Hazlitt Magazine

Eight Saints and a Demon

“I always felt weird about telling you. Don’t get mad, okay?”

The Year in Giving Up

Here are four things I gave up this year. 

Holiday on the Icy Golden Hell-Staircase

Thousands of Gold Rush prospectors climbed the Chilkoot, and many lost their lives. In the grand tradition of Dark Tourism, I decided to join the 2,500 people who now hike it for fun every summer.

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Eight Saints and a Demon

“I always felt weird about telling you. Don’t get mad, okay?”

[[{"fid":"6698776","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","style":"font-size: 13.008px;","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Thaïs8 October 2009Colin kept pronouncing it as though he were talking about people from Thailand. He wasn’t following the patient, enunciated lead Ms. Rawley gave him in her intro: the way she stretched the i before sucking in air at the end of the s, making the trema talk. She interrupted Colin after the first paragraph or so of his presentation to explain the ¨, applying it to the whiteboard with two darts of her marker, then writing diaeresis / umlaut / trema.“And since I would never even try to say ‘diaeresis’ repeatedly in this classroom, and umlaut is a bit of an ugly word, we’ll call it a trema. Go on, Colin.”Colin always worked shabby jokes into his assignments and would inevitably focus on the Thai prostitute angle for his Penguin Dictionary of the Saints presentation on a reformed fourth-century “notorious harlot” from Egypt, who’d achieved beatification by burning all her clothes and jewellery, then latched onto a team of nuns to clean her soul for death.Instead of listening, Julian practiced getting the ï to work for him the way it did for Karen Rawley. He sat at his desk making the small fishlike moue that the word demanded, while the room of fifteen-year-old boys waiting for their turn laughed intermittently at Colin, and Ms. Rawley stared at her desk. The assignment had been inspired by the discovery of a sealed box of the paperback dictionaries lying in the supply room, untouched since 1965. The books were beautiful, the liquid black of the borders and the sharp colours in the cover painting of Saint Jerome vivid and new, as though they had been mailed from the past.“Since it pretty much says in the book that Thaïs probably didn’t exist and that she is basically a Catholic bedtime story, the project, overall, was getting me to research a lie told to scare people into not having fun.”“What a penetrating argument, Colin, thank you.” Karen looked up from her desk, watching Julian try his ï. He looked thoughtful and breathless, a drowned saint in living glass of blue and pink.[[{"fid":"6698781","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"}}]]Pazuzu31 October 2013During Karen Rawley’s hearing, Colin became Julian’s best friend. This was in their senior year, when both boys switched out of Hemdale Catholic in favour of the enormous, identity-blanching public school between their two suburbs. Colin kept best friend status through their freshman year of college and two months of the next. In that last month, they watched The Exorcist on Halloween, trying to, as Colin put it, “get the fear back.”It worked. Just not in the fear-of-God way that Colin intended. They sat on separate couches in Julian’s living room, which was weakly heated by baseboard units and chilled by powerful movements of air through and around the papery, century-old panes in the large window behind them. Colin and Julian were each caped in wool blankets and eventually drew their feet off the floor, pressing legs close to bodies.The bit in the movie about Father Karras abandoning his mother was what got to Colin, who hissed a little bit at the scene of the depleted, betrayed old woman in her bed at a chaotic mental hospital. Colin’s transfer from Hemdale had been followed a few months later by a local news profile of him and his boyfriend, a fairly stupid boy named Luke Strachan who was mainly appealing because he had his own place and made decent money selling stolen phones online. They’d done the interview in Luke’s bachelor apartment, the door open so the camera setup could get a decent angle on Colin and Luke sitting on the futon couch that unfolded into the bed they shared. Colin’s mother was not the kind of Irish Catholic to embrace this aspect of her son, especially when she first encountered it through her husband screaming at her from the living room to come to the TV.“All her fault, definitely, but it still felt like mine too,” he said to Julian, when they paused the movie to get a wax-coated whiskey bottle open.Nothing in the movie got to Julian quite as much as the death of Max von Sydow, which happened offscreen and was an accidental triumph of the devil, who’d been helped by the old priest’s weak heart and broken assistant.Colin kept talking after they’d gotten the whiskey open, talked through the whole rest of the movie, but Julian had maintained his ability to ignore him even after they became friends. He concentrated on little Regan, a couple of traced scars on her face as she hugged the priest in the last scene, until she got into the car and was driven away from the house where she’d been invaded by the demon Pazuzu. With the film over, his ears began to accept Colin’s frequencies again, noting only that he was still talking guilt, before the names surfaced.“And Latham didn’t even see you with Ms. Rawley. I just told him about you being in her car after lunch. He pretended he saw, like he was the scandalized star, and added all that stuff on top of the kissing. Stuck to it the whole time, once his parents told the cops about the texts they saw. And he only pretended because he was a glory hog, not because he didn’t want to rat on me, for sure.”The Exorcist credits were interrupted by Netflix pointing out similar films to stream next. Julian usually liked to watch credits through to the end, but he hadn’t made a move for the controller, or any move at all.“I always felt weird about telling you. Don’t get mad, okay?”Julian didn’t grab for the controller, stepping onto and over the coffee table instead with his hands in loose fists. He tripped and smashed his face into Colin’s teeth, setting his forehead and his friend’s mouth bleeding before the first punch.[[{"fid":"6698786","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"}}]]VulnusJulian Proctor10 October 2009English 10Ms. RawleySt VulnusVulnus began his life in ninth-century Baghdad. He was born from the union of a travelling merchant from Spain and a courtesan, who knew that she was to be decapitated for granting favour to someone other than the caliph. Vulnus’s mother composed a song for her son, understanding that she would be executed when his skin and eyes were seen at his birth (the caliph at the time being decidedly dark, and the traveller from England rivalling the palest of his countrymen, his skin constantly blistered by the lacerating heat and rays of the desert sun).Indeed, her head was ordered struck off before Vulnus’s feet had left her womb, the court vizier having seen the boy’s blue eyes, and a scimitar-bearing guard attending the birth. (Another version of the Vulnus story holds that the vizier, whose own eyes were blue, was the father). Many accounts say that the boy Vulnus was delivered of a dead woman, as Jesus was delivered of a virgin.The song composed by his courtesan mother, plucked from an oud every morning by the slave woman who’d offered to nurse him (the boy’s survival being another indication that the vizier, and not a wandering merchant, had been the father), was an eleven-note strain full of the east with a recurring lyrical thrill that was not to be heard in Western music until the baroque period. The surviving notated scrap of “Vulnus’s Dawn,” taken down by a Renaissance musician from Sicily who had heard it at a Persian wedding, is considered by musicologists to be a key bridging element between classical music forms in several different cultures. Earlier renderings of the song, if ever they were notated, were lost in Hulagu Khan’s devastating assaults on Baghdad.Vulnus was raised to be a musician, castrated at an early age to preserve the sweetness of his voice and to further reinforce the caliph’s claim on the courtesans that the young man spent his days with. He fled the castle and Islamic rites on his twenty-second birthday, but not before releasing a dozen captured Christians who had been working as slaves in the kitchens—he clothed them in garments that would be invisible in the city, and provided them with funds for their escape, refusing to flee alongside them, as he knew the caliph’s men would concentrate on capturing and killing him.After two days, when none of the escaped slaves had been recovered and were judged to be a safe distance from the city, Vulnus reappeared at the castle gates and surrendered himself to the caliph’s men, declaring his hope that his deed had cleansed both him and his mother, while acknowledging the betrayal of his duty toward the caliph, who had fed and clothed him since birth.Vulnus was beheaded in the same chamber where he was birthed, and his head rolled upward along the slanting stone floor to come to rest where his mother’s had. On his face was an expression of total peace, which, when his executioner saw it, caused him to retire his role and take up work in the kitchens, where he became the court’s greatest baker. But that is another tale.Julian, I can’t decide if this is a little bit racist (not intentionally, of course), and that ‘Arabian Nights’ turn at the end is wrong, tonally (despite making me desperate to hear the story of the Executioner-Baker), but your Vulnus entry is excellent, and you’ve done a great job of emulating Attwater’s prose from the real Dictionary of Saints. A definite A / A+. Overall, I would be proud to have written this myself. -KR[[{"fid":"6698791","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"}}]]Eugenia 25 December 2014Eugenia was Karen Rawley’s favourite female saint story, both for the audacity of the holy bullshit and the Shakespearean hook of the cross-dressing woman-as-monk. The beheading ending was a downer, but Karen had corrected it in her latest piece—four pages of crowded handwriting on yellow paper that she folded together at the upper-left corner and slid into a folder with the rest—before knocking on the inside of her own door and waiting for it to be opened from the outside.Threats that she’d made up and bruises that she didn’t have to invent had gotten her what she’d wanted: 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, the kind that was usually earned by committing a few in-prison murders or by entering far more notoriously than Karen had. Whenever she asked a few hours in advance, the guards shuffled her up to the chaplain’s office. Today they took her up immediately. The Father had special Christmas hours just after the morning mass, which Karen never attended.“Nothing better to do today, Father?”“I never have anything better to do than discharge the duties of my office, Karen,” said Father Mackle. He was bald, cauliflower-eared from boxing young and cauliflower-nosed from daily drinking after hanging up the gloves. The guard who’d made the walk with Karen, a silent obese woman with a large facial mole, left when Mackle waved her off. What would have been an exposed brick wall behind him was painted a pale, fishy yellow, to match the rest of the surfaces on this floor of the prison. The desk wasn’t institutional, though; a hunk of cherrywood that looked like a real piece of the outside.“Did you bring that from home? I always mean to ask.”“The blotter? The desk. It was a gift from my first congregation. I’ve been hauling it with me ever since. What can I do for you, Karen?”“I want to run my penitence past you, Father,” she said, presenting the file she had brought up from her cell, pushing it across the red wood toward the priest.“What’s this?”“I’ve been writing a series of dialogues between me and saints of my choosing, and enacting them in my cell. I perform them out loud, I mean. I wanted to tell you so you can let the guards and the Warden’s tentacles know that I’m not going insane. I’m talking through my sins.”“Yes. Well, that isn’t harmful, necessarily. But I have to tell you that it is weird, Karen. Not a replacement for confession.” Mackle paused, likely realizing that any alternative he could present would involve him doing much more work than he wanted to do, and devoting more time to Karen Rawley than she had fair claim to, in a facility of this size.“Can you read one out with me? Whichever you choose. Just so you can see that it’s harmless, even if it is weird. The guards. Soller, you know her? With the long arms and the bad front teeth?”Mackle smiled at the description, able to place the woman instantly, though he’d never known her name. “Yes, I think so.”“She keeps on rapping on my cell door and asking what I’m up to when I do the readings. Clearly thinks I’m going insane. Just pick one out and you’ll see. It’s narcissistic, at worst, but I want you to see that it’s a genuine expression of a kind of faith, Father.”“You choose one,” Mackle said, pushing the file back at her. “I’ll get it photocopied so we can do it properly.”[[{"fid":"6698796","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"}}]]Ursula 21 October 2009Julian knew Ms. Rawley parked her car in a small strip mall parking lot a block from the school. Her dad owned Ham and Tony’s, the sandwich shop in the mall, and Karen had told the class a few stories about working there when she was a student at Hemdale. No kids from school went, choosing the McDonald’s around the corner instead. Mr. Rawley had regularly kicked out teenagers who lingered too long at his stools and tables during the lunch rush, and this had been enough to kill the place for Hemdale kids and make it a teen-free oasis for downtown office lunchers.Julian waited in front of Karen Rawley’s car, the cold of the pavement pushing through his cotton uniform pants and boxers. By the time he realized that he really wanted to get up he’d seen Ms. Rawley approaching, and didn’t want to look fidgety.“Hi, Julian,” Ms. Rawley said. “Following me?”“No. I just saw once that you park here instead of the teacher’s lot.”“Yes. When I finish work I don’t want to talk to anyone, really, and the other teachers tend to chat in the parking lot. I get all chatted out.” Ms. Rawley kept her car keys in her pocket, not her purse, and already had them in hand. She put them back in her pocket and leaned against the door of her aging Honda.Julian stood.“I was wondering if I could get my Dictionary of Saints thing back. Even if didn’t count.” “You have it in your computer.”“I want to know what you said about it,” said Julian, staring at Ms. Rawley’s stuffed shoulder bag, which bristled with white papers and pulled her body slightly to the right when she walked. With its weight braced against her car, she was straight again, except for her small, usual slouch. He knew his entry was in that bag.“Whoever told the school admin about the project, not that they were wrong to do so, I’m not running a secret classroom, ended anything to do with our new Dictionary. I tried to explain that it was an exercise in style. Inventing new entries for saints who didn’t exist is not the same thing as inventing new saints. If anything, it wasn’t a creative exercise but an exercise in restraint.”“I know,” said Julian, not really knowing. “I figured you got the idea from Colin’s stupid comment about how Thaïs didn’t exist.”“Ten points for pronunciation. And yes, something like that, although I’d never call Colin’s point stupid. If anything, I was stupid for suggesting the assignment at this school.”“Did you read mine?”“Yes.”“Did you like it?” Julian asked. Ms. Rawley shrugged out of the shoulder strap and rested the bag on the hood of her car while she got her keys out again, opening the driver’s side and doing the double-click turn that unlocked all four doors. She tossed her bag in the backseat, which was teeming with volleyballs.“We can talk about this a little farther away from the school, Julian, if you have time right now. Some restaurant near your house?”On the drive Julian asked Ms. Rawley about her favourite entry in the real dictionary, clarifying that he meant which entry, not which saint. She told him about her second favourite, instead. It was Ursula, who hadn’t wanted to get married and had corralled either eleven or eleven-thousand maiden virgins to ditch Britain with her. All of them went on pilgrimage to Rome and were massacred for their faith by Huns on the way back home.“None of it could have happened, none of it’s proved, but still. Eleven-thousand-and-one virgins on a road trip, and all those blades at the end of it.”[[{"fid":"6698801","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"}}]]Anastasia 25 December 2014Anastasia: You’ve called for me.Karen: Yes. You’re supposed to be an exorcist.Anastasia: A rumour from long after my martyrdom. I’ve had very few conversations with the adversary.Karen: You died in Serbia. I’m half-Serbian, maybe that’s why I chose you.Anastasia: You’ve summoned me to confess.Karen: No, for an explanation and a few questions.Anastasia: I’ll do my best with the time we have.Anastasia: Martyrs want out. You have to acknowledge that, on some level, they all just want out, even if they have to go through torture first.Anastasia: Christ?Karen: Between what was going on down here and being King of Heaven forever? I never understood the sacrifice. I’ve read the reasoning but I’ve never felt it, myself. What was there to lose? Physical pain, ostracism. Surrounded by lesser beings he was compelled to love.Anastasia: A basic theological question that has been thoroughly answered.Karen: I’m trying to understand the damage I caused. I confessed to everything I did and much more I didn’t do, to spare Julian from the courtroom, from my “infamy.” I described filth that had nothing to do with us. I picked up on every suggestion the judging machine made and I agreed, enhanced, amplified. I buried myself here.Anastasia: But you did do wrong.Karen: Yes, but how much?Anastasia: Several kinds of sin. Worse, you corrupted acts of virtue. You degraded generosity and charity. You weren’t helping and guiding Julian. You were trying to fuck yourself in all meanings of the word.Karen: That sounds unsaintly.Anastasia: I’m one of the made-up ones.[[{"fid":"6698806","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"}}]]Cyprian and Justina26 September 2011She liked it when Julian walked around naked after they fucked, only letting him put clothes on when it was time for him to put in his writing hour.“You still do this on our days off, I hope.”“Yes.”“An hour a day? On loose-leaf, not typed? Because this doesn’t look like an hour of work.” Karen flipped through the four pages he’d brought in, culled from the printer in his dad’s study and containing about half the story of a saint named Akhen, in unacceptable handwriting.“Sometimes an hour sometimes longer. Is that okay?” Julian didn’t like hearing the sulk in his voice, but didn’t know how to shed it.Karen made him use her old university laptop, a clunker that no longer connected to the internet, closing him in the tiny breakfast nook in the kitchen and watching him through the windowed door as he wrote.Each semester that they’d been doing this, she’d invented a new after-school club, bringing it to life on Hemdale stationery and inventing a series of email addresses that all routed to her, to buy this time from Julian’s parents. This semester it was an illuminating class, and each time they had a session, Julian carried home one of the curlicued and ornamented letters that she herself had made as a teenager, replete with peering monks and lazy serpents. She scissored her initials out of the corner of each piece and he wrote his in. They were up to J: a boiling pot rounding out the lower curve of the letter with a pair of martyrs being turned into faithful soup inside it, twining their arms together around the rising trunk. Karen was refreshing the gold-leaf, always the first to flake off, when Julian broke the silent rule and called through the glass door.“What if, just saying, what if we let someone else see what we’re working on? Like, a magazine, or even you could just show another one of the teachers?”“You can show anyone you want to, but you can also keep the work private, and I think you should. Until you’re really great. That’s what no one told me, Jules. It’s fine to wait.”“Don’t call me that. It’s girl-sounding.”“I don’t think there’s any risk of me thinking you’re a girl, okay?”“I just don’t like it.”“Okay, let’s agree that’s not important, and move on.”“What is important, though? I’ve written like two hundred of these saint entries and most of them are terrible, and you still haven’t written one. You should be doing half if this is going to be any good.”“What I should be doing is encouraging and editing you. And that’s what I am doing. You’re going to be great, and I’m just going to be here, but that’s okay. I’m okay with it.”[[{"fid":"6698811","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"}}]]Hallvard 15 May 2018She’s been out of jail for three years and the no-contact order has been repealed for two, but this is the first time he’s gotten her to agree to meet him. Julian’s in front of Ham and Tony’s, which is still open but with a different owner, Mr. Rawley now living in Florida. The pavement’s warm, and the blacktop under his sneakers is absolutely hot, having baked in hours of sun. Karen has the same Honda, she said on the phone, and he’s waiting for that.He can’t remember how they’d gotten there in her car that first time, but he remembers Karen showing him how to shape his lips for a kiss, the right kind of non-familial kiss, and watching him while he did it, looking at his mouth and then his eyes, waiting for him to lean in and start it. Julian had told the cops about that moment after an hour of questioning, when they threw in Chris Latham’s testimony about the kiss and fondling that he’d supposedly witnessed. Julian finally told them that Latham must have been lying, that they’d barely ever kissed in public after the first time. Then he told them the rest, a nice female officer who was only a little older than Ms. Rawley encouraging all the details forward, promising that Ms. Rawley wouldn’t have to know that it was him who gave them, unless there was a trial.“If she’s as decent as you think she is, in the way you think she is, there won’t be a trial,” the cop said. And Karen did confess everything that night. Julian forgets the cop’s name, the way he’s been forgetting more about the past both distant and recent since he stopped going to school and writing and doing much of anything other than sitting on his parents’ couch and telling them that he’s almost made a decision.Karen had hidden the pages of the New Dictionary of Saints they’d made, printing them off and smashing the laptop before the cops made their first visit. Her last text had been to tell him so, that the pages were safe. The phone call the school had gotten was enough for her to make that move. The pages were hidden somewhere now, a relic, lost like those books had been in the Hemdale supply room, before Ms. Rawley resurrected them by passing a box cutter through the tape that held their imprisoning flaps down. If he could get the pages back and talk to Karen, just talk, he could figure out what to do next. Maybe tell the cops that he’d lied to them, that Karen Rawley had gone to jail to protect him, somehow, that she was the real innocent. That she’d been helping him.The car, Julian thinks it’s the right one, turns into the parking lot and starts angling towards him. Maybe the pages are in the trunk. Julian starts to stand but waits, because she might want him to stay sitting at first.
The Year in Giving Up

