Back in 1996, Imani Josey wrote a 60-page draft of a story she called “The Secret Cave,” about three girls who travel to an alternate universe and discover they are fairie princesses. Josey now cites this the first draft of The Blazing Star, a young adult fantasy novel about three black girls who time-travel to ancient Egypt that she self-published last fall. For years after that draft, though, Josey didn’t write publicly. She was busy being a student and a beauty queen—she was crowned both Miss Chicago and Miss Black Illinois USA—as well as a dancer. She still wrote, keeping journals, penning stories for her friends, and composing fan fiction that, she says will “never see the light of day.” She did her writing privately until, around 2011, she felt ready to dive back in. The story on her mind? That same one from 1996, the one that had stuck with her through all the years and would blossom into her debut novel in 2016. Josey has written before about the importance of black girl magic, and her novel features three black female protagonists, which, in 2017, is still unusual, even while books featuring black girls and women continue to prove themselves in the marketplace (Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, for example, has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 21 weeks now). Josey felt passionately that her girls’ stories deserved to be told. “It’s important to tell black girls’ stories with agency because it normalizes blackness,” she says. “These stories ensure we’re not ‘othered.’” She added that her parents surrounded her, in childhood, with images of black girls being normal, through dolls and books with black protagonists. “These images showed me that I could be a well-rounded, complex person with likes and dislikes and experiences that matter like anyone else’s, and who knew her black skin was beautiful just the way it was,” she said. “It was my parents’ mission to ground my normalcy in my agency, not in my proximity to whiteness.” So, in her book, Josey gives her girls agency. The Blazing Star is the first book in a projected trilogy, with each book written from the point of view of one of the main characters. The Falling Star, its sequel, will be released in February 2018. The book is published by Wise Ink, an self-publishing company. Josey said she originally tried to go the traditional publishing route, but was rejected by countless agents. Nonetheless, she believed in her story, her characters, and her mission, and says her confidence paid off: the book sold out on release day. “I was hell-bent on my book series doing what traditional pub is dragging its feet to do—fixing the representation gap—a major component of why I went indie,” she said. “I’m not sure how many other black girls are on the cover of YA fantasy book series, and I’m not sure how many lead their own stories as protagonists. But judging by Lee & Low’s annual research, the number is incredibly low.” In fact, Lee & Low wrote a blog post in March of this year revealing that, while the number of protagonists of color is increasing, the number of authors of color is not: last year, “Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote just 6% of new children’s books published,” the post reports. Josey gave a bit of advice for white allies who wish to support the work of black creators: make use of their privilege to ensure black writers get their voices heard: “It means being vocal advocates, suggesting marginalized authors for mainstream events, giving their books as gifts and signal boosting crowdfunding projects,” she said, “as well as supporting marginalized traditional and independent authors.” Josey said she loves that self-publishing allowed her the “freedom to make [the book] exactly how I wanted,” but adds that the self-publishing road is hard. She said it’s been a struggle, especially when it comes to marketing and large-scale distribution. But she considers herself a fighter, a tough person, traits she partially attributes to her pageant history. “Pageants made me tougher,” she said. “[They] taught me about scrutiny and rejection...They taught me about marketing. They taught me about chasing big dreams, even when you don’t know if everything will turn out alright.”
