Monday, December 31, 2012

Dec 31: Patrick Madden on Charles Lamb’s “New Year’s Eve”

On or about New Year’s Eve every year I reread Charles Lamb’s “New Year’s Eve,” a perfect essay, which in a spill of language and punctuation turns an occasion into a meditation, in this case on mortality, that inexhaustible topic and perennial favorite of writers from all ages. I love it for how it hooks not just my gut but my mind, not with drama or story but with idea, and because at nearly 200 years old, it still speaks to a universal feeling sparked by the arbitrary turning of the calendar leaf. Also because it reminds me, as any memento mori should, that I will die.

I don’t like the idea of my death, and I believe it to be a long ways off, but I like to rage with Lamb against it and to think that each December 31st as I read, I am resurrecting the melancholy, impertinent writer, who pleads once more to arrest time——
I begin to count the probabilities of my duration, and to grudge at the expenditure of moments and shortest periods, like miser’s farthings. In proportion as the years both lessen and shorten, I set more count upon their periods, and would fain lay my ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the great wheel. I am not content to pass away “like a weaver’s shuttle.” Those metaphors solace me not, nor sweeten the unpalatable draught of mortality. I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity; and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived; I, and my friends: to be no younger, no richer, no handsomer. I do not want to be weaned by age; or drop, like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave.—Any alteration, on this earth of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles and discomposes me. My household-gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood. They do not willingly seek Lavinian shores. A new state of being staggers me. Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fire-side conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself—do these things go out with life?
——that by my reading I am bringing about his wish to stand still at the age of 45, on the eve of 1821, reviewing the events of the past twelvemonth, revisiting the graveyard to taunt the buried-under-stones: “I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters!”

It is helpful to know that Lamb wrote his essays in persona, as an Italian clerk named Elia, who shared some of Lamb’s biography but not all of it, yet he sometimes, as in this essay, slips away from his character in order to comment upon it. Thus his delightful passage of self-ridicule:
No one whose mind is introspective—and mine is painfully so—can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have for the man Elia. I know him to be light, and vain, and humorsome; a notorious * * *; addicted to * * * * : averse from counsel, neither taking it nor offering it;— * * * besides; a stammering buffoon; what you will; lay it on, and spare not; I subscribe to it all, and much more.
This is, I think, a worthy lesson to essayists today, or to humans today, to make light of ourselves and puncture our propensity for pomposity. When I read “New Year’s Eve” in the atmosphere of promises to lose weight, read more, work less, do better, I think that there is no better resolution than to be humble, which Lamb also achieves in signing off with what I take to be a salute to those who’ll outlive or come after him, undermining his prior glee at outliving the earlier dead. “And now another cup of the generous,” he offers, “and a merry New Year, and many of them, to you all, my masters!” He seems to be winking right at me, who am worth twenty of him, because I am alive.

For no reason other than the childlike joy of it, I want to end by mentioning a wonderful coincidence I once discovered thanks to “New Year’s Eve.” I love Lamb’s opening thesis-like sentence, that “Every man hath two birth-days: two days, at least, in every year, which set him upon revolving the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration,” an eloquent phrasing of a kind of existential situation familiar to many of us, yet, as I found out, not quite as universal as he and I were wont to believe. One early January day, after I’d assigned my students to memorize a passage of Lamb’s prose and I’d happily recited the first paragraph to them, a student spoke up to argue with the premise. Not everyone, she said, has two birthdays. She had just the one, January first. In chorus, two other students spoke up. They, too, were born on New Year’s Day. Of the twenty-two students signed up for History and Theory of the Essay, three of them gave the lie to Lamb’s notion. As I’ve written elsewhere, the odds of shared birthdays in relatively small groups are remarkably, unexpectedly good. Given the 23 people in the classroom, we had a better than 50% chance that two of us would share a birthday. That three would share a birthday (any birthday) was about 15% probable. But three people all born on the essayistically (and calendrically) important first day of the year: the answer to this problem slips away from my grasp of mathematics in a way that suggests the unknowing open-endedness surrounding all great essays and leaves just enough mystery as to seem miraculous.


Patrick Madden is a stammering buffoon, a notorious * * *, light, and vain, and humorsome, and terribly unoriginal at titles, naming both his book and his website/anthology Quotidiana, which you practically have to look up in the dictionary just to understand it!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Dec 25: Last Essay for the Calendar: Ander Monson on Adam Gopnik


“If winter is ours, who are we?” —Adam Gopnik, “Winter”

Is winter ours? Is it ours if we weather it, live in it or through it? Is it ours if we’re born to it, whether or not we live in it? Does it reside inside those of us who hail from the snow country but live away from it? Is it mostly in memory, in story, of the great winter of 1979-1979 that caved the barn?

What does it mean to be a winterlover? Do we deify the Christmas holiday, frozen outing, the family visitations, the brief returns to our former homes, trying on who we used to be when we lived in these places? Is the experience of winter automatically one of nostalgia?

Some of us are active winterlovers, disc golfers in the snowstorm (I’ll be playing with friends this week—the weather’s clear, with a predicted high of 16; plenty of snow on ground, of course), chilly distance runners, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, hunters, snowshoers, avalanche data watchers, powder-chasers, at least by proxy. Some of us get off on others’ pleasure or haunting the interiors of our created spaces, hypershoppers, lightwatchers, barely-woken mallwalkers seeking smoothies. That’s a kind of winter too.

I am writing this from Minnesota, where I’m visiting my wife’s family for Christmas, up here from Tucson where we only recently acquired central heat after a standoff with the gas company. This week I am reacquainting myself with winter. Oh, winter is within reach in southern Arizona in the Swiss or Californian sense, as visual fact and recreational possibility: the Santa Catalinas are white-capped; they provide a continuous spectacle that, like most spectacles, you forget about after a couple days of exposure. And you can drive an hour up to Mount Lemmon and ski or just gape at the world gone winter there. I drove up with my dad last winter when he was in town from Upper Michigan. We made it halfway up, to Windy Point, the lookout above the snowline. I had made my point: we had winter too, here in Arizona, on demand. Snow behind us, kids chucking snowballs into passing traffic, the city at our feet: it was lovely. But let’s be honest, he was thinking: it wasn’t winter. I was thinking it too. My winter is unavoidable, a force to be suffered: it’s not an amuse bouche you can savor for a moment then swallow before dinner. It’s a white wall of frozen, silent fact. But I no longer live in a place where winter means.

With this in mind I’ve turned to Adam Gopnik, and his recent book-length essay, Winter—an extended meditation on the season adapted from a series of lectures commissioned by and radio broadcast in Canada. In it he tracks the idea of winter as seen through a series of historical lenses, mostly via art, literature, and music, performing close readings of the ways in which winter has been conceptualized in the last couple centuries.

Here’s one Romantic take on the season and its meaning: “Winter was the significant season, the X-ray time, when the green veil of warmth and verdure was stripped away and we saw the world bare, as it really was. But was it a place of order or a place of accident, made to look orderly only by our imaginations? Winter showed both, and you stood by the window to watch and choose.” As is often the case, human views of winter mostly transpose our human concerns onto the world, not necessarily revealing anything inherent about its mute chill. Instead, what we think of it tells us about us.

