Hazlitt Magazine

'I Walk in the City All the Time': An Interview with Orhan Pamuk

Talking with the author of A Strangeness in My Mind about writing about food and eating, urban exploration, and bringing the humanity of background characters to the fore.

Featuring Tavi Gevinson

On being 15, growing up online, and writing with your mouth.

Theological Scars

My loss of God occurred soon after I got to divinity school. I still can’t decide if that was the least likely of places for it to happen or the only place in the world where it was possible.


Early Stories Pt. 2: Body Pods

“Buddy, you’ll know when I’m mad.”

‘I Walk in the City All the Time’: An Interview with Orhan Pamuk

Talking with the author of A Strangeness in My Mind about writing about food and eating, urban exploration, and bringing the humanity of background characters to the fore.

Orhan Pamuk knows many things about cities. He’s written a book about the city he calls home, 2005’s Istanbul: Memories and the City, and offers another perspective on the same place in his latest book, the sprawling novel A Strangeness in My Mind. While its scope is vast, incorporating over forty years’ worth of history, its focus is humble: Melvut, the novel’s protagonist, moves to the city from a rural area at a young age, and goes on to make his living largely as a food vendor. This includes time spent selling yogurt and boza, a fermented beverage that, in Pamuk’s telling, takes on a deeper cultural significance.It’s through Melvut that Pamuk can explore a number of facets of the city, and it’s through his perspective that he’s able to chronicle the way that it changes. “[W]hen he comes to Istanbul first, he also sees old wooden buildings and new three-story buildings that replace wooden ones, and even six-story-high ones, where you can shout and the top-floor guy would hear you,” Pamuk said as we spoke in his New York apartment. (Pamuk spends part of the year there, while teaching at Columbia University.)Our conversation encompassed the process behind A Strangeness in My Mind, questions of how novelists deal with food and eating in their work, and how Pamuk’s own work establishing a museum has affected the way he interacts with cities around the world.*Your new novel left me with an incredible sense of the city in which it’s set, and the way that cities and buildings can change over time. You studied architecture when you were younger—do you feel like that’s affected you as a writer?Yes. I care about urbanism, and I have an interest in architectural composition, especially architecture with an urban stress.How did you settle on food as the central occupation of the protagonist?There are two kinds of writers: melodramatic writers, dramatic writers; funny writers, serious writers; and so on. There’s one distinction that I always make: the writers who talk about and write about food with relish, and writers who don’t mention it. You can’t see any food in Dostoevsky, while Thomas Mann enjoys going into the details of food. I am that kind of writer. I like talking about food, first of all. Second, and primarily, I made my protagonist a street vendor. Eighty percent of vendors in the last eighty years are selling yogurt. My character sells yogurt, ice cream, boza, chicken with rice, and so forth.Are there similarities between the food sold by street vendors in Istanbul and the street food culture you see in cities such as New York?There is not one essential thing. When I chronicled my character selling yogurt in the 1970s, yogurt was not even a bottled product. Then it was bottled. Then came sanitation measures and government controls. Municipal control slowly came. In the 2010s, in the book, then you could compare it to New York. In the 1960s and 1970s, it could not be compared to the New York of today. But then, perhaps, all towns are changing; government control came in these forty years. And the novel suggests that military coups and military discipline are imposed, there are demands and restrictions, especially over street vendors, those that sell food.That reminds me of the way that politics slowly make themselves felt over the course of the novel. I’m thinking in particular about the scene in which Melvut’s cart is impounded. Did you know from the outset that you would be introducing politics into the novel in this fashion?Melvut spends forty years in Istanbul selling things, gets mixed up with politics, but he is not a political man, in the sense that he thinks he has a mission, nor is he a militant. He has political ideas, but they are soft. He has radical, liberal, left-wing friends, even socialist friends, and he has radical, nationalist, political, Islamist friends. The fact that he doesn’t have strong political and moral ideas helped me, so that he can go to all corners of Istanbul society without much of a problem.Throughout the novel, you have a number of first-person voices interwoven with the main third-person narrative, which reminded me of your work in My Name is Red. When did you decide to take this approach?Actually, I started this novel as a short novel. Then I realized that, for a street vendor, you have to explain what a street vendor is, and it began to address that epic energy in me. Most street vendors were living in shantyhouses, they were migrants for poor parts of Turkey—it’s a very typical story. Not just a Turkish story, not only an Asian story, but a global story. These characters are always represented in modern and classical literature as background characters, whose humanity is not explored and developed.My initial idea was to write about a lower-class person, expounding his full humanity. I began the novel, and it began to get longer. I did a lot of research; I talked with many, many street vendors. The trick is that, first you eat something, and then you start a conversation, and if the guy is forthcoming, you tell the guy who you are. Sometimes university graduates were helping me. I gathered so much interesting [information] from all those sources, really, on the textures of city life in Istanbul, that the novel was getting bigger, like a 19th-century Dickens novel. I wanted to represent the authenticity, the colors of these first person singular characters who were telling how they built their house, what they do, how they cook the food in the street, how they ran away from police, the little tricky things they do to cheat, and so forth.Also, I wanted to write in a very direct way that the women are so oppressed in their daily lives. How they all manage, from cooking to caring about children, from buying things from the street to handling family budgets. While they do all of this for their fathers, their husbands, their husbands’ fathers, their children—they’re all so oppressed that most of the time, they don’t even like going out from the house.What was your first exposure to boza?Boza, as I describe in the book, was a very romantic beverage in my childhood. We enjoyed it, not for the taste of it, but more for the ritual of it. In the middle of cold winter nights, a boza seller walks down the streets. It’s a slightly fermented alcoholic beverage. Ottomans enjoyed it because it legitimized having some beer—something slightly alcoholic, and never thinking that there’s alcohol in it. For me, in my childhood, in liking this poor guy who was also wearing these peasant-like clothes and who was shouting, “Boza!”—this reminds us of old Ottoman times. I used to do this in the 1950s and ’60s, with my grandmother, with our family, just like in the book—“Come up, come up!” This, we used to do.Forty years later, when I did research for this book, I learned that boza vendors are also aware of the fact that most of the buyers are not buying for the taste of it, but for the ritual of it, in getting associated with something traditional, that belongs to good old Ottoman times. At the heart of the novel, there are all these miniature discussions of identity, belonging, continuity, what is past, the moral responsibility to preserve the past, whether national identities come from religion. These are darling things to me that I explore in my other novels as well. It seemed perfect for me to dramatize this slightly alcoholic beverage and explore with the reader the romantic vision of old Ottoman times contrasted with a fast, booming economy and the individualism of chaotic city life. These are the contending elements of the novel.As someone unfamiliar with boza, I was really struck with how it seems to evade description early on—is it sweet or sour?It’s not the taste of it that counts. It triggers so many social contradictions; it has so much symbolic value for my character. In the end, it’s not the taste of the thing. It’s controversial.When you were talking through the city doing research for this novel, what did you notice had changed the most?I walk in the city all the time. It’s not because of research; it’s a lifestyle. I like it. I belong to that city every time. You walk around to see your friends, to see your publisher, you go to an exhibition. I like my city. I belong there. The saddest thing would be to be cut away from it. I’ve lived all my life in Istanbul. Yes, I’ve had some bad political times and am now teaching at Columbia—I got this job eight years ago because I was pressured too much in Turkey. I’m happy spending one semester here because of all the tension, living with a bodyguard, the political tension—I get a little bit of a break here. I also like the museums and bookshops in New York. It’s relaxing.Do you also do a lot of exploring of other cities on foot?Exploring other cities as a tourist—I like that. And since I made a museum, the Museum of Innocence, I am also determined to go to every single possible museum in a new city.Melvut is the only character whose first-person perspective we don’t get over the course of the book. Did you have that planned out from the beginning of your process?Yes. The challenge was to write about a lower-class character but make his individuality like in Hamlet or The Brothers Karamazov—to construct him as a full character. For me, writing a novel, all these little details are not decided at the beginning. You write a novel, you start from a corner, you develop it. You have new ideas and change, new ideas and change. It’s like a painting or a drawing. I wanted to make my character distinct from others. Underline his solitary nature, his solitary and good, well-meaning nature, and also to lend him some part of my mind—that was essential.In my childhood, and also my teenage years and my twenties, all of my friends used to tell me, “Orhan, you have a strange mind, do you know?” And one day, I read William Wordsworth’s poetry, and I thought, I’ll use this in a book one day. This is that book, in the sense that I wanted to explore and fully develop the visions of a lower-class person who is walking in the street all the time. Then we see that he has a family; then we see that he came to the city and built his house with his father. Then we see that he isn’t as lucky as his cousins, who are good in the construction business, while he’s selling food. And so forth, and so on. All of these ironies that I like.A novel, for me, is an excuse to pin down, collect, and put together all the little things about daily life that I like writing about. A novel is an excuse to, just like a museum, preserve the details, colors, tastes, social relationships, rituals, advertisements, smells, the chaotic richness and the sentiments that that richness lends us in the city. I’m not saying these are essential attributes and details of Istanbul. All the galaxy of details that my protagonist Melvut takes us through, perhaps will pass away. It makes me preserve and write about them. The novel has an unsympathetic side to daily life in Istanbul. I am this kind of person; this is the way I am. I am happy to preserve all these details and put them in one strong story.Is that same impulse where the illustration in the religious newspaper that Melvut becomes fascinated with comes from?That picture is first associated with the fact that Melvut some conservative characteristics. But it’s not based on religion; it’s based on looking at old things. His imagination invents mysteries and sees shadows and mysterious, strange things that remind him of the stories that he listened to in his childhood. That picture is a part of that discussion in the book, whether our identities come from the restrictions of religion, or a romanticized understanding of the past is more important than that. But don’t think I write my books with a program like this. I found, just like James Boswell, my own humors. I write and edit sometimes with the tip of my pen, just doing. A novel is poetic inspiration that comes from nowhere, and is not calculated. There’s also the calculation of the plot, the framing, the shaping, a little bit of experimentalism, a little bit of traditional 19th-century novel—all of that went into the making of this novel.
Theological Scars

My loss of God occurred soon after I got to divinity school. I still can’t decide if that was the least likely of places for it to happen or the only place in the world where it was possible.

I recently found the essay that I wrote as part of my application to divinity school six years and one spiritual lifetime ago. The power of the liturgy was the framework through which I confessed a faith that was unselfconscious in its candor and exuberant about church pageantry. It is thick with faith in the sensory and salvific strengths of Christian worship and I meant every word:We spoke in lost languages and drank blood from bejeweled goblets. There was choreography. Our worship echoed across latitudes as believers rose around the world, bells older than any living person calling them to worship in twenty-four distinct dawns. The service celebrated tragedy and miracles in successive breaths. The strength of our numbers made our praise audible in Heaven. We were singing with and for the angels. I was certain of it. But more to the point, I am still quite certain of it.I recognized myself in the impulse to thrust the feeble extravagance of the material world skyward. It was why I spent my time reading religious poetry and adorning my apartment in various iterations of Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych: I wanted to find a place where Heaven and Earth could meet. This place, of course, was grace.Definitions of grace have been refined and amended often over the centuries. Many understandings of it bleed into one another in the human imagination, mixing with emotions and resulting in grace being looked at often less as a matter of doctrine than of nostalgia. But the catechism defines grace as “favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” Grace manifests as both God’s disposition and God’s action; it is an atmosphere of salvation for humanity to dwell in, but can quickly be made manifest and intervene in human affairs.Flannery O’Connor recognized our failure to identify grace when she wrote, “Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.” I read this line in my early twenties when I was making my way through O’Connor’s collected works and intentionally widened my gaze in search of grace at work. I imagined it as a substance that blanketed creation, an unearned pardon on top of an already abundant and generous gift rendered invisible by being taken for granted. It was like the Dark Matter taking up most of the universe, or even the carbon particles in our own corner of the galaxy, but if I watched closely enough, I could see it act on objects.I write this missive, however, from the dark inside the absence of grace. Or, more accurately, I write it in the absence of whatever warm nostalgic comfort came with believing in the existence of grace. Its purpose is to explain what it felt like when I came to believe in sin but not in God. Its central difficulty is how to appropriately mourn that which was always a kind of ghost. You can’t miss carbon if you’re not dead. I write it as an act of hope on behalf of myself; I want to stumble upon it at some later point and recall that this was a temporary despair at facing my own finitude. Its intended recipient is a fiction, of course—a future version of myself to whom the years have been gentle, preserving my appearance and finding me returned to the warmth and light of grace when I open this dispatch from the other side of salvation. I take heart in the words of the poet and professor Johann Peter Lange, who wrote in 1868 that there is “no fall so deep that grace cannot descend to it” and “no height so lofty that grace cannot lift the sinner to it.” I cannot predict how time will treat either my face or my faith, but I can allow myself to hope that I will know again that splendid fear that God is present, to be descended to once again.*While I was searching for grace in O’Connor’s work, I was dating a sycophantic Marxist with a beard and a snide streak. He noticed the row of O’Connor’s books on my desk after we had just slept together. He asked what I liked about them, flipping one upside down and right side up again too fast to either take in the cover art or read the back copy. I paused and said, “I think me and Flannery are having the same fight with God’s mercy.” It was a vulnerable confession and a true one, but he replied with a mean-spirited laugh. He began an unsolicited tirade about how neither mercy nor grace could be seen as gifts because God’s very design of us made them necessities. He created sin; it was no great favor to create redemption. Though I did not find a moment to say so in his screed—and don’t know that I would have had he taken a moment to breathe and to listen—I believed humans to be in a constant state of his creation of us, forever being made and unmade into and out of his image.Whatever puny god these men believe in that makes human instruction rather than divine intervention the pathway by which people recognize grace again is not the god I miss. Don’t they know that such requests for my faith to be restored ought to be sent toward the heavens and not into my inbox?His impromptu polemic came finally to an end. I said, “I’m just grateful that there’s something light that can find its way even into the darkest corners of myself,” without looking at him. He chortled again and said, “Your god cut out your eyes and you’re grateful for the stick he gave you to stumble with?” The volume and disdain of his words were exhausting so early in the morning. I simply said, “Yes.” He rolled his eyes. He left and I sat alone in the rattling aftershock of his outburst and the door slamming shut. They were two violences on either side of a moment of grace so undetectable that it has taken me six years to see my refusal to fight as the divine empowering me to silence more than my pride suppressing me to it.My greatest fear in writing this is not admitting my lack of faith but being exposed to the weak faith of others. I have written before about my profound love of Christianity but the absence of God in my life, and I was bombarded with emails from men admonishing my unbelief as if I had any control over it—and worse, having the hubris to believe they would personally shepherd me back to the faith. Whatever puny god these men believe in that makes human instruction rather than divine intervention the pathway by which people recognize grace again is not the god I miss. Don’t they know that such requests for my faith to be restored ought to be sent toward the heavens and not into my inbox?The only comforting words I’ve actually ever gotten in my inbox were after I sent an email to a religious literary scholar. I told him how much I admired his work because despite having no faith, I saw his reverence to the topic as the last hope for religious authenticity in America. He thanked me for my unprompted words and ended by saying, “And please recall that apostates honor the Church as heretics do not. Heretics do it the disservice of misinterpreting its Message, while apostates pay it the huge compliment of rejection. And of course the one who rejects can still be come the one who accepts, as the heretic cannot!” He wrote with warmth and hope without sacrificing any of his conviction. That was a man of God.*The ways in which we talk about God’s omniscience fail to account sufficiently for God’s omnipresence. “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” we sang as children, placing God at a distance from the very start. God is portrayed as a reader of minds rather than as an inhabitant of them. Sylvia Plath wrote in a letter, “I talk to God but the sky is empty,” which I take less as evidence of disbelief in grace than misguided searching for it. God’s reign over creation is not from above it but from within it, dwelling in every atom and absence in existence. “It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us; it is the very sign of His presence,” was how C.S. Lewis put it, and I find this apt but incomplete. Dirt can be seen and so much of what God is remains unseen, even though he is present.I had faith that God not only existed but that he resided among us. I felt it in my chest and my breath, as inescapable as the temperature of the air. I didn’t know what to do with such abundance but knew even less what to do with its absence. The vacancy left by God is felt not like grief at losing a loved one but like the pain of losing a limb. The trauma of physical suffering is exacerbated by disorienting new asymmetry and a sudden incapacity to move about the world in a rhythms that are familiar to us. My own loss of God occurred soon after I got to divinity school. I still cannot decide if that was the least likely of places for it to happen or really the only place in the world where it was possible.I often make jokes at my own expense about the fact that I went to divinity school on a whim to escape the vices that controlled my life in my early twenties. “It was a very expensive exorcism,” I say time and again, hoping that I haven’t made the joke to my present audience already. It is easier to deflect attention from whims than from desperate and intentional hope. I did not have a religious upbringing but became pious suddenly and fervently as a teenager. My overactive moral imagination sought a shape for the universe and found the cross. I spent the first seven years of my adulthood in New York City, where hedonistic impulses constantly butt heads with my holy ones. I worked jobs that I hated and had sex with men that I hated more. I was difficult and forgiven too often for it. So when I threw myself into church life, I craved a higher-functioning faith, one that could act on my gratitude for God’s grace with more than paralyzed despondency and reliance on alcohol and narcotics to numb the pain of forgiveness. I endeavored to excise a handful of unmanageable but not-yet-deadly demons and hoped that the practical faith of aspiring clergy was an airborne thing I could catch. But as I sat in the orientation meetings and worship settings designed to bring us close together, I withdrew.I found their God defanged by anthropomorphism and modernity’s discomfort with the concept of sin. I found God rewritten as my friend instead of my author, my confidante instead of my judge. And in my prideful efforts to resist what I saw as the hollowness of much of the faith I found, I stumbled upon the dangerous conviction that if God is not as I understood him then God is not at all. I allowed it to linger in my mind for long enough to establish a grip that it has not yet released. Most of what I heard there felt so empty that I cannot recall much of it, but there is a single theological conversation I had in the midst of my faith draining from me that I carry with me today.One night, a dear friend admitted that she believed in Hell. I asked her what it was and she said, “Hell is the absence of God.” To this day, it is the most feasible definition I have ever heard.*There are those who never catch faith of any kind—those for whom the God-loss is a non-issue. But losing belief in God did not unbuild or even destabilize my conception of the shape of a world informed by my belief that grace was the primary particle holding the universe together. I still understand existence as a competition between good and evil. I believe there is a redeemable rottenness at each of our cores and I still call it sin. I find useful the idea that even Heaven cannot escape the terror of war forever. My worldview has all the component parts of a Christian but no God to animate it with purpose. It is an evacuated city, its structures rendered useless because there is no one there to use them.God did indeed come bearing the weight of a world in chaos, but he set it upon me in a space unencumbered by gravity. I knew that the load was there but God’s grace rendered it a tranquil, weightless catastrophe. Now it is just a world and not just any world: a rapidly dying one.I have been told to take heart that I am in good company: many writers’ best works were born of their entanglements with the holy. Though her Catholic faith appears unflinching across her brutal and clever prose, Flannery O’Connor admitted often to struggling in her understanding of God’s grace. The Dostoevsky catalog is almost entirely a wrestling match between him and the Holy Spirit. You can scarcely turn a page in Toni Morrison’s work without stumbling upon a symbol of Christianity, subverted and challenged, but still beheld reverently. I have been told more than once that my writing has scriptural qualities by editors working with me on stories that have nothing to do with religion. I still find more compelling images in the Bible than anywhere else. On the occasions that I write fiction, I map my character arcs based on proximity to God. Even in my susceptibility to delusion, however, I harbor no secret belief that I might ever near the literary prowess of those I have mentioned, nor do I especially need to. I would be perfectly content to produce mediocrity if it meant the return of my familiar ghost.*Though I find pleasure in reading the authors who grapple with faith, the distances created by time, geography, and by the calculations made in the prose itself make it hard to find any real solace in them. It is difficult to find fellow travelers in my own life who speak of God in language I relate to on this now faithless journey. For many, God revealed himself only as the weight of the whole world. To be rid of him is to be, at last, unburdened. For others, God was always so exceedingly human in his manifestation that to lose faith was a loss akin to drifting apart from a friend. It was difficult but not devastating.In my experience, God did indeed come bearing the weight of a world in chaos, but he set it upon me in a space unencumbered by gravity. I knew that the load was there but God’s grace rendered it a tranquil, weightless catastrophe. Now it is just a world and not just any world: a rapidly dying one.“It hurts just as much as it is worth,” is how a friend once described grief to novelist Julian Barnes. Barnes is not a theist, but he once opened a book with the line, “I don't believe in God, but I miss Him," and so I am drawn often to him as a possible fellow traveler in this. But I don’t know if the worth of knowing grace can ever be quantified this way. Its value cannot be measured anymore than that of sunlight: its value is the whole of the universe. Grief too is a process of letting something go, while mine is still mired in a hope that something will return. There is evidence among my literary heroes that it is possible. “Faith comes and goes. It rises and falls like the tides of an invisible ocean. If it is presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it is just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will,” O’Connor wrote in her letters. “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence,” wrote Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace. But feeling absence is not a guarantee that there will come a time for presence again.*There are three tattoos that I have considered getting. I think of them more often now than when I had faith. One is the Tree of Life as painted in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. It is often forgotten, while its more villainous twin, The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, revels in the moral mythology spotlight. What’s always been more interesting to me than the serpent’s temptation is that, prior to it, Adam and Eve had the option of choosing to gain consequence-free immortality from the Tree of Life. There was a time when we could choose immortality without salvific grace. The second is a single spiral to represent “the widening gyre” wherein W.B. Yeats’ “falcon cannot hear the falconer” in his famous poem, “The Second Coming.” The falcon is widely acknowledged as a symbol for humans falling into a growing vortex, unable to hear the voice of God. I thought of getting the falcon, but it just isn’t an especially lovely bird. The third is the line, “Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy,” from O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. Mercy as a force that requires warning is a message I can get behind.I think of these three ideas not as variations on the same theme but as a narrative. The three together are the lost opportunity to turn away from sin, the distance from God’s grace that sin has taken us, and the impending arrival of a forgiveness of sin that is so pure that it registers as disaster. I think of how I courted that very disaster in my divinity school essay when I explained that I wanted “to teach that God’s love is something they can take with them when they must leave other things behind. From one house to another. From year to year to seemingly endless year. From solitude to blessed company and back.” If this and all of my writing on religious faith that followed were intended to record theological memories, perhaps getting tattoos would be intended to create theological scars. Maybe I think if pouring the words out through my fingertips has been no particular relief then I should let them soak violently into my flesh, memorials to past beliefs that I might resurrect in me by bearing them on my body. My hesitations are both cosmetic and cosmic, I’m scared of them becoming ugly and of their messages becoming even more unreal. They might bring me closer to the light of grace, but they might show me just how much deeper I can fall.
Featuring Tavi Gevinson
On being 15, growing up online, and writing with your mouth.
Lucky Jim Bond: Inside Kingsley Amis’s Quietly Subversive 007