When I was a graduate student working in the philosophy department at Rutgers University, an old academic offered some advice: “don't talk about your book until it's published.” Like most other English graduate students, I was writing a novel. I offered that information while giving the man a tutorial on using Microsoft Outlook. My job that semester was to teach the typewriter-clinging philosophers how to use their desktop computers (in 2005). I had started to tell him that my manuscript was a historical novel set in the American Southwest, but he held up his hand and told me to stop. He said the worst thing a writer could do was talk about his work before it was finished. “You’ll talk about it enough after that.” He said this was also true for works of scholarship, even though chapters had to be published on their own. But that seemed like a necessary evil for him. He was adamant that a fiction writer should never talk about his book until it hits the shelf. “Otherwise,” he said, “you’ll kill it.” When Esquire published a story of mine a few years after that, I offered a proclamation in my bio note: “he’s working on a novel set in southern Vermont.” That was true. I was working on it, in the sense we devote significant hours of our lives to books. I taught during the day, went to an MFA program in the evening, and wrote late into the night. I typed, drafted, revised, printed, tore-up, trashed, and re-started a book. But I never published that book. Like other ditched efforts, it sits in a folder titled “Vermont Novel” on an abandoned laptop in my basement. It shares that electronic graveyard with the historical novel, hundreds of short stories, and a few poetry collections. Between 2011 and 2015, I had 7 books published by small and scholarly presses. It is fun to say that you are having a book coming out. It is fun—and more than a little self-affirming—to share images of your book contract, your cover design, and your page proofs. During those years, I was always working on a new book. To have a forthcoming book meant to be alive as a writer. Publishing is not writing. Writing is what you do at midnight. Writing is what you do, as William H. Gass says, “to entertain a toothache.” Writing is casting your voice into a world already filled with noise. Writing is an act of faith, rebellion, and hope. Publishing is a world outside of yourself. In many ways, that is a good and necessary thing. Writers need editors. Editors help writers turn their ideas into stories; they help writers reach audiences. Yet publishing is also a place where writers must learn to cede control and embrace patience; a place where failure is likely. Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. When your book comes out, shout it and sing it from the rooftops. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Don’t worry about people being sick of hearing about your book—you’ve scrolled through their daily posts about food and politics. They can handle some literature. But until your book is published, don’t talk about it. That old academic was right: you risk sucking the life out of your book. If you talk about your book, it stops belonging to you, and starts belonging to the world. You’ll have to explain it to people you sit next to on the train, distant cousins at family reunions, or people at work. When the soul of your book hits the air, it will dissipate without its physical body. Until then, hoard your manuscripts. Keep your secrets. Delete your tweets about your work in progress. Play coy in your bio notes. Be devoted to your book, and resist the urge to whisper about your relationship to others. Stay committed to that book, and one day—when the time is right—you can tell the world. Am I writing a book now? That’s between me and my hypothetical manuscript. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut, hunker down, and get to work. Image Credit: Flickr/Josh Janssen.
My earlier post was about artist residencies, these magical places that take the writer out of her workaday world and into a new place, just for the artist. No need to let answering the phone or procuring and cooking food slowly chip away at one's day. Because it's expensive to house and nurture artists, many residencies need public funding, which will be in danger for the next four years. In case Donald Trump cuts off all public funding for the arts, here are my tongue-in-cheek favorite alternative, quasi-publicly-funded residencies: The Airport Residency Airplanes, with their engine-whines and the threat of the seat recline crushing your laptop, aren't great spaces to work. But once, when I was stuck in an airport for a few days (ironically, on the way to a residency), I had the time to realize how delicious it was to be the still point in a hub of transit. Everyone was so focused on their destination, I was as anonymous and private as if I were in a cabin out in the woods. There was plenty of food, comfortable chairs, even a branch of the Tattered Cover bookstore. Had I wanted it, legal pot was just a cab ride away. The Volunteer House in Riverside Park Residency I don't actually know how to get into this house, but it's a quiet little hut that overlooks Riverside Park in New York city (which is much quieter than Central Park). And every time I pass this house, it looks so reminiscent of the studios I've been in, say, at Yaddo. The place looks like it gets plenty of sun and there's an Ecuadorian food cart just a few hundred feet away; in the spring summer and fall there's a bar/ restaurant that operates inside the park. Perfect! Vermont Rest Stop Residency I couldn't have been more charmed by this rest stop, a wood stove, a solarium with its plant powered waste-treatment plant. There were desks and a view, as well as unlimited coffee, and, I was told, sometimes they provided Twizzlers. Who doesn't like a little Vermont socialism? My Home Office Residency I actually have a nice little office, by New York City apartment standards. Faces a quiet street, expansive desk. Now, if I could just get my spouse to take a break from being a professor and devote his day to making meals that he can tuck into a picnic basket, we'd be in business. What are your fantasy residencies? Image Credit: Flickr/Miel Books