Gopnik notes the necessity of the window: only with the window can we get a comfortable remove from the elements; so only with the window, with central heat, is it easy to romanticize the season. In the window we see the beyond as well as the reflected within. Then he wonders about the meaning of our projections: “Do we project form and meaning onto something that is just an absence, a non-happening of the natural order of warmth and sunshine, or does winter offer some residual sign of divinity—perhaps in a piercing and haunting musical form, or, for that matter, etched on a window? If winter is ours, who are we?” (21).

For those of us who claim winter—in whatever form, however adulterated—as our own, who are we and what does this say about us? Do we get off on deprivation, the gloom of the short day and long night? Do we seek out the intimacies it offers us—requires of us, perhaps, for survival (or once did)? Or do we just find solace in silence


Flying into Minnesota a couple days ago now, I was surprised—again—how white and dark and wide and flat everything is. I’ve flown into the Minneapolis airport dozens of times, though my wife and I more often drove here. And when my wife and I lived in Alabama, we’d visit her folks, then brave the drive up to my home in Upper Michigan. Without fail we’d be snowblind by the point we crossed the border into Michigan, and again pressed under the weight of white. There’s a big difference between Minneapolis and Upper Michigander winters.

I do miss it, this weight, the claustrophobia of a darkened cabin, the woodstove just barely kicking out enough heat to keep the room alive, everyone huddled close. Or maybe I just miss the idea of it. I’ve romanticized it, allowed memory to have its way with it. It’s narrative now, experience processed and chained henceforth into memory.

A few years back, I spent the holiday with my brother and his family in Upper Michigan. It was his son’s first Christmas. Inevitably my brother wanted to recreate some ur-Xmas from his memory, one that never existed, to make it perfect for his son, Magnus. In this way my brother desires to terraform his life—my life—our lives—our worlds, separate and together, so as to provide a processed version for his son, one that’s been excised of the family drama and disconnections: the year I gave my dad two-year old JC Penney catalogs as his only Christmas gift (in my mind this is saved under Funny Story; my dad probably has it filed under Another Disappointment), the torments I inflicted on my family, and the torments they had in store for me. My brother wants none of that. Instead he remembers the easily-matted moments, the three of us (my mother had died when we were young) cutting down a spruce from our farm to adorn and serve as our yearly emblem, dragging it back to the farmhouse through the snow, erasing our footprints. So he wants to recreate them now, only better, bigger, more perfect.

I don’t know how Magnus will remember that Christmas. He won’t, I’m sure, not even being a year old, except that my brother will have regurgitated the memories and fed them into his gaping, hungry maw, so he’ll grow up on these chewed-on fantasies of what Christmas was like. Instagrammed digital photographs on Facebook’s timeline will tell the story to him on demand. Look, here’s everyone having fun. Everyone’s smiling. We must be happy. It must have been like that. Why would we remember it any other way?


All of us transplanted Midwesterners (or Mainers, in one instance, or Canadians, in another) complain about the cold in Arizona. We know we’re wussified, soft and mushy, in saying so, and some of us try harder not to voice our suffering. But it’s cold, y’all!

How much do we define ourselves by our ability—or willingness—to endure cold? When I lived in Michigan’s lower peninsula I pooh-poohed the snow. Oh, you think we get a lot of snow? A hundred inches a year? Girl, please. Let me tell you about my homeland and its thirty-foot snow dunes and the neverending uphill trek through blizzards [at this point I trail off, realizing no one’s listening]. In Alabama it was easy to mock the snowfearing godfearing and their panic induced by the mere threat of a chilly day. But in Arizona, getting your body ready for summer months of triple-digit sunblasted heat means that you adjust, as they say. We all adjust. Oh, it’s in the fifties. Better get out the coats. Well then, us. Does this then mean we are no longer who we thought we were? Are we less hardcore? Does it matter? Do our narratives about ourselves and how we live in a weathered world change according to our ability or willingness to endure its extremes? And what point is there in being on our high horse about this crap, anyhow? What kind of assholes are we, anyhow? Was that just an attempt to define ourselves in others’ terms? To create an edge by claiming difference?

After all we Tucsonans sneer at the Phoenician terraforming of nature (even as we do it ourselves on a small scale) a couple hours north, where they try to negate the desert and its deprivations. They live in the Matrix, we think to ourselves. We alone are alive and awake. Gopnik reminds us of how Caspar David Freidrich pictures winter in his painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog: “winter is the red pill of an awakened northern consciousness. Summer is the Matrix, the lie; winter is the truth. It might be bitter, but at least it’s real” (19).

We want to believe in the real and relegate others to the fantasy. I suppose it’s as human as anything else—as everything else. It’s of our making; all is art; all is artifice. We’re better off for understanding this and experiencing these successive versions slash visions of winter via Gopnik’s winter-filtering brain:

“The terror of winter is to recognize that these visions are just hallucinations, that mindless crystals have no meaning, that snowflakes can’t stand for souls, that ice comes not from God’s hand but from the broken mirror of the mind—from our will to invest the world with meanings of our own.


By the time you read this it’ll be Christmas, and you’ll be celebrating—or not—in whatever way you’re accustomed to and have chosen or had chosen for you. Is it real? Is it cold? Are you warm? What do you make of yourself and your interest or disinterest in the season?

Maybe you’ll have received some gifts, or money to buy your own in lieu of others’ tastes, or maybe you held back your cash for this very purpose, to fill that hole in your brain slash heart in the way you know you need to.

Sadly for a reader, I’m not good at gifting books. Either I try too hard to evangelize for an author I love and think the recipient should love too (because X is a genius!), and so inevitably they do not (thus making me wonder whether I’m the idiot, or the giftee is, or what accounts for our missed connection), or my predictions are too-blunt instruments and so my choices gravitate toward the lame or joking. Even receiving books is tricky. It takes real intellectual intimacy to get it right.

This year my father sent me four books for Christmas (I think—there was no gift note—and they weren’t wrapped; I thought for a moment that maybe I drunkenly ordered them and forgot in the haze of the next morning), two of which I already own. Gopnik’s book was one of them. The good news here is that my dad knows my taste (two books of essays! both great! well played, Dad). For winter denizens like us, anything about our visceral, cerebral season, even in absentia, is a good bet. So here I am, recommending Gopnik’s book to you.

Or perhaps, try another essayist. After all, our shared art, these occasional missives, are “how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter” (to quote Edward Hoagland’s introduction to the Best American Essays 1999). In our increasingly depersonalized age, I don’t know about you, but I gravitate toward the personal, the closest thing to a consciousness that we can read: an essay, an intelligence of artifice, an artificial intelligence.

To that end, in 2013 I’d recommend trying out books or essays by all our essayists here. Many have recent or forthcoming books (look out for Nicole Walker’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt from Zone 3 Press in March, for instance—it’s going to be hot). I invite you to come join us here in the new year. We plan on posting about every one or two weeks in 2013. If you’d like to post—on an essay/ist you’re interested in, or in whatever other capacity—drop me a line.

Let’s leave off with one more Gopnik quote, speaking to the necessity and loveliness of our shared work: "Art is a way of expanding our resonances, civilization our way of resonating to those expansions."


