ranches. Iâve lived in Idaho, Montana, out in California. Iâve had cowboys all around me, and Iâve seen too many horses put down. Itâs a terrible moment. And I thought that was just the right ending.
In some interviews, youâve wondered if your style as a writer is too flexible. I find your voice distinctive though, with those short, machine-gun paragraphs. Do you achieve that structure in the editing phase, or do you compose that way?
Basically, Iâm composing it that way, but I make it better, I hope, in the cutting phase. When I do first drafts Iâm not thinking about the reader much at all. I just try to get it down, and then, with every subsequent draft, Iâm thinking more and more about the reader. What is the reader hearing? What is the reader seeing? We sometimes forget that reading, though certainly an intellectual activity, is also a visual activity. I pay a lot of attention to what the words look like on the page, and if the look is achieving the effect that I want it to. So, in reference to that kind of machine-gun thing that youâre alluding to, sometimes I think words just need a lot of space around them so that they do stand out. But, other times, if you want to grab the reader and not let him or her go a while, then you want the page to look very dense, so that thereâs no space for them to take a break. You want to control the ride that you take them on that way.
Itâs funny to hear you describe this process. As someone who writes reviews, I often edit according to how I like the visual shape of a paragraph in a word document.
Thatâs exactly what Iâm talking about, Chuck. This is going to sound really goofy, but sometimes Iâll step away from the screen to the point where I canât make out the words, only the shapes.
Itâs almost as if such abstractions allow you to see your over-writing.
I think thatâs absolutely the truth, and it does sound crazy.
With jazz, crime novels, and other arts, thereâs an East Coast/West Coast distinction. With your traveling, with your New York- and California-set novels, it seems that you can lay claim to both coasts. Do you have a preference?
I donât think so. I come from blue-collar New England, not tweed New England. [laughs] My dad was first-career military. Iâm from a fishing town. My old man used to take me to the fishing factory, where they rendered all that shit. From 500 yards you could smell it. And heâd say, âIf you donât buckle down and steady youâre going to spend the rest of your life shoveling fish guts.â I came from a Bruce Springsteen kind of town thatâs now become a touristy town. All that has always been a big part of my life, and I go back there every year, and I probably do more surfing there now than I do here.
But when I came to the West Coast, which was in the late â80s, as an investigator, I just fell in love. Thereâs no other way of putting it. And I can remember like it was yesterday the first time I drove on the Pacific Coast Highway. I went, âMy God,â and Iâm still in love with it. I donât know how many hundreds of times Iâve driven that road down here, and I never get bored with it, it always excites me.
I go back to New England and I eat fish and chips and chowder and out here Iâll have my beloved fish taco. The two oceans are also very different, very different kinds of personalities, if I can put it that way, and I love them both. I feel like I have the best of both worlds. You need to come out here when this blows over.
Broken is now available from Harper Collins.
Brian De Palmaâs Pulp Cocktail Are Snakes Necessary? Goes Down Easy
Though thereâs a consistent amount of sex here, the book still feels like an act of extended foreplay.
Once you could count on the release of a new Brian De Palma film every few years, many of which abounded in recurring motifs that suggested a secret conversation between the director and his admirers. There were Hitchcock references, particularly to Vertigo and its symphony of shifting female identities and male voyeurs hopelessly enthralled with sexual illusions. There were also tracking shots of astonishing virtuosity, unapologetic fetishizing of beautiful women, lusciously lurid cinematography, purplish scores (usually by Pino Donaggio), and an overall sense of playful abandon and adventurousness that renders most contemporary thrillers anemic by comparison. At their best and not-so-best, De Palmaâs vintage films often felt like the ultimate fusion of brains and ballsâexplosions of the potentialities of pulp moviemaking.
Written in 2016 and now available from Hard Case Crime, De Palma and Susan Lehmanâs Are Snakes Necessary? seeks to fill the void left by the filmmakerâs lack of output over the last decade or so, an absence which has often been accompanied by frustratingly unfulfilled rumors of various projects, as well as the half-hearted Domino. Composed of short, punchy prose and bite-sized chapters, this slim genre novel reads very much like a script for a new De Palma project, one thatâs rich in the debauched and rarefied play lands of the rich and famous, aspiring photographers (voyeurs), male predators, and beautiful and imperiled women, with a soupcon of political intrigue on top. Yes, even Vertigo is evoked, as a blonde becomes a brunette and a variation of the perverse twist of De Palmaâs unofficial remake of Hitchcockâs film, Obsession, is indulged. This naughty pulp cocktail goes down deliciously easy.
Three male and three female protagonists (De Palma, a former engineering student, values such symmetry) are sent by their hungers and ambitions on an elaborate collision course against the backdrops of heavily mythologized, movie-ready cities such as D.C., Paris, and Vegas. Barton Brock is a manager-slash-fixer for Lee Rogers, a Republican senator up for re-election who hires as an intern 18-year-old Fanny Cours, the daughter of one of Leeâs former conquests. Also mixed up in this inevitable sexual melee is Elizabeth Diamond, the trophy wife of a rich art collector, and Nick Sculley, an aspiring photographer who, like John Travoltaâs character in Blow Out, requires a bit of real-life tragedy to inform his art with meaning.
The fun of the book springs from its abject, unapologetic horniness, which is more distinctive in our timid times now than it was in De Palmaâs heyday, and from attempting to figure out which formula itâs going to settle into. (Short answer: several at once.) Much of the novel is devoted to these characters hanging out and discussing status and strategy, so that De Palma and Lehman may note their designer apparel and particularly their varyingly terrific bodies. (Fanny is said to be in the âfull flush of carnalityâ and there are sentiments offered about the bodies of French women, bedroom voices, and the fit of white T-shirts on young, cut men, among other things.) Though thereâs a consistent amount of sex here, the book still feels like an act of extended foreplay, as weâre conditioned by De Palma thrillers to await the violence that goes with the carnality. The climax atop the Eiffel Tower and its resolution ingeniously pay off the various story strands, offering a tragedy and its inadvertent avengement.