The spy’s relationship with the villain Colonel Sun veered from tradition: absent a manufactured fatal love triangle, Amis examined the toxic, unsatisfying power dynamics between like minds.

I.‘A motorist brought him in getting on for half an hour ago. Said he found him wandering about in the road near one of the entrances to the Great Park. Of course, we thought he was tight at first.’‘There’s a similarity. The quiet kind of drink. I can’t think of any better way of making a man docile. You know, sergeant, there’s something nasty about this, whatever it is. Who is our friend?’‘Name of Bond, James Bond. Business address in London, Regent’s Park somewhere.’A well-connected banking heir, Ian Fleming turned to writing as yet another hobby. His first novel, Casino Royale, was written over a few weeks at his estate in Jamaica, drawing on his experience as an intelligence officer in the Second World War. It was published in 1953. Fleming introduced his main character without much ceremony or grace: “James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough and he always acted on the knowledge.”By 1957, thanks in part to a serialization in the Daily Express, Bond was a household name in Britain. When President Kennedy listed From Russia With Love as one of his ten favourite books in an article for Life, sales spiked and Bond exploded into the American consciousness. Contemporary critics appear unable to overstate the series’ influence—two recent book-length treatments are titled The Man Who Saved Britain and The James Bond Phenomenon.Now, we tend to think about James Bond as biennial film appointment—another chance to sell explosions and Omega watches to 13-year-old boys, even though today’s Bond fans are typically men over 35. Fair enough. MGM estimates that over half the world has seen a Bond film. But the character was a literary “phenomenon” before Sean Connery sipped his first celluloid martini, and the Bond novels have never gone out of print — with one exception. Colonel Sun, published in 1968, was the first novel in the series written by someone other than Fleming, and has been unavailable since the early 1990s. But Vintage Classics is bringing it back to shelves on November 24th.11Vintage Classics is, like Hazlitt, a property of Penguin Random House.II.It is true that a secret agent on an assignment must never fall into any kind of routine that will enable the opposition to predict his movements, but it was not until later that Bill Tanner was to appreciate the curious unintentional significance of what Bond was saying.“I don’t quite follow, James. It doesn’t apply to your life in England, surely,” said Tanner, speaking with equally unintentional irony.“I was thinking of the picture as a whole. My existence is falling into a pattern. I must find some way of breaking out of it.”As the Bond novels were first captivating readers, Kingsley Amis was rising to the top of the British literary world. He had started his debut novel, Lucky Jim, while working in a dreary university in Wales after failing his graduate work at Oxford. “What am I doing here? Or anywhere, for that matter” he wrote to Philip Larkin. He channeled his provincial frustrations into a potent and occasionally poetic mix of sex, class and irony, scandalizing readers and charming critics. Lucky Jim brought Amis the Somerset Maugham Award in 1955, and an uncommon celebrity for a novelist. Picture Jonathan Franzen with a better sense of humour, a more concise Donna Tartt.But Amis was still bored. He drifted from post to post, teaching creative writing, but felt stifled by convention. After four more novels, he had exhausted the fiction that had brought him fame. He told the Daily Mail, “I don’t want to do documentary realism any more. In England one is supposed to be a writer about Britain in the ’50s and ’60s. I don’t want to write that kind of book.” He started working on a piece about spy thrillers, hoping it would be published by the New Yorker. It became a book-length critical treatment, The James Bond Dossier, an exhaustive survey of all twelve novels in the series. “Most secret agents of the mind, I should think, take advantage of the chief characteristic of real secret agents. Not only have the latter no need to be outwardly different from other men; they must not be different. So our fantasist can say to himself whenever he feels like it and without any special preparation: Under this fiendishly clever bank-clerk (etc.) disguise lurks intrepid ruthless 00999.”Fleming loved Amis’s analysis, and when he died in 1964, Amis was asked to consult on his unfinished manuscript for The Man with the Golden Gun. The publisher ignored Amis’s suggestions for that book, but he was hired to write the next installment, Colonel Sun, under the pseudonym Robert Markham. There were immediate concerns about fit. “In the preliminary stages, fears were expressed in some quarters that I might produce a sort of Lucky Jim Bond, rampaging through the back streets of Wigan with a packet of fish and chips in one hand and a broken beer bottle in the other.”The novel confirmed many suspicions. Writing for The Guardian, Malcolm Bradbury was brief: “what happens is that the famous exotic world of Fleming gets cut down uncomfortably to size by the equally famous world of the Amis reality principle.” Amis, for his part, thought that the Sean Connery movies were largely to blame for this chilly reception. As noted in A New James Bond, he wrote that his Bond “does rather more thinking than his predecessor normally went in for. But the contrast is much, much more with the Bond of the films, that wisecracking dandy with a personal jet-pack or mini-H-bomb constantly within reach.”III.Perhaps Amis’s struggles point to a larger, stranger cultural history. The first movie I remember going to—not, like, sitting in a theatre watching a movie, that’s Aladdin—but my first memory of the going to a theatre is of going to see Tomorrow Never Dies. The second Bond movie with Pierce Brosnan in the lead, in which Jonathan Pryce plays a Steve Jobs/Rupert Murdoch pastiche trying to orchestrate a world war worthy of his global media company. Here is some real dialogue from that movie: “Mr. Jones, are we ready to release our new software?” “Yes sir, as requested it’s full of bugs, which means people will be forced to upgrade for years.”“Outstanding.”My uncle and his sons had driven from Markham to my parents’ house, and we walked to the old two-screen on Bloor Street, the Runnymede. It was, at most, a beautiful fifteen-minute walk away. I remember it because my family spent the whole time complaining about walking. We should have driven to the theatre. James Bond, my cousins reasoned, would have driven. It’s a very male memory, and it was a terrible movie, they explained to me, compared to the sublime perfection of the Connery films. We took the subway home, one stop.2015 is the thirtieth anniversary of a spectacular cultural event. Not A View to a Kill, the last Bond film to star Roger Moore, who, at 58, was a frighteningly avuncular sex symbol. It’s the anniversary Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men, her first book, an exploration of male friendship and more-than-friendship across nearly three hundred years of English literature.Sedgwick’s most transportable concept, adapted from René Girard (who passed away last week), was the idea that straight-ish men redirect their feelings for each other through competition. “The bond that links two rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the beloved.” We see this structure throughout the Bond books and films, used as a reliable method of raising the stakes. Bond seduces a woman close to his adversary and then she is killed, legitimating the intensity of Bond’s hatred. We see it as early as Jill Masterton in Goldfinger, and as recently as Severine No-last-name (played by Bérénice Marlohe) in Skyfall. These murders are used define these villains as men—well, as a type of man. Guy Burgess casts a long shadow over Fleming’s idea of evil.Amis doesn’t use women as a ligature between Bond and his Colonel Sun, and although Bond picks up a woman working for the Soviets during the mission, we might admire the absence of paternalistic sentiment. She is treated as another operative, cognizant of the risks and acting for herself. Instead, Amis’s Bond worries about being a bad role model. “He hoped desperately that the relative unsophistication of Greek youth would protect Yanni from the progressive intoxication with lethal weapons that, in an urban British lad of this age, could so easily result from such an episode.” We should detect a few fresh layers of racist condescension in this passage, but I can’t help but see Amis making a comment on all of the fathers who would identify with Bond, bringing their sons the theatre.IV.Here we are, James, the two of us in a cellar on a Greek island. Not a very lavish scene, I’m afraid, such as some of your earlier opponents have provided. But then you and I aren’t opponents, are we? We’re collaborators. Right, then. What shall I do to you? Whereabouts in your body shall I attack you? And with what?- Colonel SunAmis’s novel fully breaks down—at least, according to convention—by refusing to build this reliable triangle. Instead, Amis’s titular villain unambiguously wants an intense relationship with Bond and Bond alone. Colonel Sun substitutes torture for “that sickening and mysterious intimacy that gradually comes to unite prisoner and interrogator.” He quotes De Sade as he drives a steel rod into Bond’s ear: “Through cruelty one rises to heights of superhuman awareness, of sensitivity to new modes of being … Side by side you and I will explore the heights.”In his preface to The James Bond Dossier, Amis wrote that he couldn’t “help being slightly drawn to any form of writing that (like science fiction) reaches no part of its audience through compulsion,” particularly after teaching. Not simply finding pleasure in text, but reading text for which pleasure is the primary motivation. Amis wanted to clarify the nature of this pleasure. In an appendix titled “Sadism” he worries about “the basic point … of enjoyment: does the author evidently feel, is the reader invited to feel, that this, that, or the other beating or stabbing or throttling is fun and put there for fun?”Bond escapes, of course, and Sun apologizes for being a careless reader in their final confrontation:I want to tell you now that what I said to you earlier was quite wrong. De Sade misled me. Or I didn’t read him properly. I didn’t feel like a god when I was torturing you back there. I felt sick and guilty and ashamed. I behaved in an evil and childish way. It’s ridiculous and meaningless, but I want to apologize. Can you forgive me?It doesn’t seem like a difficult jump to imagine Colonel Sun as the wrong kind of Bond fan—the one who reads the novels and watches the movies for the thrill of the violence.V.As they moved off, Bond glanced down at the corpse of the man whose death he had unwittingly brought about. It lay there waiting to be removed and disposed of according to routine, a piece of debris, totally insignificant. Bond hated and feared the half-revealed purpose that had brought the man to this house, but he could not repress a twinge of pity at the thought of the casual chance that had led to this summary removal. Was this how James Bond would end, shot in the head and flung aside like a heap of unwanted clothing to smooth out a kink in somebody’s plan?The essayist and critic Wayne Koestenbaum, in a lecture marking the anniversary of Between Men, praised Sedgwick for “challenging our ideas about matters that formerly provoked derisive laughter or shaming silence.” Koestenbaum succinctly identifies her linked programs of diversity and acceptance—Sedgwick’s analysis opened the door for other, new, different, even buried reactions, and implied that a lack of empathy was both a moral and an intellectual failure.The first Bond movie after Amis’s book—On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the only film to star George Lazenby—resurrects triangular competition, but through metafiction. In the opening sequence, we watch through crosshairs as a woman in a kaftan walks herself out to sea, presumably to commit suicide. Bond, we learn, is the rifleman. He puts the gun back into its velvet case and sprints down to the beach, saves her life, and as he is providing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, is attacked by two knife-wielding toughs. As Bond and the assaillants tousle, the woman runs to Bond’s car and drives away, leaving him alone on the beach. The camera closes in on an insouciant Lazenby: “This never happened to the other fellow.”Of course, Amis hated the film.
Speed Trials: Finishing Video Games As Fast As Possible, For Fun and Profit

Talking to a member of the video game speedrunning community about the appeal of the practice, its status as a sort of performance art, and tensions over encroaching commercialization.