Ander Monson curates this space among some other things. He wishes you good reading and happy holidays.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Dec 24: Heather Price-Wright on Josalyn Knapic

I was going to write about Josalyn Knapic’s “Sea of Trees” from DIAGRAM 12.5 before this became a week of way too many sad thoughts. For me, this is always such a season – advent, especially if you work or, as most of us do, wade in the field of mental illness, is homicide season and, even more so, suicide season. So "Sea of Trees," with its dark obsessions and its ghostly branches and its compass-distorting forest floors, and of course its hanging bodies, already was the only essay I could think about, the only one that encapsulated so much of what I obsess over this time of year – silence, roots, lostness, foundness, death. After the events of late last week, which I will not dwell on here, this essay became even more of a refuge, even more of a dark place to hold my thoughts of too many deaths. It is an essay for winter, an essay for mourning. It is an essay that investigates the kinds of whys I don't know how to ask yet, and for that, this week, I thank it.
    One of the things that so impresses me about this essay is that, despite being, as much as anything else, about suicide, despite being fairly macabre and failing to shy away from the physical artifacts of suicide, the "backpacks, duffle bags, hairspray, hair mousse, combs, scissors, sunglasses, receipts, plastic bags, and soda cans" left behind by the now-hanging bodies, the bodies themselves, it does not venture into territory that is too black to bear. It circles death, it acknowledges it, it sniffs around at death and tells death's story, in its way, but it does not fetishize death or the dead or the choice they've made. I tend to hate essays about suicide for this reason – they glamorize the act, they wish for it a little bit. Knapic steers clear of these clichés of the topic, coming at suicide sideways and, when she gets there, with a researcher's eye rather than that of a jealous onlooker.
    And so we begin with obsession, perfect for the subject of suicide, so self-obsessed an act, but not obsession with death. "This was when I had my obsession with trees," Knapic writes. "This obsession is fairly new, and with all fairly new obsessions everything that is in the slightest relation has to be bought, to be had, to be remembered." Remembered in particular, and also obsessed over throughout the essay, is a line of verse, which Knapic discovers is from James Shea’s Star in the Eye, a snippet from his “Death Poems”: “Then he said, Go, / sit outside / until you see the trees / have throats.” It’s no wonder this line stuck with Knapic so completely; it’s an earworm, a brainworm, of a line, and, wonderfully, a perfect portal into an essay dense with both the bare throats of trees and the souls of the dead.
    Knapic moves between telling of the forest Aokigahara, the “Sea of Trees” itself, which is the most popular suicide spot in Japan and second most popular in the world, and investigating other obsessions – Shea’s “Death Poems,” her trees, both collected and merely observed. “The grounding. This is why I stare at them,” she writes. “I stare at them in longing from the elevated train, a window overlooking the park, I stare while I wait to cross the street. Why must I feel so rootless?”
    This rootlessness drives the essay. It is what keeps Knapic returning to the trees in Aokigahara, and to the people compelled there by their own lack of a strong connection to the planet they’ll only briefly have called home, those possessors of physical belongings, knapsacks, shoes, who will leave them on the indifferent forest floor and hang from the indifferent branches. It is what brings Knapic home again and again to verse, that rooting force, that line she writes “everywhere I would mark something as divine, for continuous retrospection, definition.”
    In Knapic’s search for definition, we, her readers, along for the ride, both learn and feel so much. The essay’s research is broad and deep, and Knapic’s investigation turns over too many disturbing and fascinating details to explicate here. There is the “self-help” book, The Complete Manual of Suicide, which has sold more than a million copies and which is often found “on the forest floor next to a body.” There are the signs, sad little government attempts to turn away pilgrims to the Sea of Trees, with inscriptions like, “Think of your loved ones! Life is precious! Please reconsider!” As Knapic notes, “These are the only communication from officials, from police to stop the growing number of suicides.”  Of course, we can’t know the efficacy of such signs, but the sense we get here is: not much. There are the YouTube videos of the forest Knapic watches and describes, the perfect stillness of the forest, where the trees block even the wind from disturbing their branches, the way one visitor likens moving through the forest to the Blair Witch Project. Each of these details courses through me, adding to the weight, the density of the essay, the sense that I have entered into something physical, someplace I will stay until I know everything, until I see the trees have throats, to see the souls of the dead rise up from their bodies among the trees and be freed. Is this what I am waiting for? Reading this essay in a state of mind already so permeated with death, am I asking Knapic to release the dead? Am I asking for their names, their selves, their own throats, singing or wailing?
    The essay ends in a place I find slippery, uncertain. “The answer is found in the bodies,” Knapic writes. The questions are many, but chiefly, whether the trees, their throats, “would be barely whispering or screaming amongst the hanging dead in their branches.” I wonder, though, what do the bodies have to tell us about the trees, the trees about the bodies? Are they brought together in this final act, bodies becoming a part of the landscape like branches and leaves, trees complicit in the bodies’ final act? Knapic, too, seems to question how united these two players are, whether the forest is responsible for the bodies, whether the trees catch and hold their souls. How entwined have the two become?
    All I know is that, in terms of entwined, I cannot extricate myself from the Sea of Trees once I have been there. I am drawn, like the visitors in the YouTube videos, who whisper, “I’m scared. I don’t want to be here right now,” but continue walking through the forest. I am driven by Knapic’s obsession and my own, quickly developing, with her essay and with her subjects, and I wonder – this darkened advent, I can’t help it – about the stuck souls thickening the forest, thickening the whole world.


Heather Price-Wright is the assistant nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Qualia and ARDOR. She blogs every so often at and lives in Brooklyn.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dec 23: Alison Hawthorne Deming on Donald R. Griffin's Animal Minds

Donald R. Griffin devoted his life to the scientific study of animal thinking and consciousness. He countered the prevalent notion that animals are sleepwalkers, unconsciously zoning out through a life of instinctive actions. In Animal Minds, originally published in 1992, revised and reissued in 2001 by the University of Chicago Press, he makes the case that animals think consciously and reflect on their actions. Here’s a link to some excerpts that will serve as an introductory essay. He draws examples from the waggle dance of honeybees, the fishing techniques of green herons, the architecture of bower birds and beavers, signature whistles of dolphins and semantic alarm calls of vervet monkeys. He is motivated by what I can only call scientific empathy. “We want to understand,” he wrote, “what the lives of these other creatures are like, to them.”

I love the parsimony of a scientific mind. Ideas must be tested out through observation. In a culture that justly makes room for loudmouths and cranks, I welcome the attentive eye and skeptical voice of a scientist patiently testing the boundaries of reason, allowing speculation to lead him into a jungle or a laboratory to see what the world has to say about his ideas.

Griffin saw animal communication as one window into animal minds, “a source of objective evidence about the thoughts and feelings that have previously seemed so inaccessible to scientific investigation.” An animal able to anticipate the actions of a predator stands a better chance of survival than one who cannot do this. If the predator signals its intention to attack—the cry of an eagle, the crouch of a leopard—and the potential prey animal gets the message, that’s much better than waiting until it’s attacked. Reading another animal’s intentions, thinking ahead and warning one’s companions would be very good skills to acquire in a predator-eats-prey world. But are animals capable of this kind of perception, reflection and communication? Griffin says there’s a continuum of sentience out there. It’s quite simple in some creatures, quite complex in us. Yet we’re not the only ones who think through a problem, learn how to solve it and share that information with our friends.

