Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sven Birkerts: Screening the Essay

The essay for me begins with the second word, maybe the third or fourth, and it tells on itself—which is to say on the writer’s mind and sensibility—quite soon after that. For the space of a word or two, sometimes longer, the obvious and mediocre can pass as being possibly something more. But not for too many words beyond that. What am I playing at here? I’m overstating things, of course. But I’m also serious: I’m trying to figure out—as a reader, as an editor—how long a work can go without showing its true self—its sui generis character, or its inability to transcend received thinking. As an editor I need to be able to tell quickly. Time is in short supply, and submissions throng the sluices like salmon in spawning season. Yes, the editor needs to know exactly what he’s looking for, and he needs to be cruel—which is to say he needs to believe in his taste.

What plagues me in my capacity of editor at AGNI, an editor who insists on at least looking at everything that comes in, is not bad writing, which announces itself right away and can be dealt with in an eye-blink, but writing which has picked up some of the gestures of authentic uniqueness, enough to lure me in, but which never really comes to life—only comes close enough to have me wondering if it’s me or the prose.    

I have to speak personally here. In looking for nonfiction—or any work, really—I try to make myself susceptible to being struck. The rest is up to the writer.  It took me a long time to come to this, many seasons of reading like a good citizen, remarking to myself as I turned pages and more pages: This is very able, this is clear, this is an important subject—rather than Hey, hey, come here: listen to this!  And there is a world of difference.

If the first words can hint at the quality, the first sentence or two will as often as not reveal. What exactly? Not the subject, not usually, and not necessarily the theme—that stratum of deeper content. But it will reveal the author in voice and in relation to her subject; it will, best case, offer a first clear glimpse of the true goods.

This is natural and inevitable if you think about it. Any stylistic expression gives a running Geiger-counter read-out of the expressing self, and the start of a work more so—because the true writer knows to begin any piece of writing with best foot forward, the style put most conscientiously (and indicatively) to work. By “style” I don’t mean prose in fancy dress, nothing like that; I mean self-sound. It can sometimes arrive looking ordinary, even slightly clunky, as in the first sentence of Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s “You Gotta Have Heart” (AGNI 77): “A pack of Vantage containing two cigarettes was in my coat pocket when I arrived at the hospital.” But reading this I was snagged by two things right away—the specificity of the two, and the combustible pairing of “cigarettes” and “hospital.” Why? I picked up hints of defiance, transgression; I felt there was something deliberate, not lazy, in the use of the passive voice; I trusted right away that this was the voice of a truth-teller. I read on.

Or, taking the other extreme, there is the opening that gives away nothing, but does so with a supreme confidence that persuades me instantly: All will be revealed. Robert Leonard Reid (AGNI 76) begins his essay “The Doubling Is Always Observed” thus:

“On the Kupuestra. It is not supple. It communicates nothing. The kupuestra is mute; brittle; many-cornered, the body is a polygon; the choreographic equivalent of Ak-Mak crackers, but without the sesame seeds.”

I didn’t understand a word of this. But what a suggestive fog the writer made: the word-sounds (kupuestra, choreographic, Ak-Mak), the condensed syncopations of phrases, the thrill of analogy, this mysterious entity seen as being “the choreographic equivalent of Ak-Mak crackers, but without the sesame seeds.” The thing with suggestive fogs, of course, is that the wanderer must before long make out a few shapes that will indicate his whereabouts, and then the fog must break, the way it does so thrillingly when the road lifts you up from whatever miasmic valley you had been driving through.

Or else: “It arrived in four pieces—which word, pieces, doesn’t do the job. It arrived in four—four what? Four parts? Four boxes—each one wider and heavier than I, than either of us; and it was just us back then, just Fred and me in our new house—our first house (our first and last, could that be?); the one in which we’d all grow up (not just the kids); the one in which we two will get old (along with the dogs).”

 A tricky attack, this opening of Dinah Lenney’s “Breakfront” (AGNI 76).  At a cursory glance, or skim, it appears to qualify itself almost out of existence—pieces becoming parts becoming boxes, the “I” becoming part of a couple, then a family. But what tremendous control in the voice! A whole life-premise and narrating persona stands revealed on the far side of all of those dashes and parentheses. Indeed, you could say that the stuff of the three parenthetical asides subtly maps a life-trajectory, from aspiration to realization to a wryly wistful projection of a cycle fulfilled.

A few things need to be insisted upon. These three openings are so different because the essays are themselves so different. Every essay that finds its way into AGNI is, I think, norm-defying. I could no more say ‘this is the kind of essay we like’ than I could say what makes a good writer. Beyond, that is, an irresistible drive to tell the truth about an experience, or follow the spoor of language to a striking recognition, or… I would emphasize, too, that had any of the essays cited failed to follow through on the promise their opening extended, I would not have chosen them. But they did, confirming for me the principle of the organicism of the realized work.

Sven Birkerts has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He is the author of nine books, most recently: My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), and The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011).

Monday, August 26, 2013

In Praise of “In Praise of Shadows” 

I am a creator of shadows. I yearn for darkness, for the merciful obscurity that lurks between pools of brightness. When traveling, I pack candles because I suffer in the strident blare of hotel room lamps; in restaurants I beg servers to turn down the lights. At social gatherings I’ve been known to walk around testing switches in the homes of people I’ve just met. Often, I helpfully adjust their lighting for them. Surely, I think, they will be grateful. My own house is filled with 15- and 25-watt incandescent bulbs, and the switches all have dimmers. On one rare occasion when we had invited guests who might actually expect to the see the floor, I turned on every light full blast and still ended with a patchwork of murky gloom.