Still, Are Snakes Necessary? also illustrates the limitations of attempting to recapture the visceral qualities of cinema via prose. De Palma and Lehmanâs writing is confident, but it still only faintly conjures the wrenching, surreal power of a classic De Palma sequence, whether itâs the prom scene in Carrie or the anguished murder in front of a Fourth of July fireworks display in Blow Out. The Eiffel tower sequence in Are Snakes Necessary?, with its vicious, mathematical toggling between various parties as they hurtle toward violence, is clearly meant to suggest one of De Palmaâs greatest hits (the authors even specify which part of action is meant to be seen in slow motion), but the poetry is missing. De Palma is a maestro of juxtaposition, composition, and performance calibration, not of words on a page.
Though thereâs fun in figuring out which of De Palmaâs staple of actors might have played each role in Are Snakes Necessary?âBrock is the Gregg Henry character, Fanny is Nancy Allen, and so forthâon the page these characters are just mice being moved through a narrative contraption. Without De Palmaâs stylistic gamesmanship, without the poignant, daring melodrama of the directorâs preferred style of acting, the personality and obsessiveness of De Palmaâs worldview is compromised. Are Snakes Necessary? offers a fascinating glimpse, then, as to how a script for a director is fleshed out by the other stages of a filmâs creation. The book is a serviceable, even compulsive page-turner, but it could be a hell of a movie.
Are Snakes Necessary? is now available from Hard Case Crime.
Jenny Offillâs Weather Reckons with the Intimate Rhythms of the End Times
How do we deal with a crisis when it isnât presented as such?
It was an unusually warm February night and the room at the Brooklyn-based Books Are Magic was filled from front to back, our collective body heat radiating across the space to the point of discomfort. We were all listening to author Jenny Offill as she answered questions about her newest novel, Weather. âIâm usually so bored reading about climate change,â she said, âI thought this book could be a useful thing.â As many authors try to capture the period we live in, the anxieties we face within ourselves and as a larger wholeâby, say, referencing such hot-button issues as climate change and economic disparityâOffill places herself within the conversation without being overbearing, without shouting too loudly.
Weather focuses on Lizzie, a librarian, a mother, a wife, a sister, and a daughter. She carries the cargo of all of those identities, and itâs immediately apparent that sheâs addicted to responsibility, to being relied on without realizing itâs a flaw: ââI wish you were a real shrink,â my husband says. âThen weâd be rich.ââ She has a brother recovering from addiction who canât stay off her couch, a fiscally irresponsible mother, and a son whoâs capable of breaking her heart. âAre you sure youâre my mother?â he asks at one point, âSometimes you donât seem like a good enough person.â Then thereâs her husband, whoâs steadily becoming fed-up, or worse, disinterested in where Lizzie seems to be focusing her energy. Not to mention the awkward encounters with her next-door neighbor. And the driver she wonât stop paying in fear sheâs his very last costumer. Lizzie is consumed by problems ranging from the end of the world to the drug dealer who lives in her apartment building.
Offill establishes the motif of time from very early on in the novel:
âI tell him that old joke about going backwards.
We donât serve time travelers here.
A time traveler walks into the bar.â
This captures the feeling you may get when reading Offillâs novels, including Weather. âLook here,â she seems to say with her words, holding our childlike palms, dragging us from one site to the next. Offill replicates a similar form here as in her 2014 novel Depart. Of Speculation, creating intimacy with her narrator through spontaneity, short-formed paragraphs, and skipping forward through linear time. Lizzie is the former grad student and mentee of Sylvia, a national expert on climate change and podcast host of âHell or High Water.â Itâs not long until Sylvia hires Lizzie to answer emails sent from fans of the podcastâdoomsday preppers to social activists who both share a common interest in the collapse of society and the end of times. Itâs the means by which Offill examines these two American identities, poking fun at both, illustrating where the two intersect on a Venn diagram.
âWhat does it mean to be in this Twilight stage,â Offill asked at Books Are Magic, âThe stage where you know and you donât know?â Sheâs a smart writer, of course. She knows subtlety, and knows how to create a tone that will make us laugh, pull at our heart strings, and, above all, genuinely surprise us. But most importantly, she knows how create a form which elucidates the way we perceive the everyday. Itâs a perfect time in American life to have a writer like Offill, whose idea of a novel seems the most conducive to replicating our daily lives from the minor burdens, which can feel like Shakespearean tragedies, to our widely shared conflicts, those which are ignored and then ignored until they boil over.
In Weather, as the questions sent to her by fans of âHell or High Waterâ become more and more esoteric, Lizzie feels the metaphorical tides slowly rising to her feet. She feels time running out but isnât sure exactly what she will have to face. And in such moments, Offill offers generous insights to us readers: âMy #1 fear is the acceleration of days. No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.â Canât we all feel this too? At the reading she speaks of taking on more activism, playing a role instead of just standing idly by. She asks us all: How do we deal with a crisis when it isnât presented as such?
Jenny Offillâs Weather is now available from Knopf.
Reconciling Memory: Peter Stammâs The Sweet Indifference of the World
Stamm accomplishes something remarkable by giving the reader a story thatâs simultaneously disorienting and comforting.
Early in Peter Stammâs The Sweet Indifference of the World we learn that its narrator, Christoph, is a writer, and you may wonder if the novel is going to unfold as so much autofiction does today. That is, as a story about a novelistâperhaps Swiss, perhaps middle-aged like Stammâwrestling with their personal history or fame or the ordinary events of their life. Itâs a practice thatâs increasingly familiar, which, of course, isnât to deny its ability to produce some outstanding work. But Stamm isnât predictable, and he isnât ordinary, and over the course of this especially slim novel, he accomplishes something remarkable by giving the reader a story thatâs simultaneously disorienting and comforting.
The novel tells the story of two couples: Christoph and Magdalena, and Chris and Lena. Both men are writers, and both women are actresses. According to Christoph, and as recounted to Lena, the couplesâ lives are the sameâsomehow folded in and upon one another in the narrative of the bookâbut separated across 20 years. Stammâs language is spare and thin, avoiding unnecessarily heavy prose in a way that makes Christophâs story all the more urgent. Stamm dispenses with quotation marks, paragraphs, and ordinary indicators of internal and external dialogues. And it all works perfectly.