One of the clearest examples of animal communication suggesting conscious thinking comes from studies of the alarm calls of vervet monkeys, first written up in the scientific literature in 1967. These are small monkeys that live in close familial groups in Africa. Vervets recognize each other as individuals. When a baby vervet calls out, its mother turns toward it. Other monkeys in the group turn not toward the baby but toward the mother to see what she will do. When a vervet sees a dangerous predator, it gives an alarm call specific to the type of predator approaching. When a leopard approaches, the call is a squawk followed by a series of wobbling gobbles. This sends the vervets up a tree and onto a limb too thin for a leopard to maneuver. When an eagle approaches, the call is a series of low clucking vibrations. This sends the vervets into bushes too thick for the eagle to spot them. When a python approaches, the call is a ticking sound like a Geiger counter. This makes the vervets stand on their hind legs and look around to find the snake, then move away from it.

The conventional wisdom for ethologists used to hold that animal communication was “comparable to human eye blinks, blushing, gasps of surprise, or groans of pain”--mere reflex actions with no intention or conscious thought behind them. Griffin calls this general view of animal communication the “groans of pain” (GOP) interpretation. Try telling that to a vervet.

Griffin breaks the barrier between animal minds and human minds. Conscious thinking, he says, is what makes life feel real and important to us. So, as Gertrude Stein wrote (though not to a vervet), “Here’s to your inner life,” all of you out there in the wilds.


Alison Deming is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Rope (Penguin 2009), and four books of nonfiction, with Zoologies: On Animals & the Human Spirit forthcoming from Milkweed. Her work has been widely published and anthologized.  She is Professor and Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arizona. She lives in Tucson and on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, Canada.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Dec 22, Chris Cokinos: Book Review, Meet J. G. Ballard

The lowest form of nonfiction must be the book review. It’s a workhorse, usually short, submitted on deadline, sometimes reading like little more than a fancied-up catalog description. The book review lacks the cachet of an actual essay. And suppose it’s your book review—that is, your review of someone else’s book. And just why isn’t it the other way around? (If you want the bleakest possible assessment of book reviewing read George Orwell’s essay, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer.”)
    Yet we often cut our teeth on book reviews. Younger writers get experience thinking more critically about books; they get their feet in the door at publications they want to be a part of. More seasoned writers can be choosier about reviewing, picking books that are of special interest and, in some rare instances, such writers can transform the mere book review—or its longer cousin, the essay-review—into something approaching art. They do so by thinking on the page, by being learned and by writing memorable sentences. At the least, such reviews are pleasures to read.
    That’s pretty unusual. After all, there’s a reason we don’t have a Best American Book Reviews series, a reason why we don’t rush out to find The Greatest Hits from Kirkus. (And here I’m not considering avant-garde takes on the form as in Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum, cool though that book is.)
    Which brings me to the genius of J.G. Ballard, author of such novels as The Drowned World and Crash, of such short stories as “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” and “The Terminal Beach,” a science-fictional postmodernist surrealist writer whose reputation among wider audiences was made with his book Empire of the Sun and the Spielberged hit movie of the same name. A few years ago I bought a used hardback of his volume A User’s Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews. (It’s not all book reviews, as A User’s Guide collects brief essays on such things as his favorite science-fiction movies and his return home to Shanghai, as well as his famous 1962 manifesto “Which Way to Inner Space?” Happy 50th!) I look at the book not infrequently. Indeed, I love it.
    Ballard is one of those writers who elevated reviews, even short ones, into art, into, well, essays. (And now I’ll switch to the present-tense because he’s alive in these reviews.) He lets you know just enough about the book or books under discussion and he conveys his evaluations, but primarily the reviews are thoughtful explorations of the issues and contexts the books raise. The reviews are his mind at work and play, running the rapids of literature, history, politics, science, art. Ballard knew a lot, so his reviews often teach. Reading the pieces in A User’s Guide is like reading a lively encyclopedia. Here’s a partial list of the subjects he writes about in his reviews: Nancy Reagan, Andy Warhol, futurism, William Burroughs, children in wartime, the history of psychiatry, the history of food, sex therapy manuals, Mein Kampf.
    A User’s Guide to the Millennium takes its factual bones seriously; there is an index of several pages for a book whose title becomes more and more accurate the longer you spend with it. This is a history of the 20th century primarily via the book review.
    Ballard sometimes uses episodes from a book he’s reviewing to form the architecture of a piece; that is, this often anti-narrative fiction writer will tell stories. He’s masterful at selecting and paraphrasing material from the books under discussion. In a review of a book about Walt Disney, we learn that Disney “exclaimed on first seeing the Pastoral Symphony sequence in Fantasia,” that “‘Gee, this will make Beethoven!’” Ballard’s review of Mark Pendergrast’s For God, Country and Coca-Cola (“a hilarious account of the origins of the planet’s leading soft drink and its mythic place in consumer consciousness”) provides a six-paragraph distillation of this history that is so spritely (sorry, just had to) that one senses Ballard’s précis might be better than the book itself: “In the headquarters city of Atlanta, Georgia, there is a museum visited by 3000 tourists a day, where the creation of Coca-Cola in 1886, in a humble three-legged kettle, is presented as a miracle equivalent to the Virgin Birth. Its inventor was John Pemberton, a 54-year-old doctor of Scottish origins and a long-suffering morphine addict.” And so the story unfolds.
    A review of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song ends: “Soon after dawn the party ended. To the tune of ‘Una Paloma Blanca’, Gilmore was taken to the execution yard in the prison cannery. As a TV commentator bawled: ‘You’ll be able to hear the shots, I promise!’ Gilmore was tied to a chair in front of the concealed firing squad. After the shots, in the first silence since Gilmore’s arrest, the only sound was the blood dripping on to his tennis shoes below the seat. Perhaps not surprisingly, only one witness managed to be sick.”
    Ballard weaves history, science and, sometimes, personal anecdotes. Contrasting how “Neil Armstrong’s landing on the Moon, a triumph of courage and technology...had virtually no influence on the world at large,” Ballard notes that “the great record-breaking attempts of the 1920s and 1930s generated an endless spin-off in architecture, fashion and design. I can remember my own childhood, when even static objects like teapots were streamlined and much of the furniture and kitchen equipment around me seemed to be forever moving past at 100 m.p.h.”
    That eye for detail, here drawn inward to make a wider cultural point, not surprisingly shows up again and again in Ballard’s book reviews. He often writes crisp, dazzling sentences and passages—no surprise to anyone who knows his fiction. Listen to the opening of his review of Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan:
But why didn’t the astrologers see this coming? The sunsets above Mulholland Drive must be an even more electric pink these days as the whole of Bel Air blushes for Nancy. By now everyone knows about her White House affair with Frank Sinatra, her legendary meanness as she recycled unwanted Christmas presents, her reckless spending of the taxpayer’s money and Imelda Marcos-sized extravagance on designer clothes, her chilling relationships with her own children during the ruthless climb to success and, most damning of all, the astrologers who decided the dates of international conferences and determined those ‘bad’ days when Ronnie was not allowed to leave the White House at all.
    Kitty Kelley is an exponent of the chain-saw school of biography, and through the blizzard of sawdust it is hard to make out the real woman within this devastating portrait. But the real was always a doubtful commodity in the case of the Reagans…it scarcely matters if the facts in this biography are true or not.
Another of Ballard’s strengths is his use of figurative language, which, in the compressed form of a review, becomes even more pronounced. In a piece on The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “Dystopias move past like sinister battleships in a menacing review.” In a review of a portrait of de Sade, Ballard asserts that “coping with his wayward genius is like digesting the news that a distant relative ran the torture chambers in a death camp.” Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is compared to “a gigantic glutinous pun.” Dali was like “a hallucinating speak-your-weight machine.” In one biography, Oscar Wilde “comes across as flawed but vaguely presidential, rather like Goering.” And this: “Henry Miller bursts into the twentieth-century novel like a reprobate uncle gate-crashing an over-sedate party, scandalizing the company with a string of off-colour stories before slipping away with the two prettiest wives, but leaving behind him the strong sense that for a few minutes everything has become a good deal more fun.”
    But it’s not only Ballard who is so quotable in his book. He notes that editor Roy Porter in The Faber Book of Madness quotes Susan Sontag: “Depression is melancholy without the charm.” The Emperor Hirohito on Halley’s Comet: “It’s nice to see it again.”
    And no one uses the question as a lede or hook better than Ballard.
“Is Marlon Brando the Mae West of contemporary cinema?”
“Einstein the philanderer?”
“Clasp your hands together—which thumb is on top?”
“In the long run, which casts the stronger spell, food or sex?”
“Are books becoming another form of television?”
“Does the future still have a future?”
    Possibly not, but the future of the book review does if writers turn to J.G. Ballard for instruction. I suppose Gail Pool’s discussion of the distinctions among book reviewer, academic critic and book critic might be noted here. In her interesting study Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America she not only humorously catalogs the long history of dissatisfactions with this endeavor (at least on this side of the Atlantic), she notes that reviewers, critics and book critics are perhaps different animals. Ballard, by this template, seems closest to the latter. And while James Cox, the editor of the Midwest Book Review, has objected to reviewers who “egregiously impos[e] their own egos upon their assessments of what they are reviewing…” I don’t think Ballard did that (with the possible exception of a jousting, score-settling review of a book by Kingsley Amis, which, in fact, is a delicious read—the review, I mean).
    Upon his reviews what Ballard imposes, if that’s the right word, is his considerable intellect. That and his sunset-on-chrome style. Ballard’s reviews—little essays about books and their worlds—are almost as memorable as his fictions and often just as satisfying.