Though I had to laugh, I felt a twinge of discomfort: Not being physically able to light up one’s house like an interrogation room seemed borderline disreputable, a little seedy, even. This brings me quite naturally to Junichiro Tanizaki, Japanese novelist and the author of “In Praise of Shadows,” or what I have thought of for years as “The Toilet Essay.” “You simply must read the toilet essay,” I’ve advised many a friend. “It’s all about these amazing old Japanese toilets.” And indeed, in the midst of this lengthy piece which first appeared in 1933, Tanizaki does hold forth on the subject of commodes with marked enthusiasm: “The parlor may have its charms,” he writes, “but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. […] No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden.” But the “ultimate” toilet experience, he says, “of course,” involves something called “the wooden ‘morning glory’ urinal filled with boughs of cedar,” a urinal which is both “a delight to look upon” and “allows not the slightest sound.” This last comes as a way of contrasting traditional, wooden bathroom implements with the new, porcelain ones that were then just making their way into Japan. Tanizaki found their shiny white surfaces and bright metal handles an unspeakable horror.

Despite my fond recollections, however, Tanizaki’s examination of toilets lasts only a few pages. As the title suggests, shadows are his main preoccupation: how we perceive them, how they shape our daily lives and the spaces and objects in them. For Tanizaki, darkness reveals beauty (his opening sally against electric lights sets my heart aflutter), and it’s a truth that can be found everywhere. Dishes are rendered more lovely by candlelight: “as I gazed at the trays and bowls standing in the shadows cast by that flickering point of flame, I discovered in the gloss of this lacquerware a depth and richness like that of a still, dark pond, a beauty I had not before seen;” the Japanese cooking which fills them “depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness;” gold struck by faint light in an “innermost” room “send[s] forth an ethereal glow;” traditional Nō theater is all the more lovely and subtle for being performed by lantern light; the green lipstick of geisha captivates only in dimness “[o]ne can guess nothing of its power unless one imagines it in the low, unsteady light of a candle;” and even soy sauce becomes mystical: “how rich in shadows is the viscous sheen of the liquid, how beautifully it blends with the darkness.”

Tanizaki contrasts this “Oriental” (as it is so charmingly phrased in the translation) love of shadow with the Western love of light. While part of me wants to reject the easy dichotomy (I am, after all, a Westerner), and part wants to point to the blaze of light that is now Toyko, part of me thinks he may have point. Lately I’ve begun studying architecture, and architects—particularly Western ones—pay inordinate amounts of attention to light. Their main concern, naturally, is how to best brighten up a space with daylight. One common exercise is a “light study,” a project which involves making a cardboard box “room” and experimenting with different ways to illuminate the empty volume. Light is sought and manipulated, and though shadow is light’s necessary twin, light—and only light—is the thing.

For Tanizaki the opposite is true. “[T]he beauty of a Japanese room,” he writes, “depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows—it has nothing else. Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows.” Tanizaki would have us banish light to the background and bring shadows to the front; he would recreate the world as photographic negative.

It’s an idea I’ve long found fascinating—that and Tanizaki’s unabashed call for a return to an older, purer aesthetic. As it turns out, lots of Western architects are also interested, even if, as Charles Moore of the UCLA School of Architecture writes in his introduction to a 1977 re-issue of the essay in book form, Tanizaki’s “praise of shadows and darkness” comes with “the thrill of a slap” to those for whom “the act of inhabitation is mostly performed in cahoots with the sun.” I found the slim tome which contains the re-issue on offer recently in Los Angeles as part of an exhibit on modern architecture, and shortly thereafter Tanzaki’s essay (or at least a small part of it) was pressed upon me in an architectural design communication class. Both times I greeted its appearance with the delight of meeting an old friend.

As drawn as architects might be to Tanizaki’s work, it still remains difficult not to sense a hesitation over the deliberate creation of shadows. Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza is one exception: In the church of Santa Maria de Canaveses, he intentionally left a corner of the nave in darkness. A large cross occupies the space, and he has said that the shadows surrounding it are meant to symbolize the mystery of the divine. When I recently built a 3-dimensional computer model of this church, then lit it with computer-generated light, some glitch transformed Siza’s dusky corner into a radiant patch of transcendental glory. It was hard not to agree with my instructors that this might be an improvement. “Call him up,” one joked.

We Westerners, it seems, cannot shake our love of light. As I re-read Tanizaki, I wonder if this perhaps doesn’t have something to do with his affinity not only for darkness, but also for its near-cousin, decay. Decay is dark made visible, dark that creeps onto the very surface of things themselves. Silver, he writes, becomes beautiful “only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina,” or what he terms “the glow of grime.” This is flawed beauty, and though he doesn’t name it as such, has much to do with the classical Japanese concept of wabi sabi, wherein imperfection is far more perfect than perfection could ever be. More and more, it is a philosophy that pulls me like gravity. I find myself drawn to the cracked, the torn, the pitted. Newness is boring, even inhuman. Tanizaki explains that in Chinese and Japanese both the words for the “glow” of tarnish, “describe a polish that comes of being touched over and over again…” Decay is the natural corollary to contact. And as Tanizaki goes on and on, his paeans to dark and dirt verge on the metaphysical, or something very like it.

That is what frightens us. For Tanizaki’s real subject is death. It is a subject I am far more familiar with than I could wish—starting with my mother, who died when I was fifteen, the litany of my dead relatives and friends now stretches long. And I can tell you that we in the West have a particular horror of death. A few years ago a friend was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, the sort of terrible cancer which virtually no one survives. A group of well-meaning people decided to put together a set of letters to cheer him up; I was asked to write one. When they got my letter, however, I was told that they could not include it in their packet of well wishes. Unlike the others, apparently I was the only one who dared to point out that he was likely dying, and to suggest ways in which he might die the best possible death, one surrounded by those he loved.