On October 19, 1972, four months after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that set off the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, gave the president some shocking news on the source of a series of damaging stories in The Washington Post that had begun to tie the bungled break-in to the White House. “We know what’s leaked and we know who leaked it,” Haldeman told Nixon as the Oval Office tapes whirred in the background. “Is it somebody in the FBI?” Nixon asked. “Yes, sir,” Haldeman reported. “Very high up.” Nearly half a century later, as another American president finds himself engulfed in scandal over claims of election misconduct, his staff may well want to start reading up on the Watergate scandal. Thanks in large part to the bestselling book All the President’s Men, the source for the classic film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, Watergate is understood in the popular imagination as the story of a newspaper investigation. In this version of the tale, two hotshot reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, fueled by righteous indignation and a burning desire to get the story, nearly single-handedly brought down the leader of the Western world. But this slant on Watergate is, in many ways, an accident of history. Because Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal their prime source, famously nicknamed Deep Throat, until 2005, it has taken historians decades to piece together an accurate account of how the scandal unfolded. In fact, as Tim Weiner details in his recent history of the Nixon presidency, One Man Against the World, one of the principal architects of the president’s downfall was Mark Felt, the second-in-command at the FBI who, as a deep background source to Woodward and Bernstein, leaked incriminating information from the FBI files that he knew would probably never see the light of day in any other way. Felt held a personal grudge against Nixon. A 30-year veteran of the FBI, Felt believed he was the rightful heir to the job of FBI director after J. Edgar Hoover died in May 1972, a month before the Watergate break-in. When Nixon passed him over for L. Patrick Gray, Felt was hurt -- and smelled a cover-up. But Felt was experienced enough in the ways of Washington to understand that a mere FBI agent, even the deputy director, could not take on a president alone. So he used the best tool at hand, a young, ambitious reporter he happened to know at The Washington Post. In other words, while the Watergate scandal was the product of shoe-leather investigations by a pair of dogged reporters, and later by an equally dogged pair of special prosecutors, Richard Nixon was also very much the target of a palace coup. This is the essence of the news Haldeman delivered to Nixon in October 1972. The recording of their conversation is now available on YouTube, and it is worth a listen for anyone interested in speculating on the kinds of conversations Donald Trump may be having with his aides as he combats the recent spate of damaging leaks from intelligence operatives and his own staff. Felt, Haldeman explains in that October 19 conversation, is the source of the press leaks, but there isn’t much the president can do about it. “If we move on him, then he’ll go out and unload everything,” Haldeman tells Nixon. “He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI. He has access to absolutely everything.” “What would you do to Felt?” Nixon asks. “I asked (White House Counsel John] Dean,” Haldeman says. “He says you can’t prosecute him.” “Oh, no?” Nixon says. “He hasn’t committed any crime,” Haldeman reminds him. Trump, of course, faces no such constraint in his own skirmishes over press leaks. Since much of the material being leaked about alleged connections between Trump’s campaign team and the Russian government during the election involves classified national security matters, Trump can plausibly threaten to prosecute the leakers. And, unlike Nixon, Trump has a stalwart Republican majority in both houses of Congress as well as a popular distrust of the media almost unimaginable in the early 1970s. Still, if there is any truth to leaked claims that Trump’s aides had contact with Russian intelligence officials involved in hacking into the Clinton campaign’s email servers during the 2016 election, Trump and his team would do well to heed the hard lessons of Nixon’s discovery of the Watergate leaker, Mark Felt. On the October 19 tape, Haldeman, grasping at straws, suggests transferring Felt to “Ottumwa, Iowa,” to which Nixon replies: “Christ! You’d know what I’d do with him? Ambassador.” (“He’d like that, you know,” Haldeman says.) But in the end they did nothing. According to Weiner, FBI director Patrick Gray was ordered to fire Felt five times, but he never pulled the trigger. Eventually, Gray himself was ousted, and Felt retired from the FBI in 1973 after Nixon again passed him over the top job. He eventually moved to Santa Rosa, Calif., where he lived in relative obscurity until Woodward outed him as Deep Throat in his 2005 book The Secret Man. Felt died, a hero to many, in 2008.