A fourth of the way through Sweet Indifference, Christoph tells Lena, âI canât tell you the end of the story…the only stories that have endings are the ones in books. But I can tell you what happened next.â This warning, like almost any page of the novel, could be picked up and read entirely on its own. Stamm has constructed a narrative less about what did or didnât happen but, perhaps, what could have. Does the novel give any certainty by the end that Christoph and Magdalena were once Chris and Lena? By the time Sweet Indifference reaches its end, it isnât that the answer is irrelevant, but that the question was far more interesting.
In the novelâs disoriented narrative, in which each character layers upon another like a palimpsest, Christoph is the one reliable thread able to pull the reader through the maze. His certainty and conviction toward Lena helps to keep us anchored. But Christophâs brief encounter with his own doppelganger momentarily suspends this security and leaves both the narrator and reader disconcerted. When Chris questions Christophâs claim that he did (and eventually Chris will) publish a book, the former takes solace from the fact that he can find no record of it online. He rejects that this other man is his definite future.
Another detail that Christoph gives in order to try to strengthen his case also turns out to be false. When he later recounts this event to Lena, Christoph announces, âThis is the most painful part of the story…He was right. I must have seen the scene somewhere and made a memory of it, incorporated it into my life.â In this moment, Stamm leaves it to his readers to settle the meaningfulness of the contradictions on their own.
Midway through the book, an old man abruptly walks into a cafĂ© and mutters, âItâs too late…it will always be too late.â Has the cycle begun to fold back upon itself a second time? We canât be certain. At the outset, Sweet Indifference can be puzzling and slippery, but along the way the same distinctive style that distorts begins to coalesce into something more enlightening. Instead of dissonance, Stamm manages to produce an unusual harmony. It often comes across as a meditation structured around one manâs effort to understand, mold, restructure, and interpret himself through memoriesâboth false and real. Or as if Christophâor whoever might stand in for himâis talking with himself to find some meaning from what did or didnât happen 20 years ago. More than any ordinary novel, Sweet Indifference is a process.
At one point in Sweet Indifference, Christoph tells Lena, â[T]hatâs what I always liked about books. The fact that you canât change them. You donât even have to read them. Itâs enough to own them, and pick them up, and know that they will always remain the way they are.â If Stamm is speaking to some distressing urge to reconcile oneâs life with a wishful memory of it, then perhaps all it takes is some perspective. This is a book that invites many questions: Are Christoph and Magdalena actually some version of Chris and Lena? Why does the novel end exactly where it began? Or does it? Is Christoph hurt or alleviated at the end of his journey with Lena? And as to whether there are definite answers to any of these questions, Stamm invites us to stumble upon them for ourselves, perhaps at some later stage in life when, revisiting the book, it will all make a different kind of sense.
The Sweet Indifference of the World is available on January 21 from Other Press.
John Saylesâs Yellow Earth Is a Masterfully Fair Hearing on Human Nature
What animates Saylesâs fiction is curiosity about different kinds of people and their experiences.
In the middle of John Saylesâs Lone Star, which tells the intricate, intergenerational story of a Texas border town, comes a moment, no longer than 30 seconds, where two Army officersâone a black woman, the other a white manâtalk furtively in the background of a bar scene. The camera nestles into their booth as they speak in hushed tones, and suddenly a new dimension to their relationship, which appears decorous and professional, is revealed. Theyâre soon interrupted by the town sheriff, and with only a few lines exchanged, we learn everything we need to know about these lovers on the sly.
Sayles, a screenwriter, director, editor, and novelist, excels at seeing each of his characters as the protagonist of their own story. And his rare ability to inhabit the intersecting perspectives, motivations, and desires of a diverse dramatis personae is in full evidence in his new novel, Yellow Earth. The novel takes place near the beginning of the Obama administration, on North Dakotaâs Three Nations Native American reservation and in the fictional neighboring town of Yellow Earth. Both the town and the reservation are situated atop the Bakken formation, where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been underway since the early 2000s.
As the story begins, a representative from a Texas oil company goes door to door convincing residents to sign leases on their property so that drilling can commence. The chairman of the tribal council, Harleigh Killdeer, is all for it, dismissing the objections of a few outspoken dissenters in his community and promising âsovereignty by the barrel.â The ensuing oil boom brings with it a population surge in Yellow Earth as workers flood the town, accompanied by an increase in violent crime, drug trafficking, and prostitution.
Recalling Upton Sinclairâs Oil! in its canny political observations and vivid descriptions of drilling and extraction techniques, Yellow Earth is about the economic stratification, moral corruption, and opportunistic exploitation fomented by capitalism. Over the course of 400 pages, a landscape is transformed by greed and avarice in the populist guise of free-market speculation and community enrichment. The gulf between the optimism of Killdeerâs public relations blitz and the situation on the ground is pronounced in the poor conditions the oil workers live in, vividly sordid strip-club scenes, and recurring images of environmental waste.
While most of Saylesâs characters are morally compromised, rather than purely good or evil, heâs guilty here of crafting a cartoon villain: Brent Skiles, a steroidal, Ayn Rand-quoting drug runner who cons Killdeer into forming a company to serve as a front for his trafficking operation. And for his part, Killdeer ends up looking like a fool, almost to the point of incredibility. More compelling are less prominent characters, such as the animal behaviorist with a grant to study prairie dogs who falls in love with Yellow Earthâs sheriff, or the radical Teresa Crowâs Ghost, who dogs Killdeer with reminders of their peopleâs history of being exploited and pushed around by the government. No character is minor in Saylesâs world.
Another of Saylesâs strengths is his affinity for depicting different regions of the United States, from Louisiana swampland to urban New Jersey to an Alaskan fishing community. In particular, he has a knack for describing physical landscapes and capturing dialects. In some of his earlier fiction, the latter is a bit too pronounced, rarely a line of dialogue going by without a phonetic spelling or an apostrophe at the end of a word. But Sayles is a bit more restrained here, using sentence structure and idiomatic phrasing, sometimes omitting words or even resorting to clichĂ©s, to capture local patois across typically talky scenes. He employs close third-person, present-tense narration to facilitate the frequent switches in point of view; each chapter is anchored to one characterâs experience, and the narrative voice is inflected by that characterâs way of speaking and thinking. When taken together, the sequence of chapters creates not a sense of omniscience, but of kaleidoscopic subjectivity.