For Tanizaki the writer, the concrete world of shadows in which such thoughts might find their place in the affairs of humans was well on its way to being lost in the glare of modernity. Words were the sole refuge. He ends with the this plea: “I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”

For myself, I would like to turn off more lights everywhere, would like to become comfortable with my own disreputable state of dimness, would like to glory in the seedy. We attempt to hide in the open, in the brightness. We strive for clarity, yet can’t know it until we get a little gritty. We can’t know ourselves until we face the dark. On the first day of most beginning architecture classes, the instructor invariably opens the discussion with a challenge: “Define architecture.” This, it soon becomes obvious, is a near-impossible task filled with Russian doll after Russian doll of meaning (is architecture mere boards and nails? is it houses? is it palaces? is it magnificent cathedrals or museums? is it art? is it shelter? or is it something else?). The definitions of architecture I like best, though, are those which point out that architecture is essentially an attempt to define and hold emptiness. It is the art of embracing nothing. And inside that embrace, a few shadows might be of more use than all the light we can muster.

Kathe Lison lives, writes and now designs mostly make-believe structures in Tucson, Arizona.  If you look hard, you might find some of her old essays in a number of literary journals, though mostly recently she spent an awful lot of time researching and scribbling about French cheese.  Her book The Whole Fromage (Crown/Broadway Books) appeared in June.  (And yes, she found it tough doing all of that in the dark.)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Movie Quotes as Misery: Claudia Rankine's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely"

 I am not one for quotations. I'm not sure if it's because I don't have the memory for it, or if I'm an inattentive reader (not absorbing the words well enough to recall them later), or if I'm simply not interested in repeating others' verbatim. I am in the early stages of applying for a number of teaching jobs and fellowships, and as I've been reading through countless craft discussions, cover letters, and teaching philosophies, I am amazed  (and slightly overwhelmed) by the callbacks people make. I have heard from Stegner, Didion, Weil, Mann & Montaigne, and these quotations seem to evoke a sense of writerly influence, a sense of historical or cultural weight that I do not connect with.

And, yes, most of these quotations are probably not recalled from memory—any number of these lines can easily be found with a quick Google search—but still I am astounded at how so many of my friends and colleagues can draw so directly from literature, can draw the lines so clearly between their own ideas and their inspiration while I often find myself describing books in such vague phrases as "during that one scene on the boat," or "when the main character said that thing about his sister to the judge."

And maybe I'm just so troubled by it because, like many of us, I have no problem quoting movies or television. I can rattle off entire episodes of Seinfeld or the Simpsons from memory and yet I cannot begin to do the same with books, even ones that have so significantly shaped me as a writer and (I would argue) a person. Perhaps it's because television is so passive, or because it's easier to encounter repetition (I can watch a re-run while eating dinner, and a half hour sitcom is much easier to repeat than it is to read a book a dozen times). But still, I am somewhat bothered that my cultural language comes more directly from TV than it does from the books that mean so much to me.

I mention this because there is an exception to the rule. There is one phrase, one image, which I have not been able to shake in the six years since I first encountered it.

 "This is the most miserable in my life." "This is the most miserable in my life." It has become something of a mantra.

It comes from Claudia Rankine's wonderful book-length essay Don't Let me Be Lonely. To give some context: Rankine is referencing a friend who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and in the span between diagnosis and being moved to a live-in facility, he writes this on his chalkboard, seen above. And perhaps it is the visual--the extra layer of authenticity, the sharp, shaky letters that seem sick in and of themselves—that keep these words echoing in my mind. Perhaps it is because these words are so mimetic of the condition, the missing article (the most miserable what?), or that the phrase is pure declaration. It is as if language is breaking down, unable to capture the grief: that it is impossible for us to completely reach that headspace until we, too, are the most miserable of our lives.

Most likely, it's the fact that the words are scratched into the surface when chalk would have been so much easier, more easily erased. And because of that extra dedication to the words, we are paradoxically met with permanence in the transitional space of the board, capturing the extent of that misery, the loss of language so directly tied with the loss of self.

Is it dropping my daughter off at daycare for the first time? Getting on a bus to go to my shitty job at 5:30 in the morning? When I'm drinking Mountain Dew and skipping out on my evening run? This is the most miserable of my life.

Or perhaps it's because of the movement, the cognitive leaps of the essay. We get a mother's miscarriage and movie deaths and 1-800-SUICIDE and a picture of breast cancer cells and television commercials and DO NOT RESUSCITATE and Boogie Nights and Gertrude Stein and we are only on page six. We get Murder, She Wrote re-runs that I can only describe as haunting. Sections are interrupted with photos, artwork, the repeating image of a television screen, the ghost of a profile creeping out of the static.
And this essay is television. It is a flipping of channels, a deluxe cable package. It is a series of commercials reminding us that we are alone, depressed. Our medications will save us, but have potentially serious side effects. We are told by the voices that the world is broken, dangerous. We are told that the television is the voice that we can trust.

So what can we do when that voice is speaking to white middle class men ages 18-34? What voice do we trust if we are not a part of a target demographic?

Abner Louima is sodomized while in police custody. A post-9/11 world where anyone of middle-eastern descent is treated like Al Qaeda. "There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died." This is the most miserable of my life.

And so the essay gives voice to a lot of voiceless situations, it is adding subtlety to the black-and-white, right-and-wrong representations "as seen on TV." We can see where the loneliness comes from: the disconnect between TV and reality, between the way the world is represented and the true world. Laugh tracks are added to sitcoms so we never laugh alone, but are we really part of a group when we are separated by glass and light?

Rankine gives me a new understanding of quotation, one I think I can live with: By placing the words in a new context, by juxtaposing quotation with image and personal experience, each element takes on new new meaning, becomes communal. To quote another is to share knowledge, to connect, to never be alone.  