Here are four things I gave up this year. 

What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.Growing up is about giving up. When you’re a little kid, you dream of surfing on exploding stars, but when you’re an adult, you clean a small brownish pool of decay from the place where a refrigerated vegetable died of exposure. All in all, aging is a long string of ways of letting go. It’s all about saying—as you wake, tremulous, on a cold morning—“fuck it, I’m just not NASCAR material.”Here are four things I gave up this year.CHANGING MY STYLEEarlier this year I bought an unfortunate shirt. It was made of a permanently rumpled off-white fabric—it took its design cues from a used napkin. When I bought it, I knew very well that it was silly. But I did it anyways. Sometimes, I get a certain destructive feeling that I should grab hold of my life as hard as I can—that I should take very decisive action. Not necessarily any action in particular, just something, anything. My personality feels dusty occasionally. I persuade myself that I need something more going on in the way of characteristics. I’m sure you know what I mean. How many times have you thought, “Tomorrow will be different?” How many times have you wondered whether a specific catastrophe might shatter the shell around what you feel is your true self? That day, I thought that my true self would wear a fashionable, collared handkerchief.I wore it the day I bought it, awaiting a flood of compliments. When they didn’t come, it only strengthened my resolve. But, the day after, aided by the sobering potential of 24 hours, I decided I’d given up on changing my style, which I’d describe as “almost as boring as possible.” I wear a shirt that looks like a shirt then put on my pants, as best I can. Whenever possible, I choose clothing that avoids any cultural signaling beyond “I can do up buttons.” A long time ago I wanted clothing that made loud statements. Now I just want a jacket that elegantly shuts up.Probably, my stupid shirt is sitting dirty at the bottom of my laundry hamper. But I really don’t know. For all I care, it could be on Mars. All I want is a mind clean of its self-inflicted wounds.MONTREALIf you speak fluent French, Montreal is just a regular town where people do regular stuff like eat pistachios after work. But if you don’t, Montreal is optimized for being a slutty 21-year-old who never does anything. When I moved there in June, because I felt like the inertia of living in my hometown was holding me back, even though, realistically, it was preventing nothing, many people I met seemed like emotionally driven free spirits who trusted their intuition. This bored me immediately.Throughout my little apartment echoed the cries of my roommate’s girlfriend. “Fuck me, daddy,” she announced, while I ordered Indian food. When my dinner arrived, the chicken was shrivelled. Later that night, at a birthday party, a girl told me that she couldn’t be satisfied with any one man. Her boyfriend offered me a beer.Glorious years past saw me being a person with such a lackadaisical manner. But I’m not so cute that I can get away with this anymore. The layer of fat that covered my face and made me look like a sexy baby has melted away. I felt the lack of my facial squishiness as I navigated a five-floor nightclub, breathing the sweat of hundreds. Someone said, “Where did you grow up?” I said, “A long time ago.”I was in love with somebody in Toronto, whom I am still in love with today. “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” I told her. “It’s a bit of a head-scratcher,” she said. I agreed. I’m 28. I should get some work done. In view of this reality, I lived in Montreal for six weeks. It’s a very beautiful, European place.WRITING FICTIONGiven that I have no imagination whatsoever, writing fiction should never have seemed like a plausible way of life. But there I was in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, on a self-imposed writer’s retreat that lasted six miserable days. As far as I can tell, Laos is a country popular with tedious hippies smoking one-dollar packs of cigarettes, who buy sandwiches from lovely people who fear that their government will finally stop procrastinating and murder them.“My eggs tasted like ashes” sounds like a metaphor, but there were actual flakes of ash in my omelette. “I’m writing a novel,” I told an Israeli backpacker, while avoiding eye contact with my breakfast. “Me too,” she said. “What’s it about?” I said. “Smoking weed,” she said, which was a moving declaration of clear aesthetic purpose.I rented a motorbike, because writing fiction is unenjoyable. The sound of the engine roused gulls all down the coast, who got up for an impromptu sky party. “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” I thought. Later that night, in the hostel, I wrote, “I rented a motorbike” in an otherwise blank document then fell asleep.Years of my life were spent writing fiction. Dear myself: I’m so sorry for what I’ve done. Whoever says they don’t live with regret will regret me punching them in the face for saying such a thing. In conclusion, everyone should write fiction once in their life, then bury it in a hole at the bottom of the ocean.SMOKING Smoking was fun for about ten years, when I didn’t like myself much. Then, in June, I took a bunch of magic mushrooms. I sat in my room, getting high, thinking, “Why am I sticking little death-inducing tubes in my head?”While I was sobering up, my friend Fawn came over, with a friend whose name I forgot, who made me a gin and tonic. We sat on the back deck in a warm night. I felt like a million bucks drifting into eternity. A bug landed on my chest. “Nice bug,” I said. “Thanks,” Fawn said. Slowly, the psilocybin loosened its grip on my mind—somehow, after it evaporated, I felt I shouldn’t poison myself.Love is transient, so is life, so are my teeth, which are useful. Tyranny lives on among small scraps of justice. But that doesn’t mean I should die more vigorously. I should at least enjoy some of the compelling properties of the terrible accident I was born into. For a while, part of that was placing tiny fires all up in my business. But in 2016, I decided, as long as I’m hanging around, I’d prefer if I smelled nice.
The Year in Conspiracy Theories

This year, we have witnessed the mainstreaming of the idea that most, perhaps all, things are being orchestrated by shadowy forces outside of our control.

What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.It’s been a few years now, but when I hear someone say "loose change," I don't think about bus fare, or a cup of coffee, or a tip jar. Instead, I'm reminded of the fact that 9/11 was a plot facilitated by the United States government in order to line the pockets of the nation's wealthiest.I say "fact"—Loose Change began as a homemade Internet video that spread one of the mid-2000s' most successful conspiracy theories, and arrived at a time when impressionable idiots like myself were increasingly looking for information outside the system. It was Charles, a six-foot-tall water polo player in my politics class who first put me onto it; his trademark rhetorical strategy consisted of loudly interrupting other students and asking, “How can you even say that?” He told me it would open my eyes, man.I never completely bought into the story. But in 2006, when I first watched the film, I was impressed by the production values (a whole movie on the Internet!) and agreed with its central thrust: governments and institutions are not worthy of our trust. What else had the Iraq War, begun three years earlier under false pretences and enabled by sycophantic media, demonstrated?I continued to follow the subculture as a source of entertainment—truthers, birthers, lizard people, trying to avoid the line at which morbid interest crossed into avid listening. Not too long ago, you could laugh at radio host Alex Jones as he mused about the possibility of Donald Trump charging into the Republican Party’s “goblin nest” and fucking those goblins. But this year, we have witnessed the mainstreaming of conspiracies: the idea that most, perhaps all, things are being orchestrated by shadowy forces outside of our control has permeated popular culture. What was a sideshow act has migrated to the main stage.*The most interesting thing about all of this, from the perspective of a part-time conspiracist like myself, is that there are reasons to think it might be true. When Hillary Clinton claimed that Russian president Vladimir Putin had been trying to influence the U.S. presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s emails and releasing information through WikiLeaks—a statement that would have seemed fantastical and paranoid just a couple of years ago—the accusation was confirmed by the director of national intelligence. And while the extent to which Russia actively attempts to undermine U.S. politics is still a matter of debate, it is clear that their political and military tactics have changed the way we understand and consume media—in particular, maskirovka (literally, “something masked”). The concept ranges from inflatable fighter jets made from bouncy-castle material that are meant to distract enemies, to dumping large amounts of misinformation onto the Internet. In each case, the goal isn’t so much to trick someone into believing something, but to create the conditions of doubt: doubt in what you see, doubt in what you read, doubt in what you think is true.We have entered a period of meta-truth, when different sides no longer agree on an objective set of facts from which to draw conclusions, but create their own narratives based on what they understand or wish to be the case.A lot has been written recently about fake news, but it is also worth talking about fake events—specifically, Pizza Rat. While lacking the world-historical significance of 9/11, Pizza Rat slid greasily into the hearts of people everywhere when he was spotted carrying a slice of pizza down the stairs of a New York subway station early in the fall of 2015. It appeared to be, and was treated like, a spontaneous, whimsical moment that, given the infinite number of rats and slices of pizza in New York City, was perhaps bound to happen eventually. But the truth may be much more bizarre. A couple of months later, a viral video circulated of a sleeping man on a subway platform who was rudely awoken by a rat taking a selfie with his phone. This so-called “Selfie Rat” was later revealed by one of the actors involved to be a hoax perpetrated by Zardulu, a NYC-based “writer,” “mythmaker,” and “divinatory magus,” according to their Twitter profile. It has since been suggested that, given the commonalities, they may also be behind Pizza Rat. And if the basic currency of our shared social experience, the meme, is so easily forged, it’s frightening to imagine how successfully others, motivated by power or greed rather than eccentricity, could influence our ideas.Perhaps these two trends—misinformation in the news, and deliberate attempts to reshape how we experience reality—are best exemplified by the ascendance of Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist and himself a kind of wizardly performance artist. Though he’s become well known recently for his vocal support of Donald Trump (a feeling that is reciprocated), Jones has been peddling bullshit opinions for a long time; in the mid- to late nineties, he was fulminating over the radio in Austin, Texas, and mailing out VHS tapes that claimed to reveal the truth of what really happened during the 1993 siege in Waco.That changed with the invention of the Internet. According to Alexander Zaitchik, a freelance author who has profiled Jones for Rolling Stone and spent more time with him than probably any other mainstream journalist, Jones was among the first to understand the web’s potential to bypass mainstream gatekeepers and deliver information straight to his base of listeners—information such as how 9/11 was a “false flag” operation perpetrated by the government, or how chemicals in juice boxes are making children gay. And while it took him a long time to break into the mainstream, if you look at the spread of fake news and conspiracies, Jones is patient zero. “His theories were never really grounded in anything,” Zaitchik says. “But he was playing on a justified suspicion and lack of faith in the government and media. He’s the guy who’s been flipping cigarette butts out of the window of his pick-up truck for a long time. And the ground just got drier and drier.” Just this past week, a gunman galvanized by conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and her relationship to a child sex slavery ring searched for the trafficking tunnels that purportedly existed beneath a Washington pizzeria. Jones, who had earlier encouraged the theory and accused Clinton of "personally murdering" children, quickly disowned the man as a government plant. *In a way, of course, none of this is new. Richard Hofstadter first pointed out the historical importance of conspiracies for both the left and the right over fifty years ago in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” from fears of monarchist plots to bring down the republic all the way up to McCarthyism. If we can take history as a guide, it tells us that nonsense occasionally roils the world—with significant consequences—but ultimately the institutions survive.Yet there remains a sense that something different is happening right now. We are, according to Oxford Dictionaries, living in an age of “post-truth.” “Post,” however, suggests the end of an era, while the idea of “truth” remains conceptually and rhetorically useful. It may be more accurate to say we have entered a period of meta-truth, when different sides no longer agree on an objective set of facts from which to draw conclusions, but create their own narratives based on what they understand or wish to be the case.When pundits have sought to explain the outcome of the recent U.S. election, they’ve frequently turned to the idea of persecution: Donald Trump won because a large bloc of white voters have, or feel they have, been victimized. That may be true, but it also begs the question of how they came to feel that way, and underestimates how valuable the narrative that Trump constructed was. He gave them villains to blame; he gave them heroes to cheer for; above all, he put on a show. And he took the most valuable part of the conspiracy theorist’s toolbox: a feeling that there is a system actively conspiring against them, as people and individuals.It’s a deeply relatable emotion. But the sad reality of “the system,” such as it is, is that it doesn’t care about people at all. To the extent that people become its victims, they are frequently a by-product of its operation, and not its purpose—if it even has one. At its heart, a conspiracy theory is an attempt to bring logic and order to a world that has none by rationalizing negative events as elements of a coherent plot, whether it be Russians, globalists, or radical Islam. A conspiracist always thinks that somebody knows something, when the most obvious conclusion—especially if you take into account the events of this past year—is that no one knows anything.And if the Illuminati are reading this right now, as I presume they are: you guys really fucked up 2016.Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Douglas Hofstadter rather than Richard Hofstadter. Or is that just what they want you to think?
Featuring Carrie Brownstein (ENCORE)
The corniness of Justin Trudeau (9:42), the emotional intimacy of fandom (14:45), and alternate sources of food (35:19)
Holiday on the Icy Golden Hell-Staircase

Thousands of Gold Rush prospectors climbed the Chilkoot, and many lost their lives. In the grand tradition of Dark Tourism, I decided to join the 2,500 people who now hike it for fun every summer.