Nicole Krauss is back with her first novel in seven years. Forest Dark "interweaves the stories of two disparate individuals -- an older lawyer and a young novelist -- whose transcendental search leads them to the same Israeli desert." The cover of Krauss's new offering sports cool blue waves (dunes?) and the now-ubiquitous yellow, centering a truly killer blurb from Philip Roth. Krauss was a National Book Award and Orange Prize finalist for Great House, and The History of Love won the Saroyan Prize for International Literature. Forest Dark will be published by HarperCollins on September 12.
Flip to the back of a new book. What do you see? Blurbs. Line after line of praise, proclamations, and predictions. Tucked in a small corner square is an author’s photo, a passport-size acknowledgment of the face behind the book. Often those faces are hidden inside a jacket flap. Bring back the book jacket photo. Bring back those full-page portraits that pronounced I wrote a book, damn it. For The Reivers, William Faulkner stands in front of a bookshelf full of Modern Library titles. He wears a tie and suspenders, with The Philosophy of Nietzsche and Cities of the Plain at his back. He doesn’t look at us, but at the book open in his hands. Framed in gold and set against black, Louise Erdrich’s photo for Tales of Burning Love feels pronounced. The novel begins: “Holy Saturday in an oil boomtown with no insurance. Toothache.” You can hear Erdrich, confident yet controlled, spin that yarn for us. I’m a little afraid for Richard Ford on the back of Rock Springs, his collection of stories. Ford stands in the middle of a snow-lined Montana dirt road, against a backdrop of mountains. He doesn’t seem too concerned, and the pose matches the prose, after all. The first line of the title story is “Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.” A novel is an accomplishment, something to be celebrated. Paradise by Toni Morrison got a fuller photo treatment than Beloved and Song of Solomon, and the author deserves it. Morrison’s countenance tells us: here is a story. Read it. “Even a selected display of one’s early work,” John Cheever writes in the preface to The Stories of John Cheever, “will be a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.” Cheever, wearing an open-necked shirt and sport jacket, smiles on the back. He looks pleasantly resigned. John Steinbeck channels Vincent Price on the back of The Winter of Our Discontent. Appropriate for the novel’s ominous epigraph: “Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today.” Published in 1992, Susan Minot’s shot on the back of Folly is early '90s cool: hair up, back, and messed, with an unbuttoned denim jacket. An interesting contrast with a work of historical fiction prefaced by an endlessly appropriate quote from Blaise Pascal: “Man is so necessarily foolish that not to be a fool is merely a varied freak of folly.” Previously: Edan Lepucki on Marion Ettlinger
If the forecast calls for snow, get ready for tweets about James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Literary Twitter’s favorite winter ritual is quoting Joyce’s lyric final line: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” I’m just as guilty as the rest. And why not? It is a gorgeous, solemn sentence. A conclusion to a masterful story; the crescendo of a funereal paragraph. Joyce’s melancholic consonance and inversion almost compels us to stand in front of a cold window and watch snow blanket the streets. Mary Gordon has called it “a triumph of pure sound . . . And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” “No one,” Gordon says, “has ever equaled it.” No one? Perhaps no one has equaled Joyce’s grand final sentence -- but there is a greater, darker, more consuming snow story than “The Dead” out there, ready to be tweeted: “The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass. First published in 1961 and later collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a handful of unusual stories set in the Midwest, “The Pedersen Kid” is suffused with snow -- as solemn as Joyce’s tale but somehow more claustrophobic. Gass began writing the story “to entertain a toothache.” That’s an appropriate anecdote. A philosopher by training and a critic by practice, Gass has always been in love with language. Words are his God. “The Pedersen Kid” is his finest offering. Unlike other stories -- like Joyce’s -- that include snow at opportune moments, Gass’s novella is suffused with snow from start to finish. Set in North Dakota, a quirky Swedish-American family makes a horrific discovery: a snow-covered child from a neighboring farm on their front steps. “The sun burned on the snow” as they rush the Pedersen kid inside and put the child “on the kitchen table like you would a ham.” They take off the child’s frosted clothes and try to resuscitate him. “Resuscitate” might not be the best word. The child appears dead, and they seem to resurrect him with a Gass-appropriate Holy Trinity of whiskey, dough, and slapping. The child soon retreats into the background of the story, as the Segren family is more concerned with understanding why, and how, the child