David LeGault's recent work appears (or is forthcoming) in The Seneca Review, The Journal, and Pithead Chapel. He lives and writes in Minneapolis, where he destroys books professionally.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

David Lazar on the Recent Proliferation of Nonfiction Anthologies

--> -->
Until A few years ago, a new nonfiction anthology would mostly pop up in the form of a new essay anthology every 5-10 years: Phillip Lopate’s, John Gross, Lydia Fakundiny, Joseph Epstein, etc. Occasionally a how-to would come down the pike, mostly focused on memoir. But we seem to have entered The Age of Nonfiction, at least in the Academy, and there has been a spate of nonfiction anthologies recently, several of them focused explicitly or implicitly on the essay. These include Ned Stuckey-French and Carl Klaus’s Essayists on the Essay, Nicole Walker and Margot Singer’s Bending Genre, Jill Talbot’s Metawritings: Towards a Theory of Nonfiction, Dinty Moore’s The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, Jeff Porter and Patricia Foster’s Understanding the Essay and my anthology Truth in Nonfiction and forthcoming Essaying the Essay and After Montaigne, the last edited with Patrick Madden. To add to this sudden cornucopia of anthological choices, one can now buy actual books, it seems, that say “essay” on the cover. In fact some people are now saying “essay” so much—“Essay, essay, essay!”—that it’s a bit of delirium. It’s okay to say other things once in awhile.

When I was starting out, back in the Nonfiction Pleistocene period, despite Phillip Lopate’s bold gambit to bring the essay form more mainstream legitimacy, it was considered box office poison (I like to compare myself to Katherine Hepburn whenever possible) for a young writer to try to overtly publish a book of essays. In fact, I think I can boldly say it just wasn’t done. Now, in fact, it is. And this is a lovely thing. When I recently went back and forth with my editor about whether to subtitle my new collection “Personal Essays” or “Essays” (she heartily agreed to “Essays”), I thought this is actual progress. Twenty years ago I would have been talking about whether to call it memoir, or autobiography, or whitefish salad.

To return to the point at hand, the question is, why now? To this I would say there are both a reason and a large dose of fortuity. Have you ever had a large dose of fortuity? It’s quite delicious. Nonfiction programs started gathering steam over the past ten to fifteen years, fueled by a combination of Phillip Lopate and other essayists apostolic literary zealotry, and the fact that nonfiction was a clear area of possible growth in creative writing, which had maxed out its fiction and poetry programs. But autobiographical writing also conveniently matched the zeitgeist. The hangover from the seventies, which, as Woody Allen might say of Scott and Zelda’s New Year’s Eve party, lasted a decade or two, and encouraged self-exploration, while the internet, with its nonstop interpersonal connections and sites for personal expression made everyone everywhere a potential, and in fact immediate diarist, autobiographer, essayists manquée. In short, out of the bog came the blog. David Shields has eloquently covered much of this ground in his work: Reality TV, the need to self-perform, etc.

In short, we’ve had the Perfect Nonfiction Storm, and this has made nonfiction and the essay popular. But I don’t think it will last. At some point people will probably start surfeiting on the details of life, and only half the population will be writing blogs. Remember when everyone was tiring of memoirs a few years ago? There were too many memoirs. Now we’re back to a memoir bubble. But there are only so many interesting lives to go around. Memoirs aren’t for the faint-hearted. It’s all in the writing. We’re headed for a memoir crash. Keep your most valuable memoirs and sell the rest very soon.

I’m grateful for the relative torrent of anthologies because I’m not sure that the tide of nonfiction programs has been accompanied by all that much serious interest in the form beyond its contemporary borders and boundaries. Taking myself out of the equation, I think the ones listed above feature mostly serious writers writing seriously. And they’re geared, I think for the MFA market and serious literary nonfiction writers, so they should have significant shelf lives.

But what do I know when it comes to prognostication? The Age of Nonfiction, like global warming, may be here for longer than I think. Really, what do I know? Have I heard that somewhere before?


David Lazar’s books include Occasional Desire (University of Nebraska Press), The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction (both Iowa), Powder Town (Pecan Grove), Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher (both Mississippi). Forthcoming is Essaying the Essay (Welcome Table Press) and After Montaigne, co-edited with Patrick Madden (University of Georgia Press) He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its thirteenth year, which has featured groundbreaking issues in transgeneric writing and the aphorism. He teaches at Columbia College Chicago.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Not Reading Augie: Scenes from a Chicago Summer

Only the city knows the whole story.
-Aleksandar Hemon

Andersonville in the golden-crusted late summer gloaming. I was walking west on Berwyn Avenue from the L, squinting into the sun, United A320’s sliding down the glide slope into O’Hare. Chunky globules of lofted sprinkler water outlined in high-def light. The air not yet autumn-tinged, but starting to gesture at fall, with a baby’s-butt-smooth breeze coming off the Lake. Unseasonably dry for August and too soon for corn, still waiting for the last blast of Indian summer heat. The whole scene ready-made for Instagram. Sunflower stalks climbing up wrought-iron fences and starting to reach their crescendos. The tiger lilies shriveled and the lightning bugs gone. Now just the sound of cicadas and tentative piano chords from a bay window. The smell of something freshly baked and flags hanging limply over stone stoops.

For the fourth week running, I had Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in my bag. I was meeting a friend for soul food at Clark and Balmoral—pretty much the soft, gooey center of Chicagoan gentrification in the city’s unofficial “Little Sweden.” That is: about as far from Augie’s West-Side childhood home (and Bellow’s own Humboldt Park digs) as one can get in Chicago. And though I had some time to read before dinner, it occurred to me that these are the kinds of evenings you have to save in the memory banks for freak-show January days, when the snow comes down sideways and you can’t recall summer and you says things like: “You sound sick. Are you sick? I’m already sick. You definitely sound sick too.”

So, for about the thousandth time this summer, I decided I’d just “read later.”

I started Augie for reasons that have begun to seem like someone else’s ideas. It’s supposed to be a quintessentially Chicago book. In 2011, it was chosen for “One Book, One Chicago,” a program meant to inspire Chicagoans to all read the same thing at once. But because it’s long and has a kind of strange extended interlude in Mexico that involves hunting lizards with an eagle, I think consensus is that the book didn't quite "work."