(Correction: My friend and colleague Paul Hurh tells me that the lowest form of nonfiction is the video-game review.)


An Associate Professor of English at the University of Arizona, Christopher Cokinos is the author of two books of literary nonfiction, Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds and The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars, both from Tarcher/Penguin. His lyric essay collection, Bodies, of the Holocene, is forthcoming from Truman, and a poetry chapbook, Held as Earth, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. His current projects include a history of our fascination with and scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence and a collection of poems inspired by the paintings of Rene Magritte. Work is recent and forthcoming in High Desert Journal, Pank, Hawk & Handsaw, The Volta, Sugar House Review, Shadowbox, Science, and Fourth River.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Dec 21: Lia Purpura on Emerson's "Gifts"

I have trouble with gifts. Gifts are not easy. “Gifting” as a verb doesn’t help matters. I love giving, but resent prescribed occasions. Let me roam, and find and bestow at will. Let Parisian shops, farmer’s markets, forest walks suggest -- for you and you and you. When? Not on your birthday, but when come-upon by chance. In January, post-holiday. Chocolates in July (sure to melt, impractical) not on Valentine’s Day. I abide by the free-form. Once, a friend who has a collection of creamers admired one at a restaurant -- and I asked the waiter, secretly, if I could purchase it as a surprise. He just slipped me one and said, "it’s yours." There was the bartender, also a wiring whiz, who suggested -- when we told him of a stubborn lamp we had, always blowing out -- that our toaster might be shorting the line and we should move it. We did. It worked. What a gift that was. My husband returned with a big box of chocolates. And recently, a friend asked me to keep an eye out for a Big Mouth Billy Bass, for a project he was working on. Within a week, I had found the singing fish plaque, not too beat up, at a yard sale. The act of giving expands, surprises, and revises routes of exchange when methods and time and a sense of occasion loosen up a little. Shopping in actual stores is painful; but the salvage mission, the surprise find, the bartered, the baked, the sewn, the hand-colored? Perfect. Perfectly doable.
    Receiving is complicated, too. I seem to want nothing much, making it impossible to buy for me. Twice yearly (birthday, Christmas) I apologize to the family. I don’t keep a list or have secret desires (ok, there’s a $3000 watch I visit now and then) and there’s nothing I hope my dear ones might figure out. I drop no hints. I leave no catalogs suggestively open.
    Emerson is complicated and strict and demanding about gifts. We would pass a quiet, happy Christmas together. Among the issues I recognize in his short essay, “Gifts”:
    --Flowers assert the existence beauty over utility
    --Fruit is always an acceptable gift – flower-like, yet the result of labor.
    --“The only gift is a portion of the self.” (I remembered, one late Friday afternoon, upset student in office, abundant tissues, bowl of chocolate, listening, listening –  my own senior year melt-down, sobbing in my professor’s office as he sat, just sat, and took it in. His dusty tissues. His awkward shoulder pats.) What goes around, does indeed, come around.; regifting of the highest order.
    --The best gifts are made, and observe the talents of the giver as well as the personality of the receiver.
    --Gift anxiety: “Some violence, I think, is done, some degradation borne, when I rejoice or grieve at a gift. I am sorry when my independence is invaded, or when a gift comes from such as do not know my spirit.” The sadness of the misaligned gift!  And “ . . . if the gift pleases me overmuch, then I should be ashamed that the donor should read my heart, and see that I love his commodity, and not him.” The desolation of the well-intentioned giver!
    “Gifts” makes clear to me how deeply I align with some basic transcendental tenets: discomfort with conventional expressions of the sacred; a belief in the actual existence of the soul; an active bent towards self-improvement. Comfort at the margins of gatherings. A tinge of orneriness.
    I love Emerson’s essay for its inner strictness. And I’m amazed by its relevance to our current moment, our own personal balancing acts, our private generosities teetering at the edge of, and compromised by public fiscal cliffs. The first paragraph reads: “It is said the world is in a state of bankruptcy, that the world owes the world more than the world can pay, and ought to go into chancery, and be sold. I do not think this general insolvency, which involves in some sort all the population, to be the reason of the difficulty experienced at Christmas and New Year, and other times, in bestowing gifts; since it is always so pleasant to be generous, though very vexatious to pay debts.”
    I recommend “Gifts” as a holiday reading. Perhaps before the frenzied opening of presents. Or after dinner as a brisk tonic. A digestivo. It’ll cut right through the egg nog and glitz.


Lia Purpura is the author of seven collections of essays, poems and translations, most recently, Rough Likeness (essays). Her awards include a 2012 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, NEA and Fulbright Fellowships, three Pushcart prizes, work in Best American Essays 2011, the AWP Award in Nonfiction, and the Beatrice Hawley, and Ohio State University Press awards in poetry. Recent work appears in Agni, Field, The Georgia Review, Orion, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and teaches at the Rainier Writing Workshop. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dec 20: Steven Church on Tom Junod's "The Falling Man"

Tom Junod’s essay,  “The Falling Man,” originally published in in Esquire, September, 2003 is at once an essaying of an iconic photograph, an interrogation the role of journalists and newspapers, a journalistic investigation of the central question (who is the Falling Man?), a confrontation of cultural taboo, and a meditation on the ways we witness and memorialize the dead in this country, specifically the way we deal with the tragedy of 9/11.
The essay begins with a detailed description of the image itself, a photograph that appeared briefly and then was censored, removed from the public consciousness and deemed taboo, almost pornographic. This act of writing alone is fraught with peril as there are still a great many people who believe that anyone who cares to meditate on this image or on the story of the hundreds of other jumpers that day, is sick and twisted, or worse, actively trying to exploit the deaths of this man and of others who chose to jump. Junod’s initial salvo is a shot of at those who choose to look away. Whether you’ve seen the picture or not, Junod gives it to you in the first paragraph, one that ends with this statement of his dilemma when trying to “solve” the mystery of the Falling Man: “In the picture, he is frozen; in his life outside the frame, he drops and keeps dropping until he disappears.”