Without falling prey to false âboth sidesâ equivocation, Sayles masterfully balances and gives fair hearings to competing agendas and doesnât shy away from the ugly side of human nature; by the same token, he doesnât give in to cynicism or despair. What animates his fiction is curiosity about different kinds of people and their experiences, and an imagination expansive enough to portray their inner lives. He doesnât fetishize diversity, but his stories are naturally diverse as a result of his engaged interest in the world around him. Now entering the fifth decade of his career, Sayles remains a standard-bearer for the American novel.
John Saylesâs Yellow Earth is available on January 28 from Haymarket Books.
In Find Me, the Sequel to Call Me by Your Name, the Echoes of Love Are Resounding
AndrĂ© Acimanâs novel is a series of ghost stories interrupted by fleeting flashes of light.
The Ancient Greek verb opsizo, as the reader is told in Find Me, AndrĂ© Acimanâs sequel to his 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name, is a way to name the act of arriving too late to the feast, âor to feast today with the weight of all the wasted yesteryears.â Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a brief yet fervent summer romance between two young men, Elio and Oliver, at Elioâs familyâs Italian villa. Samuel, Elioâs father, now divorced in Find Me many years after the events of the earlier novel and traveling by train from Florence to Rome to read from his most recent book at a university, explains the meaning of opsizo to Miranda, a young and beautiful American woman he meets on the train. An intense mutual sexual attraction quickly develops between them, and what follows is an improbable yet captivatingly believable romance between the older man and much younger woman. Perhaps Samuel has in fact arrived at the feast just in time, laden with empty years but not yet bereft of the possibility of real, lasting love.
The echoes of a conversation between Samuel and Elio in Call Me By Your Name, when the father advised the son about how to value even the loss of love as evidence of a life fully lived, are immediately apparent in Samuelâs approach to his unexpected courtship with Miranda in Find Me. âWe only want those we canât have,â he says to her, referring to his habit of revisiting a particular location in Rome that always reminds him of another lost love that he doesnât share with the reader. âItâs those we lost or who never knew we existed who leave their mark. The others barely echo.â And Find Me is essentially a novel of echoes. Each of its disparate sections, narrated first by Samuel, then by Elio, and then by Oliver before Elio eventually gets the final word, interrogate the ways in which the pastâwhether in the form of lived experiences or in imagined detoursâis where we are our truest, most yearning selves. The echoes are sometimes more beautiful than the sounds that they reflect.
The danger, of course, lies in the possibility of succumbing to opsizo, failing to capitalize on possibilities existing in the present. Just before kissing Samuel for the first time, Miranda accuses him of not being a present-tense kind of person. âThis, for instance, is the present tense,â she says before her tongue first grazes his lips, and the section of Find Me that comprises Samuel and Mirandaâs first day together takes up more than a third of the novel, an intensely present-tense sequence that challenges us to value a narrative almost entirely devoid of conflict, built instead on gentle surprise and the visceral pleasure of witnessing the origins of an unlikely love affair between two complex and very forthcoming characters.
And Find Meâs subsequent section, told from Elioâs point of view, cleverly reverses the age dynamic between narrator and object of affection as Elio, a decade after Oliver, unexpectedly falls in love with a much older manâa man his fatherâs age, in fact. âIâd lost my soul for so long and was now finding Iâd owned it all along but didnât know where to look for it or how to find it without him,â Elio tells us, a sensation also described by Samuel when he says to Miranda that everything in his life before âwas all leading up to you.â
Oliver, too, in the decades since his affair with Elio, has abandoned a significant part of himself to the past, specifically to events that took place at a certain Italian villa. Now a relatively happily married professor with two grown sons, he still entertains possibilities for a more uncontainable desire, in the form of flirtations with colleagues and yoga classmates, even as he believes that his chance for true happiness was lost when he turned his back on Elio all those years ago. When a guest at a party heâs throwing in his Manhattan apartment plays a piano piece that Elio once played for him, Oliver realizes that âsome arcane and beguiling wording was being spoken about what my life had been, and might still be, or might never be, and that the choice rested on the keyboard itself, and I hadnât been told.â
In her 1997 collection of essays, The End of the Novel of Love, memorist and critic Vivian Gornick argues that somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, as a result of a cultural turning away from the traditional social order with regards to gender, the subject of romantic loveâonce a wellspring for narrativeâhad lost its potential for depth and complexity, its reliable knack for drama. She writes that the âidea of love as a means of illuminationâin literature as in lifeânow comes as something of an anticlimax.â But in Find Me, the anticlimax is the point. Aciman dispenses with the notion of love as fuel for narrative and instead uses its power of transfiguration as the measure by which to evaluate a life.
For all its straightforward narration, Find Me has layers of complexity that come through as echoes between its sections, dialogue repeated in slightly different cadences by characters as they circle around issues of time and fate, life and death. The novelâs beating heart is the fact of mortality and the tragedy of aging, which is staged in stark relief by the age discrepancy between the members of the novelâs first two romantic pairings. This theme is made literal by Samuelâs death after he has a child and lives several happy years with Miranda, and the threads of fate and chance woven throughout Find Meâthe title itself a call to actionâall amount to the fear of dying before we ever truly get to live. âI think all lives are condemned to remain unfinished,â Elioâs older lover says to him, perhaps already recognizing how their affair will end. âThis is the deplorable truth we all live with. We reach the end and are by no means done with life, not by a long stretch! There are projects we barely started, matters so unresolved and left hanging everywhere. Living means dying with regrets stuck in your craw.â
Later, Oliver recalls a moment on the street when he met the gaze of someone from his department at the university who should have recognized him but who failed to acknowledge him at all. And he explains that he believed for a moment that he had diedââthat this was what death was like: you see people but they donât see you, and worse yet, youâre trapped being who you were in the moment you died âŠ and you never changed into the person you could have been and knew you really were, and you never redressed the one mistake that threw your life off course.â Find Me is a series of ghost stories interrupted by fleeting flashes of light, just like the lives of the characters described in its pages who find and lose and find again their great loves. But itâs the possibility of light that we all live for, as these characters remind us. The chance for someone to dim everything that has come before into shadow.