Nevertheless, I’d been curious how the Chicago that I know compares to the brawny, striving, immigrant city that Bellow describes from the book’s very first sentences. “I am an American, Chicago born,” Augie begins in his own take on Call me Ishmael. “Chicago, that somber city.” I wanted to see how Bellow takes Somber Chicago’s particularity and wrests universal themes from it—something that few writers have done to such unanimous acclaim. And to a lesser extent, I wanted to come up with some observations about anxiety of influence in a town where conversations about literary lights too often seem to return to the same cluster of Twentieth Century men (Algren, Bellow, Dreiser, Terkel, Wright, etc.).

But it had already taken me more than four weeks to finish Augie, and summer was starting to feel scarce, the angle of light trending more acute every day. Instead of just finishing the thing, I looked for any reason to put the book down, to distract myself—as if I were a petulant freshman creative writing student, insisting that it was more valuable to experience the world than to read about the world.

Or something.

So on that particular evening in Andersonville, for instance, I used the evening farmers market at Berwyn and Clark as an escape: a kind of pleasant sensory overload.

Michigan peaches and quarts of blueberries. Heirloom tomatoes the size of basketballs. Handouts at an artisanal honey stand that advocated starting my own urban beehive. Stout, saucer-faced farm girls from Normal, Bloomington, and New Glarus, smiling in custom farm-branded hoodies and handing out samples of jams. Neon yellow Wisconsin cheddar cheese curds in clear plastic bags—the kind that squeak when chewed and sweat when left out on the table too long. And an eight-year-old boy wearing his bike helmet as he danced on a wooden crate in front of a string band playing folk tunes. Off to the side, talking with a butcher who was sharpening his knives in the back of a van (which, okay, seemed a little strange), the boy’s parents watched.

Everyone smiling their biggest, pleasantest, sincerest late-summer smiles.

Saving it up for January.

That was August 6. That night in the West Pullman neighborhood—on East 120th Street (the very opposite side of the city)—two men, a 35-year-old and a 38-year-old, were murdered. Maybe while I was looking at jars of tomato sauce. Who can say?

Right around the start of July, to avoid having to read on the L, I started biking the twelve miles from my apartment to my office in Hyde Park, through the Loop and along the sludgy Chicago River to the Lake Path. I downloaded an app to track my speed, distance, and calorie expenditures. I watched my progress and weighed myself. I’ve gotten faster and leaner. But every day, bikers in Lycra body suits and clip-in shoes, traveling four to a pod (a swarm? a herd?), still shout “On your left!” and pass me.

Man, they really do seem to enjoy it, too.

When I bike to work, I shower in the gym at UChicago and change in my office. At the end of the day, I shove dress shirts into my desk. I have to figure out when I’m going to take all of those clothes back to my apartment because it’s too hot to carry them on the bike. Riding home on hot July evenings, I would pack Augie and stop at 31st Street Beach on the South Side. I’d leave the book in the sand and wade into Lake Michigan. I’d drift north, looking toward Navy Pier, trying to let things come to me.

Families from Bridgeport and Bronzeville and Pilsen swim there. They barbecue in the grassy park behind the beach and everything smells like sausage. They drink Bud Light Lime while CPD officers look out at the Lake, as if straight through them, with their hands tucked into their bulletproof vests.

A few times, I sat at the beach too long, reading Twitter and not reading Augie, and got caught in thunderstorms that came flying in over the Lake. Dark pillars of clouds vectored in from Minnesota, breaking over the skyline in waves. I biked until the rain filled my eyes and then waited under awnings or beneath Lake Shore Drive, drenched. The storms would clear and leave sticky greenish air behind.

At the end of July, I bought a small condo in Logan Square, the neighborhood where Augie accompanies Mimi to an abortion doctor. Which is only to prove: I continued reading the book, even while using various meetings with agents, brokers, inspectors, appraisers, and lenders as excellent excuses to read it as slowly as possible. I’ve been calling the condo “my own 750 square feet of America.” It’s at the end of the Bloomingdale Trail, a 2.7 mile-long rails-to-trails project that will revitalize more of the northwest side of the city.

The mechanics of urban development confuse me. I'm just trying to make good decisions. My father tells me it sounds like a good investment. I called him 42 times in the first 10 days of August.

A few weeks ago, my friend Chrissy was packing for a move to Boston and I had an early-morning flight to catch to California. We decided to do a quick dinner to celebrate and say goodbye. After, we smoked cigarettes on Kinzie Street, watching the lights turn on and off in offices and showrooms along the north side of the Merchandise Mart. People on rented Divvy bikes piloted unsteadily past, banging through potholes in the bike lane.

I told Chrissy that I was still reading The Adventures of Augie March.

“I’m worried I liked the idea of living in Chicago better than I liked living in Chicago,” she said. I’m not sure if it was exactly related to Bellow or if she was just nervous about leaving. We smoked. A cyclist stopped in front of a valet station and ninja-kicked a cone that had been placed in the bike lane. He rode away, turning to stare at a valet in a red vest, who simply righted the cone.

I knew where Chrissy was coming from. On one hand, there’s a sense that something about the right-now experience of Chicago fails to live up the muscular originary ethos of the place. The Augie March narrative. The narrative about midcentury gangsters and immigrant workers and coal yards and diesel engines and the blood-smell of the slaughterhouses hanging over the Loop. The one that has something to do with Chicago being the most authentically American of cities.

On the other, who can say what exactly all that’s supposed to mean?

And who’s to say what replaces it?

On the way to the airport in the morning after I had dinner with Chrissy, I sat next to a woman on the L who wore a TSA uniform. She kept falling asleep. I was going through old tweets and not reading Augie. And I’d forgotten that Chicago author Aleksandar Hemon had responded to me when I invited him to eat hot dogs at the very beginning of the summer. One Chicagoan to another. Hemon lives in Andersonville. Or maybe he just writes about Andersonville. I can’t remember, but I did read his book of essays The Book of My Lives. It’s more about a Chicago that I recognize. Even though some of the essays aren’t really even about Chicago. At least not directly.