In the essay we meet the photographer Richard Drew and hear the story of how Drew captured the infamous image of a man leaping to his death from the North Tower, an image that is—though it may be hard for some people to admit—sublimely beautiful and arresting and, as such, also profoundly disturbing. Junod seems to be simultaneously trying to redeem Drew in the eyes of a public that saw him, or others like him, as some kind of monster feeding off the suffering of others, while also shoring up his own tenuous role as a journalist.
He says of Drew, “He is a journalist. It is not up to him to reject the images that fill his frame, because one never knows when history is made until one makes it.” This one image, so striking in part because of its artistry and composition, and because as Junod says of the Falling Man, “Though oblivious to the geometric balance he has achieved, he is the essential element in the creation of a new flag . . .,” is also just one image in a series that Drew captured of the man’s final descent, and just one amongst hundreds of images of other jumpers that were captured on film and likewise censored or ignored. We learn that the balance and apparent harmony the Falling Man seems to achieve in this one moment isn’t necessarily present in the other photos in the series and is, at least in part, manufactured by the camera lens. The photo itself is then a kind of pretty lie, a selected slice of history, one sublime moment amidst a slew of horrific images. Junod says,

Photographs lie. Especially great photographs. The Falling Man in Richard Drew’s picture fell in the manner suggested by the photograph for only a fraction of a second, and then kept falling. The photograph functioned as a study of doomed verticality, a fantasia of straight lines, with a human being slivered at the center, like a spike.

In one section, Junod repeats, “They jumped,” or some variation of it (“they began jumping,” “they streamed”), about nine times and we are staggered by the weight of repetition, hit repeatedly with the sound of their falling. And we learn that other artistic interpretations of the Falling Man elicited such strong feelings that bomb threats were called in demanding censorship.

We learn about Norberto Hernandez, the man originally and erroneously identified as the Falling Man in an earlier article by a different author, and we meet his family, a family torn apart by this identification. His wife and children refused to believe the man in the photograph was their father. In a very real sense Junod saves this family from their grief by showing them the sequence of photographs that Drew took, allowing them to see the Falling Man really for the first time and confirm that he wasn’t their father; but Junod doesn’t present himself as a savior, doesn’t put himself in the foreground and instead mostly just lets the people talk and interact with each other. And when Junod takes his own risk at identifying the Falling Man, it’s not without struggle, not easy for him. Junod performs like a journalist but struggles like an essayist. He talks to family members, interviews artists and administrators, numerous people who’d lost a loved one in the tragedy, and he ultimately “solves” the mystery and identifies the Falling Man; but interestingly this doesn’t come off as the authoritative definitive answer on the question, much less a closure to the open questions that run through the whole essay. Nor does this identification, his solving of the mystery, really seem to be ultimately what the essay is about in the end, but rather just the terminus of one minor thread that Junod weaves throughout.

My favorite sorts of essays are often those that advertise themselves as one thing while performing several different, often contradictory functions, essays where the stakes shift between the first paragraph and the last. “The Falling Man,” does this. It was a feature piece in Esquire, and I think at least part of why I like it is because it seems like the sort of piece that the Esquire editors would have normally sanitized and polished into something much smoother and less interesting, something less intimate and confrontational, less risky, digressive, and essayistic. Consider, for example, the odd section where Junod narrates a phone call with the mother of a possible jumper through an artificially distant third person point of view, referring to himself as “a man” talking to “a woman.” Perhaps this creation of an implied first person is a trained journalist’s way of removing the “I” from the page, or perhaps it is tangible evidence of Junod’s struggle on the page with his own definition of a journalist as little more than a lens. As often happens the implied first person really only amplifies the “I,” drawing more attention to Junod’s efforts to distance himself from the events, drawing attention to his deliberate use of craft. There’s an odd tension in this that I find compelling, if only because of its oddity and vulnerability. We might also take a look at the ending, where Junod risks all out sentimentality and essentially argues for keeping the Falling Man in the realm of myth, symbol, and metaphor. He compares him to the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery and suggests that the Falling Man must on some level remain an abstraction, an unknown, because in that role he has more power, more meaning. He can be named but he cannot be reduced or ignored or easily dismissed; and on some level, he lives forever only in the tomb of Richard Drew’s photograph.  


Steven Church is the author of The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record. His essays have been published widely; recent work can be found here. He's a founding editor of the literary magazine The Normal School and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dec 19, Amy Benson on Eliot Weinberger's "Wrens"

I’m looking for company. When I first read Eliot Weinberger’s “Wrens” I wanted to hand it to other people, watch their faces while they read, and be there when they looked up at the end. But I’ve been a little lonely in this regard.  If you don’t mind, then, can we get right to the essay? I’ll meet you on the other side:





Right? Yes? Did you feel a cliff fall away at your feet? Or an invisible architecture materialize before your eyes? Here you were, standing in it all along?
    To me, the ending has the lightning bolt feeling of truth-revealed (is that right? do these conflicts go back and back and back? what other codes have I failed to crack, have I not even recognized as codes?). But it also has the drama and dread of a new myth coalescing. We feel the subversive delight of telling stories about the world, an effort both to describe and manipulate. This is Weinberger’s particular genius in the essay: finding the nexus between natural and cultural history, and then creating that fusion in his own telling. 
    Camouflaged like the plain, small wren, his stealthy project begins with wren data—habitat, diet, statistics. We suspect we will be able to write a school report about wrens by the essay’s conclusion.  But the “live almost anywhere” and “eat almost anything” are almost comically vague, and, by the end of the paragraph, we’re in the painting of a beard and then a human skull (“but he didn’t explain how”). We remain in the human skull as Weinberger mines the anthropological history of the wrens.  Cross dressing Wren Boys, the campy exaggerations of the wren processionals, martyrs yoking wrens to their tableaux—we feel the weight of humankind coming to bear on the miniscule skull, the hollow wing bones of a wren.  Wrens go deep, indeed. 

The book in which “Wrens” appears, An Elemental Thing, is bewildering and transporting, moving like water through centuries and continents. At times it’s as if I’m reading a new language, the vocabulary of which I understand in the light of day, but the arrangement/geist/residue of which I only understand when I’m asleep. And that is an essentially private experience—no one wants to hear your dreams. Except that Weinberger is writing about cultures, history, the movements of ideas through space and time, through syntax and metaphor, ritual and art. So, let’s be good company and tell me what you think. Meet in the passage grave of the comments section below?