The Year in Slime Videos

By all accounts, 2016 was an abysmal year. That’s why I found myself losing hours on Instagram to soothing images of slime. 

What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.In August, I inadvertently moved in with an animal abuser. The tiny Park Slope apartment was stuffed with three cats and a dog. On my first weekend there, the roommate had left her dog locked in her room for two days, pee pads littering the floor, so she could go cavorting on Fire Island. As I arrived in my bedroom, I was greeted by an ossified log of cat shit on the bed. It had been there long enough for the acrid smell to soak into the mattress, resisting multiple attempts to clean it out. Having nowhere to sleep other than a bed that reeks of feces is a form of succinct psychological torture. I craved mental respite. So it seemed like providence when my Instagram Explore feed began to feature unexpectedly soothing videos of people poking their fingers into containers of cheerfully coloured slime.Slime videos are the only-slightly-less-ridiculous spawn of 1950s B-movie The Blob starring Steve McQueen; once you enter the slime universe, it seems to expand before you like the flickering vortex in Tron. There are thousands of slime accounts, some with fewer than twenty followers, some with more than 200,000. The origins of the slime community are murky, but the practice appears to have begun in Indonesia and Thailand and then spread to North America, where it’s been growing exponentially since June 2016.In a video by the popular slimer @chou.deco (89,000 followers), a white ramekin appears to be filled with a margarine-like substance. A set of bird-like fingers dip into the goo, which yields satisfyingly to the touch. The disembodied fingers continue to poke, then grab a chunk of slime, stretch it out and return it to the bowl, mixing it back in. In another video, the slime is a creamy white and looks as though it’s been splotched with orange and pink food colouring. As the fingers mix the slime, the colours are subsumed until it comes to resemble a tequila sunrise.Part of slime’s appeal is that it is endlessly customizable. Slime can resemble a pastel blue puff of cotton candy or a tub of crude oil. There is fairy princess slime containing beads and glitter, frothy slime with a surface covered in bubbles, and crunchy slime called floam, which contains tiny Styrofoam beads. Instagram user @audeezslime (151,000 followers) gives her creations evocative names like grape bubble gum, pink lemonade, peachy bubbles, and blue Powerade. She dubbed a red container of floam “pomegranate seeds.”Geraldine Cassidy, a slimer from Singapore who goes by @slimecrime.co (1,000 followers), suggests that slime is popular because the ingredients are cheap, easy to make, and kids love it. Similarly, Samantha Baker, a nineteen-year old from Massachusetts who runs the popular @honey.guts slime account (72,000 followers), credits her experiences mixing slime in the second grade as inspiration for her current hobby. “Now that it’s just blowing up, it brought back all those childhood memories,” she says. Indeed, much of the appeal of slime is predicated on regression to childhood. It’s the 2016 version of an adult colouring book; a satisfyingly childish pastime that allows us to indulge in escapist fantasies.There’s something quintessentially retro about slime. You Can’t Do That On Television, a Canadian television show that first aired in 1979, was the original program to feature unsuspecting kids being assailed with buckets of slime. Later on, Nickelodeon’s game show Uh Oh, which ran from 1997-2003, featured an S&M fantasy character called “The Punisher” pouring a bucket of slime on each contestant’s head if they answered a question wrong. In The Secret World of Alex Mack (1994-1998) the titular character gets hit by a truck full of chemicals and is left with the superhuman ability to turn into a puddle of slime. And who could forget when Robin Williams cemented his turn from Lenny Bruce-inspired comedian to peddler of family comedy pablum with the 1997 flop Flubber?*“The ultimate gauge for a slime video to be successful is whether or not it is satisfying,” says Merray Gerges, co-founder of Crit Paper and editorial resident at Canadian Art. Their popularity fits into the same vein of Things Organized Neatly, first a Tumblr and then a book, which features viscerally satisfying pictures of objects arranged in painstakingly perfect configurations, and objects fitting perfectly into allotted spaces. We seek out satisfaction as a form of stimulation, like a cat being scratched at exactly the right place behind its ears. Gerges claims that because slime is difficult to quantify (it oozes, it has no boundaries), the satisfaction we get from slime itself is also difficult to quantify. “Slime is a non-Newtonian fluid, with this seemingly infinite amount of stretch. There’s this tension when you watch, ‘when is it going to snap, is it ever going to snap,’” she says. Gerges notes that there are many more genres of the satisfying video on Instagram, including kinetic sand being sliced with knives, bath bombs fizzing in hot water and the endless, repetitive motions of factory production lines.When I watch a slime video, it triggers a sharp shiver that starts in my neck, runs downs my back, and ends with a gentle, pleasant buzzing in my head. This feeling could also be called Auto-Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). ASMR is a burgeoning psychological concept describing the feeling of a “braingasm” or full-body shiver, typically occurring in response to sounds. The “triggers” for ASMR are as bizarre as they are variable: anything from videos of pages rustling, whispering, or hair brushing to role-playing doctor’s visits can activate the feeling. Since the videos tend to induce relaxation, they’re being touted as a way to manage anxiety and treat insomnia. A Reddit subgroup dedicated to ASMR counts over 120,000 subscribers.“LOL a hate account for people who mix glue.”Slime isn’t easily identifiable as an ASMR trigger because the appeal is primarily visual rather than auditory. (Most slime videos retain their gooshy sounds, though it’s fairly easy to scroll through them without sound; some are overlain with K-pop soundtracks.) However, Emma Barratt, one of the co-authors of the only academic paper that exists so far on ASMR confirms that the phenomenon can occur without any sounds at all. “I’ve also spoken with individuals who seem to have tingles triggered by certain styles of architecture with repetitive structures,” she says.In terms of why we seek out these videos, Gerges’s response is blunt: “Because a lot of people are fucking neurotic!”Austin Radcliffe, the artist and curator behind Things Organized Neatly, attributes the popularity of his blog to the fact that “we’re really bombarded with news feeds and images and [his] blog seems to be a place where people find some calm in their day.” To him, Things Organized Neatly serves as “the antithesis of the chaos of the internet and our daily lives.”*For something so soothing, a shocking amount of anger and hatred gets hurled around in the slime community. Anything more than a cursory browse reveals that the people responsible for making these soothing videos are no stranger to toxic feuds and pile-ons. There’s even a “drama” account, @slimeconfessions (7,000 followers), where people go to air their grievances and often jealousy of other slimers. (Example: “slime king really gets on my nerves so much, his videos are horrible…and its just overall a bad account sorry.”)Cassidy suggests the reason for most of the drama stems from age. “Many accounts are run by adolescents, mostly from the ages of twelve to fifteen. They do not know how to run a business professionally,” she says. Baker echoes this sentiment, noting that the majority of the slime community consists of teenage girls, which she describes as “a recipe for drama and disaster.” She says, “A lot of these people aren’t doing it because it’s a hobby or passion, it’s just because it’s trending.” One of the comments on a @slimeconfessions post puts it into perspective: “LOL a hate account for people who mix glue.”*On a Sunday afternoon in November, I visited five separate dollar stores and pharmacies in search of catharsis, a.k.a. a simple bottle of Elmer’s School Glue, one of the key ingredients for brewing your own batch of slime. The instructions, using the first recipe available on Google, were fairly simple: Mix a half cup of school glue with water in one bowl, dissolve a teaspoon of borax with water in another. But the Borax refused to dissolve properly, and as soon as I poured the school glue solution into the Borax, instead of a puffy cloud of banana milk slime, I had mixed together a bowl of viscous nightmare fluid. It was ropey and gelatinous, the texture of fresh mucus. It didn’t stretch and yield beautifully when I squeezed, but merely broke apart and regrouped. It was the literal opposite of satisfying. I had imagined that actually getting to touch the slime would elevate me beyond the realm of ASMR into FIMR (Fucking Insane Meridian Response). Instead, all I was left with was a bowl of cold disgust. Never again would I trust a group of well-manicured fifteen-year-olds with a small section of my happiness.In that moment, it occurred to me that perhaps it was the slime videos, and not the slime, that was the point. When you watch a slime video, just for a moment, the outside world ceases to exist; When everything feels overwhelmingly bad, it’s good to have something foolproof you can turn to, to soften the blow. Slime yields to the human touch. To watch a substance bend and mold and be shaped by human hands is a reminder that not everything is futile—that human beings can have a visible impact that might even be positive. Not everything has to be shit. Some things can be slime.
‘Stop and See How Much Darkness There Is’: An Interview with Iain Reid

Talking with the author of I’m Thinking of Ending Things about the move from memoir to fiction, capturing the anxiety and insecurity of new relationships, and the darkness of Canadian country roads.