And, sometimes, a second chance.
AndrĂ© Acimanâs Find Me is available on October 29 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Very Queer In the Dream House Explodes Expectations of Memoir
The book is Carmen Machadoâs deeply intelligent and fiercely innovative account of her experience of domestic abuse.
Queerness has always called attention to itself, and so must the art that explores its increasingly expansive borderlands. Queer forms break apart recognizable structures and expose them as incommensurate for the expression of an experience that by definition exists in opposition to the status quo. Queer narratives, too, inevitably call for new structural packaging, and autobiographical accounts of queer experiences have begun to formally reflect the often Gordian nature of the lives they represent on the pageâlives irrevocably knotted by politics and power structures designed to resist their very existence.
âThe memoir is, at its core, an act of resurrection,â writes Carmen Maria Machado in the opening pages of In the Dream House, a deeply intelligent and fiercely innovative account of her experience of domestic abuse. Machadoâs richly layered narrative takes the form of a personal story embedded within an extensive cultural history. â[Memoirists] manipulate time; resuscitate the dead,â she writes. âThey put themselves, and others, into necessary context.â The necessary context in this case is that of queer stories in a historical dialogue that has too often excluded them or written them out, and Machado explores the ways in which internalizing and then rejecting the dominant narrative has prevented queer people from understanding that our differencesâwhich weâve by turns reluctantly and defiantly come to celebrateâdo not preclude ugliness. She explains that âqueer does not equal good or pure or right. It is simply a state of beingâone subject to politics, its own social forces, to larger narratives, to moral complexities of every kind.â
Machado takes a hard look at her former self in her memoir, a self painstakingly excavated through calcified layers of doubt, confusion, and shame. Most of In the Dream House is written in the second person as an address to this unearthed self, a younger version of the author who suffered at the hands of a female lover in a relationship that forms the narrative backbone of a more general exploration of the historical representation of queer domestic abuse. The âIâ speaker is the author now, happily married to another woman and living at a safe distance geographically and otherwise from the âyou,â the lost and naĂŻve girl who suffered through so much without understanding why. âI thought you died,â Machado says to the âyouâ who otherwise occupies these pages, âbut writing this, Iâm not sure you did.â
In the Dream House is structured as a series of brief sections titled after various tropes expressing particular elements of her time in what she coins as the âDream House,â a rental in Indiana where her girlfriend lived during most of the duration of their relationship, and which Machado frequently visited from where she was attending graduate school in Iowa. The relationship is narrated from its origins as a chance meeting in a diner in Iowa (âDream House as Inciting Incidentâ) to a request for a drive to the airport to pick up the other womanâs then-girlfriend (âStranger Comes to Townâ) to a fateful, breathless first hookup (âLesbian Cult Classicâ) and a first confession of love (âRomance Novelâ). The relationship trajectory briefly arrives at an experiment in polyamory (âStar-Crossed Loversâ) before dissolving into a monogamous relationship (âEntomologyâ) fraught with jealousy (âAppetiteâ) and gaslighting (âLost in Translationâ), and finally to an atmosphere heavy with frequent verbal and emotional abuse with the constant threat of physical violence.
Machadoâs story is punctuated by harrowing moments of conflict that feel, because of their specificity, almost uncannily familiar. We come to inhabit her mind so wholly that the claustrophobia of her relationship with this other woman is made present first in the mind and then in the body like some foreign infiltrator, a cancer spreading quietly beneath the skin. The bookâs hybrid nature is essential to its project, a marriage of form and content that elevates its subject by allowing it to accrue meaning in unconventional, surprising ways. Had Machado presented her subject in a traditional form, it would have gone against its own premise, and interspersed between the chronological narrative of increasingly severe instances of domestic abuse are brief forays into cultural criticism and queer history that further contextualize the ways in which we can be conditioned to accept abuse as normal, or as something we deserve, as Machado works through how the dominant culture views abuse narratives.
She interrogates films like Alain Guiraudieâs Stranger by the Lake, a quietly seething portrayal of a man sexually drawn to a murderer at the cruising grounds they both frequent, and George Cukorâs Gaslight, the suspenseful story of a woman made to believe sheâs insane so that her husband can dispatch her to an asylum, as a way of showcasing elements of her own experience reflected back to her by popular culture, illuminating exactly how sheâs been manipulated and controlled. Machado also includes an extensive retelling of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard is captured by the Cardassians and tortured into claiming that he sees five lights strung up above him where heâs being held, when in fact there are only four. He suffers and suffers but still maintains that he sees four lights instead of five, even as his resolve gradually weakens. Later, after being rescued, he retrospectively acknowledges that he was about to finally submit. âI would have told him anything,â he explains. âAnything at all. But more than that, I believed I could see five lights.â
One of Machadoâs central preoccupations is with the erasure of queer stories from conversations surrounding domestic abuse. âI have spent years struggling to find examples of my own experience in historyâs queer women,â she writes. âDid any of them gingerly touch their bruises and know that explaining would be too complicated? Did any of them wonder if what had happened to them had any name at all?â Sheâs meticulous about research and context, as in a section (âDream House as Ambiguityâ) in which she explores historical accounts of court cases that ruled on instances of domestic abuse between women, ultimately arriving at the conclusion that the only stories that persevere over time are the ones with overly salacious details about overly extreme acts of violence. In an extended and devastating section called âDream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,â she guides us through a series of otherwise banal decisions that resulted in her abuseâresponding defensively to accusations of moving too much in her sleep, for example, or deciding whether or not to wash her girlfriendâs dirty dishes after being commanded to do soâand thus thrusts us squarely into the world she finally, by the end of the book, has escaped. A world of unpredictable cruelty, a world where she was always afraid of what the consequences of seemingly banal actions might be.