Amy Benson is the author of The Sparkling-Eyed Boy (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) and co-founder of the First Person Plural Harlem reading series. Recent work has appeared in BOMB, Boston Review, Triquarterly, New England Review, Seneca Review, and DIAGRAM, among other journals. She teaches writing at Columbia University.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dec 18: Kirk Wisland on Grocery Store Zen with David Foster Wallace

I will not be political.
I am consumed with the events of the past weekend but I will strive as much as possible to ignore this burbling emotional stew and to write about the things I had originally planned to write about. So I will not speak of recent tragedies other than to acknowledge a morbid coincidence I came across concerning the one line that was excised from the essay I am raving about – David Foster Wallace’s This is Water – when it was converted from a 2005 Kenyon Collegecommencement address to posthumously-released book. The line, at the end of a mini-riff on suicide, was this: “they shoot the terrible master.” DFW was referring to the human mind – that “terrible master” – that sometimes turns its wrath inward, mutinies against our better angels with devastating consequences.


I chose, for my Advent digression, a speech. The messy, unedited, un-excised version of This is Water, complete with David Foster Wallace’s asides about sweating, his live-mic editing, and direct addresses to the crowd of graduates to not feel that they were being lectured. I chose this piece, because while many of DFW’s essays have stuck in my mind long after most prose has submerged into forgetfulness, This is Water actually changed my life.
This ________ will change your life! How often we say that. That movie changed my life. This story will change your life. This song will change your life. This recipe for organic free-range barbeque chicken pizza will change your life! The phrase has in itself become a hyperbolic Mad-Lib, which by its overuse mocks the very meaningful concept of change, belittles our attempts, however futilely, to recognize and alter the arc of our existence.
I am not a scholar of DFW, I am not an aficionado. I am a fan. I have loved every page of his prose that I have read. I am 102 pages into The Pale King, which is to say less than one-fifth of the way through. I finished (most of) Consider the Lobster. A good chunk of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. If the essay is the essayist’s brain at work on the page, it is fair to say that DFW had few peers in this regard. I love reading his work, yet a small part of me is momentarily depressed by his stature on the page. It is a humbling dose of reality to know that I am unlikely to ever replicate any of DFW’s greatest moments, any more than I am likely to win an Oscar, or throw the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl, or dunk on LeBron James in the NBA Finals. Perhaps peace in adulthood is the acceptance of realistic expectations. Perhaps.
When DFW died during my first semester in Tucson, I was aware that I was missing out on the moment. I knew of the man, but was not that familiar with his work. I knew of his great opus, that bible-thick book that was an absolute must read, the voice of the generation, the great declaration of the absurdity of (then) modern life in the 1990s. As the news of his death spread, and the public accolades poured forth, I was ashamed to admit that I’d never actually gotten around to reading that epic tome, much in the same way that I was ashamed to admit that I’d labored through the first twelve pages of Ulysses before returning it to the St. Paul library to be re-shelved amongst the other lonely Joyce hard-covers. So when I say that This is Water changed my life, it is not in the broad sense born from a prolonged, dedicated  scholarship of an artist’s canon. DFW changed my life with a mere handful of words. About standing in line. At the grocery store.

I think of DFW now, today, while meandering through HEB (the Texas version of Gigantor Grocery Chain), and find I am soothed among the masses. I smile and feel my connection to my fellow humans. This is a significant metamorphosis on my part, for I am Gemini, and partly ruled by an inner curmudgeon, a little grumbling mind-troll who dwells in a damp, shady fold of my gray matter. He remains mostly mute inside the confines of my cranium, but has publicly reared his ugly head on occasion when not properly restrained. He is the legacy of my Germanic-Lutheran Minnesota curse. I suffer from an innate tendency towards judgment, a Midwestern certainty of correctness, as if I were a bitter Vulcan trapped in an idiotic world. Mr. Spock finds your refusal to use your fucking turn-signal for its intended purpose to be infuriatingly illogical! DFW, in a few short paragraphs, helped me see that I can make a choice about whether or not my inner curmudgeon is allowed to run rampant. So as clichéd as it sounds, This is Water changed my life. It is the emotional Nicorette I ritually chew to soothe my ornery moments.

This is Water is at the core a humanist manifesto in speech form, a plea to a generation that DFW felt (and he was certainly not alone in this) was in danger of being submerged by an easy addiction to distractive technologies. The inability to just be where you are, consciously connected to the real. As DFW makes his case for immersion in the tangible moment, he asks not for sainthood – he acknowledges our (and his) inherent human failings. He asks only that we try to get out of our own headspace every once in a while, that we work to employ a little self-awareness, a touch of empathy, that we acknowledge that our “natural, hard-wired default setting…is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” Our natural solipsism is obvious enough to have spawned its own legion of clichés: Get out of your head. Stop navel-gazing. Stop shoe-gazing. Stop. DFW asks us to take the first baby-step towards becoming better human beings – to be aware that how we view the world is a choice. That how we interpret what happens to us is a choice. That we do, in fact, have the power to re-task our mind from “horrible master” to “excellent servant.”
I’m not going to quote too much of the work (you should read This is Water today – now – if you aren’t familiar with it), but the following chunks of what I’m calling the Parable of the Grocery Store Line were the ones that set the deepest roots in my mind:

“The traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop.”
“If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

Did I mention that DFW was talking about being stuck in a long line at Safeway? Is there a place that we could imagine contains less “mystical oneness?” Maybe these sentiments are obvious. Maybe I am inherently more self-centered, more tethered to my inner-curmudgeon than most, and so what should have been absorbed as simple commencement-ceremony platitudes were tremor-inducing for me. But these simple words in The Parable of the Grocery Line burrowed deeply into my mind and have taken up residence there, smothering my inner curmudgeon. While standing in line at the grocery store, ruminating on those words, taking deep breaths of our shared humanity, I have found moments of nearly ecstatic peace, a lightheaded Zen I have only previously accessed in settings of epic and isolated natural grandeur.

This ultimately is the reason why we write, and read, and hash out the philosophy of  Nonfiction on pizza joint barstools and classrooms and couches and AWP panels and interactive forums such as The Essay Daily. It is why I click upon link after shared link with my morning coffee – to become part of the conversation, to see what everyone is talking about today. We want to connect – to each other, connect the dots, to feel when we read that someone else is speaking to us, to feel when we write that someone else might understand us, that in the cacophony of this world there is still the possibility of intimacy through words. That I understand, that I can see things in a new light, that I feel what you’re saying. Crackling connectivity.
The day I first read This is Water was one such moment of this intimate connection. I knew, reading those words, that DFW had understood this seasonal Midwestern malaise, that he was talking to me, confronting my inner curmudgeon, poking and prodding me to at least make the token attempt at being a better man. That’s a hell of a gift, in any season.


Kirk Wisland has spent the past few years moving from town to town like an essaying Johnny Appleseed. During these travels, his work has appeared in The Normal School, DIAGRAM, Creative Nonfiction, and Paper Darts, to name a few. His current stop is Houston, Texas, where he teaches English Composition and ponders his next move.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Dec 17, Sean Lovelace on Augusto Monterroso's "Fecundity"

Augusto Monterroso is renowned throughout Latin America (and indeed the entire learned planet) for one of the shortest stories ever written, “The Dinosaur.”


“The Dinosaur,” in its sweet entirety: 

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.

When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.


Or you might eye it somewhere as:

When she awoke, the dinosaur was still there.

This work is powerful to many readers (much like agrapha or Guatemalan coffee beans or the writings of Charles Baxter). People anthologize, mythologize, memorize the words, repeating them as a mantra and prayer, fondling them with the pebbled tongue, snuggling them into hotels under night like little Johnny Depps, cooing to them, placing them on broadsides and billboards and bracelets, tablets and tombstones, wearing them as talisman or tattoo.