I picked up I’m Thinking of Ending Things one afternoon this past summer at a bookstore outside a movie theatre, planning to read the first chapter or so before my matinee started. Two and a half hours later, I’d missed the film entirely, although the experience of reading Iain Reid’s debut novel—his first nominally fictional work following the well-received memoirs One Bird’s Choice and The Truth About Luck—is akin to movie-going. It’s written to be consumed in a single sitting, where its fleet, headlong sense of dread can catch up to and overtake one’s expectations.Narrated by an unnamed young woman on a (fateful?) car ride into the Ontario wilderness with her not-so-new-but-not-yet-forever boyfriend, the book toys with generic tropes of childhood nightmares—mysterious phone calls; a cabin in the woods—without compromising the uncannily credible subjectivity of its protagonist. Although Reid’s technique is not overtly Surrealist, his ability to selectively shift, blur, and then obliterate the line between literal and figurative borders on the Lynchian: given the road-trip set-up, a good alternate title could have been Lost Highway.Like a lot of books that swivel on a pivotal piece of narrative gamesmanship, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is tricky to discuss in detail, a fact that was not lost on Reid when he agreed to do the interview below. But the book’s style and themes are so bound up in its surprises—and vice versa—that to completely talk around its twists would be futile. Suffice it to say that there is sufficient skill and pleasure in Reid’s writing that it’s possible to enjoy I’m Thinking of Ending Things even with a premonitory inkling of where it’s going, starting with that calculatedly ambiguous title, which doubles as an opening line and puts us in mind of a climax even before things have gotten started. It’s a cliché to say that a satisfying thriller demands to be read again, but Reid’s book actually goes ahead and demands it. It’s like a great midnight movie that turns into its own double bill.Adam Nayman: Your book has been very nicely reviewed so far. Have you been following its reception very closely?Iain Reid: I was uncertain what to expect, since it’s my first novel, and it’s sort of a weird novel. I couldn’t predict that people would be interested. I hoped that it would cause discussion, and a variety of reactions, and I think that’s happened. I’ve tried not to read reviews, because it can be frustrating. That’s my personality: it’s best if I don’t read the reviews. It’s also very tempting. I’m happy that people have taken an interest. I’m appreciative that people take the time to read it.I guess there’s usually more attention paid to novels than memoirs, and bigger commercial potential as well. I think that’s true in my case. I read more fiction than anything else. From the time I became a reader I’ve been drawn mostly to novels. When I started to write, I found it hard to do fiction, and I wrote a lot of it on my own. I ended up doing non-fiction to start, writing about my own life and experience. It was easier. It felt like I was starting a race when I was a little further ahead. I didn’t have to make things up, I was just reacting. I could just recall details and then try to shape them.Is there really a hard line between this book and your memoirs? I mean, this book isn’t “real” but there are details in it that feel extremely personal, or else observed from a personal perspective.The starting point for me in a novel is that anything can happen. I knew what I wanted to write about, but it was slow to get going. I don’t write from an outline. I like that anything can happen, and when I started, it felt similar to the other books—an extension or a progression. Then it got more complex. What surprised me was just how personal it became. The plot is made up; in a lot of ways, though, it feels more personal than the books I wrote about my life. I thought that by writing a novel there would be this screen between it and me, and there would be more privacy. But my first two books aren’t that revealing. In a memoir you take specific stuff you like and leave the rest out. You’re keeping things hidden. With this novel, suddenly all these ideas that concerned me and unsettled me were right there, and I spent several years thinking about them and working them out for myself.It’s interesting, because often the joy of genre fiction is the impersonality of it all—the use of devices and archetypes, the satisfaction of having pieces snap into place. There’s a sense of structure and engineering in I’m Thinking of Ending Things that I responded to even as I suspected that it was a bit of a feint.I read a lot of genre stuff, thrillers and horror novels. I appreciate their pleasures, and in the same way you described. I wanted to offer that stuff in a new way. I think form can be unsettling, beyond plot. Some readers might want to throw it away because of how it’s frustrating or how it withholds. Booksellers and publishers need to put something in a spot in a book store, or in a category. I worried that that might be limiting for this book. I was concerned about all that. The people who work on your behalf—whose job it is to market your book—I appreciate it very much. My loyalty always lies with the book, though. I tried to think of it as a good problem to have, that people would want to market the book in the first place, even if it’s hard to fit it into a category.It’s hard to talk about the book without getting into the surprises, although I think the opening line is sort of coy, and sort of a clue. “I’m thinking of ending things” can be read a lot of ways, including as an invitation to imagine where things might be going even before they’ve begun…I also wanted to emphasize “thinking.” It’s a big part of the story. The meaning of that phrase does change over the course of the book—not just the word “ending” but also “thinking.” There are different emphases as the story goes along.I feel like if a book plays fair and pays off, then discussing “spoilers” should be okay in interviews, but it’s also important to preserve the excitement for potential readers, so let’s try not to.I’ve been doing events and readings and people want to talk about their reaction to the ending. It was important to me that it’s open to interpretation. I have my own ideas about the ending and what it means, and I’ve heard a variety of other readings as well. I like that. It’s not up to me. I wrote it, and I have my take, but if someone takes the time to read it, and to think about it, their interpretation is totally valid. That’s how it differs from a lot of other horror novels, which have a more objective goal, moving from A to B.There’s a difference, I find, between works that arrive at something ambiguous and those that set out for it in the first place. I didn’t think your book was the latter…As a reader, or as a viewer of movies, I like to know nothing going in. It’s a more interesting way to start. It doesn’t always matter, but if I don’t know the plot at all, that’s great, and that’s rare.There’s a better chance of not knowing anything about a book if it’s obscure or unsuccessful, so that’s not exactly what you’re hoping for here…I felt bad for the editors when we were trying to figure out the jacket copy for this book. The Canadian edition only has blurbs on the back, and I liked that. That made sense. Instead of a description, it’s just quotations, and impressions from people who’ve read it, and that offers enough.I thought there was this wonderful balance of concreteness and abstraction in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Thought versus action.And also literal versus figurative. I respond well to books and movies that obliterate that binary.One movie I saw that I knew very little about going in—and had no real expectations for—was that Denis Villeneuve movie Enemy. I think it’s a polarizing film. After I watched it, I wanted to watch it again, immediately.Funny you should mention Enemy, which in its way is about how people present themselves in relationships, not unlike your book.When I started watching it, I was worried that it was the same thing as my book. It turned out not to be, of course. There were similarities. I was transfixed by it. The ending was brilliant, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s not meant to be put together like a puzzle, or like an Agatha Christie book. It’s much more about this feeling you have when you’re watching it. And all the Toronto stuff is very interesting to me, because when I lived in the city, I lived in St. James Town, and I know all those places, those apartment buildings.Most movies about Toronto don’t face in that direction, you could say. I think the film was originally going to be shot in Sao Poalo. Enemy is also an example of a movie being very different from the book it’s based on. There’s a cliché that book is always better, which is silly. They’re two different mediums, and they’re inherently different things. The more different they are, the better it can be for the book, and for the movie. Another one that comes to mind is Under the Skin. The movie is totally its own thing. I love the novel, so I was interested in the movie, and I liked that it didn’t just try to film the story. It’s very much its own entity. Another movie that had an ending that intrigued me was Cache. When it ended, I felt like I could interpret it several ways. For some people that’s frustrating. For me, it was exciting.There’s a very unique sort of terror in the book, which is the anxiety and insecurity that attends the beginning period of a romantic relationship—or if not the beginning, the part just after the beginning. The early-middle, maybe.I really do think that’s the main thing, which is that area of a relationship. We often see relationships crumbling, or else we see the very beginning. This other period is very significant though. Like when you are comfortable to go on a road trip for the first time. You know the other person, but then you think about it and maybe you don’t know them very well at all. If you go on a date, and then two dates, and you’ve slept together, you can feel an intimacy, and it’s intense. It can offer a feeling that’s more secure than actually is the case. It takes a long time to get to really know somebody. That early stage, with these intense feelings, and the beginning of that confidence, can be misleading. I thought that writing about that, and then setting in a car, would work because it’s an enclosed space, and that heightens everything.The narrator is very conscious of her boyfriend’s traits, and she sort of starts to see herself through his eyes as she’s revealing more and more about him. The book has one narrator, but it’s a dual character study, in a way.That when she’s at her best. People think about themselves in that situation. “How am I being perceived by this other person?” You’re super aware of that, much more than when you’re alone or if you haven’t been in a relationship for a while. Then suddenly you are, and everything—your actions, your posture, the way you eat, how you smell… you’re thinking about all of those things. How is the other person experiencing all of that? Is it positive or negative? All of that.The car is one crucial space in the book, and there’s also—spoiler alert—a cabin in the woods, which is a bit of a cliché, especially in Canadian fiction. Is there something self-conscious in that choice?I think there is—that was something I was aware of. You do come across it a lot. I also think that it works. It seemed relevant. If this is a personal story, it’s also that that was my experience. My life has been much more rural than urban. I lived in Toronto for four years, and that’s my only urban experience. I grew up on a farm and I spent time there after I studied at university, when I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was back there for a year. This book started during that time, with the feelings I had then, which were part of the landscape and the environment. It is isolated, and while I appreciate that environment, the isolation is definitely heightened. The story fit into that. Also, while it’s true [about it being a trope], a lot of contemporary fiction—maybe not in Canada—there is a trend towards urban stuff, in New York. Writers who live in Brooklyn set their work there.Where I got very creeped out was in the description of the high school, though. I can’t think of anything scarier than being trapped there, not literally, but the idea of being on the edge of adolescence and adulthood at the same time, and not being able to get out. It’s very overwhelming, and upsetting. That’s how I felt, and that’s why I picked it. There were multiple areas or settings I had in mind, and I went through them and that one came to me and it had to be that. The school had to be part of the book. A school at night, in that sort of area, isolated and hard to get to. It was terrifying for me, too. As a writer, that’s how you have to go about it. You have to use your experience as a reader. I know how I would have felt reading about that, and it would have scared me. The thing about high school is you’re constantly around people, but not necessarily feeling connected. That idea of human presence, to an overwhelming point, combined with overwhelming feelings of isolation and loneliness, I think is unique to high school.I think there’s a really interesting relationship between the outer shape of that scenario—trapped in an empty high school at night—and some inner fear that’s beyond the simply generic. A lot of high schools have these long, rambling halls that you can’t see the end of. You get to the end and there’s another one. There’s this physical feeling of oppression. Each time you think you’ve gotten through there’s this new set of issues.Would you say the school is where the style of the book starts to, if not break down, then mutate into something new? It’s subtle but significant.I hope that it’s noticeable, even if it’s subconscious. You can detect the change, but maybe not intellectually, at first. If you’re aware of it in the back of your mind, it can be unsettling. There definitely is a change, though. The beginning in the car is essentially a philosophical dialogue. I’m using that technique to work through certain concepts and ideas, and then there is a shift away from that.This is a tricky thing to bring up, but one of the things you do in the book—to an extent, and also in a way that’s ultimately calculated and controlled—is get inside a female subjectivity. You’re not the first male writer to do it and you won’t be the last to try, but it seems worth bringing up and discussing…I was aware of that. I wrote two books about my experience, as memoir, and I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to something that would be difficult, or challenging. It was. It’s not up to me to say whether or not it was successful. If somebody doesn’t think it works, or that it’s believable, I would never question them on it. As a writer I want to try to write from different perspectives, which is the whole point—to put yourself in somebody else’s position.It’s a complex issue, and it’s made even more complex depending on how one interprets the book—and the question of subjectivity. I feel like there’s an amazing tension there.I think the story is about writing. I talked about that with my editors a lot. It was about the experience of writing, and how you give yourself over to something and it starts to become real to you, in a very serious way. It’s about that process and what that process is like. With this kind of book, people will project their own ideas about things onto it.Because you leave them a lot of space to do that.Yes. I’ve read certain reviews that are more about the reviewer than they are about the book. That’s interesting to me. That’s part of writing a book. You put it out there and people are going to react to it in the way that they see fit. I plan to keep writing about things that are difficult for me, and which I may not be able to do, but I hope to try.How long did you spend on the book?It’s hard to say. I was writing it for about three years, but some of these thoughts were around long before that.I’m thinking of ending things now: what’s the first image that came to you before writing? Probably just country roads, and driving in the woods. It’s amazing how many people comment on the darkness of these roads far from Toronto. If you stop and turn your lights out it’s pitch dark. It’s quite jarring. The car lights illuminate, so it feels lit, but then you stop and you see how much darkness is there. That was what came to me first, knowing what that’s like. I’ve been on those roads in the middle of the night, and it’s a strange feeling if you’re not used to it. The character in the book—it’s all new to her.Have you been with somebody experiencing that for the first time as well?I have, yes. In fact, I talked to them about it. as I was working on this book. And I can recall someone saying, “You’d better stop talking about that, because you’re scaring me.”
The Year in Lifting Weights

I hated myself when I benched 405, agonized over form while squatting 500, and regretted the first 33 years of my life even as I deadlifted 650. I had never lifted heavier or been unhappier.