made it through a blizzard to their home. Gass couldn’t have created a more absurd cast. Pa is a violent alcoholic who “don’t like to get waked.” Big Hans, the farm hand, is unpredictable, and lives to antagonize Pa. Ma is overwhelmed, frustrated, and afraid. Jorge, the young narrator of the story, is sarcastic and unpredictable: it is not clear if the Pedersen kid is dead, or if Jorge simply wishes the child was dead so they could be done with this mess. Snow rages outside the small home, and the kid is asleep upstairs, but the family is consumed with the desire to know the story of how the kid got there. Only Big Hans seems to have answers. He says the kid told him a stranger broke into the farmhouse. The boy’s testimony is fragmented: “The green mackinaw. The black stocking cap. The yellow gloves. The gun.” The man put the Pedersen family “down the cellar,” so the kid ran away, into the snow. The Segren family wonders if he stranger is on the way to find the kid -- the on the way to their home. Big Hans and Pa argue. Should they go to the Pedersen farm? Should they catch the killer before he ambushes them? Pa looks out the window, and says “See -- see -- what did I tell you -- snowing . . . always snowing.” He’s convinced the snow will strangle and suffocate them, and taunts Hans: “You’re a bigger fool because you’re fatter.” Pa and Hans continue to argue as they drift, with Jorge, into the snow. They enter the vast Dakota expanse like cutouts from a Beckett play. The second half of Gass’s novel is a frightening trek into the windless, unforgiving snow. “Sometimes the snow seemed as blue as the sky,” Jorge marvels, as they sink into the white stuff. Their horse scrambles to move forward. Big Hans has a shotgun and a Navy-issue .45. They trudge forward, and joke about freezing to death. “It was frightening,” Jorge thinks, “the endless white space . . . Winded slopes and rises all around me.” Jorge “could hear us breathing and the snow, earth, and our boots squeaking. We went slow and all of us was cold.” By the time they reach the Pedersen farmhouse, they are exhausted, hallucinating, their souls frozen. Back at home, Ma is with the Pedersen kid. She has biscuits, elderberry jam, and coffee. But what happens to the men at the Pedersen home is a nightmare. Jorge’s final sentence is chilling and Joycean: “The winter time had finally got them all, and I really did hope that the kid was as warm as I was now, warm inside and out, burning up, inside and out, with joy.” “The Pedersen Kid” is a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated -- and, instead of Joyce -- tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead.
On January 19th, while many of us held our collective breath over the results of one national contest, the American Society of Magazine Editors released their list of finalists for the 2017 National Magazine Awards for Print and Digital Media. Curiously absent from the announcement were nominees in fiction, which ASME chose not to promote for the first time in nearly 50 years. The announcement made no mention of the category’s sudden disappearance. For Michael Ray, editor of Zoetrope: All-Story, the distinction was particularly significant. Writing last Thursday via email, he said the award “breached the ostensibly isolated atmosphere of literature and recognized the fiction writer among a broader peer group of writers and before a more diverse and populous audience of potential new readers.” Anthony Marra, whose 2016 NMA winning story, “The Grozny Tourist Bureau,” Ray edited, expressed his disappointment in ASME’s omission. “Writing, editing, and publishing short stories in literary magazines is a labor of love for all involved,” he said. “They aren't clickbait. They don’t make much noise or much money. And yet the best of them long outlast the paper on which they were first printed.” While ASME has retained the category of “General Excellence in Literature, Science, and Politics,” such broad scope leaves little room for individual recognition, instead favoring the total yearly production of a magazine over excellence in a single piece. This year, Poetry is the only literary magazine nominated in that category. Last September, Women’s Wear Daily released an email circulated to editors around the magazine industry from ASME Chief Executive Sid Holt. In what amounts to the closest document to a public announcement, the message cites declining fiction entries and, most surprisingly, concern that “few ASME members say they are competent to judge the category.” ASME’s website describes its members as “senior editors, art directors, and photography editors employed by qualified publications.” Susan Russ, senior vice president of communications at ASME, said that with the diminished numbers of submissions, fiction entries had “less than a fifth the number of entries [than] comparable categories.” While the decision to “suspend” the category, she said, “was not a judgment on the value of fiction or [ASME’s] ability to judge entries,” it is unclear -- outside of an attendant fall in submissions fees, perhaps -- how the small pool affected the organization. The arts face an almost certainly precarious future. As a genre, short fiction has long struggled with recognition, and is too often minimized as a stepping-stone to more serious literary enterprises. According to Russ, “ASME is considering alternative ways of honoring fiction,” leaving open the possibility of a new award outside the existent NMA format. But such a move could further isolate fiction from the rest of print culture. It’s entirely possible, however, that fiction may be back for next year’s contest. Losing touch with the power of writing is not something we can now afford to risk. And National Magazine Award or not, over the coming years, we’ll be needing all the good stories we can get. Image Credit: Flickr/Phil Roeder/Ken Hawkins.