Some read these words and sibilate dismissive. They do. The snakes.


But why dismiss the flesh? Why dismiss sprachgefühl in a hot bra?


Or as Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño—who writes about the inseparable dangers of life and literature and the relationship of life to literature and books and bars and whores and murderesses and Nazis and fresh fruit and dancers and poetry and bananas and big ol’ penises and books and gay teenagers and writing poems with an airplane in the sky (with smoke) and poetry and smelly vaginas and lavender tea and whiskey—says, “One must read Juan Rulfo and Augusto Monterroso.”

And why dismiss Italo Calvino, one of the world’s greatest writers? Calvino toiled for years on a literary project that involved a book of only one-sentence stories. He solicited many authors, but then buried the idea once he read, “The Dinosaur.” He claimed no one’s short work could equal Monterroso, so what was the point?


What does Monterroso say about “The Dinosaur”?


“Critics hated it. Since that point on I began hearing complaints to the effect that it isn’t a short-story. My answer is: true, it isn’t a short story, it’s actually a novel.”


But forget “The Dinosaur” (though the text is basically inextirpable). I’d like to discuss Monterroso’s nonfiction. No, not his famous (and famously brief [mostly fragments, newspaper clippings, testimonials, diary entries, poems, other appropriated forms]) autobiography, but rather his essay, “Fecundity.” The essay is included in The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays. It reads in full:


Today I feel well, like a Balzac; I am finishing this line.


In both works, minimalism allows for maximum glow. Or as a friend of mine (a known hypocoric [he refers to his wife as “bunny”]) said to me recently over beers, “The work of reconstitution requires in this case a high number of inferences.”

My first response to “Fecundity” is one of sheer pleasure. I want to walk around the rest of my days and when anyone asks how are you? I want to scratch my ass and reply loudly, “Like a Balzac!”


The simile is an engine, a machine.


Ok, break it down:

1. Today.

Today is not today. Today is today, tomorrow, any day. One day something happened. Conflict. Today. I envision a writing desk, light through a window, dust motes, a writer…beginning, parturient. Today. Ending. Neither. Caught in one space, not Time. The arrow of Time is removed. One might say, “There are things that happen, like you turn an egg into an omelet, but you can’t turn an omelet into an egg.” But here we just have the egg. Imagine an egg on a table, a still life, the modernist idea of “looking.” The art of looking. The science. Let’s move from thing to self.

2. I

Unique experiences, unique consciousness—no. Nietzsche told us so. And he also said, “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book–what everyone else does not say in a whole book.”

3. Feel

Solipsism and Magical Realism seem like bedfellows, but I’m not going to discuss Magical Realism here. It seems to me especially lame to make Magical Realism as a default when discussing Latin American authors. It seems hazy.

4. Well,

OK, let’s do return to “The Dinosaur.” What if we removed the comma? What if we removed the comma here? How do you feel? I feel well. Sprawled out and free, like nekton. Immersed, into a well, in flow, the emotions not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. I am writing. I am alive and kicking. Robust. Sane.

5. Like

The simile is an engine, a machine. Similes are like Egyptian chocolate. Like smuggler’s sacks or white girls or the extravagant behavior of naked women or Pancho Villa or a book without covers or Junot Diaz’s breath or theologians or clown-pants or insomnia or people-dogs or water or red serpents or shouts or flies or eclipses or new flowers blooming or counterfeits or Halloween or “The Book of Sand” or customer service. Like an old turkey, mucous and predatory and unwinking. As Faulkner said to me once, over heroin.

6. A

Alpha dog, motherfuckers. Thought you were playing with a coxcomb? Well, you’re not. Clearly.

7. Balzac;

Sane? Honore de Balzac wrote from midnight to dawn almost day by day of his life, hence creating a million words a year. A million? We just went meta, didn’t we? Now we are writing about writing, the Latin American obsession with the book (possibly due to Borges, who looms over everything like a mechanical shadow). Many of Monterroso's stories deal with literature, reading, and the act of writing, which leads the reader to perceive a convergence of the author and his characters. Now we are using a Microficcione to discuss Macro-fiction. The reader who is not a text theorist (like me) will undoubtedly not think if the flowers, shall we say, bloom, the micro-essay observes the minimal conditions of the text as the transformation of a state of being, like nekton (as I said earlier). Or: Remember the egg. Or, say it aloud: ball sack!

8. I

Yesterday I drank a six pack of Icehouse (a truly awful beer) and read (for the ninth time) in one sitting Augusto Monterroso’s story called “The Dinosaur.” I re-read it many times, fourteen times maybe, how could I remember? Honestly, I lost count and my eyes bled. I tried to explicate the story (really more a Stabat Mater, IMO, but who am I?) in terms of prehistoric literary theories: mushroom evolution, Charles Baxter realism, rim-renting stores in Memphis, Tennessee, posthumous savagery, Santa Claus theories, etc. It was a bionic experience. Anyway, after I wrote a nineteenth draft of my review (a true gem—you are reading it now), I checked my email and surfed some porn, and then I slept afterward. It was not a peaceful sleep. I was trashing left and right and back to left on my bed. I dreamt of a Uranusaurus rex just like the one in Stephen Szpilman Bergman’s movie Triassic Park, based on a TV show created by Michael Flintstonnes (pronounced flight-stuns), translated in the German then run through an Internet translator back to English and I carried the one (in the figurative sense, obviously). Ah, I’m confusing myself again. Anyway, as I said, when I woke up, I read again my review. I worked on it some more, polishing the paleontological arguments. After some not-so-extensive revisions, I lost the file, found the file, drank additional beer, saved the file. I glanced behind me and jumped. The U. rex was still there!!

9. Am

The morning. I tell you I keep seeing the morning, an oviform.

10. Finishing

One night recently I woke my partner (He is one of the cleanest, most intelligent, transparent and smiling authors in the Spanish language) with a nudge. ''Now what is it?'' he asked. The question I had for him, urgent though it seemed to me, was a little anticlimactic under the circumstances. But I forged ahead. ''Darling,'' I said. ''Do you consider me…prolific?'' His response will not bear repetition in this essay about an essay (about an essay…).

Writing makes you eternal.

You don’t have to see the whole kitchen table, just break the first egg.

Words—they imbricate.

Do you have a whole bunch of half-finished projects gathering dust?

If your writing life looks anything like mine, you might well need to grab a sheet of paper and make a list—you may even want to hunt through your desk drawers or your computer’s folders.

Tomorrow is often the busiest day of the week.

Viva voce!

In the end, Balzac resorted to eating dry coffee grounds to achieve the desired effect. He died at age 49.

11. This

As Charles Baxter has pointed out, we eventually have to relinquish the hot ball sacks provoked by art, or else be paralyzed by ball sack sensitivities revealing the strangeness of sweaty ball sacks at every corner. Fuck. I’m drunk.

(I would like to insert a little poem here, but I hate essays that include poems and I don’t want to be a hypocrite.)

12. Line



Sean Lovelace lives in Indiana, where he eats nachos and plays disc golf and teaches creative writing at Ball State University. He recently dropped Fog Gorgeous Stag (Publishing Genius Press) and a flash fiction collection with other authors, They Could No Longer Contain Themselves (Rose Metal Press), on the world. Currently, he writes exclusively about Velveeta and a processed cheese collection will appear from Bateau Press in 2013. He blogs at He likes to run, far.