Twenty years ago, if you got stuck on a certain level of Sonic the Hedgehog 2—that endless casino labyrinth, for example—you had a few options. You could hand the controller over to your friend and hope they might slog through it. You could go outside to do something else before a spiky blue creature burned itself onto the TV screen. Or, by entering a special sequence of musical tracks on the game’s sound test menu, you could use a level select to cheat your way ahead. However much time that saved me, it got swallowed up by the further secret of the debug mode, which allowed you to place items, objects, and enemies around every stage at will—breaking the game down into a system of elements. Nintendo’s new Super Mario Maker level editor gives players even more control over physics and flux. Along with a tribute to Darude’s “Sandstorm,” not to mention huge numbers of lazy half-finished diversions, the game’s online Course World is hosting some inventively tortuous experiments.One of the evillest Super Mario Maker stages—it took 11,000 tries before anyone completed it—was created by the speedrunner PangaeaPanga, and beaten by another player from the same community. Speedrunning inverts that debug-mode exploration: Its whole point is dissecting a game to reach the end credits as fast as possible. Sometimes this involves emulators and other third-party tools, so that the action can be slowed down to single frames, while others live by human reflexes alone, but what gets watched online doesn’t much resemble the normal playthrough of a game either way. It’s a central source of programming for the gaming-focused streaming platform Twitch.tv, which now has 100 million monthly visitors and sometimes financial payouts. Speedrunners pass over coveted treasures to seek out the most convenient glitches and impossible shortcuts. The skill their hobby requires is more formalist than kinetic, an obsessive study of the flicker between patterns. Having only played casually for the past decade or so, I liked the strangeness of it. For this occasional series interviewing people from Internet subcultures, I got in touch with Jake Eakle, a speedrunner who’s theorized about the practice before.*Can you tell me about your background? What was it that first got you into speedrunning?I think I first learned of speedrunning in college, around 2007, when a friend told me about Speed Demos Archive and TASVideos. That same friend and I happened to already be into N, a lovely game in which the leaderboards are speed-based, so we already had an appreciation for the process of experimentation to find the quickest path through a level (routing) and then trying many times to execute it perfectly (grinding). The speedrunning community just took those concepts and applied them to everything, so it was a natural fit. N also had its share of weird glitches that could be abused to gain speed or skip whole sections of levels, so the speedrunning community's celebration of glitchiness was also familiar and delightful territory.The most obviously alluring aspect of speedrunning for me is the richness and easy availability of the Exploration -> Discovery -> Synthesis -> Optimization cycle. This general process is found in just about any discipline, but video games have the nice property of being small, self-contained systems that are designed to react to your inputs in large, meaningful, surprising ways. That makes the cycle much tighter than it is in, say, gardening, where if you try something new, you might not see results for months, and then when you do you don't know if it was you or the weather that made your plants die.The way this cycle works in speedrunning is, first, you fire up a game you like with an eye to eventually speedrunning it and just play around—not trying to beat the game, certainly not trying to go fast, just trying to get a feel for the edges of the available space. Usually when you come across something in a game that the designer clearly intended to be impossible, you just walk away—but during the exploration phase, maybe you sit there and try it a hundred times instead, and suddenly discover that it's not quite impossible after all. Having discovered something new, you add it to your repository of tricks for the game; once you've found a few, you start putting them together. Much like vulnerability chaining in computer security, going really fast in video games often requires synthesizing many different techniques (this Pastebin link gives a technical run-down of the five or six different techniques needed to achieve a skip long thought impossible).Once you've got a bunch of tricks and combinations of tricks, and figured out which segments of the game can be sped up through their use, you can start optimizing. This phase is mostly about repetition with subtle iteration, nailing down the exact sequence of inputs that gets the best results and practicing it over and over. It might sound like the boring part, but it has many nice qualities. It can be relaxing, meditative, and flow-y. It can also be a time for intense, minute deconstruction of every movement and shift of attention, a process of gaining mastery over oneself and testing one's limits. And when you finally beat the cycle, or save the frame, or get the clip, level 1-1 can evoke an intensity of triumph usually reserved for beating the final boss.This cycle covers a really large range of basic human urges, and it does it all in a very neatly packaged, discrete, and—for many runners, most importantly—already familiar and beloved environment.It sounds a bit like chess theory in that sense—a game that generates start-to-finish strategy and advanced techniques through intense study. Except that chessboards don't have glitches to exploit, which makes speedrunning less mathematical and more chaotic. What is the community like socially? Do people still congregate on message boards, or has livestreaming over YouTube or Twitch done away with all that?The community is … well, there are a few different kinds of speedrunning communities. There are communities of runners, the kind of people who go to Games Done Quick and other marathons. I've never done that, but my impression is that it's quite a pleasant, fairly close-knit community that likes to get together and have a lot of silly fun, with only the occasional outbreak of weird harassment.Then there are small communities that congregate around particular games and particular runners. These communities vary a lot, from tiny groups of IRL friends, to hypercompetitive, territorial mobs, to welcoming, creative fan clubs. This is where I've spent most of my time—places like Pibonacci's Spelunky stream, or Acmlm's Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past stream, or Jodenstone's Ocarina of Time stream. These communities come and go: I would have made all three of those links, but none of them really exist in the same form they did when I was a regular. They've fallen apart due to the runner losing interest in the game, a milestone in the game being reached (Joden getting Ocarina of Time’s world record [at any percentage of completion], and then Skater beating it soundly, resulted in everyone pretty much deciding the game was dead), or friction between a few members escalating to community-wide drama.There are also dedicated theory discussion boards, mostly per-game, mostly scattered across various fora (though there are some attempts at centralization, like the SDA forum, speedrun.com, and of course pretty much all English-language tool-assisted-speedrun work is documented in the TASVideos forum). I personally really like to read threads about games I care about in these places, because they tend to be full of the most knowledgeable runners/routers sharing the most up-to-date info, with a minimum of noise.Lastly, there's the Twitch community at large, and the Reddit community, and AGDQ viewers, and other meme-hungry hordes. These are pretty much as bad as any other large group of mostly young, bored males on the internet.Are there any big-name speedrunners that you find to have a unique playing style, or that generate a particularly memorable social experience when they're streaming?Trying to name anyone here feels like it would just be naming the runners who I happen to watch—I think that every streamer has a pretty distinct atmosphere. Hanging out in speedrun streams is primarily a social experience, and how chat is moderated, how much the streamer talks, whether they have a cam, what overlay features they use, etc. can all totally change what being there feels like, before you even factor in what game they are playing or how they are playing it. Some streamers have complex chat-based games/trivia bots/etc. that allow different kinds of interaction with the stream, some have dozens of mods, some don't have a cam or even a mic and still manage to create unique social spaces by typing in chat during cutscenes or loading screens.How much does the ruthless pressure of the format allow someone to establish a persona?There is a real tension here, and sometimes it has unfortunate consequences. In particular, most people want to watch runs, rather than extremely repetitive practice of a short segment of the game. But practice is pretty important to actually getting competitive. This occasionally leads to skilled players practicing less than they should to maintain the social atmosphere they enjoy, or, alternately, to nice communities falling apart as the runner decides to practice off stream, or give up a game entirely.I was wondering which games are the most popular for speedrunning purposes—do you find that they've changed over time?The most popular games have pretty much always been old-school Nintendo blockbusters, peaking around the N64—every main-series Mario game (especially Super Mario 64), every main-series Zelda (especially Ocarina of Time), every Mega Man game. There's also another huge segment of the community dedicated to first-person shooters—Doom, GoldenEye, and Half-Life are probably the best-represented. That said, speedrunners will speedrun anything—it's really worth checking out the Awful Games Done Quick segments at the GDQs to get a taste for this.It's pretty easy to understand why it's mostly old games—the number-one reason people get into speedrunning is because they really, really love their favorite childhood game, they've beaten it a million times, and they're looking for a way to keep it interesting, or to connect with other players of the game, to keep viewers interested in it, etc. As for why the emphasis on Nintendo, you could make an argument that with the Mario games at least, they simply have a great track record of releasing the best platformers with the best movement options. But honestly, I don't really know why Ocarina of Time is so much more popular than Banjo-Kazooie or the Sega Genesis Sonic games. It's not like those latter games don't have healthy speedrunning communities, but there seems to be some invisible force drawing the Nintendo titles to the top of the Twitch popularity rankings every time. Perhaps it's just that those games were more popular when they were new.As for them changing over time … yes and no. A feature of speedrunning is that sometimes a game will be pretty dormant for a long time, years even, before someone suddenly discovers a new glitch and then there is a flurry of renewed activity while everyone scrambles for the newly available world record. So in that sense, which games are currently getting a lot of attention is constantly in flux. And of course, plenty of people speedrun new releases as well, so often a small community will spring up around a game when it is new, and then slowly peter out as the game becomes thoroughly explored and people move on to the next thing—The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky are pretty good examples of games in this category.But over the long run, honestly, no, they don't change all that much. The Marios and Zeldas were the earliest speedgames, and are pretty much still at the top.Yeah, it makes sense that old first-person shooter games make up a big chunk of the community after those Nintendo franchises—I read somewhere that Doom was the very first game to develop a dedicated speedrunning following? They're action-heavy but in a methodical way, with precise measurements of ammo or health, and back then they didn't really have any dialogue or even a story to slow things down. Kind of like how Pokemon was simple enough for tens of thousands of people to collectively play and complete. I also meant to ask you about your own favourite games for speedrun purposes. I was struck by what you said about the ephemeral nature of these mini-fandoms—whereas a regular player might go through Ocarina of Time or whichever game trying to find all the heart containers, complete every side quest, and then put it aside for a long time, speedrunners exhaust its shortcuts, the exploitable patterns and bugs ...I run really random, weird stuff that nobody cares about. I have uncontested records in 868-HACK, Twump Tower and Minesweeper RPG. And I guess in this weird unfinished game called Dragon Maze that I don't have a good enough run of yet to publish. I also run Spelunky HD, but I'm nowhere near the top tier of players.How do outsiders react when they find out this is your hobby?When it's, like, my mom, or other people from older generations, it's indifference or surprise that there are people who take something so trivial seriously, but for the most part, even among non-gamers, people are pretty interested. Just about everyone has fond memories of some video game, so I've been pretty amazed how many different kinds of people I've been able to really entertain by pulling up a tool-assisted speedrun of their childhood favorite. And I got pretty interested responses when I was in the process of writing my TAS article for [online gaming zine] Zeal, again from both gamers and non-gamers.How do you think the emergence of Twitch as a free, hugely popular streaming service (literally built into PS4 systems now, I heard) has changed all this?Twitch has irrevocably and totally changed everything. Unfortunately, I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask about the before times—I was there, watching runs on Speed Demos Archive, but I have no real idea of what it was like to be part of the speedrunning community then, because it was tiny, and there was little to no room for viewer participation. I also have no idea how many non-runner fans there were—the videos hosted there have no view counters or comment sections. From what I've heard runners say about those days, it was a far more solitary and passion-driven pursuit. People still shared strategies, and still enjoyed showing off their accomplishments, but the meat of the work was sitting there at home playing the game by yourself.Nowadays, a stream is as likely to be a social experience for the runner as it is to be a serious attempt to improve a record or practice a strat. In fact, in many cases, runners and their viewers have come to value the experience of hanging out together with the game as a focus more highly than actual accomplishment in speedrunning—which gets to be an issue when the run requires a kind of focus that's incompatible with reading and chatting at the same time. Those for whom the equation hasn't tipped quite that far frequently hide chat entirely during hard sections of runs so that they won't be thrown off. Similarly, having a live audience provides a hugely increased incentive to show off or try dangerous or silly things during a run, making speedrunning into much more of a performance art than it was previously.On the flip side, the Twitch community has also caused a pretty serious increase in the competitiveness of speedrunning. There's a well-documented effect in which large numbers of viewers will show up to a run when it has world-record potential, and then vanish as soon as it dies. Since viewer numbers translate directly into popularity, runner ego, and sometimes cash, this puts a lot of pressure on people to grind runs rather than doing important, but less watchable, practice or research. And it means that a lot of runners who might previously have been content to improve their own times, or just enjoy going fast, instead get burned out under the pressure of having to be the best or be ignored.But that trend too has an opposing counterpart—Twitch has also increased the accessibility, visibility, and popularity of speedrunning beyond anything anyone could have previously imagined, and as a result, there are hundreds or thousands of times more speedrunners than there were before, everywhere along the spectrum from extremely casual to doing it for a living. The Games Done Quick [marathons] have raised millions of dollars for Doctors Without Borders and other charities. SpeedRunsLive races regularly draw dozens, and occasionally hundreds, of participants—real-time races over the Internet weren't a thing at all before Twitch.And of course, as alluded to above, Twitch has brought money into the scene for the first time. Nobody is making a lot of money, just yet, but a small handful have gone full time, supported by ad revenue, monthly Twitch subscriptions, and donations. And there has been recent controversy over people selling speedrunning lessons—there is a large element of the scene that sees any hint of commercialization as a threat to the ideological purity of The Art of Speedrunning. This group is destined to lose their battle, but its existence gives us a glimpse of the mindset a lot of older runners have—speedrunning not as performance, not as competition, but as the pursuit of perfection, penetration of the impenetrable, dense, and mysterious black box of a beloved game, in search of its hidden Truth.I am kind of making fun of this, because I think it has given rise to a silly and unproductive attitude in this case, but it's actually a lot of the draw for me too, especially when it comes to tool-assisted speedruns. Human runs feel like they are more about human skills, to me, but there really is something beautiful about the discreteness and determinism of a game ROM, and about proving that no matter how much arcane complexity its designers packed into those cartridges, they are still finite, and with enough patience and determination, we can unravel them, lay them bare, expose their secrets.
‘I Don’t Envision an End Like I Don’t Envision a Beginning’: An Interview with Mercer Mayer

The author of more than 300 children’s books on spending a lifetime with a single character, the process necessary to produce three books a year, and talking to kids about death.

It’s easy to overlook authors of children’s books. Their work isn’t so much meant to be critiqued by adults: it’s there to fill the spaces in our kids’ brains with words and images and ideas and lessons, then be forgotten for decades until those kids grow up and need stories to tell their own families. It’s a circle filled with dinosaurs and wizards and princesses wearing paper bags in books that have been ripped, drooled on, consumed, and abused.Mercer Mayer has been filling that circle since the publication of his first book, A Boy, A Dog and a Frog in 1967. In 1975 he published a book called Just For You about a hedgehog-looking child who is set on helping his mother with her chores. The book was a surprise hit, and Mayer’s publisher asked for more. Mayer is now 71 and has drawn and written over 300 books during his career, the majority of which feature the same furry kid called Little Critter. His latest book, Just A Special Thanksgiving, was released in September.I spoke with Mayer over the phone about Little Critter, his career, and mortality. He laughed a lot and seemed to delight in reflecting on a life spent writing for children. I also asked him about the grasshopper and the spider, which will only make sense if you’ve read as many of his books as I have.*You’ve worked on this character for forty years. Is that strange to hear somebody else say that?Mercer Mayer: Well, it just doesn’t make sense because the last forty years seems like about ten. As I’ve gotten older time has gotten extremely faster. So forty years, it’s like, eh, so what? You do change when you age, it’s very funny: your mind changes, your outlook changes, everything changes.How so?You come to the realization, hopefully, that this is a terminal situation and you have no idea when, but you have to get behind that in order to go along and see what’s happening in the world. So things you’ve done for many years, it doesn’t seem like many years, at least to me—it just seems like a period of time I’ve done this. This is what I do. I write crazy stories about Little Critter and draw them. But outside of that I don’t get wowed by the thought of forty years gone by.Is it comforting in a way to have that? So much can happen in forty years—that can be a lifetime. But you’ve also had this strange little character that you’ve been drawing that whole time that’s been a constant in your life.Well, sure, it’s paid the rent, sent kids to college, all sorts of stuff. Very comforting.Do you ever get bored by the character?Yes and no. I have this process I go through all the time, it never stops: When I start a Little Critter book, writing one, I feel like I’ll never write another one again. I can never possibly write another one, there’s just nothing left to write about. And then when I finish drawing and all that, it gets coloured and comes up, it looks very nice. Then, “Oh my god, I have to come up with another, because on my contract it says I agreed to do that.” So I go into a funny state of avoiding all work on Little Critter for a month or so.What brings you back to it?I don’t get so far away that I have to come back. But I have to let it go because these stories are very weird. You think about all the things you can write about and think, “Oh, I’ve written about that and I’ve written about that.” And then you think of one subject you haven’t written about—of course, the one subject you haven’t written about doesn’t seem possible to write about. But that’s just your mind going through the typical crap that your mind goes through. You keep messing with the idea and you keep playing with the idea, that’s all you gotta do. You gotta keep messing with it and playing with it. Eventually I start messing with things again and playing with things again, and before you know it out comes a book. Wow! Damn! Look at that. They come very quick. When they come, they come very quick.Is there anything you haven’t done? I read in an earlier interview that you’ve never figured out how to write about death. I have a four-year-old son who is asking me about death and I honestly don’t have any idea how to have that conversation with him yet, and I was thinking about you and how difficult it must be when you’re thinking about ideas how to translate them for your audience, which is children.It’s a two-pronged thing here. I think it’s impossible to write a book about death that would be very, very helpful. The problem is this is a marketing issue. Some parents, for example, they don’t believe in anything. Other parents are born-again Christians. Others are Muslims. Others are Jewish. In my house, I am the Buddhist. There are all different takes on this subject of death, [so] how do you approach a Little Critter? It has to be done through his father or mother or the two of them—they’ve got to come to some sort of conclusion about what death is, and you can’t really do that when you have so many views on what death is. It’s not really possible, because you’re going to offend half of them and the other half will probably applaud you.How much of your experience as a parent weighs into the stories that you pick?Oh lord, lots. I wrote Little Critter before I had children, the first Little Critter book in [1975], and my first child came in 1981. So there was a lot of time. I was basically writing about my own childhood, or my own fears or my own confusion as a child. Then as time goes by, that childish mindset is something you see in your own children, and it’s interesting to see the logic going behind it because it’s, well, it’s very logical to them all the time. Or it’s very weird and they can’t figure it out, but they just keep going.You just released a book about Thanksgiving, and I was surprised you’d never done a Thanksgiving book before. Did that idea come from you or did somebody ask you?Well, actually, we had done a book, Just So Thankful, a generic Thanksgiving book, because they didn’t want to tackle Thanksgiving, which would mean that after Thanksgiving the book would just die. That book did very, very well, [but] for some reason after a couple years the publishers got together and said, “We want a Thanksgiving book.” Why? Thanksgiving has become a big national holiday. So Thanksgiving is almost as big as Christmas.How much do you work? How much do you have to produce per year?About three books per year on average.How long does it take you from concept to finished product on your end?It takes about four months. Whether it [actually takes that much time] or not, I don’t know. So much of writing and illustrating your own book is a give and take you’re having with the universe: “That doesn’t work, universe, give me something better.” [And the universe will sometimes say:] “Actually, maybe don’t work that day, it’s just not coming.” Then you think, “Oh, I’m going to work this through,” and you work like a devil for two or three days. It’s all about how it’s progressing as an entity—it’s demanding things of you, and you say, “Okay, I’ll do it,” or, “No, I can’t deal with that right now, it’s too confusing.” At least that’s [how it is] for me. But I’ve been very disciplined my whole life working. I have a tendency to work five days a week. Not all day, not during the day necessarily, but four hours, five hours, sometimes six hours.Okay, so, I don’t want to offend you. I am going to ask this question though. I’m just going to put it out there. You’re 71.No.Yeah! No kidding. There’s no reason for you to keep working. Why are you?Well, it depends on why you’re working in the first place. I mean, technically, I could retire. But then I would get extremely bored and write a book. Put it this way: I am basically retired and I am somehow now writing three books a year.Do you know how to not work? After all this time are you capable of not drawing or not writing?I don’t know. I haven’t gone that long without doing it. Am I capable of doing it? I’m a Buddhist and I practice all sorts of meditation, so I’m very much active in learning how to do nothing. So I practice a lot of doing nothing.Does your Buddhism inform these books at all?No, not really. Buddhism came out of my reflections on life after a number of years and the books just kind of wandered along by themselves.What about the character? You do other books and you do other things, but this character, why does it work for you as a storyteller?It started a long time ago—I drew this funny little dummy of this little hedgehog-type guy, he didn’t have any clothes at the time, and it was called Just For You. [It was] about this little guy who was trying to do all these wonderful things for his mother and making a mess as he goes. The book did phenomenally well for Golden Books and they wanted another one. Then they asked for a couple [more] books—makes sense to do one after the next—and there you have it. It just develops like that.So you’re actually coming up on 50 years since your first book, A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog was published. Between that book and Little Critter, were you trying to find something that would stick?No, no, I just did things that came to me. Liza Lou And The Yeller Belly Swamp was one of my first books, like the frog books, and I took it into the publisher when I did my first book—this is back in the days when you could do this kind of stuff—I walked into the publisher of Dial Books and said I’ve done this dummy like you’ve suggested I do, but I can’t think of any words. And she sat down and looked at it and said, “Oh wow, no words. Let’s publish it the way it is.” You always, as a writer or an artist, you always hope your work will sell, because it validates you when you do it.I never was thinking of a great character, I was just thinking of great books. And when I did this little guy, this dummy called Just For You, the publisher I took it to looked at it and said, “Oh Mercer, you don’t really want to publish another dumb little animal book do you?” I said, “Well, I haven’t published an animal book, first of all. I’d like to publish this damn little animal book.” But then I said, “You don’t need this,” took it out of her hands and went to Golden Books. They thought it was great—they love little dumb animal books.But more than anything, Little Critter is a reflection of little kids trying to get socialized in the world. That’s what it’s all about when you’re little, and all the things you have to deal with. All of this subject matter is just things that arise in a child’s life, one way or another, and how you resolve them or what you find out about them. But they’re not extremely turgid or in the dramatic sense of losing your pet dog—it’s just an experience, and the way a kid would have that experience.Before we move on, I want to quick ask you, and I feel like this is a question only someone who has read your books a lot could ask you, but where did the idea come from for you to add the grasshopper and the spider? Finding those little characters hidden away in your images always felt like a treat.Because I can’t stop. A picture tells a story a little differently from the words. It’s not something I think about—I do it. I don’t literally interpret every word and leave everything blank. It’s a visual experience of the words, and [there can be] many different visual experiences of those words, but mine is whatever goes on with Little Critter. And then these, for some reason, the grasshopper came along first and then the spider, and they just wander in and out of the page and nobody ever refers to them at all. They’re just there. It started off as a funny thing, and then after about ten books people [started saying], “Where’s the spider?” I dropped the grasshopper because he was such a difficult little guy to draw in all these different poses. So I thought, “I want to have a mouse or a frog.” I tried all these things; the spider always stayed. And now I’ve settled on the spider and a mouse because they’re just a funny combination. And they just wander around. That’s all.Is that something kids notice?Oh yeah, kids notice that kind of stuff immediately. Kids notice all sorts of strange things. If I forget to have a button coloured on Little Critter’s overalls, I could get mail saying, “Little Critter has no button on.”Liza Lou is a book I grew up with, but I don’t think I understood that you did it until I became a parent and I went back to it, because it is so completely different from your other works. In the years before Little Critter, how much of that time between A Boy, a Dog and a Frog and Little Critter were you still trying to decide what kind of artist you’d like to be? How much development was happening at that point?I fell into these books. I came to New York with a bunch of paintings, very Salvador Dali-ish, strange and graphic and gory things that got a lot of attention on Madison Avenue. When I brought my paintings in they saw them, they all, not all but a good number of good galleries, said, “Do you want me to work towards a show?” So I set off to paint for this show, and the sad truth of it is I found out after doing about four or five of these things that the only reason I did them was for shock value, and I had nothing whatsoever to say. It was just shock value and I was tired of doing it, so I just stopped painting. It was stupid. I went to an old friend after a year or so, a friend of my mother’s who had been doing children’s books. She says, “Oh come by, see what I’m doing.” So I went over to her studio and she’d been doing all these paintings of cute little girls in little dresses and little dolls and little animals having tea. Her name was Martha Alexander and she was quite well known at the time. I said, “Oh, I can do that, that’s something I’ve always wanted to do.” When I was in high school in Hawaii I wanted to do children’s books, but the teacher said, “We’re going to spend one week on children’s books because you can’t make any money doing them.” I said, “Oh god, that’s terrible.” So I forgot about it. [But Alexander] gave me the names of editors and publishers she knew and told me a good song and dance to get in there. I said, “Hi, I’m Mercer Mayer, I’m just in from Hawaii, and Martha Alexander says I should give you a quick call.” They all saw me right away.I wanted to ask you about your writing. You have such a clear voice, and it’s something I discovered in one of your earliest books, which I have as The Bravest Knight but which was first published as Terrible Troll. There’s so much of it that I can see later went into Little Critter, and one of the primary things is you’ve got a clear cadence in your lines, almost to the point where I feel like I can’t read it any other way to my son. It’s always lists of things that the character is doing: “I shined his shoes,” “I cleaned the horse,” “I picked a hat.” Are you conscious of it when you write that way?I’m conscious of all these ideas in order to get them into a book that used to be 32 pages, now 24, whatever. To get an idea without tons of words, saying practically nothing … a novel, kids aren’t going to respond to that. They want to see something happening and progressing. “I did this and I did this and I did this.” Because that’s what kids do. “I do this and I do this.” So whatever the subject is, you have to get into it and think of all the things you would do if you became the squire to the bravest knight or if you lived a hundred thousand years ago or whatever. You’ve just got to think about all the things you’d have to have—you’d have to have a hat with a big fluffy feather, you work for a knight and travel around making bad guys do good things. It’s not so much cadence as it is listening to things and a way of listing what you would do. And you have to make it exciting because I’m not teaching anybody anything, I’m just trying to get them into reading and enjoying the book.Do you see an end to this at some point?Yeah, I’ll be dead. I will be dead. So don’t worry about it, you’ll join me.Well, I don’t think I’ll join you, but you are right, we are going that way.Well, you know, you’re going there.But there’s no reason for you to quit. You’re just going to keep going as long as you can?I don’t really think about it that much. I really don’t. I never felt like I’m really going to work. Sometimes my goofing off seems like work and it’s like, “Oh crap, I’ve got to finish this in two weeks, because I’m behind so much and behind the ball.” But I don’t envision an end like I don’t envision a beginning. We’re all here now and it’s just what we do. Be here now.
Ring Leaders: Inside the League of Lady Wrestlers