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there -- or so says the internet -- and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors. There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet -- save for the waft of classical music -- lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap. On one of my few trips there -- I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me -- I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author -- Kurt Vonnegut-- and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book. Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works -- The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders -- wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never -- and still have never -- read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style -- that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision -- but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world. Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others -- and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about -- something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become. And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it -- this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine -- at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable -- so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously -- judging by its swift closure -- there weren’t enough of us. That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together -- and for that, I can only offer thanks.
“I ran into a girl...She said I was a strange person and she told me why. She said, ‘You were born in a certain area where the ground is metallic.’” - Bob Dylan, Behind the Shades Revisited Bob Dylan was born in Duluth but spent his formative years in Hibbing, a small, isolated northern Minnesota town whose claim to fame (according to the billboard that greets you as you come into town) is that it's home to the world's largest open-pit iron mine. It’s also my hometown, in an area so remote from Minneapolis that a friend from the city had never heard of it. There are a number of towns in Minnesota's Iron Range, which covers the upper fork of the state, but Hibbing is a particularly weird place given an accident of history; its inadvertent placement atop one of the richest veins of iron ore meant the mining company had to grant the townspeople major concessions to persuade them to move its location. Thus Hibbing is the only town with a high school listed in the National Register of Historic Places: the building cost four-million dollars (in 1923!), complete with marble floors in the bathrooms, a 1800-seat auditorium patterned after the Capitol Theatre in New York City, and a Broadway-level green room. Because Hibbing, which is near Canada, wasn't the most hospitable place to live (in his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan described the winters as so cold and unending as to be hallucinogenic), the mining company also invested in education: the superintendent of the school system supposedly received the highest salary of any school district in the state, and K-12 instructors were paid unusually high salaries for the area. The Hibbing public schools were thus funded more like lavish private schools, so you end up with people like English teacher B.J. Rolfzen, who is often credited by Bob Dylan for instilling in him a love of language. To give you an idea, this is where we had our pep rallies for homecoming, our auditorium. You can imagine yourself laughing a young Bob Dylan (then, Robert Zimmerman) off the stage at the talent show (yes, this happened). But whether it was the richly funded schools or the iron ore in the water or some other strange vortex (Hibbing is also, weirdly, at the epicenter of climate change), the town boasts an unusual number of writers, some of them culture-changers like Dylan. (And this is not to mention that Greyhound Bus Lines, Jeno's Pizza Rolls, and Gus Hall -- all Hibbing originals.) The uncle of one of the kids I sat next to in Earth Sciences in junior high was Vincent Bugliosi, the Charlie Manson case prosecutor and the author of the best-seller about the case, Helter Skelter. Bethany McLean has the distinction of being the person who broke the Enron scandal; she wrote about first in Fortune magazine, and then in the best-selling Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which was made into a movie of the same name. Rick Novak, M.D., is the author of a medical thriller set in Hibbing that references the newest Nobel Laureate: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Frank Riley, author of various science fiction novels, won a Hugo Award for They'd Rather Be Right, which he co-wrote with Mark Clifton -- apparently this was only the second time the Hugo was awarded to a novel. Who will come out of Hibbing next? Image: Wikipedia