What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.I’m at the Olympia Fitness Expo in Las Vegas, one of the largest sports and exercise conventions of its kind in the world. All around me are the trappings of modern muscle mania: vendor booths peddling protein powders, get-thick-quick devices, electrical ab belts, high-fiber bars billed as having the flavor of “red velvet cake” that actually taste like red dog soil mixed with sawdust. I’ve made it to the meathead Mecca, plopped down in the sprawling convention center of a city of dreams that never sleeps. Part of me is elated, because attending the Olympia is an exciting moment for any fitness enthusiast, and part of me is wondering what will happen when this show ends.*Like my father and my siblings, I was blessed with bigness. Everything about that bigness, which in my earliest years manifested as chubbiness, conspired to push me towards a future in sports and exercise. “Look at the arms on that boy,” as spoken by some redneck coach for whom “boy” was both an insult and a compliment, was a phrase that chased me well past my teen years.At first, lifting weights was easy. It was just something I did, my early efforts inconsistent, inefficient, and at times rather mindless. I had no long-term plan to bench-press five hundred pounds or deadlift seven hundred, but neither was I ever trying to reverse my fate as some skinny Mac in whose face sand was kicked—I merely went to the gym to see what I could accomplish between socializing with high school and college acquaintances. In spite of that, I kept getting stronger, and I took joy in watching my body become thicker and denser. In the heady days of the late 1990s, before every single subculture converged on the Internet and jocks embraced nerd culture and nerds reinvented jock culture, I might have been described as a “lifter.”And the feedback was positive—life-affirming, even. After graduating from the University of North Carolina, I was hired on the spot at a job fair and tasked with managing an Abercrombie & Fitch, a position for which the only qualifications were a college degree and a body suitable for displaying their clothes. In 2003, I won the “tall men’s division” (over 5’9”!) of a bodybuilding contest held in Kalispell, Montana, and though I was the sole competitor in my class, I proudly displayed the oversized trophy I had been awarded. And while trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, I blew the doors off a bunch of physical fitness tests for law enforcement positions. These were minor and forgettable accomplishments, to be sure, but at a time when little else was going right in my life, they were all I had.It seemed that a big man with a big voice was predestined to handle weighty matters, or at least matters involving heavy weights, and that was all there was to it.Years passed, college at last giving way to graduate school, and I remained big-bodied. By then, this bigness, which I was doing little to actually maintain during the mid-2000s, became a sort of academic calling card. People in the humanities were pursuing their passions, often in strangely stereotypical ways: the person who played college soccer became a transnational historian who studied soccer, the ex-cheerleader became a sociologist who applied the findings of cutting-edge queer theorists to cheerleading and gymnastics. And I was, well, big, so much of my work in cultural studies came to revolve around masculinity and strength.It bothered me, this notion that my physical appearance somehow dictated my research agenda, but no more or less than remarks like “look at the arms on that boy.” If you were blessed with bigness, you accepted your fate without complaint. Michael Oriard, an NFL lineman who became an English professor, had dabbled in other subject areas before settling comfortably into a role as the “English professor who writes about football.” It seemed that a big man with a big voice was predestined to handle weighty matters, or at least matters involving heavy weights, and that was all there was to it.*The path that led me to this year’s Olympia began in earnest in 2009. I was 26, three years away from completing my Ph.D., and had just participated in a university-wide strongman contest. I did well enough for someone who had devoted zero time to preparation for a glorified intramural event, which up until then was how I typically prepared for anything: I arrived and did my thing, not caring overmuch about the result, and departed.The story should’ve ended there—instead, I entered the orbit of several fellow competitors who had launched the school’s CrossFit club. Suddenly, I was invested in “the sport of fitness.” Back then, CrossFit seemed like an appealingly subversive activity: its teachings, if followed to the letter, would make your body elite. You would have amazing range-of-motion. Your body’s work capacity and survivability would shoot through the roof. All this, in only ten or fifteen minutes of the “workout of the day” (“WOD”).And I guess it worked, at least in the early going. I charted these WODs on spreadsheets. I started adding “mobility WODs” to improve my flexibility and “strength WODs” to boost my pressing and squatting numbers. I switched from fad diet to fad diet, from a “gallon of milk a day” (“GOMAD”) to paleo to keto. Eventually, I was spending hours a day logging my repetitions and portioning out my lumps of butter and bacon fat, hours I once might have preferred devoting to anything else.Now, I thought, I was getting somewhere. Maybe I had looked good before, and been strong before, but I was deeply flawed. My body had become stiff and musclebound, more tomb than temple, and it needed to be razed and rebuilt. For once in my life, I wasn’t just going through the paces, however relaxing those paces might have been. I loosened my quads, strengthened my glutes, and placed my faith in that beguiling notion of late nineteenth-century philosophers and social scientists: Progress. Ever upward, never backward, and always breaking parallel on my squats!Yet CrossFit eventually disappointed me. I bottomed out—a victim, for the first time in my athletic life, of the shoulder injuries that plague competitors who are kipping their pull-ups, thrusting barbells into the air at maximum speed, and performing deadlifts one after the other in rapid succession. The French theorist Jean-Marie Brohm had pointed out decades earlier that rigorous sport and exercise, as distinguished from games we play, amounted to nothing more than a “prison of measured time.” For the first time, I understood what he meant.What good was I to anyone now, forty or fifty pounds diminished on my three powerlifts? And who was I to write about strength, when my own had begun to wane?I was still, however, hooked on this notion of functionality. After I had relocated to Dallas to launch my career as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, I felt healthy enough to renew my training. I couldn’t bring myself to return to CrossFit, though; its programming, which once seemed novel, now struck me incoherent at best and dangerous at worst. Add to that the fact that CrossFit higher-ups such as founder “Coach”11An honorary title, I assume, like “Kentucky Colonel,” given that fitness whisperer Glassman never coached or participated in any organized sport at an especially high level. Greg Glassman, who is depicted as some kind of exercise Svengali in former Paris Review editor Daniel Kunitz’s recent book Lift: Fitness Culture, from Naked Greeks and Acrobats to Jazzercise and Ninja Warriors, seemed curiously paunchy and out-of-shape in spite of this multi-modality fitness methodology he had discovered. Moreover, the creators of the CrossFit corporate culture were flag-waving libertarians, people who simultaneously valorized the perfectible self even as they heaped unending admiration upon the fallen first responders after whom they named their workouts. I found myself as uneasy among their ranks as I once did in church. In both cases, the true believers gave themselves over to whatever they were doing, whereas I could never set aside my doubts long enough to derive any tangible benefit.And tangible benefits were what I now demanded. I needed to make Progress, to remove the butt wink from my squats and the slightest evidence of a rounded back from my deadlifts. This quest toward increasing utility brought me to Arlington’s Metroflex, a legendary powerlifting gym that had launched the careers of bodybuilding legends such as Ronnie Coleman, Johnnie O. Jackson, and Branch Warren. There, I worked with experienced coaches and buried myself in the writing of a host of literary lifting muses—the misogynistic Mark Rippetoe, the minimalist Jim Wendler, the Ayn Rand-obsessed Mike Mentzer—to drive my powerlifting competition total to new heights. I videotaped everything, fixated on mistakes and minutiae and keenly aware that others around me were progressing faster, and deleted most of it because the recordings disgusted me.I had never lifted heavier or felt unhappier. I hated myself when I benched 405 pounds, agonized over whether I had “broken parallel” while squatting 500, and regretted the first thirty-three years of my life even as I deadlifted 650. These numbers were achieved piecemeal at a half-dozen regional powerlifting competitions where the other two lifts always went wrong—a great squat but a terrible deadlift, a bench press undermined by a dead shoulder. Given how long these events lasted (over nine hours, in some cases) and how quickly each of my turns at the platform ended, this left me with nothing but time, hours and hours of standing around while other athletes waited to take their turns, to second-guess my insufficient preparation. Nobody's livelihood was at stake: we had already invested thousands of dollars on gear and muscle-building food, and the available prizes were usually just jugs of protein or gift cards to supplement stores. But our reputations were on the line, and whenever I performed poorly—which seemed like always—my sense of self wound up compromised. I kept preparing to fail by failing to prepare, to borrow the rah-rah patois of the gym.*Bit by bit, this serious training got away from me. I fought respiratory diseases, dysthymia, and unceasing urges to deviate from my strict diet—all the usual facts of life that can impair your form and inhibit your functioning. I was writing more about fitness and bodies, yet doing less with my own. I was a fraud, an imposter, and my best life was getting away from me a day at a time. What good was I to anyone now, forty or fifty pounds diminished on my three powerlifts? And who was I to write about strength, when my own had begun to wane?Covering the Mr. Olympia, then, represented both the fulfillment of a reportorial dream as well as a three-day personal nightmare. Bodybuilding, the world championships of which were the ostensible reason for the weekend, retained the campy, ludic uselessness that had caused muscle magazine publisher Joe Weider to launch the Olympia, in the process parting ways with curmudgeonly York Barbell owner Bob Hoffman and his weightlifting-oriented Mr. America pageants. The Olympia was meant to reward beautiful physiques notwithstanding their ability to pump iron—“train for aesthetics and strength will follow” was Weider’s motto—but the expo itself was a convention filled to capacity with CrossFit demonstrations, powerlifting events, and hordes of salespeople peddling the latest get-fit-quick snake oil.Around every corner, I encountered ridiculously well-built humans, each invested in the act of getting bigger. Some had clearly been small before, with tiny wrists and waists, whereas others had been gigantic from the outset, like reigning World’s Strongest Man champion Brian Shaw. Shaw, arguably the most massive person at the event and perhaps in the entire world, was nice enough during our brief conversation, but kept cutting his interactions short—his day at the convention represented an unpleasant interruption from the incessant eating and exercising necessary for him to defend his title against top contenders like towering Game of Thrones scene-chewer Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson. Training, I realized, was what one did at work—how and why had we carried it over to our hobbies, those spontaneous activities meant to bring us joy?Here, in Shaw, was a man who had truly been blessed with bigness, with ham-hock fists and size-twenty feet, and yet he was still disciplining his body and micromanaging each minute of his day in ways that would make Frederick Winslow Taylor proud. He was a professional strongman, emphasis on professional, and his entire life was spent laboring to create himself. One could write encomia to such dedicated athletes, and thousands of people already have, but it struck me as a rather melancholy existence. Shaw was amazing in the same way champion hot dog eaters were; neither made their occupations seem like a fun way to pass the time.As Shaw lumbered away, a nutrition company employee at a nearby booth handed me a protein bar that was intended to taste like a Rice Krispie treat.I accepted the item, as I had dozens of others. “Is that really what it tastes like?” I asked him.“Nah,” he said, somewhat sheepishly, “but it’s low-sugar, high-fiber, and it’s super good for you.”*One of the highlights of this year’s Mr. Olympia was the return of a fifty-two-year-old bodybuilder named Kevin Levrone, a legendary athlete nicknamed the “Maryland Muscle Machine,” for one final turn on the competition stage. Levrone had been a muscle hero to my younger brother; I was interested to see how he would fare in his last run at glory.His story had received a great deal of attention in the muscle press. Passionate followers of the subculture argued back and forth about whether Levrone would appear on stage in competition shape—a serious concern given that he had allowed himself only six months to train for the event after several years drifting away from a sport that demands round-the-clock body maintenance.These questions were answered when Levrone appeared on the first night of the pageant to strike his mandatory poses, unveiling an impressive upper torso but legs that, at least relative to those of his enormous competitors, lacked mass and definition.“His legs were already going when he quit the first time,” explained the retired German bodybuilder Markus Ruhl, who was seated next to me in the press pit.But Ruhl, still as freakishly huge as a 5’9” man can be, watched Levrone’s routine with interest, and reserved his loudest applause for the man against whom he had competed in several prior Olympias.On the night of the finals, Levrone, who had failed to make the ten-man cutoff, was given a chance to guest-pose before the throngs of worshipful spectators who packed the Orleans Arena. He went through a graceful flexing routine, smiling handsomely at an audience that would eventually forget him, and bowed. Unlike Cedric McMillan, an unusually expressive bodybuilder who frowned at the crowd after placing seventh, or Shawn Rhoden, who seemed unwilling to acknowledge that he had been selected as the runner-up to six-time champion Phil Heath, Levrone appeared genuinely happy to be there.He had a sense of where he was, I supposed, and that was sufficient. His body was polished and sharp—not as sharp as it once had been, but sharper than it ever would be again. He was satisfied with the ending to his story.*While waiting for my car on the last day of the convention, I spoke with Flex Wheeler, a retired bodybuilder who had won the Arnold Classic—the only bodybuilding event that rivals the Olympia—a then-record four times.I asked him about the return of Kevin Levrone, one of his contemporaries.“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess what Kevin did makes me want to get back in that kind of shape, but then part of me knows I can’t, because I wouldn’t be coming back at half of what I was.”“What about the sheer joy of participating?” I asked.He brought his hand to his chin, inadvertently flexing a bicep that, though round and massive, surely wasn’t what it once was or could have been. “I was dyslexic, and this was a way that I could support myself. See, you don’t make any money in bodybuilding. You make money because of bodybuilding or after bodybuilding.”“So you’re not returning to the stage?”“Nah, I like all the projects I have going on right now,” he told me. “I’m happy with where I’m at.”*On the flight home from Vegas, I passed in and out of a restless sleep. My waking thoughts turned to a half-marathon I had entered on a whim back in 2014: I didn’t bother training for the event, because long, slow running is terrible on the body, and on that fateful day I simply slid on a knee brace, popped some ibuprofen, and dragged my 240-pound body through the race in two hours and twenty minutes. It was hardly a Paul Ryan performance, but it afforded me the opportunity to travel through the most scenic parts of Fort Worth in an especially intimate way, and that’s the sensation that lingered.Other moments flashed before my eyes. Meandering hikes in Glacier National Park, twenty miles here and there simply because. Huge truck tires I’d flipped for the same reason a dog chases its tail, and with a precisely similar purpose. Taking some of my students on a field trip to the second Muscle Beach, the weightlifting platform in Venice, then planking and doing bar-ups and climbing the ropes. The elementary school field days when I would will my chubby body to run and jump past my peers, savoring these fleeting pastoral escapes from the domestic gulag that my parents’ troubled marriage had become.All of these were experiences that engaged body and soul. They were things I had done because I wanted to prove my powers, and they weren’t reducible to a series of movements in a workout demonstration video. Fitness has, it must be conceded, become more inclusive, with nearly as many women in attendance at the Olympia as men—but all that meant was that there were now twice as many “trainees.” Training, I realized, was what one did at work—how and why had we carried it over to our hobbies, those spontaneous activities meant to bring us joy? Nowadays, you didn’t just lift weights or play Street Fighter; you competed at these things. We were in training; we were athletes; and our heated competitions were no less serious, if far less significant, than the ones strongman Brian Shaw was steeling himself for.There’s this wonderful scene in Dave Meggysesy’s Out of Their League in which the author, an NFL player gradually becoming disgruntled with his dangerous and dehumanizing sport, starts training on outdoor trails, running as fast or as slow as mood dictates. Instead of running timed laps around a track and answering to the dictates of a hostile coach, Meggysesy now begins to set his own pace, to follow the demands of his body—and he is struck by how happy he felt.This, and nothing else, is what I want. I’m thirty-four years old, and my somatic limits are clearly established. I can do some things (move heavy objects) and can’t do others (swim). These deeply ingrained habits of work-discipline will die slowly, but I can’t say I’ll miss them after they’re gone—far from it. Let me stop this endless training towards some bad infinite and embrace free play in the only self I’ll ever have.
‘We Live with a Legacy of Great Violence and Fear’: An Interview with Christy Ann Conlin

Speaking with the author of The Memento about assault narratives, ghost stories and the healing work of fiction. 