How a Yukon art project became a national phenomenon of sold-out shows, dream selves and subversive sexuality. 

This is not your typical retirement party. There are three hundred of us gathered at Gibraltar Point on Centre Island, a 20-minute ferry ride and 30-minute walk away from Toronto. The sun has set. Lights are strung over the treetops. Cans of beer are in hand. The scene would be romantic were we not all standing around a dirty, beat-up wrestling ring.Tonight’s guest of honour is Big Jody Mufferaw. Her name is a tongue-in-cheek play on Ottawa folklore legend Big Joe (forever immortalized in a Stompin’ Tom Connors song), and Jody is a lumberjack with a penchant for battle. For the past three years, she has been the face of the League of Lady Wrestlers. Ironically enough, there’s nothing particularly “big” about league founder Aubyn O’Grady, who plays Jody. When the announcers introduce her, she crawls into the ring and her head barely peeps over the top rope. While she speaks, she swings a foam axe around; I hold my breath in fear that she might wind herself. “I’ve chopped down many trees—and many women in the ring,” Jody boasts to the crowd. “But I can’t come to terms with the environmental and emotional destruction I’ve caused. That’s why I’m retiring.” There’s applause. But as she speaks, Jody’s nemesis, Beaver Fever, slowly emerges from the brush behind her and swipes her prized axe. “If you want your axe, you’ll have to come get it,” Beaver says as she races to the shore of Lake Ontario. Jody strips off her western-style, powder blue button-down, reveals a maroon onesie, and goes after Beaver Fever. The crowd follows the fight, trekking with glow sticks and cameras to the beach. In the water, the pair performs their choreographed fight. From the shore, it looks like dressed-up synchronized swimming, twists and turns and lifts executed with precision. Bodies are slammed, heads dunked. The pair scuffle inside Beaver’s homemade “dam,” only momentarily popping out for air. Then Jody retrieves her axe, bops Beaver on the head with its handle and emerges victorious—returning to the beach only to grab a torch and set Beaver’s dam ablaze.The September performance marks the peak of the league’s second-annual all-female Island Rumble. What began in Dawson City, Yukon, as a one-off art production has now spread to three cities across the country, giving female-identifying wrestlers the chance to train and hop in the ring in front of hundreds of spectators.At the core of these performances—beyond the acrobatics, the scripted trash talk, and the finishing moves—are wrestlers’ alter egos, the characters and the backstories that bring the fights to life. At this match, Jody’s retirement mirrors O’Grady’s own step away from the ring after years of wrestling. “Big Jody is such a big part of me now,” she says. “But playing her takes a lot out of me. I think it’s time to say goodbye.”While O’Grady may be retiring, dozens of other women are joining the league to dream up their own characters. When professional lives stifle creativity, the league offers a chance to be, as the wrestlers say, “your fantasy self.” Even more so, it is an opportunity to embrace strength and femininity through the reclamation of one of the world’s least female-empowered sports. Battling it out at this bizarre, secluded event is, as one wrestler puts it, “like letting your freak flag fly.”*It began with rejection. In 2012, O’Grady was living in Dawson City, eager to start her next art project. Through brainstorming with her former roommate, an avid wrestling fan, and a friend, she dreamt up the concept of the League of Lady Wrestlers. “We thought it’d be cool to get a wrestling ring and put it on the Yukon River while it was frozen and host a wrestling match,” she says. That idea was shot down quickly when O’Grady—to little surprise—could not secure arts funding; what would have been known as the River Rumble was far too “out there,” she speculates, to be eligible for government grants.Women first stepped into the ring in the early 20th century to fill Depression-era sports arenas whose revenue streams were slowly dying. They were advertised as freak shows.Still, the idea stuck, and a year later, O’Grady took it upon herself to make the wrestling happen. She set out to build the ring herself: one day, while cruising through YouTube, she found a video ("set to calming guitar music," she emphasizes) that showed how to construct one with old tires. The plan was put in motion. She and her friends collected a few dozen tires from the junkyard. Old planks of wood were also scavenged, poured into buckets of cement for stability. A dirty white tarp would suffice as the floor of the ring. It looked less than glamorous—though silver streamers were taped up atop the corners of the ring—but it was nonetheless a suitable place to wrestle.O'Grady was living at Hobo Mansion, an old cabin built on a grassy plateau in Dawson, at the time. Outside the cabin was wide-open space, where the first event, "The Hobo Showdown," would be held. Rather than choreograph the matches, she and her friends winged their performances. During one match, O’Grady rolled out of the ring and landed on a shattered beer bottle; she needed nineteen stitches. But the show was a success: more than 100 spectators showed up to cheer the women on. The League of Lady Wrestlers was born. Today, some of the original members continue to plan shows in Dawson City, while O’Grady runs the Toronto chapter. Others have started one in Montreal. In total, the league boasts around forty members, In Toronto, attendance has steadily grown from about 100 to 300 and those without tickets beg for them on Facebook event pages. Every Toronto show has sold out, and the larger audiences expect more than improvised productions. Prior to the first match in the city (the “Hogtown Throwdown”), a professional wrestler trained the women participating, and O’Grady rented a real ring. The wrestlers began choreographing their matches; every show is scripted. In preparation of Island Rumble II, the sixteen women wrestling held three-hour practices months in advance of the event. On their own time, they also perfected their characters’ elaborate back stories and costumes. Though O’Grady says most women recruited have an idea of who they want to play, forming their stories involves a great deal of contemplation. But everyone has an inner wrestler: “One of the things that kept the league going was realizing the characters were extensions of ourselves, someone who you think maybe you are, or a weird part of your personality you get to put on display,” she says. Erin Fleck plays Kitty Stardust, a former vet technician-cum-cat lady who became the front woman of glam-rock T. Rex cover band Pterodactyl. Fleck, a playwright, says Kitty combines all of her favourite pastimes—so much so that she designed band tees to wear in the ring. “It’s my dream self,” she tells me. The persona of her opponent at the Island Rumble II is equally intricate: Lauryn Kronick’s Sqrue Younicorn is adorned in a rainbow unicorn-themed unitard, with glitter painted like a mask over her eyes. The piece de resistance: a strap-on harness and bright pink dildo worn atop her head like a horn—both Kronick and Fleck have decided it is the centrepiece of Younicorn’s powers.In many ways, mainstream wrestling performances borrow from queer aesthetic and identity.Kronick and Fleck, like all of the League of Lady Wrestler participants, are volunteers. Everyone has a day job, or spends their days studying. Even O'Grady, who has devoted hours to organizing the league, works a 40-hour week at the University of Toronto Physics Department in administration. Wrestling is strictly extracurricular.But it is precisely the non-professional nature of the league that draws its performers in. For those who don't identify as artists in their work lives, wrestling as an alter ego provides a creative outlet. Kronick is a prime example, working in communications at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. After hours deep in policy, Sqrue Younicorn is an escape—a queer-inspired mythical character who celebrates the best of identity in performance. These characters are completely removed from reality, but they are distinctive enough to separate professional life from fictional art. It is these performances that the wrestlers can be their zaniest selves: a positive transformation.At a dress rehearsal the weekend before the Island Rumble, Kitty and Sqrue practice their match: showboating to The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” followed by faux hair pulling and a finishing move called the “rainbow evisceration,” which leaves Younicorn’s innards (a pile of colourful streamers) strewn on the practice mat. But when 4:30 p.m. rolls around, Kronick returns to reality and heads home for a Rosh Hashanah meal with her family.“Don’t worry,” she says before leaving, dildo in hand. “I’m going to change my outfit before dinner.”*The ferry to Centre Island the day of the match is packed with bicycles and concealed paper bags full of liquor. Curious, an older man asks a media photographer what all the hubbub is about. “We’re going to see women wrestle. It’s an all-female wrestling league,” she answers enthusiastically. Perplexed, he raises an eyebrow. “Well, that seems pretty weird.” But the spirit of the League of Lady Wrestlers is not far removed from mainstream wrestling. Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment, which reeled in more than $30 million last year, is known for its outlandish narratives and over-the-top personas—not unlike the women at the Island Rumble. For every Sqrue Younicorn with a dildo atop her head, there’s an Undertaker in a speedo tossing his curly black locks at opponents.In many ways, these mainstream performances borrow from queer aesthetic and identity. Male performers hop into the ring in tight leather outfits—the kind you’d see on a Saturday night at the local leather bar. But when matched with the hyper-masculine act of violence, these performances are viewed not as homoerotic, but as feats of strength. As Sharon Mazer explores in her book, Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle, wrestling is transgressive in its merging of macho and camp; it is acceptable to “dance around” and “tease” men in the ring so long as the performance comes hand-in-hand with the “brute,” the beatdowns. For the League of Lady Wrestlers, performances undo this transgression to bring this aesthetic to the forefront. In mainstream North American wrestling culture, however, portraying women in the ring as “strong” is uncommon. The WWE refers to its female participants—not just wrestlers, but ring announcers and managers, too—as “divas,” promoting them as “smart and sexy.” These fighters are typically clad in cute but impractical outfits and are marketed to please male viewers. This has never been more evident than when the WWE angled for more male viewership by debuting HLA—Hot Lesbian Action—in 2002, a storyline during which two women stripped down to their underwear and were scripted to fondle each other in the ring. Promoter Eric Bischoff later instructed the pair to “go at it” in front of a largely male audience. (I reached out to the WWE in hopes of speaking to some professional female wrestlers, but the league insisted they could not accommodate my request.)In these spaces free from judgement—and even more so, the male gaze—these women open themselves up to a new identity: the kind of person they could be without restraint, fear, or limitations. According to Patrice Oppliger’s Wrestling and Hypermasculinity, women first stepped into the ring in the early 20th century to fill Depression-era sports arenas whose revenue streams were slowly dying. They were advertised as freak shows: women who should have been passive and docile would beat down powerful men in a reversal of roles. “Women were seen then as unpredictable and emotionally unstable,” Oppliger writes. The first woman-versus-woman match came a decade later, in the 1930s, but these were quickly banned across the U.S. for fear that women might “immorally seduce male audiences.” From then on, women partook in the sport as cheerleaders, or “ring dressings.” As an extension of this role, they began wrestling again in the 1990s—this time, hyper-sexualized, for the exact purpose they were banned for in the first place: to please the men watching.In many ways, the League of Lady Wrestlers has returned to that original ’20s concept of strong, powerful female fighters. “The professional wrestling ring is traditionally a male-dominated space,” the league’s official pamphlet reads. “Our events are more than just simple battles between faces and heels.” Instead, they offer a reclamation of the sport, an undoing of the hypermasculinity the ring has fostered for nearly a century. The wrestlers poke fun at this whenever they can: Black Widow performs the “female gaze” to paralyze her opponent. Helga Hysteria breaks free from the chains of her alcoholic partner and rips off her dress to gain power. Lilac Poussez resists The Guardian’s sexual advances, insistent that she wants to fight, not “Netflix and chill.” Many identities—the likes of The Stinker and Garbageface, for instance—are intentionally disgusting, meant to repulse and not attract viewers. Others mock the traditional sexualization of women in the ring by playing it up perversely, flirting with opponents until they have reached peak discomfort. “Initially, the whole idea of the league was to bring an audience who expect a sexy show when they hear of women wrestling and to change their minds about female performance and performing strength,” O’Grady says. As I reach Gibraltar Point for the Island Rumble, I see the older man from the ferry pacing by the entrance, hoping to catch a glance of the sold-out show.*While fighting under fairy lights on an island away from the city may seem exciting, if not glamorous, the road to get there is decidedly much less attractive. A few days before the Island Rumble, I head to the west end of Toronto, near some industrial buildings, to the League of Lady Wrestler practice space. The team rents this giant, white-washed room full of mats to rehearse; today, they’ll be here for six hours. To me, the room is cold and damp, but to the women picking each other up and slamming one another on the ground, it feels like a boiler room.The purpose of rehearsals is to memorize scripts and become comfortable with wrestling partners—and, if possible, prevent any unwanted injuries. One by one, the wrestlers read through their scripts and act out their matches sans props and in a far less believable manner. Costumes are an afterthought. Bodies move more slowly. Wrestlers test each other’s limits. In this environment, the women look more like teenagers in gym class than performers. But in this space, the women of the league are cultivating their identities. I am taken aback when, upon arrival, O’Grady introduces me to the others not by first name, but by their alter egos. “That’s Sqrue (pronounced Screw) and Kitty,” she tells me, pointing to the pair on the mat. “I think Garbageface will be here soon, too.” The rest of the women do the same, only periodically calling out for Aubyn—not Jody—to cue up their introductory music.For the wrestlers, keeping in character is key. O’Grady emphasizes that the shows are strictly art performances, critiques on the macho world of wrestling. To achieve that, elaborate characters and narratives are needed to compel the viewers. These personas are, for the most part, extensions of the wrestlers themselves. In these roles, women are free to explore their strength and physicality in ways their everyday identities might restrict. Here in the practice space, they moan and groan loudly, contort their bodies, and roll around the mats freely. In these spaces free from judgement—and even more so, the male gaze—these women open themselves up to a new identity: the kind of person they could be without restraint, fear, or limitations. * In the final act of the Island Rumble, each star wrestler hops into the ring for one last smackdown. For O’Grady, it will be her last opportunity to fight as Big Jody. “My stomach is all excitement and nerves,” she tells me before the show begins. Neither are evident in her expression as she watches on from the sidelines, awaiting her cue: she is collected, scanning the ring to make sure nothing has malfunctioned and no one is hurt. Then she’s up, and she rushes in, transforming from O’Grady to Mufferaw on call. The scene is overwhelming. With a dozen people in the ring, limbs are flailing everywhere, and it’s hard to deduce who is winning or losing. Things only become clear once Jody is in the centre, facing reigning Island Rumble champ Sweetie. Sweetie gives Jody a swift beating. At one point, a dazed Jody is dragged in a waltz with the wrestler, her hair still matted from her dip in the lake earlier on. Then it happens: the referee counts to three, and Jody is lying stunned in the ring. Defeat. Big Jody Mufferaw is officially retired. Later, I see O’Grady surrounded by friends, a beer in hand: no trace of Jody. Living in Toronto full-time, O’Grady has perhaps outgrown her lumberjack alter ego. These days, she says, she’ll focus on management.But it may not be the end of her in the ring. Before the final fight, I remind O’Grady it’s her last time duking it out with the wrestlers. “As Big Jody,” she clarifies. “Just for now. Maybe I’ll create someone new.” A new character, to better represent the woman she is today.
A User’s Guide to John Irving

When women can’t speak up, a chorus of voices should rise to their aid, though that often seems like too much to hope for. John Irving understands this in a way most male writers don’t or can’t.