Anyway, here’s how he responded: “Tempting: Hot Doug’s [the name of the place] is sometimes the only thing standing between vegetarianism and me.”

A-J Aronstein teaches at the University of Chicago. He lives on Chicago's Northwest Side. Reach him at

Monday, August 12, 2013

Matthew Batt on Parody, Weird Al Yankovic and Aliveness in the Essay

When You’re a Stranger 

This was 1985. We were living in New Berlin, Wisconsin—Waukesha County’s answer to a question Milwaukee hadn’t posed. My mom had, as far as I could tell, the perfect job. She was the owner/operator of Inkadinkadoo (a personalized rubber stamp company—as though you didn’t know that) and she sold her fine, floppy wares from a pushcart in the Grand Avenue Mall in downtown Milwaukee. This gave me occasion on weekends to go with her and roam the then seedy and just barely not-defunct mall. Usually this amounted to hanging out with the roving gangs of breakdancers in the Speisegarten, competitively eating corn dogs and watching the mechanical vest-wearing bear unicycle back and forth three stories above unsuspecting mall-goers. I was sure I was going see something awesome and tragic there, but I never did.

That summer, however, like many intrepid Milwaukee business owners, my mother took her pushcart to the shore of Lake Michigan—to Summerfest, the self-proclaimed biggest music festival in the world—where pretty much anybody who would have been at Grand Avenue was anyway. And because I couldn’t entirely be trusted to be alone all day back in New Berlin, she brought me to the festival where I would be, at least theoretically, safe and happy.

I was not. For starters, neither corn dogs nor break dancers were in as ample supply as they were at the mall. Second, for a child on his own, the fairgrounds were a desolation of drunkards, tchotchke hawkers, and fried eggplant eaters. Not to mention the fact that everybody was a solid foot or more taller than I was. I wandered around, longing to be one of the groping couples above on the Skyglider instead of stuck down below, gawking at other people’s sunburnt backfat, hopeless and sorrowful as only the son of a rubber stamp pushcart owner can be. But then I found myself moving not against but rather with the crowd until they settled collectively on what was, apparently, for many of them, the ultimate goal and raison d’être for both their lives and Summerfest itself.

It was the Pabst Stage (then an unironic, decidedly un-hipster brand) and in the twilight I could make out roadies preparing the set for, as best I could tell, some kind of medical demonstration. Except for the fact of several guitars, microphones and amps, however, it looked uncannily like a hospital. And then, without fanfare, introduction, or fair warning, a fleet of scrub-wearing, face-masked musi-physicians stormed the stage, picked up their instruments and readied themselves. The keyboard player spread his legs wide as though preparing for some kind of assault or anticipated tackle and, with a nod toward the wings, began a simple, plodding series of instantly recognizable chromatic notes. Dum dum da dum, dum dum dum dum dum da dum—and so it repeated. I knew what it was—something popular from Madonna that my own pseudo-edgy skate grommet identity was supposed to shield me from, but it was 1985. One could not know Madonna no matter how desperate and ardent his desire.

Out then came another doctor, this one with large, aviator glasses, scrubs, and an abomination of a hair cut: a Jheri Curl-mullet. He took his position behind a patient on a gurney, and with a flourish of his soggy hair he started singing in a piercing and off-key falsetto —it was something about being last in his class in med school, I think, and I did not like was I was seeing or hearing.

I was twelve, mind you. I knew what sarcasm was, but parody was still as remote as a French kiss from an eighth-grader—in another country altogether as far as my sixth- going on seventh-grade self was concerned. I knew who Weird Al was, but I also knew what Faces of Death was, and at that moment in time they seemed to be one and the same. The crowd got suddenly drunker than perhaps they were, but it might have just been a kind of self-defense. Regardless, I wanted out of there and to find my mom and to quiet myself by playing with the sheets of rubber letters, arranging my name on stamps with cheery suns or simple rainbows, but there was no escaping this beery, gelatinous mass of people until the song was done.

A few sexy nurses wearing those doctor’s face masks pranced about like woodland erotic dancer osteopaths, while one waited more attentively behind the surgeon. “Better give me all your gauze, nurse,” the Weird One sang, and, with that, hoisted from under the gurney a chainsaw, which he proceeded to crank to life with Dr. Frankenstein’s zealotry and then, in the midst of the sputtering two-cycle engine smoke, he plunged the saw straight into the apparently insufficiently-etherized patient who lurched up in shock.

And while I cannot say that I have, in the intervening years, come to think of that as any kind of seminal moment in my intellectual life, I did recognize there, at my very first bit of live music, a kind of aliveness and risky intellectual play that I have since come to think of as absolute hallmarks of the essay. As often as I am able, I remind myself that the word essay comes from the French where it is as much of a verb as it is a noun, and there, in that great French sense, it means not, like our saddest friends and students fear, that it is a tedious demonstration or re-rehearsal of some already arrived at proof or conclusion, a kind of depressed autopsy of a childhood long lost or dead, but rather to essay—or, if we prefer the francais—to essai means to endeavor, to attempt, to try. And by try, I think it means we must not only court the possibility of failure, but, in fact, desire it, aim for it, lust for it rather that its smug opposite.