“This book you better like may not be exactly what you expect,” said Alexander MacLoeod at the Nova Scotia launch of Christy Ann Conlin’s The Memento, a complex amalgam of realism, gothic sensibilities, fairy tale and dream-space. A ghostly coming-of-age story for outliers, it nods to a three hundred year legacy of uncanny literary writings—the likes of Nathanial Hawthorne, Marilynne Robinson, Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Wilkie Collins, Shirley Jackson and Henry James. At the same time it blends the contemporary with the old world, evoking the work of Alistair MacLeod, Ernest Buckler and William Faulkner. It is both harsh and tender, encoding a deep, dark intimacy that makes it both defiantly personal and singular.Conlin, who is the author of three books as well as several works of fiction and non-fiction, and I settled into the quaint Victorian salon of a charming shipwright’s home in Kingsport, Nova Scotia, near her home in Wolfville, to have a lengthy chat about The Memento. As we spoke, the fog burnt off the Bay of Fundy, the tidal bore did its grandiose thing, and what wind there was got the old bones of the house creaking—ideal pathetic fallacy for talk of ghosts, and insidious secrets, and all things gothic.Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: Your work—Heave, Dead Time, and now The Memento—is concerned with mental health, addiction, women, and the way family distorts us but also makes us who we are. The liminal space of adolescence, and its particular transformative nature, are also factors. I wonder if there is a connection in your mind to these realist impulses and the enchanted spaces you conjure in The Memento?Christy Ann Conlin: I am interested in how we, as women and men, are shaped by family and society, and how we react to and against this, both in adolescence and then as young adults. The Memento takes place in two parts, when Fancy Mosher, the narrator, is twelve, and then twenty-four years old, two key developmental life stages, transitional stages in life, and in brain development. Our perception of the world changes as we age. When we experience trauma, then depression, anxiety and addiction become our companions, reactions against the horror of being oppressed which take on a life of their own.When we speak of young women, I’m interested in how we internalize sexism, and how this can distort and pervert identity as we pass through these developmental milestones.And I wanted to explore realism as it collides with fantasy. Fantasy and imagination are an expected part of a child’s life, and then, in adulthood, these same areas of play can become something more pathological when it serves as a means of escape and avoidance. The Memento is a genre-bending book, evoking the old world novels of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Edith Wharton, but pushing it to another level with supernatural elements and a contemporary thread. Jane Austen scholar Sarah Emsley said to me that in The Memento the Parker family’s grand estate, Petal’s End, evokes the world of Downton Abbey or Northanger Abbey, and the young heroine Fancy Mosher brings to mind Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland. Catherine Morland imagines with delight all the gothic horrors that might await her at Northanger Abbey but for Fancy Mosher, the horrors unfold.Actually, that sounds a bit unnerving, when you put it like that. How was the experience of dabbling in horror on this level for you? It was fascinating playing with a real world which is enchanted, so to speak, one which ensnares all who enter in a sense of timelessness. Enchantment is such a delicate and feminine word, so unsuspecting. But it is this aspect of the female psyche I find most captivating, that we enchant and bewitch and yet those very words mask the peril of being captured in a spell, a spell cast by family, at such a tender and impressionable time as adolescence.Much of my work is driven by this idea of nurture and nature, that we are born with a particular personality and temperament, and then we are shaped by how we are raised at the hearth (in the family), in the public square (society), and at the altar (emotional and spiritual experiences and rituals). Mary Pipher writes in her book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls of the transformation of her cousin, who enters adolescence a tree-climbing exuberant tomboy and comes out the other side wearing lipstick, teetering on high heels, the tomboy banished. Adolescence is a time where girls often first encounter sexual objectification, and the idea they exist for the pleasure of others. The socialization process intensifies and we become strangers to ourselves. We lose control over our very bodies and the cloak of childhood falls to our feet.During my research for The Memento, I was captivated by the old saying that particular inclinations, temperaments, abilities, and even personalities are born into us. Fancy Mosher, Jenny and Pomeline Parker all have particular abilities but it is their upbringing and environment, which shapes how these abilities manifest.One element I aimed to show was the vulnerability and subsequent abuse and torment of girls and women, the marginalized across gender and class lines. The ghosts in The Memento symbolize a subversive power, a fierce and unholy railing against those who prey upon the weak and defenceless. These phantoms are a powerful juxtaposition to the helplessness of the living characters—unearthly voices for those who are oppressed. Both harbingers of doom and redemption, these supernatural forces refuse to play by the rules. They creepily redefine the game using the very objects in life.Please speak more about the mythic elements of The Memento. It seems to me the novel shimmers with an undercurrent of something larger than itself—a kind of knowing. In some way, the story feels like it was always there, if that makes sense. The reader has the impression they have walked into something like a dream that’s been playing all along. How does myth operate for you, as you write? As you edit? Yes, it does make sense to me. It’s a high compliment you experienced the story this way. I think these stories, which travel through time, serve as warnings and as beacons of hope, sometimes both. Myths, legends, fairy tales—these stories feel as though they are perpetually in play, and that we can tap into them at any time just through the telling or reading of the story. I really played with this with the place names in the book, Evermore, the garden, the Woodcutter’s Cottage, Petal’s End, The Water House—names that evoke the perpetual realms in fairy tales and legends.Whenever I read Greek myths to my sons, and certainly there is nothing which combines harshness and magic more than Greek mythology, it’s as though we enter into dream or fantasy which weaves through time, and is constantly rediscovered, like a dream, as you call it, which never ends. The reader can enter into the dream world, which continually loops. This is the domain of the oral tradition, where stories live in the telling—we breathe life into myths through speaking the words. We have largely lost touch with the oral tradition in our culture, although it does seem to survive out in the open in songs and music.Ghost stories in particular have an age-old endurance throughout the world, and throughout time. My parents always listened to the radio show called Ideas on CBC Radio and I remember when I was quite young hearing a conversation with guests Margaret Atwood, Graham Gibson and David Cronenberg where they chatted about ghostly things, and their role in society and art. Margaret Atwood had this great line—“The ghost story is a way of examining the self coming to terms with the self”—and I think this is true on an individual and societal level, and it’s why we have our own personal ghost stories, and ones we share as a community and as a culture; we are in a constant state of coming to terms with ourselves, who we were, what we are, and what we are becoming. So you felt you were self-examining? That’s interesting to me, given the gothic elements.Honestly, at the beginning of my work on The Memento, I felt as though I was remembering an old, old story from the land, which I only had pieces of, as though parts had been told to me as a child, and that I had overheard others whispered by the fire. So I come by these beliefs honestly [laughs]. My mother always told me to never wear a dead lady’s apron and my grandmother always said to exercise caution when drinking out of a dead man’s cup for it might not be as empty as it looked. My grandmother had been a nurse in private homes in the 1930s, and stood vigil by many deathbeds, administering last sips of water or weak tea and whiskey to the dying. These objects were powerful symbols of the people they had belonged to, mementos left behind, an embodiment of the person who had died, and the grief also left behind in death. Using such mementos could invoke their spirit, for better or for worse. I needed to take extra care, they both said, for I was the only girl born in a generation, and this meant I had a special sensitivity for these things—the spirits would seek me out. And then I inherited my grandmother’s china tea set and thus the story for The Memento began to brew. It is no small wonder I have an affinity for ghost stories!But certainly the weight and importance of ghost stories has been diminished and shoved to the side. We giggle at ghost stories, and dismiss what might have inspired awe, caution, reference or respect in earlier generations. We embrace horror as a fun outlet, not as one of warning or guidance. In Inuit culture, First Nations culture, in Asia, there is far more respect for the old stories and legends, and for the concept of ghosts and phantoms. I taught ESL in Korea and it was there I first encountered Korean and Japanese ghost stories. What was interesting to me was the role of ancestor worship in these cultures, the belief that once a year spirits come to life, a fundamental respect for afterlife. It seemed to me what permeates this is the conviction that what you do becomes a part of you, so if you break a moral code and a sacred set of values, you’ll be haunted by this for the rest of your life and beyond. And so will your family.In the first few drafts of the novel I was exploring the realistic elements of the story, the setting and the characters, even though the novel always had this pull of what you call an undercurrent of a more mythical world. It was a process of uncovering it, if you will. It was very much as though I was recalling pieces of fairy tale and myth, unearthing a story. But before I could let this, so to speak, sweep the story away, it was critical to understand the story that takes place in the common world. Once this foundation was laid, then I was able to let the supernatural aspect weave through, combining elements of a gothic ghost story, and magic realism. I wanted that juxtaposition of a harsh and closed society where the marginalised and disenfranchised are so powerless, with the supernatural elements rising out of their anger and persecution.And how do you, then, manipulate these elements? How do these elements converge in self-examination?At the core of what influenced the book lies my experience of being sexually assaulted when I was eight and then later in my early twenties when I was in rehab, both times being powerless to do a thing. And for years thinking I had done something wrong. Part of this book was looking at how distorted memories do haunt and torment us, and how we mutate our own memories to both hide our secrets, but to rationalize and find explanations. For a child there is no rational explanation for sexual abuse. It is only that a monster has somehow been summoned…but by whom? In The Memento, Jenny, the unlikely anti-heroine, follows her own religion, and through this becomes impervious to adult efforts to manipulate and control her. She is the only one who sees clearly, and even her love for her grandmother does not sway her from her values. It is Jenny, a quintessential grotesque character, who wipes away all distortion and lies. In the possession of an almost demonic clarity and truthfulness, she holds all to account. Jenny is without mercy. It is Fancy who holds the mercy for them all, in her mementos.There has, of course, been much talk of sexual assault and much discussion of the contours of feminism in media these days. It’s been unavoidable and difficult for many people, myself included. Is there an analogy to be made between the setting of your novel—a colonial ruins—and this story of violation, generally?In my novel, young girls are also robbed of any sense of personal agency until they finally rebel. They search for their own language and moral code. And when they do, it is a code of both mercy and vengeance, which rises forth from the desecration of their bodies and innocence.I think much of the trouble begins when men judge a woman’s response to assault from a male perspective, at how they would respond if it happened to them, even though it’s impossible to do this as men are governed by entirely different expectations and allowances. And this lies at the heart of all oppression, when we have a particular moral code and set of values and privileges and assume it’s the same for all. Sexual objectification shapes girls, as they approach womanhood. We learn how to keep our heads down. All around are signs which remind us of a prescribed role, which is one of compliance and conformity—or else. There is so much talk now of what young women wear, and how it distracts young men from their studies. It’s shocking the conversation is not about why young men can’t control themselves, that women are the object of temptation, and the moral judgement, which then ensues. But worthy of note, as well, is the message we send to young women, that being sexy and attractive is valued above all else. And yet we then hold them responsible for the expectations heaved upon them to start with.The Rehtaeh Parsons case in Nova Scotia has thrown light on just how regressive society is when it comes to women. We’ve seen just how harshly a community judges a woman who doesn’t behave in prescribed ladylike behaviour. I was shocked by how many people I knew felt Ms. Parsons deserved what happened to her, that the young men were tempted and she created the situation herself. Excuses were so quickly made for young men. Even if people felt what they did was wrong, there was still a sense that boys will be boys and girls will be sluts. And sluts get what is coming to them.Which brings me, peculiarly, back to fairy tales, and the way you play with enchanted tropes. It seems to me that the fairy tale in its brutal simplicity can get at some nugget of violent truth that the novel necessarily must walk a more circuitous path toward. I’m thinking specifically of the use you make of portraiture, but there are weird portals in the novel, too. The enchanted pond and the room one is forbidden to enter come to mind. The uncanny—the defamiliarised everyday space—is made much use of in this novel. Do you think that we convene on the fairy tale and on fairy tale tropes because they are a shorthand, or because they tell it slant, or…?Throughout history we have been embedding story, hiding if you will, violent and horrifying truths, stories told and then retold, truths that become stories that, in turn, become mythicized. I think this goes back to the way we are as children, where we either hide from, or interpret the horrors we experience. The noise in the night becomes a demon. The rustle under the bed, a monster. The closed closet door in the midnight bedroom becomes either a portal to hell or a container of a devilish creature awakened by the moonlight on the floor. This is how we make sense of abuse and exploitation when we are small and are not able to intellectually comprehend or logically explain what has happened.When we look back at the origins of the fairy tales the Brothers Grimm transcribed from the oral tradition, we see their origins as stories told to the children of the upper classes by peasants, those suffering, oppressed, metaphors for anger, violence, injustice. Lordy, the earliest Little Red Riding Hood (written by Charles Perrault) has her stripping, getting naked in bed with the Big Bad Wolf and he EATS her. Those were the bedtime stories told by the French. It’s no wonder there was a revolution! So, all that to say, that fairy tales do have at their heart a violent truth from which comes a fantasy spun to contain that violence, to hold and contain this darkness at the centre. They allow us to loop toward a truth. Horror in art draws us because it does this for us, offers us a safe way to confront the terror and violence in our lives, in our history. We live with a legacy of great violence and fear.The Memento is strewn with fairy tale images and metaphor. Both adults and children tell ghost stories and legends. The children fully believe and the adults, while skeptics, are still wary of the truths, which lurk behind these tales, stories that become legacy. The world of The Memento contains many symbolic settings: a forbidden room, the Annex, the enchanted lily pond, the magical garden, the enchanted forest, the woodcutter’s house, the water house where the botanical potions are made, the graveyard, a mystical island, a grand creaking house. All of these are places of wonder and places of danger, where magic lies, where you enter at your own risk. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the book takes place when the main characters are twelve and twenty-four. When they are children and they forge ahead into the forbidden areas, they awake a dark presence, which follows them for twelve years. As adults they enter the same forbidden places but this time knowing.The personal is encoded, then, into the safe package of story?My interest in working with fairy tales and supernatural elements came out of my own childhood of creating fantastical stories to make sense of the traumatic experiences I had as a child. My father had a life long struggle with mental health issues, alcoholism and drug addiction. It made for some very sad and challenging times. When I was very little I had an imaginary friend named, of all things, Cursalina. My mother found it unnerving. My memories of her are vague but I do remember wondering why she stopped coming. Perhaps this was a threshold in my childhood I stepped over, where I could no longer project the emotional disarray and confusion and terror of my childhood into story, when I was then abandoned by my magical guide and protectress. I know she originally appeared when I was angry and afraid. She was never afraid. When I was about ten a friend told me that imaginary friends are actually the spirits of dead children who come because they sense your aloneness and suffering. I was old enough to understand the implications and young enough to find that both terrifying and exciting.In my rather challenging childhood, making up fairy-tale-like stories gave a narrative and a shape to the pain and incomprehensibility of what I was experiencing and living. The stories were worlds I could escape to, where I understood the rules, and the fears. When I was eight, I went to a park with my friend who was also eight, and we brought her two-year-old sister with us. Why on earth we were allowed to go to a park alone, and with a toddler, I have no idea but it was the seventies and things were different. It was a hot June day and we were wearing bikinis. The sky was an intense blue and to this day I remember how sweet the rose bushes smelled. We felt so grown up, that is until we got to the park, and two young men appeared. They let the toddler go, but my friend and I, who, despite our bikinis, were also little girls, were assaulted in the playground in the park. To this day I cannot go down a slide or sit on a swing without remembering the violation and torture we endured in this supposed place of carefree innocence and lighthearted fun.And it was an impossibly beautiful summer day, with a vivid blue sky and birds singing. It was as though we had tumbled into an old world fairy tale where the woodsman didn’t come to save us from the big bad wolf but came and joined him.When they finally let us go, my friend and I swore to each other we would never tell. We ran back to her house and her mother screamed at us for letting the two year old wander home alone unattended. And still we said nothing. I couldn’t keep that vow though and did try to tell an adult who told me I must be imagining things. I think the biggest trauma then was realizing that adults wanted it to be a fantasy, that such a thing could happen was too horrifying for them to hear. So for me, it was a moment where reality felt pushed into the land of fantasy. But I knew it had happened, and that the fantasy was adults living in a world where they could not see it. This was when they muttered words which seemed to work as spells, to preserve this false sense of security in a world where they actually felt as powerless as we did as screaming little girls by the teeter-totter in the shade of the big tree.Yes, shade and shadows, the things of nightmares. When I did try to talk to adults about this, I felt as though I had broken our vow, and we were then cursed. She had kept the silence but I had not, and had unleashed demons who would hound us. I moved away and we lost touch, but you never lose touch with that sort of childhood violation. It becomes a horror story which plays over and over again, until you make your peace, evoke a spirit far stronger, which for me has been that of forgiveness and hope, one of survival and triumph. Even in recovery, fairy tale and hero mythology is at play, where we finally heal when we banish the demons. Maybe there is a courage which rises up from having walked through the deep dark woods and making it to the other side.I did not intentionally set out to write a story which explored my own childhood abuse, and The Memento is not my personal story. But it is a broader exploration of, as I have said before, the exploitation of weak and vulnerable (in our society, women, children, the disabled and deformed, the poor and the marginalized) and how in unearthly ways they are resurrected and vindicated. The Brothers Grimm re-envisioned fairy tales with happy endings. I believe not in happy endings, but in endings where justice is served, and where peace is made, one way or another.
The Year in Sports At the End of the World

Fandom allows us to locate some much-needed normalcy without ever accepting the current state of things as normal. 

What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.Ron, an acerbic, middle-aged gay Deadhead who hailed from somewhere in the deep South, was the ring-leader of the wait staff at the massive family-style restaurant I worked at in high school. Every time I had a shift with Ron, I’d notice him taking time to sit at the bar and comb through box scores. When I asked him about it, he straightened his posture and lowered his voice like he was about to reveal to me the secret of all True Being: He’d spent much of his life moving around, he said, which made for a steady diet of upheaval, unfamiliar circumstances, and surprises—but no matter what city he found himself in, sports were a constant. Wherever he was, whatever was going on his life, he could open the newspaper (this was 1995) and be transported to somewhere familiar. It was reassuring to find them churning along no matter what.Twenty years later, I’ve gotten a good grasp on what Ron was driving at, thanks largely to the NBA and a shrink I recently fired for unrelated reasons. Conventional wisdom holds that the basketball season is too long, but for me, it’s never long enough. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, watching at least one NBA game a night is more than entertainment for me—it’s a means of survival. If left to my own devices, I rapidly go downhill once the workday ends. Basketball has long provided a much-needed sense of structure, if not well-being. You can imagine what happens when that suddenly stops being an option, when that solid ground is suddenly eroded.*I’ve still yet to adjust to the full ramifications of Donald Trump’s election. Granted, at this point we still have little idea what Trumps actually plans to do or in what hare-brained fashion he’ll go about accomplishing … anything. Since Election Day, though, I’ve been reeling in a way that’s a little difficult to pin down. I react to every latest development with the appropriate level of scorn and outrage, but my emotions are unfolding according their own logic, a process that has more in common with grieving or trauma than it does day-to-day vigilance. I have no idea where it’s headed or when it will resolve itself—maybe never—and on some fundamental level, it feels like a lot about reality really has changed. It’s not just that, for the left, we are not where we thought we were—we may be nowhere at all.Post-Trump malaise has as much to do with a sense of disorientation as it does anger or loss. The world, or at least the American context, feels unstable and uncertain; whether we fully realize it or not, so much of how we constructed meaning has been laid to waste. Or maybe it’s been this way for a while, and some of us were simply, even willfully, oblivious to just how far gone things were. Now? Truth is entirely subjective. Facts no longer matter. Learning from the past and forecasting the future both seem archaic. Social media isn’t a liability, it’s a way to wrest power away from conventional media. Insiders are outsiders, outsiders are insiders, and white male supremacy is ready to take down the Establishment. Entertainment value and spectacle are more important than rational discourse. Letting people hear whatever they want to hear is more important than saying anything at all. Accountability or follow-through are beside the point; this is about more than politics. Not only is this country hurtling toward catastrophe, I can’t shake the feeling that much of what we thought worked, or was supposed to work, or outlined how the whole worked, has been upended. It makes it hard to locate, much less establish, any form of normalcy.*In the two weeks after Donald Trump was elected was elected to be the future President of the United States, basketball more or less disappeared for me. I watched exactly one NBA game: Rockets-Thunder, Wednesday, November 16. A showdown between former teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden virtually guaranteed a night of pyrotechnics. Both have started this season on an absolute tear: Westbrook, scalding as ever, has nearly averaged a triple-double for a surprisingly credible Oklahoma City squad. Harden, one of the league’s premier scorers, has morphed into a prolific point guard. It’s the kind of game that, a week and a half earlier, I would’ve been stoked for several days in advance. Instead, I just sort of happened into it.It didn’t take long for me to shake off the rust. I banged away at the keyboard, firing off stream-of-consciousness tweets nearly every thirty seconds and contorting my face after big plays for the benefit of no one in particular. The game came down to the closing seconds, when Westbrook sealed the victory with a one-handed dunk that appeared to flout the most basic laws of physics. He went up so forcefully that it seemed like he would keep rising indefinitely; he put the ball through the basket with such violence that the court itself seemed likely to rupture. Westbrook landed hard (what else?), popped up immediately, and stomped around the court in celebration. It felt oddly vindicating to tweet that Westbrook—my favorite NBA player—had “summed up his entire life in one single dunk.” If only for a couple of hours, things fell back into place. Remembering how to watch sports wasn’t just a relief—it was a reassurance.*While I’d never say there’s a silver lining to Trump’s election, I’ve noted at least one important change for the better: Much the same way that 9/11 was supposed to erase irony (but didn’t), the world seems a hell of a lot less petty now. That goes for both interpersonal relationships—really, what beef doesn’t feel trivial right now? How many bridges really got burned?—and internal stuff like, say, my propensity to worry for hours about a warped record or scuff on the floor. Some things matter and others simply don’t, your time is no longer yours to waste, and frivolity might even amount to complicity—or, at the very least, complacency.It’s not that watching Russell Westbrook will solve any of the world’s problems; I’m certainly not advocating escapism, a tendency that, along with garden variety racism, goes a long way toward explaining what got us Donald Trump as president. But sports allows us to locate some much-needed normalcy without ever accepting the current state of things as normal. Just by being there, they offer a place to start—and a way to move forward. Whether it’s sports or something else, the country now needs daily touchstones in the same way I’ve long needed the NBA. We’re fucked without something to hold onto.Who knows how long this will last, or if I’m overstating this sense of urgency for my own benefit. But a perpetual state of crisis doesn’t feel like a sustainable option; nor does spending every second as if the future of humanity hangs in the balance—even if it does. I do know, though, that it’s impossible to move through the world without with absolutely no sense of perspective, which is just as important as having a newfound sense of purpose. And more than ever, there’s also the need to let some glimmer of hope, or at least excitement, into your life. A jaw-dropping dunk counts for little when reality is disintegrating, but if there’s going to be anything left standing, you have to start somewhere.
A User’s Guide to Zadie Smith

Whether writing about Brexit or defining the painful and ecstatic parameters of joy, Smith has a near preternatural understanding of the fictions we repeat to ourselves in order to function daily.