The verifiability of womenâs stories of abuse becomes central to In the Dream Houseâs final pages. Machado bitterly conveys the frustration of being the victim of wounds invisible to the naked eye, no bruise or scar available as evidence to make plain what sheâs suffered, in language reminiscent of the testimonies of the women of the #MeToo movement whose stories are all that they have to show for what theyâve endured. âI think a lot about what evidence, had it been measured or recorded or kept, would help my case,â she writes as she attempts to affix an ending to her story, some kind of stopping point. âThat thereâs a real ending to anything is, Iâm pretty sure, the lie of all autobiographical writing. You have to choose to stop somewhere. You have to let the reader go.â
Machado imagines trying out different endings to her memoir, and she describes the effort to do so in the language of a craft essay, thinking about a potential readerâs experience of her story and debating whether to end on some kind of ânarratively satisfying confrontation,â perhaps leaning in to a more conventional structure than the one she has otherwise chosen. But she instead leaves us in a place of ambiguity much like the experience of queerness itself, an identity category which has always struggled to be defined in terms of its own choosing. Itâs an uncomfortable and indeed unsatisfying place to end a story about abuse, as the abuser is only exposed as such through the telling of a story that could easily dissolve with the slightest suspicion of exaggeration. But a necessary condition of Machadoâs project is to spark dissatisfaction on the part of readers looking for any kind of definitive resolution.
âYou have no reason to believe me,â she tells the reader. But she isnât begging us to accept the truth of her account. Sheâs daring us to doubt it. âIf a tree falls in the woods and pins a wood thrush to the earth, and she shrieks and shrieks but no one hears her, did she make a sound?â Machado writes. âDid she suffer? Whoâs to say?â And the question reverberates through In the Dream House, louder and louder, building up to a scream.
Carmen Machadoâs In the Dream House is available on November 5 from Graywolf Press.
With The Institute, Stephen King Channels Political Outrage into Familiar Horror
Itâs in the moral murk of a politically loaded situation that King finds the richest seam of his story.
For years after the publication of The Shining, fans wondered what happened to Danny Torrance, the boy with the psychic powers at the center of the 1977 novel. While promoting Full Dark, No Stars in 2010, Stephen King acknowledged in an interview that he liked the idea of a world where Danny and Charlene âCharlieâ McGee, the pyrokinetic main character of 1980’s Firestarter, could get married. According to the author, âthey would have totally wonderful children.â Though Doctor Sleep would later conclude Dannyâs story, and close down the possibility of that particular union forever, Kingâs latest novel suggests that the idea continues to flower in his imagination.
The Institute is chock-full of âwonderfulâ children or, at least, some very ordinary children with extraordinary powers. At its center is the Institute, a facility in the woods of Main that houses kids whoâve been abducted because of their telekinetic and telepathic abilities. There, the children are tested and tortured in order to enhance their wild talents. And into this hellish dominion enters Luke Ellis, a boy with middling telekinetic reach but dizzying intellect.
Meanwhile, ex-cop Tim Jamieson settles into his new home in the South Carolina town of DuPray, a place as Kingsian to its core as the man himself. Good-natured and kind, unflinchingly but undemonstratively moral, and with a newfound willingness to follow his hunches, Jamieson is the sort of hero that King has been writing about since 1979âs The Dead Zone. Our introduction to DuPray and Jamieson, who takes a job as a ânight knockerâ for the local sheriff, is warm and meandering, but its brevity is a tell: that King wonât be writing in his more sweeping epic style. The baroque backstories and irrelevant divergences that mark the highsâor lows, depending on your perspectiveâof Kingâs fiction are here offered in miniature. Itâs a hurried sketch rather than a meticulous painting of a small community.
For better and worse, after this brief introduction, the novel jumps the 1,000 miles north to the Institute, remaining there for the better part of 300 pages, abandoning Jamieson and DuPray for so long that readers may forget that they ever existed. When Jamieson suddenly reappears, the jarring effect is both a testament to the absorbing power of Lukeâs narrative and a sign of how weakly King has woven together the two strands of The Institute.
Though the âspecialâ child is a well that King has drawn from many a time, the novel has a political edge that rescues the trope from the shadow of redundancy. The Institute is about separating children from their parents and putting them in cages, all in the name of national security and the better good. Even though King has stated that he wasnât inspired by ICE and the migrant crisis, itâs almost impossible to separate the fiction from the headlines. And itâs in the moral murk of this situation that he finds the richest seam of his story. The Institute, you see, has a practical purpose. And while that purpose is best left for readers to discover for themselves, it will spoil nothing to say that the novel offers a philosophical quandary: How many children are you willing to destroy to save the world?
Such a question allows King to move away from the Manichaean notion of good and evil that limits much horror fiction. The Instituteâs staff ranges from jobbing professionals to zealots for the cause. Sprinkled in are a few obligatory sadists, but these are the least interesting of the childrenâs tormentors. Queen above all is Mrs. Sigsby, who combines the primness of Dolores Umbridge with Nurse Ratchedâs terrifying psychopathy. Sheâs the villainous heart of the novel, yet her cruelty is neither unthinking nor indulgent. Sheâs merely the result of an unblinking ideology that allows her to see children as resources rather than human beings.
King has always been particularly good at etching the bureaucratic villain. His writing is sophisticated enough to acknowledge that few humans pursue evil for its own sake. Mrs. Sigsby is the very opposite of an agent of chaos. But her pursuit of order involves a complacent evil thatâs more terrifying because of its authenticity. Like everyone else, she has a boss, and quotas to meet, and little time to consider the moral implications of her actions. And her eventual undoing ranks among the more satisfying of Kingâs resolutions because Mrs. Sigsby represents the walls of bureaucratic unkindness that plague 21st-century life.
The children are charming, of course. No one writes kids for adults as well as King. The Institute has been marketed as It for the new generation. This seems mostly to be a publishing gambit to grasp the coattails of Andy Muschiettiâs successful two-part adaptation of It. But thereâs some truth in the comparisonânamely, in the realistic camaraderie fostered between the kids, who face and overcome the apathetic cruelty that adults represent.
All of which makes it a shame that the book is so rote, as it sees King continuing to dip his toes in the same murky, shallow waters of crime fiction where much of his work has been stuck for the last decade. The author remains in the top tier of storytellers. Much has been made of this, often in reductive tonesâas if storytelling isnât what weâre all here for. Such benign dismissal neglects his deceptively simple style, the crafted tone of voice that seamlessly marries the everyman and the extraordinary. It overlooks the heart and heat that radiates off the page of a King novel, and in The institute his skills actually come to the fore more than usual because the story itself is fairly insubstantial.