As a woman, there is so much to be angry about. Take a recent first-person account of a commute home that was shared on Facebook. The author was on the subway when a renowned abuser got on the train. He targeted a young girl, aggressively criticizing the way she was dressed. “She was clearly very upset by this and kept staring out the window trying not to make eye contact with him or cry,” wrote Sarah Beamish. “I was horrified at this and looked around at the men to see if any of them were going to respond (most of the women were frozen in anxiety or fear that this guy was going to target them next and were trying not to call attention to themselves). None of them were doing anything.”Beamish came to the girl’s defense, despite feeling worried about her own safety. When the man declared he was going to take a photograph of the girl’s crotch, saying it was for her own good, Beamish stood in front of her to prevent him. Beamish stopped the man from following when the girl switched cars at the next stop. The man then followed Beamish herself as she exited the train at her stop, and he moved to enter the same car as the girl. Beamish entered the car, and stayed with the girl for the duration of her ride, even after the man exited the train.Once she’d ensured the girl was safely at her stop, another woman on the train thanked Beamish for intervening, but said that the younger girl should have known better—that the attention was due to the way she was dressed. Many passengers thanked Beamish once the man left the train, but none of them spoke up when the girl needed help.This girl’s experience exists on a spectrum of abuse and silencing, and as these things go, it’s on the gentle end.Life requires solidarity. Sometimes, you can find that solidarity in human form. Other times (taking a long-haul ocean journey, living in a Forest Fire Lookout, working in a sea of micro-aggression), you must seek it out in books. The forces placed upon us are limiting, and the fight to make oneself heard is rarely easy or romantically rendered, but it is vital all the same. When women find themselves unable to speak up, a chorus of voices should rise to their aid. Sometimes, a lone ally on a subway car is all there is. Often, even that is too much to hope for.John Irving understands and expresses this in a way most male writers don’t or can’t. Though he’s said he doesn’t describe himself as a political writer, his work gives life to human causes, like abortion rights, that are too often marginalized and gendered. He crafts female characters whom strain against the binds of expectations in a way that isn’t clichéd or fetishized.Fiction requires faith, a suspension of disbelief, a buy-in to the rules of a crafted universe, and faith is a recurring force in Irving’s prose. But faith needs something to challenge it. There’s Melony, from The Cider House Rules, who is destructive and right. There’s A Prayer for Owen Meany’s Hester, who is self-destructive and right, but the world is wrong. And there’s Dorothy, a central figure in Avenue of Mysteries who may or may not be real, and may or may not be right, but she is always right there, as perpetual and unpredictable as death.In the introduction to Streetwise, a book of photographs by his friend Mary Ellen Mark, Irving writes: “The characters in any important story are always victims; even the survivors of an important story are victims.” Here, three of Irving’s victims, who refused to be a convenient vehicle for the status quo.*The Cider House Rules“I look tense because 1. I have broad shoulders and 2. That’s the job.” – Amy Brookheimer, VeepMelony looms large over The Cider House Rules. Her very name discordant, the result of the 1930s equivalent of the swipe of a Starbucks wax pen: the wrong key hit on a typewriter, switching the d on her birth certificate for an n.She and Homer Wells, the novel’s protagonist, grow up in the same orphanage. They fall into an inevitable sexual relationship that is almost incidental to the importance of their bond. They are the two oldest children at St. Cloud’s, and Melony insists that Homer promise not to leave her there. Homer does. So Melony goes looking for him.She lumbers through the novel’s narrative demanding space. That she is not the protagonist of the novel is crucial to her success as a character: she is the perfect expression of the many, many women who find their feelings treated as peripheral. But Melony is not going to sit on the periphery.On her search, she finds love and happiness and a place to put her anger. She finds work and friendship and a sense of purpose beyond her search for her old friend. And eventually, she finds Homer. When she does, she doesn’t like what she sees.Melony is the novel’s hero, because she’s the person who reminds its protagonist that he has a responsibility to do something heroic. She is a force of nature, and she believes him capable, and so he must be. The novel spends much of its time considering “God’s work,” and what is God’s work if not bullying the good out of everyone we can?A mantra of sorts runs through The Cider House Rules: being of use. Lena Dunham writes it another way, in her collection of essays Not That Kind of Girl: “You are a tool being put to its proper use.” Much of the novel centers on Homer’s resistance to the ways he can truly be of use. Melony’s path, her contribution, is less clear. While Homer passively accepts the circumstances of his life, Melony aggressively engineers her own. And in the end, she engineers Homer back where he belongs.For Melony, being the human equivalent of a muscle tensed in rage, tender and ready, is the proper use. Melony is a tool, yes, none of us can avoid that. But she is of use.*A Prayer for Owen Meany“Until everything’s in colour and the colour’s perfect, TV’s not worth watching.” – Hester Eastman, A Prayer for Owen MeanyFiction requires faith, a suspension of disbelief, a buy-in to the rules of a crafted universe, and faith is a recurring force in Irving’s prose. But faith needs something to challenge it. “Hester would expand her own horizons in directions conceived to educate her parents regarding the errors of their ways,” the book’s narrator, her cousin Johnny, tells us. Hester is Owen Meany’s lover. Owen, preoccupied with doom and destiny, is perhaps not an ideal life partner. Hester treats her love for him as fact and does not run from it, but she refuses to go to his funeral.As a character, Hester is unashamed and unpredictable, a disruptor from the get-go. A woman who, when presented with an unjust environment, chooses to question it at every step, despite the deep discomfort or danger it causes her. A woman who, when presented with a lover who thinks he is an instrument of God, reminds him that he’s also mortal. From where does conviction draw its power if not resistance?Hester loves Owen, and Owen loves Hester, but Owen has a Destiny, and their love is ultimately doomed. Owen’s faith in his mission is strong and admirable, but Hester, though she seems to be the jolt of reason in the whole Prayer enterprise, possesses a faith of her own. It’s a faith that is alchemical: in an impossible world, we can perhaps carve space for ourselves by demanding better of those around us. It’s a faith Melony would be able to get on board with. Don’t watch TV until everything’s in colour, and the colour’s perfect.*Avenue of Mysteries“[T]he deceased [is] usually led by the god Anubis in his role as god of the liminal space between life and death.”– Steven Snape, Ancient Egyptian Tombs: The Culture of Life and DeathIn the introduction to Streetwise, Irving describes the accompanying documentary made by Mark’s partner as being “as concrete and inevitable as a good novel.” There is comfort in that which is concrete and inevitable, even if what’s inevitable is doom.We meet Dorothy and her mother in a first-class airport lounge, servants of Anubis with printed itineraries. They jostle and organize Juan Diego, the protagonist, through a trip that will take him from JFK to Hong Kong to the Philippines to his death. (It should be noted that in a forthcoming interview with Hazlitt, Irving told me that he doesn’t think revealing Juan Diego’s death ruins the experience of reading the novel.) Hester won’t attend Owen’s funeral, but Dorothy is on the scene to hasten Juan Diego’s.Dorothy is an agent of the concrete and inevitable; she is an agent of death. She is death manifest as too much life, coming at you all at once. She is the human embodiment of the last three days of your vacation, your year, your existence, rushing to experience everything you can before the end. She is the spiritual sister of Hester and Melony, unshackled from their worldly concerns and thus able to exert her commanding force at will.Homer Wells runs from Melony, Owen Meany abandons Hester, but Juan Diego surrenders to Dorothy, allowing the path she sets out for him to shape his final days. Hester shows Owen the life he could have if he was willing to sacrifice his perceived destiny. Melony shows Homer that he has to sacrifice his life to fulfill his. But Dorothy is the power of influence unbound. As she tells Juan Diego pre-coitus in a Hong Kong hotel room: “I’ll show you an earthquake.”*The other day, I was on the subway on my way home from work. A teenaged girl stood between two male friends at the front of the car. They spoke over her, literally, for the entire ride, discussing music in the space above her head. She interjected regularly, sometimes noting that the two of them were wrong. But her voice was lost in the void of their self-interest—from their response, you wouldn’t know she was talking at all.I wanted to introduce her to Melony.
Angels’ Share Pt. 2

Editor’s Note: This instalment contains flashing images.

Fluttering Into Annihilation: The Forbidden Room and the Un-Canon of Lost Films

Guy Maddin’s new feature imagines “unrealized, half-finished or abandoned films by otherwise successful directors” not as artifacts to pine after but as the accumulated muck of cinematic history.

"Imagine, if you will, the boulevard des Capucines, Paris, France, a December evening in 1895, the Grand Cafe, thirty or so Van Gogh chairs laid out in rows before a small white linen screen,” Gilbert Adair asks at the beginning of Flickers, a collection of one hundred essays about one film from each of cinema’s first hundred years. The screen was “far, far smaller than what we have become used to since, but that same screen, nevertheless, on which were to be imprinted the myths, dreams, drives, lies, desires, archetypes, whimsies, crochets, psychic megrims, and occasionally the history, of our century ... a screen on which materialized, that December evening, out of a flickering fog of capricious and irregular device, a skein of images—amazing moving images—of workers strolling out through the main gates of a Lyonnais photographic plant.” Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory was screened with nine other films. It runs for forty-six seconds. The subject, the theatre, and the medium were all seemingly ephemeral, ghosts worn by a sheet.Adair knew caprice. The late Scottish writer arranged Flickers to reflect his own memory and tastes; some of the judgments might annoy film scholars, especially that Adair “cannot quite regret” the destruction of King Vidor’s 1926 romance Bardelys the Magnificent. Displaying one of the surviving production stills, he explains:“All that now remains of it is just this kind of posed snapshot, transfixing movement that can never again be cranked into life ... There's something strangely poignant about the whole notion of a 'lost' film, about the notion that a medium as slick and sleek and streamlined as the cinema turns out all along to have been as vulnerable as other, much older and more artisanal art forms. That a painting can be lost, yes, naturally, or an illuminated manuscript, or a score by Bach or Monteverdi, or even the choreography of a great 19th-century Russian ballet that no one knew properly how to transcribe. But a film? A movie, for God's sake? I find something perversely thrilling, something oddly ennobling, in such a loss.”Most of the funerary canisters inside this crypt belong to silent films, seventy-five percent of which are now presumed lost. The very earliest ones were shown at dime museums, near the tattooed men or some minor villain’s pickled head, and then in nickelodeons, with their long rows of hand-cranked vignettes. Even as the movies grew less disreputable, little effort was made to preserve them, not when studios always needed extra vault space. And up until the early 1950s, film negatives and prints both used nitrate, a material so volatile that passing heat can spontaneously ignite it. (Only three theatres in the United States have a license to project nitrate.) Books may decay under the wrong conditions, but at least they won’t send flames licking over your hands. In that sense the idea of a “lost film” is almost too passive, a pre-industrial concept. Many were not stolen, misplaced, hidden, or forgotten. They fluttered into annihilation.A drenched woodsman shows up, not too clear on how he arrived there, recalling his quest to save a woman named Margot from a gang. Or was she actually its leader? Now she’s a singer at a tropical nightclub, and we’re maybe 25 minutes into the movie, and still haven’t reached the sequence where Udo Kier requests a lobotomy to cure his all-consuming ass fixation.Such cultural lacunae trip you up elsewhere as well. Ancient Greek theatre still exists onstage through the work of a handful of playwrights; only one of Sappho’s poems survives in its entirety. But no one expects antiquities to be whole. It’s the closeness of lost films to our own time that makes them so uncanny, that a Theda Bara could bewitch millions as eclipses do, leaving only scorch marks on the void. Looking at a photograph of the John Wilkes Booth conspirator Lewis Powell as he waited for the gallows, Roland Barthes wrote: “He is dead, and he is going to die … This will be and this has been.” The few remaining fragments from Cleopatra or London After Midnight have a similar effect on me, with the eerie possibility that one may yet shudder from its static past into the flow of the present. Ten years ago, a nearly complete print of Bardelys the Magnificent turned up in a French private collection. You can watch it on YouTube, which tends to dispel any necrotic mystique.*There’s another YouTube clip where Guy Maddin ransacks the Criterion Collection’s offices, grabbing DVDs off the shelf and declaring: “Bag!” I imagine that same thought process spawned his new film The Forbidden Room. It opens with a louche old man in a loose bathrobe, describing the history of washing: “The Japanese now have bisexual bathing … How do I know this? Someone told me, that’s how.” Maddin’s camera launches towards the bathwater and an imperiled submarine, as its crew tries to extend dwindling supplies of oxygen by chewing the air pockets caught inside their flapjacks. Then a drenched woodsman shows up, not too clear on how he arrived there, recalling his quest to save a woman named Margot from a gang known as the Red Wolves. Or was she actually its leader? Now she’s a singer at a tropical nightclub, and we’re maybe 25 minutes into the movie, and still haven’t quite reached the sequence where Udo Kier requests a lobotomy to cure his all-consuming ass fixation.The Forbidden Room burst out from a number of overlapping Maddin creations, the earliest one being Hauntings, a 2010 installation at Toronto’s Lightbox. His goal was to essay 11 “unrealized, half-finished or abandoned films by otherwise successful directors,” a “ghostly collage.” The inspirations included Murnau, Lang, Mizoguchi, and Micheaux. I saw each short playing simultaneously, memory experienced as a series of distractions. Maddin has since reconceived that idea as an online project called Seances. The Forbidden Room was shot at the same time, but none of its many stories ostensibly came from existing non-existing films—except for that framing sequence “How to Take a Bath,” written by the poet John Ashbery, which borrows the flimsily educational premise of a 1930s sexploitation movie. “Work carefully in ever-widening circles,” the Maddin regular and Ashbery doppelganger Louis Negin suggests we soap.Like someone dreaming of sex, The Forbidden Room can only reach its subject through swerving delirium. There are no comically precise fakes, a la Edgar Wright’s Don’t. The vignette about a Janus bust that drives its owner to murder sort of follows German Expressionist horror, and the vampire story is relatively straightforward until the creature turns into a bunch of bananas, but other segments—such as the one where Mathieu Amalric forgets his wife’s birthday and then attempts, with mounting chaos, to pass off all his own possessions as new gifts—resemble subgenres that never actually emerged. Maddin uses the language of early cinema while making up his own grammar. As in previous films such as My Winnipeg or The Heart of the World, he’s given The Forbidden Room feverish intertitles (“FORCED TO WEAR A LEOTARD!”) and handmade special effects, but the editing cuts between rapid, reeling close-ups. Each actor appears to be overplaying towards a different director.Maddin has always been a pop Freudian, in the sense that pop is a heightened and more urgent form of everyday life. So those lumberjacks find themselves journeying inside “the pink warm centre of the cave,” somebody shoots their inner child, and the forbidden room itself finally reveals a literal “book of climaxes,” potential endings—zeppelin collision, a giant throbbing brain, the usual romance—that unfurl as apocalyptic ecstasy. He can get fetishistic about it; sometimes women are only seemingly onscreen for their severe flapper bobs. But Maddin does strive to be catholic in his perviness. Which other filmmakers have lingered so avidly on the bodies of elderly men? His kinks don’t include linear narrative, and the endless digression of The Forbidden Room suits Maddin’s exhausting pace better. I thought of the half-awake transitions throughout Crime Wave, fellow Winnipegger John Paizs’ 1985 debut feature—another lost film of sorts, since it was unavailable on any format for decades. Telescoping in and out of stories, the montage of a roiling subconscious.At times the film nearly boils off the screen. Maddin’s co-director Evan Johnson dipped The Forbidden Room into an acid bath of post-production effects, disguising their computer file as fragile celluloid. The irony of the anachronism is that degrading tape drives and format obsolescence now threaten digitized films too: This has been and this will be. The Forbidden Room wears decayed, dissolving images like Death does his bones. Maddin and Johnson paint colours from a burning nitrate canister. Lava reds. Skies of violet. Jungle canopies seething the hue of radioactive waste. Families gather inside homes that might lie on the ocean floor, and sunlight falls tinted like margarine. Faces form from fire.Lost films have their own un-canon, no more definitive than the others. The historian William K. Everson, who sawLondon After Midnight in the 1950s, considered it inferior to director Tod Browning’s own talkie remake Mark of the Vampire. The Forbidden Room imagines lost films not as artifacts to pine after but the accumulated muck of cinematic history, a place where mushrooms bloom phosphorescent. Maddin once defined melodrama as “the truth uninhibited,” emotions too wild to otherwise reveal. What if Theda Bara vamped through a weepy medical romance? Which tropes would an alternate universe recognize? So leave the factory gates. Take off your uniform. Draw a hot bath. Sink into the water. Let all that dirt float to the surface.
‘I’m Playing for the One Percent Who Do Like it’: An Interview with Gregg Turkington

Talking with the actor and comedian also known as Neil Hamburger about keeping a repellent character authentic, the joys of creating intricate meta-comedy, and coping with a room full of boos.