I recently joked on Twitter that I have a strict no-idols policy save for three people: Selena, Prince and Zadie Smith, though deep down I know this policy is less of a joke than I’d like to tell myself.The idol suspicion is straightforward enough. It’s not exactly a belief that anyone you love enough to look up to will eventually let you down (an unproductively cynical way to live) so much as a learning by experience that unwavering faith in any person—real or unreal, known or simply watched—is both exhausting and, to be honest, more than a little boring. We needn’t imbue favourite aunts or beloved artists with the power or responsibility of an absolute moral compass any more than we should fretfully wait for them to screw up.The Selena, Prince and Smith part is a little harder to explain. They function as idols for me precisely because of, whether in their lives or art, how they identify with that mirror-opposite concept inextricably linked with idolatry: the impostor or fraud. The feeling that your place in the world is never really quite earned enough, or that earning such a place can only come from following a set of prescribed rules—rules that, in reality, never seem to apply to everyone.It shines through in Selena’s well-documented difficulty navigating Tejano stardom as an American-born singer not completely fluent in Spanish; Prince’s notoriously fastidious drive for complete control over his image and sound, lest it be wrested from him, re-packaged, cynically typecast and sold the way so many recording companies have historically done with Black artists; and a good number of the characters in Smith’s novels who often question their own credibility as being “of” a place, or the right they have simply to be who they are, where they are. To be comfortable in one’s own skin, whether literally or figuratively.Much about Smith’s public life suggests that she is, in fact, comfortable in this way. And deservedly so: she sold her breakthrough first novel White Teeth at twenty-one, and has since written five best-selling novels, with Swing Time, her newest, out last month. Whether writing about Brexit or defining the painful and ecstatic parameters of the concept of joy, she’s an adept essayist with a near preternatural understanding of the fictions individuals and whole societies repeat to themselves in order to function in daily life. She’s a tenured professor of creative writing at New York University, enjoys her life as a mother of two and has a lovely way of cutting down journalists, critics and fellow writers who insist on pigeonholing her into any one of these aforementioned identities. And did I mention that dear god, can she sing?If idols are a fiction, perhaps the concept of impostors and frauds can be one, too.In both her public life and her fiction, though, Smith is also keenly aware of and honest about how hard-earned this self-assurance is—particularly for a biracial Black woman growing up in northwest London with an early life that, she’s said, looked quite different from those of the students she’s taught at Columbia and NYU. More than twenty years on she still describes undergrad as the biggest accomplishment of her life (“Going to university was the least likely thing to happen to me,” she says), and in her writing career seems acutely aware of how her background has informed critic and reader understandings of her writing at large, even when it’s about race itself."When I was little, we'd go on holiday to Devon, and there, if you're black and you go into a sweetshop, for instance, everyone turns and looks at you,” she told the Observer shortly after White Teeth was published. “So my instinct as a child was always to over-compensate by trying to behave three times as well as every other child in the shop, so they knew I wasn't going to take anything or hurt anyone. I think that instinct has spilled over into my writing in some ways, which is not something I like very much or want to continue.”Instead, I think, she takes that instinct and questions the ways in which it serves and fails.*White TeethWhen it was published, Smith’s multigenerational story of the Jones and Iqbal families was hailed by (mostly white) critics at the time as a brilliant and complex portrait of multicultural, and somehow therefore post-racial, London. Not only have sixteen years and a Brexit referendum completely shattered this naive take on the book and U.K. society at large, it was never remotely true.Take the concept of original trauma, which Smith coins early on in White Teeth. Just because it’s couched in a funny story about three brown-skinned children delivering a care basket of apples and salt fish to a racist elderly war vet doesn’t make the concept any less painfully familiar to someone with first-hand knowledge of the various kinds of hurts migration can revisit on and hand down to a person. “Even when you arrive, you’re still going back and forth; your children are going round and round.”One of those recurring traumas is being unable to escape a profound sense unbelonging in a place you’ve for decades called home, as Bangladeshi Brit Samad Iqbal has come to; or have only ever called home, as do his twin sons Magid and Millat, or Irie Jones, whose mother Clara moved to London from Jamaica in her teens. The ways in which some of the Iqbals and Joneses quiet whatever inner voice tells them they’re impostors range from the quietly sad to sometimes absurd extremes. Samad convinces himself that his masturbation habits, mid-life affair with a music teacher and failure to do much more career-wise than wait tables at a west-end curry house (i.e., all things he kneads into a single understanding of life in London) have corrupted the honourable, pious man he believes himself to have once been. To fix this he visits a new type of trauma on his family by sending Magid to live with his aunt in Bangladesh, ostensibly to live a pure Muslim life, without any of his family’s knowledge or permission, and to unexpected results.*On BeautyMore often than not, idol worship involves attraction to the values a person embodies beyond the individual themself. What happens when that person is a stand-in for a value system you’re inextricably a part of, whether by circumstance or by choice? Like White Teeth, Smith’s third novel revolves around the lives of two families, but the trauma here is not so much about migration as it is the process of learning that the concept of a single family’s values is a scam.The Belseys and Kippses are rivals in that fathers in each family teach art history at a Boston-area university and differ largely on the liberal-conservative scale. Howard Belsey, a British atheist who lectures on Rembrandt and at one point tries to get a set of conservative lectures he ideologically disagrees with blocked from campus, cheats on his wife twice, lies about it twice, and relentlessly chides his eldest son for taking up religion and falling in love with his rival’s daughter Victoria, whom Howard later sleeps with. His academic foil Monty Kipps doesn’t fare much better on the integrity scale: in spite of a deeply Christian and conservative ethos, he has student affairs of his own and tries to dismantle the school’s affirmative action-style program for non-enrolled students who show academic promise.How the Belsey and Kipps children, each young adults in their own right, align with or react to this perceived ideological rivalry shows, however, that families aren’t sports teams and parents are often terrible coaches. Howard’s eldest son Jerome is wise to this fiction early on, having been made to feel an interloper in his own home for believing in Jesus and having his heart broken by the wrong girl. Some learn this later, and more embarrassingly: Younger sister Zora spends most of the book championing her dad and his views, going so far as to enroll in his classes, defend his father’s early infidelity (“What kind of sophisticated guy in his fifties doesn’t have an affair? It’s basically mandatory”) and initiate a strange one-sided My Fair Lady-like project on a slam poet from Boston who joins her poetry class as a non-enrolled student.When Howard’s wife Kiki eventually does leave him, and their three children to live with him, a curious thing happens: they make a sort of uneasy peace, as if something other than political views is essential to holding a family together.*NWIf idols are a fiction, perhaps the concept of impostors and frauds can be one, too. In Changing My Mind, her 2009 collection of essays, Smith describes pinning a Derrida quote to her computer’s screensaver while writing NW: “If the right to a secret is not maintained, then we are in a totalitarian space.”In Smith’s 2012 novel about four intersecting lives that began in a North London housing complex, lifelong friends Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake both hide important aspects of themselves from their partners and each other. Keisha spends a good deal of her law school years “crazy busy with self-invention,” changing her name to Natalie, shedding religion and a boring boyfriend, becoming a successful Black woman in the city’s law circles, marrying “well” and having kids. One thing stays with her through all this, though—something that has Leah secretly buying her dildos at fifteen and has Natalie surfing hookup sites with a fake email once the daily rhythms of doing everything that had been expected of her (and things she’d expected of herself) inevitably begin to bore her. Leah, on the other hand, for a few years maintains a marriage partly on the premise that they’ll some day have children—children she simply doesn’t want.Natalie and Leah do feel their own types of guilt over the secrets they keep. Not necessarily out of a sense of embarrassment or shame, but a perceived sense of necessity. A kind of survival tactic for the lives they’ve built for themselves.*Earlier this year the New York Times profiled Smith in advance of Swing Time’s release. I hope it’s not idolizing her too much to say I’ll remember this for a long time: “There is no unimpeachable identity from which you can operate in the world from a position of righteousness at all times. Sometimes, at a certain moment in history, people have decided that you are close to that figure. How tempting it must be to grab it with both hands and be that person,” she says at one point. “But you know it’s an illusion.”
The Year in Addition and Subtraction

Throughout my twenties and thirties I made dark jokes about the life expectancy of my breasts.

What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small. On a rainy Saturday afternoon in October, I feel the siren lure of a Modigliani mounted on an austere white wall. The painting is part of a three-floor exhibition of nudes by the likes of Matisse, Warhol, Lichtenstein, and many others on exhibition at the Gagosian's Upper East Side gallery.As is my wont, I forgo the printed-out guide and go straight to the substance. I don't recognize the Modigliani right away. Not until I connect it to another of his works across the room, bearing a signature the other lacks.I take in art the same way I read books or ingest food: in rapid bursts, with gusto, swallowing before I've fully finished chewing. As if there is no time to waste, because often, there isn't.Yet there are moments when I slow down. When all the other paintings, sculptures, installations, and fellow gallery-goers fade into the background, leaving me and a single work of art alone together. Time decelerates. My breathing relaxes. The artwork speaks to me in a language I understand.The subject of the painting that captures my gaze stares straight ahead with wide eyes, dark hair parted in the middle and down past her shoulders. She is entirely nude. Her hands cover her most intimate parts. But I don't notice the lower half because my eyes fix upon her breasts: the right is uncovered, the left is not.I feel an answering pang. Because for months, most often in my mind but also in practice, I have covered my left breast with my right hand. First to reckon with an addition. And then, more recently, to account for a subtraction, and its coming ramifications.*I felt the lump on a Saturday night in July. I was with friends about two and a half hours north of New York City at a house by a lake. The place radiated beauty and peace. At night we built fires and roasted marshmallows and drank whiskey and let ourselves feel languid and content. In the mornings we breakfasted by big bay windows in the kitchen, more than mildly alarmed when a baby bear showed up to romp among the trees.My left hand brushed against my breast as I changed into sleepwear. An involuntary gesture performed untold times in the past. This time set off an alarm. Whoa, I thought, this does not feel right. I wasn't scared. I wasn't surprised. I made appointments as soon as I returned home.When the results arrived a month later, after a battery of tests, injections, and incisions, it felt right in the way that only something utterly wrong can feel right. Bad news had knocked on my door and shoved its way in before I could answer.I stared at the phone that Friday morning, taking in the news. You can cry a little now and save the rest for later, I thought. There was a deadline to meet, as there is every weekday morning. An interview to conduct elsewhere in the borough that afternoon. A trip to Scotland and Oxford, planned months ago, to embark upon in a few short weeks. The world, indifferent and blithe, didn't need to know that my own had tilted past its usual axis.It was enough that I knew.*I wasn't surprised because the diagnosis felt fated. I'd lived with the possibility for most of my adult life. My mother got breast cancer when I was twenty-four: her double mastectomy and subsequent chemotherapy seemed to me like practical solutions to a problem. When one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes, is it such a big deal?My mother is still alive. My father, diagnosed with colon cancer four years afterward, is not. He lived three and a half years with the disease, and the time seemed to stretch past a natural limit. But then, my father long believed he wouldn't live past forty thanks to various health ailments, true or misdiagnosed, that began in his youth. (My older brother was born two months before that fortieth birthday, and I followed two years later.)Throughout my twenties and thirties I made dark jokes about the life expectancy of my breasts. Like many, if not most women, I have complex feelings about my body, an endless loop of self-loathing to grudging acceptance and back again. I wish my stomach were smaller, my nose less crooked, and the folds under my chin less prominent. But the trade-off between losing a few extra pounds and sacrificing my sweet tooth never seemed worth it.I liked my breasts. They were large and full and no sports bra could properly contain them, but I didn't mind. They were mine. I didn't want them to change. I accepted them, I suppose, because I suspected one day they would disappear entirely. Better to enjoy them while they lasted.The diagnosis changed my thinking. It shifted me away from total subtraction to something approaching conservation. The cancer was, in a manner of speaking, lazy, erupting over a period of months, possibly years, from a contained mass of cells hiding out in the milk ducts to an invasive lump barely an inch in circumference.The first surgeon I consulted seemed more invested in enrolling me in a clinical trial than setting a surgery date. The second surgeon, the one I chose, began with urgency but never lacked optimism. The whole breast didn't need to go. Only a portion, just a little larger than that tiny 2-centimeter tumor.With that subtraction came added emotional baggage.*I wish I'd taken pictures. Now, after, I remember them as they were, but not well enough to describe them beyond size and density. They were mine and I let them go and can no longer trust my memory.I didn't take pictures because then, the idea embarrassed me. I may live a secular lifestyle but modesty, or tsniyut, keeps a vise-like hold. Sexting is an idea so alien to me I laugh contemplating the very notion. If I can't trust my own memory, I certainly can't rely on the handful of former romantic partners, none of whom I speak to anymore, for their opinions.I'm left instead to make mental comparisons between before and after. Or, if I must be scrupulous, before and between. I'm told, again and again by the chorus of doctors and nurses, that the plastic surgeon's work was “beautiful,” that the healing proceeds “quickly and beautifully.”What they characterize as quick means many weeks of numbness to the touch, sutures too stubborn to fall off of their own volition, mottled blue bruising reflecting lingering inner swellings. And scars, so many scars, drifting down from both nipples, separating out along the undersides, that will fade, but remain forever.The scars don't bother me much. They are evidence of chaos disrupted and order restored. I admit, though, to spending too much time contemplating how my scars will be received in the heat of future moments, when frenzy gives way to quizzical looks and unspoken (or possibly blurted-out) questions I will have little desire to address.I can't quite shake the notion that my breasts are a proverbial quantum superposition, like light being both a particle and a wave. They are both mine and not, natural and artificial, my former size and some new, smaller numerical value still out of definitive reach.Or, to be less cerebral, whose boobs are these now? Will they ever fully feel like my own? When I finally try on a proper bra, not the surgical ones I've been wearing lately for comfort and gentle support while I heal, will I feel crushed that what fits doesn't match what I used to know to be true? How did a real-life math problem, something that should be abstract, add up to something like grief?I'm still working out how. I think it's bound up in the remnants of older versions of myself that must be discarded. Versions that perhaps carried the malignancy which grew, millimeter by millimeter, into the lump which altered my equilibrium.I sense the difference the first few times I leave the apartment after surgery. At first I can barely manage a block, glad I indulged friends who worried I should not walk alone. The next time I manage a half mile's worth. Within a week I'm back to work—typing is no real strain on a healing chest—and within two can lift light garbage bags and knapsacks filled with a handful of books.But the surgery, its commensurate excisions and augmentations, tilts me forward. I arch my shoulders to compensate for the changed breast mass. I breathe deeper to compensate. My posture straightens, but at a cost of more fatigue.I can't locate my center of gravity. I wonder if I ever will.*I return to my weekly choir practice. I've been a member for years, a serious choral singer since the age of fifteen, and it's a welcome salve against the daily stresses of the writing and editing life. When I sing, melody or harmony, I am part of another realm. As Sarah Manguso wrote earlier this year, “I can make sound, focus the mind, enjoy myself and forget myself, all at once.”Lately I felt adrift from that other realm. As I child I learned I had absolute pitch. I grew so confident in its presence that I hardly questioned the existence of this musical standard by which compositions deviate. No tuning fork necessary if someone wanted an A about middle C and I was around to sing it.Until I found myself, rehearsal after rehearsal, in the primordial muck of needing other notes to locate my own. I puzzled over why the piano sounded a quarter-tone sharp, whether it was tuned too high or if my ear erred. It's similar to exposing a violin to too much moisture, warping the sound just enough to dull its vibrancy.It was a creeping, silent madness, compounded by other large-scale stresses shed only after a dramatic turn of events. And though I suspected my earlier pitch-perfection would return with calm restored to my being, I dared not hope. It would emerge and then retreat.This semester we are singing music by American composers. And I notice, as we practice Aaron Copland's “In The Beginning,” his tonally complex setting of Creation as set forth in the first book of the Torah, that my voice is stronger, the high notes brighter and the low notes richer. Was it the extra rest, forsaking alcohol, or something more nebulous? Perhaps all, perhaps something else entirely.I also notice another welcome addition, or rather, confirmation: the return of absolute pitch.It's there the next rehearsal, too. It seems to stick for good.The tuning fork in my mind was, once more, set at the right frequency.If only my body could be reset in turn.*Laura Turner, describing her miscarriage earlier this year in an essay for BuzzFeed, characterized two distinct genres of writing on the subject: “online forums where women share urgent updates and well-written stories from those who have some distance from the event. There isn’t much in between, which is where I stand.”Cancer narratives also split into two such groups. I've crested the state of urgency, with the surgery over, the lump removed, the margins and lymph nodes cleared, the total carcinoma excised. Distance is years in the future, at a time when the shadow of recurrence decays like the half-life of carbon, near but never quite reaching zero.Here I am, now, in the in-between. Past malignancy and onto prevention. Past bodily reconfiguration and onto more physiological transformations. Past abrupt disruption and onto more recurring ones, ingesting drugs intravenously and subcutaneously, followed by radiation zapping the no-longer-cancer-ridden breast in more concentrated bursts.Those transformations haven't happened yet. Nothing I can anticipate can truly prepare me for what's next, so I leave anticipation to others, for me to absorb or ignore.As this year bleeds into the next, I know this:I wait. I write. I live.
Lil’ Kim and the New Possibility Model