The ideas are there: the juxtaposition of a human America against a corporate one, the meeting of physical and psychogeographic landscapes, that even in a multifaceted situation thereâs a clear definable line of goodness. But King has wielded them more elaborately and successfully elsewhere. In The Institute, he offers them as the axes of a yarn thatâs wholly relevant, and which nods toward the underlying complexity of any project based on serving âthe greatest good,â but which, even at close to 600 pages, feels too fleeting to offer answers.
Stephen Kingâs The Institute is now available from Scribner in the U.S. and Hodder in the U.K.
With Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith Spins Dreams Into Topsy-Turvy Words
Itâs a moving, witty, at times almost trance-like work traversing age, aging, sickness and death, as well as joy, gratitude and wonder.
Patti Smithâs Year of the Monkey is a Book of Dreams, or, more accurately, a Book of Dreaming. Itâs not, or not merely, a systematic transcription of the artistâs nocturnal journeys, but rather a book wherein the processes or mechanisms of dreaming determine the course and pulse of the narrative. Thereâs a canon, or at least a corpus, of this type of work, including preeminently the works of Franz Kafka, along with such unique creations as proto-surrealist Gerard de Nervalâs Aurelia, surrealist texts in general, and, to a more curious degree, Alice In Wonderland. Explicitly referencing pretty much all the above works or writers, along with many others (Smith has never been hero-shy), the book combines Carrollian topsy-turvy with the kind of hard-edged mystic surrealism that Smith is so famous for.
Smith is the ideal avatar for this kind of narrative because her style is so motile. She can go in any direction at any time. From her earliest days as poet-singer onward, sheâs woven and fused multiple imageries, a lyrical bric-a-brac able to span centuries, from Joan of Arc to Arthur Rimbaud (one of her earliest heroes) to Jimi Hendrix. Allen Ginsberg once likened reading to time travel, to a reader linking up with a writer from another century and being essentially transported to that time in a very palpable way. Smith is such a time traveler. She seems to live in myriad epochs simultaneously, a spiritual ubiquity directly reflected, in Year of the Monkey, through her surroundings: âIt is all about my desk with a cabinet portrait of the young Baudelaire and a photo-booth shot of a young Jane Bowles and an ivory Christ without arms and a small framed print of Alice conversing with the Dodo.â
The book chronicles a year of the poetâs movements across America and more far-flung placesâbesides being a time-traveler, Smith is a true planetary adventurer, a sought-after figure âslowly wading through a long chain of requestsââas she navigates the mysteries of mortality, both her own and that of others. The dreamlike nature of the journey is signified early. Smith checks in to the Dream Motel, where immediately personification commences. In dreams or Wonderland, anything can take the form and function of anything else:
â–Thank you, Dream Motel, I said, half to the air, half to the [motel] sign.
–Itâs the Dream Inn! the sign exclaimed.
–Oh yeah, sorry, I said, somewhat taken aback. Even so, I didnât dream a thing.
–Oh really? Nothing!
The motel sign remains a constant voice, a kind of Cheshire Virgil nagging Smith through layers of dream. Indeed, throughout Year of the Monkey, she speaks playfully Alice-like to many inanimate objects, be it the motel sign or her puke-spattered boots: ââŠI was pulling my strings off my Stratocaster when some guy with a greasy ponytail leaned over and puked on my boots. The last gasp of 2015, a spray of vomit ushering in the New YearâŠI knelt down and cleaned up my boots. Happy New Year, I told them.â
Another strange, steady occurrence throughout the book is what Smith calls the âcandy-wrapper phenomenonâ: âThe beach was littered with candy wrappersâŠhundreds of them, maybe thousands, scattering the beach like feathers after a molt [âŠ] When I reentered my room, I could see that I was still sleeping, so I waited, with the window open, till I awoke.â These candy wrappers and their continual eerie reappearance evoke that odd totemic potency that mundane objects acquire in dreams. This potency is also reflected in the Polaroids that Smith includes as âamuletsâ or âtalismans,â hard evidence of soft dreams, somewhat the way AndrĂ© Breton, the surrealist movementâs staunchest statesman, incorporated on-the-spot off-kilter photographs into his seminal dream work, Nadja.
To dream or not to dream, that seems to be the question. âThe fringe of dream, an evolving fringe at that! Maybe more of a visitation, a prescience of things to come.â For as much as it is a book of dreams, Year of the Monkey is also a Book of the Dead and Dying. Throughout, Smith worries over the health and death of two of her closest friends, and so sometimes seems not only to be conjuring dream logic, but charting her own post-death navigation plan as well: â[I wondered] whether my assessment of the usage of the word candy wrapper was correct. I wondered if the mundanity of my train of thought was hindering my progress [âŠ] Cycles of death and resurrection, but not always in the way we imagine. For instance, we might all resurrect looking way different, wearing outfits weâd never be caught dead in.â
The book builds in visions and end-visions just as the election of Donald Trump looms. The Year of the Monkey gives way to the Year of the Rooster: âIt was the 28th of January. The cock of the new year had arrived, a hideous thing with puffed chest and feathers the color of the sun. Too late too late too late, he crowed,â a kind of malignant overturning of the preceding wonderland, as well as a frightening carrion call. The prose becomes increasingly visionary, even biblical, with Smithâs incantatory prowess, her charging-horse delivery, at its most propulsive and insistent, advancing through repetition, invoking through breathless passages of prophecy too lengthy to quote and too powerful to take out of context, terrible visions of shunned migrancy and regenerative imagination.
Year of the Monkey is a kind of Patti in the Valley of the Shadow of Death or Patti in the Sadlands. This isnât to say the book is regretful or self-pitying. Far from it. Rather, itâs a moving, witty, at times almost trance-like work traversing age, aging, sickness, and death, as well as joy, gratitude, and wonder. No longer the kid of her National Book Award-winning Just Kids, Smith (now 70) may be older, wiser and frailer, but sheâs no less curious and curiouser.
Patti Smithâs Year of the Monkey is available on September 24 from Knopf.
Anatomy of an American Family and National Memory: Nell Zinkâs Doxology
One of Zinkâs missions is to navigate how the absence of one life continues to play on those left alive.