February 2007: a sour-faced man in a cheap suit, Coke-bottle glasses, and the most appalling combover in entertainment history takes the stage at Madison Square Garden. He clears his throat and announces, “My name is Neil Hamburger … yeeEAAAhhh … and let’s get this party started!” before coughing up more phlegm. The audience, who has gathered to see Jack Black and Kyle Gass’s comedy/metal band Tenacious D, is then forced to hear a full 33 minutes of jokes, brutally crude in both form and content. A sampling:• “Why did Robert Redford stick his cock in a jar of Paul Newman’s spaghetti sauce? … Well, the two men have been friends for over 40 years. Do you think he’s going to stick his cock in a competitor’s product?”• “What do you get when you cross Sir Elton John with a sabre-tooth tiger? … I dunno, but you better keep it away from your ass!”• “Why … did al-Qaeda, under the direction of Misssster Osama Bin Laden, burn, in a public town square in Kabul, Afghanistan, over 10,000 copies of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album? … Well, because it’s a terrible album!”The audience is unrelenting in its hatred. Neil Hamburger—who, for all his profanity, looks more suited to emcee a Friar’s Club dinner than a stadium concert—replies: “You cocksuckers! If you don’t pick up the audience response, I’ll tell you one thing: you’re never going to see your heroes JB and KG! No, it is written into my contract that I have to get at least 10,000 decibels of hearty belly-laughter of Tenacious D will not perform!” He insists, “These jokes were choreographed by the great Russian ballerina Rudolph Nureyev!” When the audience starts chanting the band’s name, Hamburger retorts, “Okay, every time you say ‘Tenacious D,’ I will add two more jokes to my set!” This 33-minute set, immortalized on the album Hot February Night, was one of 26 such opening acts that the mysterious Neil Hamburger performed for Tenacious D. Few comedy albums have ever made me laugh harder.In reality, Neil Hamburger is Gregg Turkington, a 47-year-old independent record producer turned alternative comedian and cult folk hero. Turkington hatched the character of a desperately unfunny open-mic comic for a string of underground records in the ’90s before evolving into a Brylcreemed, cufflinked touring comedian. Like Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton persona—to whom he has often been compared—Neil Hamburger is an extreme version of a certain kind of slumming, entitled creature of showbiz. He makes you laugh at the sheer baseness of his jokes, then at your own laughter, then at the audience’s reaction.In recent years, Turkington has also played “himself” on On Cinema at the Cinema, a satirical movie-review web series he hosts with Tim Heidecker. Beginning as a “meaningless, nonsense, no-information podcast about movies” to satirize “lazy, empty podcasts” (to quote Heidecker in an interview with the A.V. Club), On Cinema has evolved into an elaborate soap opera in its seven seasons on Adult Swim’s YouTube channel. In this world, “Gregg Turkington” is a pitiful “film expert” who boasts of owning one of the largest VHS collections in the world, and who craves recognition from the egomaniacal, bullying Heidecker. Fueled by the passive-aggressive feuding of the hosts, the On Cinema universe now encompasses a spin-off web series (the action spoof Decker), an annual live Oscar special, and in-joke cameos for Turkington and Heidecker in Ant-Man and Fantastic Four.For years, Turkington resisted interviews, except for the ones he gave in character (even his Twitter account is as his “film buff” persona). But he’s stepping out to promote his new film Entertainment, a bizarre comic mood piece directed by Rick Alverson. Turkington stars as Neil Hamburger—or, at least, a Neil Hamburger-like comedian—who drifts through a series of bad performances in the Mojave Desert while pining for his estranged daughter. Alverson, who previously explored the darker side of Tim Heidecker’s corrosively ironic persona in 2012’s The Comedy, imagines Neil Hamburger as a lonely, monosyllabic man who uses his onstage character to express the anger he can’t access in real life. Heidecker, John C. Reilly, Michael Cera, Tye Sheridan, and Dean Stockwell also drift through the film, which opens November 6 in New York and November 13 in Toronto.*Will Sloan: I didn’t know what to expect from the movie, because it’s hard to imagine the Neil Hamburger character having a life offstage. Did you go into this with any trepidation, or any feeling of protectiveness about the character?Gregg Turkington: Oh, god, yes. I mean, I had worked with Rick before, and he had suggested a movie, and my first instinct was that I wasn’t interested in having some sort of comedy. A lot of people when they’ve approached me to do things with Neil offstage, they sort of look at it as a Borat type of character, where the hilarity continues offstage as well. To my way of thinking, this guy was always a shell of a man when he wasn’t onstage, and that’s how it would have to be portrayed. But most people don’t see it that way. Like, “Let’s get a camera and go out on the street and these hilarious things will happen,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t know if anything funny’s going to happen with that guy offstage. It’s questionable if it’s happening onstage.”The thing that was odd was, because I controlled this character myself for 20 years, I was really terrified of letting go of certain aspects of it, such as being seen without glasses, or not talking in that Neil Hamburger voice. I was assuming we were going to do that the whole way, and Rick said, “That’s preposterous—you can’t be in a serious movie if you’re going around like that.” He’s right, but it took me a little while to get used to the idea of all that.And in the end, we didn’t actually call the character “Neil Hamburger” in the movie, which I think was a good thing. As Rick has said, we kind of borrowed the character for the movie, but we wanted to be able to tell the story without having the distraction of me insisting that it stick to the preexisting Neil Hamburger mythology, which had been built up. I mean, there was a real backstory that had existed, and I don’t know, it wouldn’t have been a great working environment if I said, “Oh, no, no, we can’t do this because on the second Neil Hamburger album I refer to this incident, and that contradicts that.” It just wouldn’t have worked.But especially with the glasses, I was like, “No, no, you can’t see this guy without the glasses, then it’s not Neil Hamburger.” I also had this fear, not being a trained, professional actor, that if I took those glasses off that I would lose the character because I’ve always done the character dressed up and in the glasses. That turned out not to be true.The good thing was, to get funding for a movie like this is going to take a long time and have a lot of false starts, so that gave Rick and I a couple of years to talk about this so much that by the time we actually got to filming, we were completely on the same page, and those sorts of issues weren’t issues anymore.I assume a lot of the movie is based on your own experiences—such as the scenes with audience interaction, or maybe even the scenes with John C. Reilly [as Neil’s supportive though somewhat baffled cousin]?Y’know, not so much. I mean, I’ve probably done about 2,000 shows, so a lot of awful things have happened, and we talked about those. I think in the original first-draft script there were a lot of situations that were drawn more from my touring experience, but a lot of those ended up disappearing from the script. Things like the John C. character that Rick wrote, that actually wasn’t anything that I’ve dealt with. There are definitely bits and pieces, or lines of dialogue that might be taken from preexisting situations, but even the whole concept of me touring around alone like that isn’t really how I do it at this point.It’s strange, because when I initially came up with this character, it was just such a glum, loser sad sack, and the reality of it was as the thing went on, there was actually a fan base that developed. To have the sorts of really terrible shows that you see depicted in the movie, I would kind of seek those out and ask my booking agent, “In between the great show that we’re going to have in New York and the great show we’re going to have in Boston and the great show we’re going to have in Toronto, could we book something in this town where we won’t have a great show? I want to keep the character and the experience honest.” I’ve definitely had fans from the bigger cities who will travel when they see a small town on the schedule because they think those shows will be the authentic experience that they want. I sure don’t blame them, because those shows are often where things do go haywire.Hot February Night is one my favourite comedy albums.And that’s definitely a situation where things were going haywire. That was 26 shows I did with Tenacious D, always in venues that were huge, and as soon as I would walk out on the stage, the booing would start. It wasn’t even that it was an off-putting act—which it is—but anything is putting people off when they’re waiting for their hero headliners to come out, so I’d already lost the battle from the beginning. But the nice thing about doing that many shows is that you become accustomed to what to expect from these sort of audiences, and you can start developing almost a crowd-control approach to it.By the end … I mean, I wasn’t really fazed by the negativity, because in the first place, if you have a character like this, you’ve got to be able to deal with people not liking it or it’s debilitating night after night. That doesn’t really faze me because I always know that if it’s 99 percent of people that hate it, I’m playing for the one percent of people who do like it, and I’m happy to be communicating with them because I’m on the same page with them. That’s all I’m asking for: to reach the people who are on the same page as me, because that’s an exciting feeling. With the Tenacious D tour, Jack [Black] and Kyle [Gass], they’re the ones that wanted me on it, and they were at the side of the stage every night just clutching their sides. They loved watching the whole thing go down in flames, and I realized this is who I’m performing for, and the people in the audience are just bystanders to it, and aiding in the whole thing.The funny thing with that record was, I didn’t think to record these shows until we were almost done, and by then it was too late to really have them recorded, so I just asked the sound man, “Can you get a tape or whatever and put it in?” He could only do that recording as a board mix, which doesn’t really include the audience sounds other than what you’re hearing coming through the microphone—there’s no room mic. When I hear the record, it’s so much more merciful of a sound than what I experienced, because on stage, it was a wall of booing so that I couldn’t hear myself think.You and Tim Heidecker often perform allegedly as “yourselves,” but you don’t really have a default persona, or a friendly, talk-show version of yourself. Given that, and given that you perform for audiences that give you a hostile reaction, you don’t seem to reflect the common stereotype of a needy comedian who’s seeking audience approval.Well, I really don’t care if people like it or not. I was really into music when I was a kid, and I was into the Bee Gees and the Beatles and the Who, and then the punk rock thing started and I really got into this band called Flipper. Around 1982, the shows that Flipper would do were a revelation, because they truly, truly didn’t care what the people thought—they wanted to express what they wanted to express, and it would just alienate 90 percent of the crowd every time. To the 10 percent that liked it—I was part of that—it was just the greatest thing. It was like, “Finally, here’s something that actually speaks directly to me.” And the fact that they were fine with that small group liking it, and fine with the rest of the people screaming and storming out and hating them—to me it was a revelation, because you just didn’t see that in showbiz. I think watching those guys for so long, I took that to heart. It’s not that I don’t need any approval; I just am satisfied with a small percentage really liking it.The people that I idolized as a teenager … like, Phil Ochs was my hero, and this is someone who really had a very marginal career and did a lot of things that people thought were him shooting himself in the foot and ruining his own career, and I found all that stuff very brave and exciting. I think having influences like that makes it very easy to not worry about it.Now, if I had nobody in the world interested, I don’t think I’d be too happy. You can’t do this stuff in a vacuum. But it’s weird, I talk to other comics who are like, “How can you deal with that? I’d be absolutely crushed.” But a lot of comics—and I’ve actually seen this expressed on a TV show about comedy—a lot of the comics’ goal is not to make people laugh, it’s to make people like them. I heard a teacher on … I don’t remember what the fucking show was, but the guy said, “It’s more important to be likeable than to be funny.” I’m afraid that’s where a lot of these people are coming from. With a lot of comedy—character comedy or anything—there’s this nudge-nudge, wink-wink thing, because it’s not palatable to people if they don’t understand that they’re in on the joke. I kind of like the confusion. It’s like a magician or something: if you go out and put it out there, and people have to dig a little deeper or think a little more to realize it’s a joke, I’m not winking at them and telling them it’s a joke. That’s the comedy that’s always inspired me.In the first few Neil Hamburger albums he sounds more like a bad ’80s or ’90s club comic, and then later he becomes more of an “old pro”—this guy who’s kind of out of time. How did that evolution happen?It’s just very natural. In the first place, when I did the first three or four records, there was no stage show—the records were simply a recording project. I was in my twenties and I was way too young, really, to ever portray that character at that point, and I also wasn’t interested in having a stand-up career. I was doing music and I had a record label, and I was interested in putting out records because I just love records. I love the format of an album, and I liked the idea of making these fake comedy albums where I recorded all the audience sounds myself—so any heckle or any clinking of glass in the audience, all that stuff, it was like Foley for a movie.I was fine with that for a few years, and I kept getting offers to do shows, and I really felt like if I do a show, that ruins the whole thing. You can’t capture the feeling of the records when you actually have actual audience members that like these records and are thus actually laughing or getting into it or throwing out heckles that are contrived.But I decided eventually, when I got an offer I couldn’t pass up—which was to do a tour in Australia, which is where my wife is from and we needed to go there anyway—I just decided to roll the dice and see if I could make it work. That’s really a turning point in terms of the records as well, because once it became a living, breathing character, the show had to change. It wasn’t a real show—it was a fake show—and once it becomes a real show, certain aspects of it changed naturally over the years as I did more and more shows, and sometimes took on the grueling schedules. When I started actually doing those … as you say, you do become literally the seasoned pro. When you’ve had people attack you on stage, and you have the days where you’ve driven 700 miles to a show for eight dollars and all these awful things happen, it definitely changes the act.Your work is fairly jaded or cynical about show business, but it also has a very deep understanding and knowledge of it, whether it’s film or comedy. Are you someone who grew up with a lot of un-ironic love of show business?I still have it. I love music and comedy and films and all these things. What people see as cynicism I think is sometimes more a reaction to a disappointment that you get when these things aren’t as good as you hoped they would be—or, with people that you respect, when some of the magic is stripped away when they deteriorate artistically. No, I’m a real fanboy, quite honestly.Y’know, people are like, “Oh, you hate all these things, what do you like?” as if I’m just this Grinch that hates all this stuff. Especially with music, because I’ll talk about all this indie rock and say, “Oh, that’s a pile of shit,” and people are like, “What do you like?” The fact is I have a bigger record collection than anybody I know, and I’m more excited about this stuff than anyone I know. I think it’s a misunderstanding.With that in mind, how much do you identify with your character on On Cinema?I think when I was 12 or 13, that was probably about where I was at. It was really before I got into punk rock, which was something I was only into for about a year before the corruption started to become apparent and I moved on. I was super, super into watching movies when I was a kid, and this was before home video was really readily available—or at least not readily available to me, because we didn’t really have any money for that—but I didn’t know anyone who owned a VCR or anything, so I was really into going to art house theatres and going to the multiplex and paying for one movie and then trying to stay there all day, slipping from one to the next trying to see as many movies as I could. I had a little book where I kept track of everything that I saw and rated them all. I was super into it.I think that I kind of lost that interest at some point. I still like movies, but I might watch a couple a month—as opposed to that point, when I was 12 or 13, when I would watch, like, 40 a month and document them all. But I think that that character on On Cinema is less like me than Neil Hamburger is like me.By the way, I really love On Cinema, and the whole byzantine, detailed universe it’s created.It’s been a dream doing that. It’s weird in 2015 that it feels like actually paving new ground, because once we started in with the Decker stuff, you’ve got these fictitious characters creating fictitious shows, except that it’s all real and it’s playing out like that, and then you’ve got the battles going on with Twitter. It’s really a soap opera. When we started doing it, it was more of a straight-ahead parody of self-appointed “experts,” but it just mutated into this other thing that’s so exciting to do. And the team that we have that works with us—everyone is so on the exact same page on all of this, and everyone just brings great ideas, and everyone’s so into serving the project at all costs, and nobody’s offended when somebody shoots down an idea and says, “Nah, this wouldn’t work for this universe.” It’s just a dream to work on.When we shoot those things, Tim and I, the biggest problem is us bursting into laughter and spoiling the take, which just happens all the time because it’s improvised. We don’t know what’s going to come out of our mouths next a lot of the times, and we’ll laugh at our own crap or laugh at each other’s crap and it just gets impossible. I don’t know how the editor can deal with it, to chop all those outbursts out.For years you didn’t do interviews as yourself. Did you feel that talking about the work would cheapen it?Oh god yes—to me, this is a nightmare! God, I kept away from this for 20 fucking years, and I would do all those interviews in character, and I got really used to doing it that way—and maybe a little bored of doing it that way, because the Neil Hamburger character is only going to give certain types of answers, y’know?When we made the movie—I mean, c’mon, getting a movie made is pretty fancy. When you get the distributors and the investors and stuff, and everyone wanted me to promote it, and I start out with, “Err, I only do interviews in character…” and then realizing this isn’t even the same character as the Neil Hamburger who’s doing these interviews. I don’t want to do interviews as a sullen, non-communicative shell of a man—that’s not going to make sense—but if I’m doing the interviews and going, [Neil Hamburger voice] “MmmmYEAH, well…” it doesn’t make sense either. So I realized I’ve got no choice, I have to just talk, and it scared the hell out of me, because I do really feel like it diminishes things to talk about it.In the end, I just decided, “Y’know, I’m not going to think about this and not be guarded, and just go in and talk.” And then unfortunately for the fine journalists who turn these interviews into articles, I can’t read any of these things because if I do, I’m going to feel horrible about the whole process.I’ve always been happy to talk about this stuff. The people that like what I do, I’m excited to meet them and hear what they think about it, and they always ask questions about it because I don’t give these interviews. I’ll do a show and whoever comes up to me at the bar, I’ll answer any question they have for as long as it takes. But I just never wanted that stuff on record—it boxes everything in and it gets rid of some of the magic, if you want to call it that. But I have no choice, so I just do the interviews and try not to dwell on what I might have said.In a way, it’s nice, because it’s so different from what I’ve done that it actually feels like this new thing, just being open. It’s bizarre. And it’s also nice not to be doing all these interviews in character. I actually said, “Alright, I’ll do those, but I’ll never do another one in character.” That’s amazing.
The Grozny Tourist Bureau

“And so my future was decided, as it often is, entirely without my consent.”