In one of my favorite sequences of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, you see an editor splicing film offset with shots from the footage being cut. Normally, when we watch films, we take a series of unrelated shots and project causality between the images. Vertov, along with other montage theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, wanted to interrupt this process, forcing us to come to an overarching picture out of conflict and collisions. Simple narrative just couldn’t be revolutionary. In The Revolutionaries Try Again, debut novelist Mauro Javier Cardenas writes renegade political fiction that would have made Vertov proud. Stream-of-consciousness and meta-fiction meet radio plays, phone conversations, and spliced up pop-lyrics. The tone varies as often as technique: pages and pages of interior monologue with no punctuation, enough em-dashes to look like line divides, sections entirely in Spanish, references to ABBA and The Exorcist alongside Pablo Neruda and Julio Cortázar. You’re never directly informed about what counts as revolution and who in particular is trying to achieve it. Instead, The Revolutionaries Try Again dissects a decade of Ecuadorian austerity and idealism through often jarring and always stunning literary montage. Cardenas’s novel centers on three alumni of a Jesuit school in Guayaquil: a writer, a bureaucrat, and a playwright. Antonio left Ecuador over a decade ago for Stanford and is writing a memoir about a crying baby Jesus. His best friend Leopoldo, left behind in Guayaquil, takes a job with the pro-austerity government. As the novel begins, Leo has just persuaded Antonio to return to the city, and together they're supposed to help a friend run for office, which never really happens. Meanwhile, we get oblique connections to their poor classmate, Rolando, who with his girlfriend Eva attempts to rouse people to action by staging a series of radio plays. But all of this feels like an aside, and whatever revolution we thought would be staged isn't. No political campaign, no people taking to the streets. But The Revolutionaries Try Again is just as much an attempt to sort out why telling feels so futile: as a writer, as an undocumented migrant, as a person. Rolando never tells Eva that his sister was almost raped while working as a fifteen-year-old maid. Eva never tells Rolando about how her brother was abducted during her youth. Instead they have imaginary dialogues with the siblings they love but don’t speak to, replaying conversations that can’t, and won’t, happen. Nor are they alone. Leopoldo and Antonio are extremely close friends, but don’t have an easy emotional intimacy. Antonio dreams up, time and time again, what it will be like to see Leopoldo for the first time in over a decade, thinking about what he might like to say but won’t. What’s the point, the suggestion is, of recounting things when things can't be adequately characterized by words? To search for the source of his impulse to return to Ecuador by revisiting the night the baby christ cried was pointless, Antonio thinks, just as it’s pointless for him to teach English to immigrant women at El Centro Legal for one measly hour a week, photocopying pages from an ESL book at the last minute and hoping they would smile at him in gratitude, knowing he was fooling himself into believing he was being useful— if all the NGOS and nonprofits of the world ceased their activities, Antonio had asked a British art critic during their first date, would anyone notice? Many things in the book are described as pointless: Antonio’s baby Jesus story and his tutoring, but also Rolando’s radio plays, Jesuits serving the poor (and, for that matter, the very existence of the lord above), and the unrealized political campaign that brings Antonio back to Guayaquil. But what Cardenas does so adeptly in his debut novel is highlight conditions against which feelings of pointlessness emerge in the first place. Economic, political and social violence are senseless, and render us unable to tell neat linear narratives about injustice and protest. We're left with montage, one that resists neat stories about revolutionaries taking on their oppressors, left with weeping statues of baby Jesus, rape, false accusations, and economic sanctions. Amidst violence, one worries that words too will be twisted and appropriated to serve other ends. But silence is too easy, as Alma reminds Antonio: “I did say you’re an imbecile of course everything’s pointless we’re all going to die doesn’t matter we’re still here/ I’m still here.” That injustice may be here for a long time, is all the more reason that Cardenas's book should too.