Sadly, in southeast Wisconsin in the central 1980s, intellectual play was not something that I found myself batting away like mosquitoes or Illinois tourists. Like, I imagine, many of us who came of age in that barren wasteland of the mind, nearly all of what I intellectually consumed came down to pop music, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and unfortunately scrambled adult movies on Cinemax after my parents had succumbed to fatigue and/or Brandy Alexanders. And while I watched the Superfriends and Batman and, perhaps the most stimulating of all cartoons, Bullwinkle and Friends—but it aired at 5:00 am and, though I was occasionally able to rally myself from sleep to watch it, I was certainly far from being able to appreciate its many nuances—and, of course, unless a show was a rerun, we were by and large unable to truly appreciate or otherwise dig into any given text on TV. Therefore, music was really the only text—I mean, I know there at least conceptually were books, but the only ones I remember being around my house were the uncracked biographies of heads of state or captains of industry—Iacocca by Iacocca for instance—and so it was music that I really regard as the first thing that taught me how, strangely, to read and, via bands like Devo and Camper Van Beethoven and the Circle Jerks and Wisconsin’s own Violent Femmes and, yes, especially Weird Al, I was exposed to a kind of vigorous response to and rejection of the prepackaged, shellacked mid-eighties blight of Madonna Duran Duran and Huey Lewis and Alex P. Keaton and Ronald Reagan. Sure, there too was Bruce Springsteen and an early and excruciatingly earnest U2 and many, many others coming from the darker corners of the punk and rock and the otherwise independent music world, but they were decidedly not playing to 12 year olds, and their concerns pretty well entirely eclipsed my own.

Which brings me back to the Weird One. His art was that it was conspicuously not-art. It was mock art—a kind of art that smears its ugly toes right over the line of appropriate and fair use, I’m sure, and it calls to mind the much more contemporary conversations still on-going in nonfiction these days around John D’Agata and David Shields about authorship and curation and so forth, but Weird Al? Weird Al was doing this not just for we few austere nonfictioneers, but on stage in front of thousands of—ok, granted, not necessarily all mindful and cerebral listeners, but still—live and in person, Weird Al is performing a kind of simultaneous rejection/critique/celebration of the absolute trash that was what we lived in in the 80s. Before more conspicuous and haughty forms of art became available to me—and it took me a while—I’m talking like another fifteen years and grad school here—before there was Richard Hugo to tell me that poetry says that me and the world still stand a chance, there was Weird Al, spanning that strange distance between pop culture, politics, adulthood, and adolescence all the way down to me, helping me feel my heart beat for the very first time, and letting me think about it too while I listened. His was a music that held on to two truths at the same time: the sorry truth of a culture in the shitter, and also the truth that a sense of humor and self-awareness is a kind of antidote that stops the sickness from the first truth from killing or maiming or, worse yet, from forcing you to grow up at all, if ever. The ultimate truth being that you can, even when everyone else seems to presume that you’re not capable of paying attention, be a kid and be awake.

Sometime later, I woke up on a nearby picnic table, clinging to an empty container of Venice Club fried clams. The show was over, and it was very dark, and, as I rolled over onto my back, I watched the Skyglider hoist couple after necking-couple above me, and I was glad, for once, not to be one of them, glad, still, to be just a kid.


Matthew Batt is the author of Sugarhouse (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) a memoir about fixing up a crack house and his life along with it. A recipient of an 2010 NEA grant as well as a McKnight Foundation fellowship this year, Batt was the writer in residence for the Aspen Writers' Institute this July. He's finished a collection of essays called The Enthusiast and is currently working on a novel set in 1985 Milwaukee called National Avenue. He's an associate professor of English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Danielle Deulen on the Virtues of Drowning: Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water