The past few weeks on his podcast WTF, actor and comedian Marc Maron has been delivering his usual pre-interview monologue, bringing listeners up to date on his life, his challenges with staying clean and sober, and, most recently, the suicide of David Berman, the singer-songwriter best known for his work with the Silver Jews. Maron composes his memory of a âhangoutâ session with Berman in Nashville, recalling how âhe just told me the story, the whole David Berman story.â One facet of Nell Zinkâs fifth novel, Doxology, is the death of a fictional indie musician, Joe Harris, whose absence is forever present within the bookâs pages, tinging them with the same kind of grief present in Maronâs voice. But while Maron explores loss in the immediate aftermath of a death, recalling the âlightâ a figure like Berman gave off, Zink traces the effects of loss over the course of decades. Throughout, one of her missions is to navigate how the absence of one life continues to play on those left alive.
Decisions amass, one upon another in Doxology, a wide-spreading mural portraying the lives of an American familyâPam and Daniel and their daughter, Floraâfrom the late â80s to the modern day. Zink alternates her narrative between her protagonists quickly and often. Instead of dedicating whole chapters to, say, Pamâs perspective, multiple voices will share the page at once. Zinkâs use of the third-person enables her to dance from character to character, one paragraph after the other. At one moment, weâre at a New York farmerâs market with Daniel, and in the next, we will be at an Ian MacKaye show with Flora. Zink never sticks with one character for longer than a page at a time, building a pace which isnât unlike that of her characters, so quick-witted and always in motion, questioning their lives and relationships but united as a family, manifested through their shared space on the page.
Pam, Daniel, and Joe, all young and working crummy jobs at the start of the book, are united by their obsession with punk rock. Reminiscent of Jennifer Eganâs A Visit from the Goon Squad, Zinkâs language has a melodic quality, her long, crisp sentences enhanced by precise punctuation and smart alliteration. Every character is fast-talking and ceaselessly witty; they appear to be performing like the musicians they desire to become, their use of language a kind of instrument. And like a good lyricist, Zink doesnât waste a line of dialogue on anything uninteresting or even mildly benign. Everything feels just a little bit sped up, like an Aaron Sorkin production, but thereâs also whimsy and joy in Zinkâs prose, which brings passion to subjects as dry as soil aptitudes and door-to-door political canvassing.
Friends and bandmates, Pam, Daniel, and Joe are lovable and flawed, essential and aimless. Joe has âa case of high-functioning Williams syndrome,â and he ropes the gang together with unbending affability and an endearing trust in the world that helps to balance Pam and Danielâs more cautious approach to record executives and groupies. Pam is the âretro hippie earth motherâ who ran away from her parents in D.C. to Manhattan with 70 dollars âsheâd earned by selling her fatherâs audio receiver and VCR to a pawn shop,â and Daniel is âan eighties hipsterâ who âlived in a state of persistent ecstasy.â Their stories build, mingle, and mesh as they attempt to start their own punk band, eventually leading to Daniel and Pamâs marriage, Floraâs birth, and Joeâs serendipitous slippage into indie stardom.
Doxology, though, isnât a solely about music, as Zink is also concerned with shared national traumas and the idea of re-experiencing the past 30 years of American politics. She shows why sheâs one of Americaâs great contemporary novelists through her sharp shift of focus, capturing a multitude of landscapes from the wide vistas of American music and politics, to the finer details of sustainable farming, computer programming, and D.C. parks. The wealth of knowledge that Zink brings to her novel is generous, guiding us through moments in Americaâs recent pastâthe millennium shift, the dot-com bubble, 9/11, the housing crashâwith a firm sense of authority. She throws all sorts of complications at her characters, tracing how they react, adapt, continue to live, and move on like so many of us had to.
After the Twin Towers collapse, the story shifts to Floraâs coming of age. Sheâs sent to live with her grandparents in D.C. as the toxic dust settles, and as her life with them is close to utopic, Pam and Daniel canât rationalize moving her back to New York, where everything smells like asbestos. So they place her in a D.C. private school, where her intelligence is incubated by teachers who see her potential. Throughout, Zinkâs descriptions of place are simultaneously cynical, comical, and beautiful. Thereâs a sense that weâre caught in the most vivid of dreams, an impression thatâs hardly diminished as Zink juggles between Floraâs life in D.C. and Pam and Danielâs in New York. Itâs here where Flora becomes interested in saving the planet, studying green sustainability, ultimately leading her to understand that those in power are really the ones who can enact change. As she blossoms into a little genius, she becomes entangled in the Green Party, hoping this will lead her to something bigger.
Though Pam and Daniel still appear in the novelâs second half, theyâre cast as secondary characters, and their roundness noticeably dulled down. Their conflicts no longer drive the novel forward, as itâs Flora whoâs given the wheel. Thus, she must be nothing short of exceptional in order to hold our attention, often unbelievably so: a deeply liberal intellectual with some life-altering conservative choices, an atheist who sits in cathedrals to obtain deeper wisdom under the watchful eye of a god she doesnât believe in, a passionate socialist canvasing for Jill Stein with parents who stumble into being millionaires. She often seems philosophically inconsistent as Zink tries to make her incessantly admirable. Every time Flora seems to have reached an existential breaking point, Zink pulls her out of the trench without seeing the trauma through to its natural end. Zink undoubtably wants Flora to be âindestructible,â a word which âseemed to Flora like a pretty basic thing to be. Useful, possibly, but minimal. She wanted more than that.â Bullets bounce off Flora like Superman, and itâs often hard to empathize with a character whose path appears determined for success regardless of how many mistakes she makes on the way.
Still, Zinkâs writing remains enthralling in spite of not seeing all of her conflicts fully through to their ends. Like Flora, Zink understands the cynicism of our world but still she shows us moments of humor, humanity, how we can continue to shape our lives despite a world out of our own control. As the novel slowly looms towards modern day, its finality recalls how we got here and a need to brace ourselves for whatâs going to come next. If weâve learned anything from recent history, there will probably be a few unexpected twists coming our way. In the end, this anxiety is personified by Flora, the novelâs greatest gift and biggest challenge.
Nell Zinkâs Doxology is now available from Ecco.
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