Power broker, sex symbol, and kingpin of the block: reflecting on the rapper, who reconfigured familiar faces into something wholly unfamiliar, 20 years after the release of her debut album.

I wore pasties on election night. I also joined the scores of women wearing pantsuits, but it was the pasties that stood out. The pantsuit made sense—it was a thing women were doing to sartorially support Hillary Clinton. The pasties, though, they were both for and because of Lil’ Kim. I thought I was about to help America elect its first female president, so I wanted to give a nod to a woman who has actually influenced my fashion choices and my feminism: America’s first mainstream female gangsta rapper, Kimberly Jones.When her debut album Hard Core dropped in November 1996, women were still relatively buried in hip-hop, relegated to pop-crossover tracks or neo-soul consciousness raisers—which translated into no credibility and no listeners, respectively. But Kim? She was cool and popular, and what’s blasé now was new and exciting in the ‘90s: Tiny little Kim rapping about guns and doing time while she also insisted men know exactly where her clit is and make her come. Kim wearing such bold outfits that people questioned her sanity. Kim with her diamonds and dollars and Dolce and dick.Some amalgamation of porn star, power broker, and kingpin of the block, she reconfigured familiar faces into something wholly unfamiliar. Whether because we were made to believe it, or because it was actually so, she was received as if the world had never seen anything like her before. Little me surely hadn’t. She was a totally new possibility model.I was feeling Kim from the moment I saw her: I was eight, and she was riding a private jet, kickin’ the rilli with her peeps (me) all day, telling me that DKNY was jiggy (“Player’s Anthem”). She was hanging out with Mary J. Blige (already a queen in my mind, mostly thanks to “Real Love”) in a beauty salon after hours, getting fed fruit by shirtless, built men (“Get Money”). She was friends with Puff Daddy, walking down an up escalator in a dark Prada (or something) pantsuit and bold, white heels (“No Time”). She was rocking a red fur, over a red bikini, with red shoes, all to match her red hair, while she danced on a red floor. It was like that Emerald City scene in The Wiz (“Crush On You”).But where I saw Kim as something newly aspirational, others saw her excessively glam, hypersexualized image as another case of female potential stifled (or recycled). Seven months after Hard Core’s release, notable feminist scholar bell hooks sat down with Kim to interview her for a cover story in Paper Magazine. “The only new thing happening here is that it took so long for a hip-hop girl to make the down-and-dirty talk pay her bills big-time,” hooks writes. Recognizing some agency on the rapper’s part, she determines that Kim’s "real life" sex thing is just about pure and simple delight in the body. “But when it comes to how the boys in charge package her, it's the same old shit—boring straight male porn fantasy.” In the end, for hooks, Kim is still just a tortured, tragic tool. (“I’m getting tired of the writers who only want to write about the freaky stuff, as though that was the only side of my personality that mattered,” Kim says in a telling 1997 interview with The Source. “I think I’m a smart girl, but you wouldn’t know it from the stories that always come out.”)This “packaging” is really apparent in Hard Core’s promo poster, which was plastered all over Brooklyn: Kim’s wearing a leopard print boudoir set (bra, panties, and sheer robe with fur trim), crouching in front of something that doesn’t matter because all of your attention is drawn directly to her crotch. She’s in a wide catcher’s stance; her hands rest on respective knees, each pointing in opposite directions. She’s staring dead straight at the camera, which shoots from below, so you have to look up at her body. Although this is the most “natural” we’ll ever see Kim in album-related art, there’s no question about what’s being sold here.It’s well-known that Notorious B.I.G., Kim’s lover and mentor, played a huge role in some of the most significant and powerful transformations in hip-hop culture, which are easy to see playing out directly through Lil’ Kim—musically, and in her body. In the earlier part of her career as a part of Biggie’s  Junior M.A.F.I.A., Kim mostly rocked high-end, fuller-coverage fashion. Once Kim was determined to be the breakout star of that group, Biggie decided she needed to shed her haute image for a bolder one that would better complement the calculated persona he had designed for her, which was basically “sexy bad bitch.”Deliberate not simply because sex sells, Kim as sexy gangstress also helped Biggie—whose career was just beginning to blow up—sell himself. In fact, Big’s image relied on Kim’s to work: He needed her to be as sexy as possible, so he (as recently crowned king of East Coast gangsta rap) could be the conqueror. And if she’s a G, so is he.Before I caught some nigga's disease, got caught with his kisBig scooped a young bitch off her kneesThrew me at high-priced BeamsFace on TVs, platinum CDs- “Big Momma Thang”Rolling Stone included Hard Core, which was certified double platinum in 2001, on its list of Essential Recordings of the ‘90s. But it’s funny, what time can do to music that once moved you, and the artists who made it. For the sake of due diligence, I think it only right to address the elephant in the room: It’s hard to write about an icon when they’ve so dramatically, surgically altered their image. You want to write about the change, or how it has shaped your perception of them. But the thing is, the change almost always happens after the iconography has been solidified, adding an element of dissonance to the whole thing that’s different from the regular dissonance conjured up by universal factors like aging.Kim’s appearance started changing in the early 2000s. Her boobs got bigger, her nose slimmer. Even her accent has changed. She sounds, well, whiter. A video recently surfaced of Kim admitting, during a 2012 interview with Vlad TV, that she’s “all mixed up,” after asserting that she’s really “a Spanish girl just trapped in a Black girl’s body.”In 2002’s Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem (five years after the Paper interview) bell hooks wrote that Kim is a “cartoon-like caricature of whiteness” and that she currently resembles “a cheap version of the white woman she adores.” What’s notable here is that Kim has admitted to being told she’s not all that by men in the past: “They all liked the same women. They always liked that light-skin, European-looking girl. And I never was her.” In other words, they tell her that she’s worthless. She believes them. Toni Morrison isn’t wrong, then, when she writes in The Bluest Eye that the concept of beauty is one of “the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.”It ain't a day of my life that rolls byThat I don't get high, sit back, and wan' cry- “M.A.F.I.A. Land”“It makes me wanna holler every time I hear someone ludicrously tout Lil’ Kim as a Generation Now feminist,” writes Raquel Cepeda in the Village Voice, “thus veiling the incredibly low self-esteem neatly tucked away in purple pasties, blue contacts, and blond wigs.” How do you talk about Lil’ Kim if you don’t mention her ever-shifting appearance? At this point, her sculpted face and whitened skin are hard to look past.Kim’s visage might be the most salient part of “Lil’ Kim,” if young people are any barometer of cool or culture. A friend of mine who teaches at Dillard University, a historically Black liberal arts college in New Orleans, recently asked her first-year writing students what they thought about the rapper. “I ain't know about Kim until her titty was all out, and then she turned white, and then I ain't like her,” a girl, who was probably born around the time Hard Core came out, replied.It's notable that this young person would invoke Kim’s skin color as a basis for dislike, because something similar happened to Kim’s father as a young boy. He was the darkest one in his family, and his mother, Kim's grandmother, would say things like, "Get out of here you Black fucker.” I think about that every time someone mocks the way she looks.It don't take nothin' for you to love me, babeIt don't take nothin' for you to love me- “Spend A Little Doe”Kim in VIBE, 1997: “I think the people who have problems with me are those who can’t accept the realness of life. And if you can’t accept that, then you haven’t gone through what I’ve gone through, and if you haven’t gone through it, then you can’t judge me. If you don’t know where I’ve been, then how do you know who I am.”Kim’s parents got divorced when she was ten years old. She stayed with her dad in Brooklyn and her mom lived out of the trunk of a car. Her dad got remarried when Kim was fifteen and moved his new wife to a new home in New Jersey, but told Kim she couldn’t come. She roamed the streets of Brooklyn, crashing with friends when she could and neighborhood dope-boys when she couldn’t. Eventually she stopped going to school and adopted a hustler’s mindset. She ran with drug dealers doing what she had to do to survive. In interviews, she’s insinuated that she was forced to do some things she didn’t want to do.She glamorizes, downplays even, this struggle in much of her music, but you know what they say about life giving you lemons. The Kim of Hard Core won’t entertain shame, but often celebrates survival. Her sexuality becomes a tool necessary for staying alive. The pictures Kim’s lyrics conjure in the mind’s eye are pictures that position her as powerful: She's fucking popular R&B stars. She's seeking revenge on men who do her dirty. She's telling them to lavish her with diamonds and cash before she even thinks about letting them touch her pussy. Maybe she’s pushing back against the misrecognition she experienced at the hands of society and her own community, maybe she’s over-identifying with her mode of survival. But how much of whatever it is is really Kim?I’ve been researching Kimberly Jones for weeks and I’m still not exactly sure when she was born. Most agree that it was on July 11, but the year? Sources are shoddy. An anthology of hip-hop history I found at the library says both 1974 and '75. 1976, says her mom on a VH1 special. Kim admits that those responsible for crafting her image had her lie about her age when she first appeared on the scene because her persona was so provocative; she says so herself during an interview with NYC’s home of hip-hop radio, Hot 97. But she never says in that interview exactly how old she is—only that she’s a couple years older than Nicki Minaj, who was born in 1982.Looking back on interviews from the ‘90s paints a picture of a Kim that just wants to be seen. Responding to an interviewer from Details who calls her a trash-talking little girl, Kim says, "First off, I'm not a little girl. I’m twenty-one years old and I’m, I’m ... I don’t think I’m gonna be able to do this interview. I’m really upset and you're making me more upset. You've got to respect my feelings and talk to me like a woman."Listening to that Hot 97 interview, I wondered if Kim can even see herself anymore. In the mirror, in the streets that raised her. Anywhere.Like Kim the person, her old neighborhood is not the same as it once was. It reminds me of a tree well into its fall turning: Take the G to Classon Avenue and the first thing you’ll see upon reaching street level is a Citibike docking station—a clear marker of gentrification in Brooklyn these days. (When the privately owned bike sharing system made it to my own former neighborhood, I was forced to move out of my apartment so a developer could turn three apartments into six and raise the rent to something I couldn’t afford.) The projects across the street from the bikes look the same, but just down the block is a new Zagat-rated doughnut shop that slings matcha and hibiscus flower donut holes to Bed-Stuy’s newer inhabitants, many of whom are whiter and wealthier than Kim and her neighbors were in the ‘90s. Shuffling through those streets once familiar to Kim one night, trying to retrace some of her steps, I passed a middle-aged white woman standing on the same stoop where Biggie first told Kim she was beautiful. Another white woman was unburdening a luxury car of fancy, blood-red luggage, preparing to carry it up that stoop, which is also where Big and Kim used to smoke blunts together. I realized that Kim’s new skin color reflects her old neighborhood’s new demographics. To assimilate or not has always been the Black community’s lament. We all know that sometimes it’s forced upon us.“I got a lot to conquer,” Kim admits later in the VIBE profile. “I ain’t at peace. When I get at peace, y’all gon know.”Maybe Kim has never gotten there. Or maybe, she’s at peace now. She has a young daughter; she just wrapped up the Bad Boy Reunion stadium tour with Puff Daddy; after the award show had taken a five-year break, Kim was one of four acts awarded at VH1’s 2016 Hip Hop Honors; she’s publicly found a friend in Kim Kardashian. Despite her distorted appearance, she seems, dare I say, happy. But that’s not for me to judge, and maybe it’s not even happiness I’m registering. Perhaps it’s survival. Because Kim has made it, and nothing is more radical than how you survive. That VIBE piece closes by quoting Kim: “I have to live. I just have to live.” At the time, Kim was still a brown-skinned baddie rockin’ rainbow-colored wigs. But she was also in mourning; Biggie, her whole world, had been murdered just months before the interview took place. The pain caused by his death is raw and as obvious as a self-awareness that some argue Kim no longer has: “He ain’t dead by hisself. We’ll be there soon. We livin’ blind. Why can’t a motherfuckin’ Black person live?”Good question.