There’s a heat advisory in Cincinnati today, so I’m out on my porch. I’m writing in the heat because I want to sweat while I write this. Because I’m trying to reenact the first time I read The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, or because the book demands that kind of attention to physicality. I don’t know which. I remember sweating when I first read it, though it was February, the most bereft of months—a soul sweat, maybe. I was too hot, and then too cold. I kept saying yes, and then no, and then yes again as I read, damp with water and salt. What I mean is, it did to me what I want literature to do to me; it took me to an edge. Sure, sometimes Yuknavitch’s ever-exclamatory, frenetic aesthetics pushed me a little too deep into The River of the Grandiose, but I’d rather drown in luxurious water than stay forever on the shore of overly prim prose. Yes, I know my metaphors are getting out of hand. Let me start over.
     Yuknavitch works in a distinctly Maximalist style. It’s not ironic. It’s not thin. It’s not coy. This book-length essay is sinewy and savage. And you may take umbrage with me calling The Chronology of Water an essay. Go ahead, take umbrage. It’s pushed as a memoir, after all, and has all the trappings of a mainstream story of loss and survival: Olympic hopeful swimmer escapes abusive family, loses it all when she becomes mired in her own self-destructive tendencies, ultimately finding transcendence in love and literature. There’s trauma, drugs, lots of sex—everything a voyeur could want. That’s not what excites me about this book.
     Most everyone I know has a sad story to tell, but none of them thought to write it like this. Although marketed as a memoir, it moves like a collection of linked essays. The larger, numbered sections, and especially the shorter, named works within those sections, are essays. They begin in impulse and end where you don’t expect; they assay and contradict; they deviate and are deviant. Earlier, I said the book demands a kind of attention to physicality, and I’m coming back to that now. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that our current literature represents puritanical notions of sexuality. Certainly, the hegemonic standards have been set, but there are plenty of writers who’ve thwarted them powerfully. Yet, I find Yuknavitch’s frankness about the emotional and physical experience of being a woman (in sex, in athletic competition, in childbirth) surprising. Not because it offends my sensibilities, but because it affirms them. Consider the first paragraph of the book:
The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her, then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge. She guided me to a special shower. The shower had a chair and the spray came down lightly, warm. She said, That feels good, doesn’t it. The water. She said, you are still bleeding quite a bit. Just let it. Ripped from vagina to rectum, sewn closed. Falling water on a body.
     Yuknavitch writes about her emotional-physical self in a manner that is both lyric and direct, and later in the book, in more sexually explicit passages, with a frankness that might be called pornographic. It’s a quality that I admire, and reminds be vaguely of Irigaray’s “This Sex Which is Not One,” meant to call into question and make uncomfortable phallic-based Freudian theories by writing with intense anatomical focus about the autoerotic attributes of female genitalia. Completely different genre and aim, of course, but both are refreshingly unflinching in their representations of femaleness. They both write about being a woman as if no one ever told them not to—or, more accurately, they were told not to a lot and did so anyway, with great verve. So, okay, I like the exhibitive aspects of the work too. You caught me: I’m as voyeuristic as anyone. But in this case there is a marriage of exhibition and voice that makes the interested voyeur feel not so bad about it. This writing is outrageous and nervy, yet finely calibrated, and amidst the candid heartbreak there is enough style and humor to place her firmly in the position of narrator, and so, the voyeur of herself. In part, she does this by drawing our attention to the way she writes. She tells us early on that she remembers things in “retinal flashes,” that she won’t be giving us the conventional narrative structure: “It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common” (28). I love this book because it’s made of water. And because a book made of water seems more honest to me.
     I’m not talking about “honesty” as part of the long-suffering debate over the ethics of creative nonfiction, so rooted in what I see as an essentialist’s naive faith in the possibility of incontestable knowledge—which is not to say there’s no such thing as fact, or that our lives aren’t structured by traditional narrative (they absolutely are), just that so little of human experience can be verified. And when the creative impulse is to capture nonfiction of the internal—nonfiction about imagination, dreams, lies, mistakes, betrayal, superstition, about the messiness of being a subjective and contradictory self—I want the structure to also be at least a little bit messy. I want associative leaps, repetition, back-tracking, fragments, red-herrings, a different kind of sense-making than traditional narrative. I want a way of writing that feels closer to perception and memory. Or probably I just want a literature that’s closer to my way of perceiving and remembering. Since this is all interpretation, and interpretation is always symbolic of one’s own mind, let me be more direct: 
     I used to love to swim. When I was a girl and it was summer, my father often took us (my sisters, my brother and I) to the Columbia River which is a wide, deep body of water always attenuated with mud and oil (a beautiful rainbow covering, the way I saw it then) from the city run-off and its strong churning currents. It’s a river banked with gray, gritty sand—not the smooth, white seashell erosion of ocean shorelines, but a sand more like ground peppercorn. I liked to dig in it. When I got tired of digging, I’d swim out in the river as far as I could go, out past the buoys, because it was forbidden and the danger of an undertow, still just a word in my mind, excited me.
     There was a spot in the river where the buoys separating the swimming area from the wilder water was a row of floating logs loosely chained in place, soft, splintery, warm as bodies in the sun, and one day I swam out to them. Believing myself otter-like, I made a game of spinning them and clutching on while they spun to let them roll me into the water, then out, then in again, keeping my eyes shut tight. The faster I could spin them, the better momentum for throwing me into the water, so I worked hard on that last spin, really revved it up, and when I belly-flopped onto it, I hit the water hard. Disoriented and blind, instead of swimming up, I went down down down until the cold made me open my eyes in the mud-dark infinite. My breath was running out and I didn’t know which way my head was pointing. I panicked and swam harder, but still not far enough, or in the wrong direction, I didn’t know which—all I knew was that I was completely out of air, trying to breath in and out the only stale breath I still had in my lungs, which seemed to push around inside me like a trapped ghost. It was the first time in my life that I realized I had a real shot at dying. Not the stories of heaven, but the actual corporeal manifestation of death: my body, a corpse. I thought of the first water-pose my father taught me: the Dead Man’s Float.
     Then I thought of my father on the shore with his eyes closed beneath the sun, burning his skin darker with coconut oil, working up a beer sweat. Some nights I still dream my father is driving us toward the river, my sisters and I grown but weary like children in the heat, our thighs sticking to the vinyl of our metallic blue Chevy, windows down, the breath of sand-dust and green-water lost in traffic when he turns at a light, parks in front of a theatre, sends us in single-file before him, buys us tickets and popcorn, but stands in the aisle smoking, a silhouette of refusal and ash. Where he was then (wherever he is now) he couldn’t help me. Underwater, I became very still, thinking on that Dead Man, and let my buoyancy turn me around, lead me up until I could perceive a faint, refracted light above me. Since I’m not writing this posthumously, you can guess what happened next: I surfaced, choked on air, grasped at anything, found myself on the wild side drifting toward wherever the river lead, then kicked furiously until I reached the logs to catch my breath, then continued until I pulled myself whimpering and exhausted to the gritty shore. Dizzy, my eyes not quite able to adjust to the sunlight—everything blurred in overexposure—I lay there breathing, too afraid to cry, until the sun dried the water. Until I began to sweat.
     Catharsis. Aristotle understood artistic power as medicinal, generating a kind of innocent emotional purgation in one who allows herself to be affected. It presupposes a natural tendency, an innate desire for aesthetic reenactment of experience, even, and perhaps especially, experience that is terrible—for viewing the wreck from a safe distance. So, as voyeurs of artistic expression, we are always voyeurs of ourselves. Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water does not, ultimately, tell us what we didn’t already know, it’s just more conscious and gorgeous in the way it tells us: our memories are fragmented, our lives are broken. Lying there on the shore that day, I couldn’t remember exactly what I knew about baptism, but I thought I understood more clearly what it meant. It meant there was a darkness in everyone and you had to delve down into it, where the sun looks broken and a ghost knocks inside your chest. That you have to emerge from the darkness to know the sun. That you have to lie beneath it, let it fill you with fever. Because fever is the dark water pouring out of you. You sweat it out to feel whole again.


Danielle Cadena Deulen is a poet and essayist. Her collection of poems, Lovely Asunder (U. of Arkansas Press, 2011), won the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize and the Utah Book Award. Her memoir, The Riots (U. of Georgia Press, 2011), won the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction as well as the GLCA New Writers Award. Formerly, she was a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently lives in Ohio where she teaches in the graduate and undergraduate creative writing programs at the University of Cincinnati. Her site is at