Grozny, 2003The oilmen have arrived from Beijing for a ceremonial signing over of drilling rights. “It’s a holiday for them,” their translator told me, last night, at the Grozny Eternity Hotel, which is both the only five-star hotel and the only hotel in the republic. I nodded solemnly; he needn’t explain. I came of age in the reign of Brezhnev, when young men would enter civil service academies hardy and robust, only to leave two years later anemic and stooped, cured forever of the inclination to be civil or of service to anyone. Still, Beijing must be grim if they’re vacationing in Chechnya.“We’ll reach Grozny in ten minutes,” I announce to them in English. The translator sits in the passenger seat. He’s a stalk-thin man with a head of hair so black and lustrous it looks sculpted from shoe polish. I feel a shared camaraderie with translators—as I do with deputies and underlings of all stripes—and as he speaks in slow, measured Mandarin, I hear the resigned and familiar tone of a man who knows he is more intelligent than his superiors.The road winds over what was once a roof. A verdigris-encrusted arm rises from the debris, its forefinger raised skyward. The Lenin statue once stood in the square outside this school, arm raised, rallying the schoolchildren to glorious revolution, but now, buried to his chin like a cowboy sentenced to death beneath the desert sun, Vladimir Ilich waves only for help. We drive onward, passing brass bandoliers and olive flak jackets, red bandannas and golden epaulettes, the whole palette of Russian invasion painted across a thunderstorm of wreckage. Upon seeing the zero-two Interior Ministry plate dangling below the Mercedes’s hood, the spies, soldiers, policemen, and armed thugs wave us through without hesitation. The streets become more navigable. Cement trucks can’t make it from the cement works to the holes in the ground without being hijacked by one or another shade of our technicolor occupation and sold to Russian construction companies north of the border, so road crews salvage office doors from collapsed administration buildings and lay them across the craters. Attached to the doors are the names and titles of those who had once worked behind them. Mansur Khalidov: Head of Oncology; City Hospital Number Six. Yakha Sagaipova: Assistant Director of Production; Ministry of Oil and Gas Industry. Perhaps my name is written over a crater on some shabby side street, supporting the weight of a stranger who glances at the placard Ruslan Dokurov: Deputy Director; Grozny Museum of Regional Art and wonders if such a person is still alive.“A large mass grave was recently discovered outside of Grozny, no?” the translator asks.“Yes, an exciting discovery. It will be a major tourist attraction for archaeology enthusiasts.”The translator frowns. “Isn’t it a crime scene?”“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s millions of years old.”“But weren’t the bodies found shot execution-style?” he insists.I shrug him off. Who am I to answer for the barbarities of prehistoric man?The translator nods to a small mountain range of rubble bulldozed just over the city limits. “What’s that?”“Suburbs,” I say.We pass backhoes, dump trucks, and jackhammers through the metallic dissonance of reconstruction that comes as a welcome song after months of screaming shells. The cranes are the tallest man-made structures I have ever seen in person. I drive to the central square, once the hub of municipal government, now a brown field debossed with earthmover tracks. Nadya once lived just down the road. The oilmen climb out and frown at each other, then at the translator, and then finally at me.Turning to the northeast, I point at a strip of blue sky wedged between two fat cumuli. “That was Hotel Kavkaz. ABBA stayed two nights. I carried their guitars when I worked there one summer. Next to that, picture an apartment block. Before ninety-one only party members lived there and after ninety-one only criminals. No one moved in or out.”None of the oilmen smile. The translator leans to me and whispers, “You are aware, of course, that these three gentlemen are esteemed members of the Communist Party of China.”“It’s okay, I’m a limo driver.”The translator stares blankly.“Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber? ”Nothing.“Jim Carrey. A brilliant actor who embodies the senselessness of our era,” I explain.The interpreter doesn’t bother translating. I continue to draw a map of the square by narration, but the oilmen can’t see what I see. They see only an empty square demolished by bomb and bulldozer.“Come, comrades, use your imagination,” I urge, but they return to the Mercedes, and I am talking only to the translator, and then he returns to the Mercedes, and I am talking only to myself.*Three months earlier, the Interior minister told me his idea. The proposition was ludicrous but I listened with the blank- faced complacency I had perfected throughout my twenty- three years as a public servant.“The United Nations has named Grozny the most devastated city on earth,” the minister explained between bites of moist trout.I wasn’t sure of the proper response, so I gave him my lukewarm congratulations.“Yes, well, always nice to receive recognition, I suppose. But as you might imagine, we have an image problem.”He loomed over his desk in a high-backed executive chair, while across from him I listened from an odd, leggy stool designed to make its occupant struggle to stay upright before the minister. The minister’s path had first crossed mine fifteen years earlier, when he had sought my advice regarding a recently painted portrait of him and his sons, and I had sought his regarding a dacha near my home village. He’d had two sons then. The first emigrated before the most recent war to attend an American pharmacology school, now worked at a very important drugstore in Muskegon, Michigan. I don’t know what happened to the second, but the lack of ministerial boasting serves as a death knell. The portrait, which still hung on the far wall, depicted the minister and his sons in tall leather boots, baggy trousers, long woolen chokhas,and sheepskin papakhas heroically bestriding the carcass of a slain brown bear that bore a striking resemblance to Yeltsin.“Foreign investment,” the minister continued. “Most others don’t agree with me, but I believe we need to attract capital unconnected to the Kremlin if we’re to achieve a degree of economic autonomy, and holding the record for the world’s largest ruin isn’t helping. Rosneft wants to sink its fangs into our oil reserves, but the Chinese will cut a better deal. Have you heard of Oleg Voronov? He’s on the Rosneft board, the fourteenth richest man in Russia, and one of the hawks who pushed for the 1994 invasion. The acquisition of Chechen oil is among his top priorities.”The minister set down his silverware and began sorting through the little trout bones on his plate, reconstructing the skeleton of the fish he had consumed. “If we’re to entice foreign investment, we need to rebrand Chechnya as the Dubai of the Caucasus. That’s where you come in. You’re what, the director of the Museum of Regional Art?”“Deputy director, sir.”“That’s right, deputy director. You did fine work sending those paintings to Moscow. A real PR coup. Even British newspapers wrote about the Tretyakov exhibit.”With a small nod, I accepted the compliment for what was the lowest point of my rut-ridden career. In 1999, Russian rockets had demolished the museum and with my staff I’d saved what I could from the ensuing fires. Soon after, I was ordered to surrender them to the Russians. When I saw that I’d been listed as co-curator of an exhibit of the rescued Chechen paintings at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, I closed my lids and wondered what had happened to all the things my eyes have loved.The minister tilted the plate over the rubbish bin and the ribs slid from the spine of the skeleton fish. “Nothing suggests stability and peace like a thriving tourism sector,” the minister said. “I think you’d be the perfect candidate to head the project.”“With respect, sir,” I said. “I did my dissertation on nineteenth-century pastoral landscapes. I’m a scholar. This is all a bit beyond me.”“I’ll be honest, Ruslan, for this position we need someone with three qualifications. First, he must speak English. Second, he must know enough about the culture and history of the region to show that Chechnya is much more than a recovering war zone, that we possess a rich cultural history unsullied by violence. Third, and most important, he must be that rare government man without links to human rights abuses on either side of the conflict. Do you meet these qualifications?”“I do, sir,” I said. “But still, I’m entirely unqualified to lead a tourism initiative.”The minister frowned. He scanned the desk for a napkin before reaching over to wipe his oily fingers on my necktie. “According to your dossier, you’ve worked in hotels.”“When I was sixteen, I was a bellhop.”“Well,” the minister beamed. “Then you clearly have experience in the hospitality industry.”“In the suitcase-carrying industry.”“Then you accept?”I said nothing, and as is often the case with men who possess more power than wisdom, he took my silence for affirmation. “Congratulations, Ruslan. You’re head of the Grozny Tourist Bureau.” And so my future was decided, as it often is, entirely without my consent.Office space was a valuable commodity given how few buildings were still standing, so I worked from my flat. I spent the first morning writing Tourist Bureau on a piece of cardboard. My penmanship had been honed by years of attempting to appear productive at the office. I taped the sign to the front door, but within five minutes it had disappeared. I made a new sign, then another, but the street children who lived on the landing kept stealing them. After the fifth sign, I went to the kitchen and drank the vodka bottle the minister had sent over in celebration until I passed out in tears on the floor. So ended my first day as Tourist Bureau chief.Over the following weeks, I designed a brochure. The central question was how to trick tourists into coming to Grozny voluntarily. For inspiration, I studied pamphlets from the tourist bureaus of other urban hellscapes: Baghdad, Pyongyang, Houston. From them I learned to be lavishly adjectival, to treat prospective tourists as semiliterate gluttons, and to impute reports of kidnapping, slavery, and terrorism to the slander of foreign provocateurs. Thrilled by my discoveries, I tucked a notebook into my shirt pocket and raced into the street. Upon seeing the empty space where an apartment block once stood, I wrote wide and unobstructed skies! I watched jubilantly as a pack of feral dogs chased a man, and wroteunexpected encounters with natural wildlife! The city bazaar hummed with the sales of looted industrial equipment, humanitarian aid rations, and munitions suited for every occasion: unparalleled shopping opportunities at the Grozny bazaar! Even before I reached the first checkpoint, I had scribbled first-rate security! The copy wrote itself; the real challenge was finding images that substantiated it. After all, the siege had remapped the city. Debris rerouted roads through abandoned warehouses—once I found a traffic jam on a factory floor—and what was not rerouted was razed. A photograph of the present city would send a cannonball through my verbiage-fortified illusion of a romantic paradise for heterosexual couples. But I couldn’t find suitable photo- graphs of prewar Grozny within the destroyed archives. In the end, I forwent photographs altogether and instead used January, April, and August of the 1984 Grozny Museum of Regional Art calendar for visuals. In the three nineteenth-century landscapes, swallows frolic over ripening grapevines and a shepherd minds his flock beneath a sunset; they portray a land untouched by war or communism and beside them my descriptions of a picturesque Chechnya do not seem entirely inappropriate.[[{"fid":"6691316","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"707","width":"707","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]I return home after depositing the troika of Chinese oilmen at the Interior Ministry. The street children vanish from the staircase landing as I approach, but leave behind the instruments of their survival: a metal skewer to roast pigeons, a chisel to chip cement from the loose bricks they sell to construction crews for a ruble each.I knock on the door of the flat adjacent to mine and announce my name. Nadya appears in a headscarf and sunglasses. Turning her unscarred side toward me, she invites me in. “How was the maiden voyage?”“An excellent success,” I say. “They dozed off before we reached the worst of the wreckage.”Nadya smiles as she takes measured steps to the Primus stove. She doesn’t need her white cane to reach the counter. I scan the room for impediments but everything is in order. Nothing on the floorboards but the paths of kopek coins I’d glued down so her bare feet could find their way to the bathroom, the kitchen, the front door in her early months of blindness. At the end of one of these paths is a desk neatly stacked with black-and-white photographs, once the subject of her dissertation on altered images in the Stalinist era. I sift through a few while she puts the kettle on. Nadya has circled a single face in each. The same face, or rather, same person is painted into the background of each photograph, from his childhood to his elderly years, the signature of the anonymous censor.The kettle whistles in the kitchen. We sip tea from mismatched mugs that lift rings of dust from the tabletop. She sits so I can’t see the left side of her face.“The tourist brochures will be ready next week,” I say. “I’ll have to send one along to our Beijing comrades, if the paintings come out clearly. I’m skeptical of Ossetian printers.”“You used three from the Zakharov room?”“Yes, three Zakharovs.”Her shadow nods on the wall. The Zakharov room, the museum’s largest gallery, had been her favorite too. The first time I ever saw her was in that room, in 1987, her first day working as the museum’s newly hired restoration artist.“You’ll have to save me one,” she says. “For when I can see it.”Her last sentence hangs in the air for a long moment before I respond. “I have an envelope with five thousand rubles. For your trip. I’ll leave it on your nightstand.”“Ruslan, please.”“St. Petersburg is a city engineered to steal money from tourists. I know. I’m in the industry.”“You don’t need to take care of me. I keep telling you,” she says with a firm but appreciative squeeze of my fingers. “I’ve been saving my disability allowance. I have enough for the bus ticket and I’m staying with the cousin of a university classmate.”“It’s not for you. It’s for movies, for videocassettes,” I say, a beat too quickly. Slapstick and romantic comedies have become my favorite genres in recent years. “Find some that are foreign.”She’s looking straight at me, or at my voice, momentarily forgetting the thing her face has become. She was with me when rockets turned three floors of art into an inferno she barely escaped. The third-degree burns hardened to a crevassed canvas of scar tissue wrapped over the left side of her skull. She might feel with her fingers what had been her face, but she can’t see it, and in that sense her blindness is a gift the fire gave as it took everything else. Her left eye isn’t there. She could point it at the noon sun and it would remain midnight in that bare socket. But her right side was partly spared. There the scar tissue opens onto valleys of smooth skin. In the heat her right eyelids fused together, sealing her eye from the worst of the flames. In it she can at times sense the flicker of light, the faintest movements. There is the possibility, an ophthalmologist told her, that sight could be restored to her right eye. But any optical surgeon clever enough to perform such a delicate operation was clever enough to have fled Grozny long ago. Nadya hasn’t any appointments, but she’ll try to meet with a half-dozen eye surgeons in Petersburg next week. If there is an operation, and if that operation is successful, she says she will move to Sweden. I fear for her future in a country whose citizenry is forced to assemble its own furniture.“If it happens, the surgery, if it’s successful,” I say. “You don’t need to leave.”“What I need is sleep.”When I return to my flat, I scoop the hardened residue of the morning’s kasha onto a slice of round bread. The granules wedge into my molar divots, rough and folically acidic, suggesting the kind of rich, fibrous nutrients that uncoil one’s intestines into a vertical chute. I rinse my hands in the sink and let the water run even after my hands are clean. Indoor plumbing was restored six months ago. Above the doorway hangs a bumper sticker of a fish with WWJCD? inscribed across its body, sent by an American church along with a crate of bibles in response to our plea for life-saving aid.I take a dozen scorched canvases from the closet and lay them on the floor in two rows of six. They were too damaged for the Tretyakov exhibition. Not one was painted after 1879, and yet they look like the surreal visions of a psychedelic-addled mind. Most are burned through, some no more than mounted ash, more reminiscent of Alberto Burri’s slash-and-burn Tachisme than the Imperial Academy’s classicism. In others the heat-melted oils have turned photo-realistic portraits into dissolved dreamscapes.My closet holds one last canvas, the Zakharov I rescued. I set it on the coffee table and examine the brushwork by the light of an unshaded lamp. The seamless gradation of color, the nearly invisible brushstrokes; classic Zakharov. Not even the three years I spent writing my dissertation on Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenets could diminish my fascination with his work. Born in 1816, during the Caucasian War that Lermontov, Tolstoy, and Pushkin would later memorialize in their “Prisoner of the Caucasus” story cycle, he was a war orphan before his fourth birthday. Yet his brilliance so exceeded his circumstances that he went on to attend the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg and despite exclusion from scholarship, employment, and patronage due to his ethnicity, he eventually became a court painter and a member of the Academy. Here is a Chechen who learned to succeed by the rules of his conquerors, a man not unlike the Interior minister, to be admired and pitied.A meadow, an apricot tree, a stone wall in a diagonal meander through the grasses, the pasture cresting into a hill, a boarded well, a house. In 1937, the censor who would become the subject of Nadya’s dissertation painted the figure of the Grozny party boss beside the dacha. For more than fifty years the party boss occupied the bottom left corner of the painting like a mislaid statue of Socialist Realism. Soviet dogma had already pervaded the whole of the present, and here was a reminder that the past was no less revisable, no less susceptible to alteration than an unfinished canvas. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and Soviet satellite states began breaking away, when the politicians and security apparatus had more pressing concerns than nineteenth-century landscapes, I asked Nadya to restore the Zakharov. She was well trained, intuitive, a natural restoration artist, and over the course of several weeks, she expunged the party boss from the painting. We didn’t take to the streets; we didn’t overthrow governments or oust leaders; our insurrection was ten centimeters of canvas.It’s among the least ambitious of all Zakharov’s work. Here is an artist who painted the portraits of Tsar Nicholas I, General Alexei Yermolov, Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, and the famed depiction of Imam Shamil’s surrender, and this, in my hands, portrays all the drama its title suggests: Empty Pasture in Afternoon.I grew up in the southern highlands, just a few kilometers away from the pasture. Illiterate villagers who knew nothing of art proudly claimed this strip of soil worthy of Zakharov’s paintbrush. Though the land was technically part of a state farm, nothing was ever planted, and flocks were banned from grazing because no one liked the idea of sheep relieving themselves on Zakharov’s pasture. In secondary school, my class took a trip to the Grozny Museum of Regional Art and I finally saw the canvas that existed more vibrantly in village lore that it ever could on a museum wall.More than anything, it was that painting that led me to study art at university. There I met and married Liana. We lived with my parents in cramped quarters well into our twenties, and found the privacy to speak openly only in deserted public areas: on the roof of the village schoolhouse, in the waiting room of the shuttered village clinic, in Zakharov’s pasture. After I received my doctorate and a position at the museum, we relocated to a Grozny flat, where we learned to talk in bed.The USSR fell. We had a son. With the assistance of the Interior minister, I purchased the dacha on Zakharov’s pasture amid the frenzied privatization of the post-Soviet, prewar years. When the first war began, I stayed in Grozny and did my best to protect the museum from the alternating advances of foreign soldiers and local insurgents. My wife and son lived in the dacha, far from the war.In my tourist bureau research, I’ve learned that the first and second Chechen wars have made the republic among the most densely mined regions in human history. The United Nations estimates five hundred thousand mines were planted, roughly one for every two Chechen. I didn’t know that number when I visited the dacha during the first war, taking what provisions I could cull from the ruined capital, a few treats for which I paid dearly, tea leaves for my wife, sheets of fresh drawing paper for my son. But I knew enough to warn them never to venture into the pasture. Until May 1996, they heeded my warnings. I don’t know how it happened, why they walked into the pasture, if they were pursued, if they fled masked men, if the mined field was a sanctuary compared with the depredations of their pursuers, if they were afraid, if they called for help, if they called for me. Those questions have been unanswerable from the moment they swung open the back door, descended the stairs, and ran across that fallow garden. I’d like to believe it was a day so beautiful they couldn’t be kept from the crest of the hill, the open sky, that radiance. I’d like to believe that my wife suggested a picnic on the hill. I’d like to believe that the moment before their last moment was one of whimsy, charm, anything to counter the more probable realities at the edge of my imagination. With terror or joy, with abasement or delight, they remained my wife and child, right to the end—I must remind myself because in the mystery that subsumes those final moments, they are strangers to me. I was in Grozny, at the museum, and never heard the explosion.[[{"fid":"6691326","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"707","width":"707","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]For the two weeks Nadya is in Petersburg, my evenings stagnate. Russian dignitaries, potential investors, state-approved journalists, and the omnipresent oilmen fill my mornings and afternoons, but when I return to my flat I’m reminded I am, at the end of the day, alone. Twice I go to Nadya’s flat to clean her bedroom closet, the back corners of shelves, behind the toilet, the little places that even in her fastidiousness she’d miss. I’m uncomfortable with the neediness that underlies my decision to insert myself into her life under the pretext of concern. I am concerned, of course. Some nights I wake from nightmares that she has tripped over a chair, a shoe, a broomstick I could have moved. But in rare moments—like now, as I scour the mildew from her bathroom tiles—clarity surfaces through the murky soup of daily life, and I know I have purposefully made myself into a crutch she cannot risk discarding. What I don’t know is whether I’ve done so out of love or loneliness, or if in this upside-down world where roofs lie on streets, intentions have lost their moral weight altogether.One Wednesday, feeling unusually alert given the hour, I contemplate Zakharov’s pasture. It’s the least ruined of the canvases, stained with ash and soot, but still the damage is minor. Most severe is the burn hole at the center of the canvas, upon the hill, and even though the hole was burned into the canvas during the museum fires, I see it as the crater left by the landmine blast, the hole through which everything disappeared. A few years ago, Nadya could’ve restored it in days.An idea. I let myself back into Nadya’s flat to retrieve her restoration kit. It’s at her desk, amid the black-and-white photographs censored by the propaganda officer who had painted the Grozny party boss into the foreground of the Zakharov. Nadya became fascinated with the propaganda officer after she had expunged the party boss from the painting, particularly when she discovered that he had inserted a portrait of the same person into hundreds of the censored images, from boyhood to elderly years. If you lined up all the photographs, you might see this stranger’s entire life unfold before you in the background. I pause on one, identified as Leningrad 1937 in pencil on the back. Here he’s just a boy, chubby face and gray eyes below the accent mark of a cowlick, hardly noticeable in the crowd. I feel him staring up at me with an intensity approaching sentience, and for a moment I can’t move: His gaze has pierced and pinned me to a present space we share. How did he die? The question has looped through me on a ticker tape these past five years, but I have never before asked it about a boy who was not my son.Back home I set the contents beside the Zakharov canvas. Plastic bottles of emulsion cleaner, neutralizer, gloss varnish, conditioner, and varnish remover. A tin of putty. Eight meters of canvas lining. A depleted packet of cotton-tipped swabs. A dozen disposable chloroprene gloves. I’d taken a yearlong course in conservation at university, but my real education came from Nadya, when, in the months after my family died, I neglected my duties as deputy director and spent most afternoons in her office, watching her work.Every evening for the next week I snap on the chloroprene gloves and wash away the surface dirt with cotton balls dampened in neutralizer. The emulsion cleaner smells of fermented watermelon, and I apply it with the swabs, running small circles until the cotton tips gray and the unadulterated color of Zakharov’s palette is revealed. Using the repair putty as sealant, I patch the burn hole with a square of fresh canvas. Then, for the real challenge, I paint.The patched hole is the size of a halved playing card in the center-right of the painting, near the cresting hill. The grass, turned emerald by sunlight, must be flawless, the gradation beyond reproach, and I spend several hours testing different blends of oils before coloring the canvas patch with delicate brushstrokes. As I work, I realize that even in his rendering of a distant field of grass, Zakharov is beyond imitation. I lean back, search the painting for two familiar figures, as I have for years, but this time is different. Nadya would never forgive me had she been here and been able to see me paint, upon the patched hole on the hillside, a woman and a boy.With quick, strong lines, I draw them as silhouettes. The boy’s arms are raised, his body elongated as he makes for the crest, his hands thrown open. The woman, a step behind, follows him up the hill. Their backs are to me. The sun rakes the grass and ripe apricots bend the branches. No one chases them. They run from nothing.Nadya has returned and the white tea has cooled in our cups and still she hasn’t mentioned the Petersburg eye surgeons.“Good news,” she says and feels across the floor for her suit- case. She hands me two VHS tapes. “These are the two you wanted, right?”I examine the two VHS cases. Soviet comedies, sadly. “Yes, these are precisely the ones I wanted.”“I was afraid the street vendor had swindled me.”“What did the eye surgeons say, Nadya?”The pause was long enough to peel a plum.She delivers the news with a downcast frown. “Reconstructive surgery is possible.”I force as much gusto into my congratulations as I can muster, slapping my palm on the table while my spine wilts. What will I be if Nadya no longer needs me, what if she moves to Sweden and assembles bookcases in a living room I will never see? This is good news, though, of course it is, but Nadya’s face is joyless. “What’s wrong? Is there a long wait for the operation? ”“There won’t be one.”“What? Why not?”“Too expensive.” She’s still facing the empty chair across the table, thinking that I’m still sitting there. “It’s one hundred and fifteen thousand.”One hundred and fifteen thousand rubles. A huge, but not impossible, sum. Years to save for, but within the realm of possibility, like a vacation to Belarus. I’m already scheming ways to defraud the Interior Ministry when she says, “Dollars.”My heart spirals and crash-lands somewhere deep in my gut. At thirty-three rubles to a dollar, the number is insurmountable. Nadya reaches for her purse and pulls out an envelope.“What I owe you for the trip. Help me count it out,” she says. For a moment her instinct to trust anyone, even me, is infuriating. Isn’t suspicion the natural condition of the blind? Haven’t I warned her, told her to be careful, that she can’t rely on anyone? But by some perversion she’s become more trusting, more willing to believe that people aren’t by nature hucksters and scoundrels, which is why, I suppose, my VHS collection is rounded out with Gentlemen of Fortune.“It’s nothing,” I say.“I’m paying you back.”“If you want to be a martyr go join them in the woods.”“Help me count it out,” she insists, her voice stern, cool, serious. “I still have money left from the disability fund. I’m not a charity.”Of course there’s no disability fund. Of course the government isn’t sending her a monthly payment or subsidizing the flat adjacent to mine. The cash sealed in the Interior Ministry envelopes I bring over on the first of the month comes from me, as does her monthly rent.“I’m waiting,” she says. We both know this is a farce. But I sit beside her. I play my part in the lie that preserves the illusion that our friendship, our romance, whatever this is, is based on affection rather than need. I count out the bills that I will return to her in an Interior Ministry envelope on the first of the month, and when I finish we shake hands as if our business is concluded and there is nothing left that we owe each other, no debt unpaid, no obligation unfulfilled.In bed I run my fingers through what remains of her hair, press my fingertips to her cheeks, slowly scrolling, as if I am the blinded of us, to decipher the dense Braille scrawled across her face. I slide my hand down her torso, over the bulge of her left breast, the hook of her hip bone, to thighs so smooth and unmarked they’re hers only in darkness. She rolls away.Lying here in bed, you nearly forget the falling rockets, the collapsing museum, the air of the clean sky impossibly distant, the cinder blocks shifting like ice cubes in a glass. The Zakharov was in your hands when you found her, her face halved by burns, her teeth chattering. You nearly forget how you lifted her cheek to cool it with your breath, how her broken eyes searched for you as you held her.You nearly forget the many times you have warned her of monsters as though they are a people apart: lurking beyond her doorway, ready to prey on the blind and vulnerable. As she turns from you, tucking the sheets beneath her hip, you nearly forget to ask yourself, “What monster have I become today?”*In the morning I return to my flat and find the canvases on the floor where I left them. Daylight grants the scorch and char an odd beauty, as if the fires hadn’t destroyed the artworks, but revised them into expressions of a brutal present. I pick up the nearest canvas, a family portrait commissioned by a nobleman as a wedding present for his second son. The top third of the canvas has been incinerated, taking with it the heads of the nobleman, his wife, the first son, and the newly betrothed, but their bodies remain, dressed in soot-stained breeches and petticoats, and by their feet sits a dachshund so fat its little legs barely touch the ground, the only figure—in a canvas commissioned to convey the family’s immortal honor—to survive intact.I hang the canvas on the wall from a bent nail and step back, marveling that here, for the first time in my career, I’ve hung a work of modern art. After pulling the furniture into the kitchen, I hang the remaining canvases throughout the living room, finally coming to the restored Zakharov, which I consider taking back to the closet, shelving in the darkness where it will exist for me alone, but my curatorial instincts win out, and I hang the Zakharov on the wall where it is meant to be. The street children long ago stole the last of my door signs.I scrawl one more on a cardboard shingle and nail it to the door: Grozny Museum of Regional Art.Now for guards. I toss a crumpled hundred-ruble note down the stairs, thinking that they, like the Sunzha trout, are too hungry to pass up a baited hook. A small hand reaches around the corner, and I grab it, yanking on the slender arm to reel in the rest of the child. He squirms wildly, biting at my wrists, until I shake him into submission and offer him a job in museum security.He stops squirming, perhaps out of shock, and I close his hand around the hundred-ruble note. His fingernails look rusted on. His shirt is no thicker than stitched-together soot.“Bandits are stealing the signs from my door,” I tell him. “I’ll pay you and your friends three hundred rubles a week to keep watch.”Over the following weeks, I bring all my tours through the museum. A delegation from the Red Cross. More Chinese oilmen. A heavyweight boxing champ. A British journalist. This is what remains, the charred canvases cry. You cannot burn ash! You cannot raze rubble! As the only museum employee besides the street children, I give myself a long overdue promotion. No longer am I deputy. As of today, I am director of the Grozny Museum of Regional Art.[[{"fid":"6691321","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"707","width":"707","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The newly installed phone rings one morning and the gloomy Interior minister greets me. “We’re properly fucked.”“Nice to hear from you, sir,” I reply. I’m still in my sleeping clothes and even for a phone conversation I feel unsuitably dressed.“The Chinese are out. They traded their drilling right to Rosneft for a few dozen Russian fighter jets.”I nod. It explains why China hadn’t sent their most shrewd or sober representatives. “So this means Rosneft will drill?”“Yes, and it gets even worse,” he heaves. “I may well be demoted to deputy minister.”“I was a deputy for many years. It’s not as bad as you think.”“When the world takes a dump, it lands on a deputy’s forehead.”I couldn’t deny that. “What does this mean for the Tourist Bureau?”“You’ll have one more tour, then it’s safe to say you’ll need to find new employment. Oleg Voronov. From Rosneft.”It took a beat for the name to register. “The fourteenth richest man in Russia?”“Thirteenth now.”“With respect, sir, I give tours to human rights activists and print journalists, people of no power or importance. I’m not qualified to give a tour to a man of his stature. Why does he even want a tour?”“My question precisely! Apparently his wife, Galina Something-or-other-ova, the actress, has heard of this art museum you’ve cobbled together. What’ve you been up to?”“It’s a long story, sir.”“You know I hate stories.”“Yes, sir.”“Well, do show him our famed Chechen hospitality. Be sure to offer him a glass of unboiled tap water. Let’s give the thirteenth richest man in Russia an intestinal parasite!”“Don’t worry, sir. I’m a limo driver.”“I’ll land on my feet, Ruslan. Don’t lose too much sleep over my future. Perhaps I’ll visit America. I’d like to see Muskegon while I’m still young and healthy enough to really experience it.”Three weeks pass and here he is, Oleg Voronov sitting in the backseat of the Mercedes with his wife, the actress Galina Ivanova. Up front is his assistant, a bleached-blond parcel of productivity who takes notes even when no one is speaking. But try as I might, I’m unable to properly hate Voronov. So far he’s been untalkative, inattentive, and uncurious; in short, a perfect tourist. Galina, on the other hand, has read Khassan Geshilov’s The Origins of Chechen Civilization and recites historical trivia unfamiliar to me. The office doors of dead administrators clatter beneath us and she asks thoughtful questions, treating me not as a servant, or even a tour guide, but as a scholar. I casually mention the land mines, the street children, the rape and torture and indiscriminate suffering, but Voronov and his wife shake their heads with sympathy. Nothing I say will turn them into the masks of evil I want them to be.The tour concludes at my flat. I’m hesitant to allow a man of his stature into the small world of my museum, but his wife insists. As we ascend the stairwell, Voronov checks his watch, a cheap plastic piece of crap, and in that moment I know I will not hate him as he deserves to be hated.“This is what remains of the Grozny Museum of Regional Art,” I say as I open the door. Voronov and his assistant circle the room. I glance to the kitchen sink, but a glass of unboiled tap water is a fate I wouldn’t wish upon even a Russian oligarch.Voronov and Galina pass the burned-out frames to the pasture painting. “Is this the one?” he asks her. She nods.“A Zakharov, no?” he asks, fingering his lapel as he turns to me. “There was an exhibit of his at the Tretyakov, if memory serves.”Only now do I see clearly the animals I have invited into my home. “The fires destroyed most of the original collection when the museum was bombed. We sent what was saved to the Tretyakov.”“But not this?”“Not this.”“Rather reckless, don’t you think, to leave such a treasure on an apartment wall guarded only by street urchins?”“It’s a minor work.”“Believe it or not, my wife has been looking for this painting. It has special meaning for her. I know, I know. I married a sentimentalist.”“Could I offer you a glass of water?”“You could offer me the painting.”I force a laugh. He laughs too. We are laughing. Ha-ha! Ha-ha! It’s all a joke. “The painting is not for sale,” I say.He stops laughing. “It is if I want to buy it.”“This is a museum. You can’t have a painting just because you want it. The director of the Tretyakov wouldn’t sell you art from his walls just because you can afford it.”“You are only a deputy director and this isn’t the Tretyakov.” There’s real pity in his voice as he surveys the ash flaking from the canvases, the dirty dishes stacked in the sink, and yes, now, at last, I hate him.“Come now, I have a penthouse gallery in Moscow. Temperature and moisture controlled. First-rate security. No one but Galina, and a few guests, and I will ever see it. You must realize I’m being more than reasonable.” In a less than subtle threat he nods out the window to the street where his three armed Goliaths skulk beside their Land Rover. “What is the painting worth?”“It’s worth,” I begin, but how can I finish? What price can I assign to the last Zakharov in Chechnya, to the last image of my home? One sum comes to mind, but it terrifies me. Wouldn’t that be the worst of all outcomes, to lose both the Zakharov and Nadya in the same transaction? “Just take it,” I say. “You took everything else. Take this too.”Voronov bristles. “I’m not a thief. Tell me what it’s worth.”My gaze floats and lands upon the bumper sticker of WWJCD? inscribed within the body of a fish. What would he do? Jim Carrey would be brave. In the end, no matter how hard, Jim Carrey does the right thing. I close my eyes. I don’t want to say it. “One hundred and fifteen thousand dollars. U.S.”“One-fifteen? ”I nod.“That’s what, three-point-seven, three-point-eight million rubles? Let’s make it an even four,” Voronov says with a single fleshy clap. His wife still hasn’t looked away from the painting. He turns to his assistant who has followed him around the room, taking notes all the while. The assistant unyokes herself from a mammoth purse, pulls out eight stacks of banded five-thousand-ruble bills, and lays them on the floor. “Never trust banks,” Voronov says. “You can have that advice for free. It’s been a pleasure.” He slaps my back, tells the assistant to bring the canvas down with her, and heads for the door.Then he’s gone. Galina remains at the Zakharov. Even now as I’m losing it, I’m proud my painting can elicit such sustained attention.She nods to the stick-figure silhouettes of my wife and child, smiling as she dabs the corners of her eyes. “You wouldn’t understand, but someone I once loved died in this field.”She pats my shoulder and walks to the door.Then she’s gone and I’m left alone with the assistant whose saccharine perfume smells of vaporized cherubs. I close my eyes and try to imagine the darkness extending into permanent night, to imagine our lives as dreams we tumble through, but I can’t imagine, because even at night I know morning will come, and even with my eyes clamped I know I will open them. What will Nadya see when she opens hers? Who will she see when she sees me?“And you’ll have to give us a curatorial description,” the assistant says. “Something we can mount on a placard.”She passes me the notepad and I stand before my painting for a long while before I begin. Notice how the shadows in the meadow mirror the clouds in the sky, I write. Or the way the leaves of the apricot tree blow in the same direction as the grass on the far side of the meadow. For such a master, no verisimilitude is excluded. Notice the wall of white stones cutting an angle across the composition. It both gives depth and offsets the horizon line. On the left side of the canvas, running up the hill, you will see channels of turned soil. One could assume they are freshly dug graves, or recently buried land mines, but look closer and see they are the furrows of a newly planted herb garden. The first shoots of rosemary already peek out. In this painting, Zakharov portrays all the peace and tranquility of a spring day. The sun shines comfortably and hours remain before nightfall. Toward the crest of the hill, nearing the horizon, you may notice what look to be the ascending figures of a woman and a boy. Pay them no mind, for they are merely the failures of a novice restoration artist. They are no more than his shadows. They are not there.This story appears in The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, available now. All illustrations by Roman Muradov.